Post 238.

Mas may have mostly left the masses now that bikini and beads revelry runs the road, but the public still comes out in the hope of seeing art take to the streets, to come to them as witnesses, and in homage.

For, mas must come to people and be for them, exciting something in spectators’ waiting and watching hearts in their next intake of observation and breath.

Anyone who has ever played mas that embodies design, skill and character knows this public love for mas portrayals which turn ordinary materials such as chicken wire and cloth or nondescript beads sewn into intricate patterns into otherworldly representations. People are hungry for public creativity and Carnival is when they line sidewalks and crowd corners hoping to catch sight of a moving figure that releases all our pent-up imaginations.

Tuesday found me amidst revelers and spectators, carrying on my shoulders a swollen white skull, connected to dragging tendrils, its mouth open in silent screaming horror. As our small swarm of post-apocalyptic sailors moved through the streets, people repeatedly stopped us and asked, ‘Which band dis is?’, nodding knowledgeably when we told them it was a Minshall mas with Exodus Steel Orchestra. Minshall had said as much in an earlier interview, hoping that this mas would “make a lot of old folk feel very good inside with a sort of satisfying sigh. ‘Ah, yes, well at least I see that again before I dead’”.

Just outside the hospital in town, a woman named Germaine with her little boy, Harmony, stopped to instruct us to play our mas on the stage for her. People were appreciative and discerning, evaluating our portrayal as they stood in front of us, mobilizing familiarity with art history and technique as it has appeared again and again in mas making.

‘Are you a ghost?’, one little girl asked as we waited interminably in Memorial Square as rain fell, sun shone and rain fell again. Indeed, as dystopian ghosts, or spirits of an imagined place of unhappiness, fear and injustice, our towering figures combined sailor mas with robber mas in a band of the dead. We could only be described as a dread mas for dread times, whether because of economic despair, ecological devastation or the recent election of Donald Trump to global dominance.

As we walked, our cloth trails became muddied and stringy, and lengthened out into disgusting tentacles navigating the endless garbage of every kind. I kept wanting to cut them off and return my costume to its opaque whiteness.

Just as I was about to ask veteran mas maker and one of the band’s leaders, Kathryn Chan, she turned to me and said that she loved how soiled they had become and wished she had made them longer. I kept quiet and recommitted to carrying the mas with the authenticity its makers had envisioned. After all, we were rising from the grave, stained by the detritus of humanity, to show an “ominous, empty, vaporized future passing you by” in the present.

Called ‘Spiritus Mundi’ or world spirits, we moved like a whisper of truth through the noise, like a collective soul of the universe containing the memories of all time, somehow both ethereal and material, light and white, yet sodden and unclean.

“No jumping up and dancing on the stage”, Kathryn shouted at us above the cacophony of trucks as she directed the children moko jumbies and flag bearers. We were to properly play our collective character in this theatre, and to show the sobering suffering of the world as a giant mesh representation of the planet rolled ahead of us and a rainbow crowned the hills of Laventille behind.

Minshall himself was sitting in front of his television, impatiently waiting to see another generation of Callaloo Company turn his drawings into life. Just as we stepped on stage, the stations switched to San Fernando, leaving him bereft from an ill-fated director’s decision.

He was inconsolable about missing our enactment and, so, should know that, for those of us that were there, this beautiful and macabre mas was an epic gift, weightless on Tuesday, despite the weight of the world that is our burden now that Carnival has come and gone.

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Post 237.

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On Carnival Friday last year, my sapodilla was on stage singing her calypso competition tune, ‘Mosquito’. Zika was an oncoming threat and we wanted to combine musical commentary on a serious issue with humour, to step away from trends where women and girls are the voices of public lament, while men and boys the kings of humour and word play.

So, her verse, ‘Health Ministry spray/cannot save the day/plus recession biting them too’, was meant to highlight collective responsibility for mosquito-borne diseases, ecological concerns about insecticides used by the state and their impact on insect biodiversity and, at another level, the multiple ways big issues bite both state and society. She came second, promptly putting her prize money in her piggy-bank.

Following this, the song reached the ears of a national park ranger in the US who, just this week, sent Ziya her own Biscayne National Park Junior Ranger badge because her song is going to be introduced into their kids’ camp. In her mailed package, Sapodilla also got a fossilized shark tooth which she proudly put in her treasure box. You never know where calypso can reach.

Today, she’s on stage again, with ‘first-class lyrics for so/ but not about no mosquito’. This time, she’s telling a true story about our dog Shak Shak who, terrified by Old Year’s Night fireworks, ran away and was lost for several days. In the song, she looks for Shak Shak everywhere. She goes by the church, all they tell her is that prayer always works. She stops by the shop owner, but he’s only helping his customers. The police are too busy looking for tief. She calls up the Prime Minister, he tells her to put her request in a letter. She goes up Mount Hololo, which is near us, and even Tobago, which is far, but no Shak Shak.

The end of the song finds Shak Shak hopping a drop to the beach for, of all things a vacation, leading to the double-meaning in the punch-line which observes how ‘Shak Shak reach!’, a local turn of phrase for when someone ends up where you don’t expect, whether in terms of geographical extremities or rapidly improved circumstances by opportunistic means.

In reality, our terrified dog was picked up at the side of the road by a nice couple, whose car she jumped into when they stopped to check on her. As they were on their way to Las Cuevas, Shak Shak went with them and spent several days liming, likely happily, on the North Coast with their family, all while we searched and worried. When they returned to Santa Cruz, and saw the posters, Shak Shak was brought home, looking well rested and well refreshed from all the crisp sea and mountain breeze.

A fireworks-terrified lost dog is such a common story, and the beloved pothound so many children grow up with is such a common memory, how could we not turn this escapade into kaiso? Of course, as kaiso must, Shak Shak gets portrayed in the figure of the wayward quick-stepper, successfully breaking biche before order is restored, for isn’t that what the bravado of calypso requires of even the most timid of real-life characters?

Zi herself is a timid character. She’s produced by her dad, Lyndon ‘Stonez’ Livingstone, whose Razorshop roadmix of MX Prime and UR’s ‘Full Extreme’ is now on radio replay. Still, this singing on stage business, though just in her school hall, is a reach for her as well. Might she come first this year? Given where ‘Mosquito’ and Shak Shak ended up, you never can tell.

Post 236.

Over the last three decades, the rise of bikini mas has been considered a sign of Carnival’s loss of politics.  In this view, gone was the costuming skill and performance that defined mas itself, to be replaced by wining skill and body display, with the heyday of top male bandleaders replaced by bottom and ‘Carnival is woman’.

The feminization of Carnival was an unrepentant fall from high mas, and women’s ‘vulgarity’ was obsessively interlocked with the downfall of decency and order in the wider society. This easily fit the misbegotten myth that all the world’s troubles would be solved if only women never misbehave.

Women disagreed by the tens of thousands.

The past thirty or so years of bikini mas, which is now typical for an entire generation of young women, could therefore instead be thought of as a massive women’s movement taking cultural form, indeed ‘taking over’ Carnival, to continue traditions of self-affirmation, resistance to subordination, and renegotiation of the rules of public space.

Observers of the ‘jamette’ tradition point to the fact that women in Carnival always combined the folk politics of ‘playing mas’ with the gender and sexual politics of ‘playing yuhself’ in ways that were typically disallowed to women, and that women took both these politics into their challenges to the state.

What’s evident over the last decades is that such ‘jamette’ performance has crossed racial, religious and class differences amongst women, becoming national, and therefore even more disturbing for men as diverse as Sat Maharaj, Tim Kee, Keith Rowley and Father Harvey, with their patriarchal passion for women’s responsibility, decency, dignity and prayer.

Women’s annual occupation of the nation’s streets over Carnival, to experience sexual control, bodily pleasure and freedom from respectability, predates anti-‘slut shaming’ or ‘slut walk’ marches in the North by decades. Unexpectedly, bikini mas helped powerfully cultivate contemporary women’s opposition to rape culture, or a society where sexual domination of women and their vulnerability to sexual violence is seen as natural and normal. Though globalized, this creative expression of women’s rights is homegrown.

We saw the force of such opposition when Asami Nagakiya was murdered and the groups Womantra and Say Something called for the resignation of the PoS Mayor. We have seen it in continued ‘not asking for it’ campaigns across the region, in a younger generation of women publicly refusing old men’s bad habits of victim-blaming, and in diverse support for #lifeinleggings’ call to break silences about sexual harassment. It’s part of Say Something’s current ‘Leave me alone’, ‘Leave she alone’ campaign, in collaboration with Calypso Rose, which encourages women to share “experiences of street harassment and violence during Carnival and also of positive moments when you felt defended or protected by your Carnival community…whether as revellers or frontline workers and service providers”.

The rise of bikini mas is complex. Women’s increasing income and economic independence are major factors. Desires to be affirmed as beautiful as black and brown women, not just as ascendant students and workers, is another. Expansion of women’s spaces for friendly sexual ribaldry, such as the maticoor, into the public domain is a third, bringing with it challenges to the hypocrisy of male privilege, which allowed men all kinds of license while keeping women in check.

There are also contradictions. Costs of bikini mas participation mean that class shapes access to these moments of freedom. Many women continue to play within ropes, reproducing historical ways that upper classes cut themselves off from others, while signaling the reality of sexual harassment which all classes of women continue to fear. Additionally, the marketing of hypersexuality over these very decades has reinforced hierarchies of beauty and the policing of women’s bodies in ways that complicate the radical potential of bikini mas to throw off pressures women face, embrace self-pleasure without judgment or justification, and defy nation-state commodification.

Against nostalgic anxieties, bikini mas has enabled serious woman politics of all kinds to take up space in Carnival. It is the largest movement of women to take to the streets in the country, bringing diverse aspirations for an equal place as gendered and sexual beings. And, it has cultural capital, empowering anti-violence activists’ demands that both men and the state better behave.

Post 224.

Vigilance. For, few victories are absolute.

From bloggers to protesters, a generation asserted itself in the call for Mayor Kee’s resignation. Women in their 20s and 30s, supported by men and older women, made a rare show of public power over sexist language regarding violence against women. One commentator compared it to the Black Power movement when an earlier generation mobilized against the mores of their parents’ status quo.

Others argued that protests should have been over the murder of Asami Nagakiya, rather than officialdom’s response. They missed the fact that this generation fully understands the interlock of both. The uproar was about another example of violence against women. Yet, everything said also protested commonplace sexual harassment, sexual assault and other kinds of public gender-based harm, precisely because these normalize violence, or fear and threat of violence, as a fact of women’s lives. Women are right to not only focus on single losses of life or single incidences of abuse when feelings of fear in public, and women’s lack of public and private safety, is pervasive, yet invisible to many or worse denied or, worse yet, blamed on women themselves.

The state is obligated to create conditions within which women, who are particular targets of violence, are safe, regardless. It is one thing to live in a nation where harassment, rape, beatings, trafficking and murder continue, with too few of these resulting in convictions or change. It is another when state officials use moments of such violence to point fingers away from state accountability. And do so with impunity, as if the consequences of state failure around violence are not experienced every day. That this was a moment of insisting on state officials’ answerability, in a country where its lack costs us billions, is not to be dismissed. Accountability to non-sexist language and decision-making might seem insignificant, but it at the core of women’s citizenship.

Women of this generation targeted the Mayor because they understood that they too were under attack. The supposed harm to decency and morality posed by women flinging waist is debated every year, and is a 150 year-old panic rooted in the tyranny of respectability hypocritically imposed on women, determining their status, meaning and value. Yet, the past decade’s noticeable trend among students is an overwhelming concern with women’s sexual and bodily liberty. Fueled by celebrity-led movements and world marches against slut shaming is the idea that women should be able to go wherever, however and whenever they choose. In 2013 for example, young women, led by Renelle White, held their own ‘slut walk’, titled a ‘Jammette March’, on the promenade, to insist that women’s sexuality doesn’t provoke male violence. Male violence explains male violence.

Between the emergence of ‘Carnival as woman’ and female students seeing educational and employment gains as insufficient in the face of continued sexual violence and shaming, an articulate power has been developing which clearly can amass. In questioning a trend that seemed to emphasise the right to choose without adequately engaging the contents of such choice, many missed its political potential. While Mayor Kee’s resignation was not a ‘solution’, it was thus a victory for a globalized generation for whom ‘slut’ or jamette shaming matters.

Luckily, international press was upon us. The PM had already affirmed Mayor Kee’s intention to resign. Public and media opinion put his comments as inappropriate, with his apology adding insult to injury. Over 10 000 signatures appeared on a petition, started by young feminist group Womantra, giving a mandate to momentum. Behind and in front the scenes, women from both political parties also weighed in.

But, vigilance.

Clyde Paul retains authority in Port Fortin despite responding, “What action must Tim Kee resign for. I hope when the truth of the young lady’s murder unfolds some people could handle it.”  Religious leaders are morbidly capitalizing on a woman’s murder to insist on women’s morality. This backlash strengthens the lie that covering up and being decent will protect women from harm.

To refuse that protection racket, a generation of gender-conscious women and men will have to be serious about successful organizing. One battle may be won, but a war over women’s freedom is one we cannot afford to lose.

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Post 222.

Neither Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland nor modern day zombie flicks come close to the creatures that leap out from fantasy and hell as they take over bodies, turn ordinary neighbours into mythical forms and gorge on human life to reincarnate year after year, on sticks, in paint, within wire, emerging from embryonic, easily unnoticed rooms, defying us to acknowledge what we usually fail to see.

Moms morph into deformed folk like Erzulie the La Diablesse, with her cloven hoof, horns and complex sweeping spirit. Old men turn bat or Jab, like Carnival has full moon power, casting an overpowering spell, despite people’s poverty or pain. Young bredren oil down, revealing true selves in Devil blue and black skins, daubing each other with love, despite familiarity with anger.

In this magical place, even a bookish sort of child need only glance around to gather and store imaginative resources, meanwhile learning to be patient, to look carefully, to draw value from what others dismiss. While for most, traditional mas seems repetitious or cliché, I’ve found characters within traditional mas communities provoke a greater sense of humanity, deeper connection to land, and humbling appreciation for the beauty that people insist on making from their experiences of negation and oppression, near starvation and intimacy with horror. It’s these netherworld creations twisting through her home place that I want Ziya to learn to notice.

For little ones like her, Tuesday night’s Kings and Queens competition required sitting through many crossings of the stage that didn’t seize her sense of the truly inventive, but more importantly, there were those that did. I took her to see Peter Minshall’s King, ‘The Dying Swan – Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova’, for her to see how the stick legs of moko jumbies, instead of being hidden, might be seductively sculpted, as if on tip toe, and held in ballet shoes. Jha-Whan Thomas danced like a steelpan that plays classical scores in ways their composers never saw coming, in a way I understand as uniquely ‘Made in Trinidad and Tobago’. There is all this for her to know.

Such possibility is always present.  I wanted Zi to observe how vision means seeing the taken for granted anew. And, there are visionaries to learn from right here, making orchestras of whipped rope made from plant leaves, overturning devils’ horns to point at onlookers, perfecting thirty-foot-high mas that really does dance.

With Carnival upon us, with attention on bikinis and beads, and hot bodies, iced rum and deafening soca, my gaze as anthropologist, educator and mother is on the best of traditional mas, including the gigantic sculptures that embody their makers’ highest aspirations. Contemporary and breathing, these all provide lessons in art, design, family, memory and history, making Carnival a museum without walls, where artifacts handed down over generations are chipping down the road, stepping like sailors or rhyming like robbers, rather than encased in glass or hanging lifeless and still.

This handing down is a reminder that, beyond the materials assembled, Carnival makes people, who we often overlook, visible. And that is one of its truths. It matters that, this year, young Lionel Jagessar Junior and his partner Kareena Badall, both made it to the finals, as another generation making multiple crossings, not just on stage, for a band that has brought Indian mas to San Fernando for more than 35 years. It matters that a generation that comes after Zi might therefore still have access to their mas camps as an alternate space, if only under a shed, for education, stories, creating characters and representing moments in history, which no one has to fly out to reach.

All I can say for certainty is that, in this place that makes wonderland from damnation, as Ziya develops a sense of dreaming for herself, from Carnival dragons to rainforest guardians, her earliest inspirations won’t only come from mere books on a shelf.

Post 190.

Election season. Hard-to-meet politicians on the street. Shaking hands and influencing people.

You decide you won’t let it be that easy. Too much injustice out here. You want to know exactly what this politician promises to do. You’re clear on your issues and you’re clear that these issues deserve serious answers.

So, you not staying quiet. Let politician skin teeth some next time. You rewriting the campaign script to show what people really saying. Families bawling. So you not feeling to be nice, but you plan to be powerful, not impolite. Now is to hear the people, not hush them, to earn each vote with honesty and humility. You not going to be dismissed because you defending rights.

Anyone who has ever been frustrated by long-term, avoidable, injurious governmental failing can surely identify with being so fed up and angry.

Now imagine that that same politician starts feeling badgered by you because he won’t answer your question, and it’s clear you not giving up or getting intimidated.

Annoyed, he calls you “an idiot” and “a little piece of shit”, and threatens, for others to hear, that he could “slap her ass…just for the fun of it”, that he could have you stripped by “some of my women”, because you keep interrupting his media interview with your demands to know what he’s going to do about so many mothers dying from childbirth.  He tells you to “shut up” and “eff off”. His later press release claims you provoked him into such violence. Shame.

Now imagine your name is Sherlina Nageer and you are confronting Guyana’s Minister of Health, Dr. Bheri Ramsaran, to hold his government accountable for providing safe, professional and respectful sexual and reproductive health services to women, a struggle being fought for decades and not yet won. You see exactly how fighting for women’s rights risks abuse, threats and intimidation.

Now, imagine this story is yours. Maybe because the tragic loss of first time mother, 24 year old Keisha Ayers, who died days after a C-section in Mount Hope hospital was finally too much. Maybe because it finally happened to someone you love.

Wouldn’t you then hope that the way that the politicians deal with ordinary citizens, the way that powerful men speak to women, the way that mothers are mistreated in the health system, the way that women’s deaths fail to provoke high level public recognition and response, is seen for what it is, drawing solidarity from all citizens across our region?

In 2013, Barbados had two maternity related deaths. One in 1100 women faced risk of maternal mortality. Jamaica had 40 deaths, but 1 in 540 women faced risk of maternal mortality. Trinidad and Tobago had 16 deaths, and a 1 in 640 chance of maternal mortality. Guyana had 40 deaths, with 1 in 150 women facing risk of maternal mortality, the highest rate in the English-speaking Caribbean. It matters that those numbers are falling, but that matters less than the women still unnecessarily dying.

Amidst our own wrong-and-strong election season, Sherlina Nageer, Trinidad and Tobago sends our solidarity to you in Guyana. As the petition written by young Caribbean feminist organisations, Code Red for Gender Justice and Womantra, stated, “We call on our state managers to denounce acts of violence wherever they occur. We caution our politicians throughout the region that their silence on these offences against its citizens speaks volumes to their commitment to gender justice and the rights of women. If they will not speak out due to a lack of political will, we will speak out in the knowledge of what is right.”

Sign the petition at: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/All_Caribbean_people_Solidarity_with_Sherlina_Nageer_all_womens_human_rights_defenders/

On Wednesday 29 April, Ramsaran was fired: http://www.stabroeknews.com/2015/news/stories/04/29/ramsaran-fired/

Post 185.

HazelBrwownStamp

It’s the stories that I love.

Stories told by women who spent decades pressing for social change, and stories of solidarity by men sometimes almost twice my age. Stories that challenge myths that women of two generations ago were less radical than now and myths that feminist men didn’t exist throughout our history.

I love the stories of activists who came before because they bring our history to life, to their own lives, with laughter and commiseration, with passion and pain, with irony and unexpected twists, making us learn more about successful strategies or forgotten beginnings or our responsibilities to our future.

I love their stories because these efforts, connections and memories are our legacy, as much as the lasting reforms they created, or gains which we must still protect, are our legacy. They are a legacy because too often we think that it takes people who others consider political leaders, or people with university degrees, or those who seem to have more privilege or power to challenge everyday injustices.

Yet, stories by indomitable citizens of all classes and creeds remind us that is not true. These are stories by people who get up and do, working together to provide help or change unequal rules. Such collective love and labour by citizens is also ‘politics’ because it aims to defend their dreams for an emancipated nation and region, and their commitment to equality, independence and rights for women. These stories remind that the struggle for government by the people and for the people is not new.

Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown is just the conference for those of you who also love everyday stories of those around us who got up and did, just like we do or wish to. The public is invited to attend and participate in this gathering to honour a woman who has spent four decades tirelessly fighting for social change, along with hundreds of others whose names should not be forgotten. But, helping us to remember is precisely what stories do.

Hazel’s own stories include sitting in Port of Spain City Council meetings when she was a child as she waited for the Mayor to sign her report book, because in those days the Council sponsored children’s education. It is here she began to understand government, reminding us maybe we should take our children to watch these meetings as part of their civic empowerment and critical education. Her story of running for election in the 1970s along with women of the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago is a lesson in strategy for those thinking about politics today.There’s hope in working with women to buy, iron, exchange and affordably sell used schoolbooks. Then, heartbreak in her plan for a solar powered radio station that was undermined and never came to be. And there will be more than her stories.

Speaking on Saturday are long time activists in areas from women’s health to community and consumer rights, from sustainable food provision, including solar cooking and grow box agriculture, to women’s political participation and leadership, and from Baby Doll mas to the National Gender Policy.

This conference is for anyone who wishes to know more about struggles for social justice, artists and cultural workers interested in social transformation, activists of all eras and issues, and citizens whose dream for our world remains greater equality, justice, sustainability, cooperation and peace.

Come for stories about roads walked and paths still to be cut, in the spirit of our fearless legacy. This column was published prior to the conference, Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown. Videos, photos and other conference information are available on the IGDS website and Youtube page. http://sta.uwi.edu/conferences/15/fearlesspolitics/index.asp. https://www.youtube.com/user/igdsuwistaugustine

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