Post 435.

IN A BASEMENT classroom in New College, University of Toronto (U of T), Prof Arnold Itwaru changed our lives in a way that only a teacher can. It was 1994, and he looked like Karl Marx, already aged with a grey bush of hair haloing his face and head. 

He would hold Caribbean students enthralled. I’d race back to my dorm, impatient to tell friends everything he said. In this way, he influenced even those he never taught. 

I’d mimic his grand gestures, his hand spiralling in the air like he was conducting the crescendo of an orchestra, rising to his toes, with passionate fervour. It wasn’t a caricature, it was awe that a smallish Indo-Guyanese man could blow my mind open, leaving me questioning everything. Without him, I wouldn’t be the educator that I am today. 

Caribbean Studies was in its inception years at U of T, growing for those hungry for insights from and about what we thought of as home. Prof Itwaru would walk in, without pretence, and unpack imperialism, empire, language, media, literature, and disciplinary knowledge itself. 

He could be argumentative, but he was also deeply invested in the power of education, teaching to transgress, and decolonising minds. He wanted us to think hard about what it means and requires to be free. Through him, I read Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming, Franz Fanon, Earl Lovelace, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and many more by 19 years old. 

It set my path. How could it not? He made us learn to watch our words, not to speak of mastering a subject for its normalising of master-slave relations and unequal power. He taught us that Star Trek was a fantasy of empire. One friend briefly stopped eating with a knife and fork. I refused to wear an academic gown, otherwise required at my college, founded in 1851, threatening action if I had to carry such a symbol of white, elitist knowledge on my post-colonial shoulders. 

Wearing one now for UWI graduations, I tell his spirit not to worry, is a mas I play with all the irony and resistance we understand so well. 

He was insistent that jackets and ties were the colonisers’ uniform. Thus, I did not own a single jacket until two decades later, when Prof Paula Morgan, fully understanding, gently suggested I would need one black jacket as head of department. I told my students about mimicry as a tool for subversion in the master’s house. 

One jacketed dean would comment that I should dress more formally. I’d feel pity for this man who never sat in Prof Itwaru’s class, just as I’d wonder at our politicians in Parliament, empowering an independent nation, dressed in capitalists’ clothes. 

So many examples, I laugh looking back. People now champion their decoloniality, but 25 years ago, we were taking that idea as far as 19-year-olds could, entirely because of Arnold Itwaru.

He taught me only one class, in Semester 1, from September-December. We had to submit an essay and I very earnestly went to his office to tell him that I could not write the paper because I had no nation-language to express myself innocent of empire, for the modern Caribbean is so thoroughly colonial, it seemed we only have the master’s tools. Arnold Itwaru nodded back earnestly. Like I had arrived at a shore where he had been waiting. I remember my agonised undergraduate heart singing. 

For an entire semester, and for a second one when I wasn’t even in his classes, I went to his office nearly weekly, consuming books that were beyond any syllabus and talking with my friends in smoky dorm rooms about existence and resistance. My mother had to withstand me calling up one afternoon to ask if she wanted me to get a degree or an education. 

Finally, in May, Prof Itwaru said to hand in something. It wasn’t an essay; there were sentences, fragments, poetry. That night, I dreamt he gave me a D. He gave me an A. My college gave me an award for my student contribution. I graduated, determined to return home. I entered rooms in a jacket, like a midnight robber. 

Twenty-five years later, who I am inside owes an uncountable debt to this unique, headstrong, radically-intellectual, Indian Caribbean man. I am saddened at his passing, that I did not thank him enough or before. He was a gift to students. 

Professor Arnold Itwaru, travel well, knowing that your restlessness for Caribbean freedom lives in us, on and on.

Post 169.

If you parent a little girl, the amount of time you spend with her can be scientifically measured by how many songs you know from the movie ‘Frozen’. Disney has merchandised childhood, meaning the making of local memories can barely be conceived beyond its corporate monopoly on everything from birth to birthdays.

Zi turned four on Saturday, and her little celebration was only missing the ‘Frozen’ Elsa outfit and bouncy castle. You can fight Disney, as I tried, insisting for the first two birthdays on cake and other decorations that were not marketed by US media to us in the Caribbean. But, you will find yourself alone in the wilderness of Santa Cruz while your mother google maps the country for Dora or Elsa icing designers, your mother in law invests in customary birthday paraphernalia, and no one else actually cares about the intersections of capitalism, post-colonialism and childhood.

After all, generations of Caribbean people inherited Disney characters as globalized symbols of play and joy, just as we once inherited British ones, identifying ourselves as world citizens this way.

And, it’s all done in Ziya’s name as if only a bad mother would deny her harmless normality, and deprive her of the chance to be like her friends with their own Disney themed birthdays. Indeed, little girls are astute observers of childhood status markers, and pre-school playgrounds feature complex conversation about gender socialization, class belonging, modernity and conspicuous consumption.

Thus, Ziya’s birthday cake icing comprised expertly made (and delicious) blond Elsa, blue icicles, silver snowflakes and Olaf the snowman, all proudly displayed on a humid, tropical afternoon. My mother requested a brown girl with black plaits be crafted from icing and placed next to Elsa in an attempt to mediate between Franz Fanon and ‘Frozen’, and I kept my politics to myself for family requires compromise, fantasies are part of childhood and I survived much Disney-defined fun, parties, toys and clothes with critical consciousness mostly intact.

I looked at it all thinking that this is why Ziya insists on being a princess when I explain the power of African empresses. I thought about the far fewer options for Caribbean-themed birthdays, with our own icons, myths and landscape, and how we repeat an old colonial familiarity with daffodils and practicing ‘proper’ English through the reading of British colloquialisms in books by Beatrix Potter. We celebrate escape to elsewhere, TV, overseas or other selves.

Teaching what we have learnt, survived and fondly remember, we establish the connections that craft our children’s sense of themselves and place, the lens from which they assess what is presented as who they are, and their practices of validating their own bodies, ecology and stories. It makes sense for bleaching creams to line Pennywise shelves, for government officials to defend a leisure complex, which turns its back on the existence of the coast whose mangrove it decimated, and for the meanings of development to be determined by FDI, or foreign direct imagination.

Feminism offered some future consolation. Disney is now stirring sprinkles of independence, fearlessness and sisterhood into tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland. In ‘Frozen’, the story doesn’t end with a prince, hapless damsel rescue or marriage as the happily ever after. Thank goddess.

This is how the world of a just-turned four, sapodilla-brown girl is defined by media, US corporate power, family, femininity, Caribbean feminism and more. Like Frozen’s Elsa, may Zi find the freedom to not hide who she has grown up to be. Like Anna, may she celebrate each year she grows into the hero of her own story.