February 2014


Post 137.

It’s hard to know where young women’s empowerment begins and ends.

Take Patrice Robert’s recently released ‘Hold on Tight’ video. It attempts to show her as sexually commanding, her stilettos shaking the ground, her youthful body taking control of men’s minds whether awake or asleep.

The video highlights what kinds of language are available for young women, especially young Black women, trying to turn sexuality from a source of vulnerability to authority.  It highlights, just as Carnival does par excellence, that there is no pure place for such resistance and assertion of young female selfhood.

Executive produced, edited and directed by Afro-Caribbean men, the video shows Patrice through the eyes of a white man’s wet dream, including his vision of her as first winer girl, then leopard, then native in a forest. We shouldn’t be naïve. Black women came to be seen as naturally hypersexual and animalistic because hundreds of years of slavery mixed White dominance with such desire. It’s unthinkable violence that made it normal and everyday.

This very fantasy justified slavery’s rape and pimping of African women, and the definition of them as less than equal, less morally respectable or civilized than White women, less valued for their minds than their bodies, and less concerned with their political and economic rights than their freedom to be promiscuous. Streaming such a fantasy 50 years after our independence says much about what Carnival’s possibilities for decolonization can and must continue to mean.

When Patrice broke onto airwaves, coming from the calypso arena, she spoke publicly about not wanting to have to expose her body more than she felt comfortable. In those first years, she sometimes even performed in long sleeves and tight three-quarter pants. I’ve watched this change because, almost inescapably, celebration of women’s sexiness defines soca on stage, on screen and on the streets, and increasingly such sexiness is about skin, bikinis, beads, and even high heels. There is validation and joy in it all, just as much as not fulfilling the right ideal can shake women’s confidence or break their career.

I’m not writing against sexiness, nor Patrice, but thinking about young Black women in the politics of Carnival and the Caribbean. How can they challenge sexual passivity and the tyranny of morality without giving greater life to exploitative or stereotypical images of themselves? How can Afro-Trinidadian young women use Carnival and soca to thoroughly trouble both male dominance and desire by playing with irony, parody and mimicry all at once in the ultimate bikini mas, a mas that takes historical dehumanisation and turns it into contemporary emancipation, meaning being able to move in your body and in control on your own terms?

The point isn’t to blame young women for their choices, but to understand how those came to be the choices available, and their implications. It is to challenge the myriad forms of violence amongst which all women carefully thread, or chip, wine and get away without a care. It is to turn the camera on men’s continuing power to determine how young Black women see and display themselves.  It is to question how much feeling powerful can transform systemic inequalities.

Women’s empowerment in Carnival and the Caribbean visibly remains also a story of how colonially inherited racisms, sexisms and other isms still set the terms for femininity, sexuality and power in the twenty-first century. Is Patrice’s performance as a primitive playing a mas or is the animal her mask? Carnival muddies all kinds of politics and pleasures, inviting us to look twice at young Caribbean women’s realities and our gaze at their bodies.

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If I was Prime Minister, I would fearlessly challenge sexism and homophobia.

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Ending both would improve life for everyone, regardless of your sex or sexuality. This is because sexism and homophobia ultimately harm both women and men, both gay folks and straight. These are not minority or special interest issues, these are issues of human rights and equality for all. And, either you are for equality for all or you are not for equality at all.

In the Caribbean, where our historical struggle has precisely been about emancipation, a politics committed to this for all should be the first basis for constituency, community and nation building.

Get my full pitch on youtube. Just type my name and PM, yes, for Prime Minister. If you think you are not hurt by sexism and homophobia or even if you just don’t want to be treated unequally, you might be interested in Caribbean advocacy that bring statistics, legislative review, stories, quotes and performance poetry.

The slide background was the logo for the student feminist group, ‘Consciousness Raising’, which was active from 2007-2009 and was the first group to come out of my women’s studies class.  They held campus marches for two years for International Women’s Day and International Day Against Violence for Women. The words in their logo are ‘solidarity’, ‘freedom’, ‘take action’ and ‘change’.

The students I quoted in my talk have also formed groups such as ‘Support for Change’, in 2011, to advocate for the national gender policy. They run Facebook discussion safe spaces like ‘Womantra’. They start campaigns of all kinds such as a Port of Spain and UWI ‘Slutwalk’ action to show that women’s sexuality in no way justifies rape. They are involved in creating safe spaces on the UWI campus for LGBT students, finally. These students are also active in the Institute for Gender and Development Studies-led ‘Break the Silence’ campaign to end child sexual abuse and incest. Rock on, UWI youth!

Viewers will also see my Introduction to Women’s Studies class of 2013. This is the seventh year that my male and female students have done popular actions on women’s rights, in a course first taught in 1982. Students this year were open-minded, thoughtful and courageous about engaging in such movement-building. Those faces are a Caribbean feminist generation nurtured in our own university.

For those in the field of Caribbean feminist academia and activism, there is lively debate about whether to use words like ‘equality’ or ‘equity’, or even ‘transformation’, also whether to use ‘homophobia’, which actually misrepresents the issue but is at least commonly known, or whether to use ‘heterosexism’. Regardless, I hope the message is clear.

For Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s Cabinet, which has buried the National Gender Policy and passed a discriminatory Children’s Act (2012), it’s a must-see. For the PNM, which remains a deeply homophobic party, clueless to the implications for even heterosexual boys and men, it’s also necessary.

If you have homophobic religious beliefs, or you care about children, the economy and creating safe communities, watch it with an eye to the leadership that I think we need beyond 2015.

There is a lot of talk in the country, not all of it constructive. The TEDx Port of Spain 2013 event featured an inspiring line up of speakers, including Etienne Charles, Attillah Springer, Wayne Kublalsingh, Rondel Benjamin and Keegan Taylor, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Father Clyde Harvey, Erle Rahaman-Noronha, Debrah Lewis and Dominique Le Gendre. All the talks are on youtube. There are also past talks by Sunity Maharaj, Verna St. Rose Greaves, Christopher Laird of Gayelle and others. Google them, sit back and tune in.

(This post was originally posted earlier in the year, but revised for later publication in the Trinidad Guardian on February 13, 2014).

(See also Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Why can’t he just be like everyone else?’ It is important that Africa, India, the Caribbean, Latin America and so on lead this struggle, as we have been doing.)

Post 136.

I’m not a bikini and beads kind of girl. In the few times I’ve played mas, it’s been with Minshall’s Sacred Heart and Ashraph Ramsaran’s Snake in the Grass in Port of Spain and the Jagessar family’s Fancy Indian mas in San Fernando.

One year, we even had our own mas band. We, being just three of us friends.

Conceptualized on Carnival Friday, we called our three-woman band Rage of the Goddesses. There was a water goddess, an earth goddess and a wind goddess, and we were vex. The water goddess, me, was vex too bad about the water wasted at too many wet fetes. The earth goddess was damn vex about how Carlos John paved the savannah. The wind goddess was rightly vex about all the pollution.

On Carnival Saturday, we hit Queen Street cloth stores and Samaroo’s in town, and changed our telephone message to say that the caller had reached the Rage of the Goddesses Mas Camp and we were sorry that we missed their call. You could tell we were young, idle and had ketch a Carnival jumbie.

We figured out how to make backpieces from the leaf spines collected in a cocoyea broom. They were strong and supple, holding sheer material glued to either side, looking like large leaves of a lash plant, but in shades of blue, earth and green tones, and white and silver respectively. I made a long skirt with layers of blue hues, crunching white cotton along all the edges to look like the foam cresting the ocean. The earth goddess had a brown dhoti, vines with green handsewn leaves dangling from her arms and a turban, and the wind goddess had a short skirt of white feathers matching those in her hair. We had face paint too, of course, as one must when one is a minor pantheon of nature spirits on an urban warpath.

On Carnival Monday, after scrubbing off the black paint of Jouvay with 3 Canal, we finished decorating our large flags which each said the name of our band and which goddess we were.

On Carnival Tuesday, along with another friend who, for religious reasons, didn’t play Carnival, but who was curious enough to accompany us and who we nominated to be our ‘security’, our motley crew got in a maxi, making the surreal look normel normel, as happens every year.

We had no music so we jump with every truck and pan side that pass, people appreciatively, jokingly asking us if we were the whole band. At judging points, in the space between bands, we jumped with abandon in front of amused judges. The sweet-talking security of one big band even said, doh worry, we go hold back de band for all yuh nice woman. Dat was story for the rest of the week.

And when we encountered Peter Minshall’s M2K, we emerged sprayed down with black and white, having passed through art in the making, living and breathing work beyond anything non-Caribbean Jackson Pollack could bend his mind around. Catching sight of us while he rolled ahead on a van, Minshall looked at us and touched his finger below his eye, indicating recognition. Better than entering and winning any competition, dat was story for the rest of the year.

Finally, flags waving, we crossed the stage, playing weself euphorically. Dark would find three dusty goddesses, vexation unapologetically expressed, tiredly walking home. How could I possibly buy a costume made in China after knowing creativity, celebration and critical consciousness made from scratch? All yuh understand now why I could never just play a bikini mas?

Post 135.

Hearing Ronald Alfred talk about Jab Jab mas in Couva, I was reminded what I love about Carnival. Some people love fetes. I love to fete too, but besides Jouvay, it’s mas making that gives Carnival meaning for me. By mas, I don’t mean imported bikini and beads, I mean the kind you have to sit with people to make from scratch, painstakingly and skillfully cutting and gluing, sewing and bending.

For some years, I played mas in San Fernando with Lionel Jagessar and Associates, always in awe of Indian mas, the making of bonnets and bustles, herring bone chest pieces and bead patterns, loving the wisdom, the fatigue and the stories of elders that came with sitting in a mas camp alive with labour and love.

For me, such love for mas transforms ordinary women and men into deeply grounded and connected leaders of neighbourhoods and national culture. Like the Jagessars, the Alfreds are Hindus, but it is not being Indian or Hindu which defines who they are, it’s their mas. Like Lionel Jagesser, for this family, mas is about ancestry, spirituality, livelihood and community. Mas band leaders, both women and men, are chiefs in their own rights, informal queens and kings that draw respect and authority from a lineage made and handed down here. Authenticity isn’t an issue because their mas has ‘authenticity-plus’, a version of something from other places – like most of us – yet original not to that other place, but to the mas interpretation and tradition of it over locally-born generations.

All mas makers, whether they play Jab, Dragon, Indian mas, King Sailor or something else, will tell you similar things. A jumbie comes and begins to move in you. You feel your ancestors on the road. You respect the power of your costume. You protect secrets while handing them down. You carry this identity with you throughout the year. And, when you dead, they bury you with your beads, your whip, your feathers and with chants, songs, dances and a gathering of costumes. Beyond religious rites, these are mas rites. Beyond notions of race, mas makers constitute ethnic groups, who interact with life, the nation and the state not as Indians or Africans or Christians or Hindus, but as Jabs or Black Indians, Blue Devils or Moko Jumbies.

I’ve always thought it would be interesting to do a census that maps these categories of personhood. Forget where Africans or Hindus predominate, where are mas identities, lineages and spiritualities scattered and settled? What community, masculinity and economic models spring up around them? What forms of women’s leadership do they nurture? What relationships to bush, to the phases of the moon, to language, to art and to history are being handed down?

As with Rose Kuru Jagessar and many other women, Sherrie Alfred is also a bandleader.  She sews the costumes, and without her no band would be on the road. She also plays her whip, battling with skill, just as she sews, cooks and mothers. Mama, this is mas!

Not just the leggo and freedom, but the discipline and labour. Not just bought over a counter or on line, but made next door by many hands. Not just drunk and disorderly, but skilled and serious. Not just playing yuhself, but working the mas.

Generous with his knowledge, Ronald Alfred and his Couva Jab Jabs reminded me of a commitment to culture that transcends profit and the kind of creativity that cracks through the noise of foreign-used approaches to defining who we should be. Though called traditional mas, these forms are models for making our own modernity.