Sunday night. Monday morning

Post 223.

For Jouvay, I was Death playing mas in Trinidad. Roaming the road, sharp silver scythe in hand, culling those closest to the ground, and knowing neither law nor sin.

I was also Woman, entangled in a long skirt, made of shredded, black garbage bag, for those used and discarded, refused, their pains mere abandoned detritus in the wake of killings. Carrying death’s scythe as a sign of its shadow overhead, like a cross to bear.

Such is the schizophrenia of living in Trinidad and Tobago. Grieving amidst violence, with more than one murder a day, and historically-familiar rhythms of dark-night mourning, where women birth the lives that death takes away.

Lest we forget. Three boys in particular were on my mind. Jodal Ramnath, Denelson Smith, and Mark Richards. Jodal, six years old, killed within minutes of the New Year by gunmen shooting with high-powered rifles from the roof of a nearby school. Real life midnight robbers, missing poetic license. Then, judged by a population which hypocritically ropes off pretty mas for those with money, as if little Jodal’s photos of dressing up in gold, like a King costume, excused the coast guard, the police, the political parties, the shotters and the drug men from their responsibility to prevent harm to our children.

Later, Denelson Smith and Mark Richards killed in their school uniform by devils who come out for pay. Imps terrifying the young, with neighbourhood crossroads like judging points with scores counted and winners declared.

As Death continues to stalk through region and town, in now year-round fetes with dames, tiefs and dark souls in glittering clothes, Justice seems to have taken to an armchair, like many others watching the macabre dance on TV.

For the insight it offers, post-Carnival, I want to hail out Jouvay’s mirror to darkest ourselves, and its metaphor for restless hope for a new day. For, when else could I or anyone else express freedom and pain, in public, in the dead of night, while passing the walled yard of sacred graves, wondering if it is still possible to save ourselves, heart beating hard at how, for some, it is already too late.

Jouvay’s mas and masking traditions often get eclipsed by the ‘pretty mas’ of Monday and Tuesday. Beyond standard images of muddied revelers, Jouvay’s mas, which is as political as it is personal, as transgressive as it is stylish, is least likely to make it into Carnival magazines, for grim commitment to mixing anger with splendor isn’t easy to package, sell or consume. Yet, here one can find stories of iron meeting iron, hardship meeting creativity, contradictory realities meeting the next step with no easy resolution ahead.

This was evident in 3 Canal’s band, Blk.Jab.Nation, where it was clear that many played a mas they individually imagined. Amongst women, there were hand painted masks, translucent cloths top-knotted and then slung over women’s faces, and mesh veils sewn, like brides’ own, to hang from men’s bowler hats, in a runway of women’s masking on parade. To see masking re-emerge is to witness a counterpoint to the contemporary focus on cosmetics for Carnival. As more and more women get their makeup professionally done, masking becomes more important to see and be seen on terms that the male gaze cannot easily penetrate, or get access to without consent.

Among women were also those bare-chested and covered in black paint. One woman in nothing but a regular panty, defiantly taking back the night in a world where women’s sexual safety relies on them covering their bodies in fear and shame, where consent means too little without an end to all sexual vulnerability and violence.

Lest we forget, there is history and richness of masquerade in Jouvay that prettiness cannot encapsulate. This haute couture ruins an aesthetic of colourful sequins, opting instead for a different language with which we can work out what it means to be brown and black bodies negotiating darkness, womanhood, motherhood, beauty and community in pursuit of our humanity.

Crick. Crack. Having played its mas, may Death now tire and offer respite, leaving Woman, already entangled with too many aching memories and stories, to tend to her days of unaccustomed strife.

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Post 212.

Picture Paul-Keen’s Douglas’ script for “Party Nice”, with him insisting “is only a little ting we having”.

Ziya turns five next week. A birthday party is expected. If not by her then by my mother, who takes the memorability of the party personally, like Ziya’s public advocate on all things grandchildren rightfully deserve. For her part, Zi buffed me up for buying her dinosaur-themed party paraphernalia, asking me if I think her friends would want to go back home when they realize there were no princesses or little ponies. Who tell me buy dat?

I’ve spent the last two years emphasizing the coolness of dinosaurs, science and outer space, bought books with awesome paleontology facts, watched endless episodes of “Dinosaur Train’, drove to school on a morning letting her label every person we saw as a different kind of dinosaur. She has been genuinely into it. Not for her party. Here gender socialization, keeping up with friends, worry about fitting in and others’ approval prevail.

This seems inconsequential, but it highlights how narrow the options for girls remain, in their own peer circles and among parents, despite decades of women pushing the frontiers of femininity. This seems obvious from separate distribution of pink and camouflage-printed goods in toy store aisles. A few months ago, it had me poised between sets of Lego, in the ‘boys’ aisle defined by Jurassic Park and Minecraft, and, in the girls’ aisle, defined by limousines, make-up dressers complete with mirrors and lipstick, multiple kinds of hair styles, and leisure settings, like liming in a yacht. Eventually, I bought a submarine, with no girl figures in it, but satisfyingly complex, and neither about violence nor beauty.

It’s like Caribbean women’s rights is in a gendered war with Disney Corporation, and with Disney mass marketing across both media and merchandising, my messages of imagining a girl’s self beyond the most stereotypical are of little worth. If I had more time, I’d publish my own character, called Empress Sapodilla Sugarplum, whose series of stories I’ve already written in my head, and who imagines herself in backyard adventures as Jamaican warrior leader Nanny of the Maroons as much as she dresses up as Camille Alleyne, Trinidad and Tobago’s own awesome astronaut, up and away in a box with the sounds of a rocket launch streaming from Youtube. Thank goddess for Doc McStuffins, we reached a truce. As the mother of a brown sapodilla, who wishes for anything other than white mermaids and princesses, both Zi and I love this character, her message and music.

Good. Snacks. Cake. Drinks. I’m all like, you can invite five friends and we will play ‘pass the parcel’ and musical chairs. The child squinted up her eyes at my clearly last- generation idea of a party, unsurprisingly, for everyone else’s had a bouncy castle, and face painting. Indeed, I wondered if the handful of children I let her invite would all appear and stand around not knowing what to do with themselves.

“Is only a little ting we having” isn’t what parents put out at children’s parties anymore, and these are working middle-class people, with no businesses or trust funds. I’ve watched professional moms, in particular, turn up totally put together and triumphant, but completely exhausted, having baked, packaged, put up, handmade, ordered and organized everything, with it all costing about $5000, and me there, both awed and appreciative, but askance that the same might be expected of me.

I think Zi can have a big party when she has a job and can save for it herself. At this point, my mother prepares to look offended on her behalf, like Thelma when Keens-Douglas says, we go have the party, just buy some “cheeweez”. I don’t blame her, if I had my way, there would be a yard for kids to play, snacks, and the other parents, Stone and I would watch our children tire themselves out while we dressed back with drinks. US media dominance, middle-class pressures, working mom’s aspirations, and resilient gender stereotypes are all there to be managed even at such seemingly ideologically-innocent times. Whatever little ting she gets, Zi better end her birthday like Tantie Merle, only saying “party nice”.

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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Post 181.

As Saturday’s crescent moon rose over Cazabon Street in Belmont, people gathered from all over the world to remember Claudia Vera Cumberbatch, better known as Claudia Jones, on the one hundredth anniversary of her birth.

There were also gatherings in Harlem and London, but it was the few dozen holding hands in a lamp lit circle on a ribbon of rough asphalt, who got to hear the unexpectedly beautiful percussion of corn and rice rolling like rain off the galvanize roof of her childhood home, and who witnessed the first time that African invocations, water, palm oil, memories and appreciation were offered from us here to this little known daughter of the soil.

For women busily going about life, organizing communities, hand sewing their traditional portrayals for Carnival, establishing their own incomes, dreaming of being writers or wanting to make a fairer world, Claudia Jones is the inspiration whose picture you could pin to your clothes, like Bobo Shantis do with Haile Selassie, to remind yourself that articulate, fearless and powerful women have long been home grown.

Born in Trinidad, on February 21, 1915, Claudia Jones became the leading black woman in international communism between the 1930s and 1950s. While living in the US, she was arrested and imprisoned for ten months for giving a speech on “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace”. Facing deportation and eventually choosing exile to England in 1955, because Trinidad’s Governor was too frightened of her movement-building capacity to let her resettle here, she organized the first Carnival celebrations in London. Her belief that “a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom” established the precedent for every Caribbean Carnival now held around the world.

A communist, pan-African and women’s rights political agitator, more radical than any men of her time or region including Marcus Garvey and CLR James, Claudia Cumberbatch began to write as Claudia Jones to throw the CIA off her tracks, knowing that the US government considered her a threat. She was indomitably bad ass, crossing out the job title of secretary that was put on her passport, and writing ‘journalist’ instead, the only right thing to do for an immigrant woman who later wrote for and edited youth, women’s, workers’ rights and African American magazines, and founded her own newspaper, The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News.

Last term, my students and I read Left of Karl Marx, Carole Boyce-Davies’ book about Claudia Jones’ life and politics, marveling that she even met China’s Mao Tse-tung and Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted them to know that when Caribbean students learn about transnational, anti-imperialist, anti-racist feminist theory, we don’t start with US Black feminism and Angela Davis or Third World feminism and Chandra Mohanty, and we don’t start in the 1960s. We start decades earlier, in Belmont, with the thinking of Claudia Jones, an activist, intellectual, cultural worker and writer without any degrees to her name, now buried in London, to the left of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

Yet, even having taught her book, it never occurred to me to turn onto the lane where she walked as a child and to look up at the same moon she would have seen, on her birthday. It did occur to those who invited the nation to honour a woman who died, at forty-nine years old, alone on Christmas day.

By putting passion and pen to our principles, making transformation of black working class women’s lives our marker of change, and unapologetically pursuing equality and emancipation for all across the world, may we mightily walk in the footsteps of the path-breaking Claudia Jones.

Post 180.

Zi is at the left of the photo, last in the line

Zi is at the left of the photo, last in the line (Photo: Roba Ofili)

Two hours waiting. Two minutes of playing mas. Thus went four year-old Ziya’s first time crossing the big stage.

Practice starts from young, which is clearly how committed masqueraders develop patience with long waits, and know to make the most of their few moments to put their all into display.

In a spectrum of stunning costumes, like inhabitants of a surreal alter-dimension, dozens of children somehow managed the heat, and began such early socialization to a ritual that determines the ultimate success of local music, shapes national conversation about selfhood and freedom, and establishes the most revered secular space in the country.

For us to be visible, to be seen like this, is to exist, writes scholar Gordon Rohlehr. That’s why the crescendo of the stage continues to rule the rhythm of the road on Carnival days.

Zi was there with Noble Douglas’ Lilliput carnival band. She had no idea why they needed to cross the stage and, because her teachers create a small version for her school Carnival show in St. Augustine, she didn’t know ‘the stage’ only truly existed in the savannah.

All she knew was that Aunty Tonya, her dance teacher, would be there and, loyally, she would feel happy doing whatever Aunty Tonya asked her to do. So it goes with children, they make meaning by making their own connections.

Over weeks, on Saturday mornings, Aunty Tonya had her troupe practicing both dance basics and how to chip in a line and wave at the judges. What happened when they actually reached wasn’t decipherable from the edges where parents were corralled, but as I looked for Zi dancing with all the excitement she had anticipated, I instead saw my sapodilla brown Lilliputian in Aunty Tonya’s arms, being carried on her hip.

Trust my child to decide the stage too big, everything too new, too many children surrounding her, music too loud, ‘Vagabond’ not her song or that she not close enough to a safe adult, and securing “lift up” is as much as she could manage.

She came off stage still a little unsure of what happened, but was fully prepared a few hours later, while loudly singing to her favorite tune, Benjai’s ‘Phenomenal’, to confidently declare that she knows all about playing mas, defined by her as putting on a costume and jumping up. So it goes with children, they make their own decisions about what to remember.

Wanting her to understand Carnival as more than jumping and waving, the next day we went to UWI’s Old Yard to see traditional mas. I wanted her to see how the bat shivers and stretches its wings, the fancy sailors puff and rock from side to side, the stick men have a ballet of thrust and parry, the Dame Lorraines bounce their pillows, the Jab Jabs use their bodies to attack and protect, and the blue devils, which like the gorillas had her screaming with terror, crawl like netherworld, cobalt tarantulas with dripping red tongues.

Mas traditions involve specific chants, choreography and costumes, and playing a mas isn’t the same as playing yourself, though both matter. If Zi was going to start crossing the stage, I wanted her to know she was bringing history with her, from one generation to another, in her own imaginative incarnation.

Being experts in crossings is what Caribbean people do. It’s how we learned to exist. We have crossed waters, crossed authorities, crossed junctions and junctures, and crossed everything from spiritualities to pleasures. One day, Zi might appreciate all this. Perhaps, one day as she plays her mas across the big stage.

Ronald Alfred. Copyright Maria Nunes(Photo: Maria Nunes)

Post 177.  The Whipmaster’s Secrets

There is a Carnival that you can buy with $1200 all-inclusive tickets, a Carnival that you can purchase by scrolling a catalogue on-line, and a Carnival where rum, bacchanal and bum-bum time prevail.

There is another Carnival that you cannot access with money, that requires you to earn trust over time and one on one, and that cherishes sacrifice, strength, and preparation through abstention from alcohol, meat and sexual relations.

You could put on a costume, but you soon learn that carrying it is more about discipline and seriousness than jump up and freeness. You could want to practice fancy steps and fling rope, but you soon realize there are stories to respect, bush leaf tea to drink, root and flower medicine to rub, and a rhythm you have to hear before your mask could transform into a mas, and before you can crack a whip like a conductor leading an orchestra drumming on nothing but thin air.

There is a Carnival, weaving through the masses of bikinis and beads, which most will never notice. They will think they are merely seeing “traditional” colours on display, not realizing that a small group of the fiercest and most feared in the country could only dazzle so because of old secrets still shared beneath the boom of big trucks.

Like plants scattered across the central range, some of those secrets come from India, some from Africa, some from Amerindians, and some were invented precisely because Carnival was created right here.

This is the Carnival where such knowledge is both fiercely guarded and handed down over generations. So, come Monday and Tuesday, all those secrets, from a powerful foot stance to a remembered battle chant to a sun-drenched oil to a special weave of natural and man-made fibers, make a convois with the mirrors, sequins and whips, creating a battalion of uniquely painted, tightly wired faces advancing, seemingly, without emotion or fear.

Yet, in this Carnival, commitment to nation and culture is so deep that the hurt it risks could, just almost, stop a man from taking his art on the road. You see, MPs could break hearts with promises they don’t keep, and the recognized VIPs are those with office, who set rules and write cheques, rather than those with life-earned skills and leadership.

Still, this is a Carnival refusing defeat, so a front yard might not be paved this year or next in order to give all to dreams of community, and a vision for a Jab Jab Academy, deeply grounded in relationship to land, will yet again be defended from party financiers and strong-armed police.

In this season when men lose their reason, it’s clear that if a Jab Jab Whipmaster’s spirit don’t take you, there is only one Carnival you will ever know, the other one slipping by, right under your gaze, but unseen.

As I listened to his stories of both sharing and protecting, I walked amongst his sacred plants, shared his quiet anger at the disrespect and poverty faced by traditional mas makers, felt his untold anguish at the clearing of forests where memories were held and spirits released, and appreciated the value of fairness in the life of a family committed to mas.

Last Sunday in Couva, I learned that one thing a Whipmaster knows is how to take pain, which is why so many of his secrets are for healing.  Yet, as I left, I wondered if those secrets, meant to protect the skin under the material and masks, could also protect from a Carnival whose injustices cut more deep than lash.

 

Post 172.

One day I woke up and realized that I was twice as old as the university students I teach, cast as too serious about school work, obedient to an institutionalized hierarchy and long past any connection to rebellious irreverence.

I thought about this when a student came to tell me her essay was late because she was too busy with activism. We were on break, during a guest lecture that challenged gender studies’ students about academic feminists’ commitment to more than our own professional advancement, to the everyday needs of women’s lives and to social change. Why laud writing books when we should be helping communities prevent another abuse of a woman or child? What was achieved by articles instead of direct action?

With the guest lecturer’s questions resonating in her mind, the student felt she was on strong footing to school me on the truly radical politics of a late essay justified by on-the-ground civic involvement.

I laughed quietly because she reminded me of myself when I had that heady certainty that those older than me had given up the revolution for work wear and girl shoes, monthly salaries, and the class privileges of Babylon. She thought I had sold out, not continually redefined subversive commitment.

I told her the story of my University of Toronto lecturer, Guyanese Arnold Itwaru, who assigned us an essay on our Caribbean identity. Weekly, while reading Kamau Braithwaite, Franz Fanon, Eduard Glissant and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o outside of class, I’d tell him I couldn’t write the essay because I had no nation language, only the colonizer’s English, and only equally foreign forms such as poetry, prose and plays to substitute for the alienation of academic writing style.

Given that class was all about decolonization, and we were so inspired that my nineteen year old friends and I had stopped eating with knives and forks and forever forsworn jackets, I was sure Professor Itwaru would understand I was wrestling with the whole point of essays and education.

Indeed, I had called up my mother from my dorm room and asked her if she wanted me to get a degree or get an education. Any parent or person over nineteen knows exactly what she said.

I had also just challenged my college’s insistence that we wear academic gowns every night to dinner in our dormitory dining halls. Trinity College, at University of Toronto, took and still takes that tradition seriously. Naturally, I wasn’t down with wearing no symbol of academic, colonial elitism on my post-independence, fervently brown-is-beautiful shoulders.

The college said to wear the gown or get kicked out. I said me and my Iranian comrade sistren would go to the press about racism. They said ok, the college will collectively vote on your right to refuse in one week’s time, wear the gown until then. We complied by painting ‘fight the power’ and ‘oppression’ in red, with our hands, down the front of the gowns, and walked in to eat with young Marley as our life soundtrack. Turns out, we successfully argued for a decolonial right that was non-existent before, winning by three votes in a packed room. In May, Professor Itwaru accepted the paper that was due in December, and gave me an A.

Now on the other side of youthful idealism, that is being seen as neither youthful nor radical, I appreciate that scholarship can save lives, and that reading and reflection can enable better activism. Education is both a practice of discipline and freedom, I told my student. I understand why my mother wanted me to graduate. Now, write that essay.