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Archive for the ‘Identity’ Category

One of my Facebook ‘friends’ provocatively stated the following: “enslaved minds in African head-dress; playing dress up is no remedy for enslaved thoughts…” She was referring to the annual Emancipation Day celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago which has developed into an event with a number of dimensions. Organised by the Emancipation Support Committee, the commemoration of Caribbean freedom from legalized racial violence has a number of dimensions, including talks and community outreach. But culminates on 1 August in a celebratory march which ends up at the Emancipation Village.

 The people gather many of them in such beautiful African designs and fabrics. Quite a spectacle of the African aesthetic.

One imagines, that many of the people who attend Emancipation celebrations, also dress in African wear or shirt jacs for much of the year. For others, it is an occasion to wear beautiful clothes, to consciously adopt a style that connects one with ancestors as well as with contemporary African culture. We all want to belong and to know from whence we came and to feel proud about that. And there is the thing, some afro-Caribbean people do not feel proud of their connection to the African continent and are annoyed by the reminder. Others think that this ‘dressing up’ is simple-minded, empty symbolism. And so every year, the idea of Afro-trinis ‘dressing up’ is an occasion for discussion, even though derisory in some quarters. 

Yet still, the larger  point is that in Trinidad, there is a time of the year when people  pause, some people for sure, not all, and remember, really remember  Caribbean history and pay tribute to the ideals of freedom, human dignity, rights and justice for all.

Here in Barbados, someone said to me Happy Crop Over. And I replied, Happy Emancipation. He looked momentarily baffled, caught out, clueless until he recalled….ah yes….

Something feels  amiss with this conflation of Emancipation with wining back, jonesing and wukking up.

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Listening to the slamming Alex Jordan Show. The question of Halloween came up this morning. Salt queries Halloween’s relevance to Barbados. What’s it all about? Alex wonders though, what’s wrong with harmless fun. I am with Salt on this one.  As Alex would say, “No, but seriously”.

Rituals are shared cross-culturally and much of what we celebrate, say, Christmas (my most favourite time of the year), carnival, Easter, Divali are imports. But then we, Caribbean people, for the most part are imports and so are many things that follow from that culturally.

It is one thing to be born into a received culture, another to go actively looking to import someone else’s. Yes, our culture should be dynamic, open to influences, from inside and outside. Cultural expressions ought not to be stuck in time, but reimagined, kept alive because they symbolise our  idiosyncracies. And I would rather too that these rituals have meaning. And I do not mean only serious, political meaning. But fun meanings too.

There is nothing, nothing remotely organic about halloween in the Caribbean. Christmas is connected to people’s beliefs about Jesus Christ. Divali and pagwa connect to Hinduism. But halloween is not related to anything, other than what people see on TV. And for that, halloween in the Caribbean is, in the most literal sense of the word, pretentious.

According to Wikipedia, hallowe’en is linked to the celtic festival of Samhain, (translated as ‘summer’s end) a celebration of the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”. The name comes from All Hallows day, 1 November, the beginning of that period in temperate northern countries, that is.

We have the benefit of no darker half of a year, living in sweet, glorious sunlight and breezes. If anything, November to March is absolutely the best period of the year- our lighter end. Think of the quality of the light, the luminescence of the sky, the cool, wafting winds.

We can try to authenticate  or indigenise the halloween experience with costumes of soucouyant, la diablesse, lagahoo, steel donkey or duen… whatever. But we have carnival for costuming already. Ain’t?

 

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I worked with Lynette for 4 years along along with Asha Kambon.  With Asha, always an open door, wise advice, generously given and delivered diplomatically and with a joke. Lynette has an air of  inquiry, practical yet not cynical. And open, really open to people, not dismissive. Her internal and external integrity lines are well and consistently demarcated.

Over the course of this year, Lynette has shared some of her views in this blog:

On forgiveness:

Others want to be forgiving, partly because it is more comfortable, (who wants to be angry and watchful all the time?); and partly because it seems to be more in synchrony with a higher ideal. I’m sure it is necessary and important in many situations and relationships. But, is it necessary to be angry in order to be clear about the institutional racism that is still very present around the world and in America today, especially against blacks?

 Philosophy:

Just as we sometimes need to live one day at a time, we probably need to acknowledge one achievement at a time, for who knows what tomorrow will bring.

On Caribbean men:

So yes, not to romanticize them at all, but there is a lot more to know about men, outside of the setting of a relationship.

I asked Lynette to share her perspective and thoughts kind of free association-like.  Here she is, engaging and frank.

Favourite book/movie of all time

I do not have a favourite book, music, food or clothes. There are things I like for one reason or another. If I think hard, I would say that a book I remember vividly, one that I wanted to read with my children, is Young Warriors by Vic Reid. And we read it over a two week period once they were old enough. 

I had read it in high school and there is so much in it that I like. It is about overcoming adversity with your natural abilities, about young maroon boys who triumphed over the red coats, British soldiers in Jamaica. They used their intelligence to outwit the soldiers. Within the larger story, are others, stories about bravery, integrity, forgiveness and redemption.   

But there are other books too that I like – God of Small Things, Brief and Wondrous World of Oscar Wao, Middlesex, Anna Karenina. 

 Song that makes me really happy

David Rudder’s ‘Calypso’. It always makes me want to dance. I love the musicality. I like calypsoes the most generally – but that one makes me happy. Happy for me- I mean it makes me smile. I start to feel my body moving. It carries you to a kind of freedom. It is the closest I get to abandonment – when I hear calypsoes. I guess it is what Carnival does for some people, but it doesn’t do that for me; I cannot get to or feel that kind of abandonment in that setting. It is not a judgement thing. That’s just how it is for me.

 I’m good at…..

Understanding people and communicating with people. I’ve come to learn and accept that about myself. Regardless of values, I can find something to connect with people and I think that they feel it.

 I can’t live without…

I am quite self-sufficient and flexible so I do not think that there is any one thing that I cannot do without.  But there are things with which I can do with more of ….. money for one.

 My politics…

I have little time for conservative right wing politics. And I am wary of institutionalised politics. I am supportive of views that are supportive of human rights. I would align myself to those things. But I am a critic. I find it hard to join groups, because there are things I will disagree with. My flexibility has limits.

This annoys me….

I hate when people take advantage of others – exploiting people because you have the power. (Daughter Chinyere nearby agrees that ticks her off as well)

 Good all-purpose advice…

I use this one all the time – keep moving forward and looking towards the light at the end of the tunnel. Negativity is too difficult a force to entertain.

I have seen situations where negativity brings catastrophe. Like the businessman in Jamaica who killed himself in a bank because he could not access a loan because of a rule that changed the very day he committed suicide 

No matter how long the tunnel, there is a light. Keep being positive. That is what I tell myself and other people.

Interesting thing that happened in the last 24 hours….

I sold my car for less than it is worth. But it is  as my friend Denise said to me today, ‘sometimes you have to step back to move forward.’

 Need courage to…

I will need lots of courage to deal with loss or hurt of my children. It is a fear that I try not to deal with. I cannot comprehend how to deal with that. There is no plan B. 

I need courage to talk to a roomful of people – less so lately. Perhaps because of my social background, I did not start off with a whole lot of confidence. I have to psyche myself up. I was also not exposed to a lot socially – I suppose that is a combination of nature and nurture. My mom was a loving but fairly reserved person and she came from a background where there is a fair amount of attention to what people think about you.  

Exposure brings confidence though. I stepped into a world of opportunity through education. I also gravitated to people who were confident or exuded radical tendencies because that is what I admire.  Hence I guess, one of the many reasons why Dennis is my husband.  My friend Denise too has always had a confidence which I admire. 

I wanted that so much for my children and they have it, at least more than I did at that stage. For my part I have also come to understand that I have more capacity than I use and that is partly, a confidence issue with which I am coming to grips. 

I think lack of confidence though, is not an all encompassing thing.  I cannot think of a person  for whom I feel so much awe that I cannot talk to them on a one on one basis.  I do not have that kind of lack of confidence. 

Dealing with adversity…..

Not really had a lot of that. I have had problems but I think of myself as a solutions person – solutions.com. When I have problems for which I can find no solution that makes sense, my approach is to let go and rearrange my goals.  But adversity for me is loss of people who are significant in your life. I have not had that which probably means that it is coming. 

I come from a nuclear Guyanese family with its fair share of rockiness in terms of the relationship between my parents. If your father is a typical Caribbean man, you tend to be closer to your mother and I started off that way but by 17, 18, I also got close to my father.   I would tell him what I thought was wrong with things that he did and he would listen. He would tell his friends, ‘She tell you things that hard to hear, but you know is true’.  I think one of the things that contributed to that closeness was that we worked in the same bauxite industry and we had that in common to also talk about. 

Migration to the US helped in smoothing things over. In the Caribbean the man peer pressure is strong and men have to prove that they are independent from the women. Like my parents would be in the garden working together and there would be a whole sense of peace in the family. Then a man would pass and say ‘Boy, Joe, like the woman have you under lock down’. My father would soon leave to join them in a bar; and then of course the drinking, the money, the problems, the quarrelling… In migrating, the family is closer, my father had less of a certain kind of distraction.  They are better with each other now since migrating. 

I did not migrate with my 2 sisters and 3 brothers. For me migration was not as important since I was already at university and I could make a living in the Caribbean. I had ideologies that made living in the Caribbean more important than living in the states. By the time I graduated, I had started my family and preferred to raise my children here. When you have a certain level of education, it is easier to stay in the Caribbean financially. 

I do not know how it will be for the children- Imani is off to Columbia University to do pursue studies in English Literature or Psychology, she has not decided yet and Chinyere to Costa Rica to do the IB programme. Jabari is in 4th form. They will make that choice about where to live. 

Raising children…

A parent at the primary school that my children attended, Laura, said to me while we were sitting, watching our children at the swimming pool “You bless or curse your children with your mouth’. I took that to heart.

I believe in treating them as individuals, not comparing them, celebrating their strengths and weaknesses; talking, communicating and listening a lot. I try to give them tools for life. I try to think of when they are on their own, what they will need to know, what they will need to be.

Sometimes I do not know or have a clear reason for a decision, I have to rely on my intuition and explain that to them.

What’s special for me about the Caribbean?

 Warmth – both the sunshine and the warmth of the people. Caribbean people are warm in a natural, organic way for the most part. That makes the Caribbean appealing for me.

 

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Emancipation applied

There are at least three generations of CXCed people in this region and five generations of post-independence populations. We have agreed in that time that understanding and remembering Caribbean experiences of extreme exploitation is important for building a civilization of the opposite values-  one of social justice. And so we refresh our memory and keep focus on the collective aspiration through teaching West Indian history from primary to secondary school. We commemorate Emancipation Day and in Trinidad Indian Arrival Day. Our children are fed a steady diet of Caribbean history and yes, literature in which the central theme is slavery and indentured labour. We learn and celebrate the struggle of our ancestors for freedom and development.

We all know some facts of indigenous communities, Euro-dominated West Indian life and the sociology of post-slave and post-colonialism societies. And these issues of race inequality, race entitlement and marginalisation remain emotive and difficult.

But I am wondering whether we have mined our past for all that it can teach us about inequality, bigotry and intolerance. Has this awareness of race discrimination prepared us to reject other hatreds, irrational, oppressive dreads and prejudicial practices.

Surely a well appreciated history ought to contribute towards a culture intolerant of identity-based ignorance, would make us cringe and resist  expressions of bigotry. And yet, it does not seem to have had that kind of comprehensive and civilising effect.

Homophobia is rife; misogyny is a constraining fact of women’s lives, and in particular young women; we are xenophobic without apology, proud of our supercilious generalizations about other Caribbean people- Bajans who so…well everything not good, Jamaicans so aggressive, Guyanese people, a burden, even when they are working the hardest for the least, and so on. Though it does seem that  Trinidadians are exempt from this negativity, getting only the region’s bemused head-shaking at  things trini.

Last week I had the detestable  experience of a man on a BWEE plane spit out “I do not eat p—y” in response to a seating snafu. It was not only what was said, though I was beyond offended (one never gets accustomed to the routine woman-hating), I was astounded and aggrieved that he was not pelted off the plane pronto. Rather, he was placated by the purser focused on doing his part in getting the plane off the ground in good time. A teachable moment for the man and the plane load of us gone wasted.

And everywhere in the Caribbean we feel that it is our duty to make people in same sex relationships live the tension-filled continuum of wariness to fearfulness every single day of their lives. I say duty because of the sanctimonious tones in which homophobic bile are voiced.

Should not emancipation have the largest possible meaning? Emancipation from race-based oppression ought to be a trigger for the rejection of all forms of intolerance that lead to the trampling on the rights and sensibilities of others. What’s going on? Funny, the way we can see so clearly our own victimhood and yet how our victimisation of some others can feel so natural, even ordained.

 

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The children and I had the mouth-gaping experience last Saturday listening to radio announcers on the opening  of Crop Over.

The parade involved a costumed presentation of the end of the crop in the era of slavery. The paraders were dressed  as house slaves, field hands, master, mistress etc. In those terms. And some, in role, were interviewed by announcers in the grip of a bizarre jocularity. In that zone, they seemed  unable to honour the past.

To the master they asked, “And so how are you treating your slaves” “Very well” he replied and they all guffawed. To the woman ‘house slave’, they asked, “I understand that the master has special relationships with the house slaves, is it the same with you?” (You could hear the wink, wink right through the airwaves). Maybe not in those exact words, but close enough.

Trying to find a parallel, I wondered at what stage, if ever, would descendants of people who went through the holocaust make equivalent crass remarks about extreme oppression and exploitation.

 And so, what in the world does this extraordinary commentary mean? Is it specific to those announcers? Does it signify  some inexplicable ignorance and distance from our history? And if so, what are the implications for the present?

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This ‘Women are Persons Monument’ is to be found in Ottawa. These five  women fought to have Canadian women recognized constitutionally as “persons” and therefore  eligible to be named to the Senate.  (See the website for the background).  This monument came about a a result of advocacy and activism.

And here are a few of us with the monument in September:

Meeting in Ottawa: From l-r: Roberta, Tracy, Jackie and our host Lise

Read the powerful words: So quaint now for some perhaps, but still a huge struggle in some other parts of the world.

What would a monument to Caribbean women look like? Time for one.

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Last week I had the enormous good luck to see and hear Spoken Word artiste Adrian Green in action.  Drawing on the famous Errol Barrow speech (available on internet), his piece was entitled Mirror Image. So that man is a wordsmith, eloquent and as the young people would say, ‘keeping it real’. His question, as you would deduce,  ‘Who are we now, Caribbean people with very specific histories?  He spoke to the hair and skin shading complications. So long I had not heard the phrase ‘goat rolls’. But here’s the thing, so many of those race/colour neuroses are still with us, even while we may have shed the worst language of self-denigration. Anyways, another conversation that.

I have not engaged with the debate over Nelson’s statue. Yes I understand the point, but for my part, I can easily convert its meaning. So, the statue works works well as a daily reminder to reject prejudice and exploitation. Otherwise, I also feel rather benignly about the statue because it is art, in a country, in a region, where there is still so little artistic representation in public spaces.

I can live with Nelson.  But Adrian would prefer not. He made an acute distinction between the need for art in public spaces that represents heritage as opposed to history. Art as heritage ought to celebrate the best in our past, ought to exhort us to live towards ideals, ought to remind us to be unendingly vigilant to seek justice and do justice. For him, Nelson represents history, (not to be forgotten, for sure), but not heritage which is to be celebrated.

I agree. But should Nelson be sent to a watery grave in the Careenage as some have demanded?  Not for me. Perhaps re-sited and also contextualized with other statuary.

Thinking about other statues, one would be hard pressed to find artistic representations of women in public spaces. All the statues are of the ‘great man’ of history, politics, cricket, music. In Jamaica there are the wonderfully evocative woman and man statues in Emancipation Park- Redemption Song Monument. And there is that lovely one in St. Lucia of a couple in exuberant embrace- Aftermath.

Redemption Song Monument by Laura Facey and Aftermath by Ricky George

But generally, not too much of women. The omission that seems most inexplicable is the Bussa statue in Barbados, meant to represent the spirit of resistance to slavery.  Surely women were front, centre and to the side of men in the fight against slavery?

There is so little of the herstory in this region, even though, incontrovertibly, women dominate the lives of children, of families and are central to community well-being.

In Latin countries there seems to be so much more imagery of women, probably derivative of the Catholic adoration of the Madonna. How too wonderful a legacy.

So I agree with Adrian. All of whom we wish to see in the mirror, those better selves, we should also see in art in the public spaces. We must see  the whole of the heritage- starting with indigenous peoples and inclusive of all who share in the experience of the making of a more just Caribbean from wherever we came- Africa, India and Europe.

Here is one example of inclusion from Argentina, depicting shared experience:

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