March 2014

Post 141.

The bliss of snaking through Manzanilla’s coconut trees was enough to make the drive worthwhile, but the community spirit that I encountered in Mayaro was, unquestionably, the highlight of the day.

I was there to give a talk for International Women’s Day, being celebrated for the third year in this little corner of South-Eastern coast, adding to the other events happening all over the country all through March, and continuing to honour an agreement made by over 100 women from 17 countries in 1910.

Always socialist in its politics, International Women’s Day originally aimed to strengthen women’s protests against exploitative working conditions, their participation in politics to advance their rights, and their knowledge of those women who came before, who unapologetically resisted regardless of what was expected of them because they expected more for themselves.

This Saturday was no different. Carla Walcott, granddaughter of Clotil Walcott, was there, continuing to call for domestic workers to be considered workers under the Industrial Relations Act and to labour under decent conditions of employment. One women’s group spoke passionately about tending to women’s loneliness, donating to those unable to make ends meet, and listening to the ones trapped by abuse. Men spoke about their realizations that full emancipation of a people is not possible without full equality for all. Girls were being mentored so that they develop ambitions that defy the limitations of their gendered and geographical realities. How humbling to remember that it isn’t petrodollars that keep us together, it’s the cooperation and commitment shown by many unsung individuals, who step out of crease for those more vulnerable, simply because they are people who care.

I hoped to tell stories, those of my great-grandmother, grandmother and daughter, those of students at UWI, those of ordinary Indian and African women who had their own ideas about their desires and dreams, and who collectively organized housewives, the unemployed, the hungry, the anti-war, the oil and sugar workers, and the not-yet unionized. Even if only the words leapt off the page, I wanted to name Haiti, Cuba and Grenada, so that we remember not to forget their stories too.

In the end, it wasn’t my stories that defined the evening. It was the story of Pearl, a woman from Mayaro who told me about the trials of raising her daughter on her own, struggling to build her house, and ensuring that her child traveled to St. Joseph’s Convent daily and later could finish her degree at UWI. Pearl’s combination of exhaustion, pride and recognition that, with her daughter grown and gone, she now had to define herself anew is the story of so many mothers, including my own. Pearl wrapped me in a hug as soon as I stepped out of my car because she read my stories each week. Connecting us is what stories do.

This is probably why Suzanne from the Heart of a Sister Foundation told me that she planned to publish her own story, titled Happily Ever After. Not because there is ever a fairytale ending, but because even when there isn’t, we can make do and do well, even encourage each other. I drove away after making Mr. Mutota and the South African High Commissioner promise to tell me their stories of NJAC in the 1970s and mobilizing against apartheid in the ANC.

In the darkness, Manzanilla’s narrow road seemed to hold these histories in its breath, like a flute waiting to be played. Mayaro retreated, leaving me its stories of struggle and community, and its spirited refrain as a call and response to more than one hundred years of International Women’s Day.

Post 140.

When she gets angry at Stone or me, Ziya’s latest response is to announce that she’s not our friend. ‘You can be your own friend!’ she declared before hunching her shoulders and stomping off after I quarreled with her. ‘Daddy is not being my friend’, she accused on another occasion, giving him the look of the wounded and betrayed when she didn’t get her way. Yes, my baby is in school, practicing the complex emotions and skills compelled by social interaction. Friendship, and all that it means, has clearly become a hugely important source of connection and negotiation.

Every afternoon on our way home, as I ask her about her day, we talk about who she played with at lunchtime and what they did together. Young and Restless has nothing on the tribulations of this three year old. Some days, some of the girls include her as their friend, some days not. Some days, she says she played by herself because everyone already had a friend. Some days, she finds someone else to play with. In her circles, friendships are made and broken, alliances established and renegotiated, sides chosen and then switched with the vigor of UN Security Council horse-trading over Syria. Forget high school. If you thought that a pre-school playground was about play, think again. This is where Zi most figures out who she is, how she should or shouldn’t behave, what feelings she should articulate and to whom, and how to survive hurt, healing and tough love, which after all is the way of the world.

There are the good days when the girls make chocolate, almond, ice cream cakes, whipping up their imaginations with the mulch on the ground. They seem to spend a lot of time cooking, rather than pretending to be astronauts or even superheroes, but that’s for another column. Some days, a boy might push Zi and we practice saying no or I remind her about telling a teacher, and affirm the importance of her learning to stand up for herself. She bosses everyone around at home but turns into a mouse at school, and has to become capable of taking her comfort and confidence with her wherever she goes.

I fear for her, as any parent would, knowing that each year she will discover that life is harder than she expected and that she will have to learn to hold her head up on her own. I fear for her, knowing her vulnerabilities and softness, and wanting her to experience the safety of love for as long as she can. I also remember the situations where I had to learn to cope, make friends, go it alone, and feel good about myself through good decisions and bad. For her to excel at those life lessons, despite whatever fears, I have to continuously let go. I can ask, listen and advise, but mostly I have to just let her grow.

All a parent can do is trust that their children will figure it out as we all have to, emerging as imperfect beings, able to forgive themselves and forgive others, dust themselves off and, against all odds, optimistically move on. ‘Is it okay to make mistakes?’ she asked this morning as we drove to school. ‘Yes, of course’, I said, ‘if we didn’t make mistakes, we wouldn’t learn. Everyone makes mistakes’. ‘Yes’, she concluded, all mini-Buddha, ‘mistakes are okay’.

And so begins another ordinary day of making friendships and making mistakes. Beyond learning to spell or colour, there are tensions and disappointments as well as resilience and joys to watch her discover.

Post 139.

Girl Guides Rock

Photo: Nikki Johnson

It was the Girl Guides who rocked the International Women’s Day (IWD) march, held on March 8 in Arima and organized by Ida le Blanc and the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE).

Under midday sun, these young women carried us forward on their songs. Caught up by their camaraderie, all I could see was them making the right steps to becoming the faces of future Caribbean feminisms.

An earlier generation of committed women’s rights advocates was there, women like Jacquie Burgess, Hazel Brown, Rhoda Reddock, Folade Mutota and others. Those younger than me, Marcus Kissoon of the Rape Crisis Society, long time reproductive rights activist Nicole Hendrickson, and UWI students Stephanie Leitch and Sommer Hunte, were in the intergenerational mix. Besides the women, there were men from the OWTU, Shiraz Khan representing Trinidad Unified Farmers Association, and more.

We were continuing the path cut by women like Daisy Crick and Elma Francois, Thelma Williams, considered the ‘mother’ of the OWTU, international socialist and pan-Africanist Claudia Jones, Christina Lewis, of the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly, who first started International Women’s Day commemorations in Trinidad in 1958, and Clotil Walcott, founder of NUDE.

These were women who knew that neither they, nor we, could get weary until labour held the reins of power, legislated the rules and wages that created decent conditions of employment, and transformed the kinds of injustice that affected all workers and especially women, unequal workers in their own homes, in other people’s homes and in the lowest paid sectors of the economy.

Fifty years after our first IWD march, commentators were proclaiming feminism’s demise. Once needed, now obsolete. Once outspoken, now silent. Once everywhere, now abandoned. Such ‘post-feminist’ premature ejaculations should have been kept zipped up. Around the region, my generation and those upcoming are unapologetic about diverse and critical feminist-movement building.

From Barbados, Tonya Haynes of Code Red for Gender Justice and CatchAFyah. Sherlina Nageer of the Red Thread Women: Crossroads Women’s Centre and Vidyaratha Kissoon of the International Resource Network, both working from Guyana. Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe of Groundation Grenada. Angeline Jackson of Quality of Citizenship and Tracy Robinson, an LGBT rights scholar-activist, both based in Jamaica. Kenita Placide of United and Strong, St. Lucia. Nikki Johnson of the OWTU in Trinidad. Our own activist teaching with students of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI, St. Augustine. Local LGBT organizations like CAISO and Women’s Caucus.

Alissa Trotz in Toronto. Jahajee Sisters, with their cross-race, anti-violence work in New York. US based scholars like Angelique Nixon, working with communities in Haiti, while challenging sexism and homophobia. Caribbean feminist writers and artists from my generation are fire-starting through words, music and culture. We don’t just work in one organization, but across many kinds. And, we are more. Many more.

We are here. We are not afraid. Our numbers include men as our allies. Our feminisms are rooted in our legacies and in contemporary realities, as defined by the power of the World Bank, yes, but also by those domestic workers marching in Arima.

One day, politicians and Muslims will openly march with sex workers who come out of well-known brothels to demand their lesser-known rights.  One day, farmers and unionists will walk with lesbians, gays and transgender folks desiring equality, because the struggle for emancipation cannot end with inhumanity.

Generation with generation, in spirit and in solidarity, across race and across the region, those Girl Guides need to know that such politics is theirs to carry forward in their power to lead. One day, I hope we will add their names to this long march of history.

Post 138.

Every parent can identify with my joy at Ziya’s first time in a Carnival school show. Morning was filled with traditional characters, limbo for the children, a parade of the bands organized by the theme, ‘To protect and to serve’, and old time kaiso.

Zi played in the clearly ironic mas section, ‘The Flying Squad’. Her class’ lyrics were, ‘We have to learn our ABC, but it really hard you see/ We try to look at the news, but dat giving we the blues’ and later on ‘It have de UNC, PNM and ILP/ We hear about CIA and then they say is DEA’ and so on, ending with ‘sans humanite’.

Look music, politics and picong in our national curriculum. It needs to be said, bless teachers whose labour of love helps our children to love learning, themselves and each other, and who provide those moments that you revisit when your baby has grown up, hopefully to be a better person than you.

That dusk, on my way home, I picked up my neighbour at Mount Hope Hospital. She was rightfully fuming about the $2 million dollar soca and chutney prizes, and about her friend whose husband has been having seizures and can’t get an appointment for a MRI until April. 2015. By then, he could be worse off or dead. My neighbour was planning a fundraiser after the fete spree was finally over, and was hoping they would make as much as $3000, not enough to fully access private health care, less than the cost of some mas costumes, but an act of love and a help. My neighbour’s heartbreak at her friend’s weeping was a reminder that the tragedy of ‘sans humanite’ isn’t only an old time refrain.

On the road for Jouvay, I thought I heard the same melody drift over our heads while 3 Canal’s Laventille Rhythm Section carried me to daybreak. It returned me to reflection about how the light of morning can be turned to the dark of evening by the injustice of our inhumanity. Unlike the prettiness of Monday and Tuesday, Jouvay is a time for contemplation of, indeed confrontation with, our darkness, the jostle of devils and jumbies, repression and resistance. As I meditated, yes in the midst of the mud mas, on the way ahead come Ash Wednesday, I saw two women chipping joyously with their children in the band.

All these police in riot gear like we really at risk of revolution, all this terror and mistrust, and here these mothers are, fearlessly, lovingly, relentlessly teaching their children about music, politics, picong and people, about making sure that we can all be together and okay in the bass-heavy dead of night, pressed in between the hammer of iron, unprotected by the apartheid of rope, and surrounded by bodies of every kind, practicing freedom in every form before soberly washing it away.

This is how dutty mas can restore our faith in ourselves when hospitals fail to be places of safety and caring while Jouvay bands fail to be places of danger or crime. Where do we find our humanity and where do we look for community when we are left without? If grinding pressure is our daily struggle, when are those moments when we turn the whole world upside down? How can we teach our children both the ABC and to do better than us with their love, their words, their money, their institutions and their freedom? We want them to get more than the blues from the news, and to do more than just sing out against the true meaning of sans humanite.