Post 491.

WHEN referring to UWI’s political and intellectual leadership, people typically cited the Black Power moment of the 1970s, and students’ contribution to mobilising and transformation. As absolutely important as that history is, I often found such nostalgia almost negated the decades that followed.

Following the 1970s, there was insistently radical thought and action that sought to dismantle the status quo of intersecting race, class, gender, sexual and disability hierarchies. Such radicalism wasn’t always well-received, and was frequently marginalised, misunderstood and misrepresented, but it was always absolutely positioned as the business of the UWI.

There had been a fearless and visionary feminist revolution in the Caribbean, to which the UWI and its students contributed, and which challenged and transformed all of our lives as well as the basic foundations of scholarship, statehood and movement-building.

I thought we needed UWI principals to refer to these later decades of feminist-informed social justice struggle as they did to the period of 1970s, claiming them with a sense of pride.

For the UWI remained at the forefront of a Caribbean radical tradition that sought to disrupt the continuing coloniality of patriarchy and transphobia, ableism and the Anthropocene as much as students once marched against white supremacy.

That principal is now here. Brilliantly, she’s long been part of these very struggles, showing it’s not just about having a woman at the top. It’s about having a woman who is also a transformational leader.

At Saturday’s induction of Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine as principal, I thought that for all the decades since I’ve been on campus as a graduate student, this is the kind of leadership about which I’ve dreamed.

She has also long been at the forefront of a contemporary Caribbean radicalism in which gender justice and LBGTI rights are just as important as the rights of people with disabilities, women’s rights to safe and legal abortion, indigenous rights to sovereignty, and migrant rights to belonging.

For those looking for such inclusion and change at the UWI and in our region, it’s the first time it feels like there’s no need to lobby, play nice, be patient or have to explain basics established by scholarship 40 years ago, such as why gender matters.

Different people want different things from campus principals. Some are looking for administrative reforms, others for increased revenue, settling of disputes, policy implementation, more patents and factories, more private sector partnerships or more public impact.

I’ve looked for political and intellectual leadership. For me, that’s the core contribution of a university, making it different from the State, corporate sector and vocational education.

Universities are where independent thought and freedom, and a connection between inquiry and social responsibility, are nurtured as their own ends, and because these are also social necessities. It’s what we contribute to social good, not being defined by either political power or profit.

The neoliberal push of the last 20 years to measure everything by metrics, funding and the bottom line, combined with global economic precarity that reduced both scholarships and students’ financial capacity, put pressure on universities everywhere.

We all had to pivot to job market preparation and income generation. Yet, universities must also always question market logic as much as they contend with its demands.

Some disciplines can produce what is useful to housewives, available at grocery stores, manufactured locally, designed in response to our contexts and time, inspired by Caribbean creative traditions, and home-grown in our Caribbean soils.

Others address issues of health, work-life balance, violence, poverty, ecological destruction and gender inequity through changing public consciousness and policy. Some can be easily packaged. Others – such as poetry, philosophy or history– are less income-generating, although of no lesser worth.

Our business is therefore entrepreneurship, product invention and monetary stability as much as activism, educational access, social and economic rights, historical grounding, and undisciplined imagination.

As Principal Belle Antoine put it, we have a role in “healing our wounded society,” challenging discrimination, and collaborating to “save the planet and ourselves” through bringing expertise to people and people’s expertise to greater potential.

It feels like a radical coming-of-age in UWI St Augustine’s history, 40 years after the 1970s, with a woman at the helm who gets that the economic crises we must weather have made intersections among gender, sexual, social, economic and climate justice ever more urgent, rather than superfluous.

Similarly, although we labour in the vineyard of wealth creation, such labour should not define our purpose, identity, value or humanity as a university, as a region or as future generations.

Post 488.

WHEN A giant passes on, all should pay their respects.

So it is with Leroy Calliste, better known as Black Stalin. Mine is just an inexpert murmur in a chorus of bigger voices, but none in our nation should fail to recognise this elder, now gone, and his genius. He documented hardships and voiced hopes, mirroring ourselves and our world, both the ugly and sweet.

When I heard of his journey to the afterlife, I went back to listen to his songs, realising that I knew far too few beyond his hits. I chided myself for not teaching Ziya his music, but was grateful that his recorded legacy gave us time. She’s just 12 and next to me as I write.

His songs are an education in pan-African consciousness, black power, colonial genocide and underdevelopment, and the inequity of poverty. He was an internationalist, in solidarity with a panorama of struggles.

He could denounce attacks on those in Namibia and Hiroshima, and the Native American Lakota, in just one song, More Come from 1986, naming the assassination of African leaders, and promising more warriors will fight.

He encouraged such solidarity and togetherness, whether with migrants, among those from country and town, and regardless of race and colour.

In his 1999 tune, Sufferers, he reminds “…visit my village called Talparo/Where they ent get no water for years/So much different race/So much different colour/With a bucket sit down shedding tears.” It’s a warning against being easily divided and ruled.

His lyrics were scathing and fearless, whether targeting Cecil Rhodes, Queen Victoria, Mussolini, the Ku Klux Klan, Ronald Reagan or PW Botha from South Africa. In his musically and lyrically brilliant Bun Dem, he advises Peter to condemn them to the fires of hell.

It’s the empire striking back with righteous moral authority at the very gates of heaven, something wielded against African, Caribbean and colonised people since the invasion of Christopher Columbus, whom Black Stalin reserves for himself, telling Peter not to fuss.

Caribbean Man is devotedly remembered for its catchy dream of regional unity, but it similarly lambastes those responsible for our independent Caricom nations. Black Stalin sings: “Mister West Indian politician/Ah mean you went to big institution/An’ how come yuh cyar unite seven million?”

Avoiding imported isms and the schisms they cause, such unity needs to emerge from grounding in our history, experience, landscape, people and identity, for “How could a man who don’t know his roots/Form his own ideology?”

After observing political rallies held by both parties, he asserted his right to civic resistance and a refusal to vote for those who don’t think culture, whether chutney music, pan, dance, theatre or calypso, has worth. In Nobody Cares, he consciously objects, “when I see how they treating culture so bad, I send back their polling card.”

The song speaks to a failure of governance with which we are all familiar, but is a call to each citizen to make his or her vote matter. There is injustice, but every individual has power.

Besides his deep and insistent politics, his music is full of black joy, such as with his 1991 Calypso Monarch hit, Black Man Feeling to Party, and concern with black lives as expressed in Black Man Killing Black Man.

Over and over, his songs expressed a call for justice with a melodiousness, and jaunty horn section call and response, that transports you with its timeless vibes, making his lyrics reach more powerfully than any speech or words on a page.

Through it all is a message of hope, generosity and optimism. It’s not superficial positivity. It’s a trenchant commitment to the consciousness and work that goes into making betterment, one which we can exuberantly celebrate. And, we can indeed make it if we try.

With respect, I make space for Black Stalin in my first column of 2023, so we can continue to hear his advice, from In Times:

“In times of plenty we must be grateful/In times of sorrow we must be strong/In times of joy we must be thankful/For life really have its ups and its downs/In times of disaster we must be ready to get together and move racism out the way/And if you listen to this watchword from your lover, Black Stalin/Tomorrow would be a better day.”

Finally, I end with words he sang at Andre Tanker’s passing, as Black Stalin is himself welcomed by ancestors and spirits, “I glad. I so glad. He forward home. He forward home.”

Post 449.

THESE DAYS, there’s nothing fresh like Farley. His leadership shames the PNM, like Dr Williams in the face of the Black Power movement in the 1970s, when a youthful generation was ready to transform our society faster than the party’s establishment politics would allow. 

Such freshness will inevitably be challenged by toxic personalities and agendas, moribund institutions, careless waste, petty corruption and human imperfection, but for now I’m loving being led by a Chief Secretary used to going about in short pants and slippers in Tobago. 

His latest move was to remove the “archaic” dress code required to access public services in Tobago. We’ve all seen bureaucratic ridiculousness occasioned by this rule. Men told to tuck in their shirts like recalcitrant secondary-school students. Women covered up with a shawl kept handy at the front desk for that very reason. Citizens denied services paid for by tax dollars for showing their knees. The THA’s decision seems so common-sense it shouldn’t be news in 2022. 

In ending a history of such exclusionary governance in one fell swoop, the THA is following in the steps of Jamaica in August 2018 and Barbados in May 2021 when the policy of refusing access to public institutions to those sleeveless, in shorts and in slippers was recognised as colonial, discriminatory, unnecessary and without legal basis. In Estonia, nearly everything for which we are forced to go into a government office can instead be done online, in minutes, in your home clothes or nightie. 

Our backwardness was only compounded by the tyranny of respectability that has long justified denial of basic human rights in our region, whether in relation to acceptance of dreadlocks in schools, legalisation of same-sex relationships that defy patriarchal ideals, or casting blame when raped or murdered women don’t make perfect victims. Even the Guyana Revenue Authority and Lands and Surveys Commission abandoned what they considered a foolish regulation in 2016. 

In contrast, here in Trinidad, according to Public Administration Minister Allyson West, “There are just too many more important areas of focus for us to turn our attention to dress code at this time.” Mia Mottley’s government sent out a memo. Farley announced it just so. How hard can it be? 

For decades, there’s been discussion about dress in relation to access to services, protection, justice and Parliament. Remember the woman who was prevented from entering the police station to which she fled, because she was naked? Across the region, women attorneys were banned from wearing pants in court until they protested. My friend Colin Robinson wrote repeatedly about the rules for those sitting in Parliament’s public gallery, which include not crossing your legs or resting your spectacles on your head or wearing capri pants which fall mid-calf, even though you can watch sittings at home in your underwear. 

In 2017, Lisa Allen-Agostini took up the story of Jamaica’s Speaker writing to MP Lisa Hanna about her attire because she wore a dress without sleeves. One former civil servant, here in TT, outlined the greater challenge that “somebody will turn up at Licensing in pum-pum shorts, barefoot and in their string bikini top on their way to Maracas because they realised that morning that their permit expired.” 

Yet I think we can agree that it shows law-abiding responsibility to get one’s permit renewed, rather than drive unlicensed in pum-pum shorts. 

Enough people have been pointlessly inconvenienced or transacted their business in more sensible jurisdictions or recognise we live in a tropical country for the population to welcome Farley’s down-to-earth decisiveness and long-overdue common sense. 

It’s possible that people also recognise the racist, classist and sexist origins and implications of state-agency dress codes. They make you show morality and decency to be treated as a citizen with rights. They keep those considered to lack respectability and civility outside. We are obsessed with these values because of our historical status as enslaved and indentured plantation workers who needed to improve to be considered deserving of humanity and recognition. 

Like Monday’s fiery Beetham protests, this apparently trivial issue is another example of daily experiences of alienation by state administration, and its blithe callousness regarding exclusion. Bureaucracies may insist on regulations, processes and proper conduct, but citizens don’t care. They just want their needs met and are fed up, willing to burn tyres in their slippers, shorts, vests and short dress. Suddenly ministers jump and agencies hustle up, right? The smoke makes it clear. It never needed to matter what people wear.

Post 427.

Minshall mas meeting Brother Resistance
on the Road. Carnival 2018.

THIS week couldn’t pass without honouring Lutalo Masimba, better known as Brother Resistance. Although there is much that can be said about his life history and his involvement in the calypso community, I’m writing today from my own memories.

When a giant passes on, each of us remembers him or her in deeply personal ways; these are not just icons of nation-building, but individuals who enter hearts and give voice.

It’s also important for us to challenge over-determining representations of our society as divided by race, whether in how we vote or how we fete, with stories of when we connect across ethnic and other differences.

There won’t be many Indian women writing about the impact that Brother Resistance, with his radical decolonial and African consciousness, had on them in the late 1990s and early 2000s, decades after the 1970s Black Power slogan, “Indians and Africans Unite” was declared.

It speaks to a legacy born in those earlier decades that still vibrates today.

In 1998, I was in a fete somewhere, having just returned from university, and first saw Ataklan perform his hit tune Flambeau. How to become part of his community of lyricists and what I understood then as spoken-word or poetry performers? He sent me to Brother Resistance.

Resistance was generous and welcoming.

He had a gentle, affable humility that made you feel all that mattered was your interest in words and riddim and Trinbago. I think the man could make anyone feel there was something in him or her that deserved kindness and respect.

You would see his broad smile beam down from his easy height, so sweet to picture now, whenever anyone was interested in rapso. He encouraged anyone he saw with passion, talent or just love for our culture, regardless of age, race, class or experience.

He invited me to join a six-week training, called Breaking New Ground, organised by the Rapso Co-ordinating Committee, which introduced us to Lancelot Layne, Cheryl Byron, Karega Mandela, Wendell Manwarren, Sheldon Blackman, Brother Book, the Network Rapso Riddum Band, Sister Ava, drummer Wayne “Lion” Osuna and so many others.

Rapso was ascendent then, having been amplified by the success of the artistes from Kiskadee Karavan, by Rituals Music recordings, by the beginning years of 3canal and the youthful sounds of Ras Shorty I’s children’s Jamoo music.

Town was alive with words and rhymes, sounds of drumming and chanting, and another generation’s sense of this home-grown genre’s power.

Breaking New Ground was history, theatre, poetry, respect for the arts, mentorship and belief in being the embrace from which young blood emerged.

We’d stand in a circle in the old Fire Station or in Little Carib Theatre, holding hands, and there would be an invocation, ending with, “Jah! Rastafari!” In this African space, I was aware of my race and class, as there were no other young Indian women there. Yet it was a community where I was always welcomed.

Brother Resistance and others were centring the young people who came to them in their own distinctive philosophy of belonging to a self-determining Caribbean and nation. There was always a parallel poetry and spoken word scene, but it wasn’t deliberately grassroots, streetwise, for the people and against the dread exploitation and dehumanisation of Babylon system.

Those who were mimicking dancehall or rap were encouraged to sound as we speak and to wordplay in the way of mas characters. At the end of those weeks, we were sent up on a stage, and entrusted to continue the politics of rapso warriors.

Post 377.

Just as we showed solidarity with South African sisters and brothers under apartheid, so too we should share the anger of African-Americans rioting against the US police murder of George Floyd, which followed police killing of Breonna Taylor in March.

Non-Black folk have a responsibility to support struggles against anti-blackness across the Americas. This responsibility is bigger than the historical disdain between Indo- and Afro-Caribbeans. It is bigger than APNU–AFC electoral fraud in Guyana and heightened racial distrust as a result. It’s bigger than UNC-PNM campaigning in Trinidad and Tobago, and the PM’s bizarre and race-baiting reference to a “recalcitrant and hostile minority” exactly 62 years to the day after it was said by Eric Williams on April 1, 1958.

Anti-blackness is the legacy of a new world order birthed by colonialism – which combined genocidal capitalism, dehumanizing white supremacy, sexual violence and imperial expansion. At the centre of its cold heart is the idea that White heterosexual masculinity presents an ideal representation of Man or what it means to be human, with all others from women to LBGTI folk to those from across the ‘Third’ or majority world mattering less.

Entrenched through slavery, and not yet dismantled, blackness biologically represented the ultimate non-human. Once defined as property, black bodies remain the least valued of all. This is the reality in the US where state violence against black communities enforces such continued coloniality. #BlackLivesMatter and #IndigenousLivesMatter movements highlight the legacy that some bodies and lives, and their decimation, still matter least.

In Canada, on May 27th, police killed Regis Korchinski Paquet, a 29 year-old Afro-Indigenous woman. Thousands have been marching in Toronto against police violence, and its intersection with anti-black and anti-indigenous racism.

In Trinidad and Tobago, there has been an increase in police killings since 2018, predominantly of poor Afro-Trinidadians. Here too, black lives are disposable and we pay attention, only briefly, when communities burn tires to protest these murders and witnesses dispute police reports of self-defense.

As Dylan Kerrigan writes, “There is no consideration of the context of social problems, the background to the problem, or the historical evolution of the issues… poor black victims are simply ‘bad people’.”  When we pay attention, it is less to the injustice than to the threat to a social order in which some lives are, nevertheless, always under greater threat.

We saw such US reporting shift attention to the looting over the past week which simply distracts from and belittles legitimate rage. Young activist, Tamika Mallory, put it well. America has long been looting black lives, and the violence of looting in this week’s protests has been learned from the example of impunity over hundreds of years, beginning with the looting of Indigenous land.

Jamaicans for Justice have been protesting the May 27th murder of Susan Bogle, a 44 year-old mentally challenged black woman in August Town, St. Andrew, who was killed inside her home by Jamaican soldiers. For the year, there have been investigations into 361 incidents involving Jamaican police and at least 18 incidents involving Jamaican soldiers.

Violent protests by communities result from a broken social contract that leaves no investment in obeying power or rules. That said, the US government has a dirty history of undermining Black Power, peace and environmental movements, including by instigating violence, and no doubt this is happening today.

Excessive state repression, which we are watching with horror on TV, is historically rooted in vicious repression of plantation rebellion just as much as it is reflects the current militarization of policing. All that military hardware, developed for armies at war, has to be sold. For the last two decades, it’s been sold to police and used against citizens demanding justice. Even GG wanted to send military tanks up into Laventille.

The 175th anniversary of Indian arrival to Trinidad and Tobago requires that we honour our participation in the legitimate, and if necessary violent, resistance against injustice which has long defined the hemisphere.

Interestingly, this is also the 50th anniversary of Black Power in Trinidad and Tobago, and commemorations included debate on whether the movement included Indians or mattered to them. It’s clear there was no mythical mixing of the Ganges and the Nile, but that was then. Indian-African solidarity is now ours to define and live just as coloniality remains a contemporary reality for us to collectively end.

How ironic that we were bothering with sanctions against Venezuela when all can see tyranny in America’s glass house and the time for US regime change.

Post 198.

More than once, Ziya has initiated conversation about skin colour, telling me that she wishes she had lighter skin or was white. Where this comes from, I’m not exactly sure, though the nexus of value and colour is inescapably embedded in our entire colonial legacy.

Most people blame ‘the parents’, that dynamic duo supposedly capable of successfully fighting all the world’s bad influences through their super skills in setting an all-powerfully influential example. Parents might blame ‘the media’ which, even if we police our own little sapodillas’ consumption of children’s shows, still manages to infiltrate their consciousness through conversation and time spent with their friends and other family members who watch TV.

So, Zi tells me that having light skin is prettier because you can have pink cheeks, like Anna from the film, ‘Frozen’. She apparently watches ‘Barbie’ and other Disney Channel shows when not home. And, she and her school friends clearly work through concepts of colour, status and beauty when talking, and even through skin colour matching games. She’s also reasoned to me that ‘light skin can be pink and girls are supposed to like pink, that’s why I like light skin’. This is not a conversation Zi is inventing or having alone.

When I’ve discussed this with people, they’ve gone through the list of sources of blame. I’ve checked each off one by one. Zi gets books chosen specifically with a range of considerations, including race, colour, gender, geography, art and science, in mind. I’ve only ever bought her brown dolls. Her allowed shows include Doc McStuffins, Dinosaur Train, Word World, and others vetted for their messages and representations.

What’s out there isn’t perfect, but some choices are better than others. Still, some choices are not great. There are far too few Caribbean music videos, particularly by women, that she can watch. So, it’s not entirely surprising that the ‘Roar’ video, where Katy Perry’s cheeks are quite pink, has swept the four year old world like an unstoppable anthem.

I say all this to make the point that when our children start to show familiarity with a world we know is sexist, racist, classist and more, our first reaction is blame. But, beyond family, schools or media, this is actually the world as we live it daily, like normal. Our kids were going to encounter and even assimilate it inevitably. As a parent who has made a real effort, while also having to balance not being fascist about my attempts at indoctrination, I refuse the neoliberal idea that fault is in individual failure to fulfill that checklist.

A long time ago, we realized that real change requires more than individual empowerment and effort, it also needs mass movements, attempting widespread shifts in social consciousness and political-economic relations. The global Black Power movement knew this. It challenged class-colour barriers, the connection between whiteness and power, and disparagement of hair and skin considered ‘too black’.

For children, whether Indian, African or mixed, there’s a great deal of that transformative politics we still need to achieve, and we are a generation that can redesign the wheel while not having to reinvent it. Thinking about this makes you wonder about all the reasons for, and the losses of, such hopeful, collective Caribbean movements no longer existing today. It’s a lesson for us that such great efforts can be undermined, forgotten, even stereotyped over mere decades.

As a mother, I feel that once hierarchies penetrate our children’s understanding of the world and their place in it, they can now only be in resistance to such frameworks, no longer innocent of them or fully free. I dream that we could make such emancipation a real possibility. None but ourselves can free our minds, and luckily schooling and parenting can together be revolutionary.

So it goes in our contradictory, complex postcolony. For now, I’m keeping it simple. Mummy says all skin colours are beautiful.