Sign II, Delaford, Tobago.

Desiderium: Opening Notes

“Breathe, Browne. Breathe. Yuh home.”

 

I almost died the other night. I was in a car accident—lost control of the car, hit a lamppost, crossed to the other side of the highway, hit a guardrail, and came to a stop at the side of the road. The car was totaled, as was the paper I had planned to deliver. In spite of that, I made sure my passenger wasn’t hurt, saw the car towed away to be either repaired, salvaged, or scrapped, got a ride from NJ to NY, then from NY to Long Island, then from Long Island to JFK airport, where I got on a plane and came to Trinidad. My Trinidad.

And what is my Trinidad?

My Trinidad is rum and coconut water, eating dry biscuit and cheese and playing cards when somebody dead.

My Trinidad is pretending to study for Common Entrance Exam and crying because yuh didn’t get into yuh “first choice.”

My Trinidad is about four or five ah allyuh breaking biche and going down by the wharf behind the scout house to take a dip in the salt, and yuh frighten because Peter did drown dey.

My Trinidad is getting the sweetest cutass from yuh fadda—fuh nothing—jes in case yuh behave bad, and make him shame when he gone to work. Jes in case he have to hear from Mr. Phillip that yuh didn’t say good morning and good afternoon to every single person from home to school to home again, because yuh have to respect yuh elders.

My Trinidad is “Jouvay morning, blow yuh whistle blow yuh whistle! Jouvay morning, knock yuh bottle knock yuh bottle!” Wining back and bending down, catching the spirit and making mas in the place.

Yeah, my Trinidad is tiefing yuh cousin bike so yuh could do a wheelie for Angeline up de hill, and laughing loud in de road at dat madman who does run amok when he hear de steam horn down in the borough yard, where Choko and Blackie used to wuk.

When Abu Bakr stage de coup a few years back, police lock up de country tight tight tight, but in my Trinidad is curfew party from six in the evening to six in the morning and if yuh cyah reach home yuh stay until six the next morning. Is nothing. Drinks flowing like water. ‘Oman still wining when de sun come up.

My Trinidad is waiting for nationwide blackout to listen to yuh uncle talk bout lagahou and douen and la diablesse and the white horse and lighting candle quick to have talent show in de dark with the neighbor children.

My Trinidad, sweet. Sweeter now that I almost did not see you again.

I hope you do not think me selfish or needlessly self-indulgent when I say these things. It is an affliction of my particular profession that we are sometimes this way: navel-gazing to the point of crippling myopia. I say them not to elicit sympathy in you, my audience (though, if it occurs, I will be glad that I have your attention), nor entertain you merely for the sake of it, but rather to let you know what has become the impetus—the spark, literally—for my remarks this evening.

It is the case with this and other tragedies—or “almost tragedies”—that we are forced to reflect on the fragility of our lives and the things that matter most and least to us. We think of our children, whether we will see them grow up and how, of what kind of life they will have without us. We think of how things are and of how we wish them to be. I say “we” because I know I am not unique when I say this, and that lack of uniqueness, that generalizability of experiences that cause us to reflect on ourselves—and on those things that matter—is what makes us collectively special. This is neither irony nor paradox, but a simple fact to which so many of us cling: Identity.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that I almost died the other night, so I want to be very deliberate in what I say to you now. I trust that some (or a great deal) of it will not be new to you, so I will proceed with the confidence that you will feel neither ambushed nor unduly castigated by the idea(s) that follow. If I am preaching to the choir, I hope you sing along when the chorus comes. If not, then I hope you at least catch the beat.

The topic at hand is rhetoric. Specifically, Caribbean rhetoric on the vernacular level, about which I will speak very briefly.

As I understand it, rhetoric is social activity—a consideration of the range of expressions and expressive features that shape our existence, as well as the orientation of those expressions toward the realization of a more meaningful life. It is the practice of conscious citizenship. Truthfully, though, I am not so much interested in whether people understand the intricacies of rhetoric on an academic level, but rather that they understand it enough to tune the dynamics of their interactions toward change. We know well enough that there is a need for change. Stand anywhere, throw a stone in any direction, and you will most certainly hit a problem. The question, then, is how? How is as much a question of process as of acknowledging the legacy of hegemony that many of us have cultivated—or have had cultivated for us—like myth, so much that far too many of us have learned to disregard not only the complexity of the normal, but also the impulse to find the language for it.

[As I note in Tropic Tendencies,] “Vernacular rhetorical activity in the Classical Tradition was viewed as a basic responsibility, which was dutifully enacted in Athenian society as a right of civic belonging—one could not be a citizen in name only, it had to be practiced. But while this may be true of all rhetorical interactions in democratic societies (or societies that believe themselves to be democratic) that go from Antiquity onward into our times, Caribbean vernacular practitioners were faced with a serious rhetorical problem—one that is underscored by Gerard Hauser’s idea that ‘publics are emergences manifested through vernacular rhetoric.’[i] The presumption is contingent not only on the fundamental visibility of that public, but also on the willing reception of an audience. ‘If we were to listen,’ he writes, ‘these are the ways by which they make their opinions felt”[ii]—or, to assimilate John Shotter’s more poignant stipulation, ‘if we can let them instruct us in how to see them.’[iii] The dynamic he describes is, unfortunately, not generalizable and reflective more of privilege than the likelihood of vernacular equity. Historically, black bodies of the colonial underclass did not have the privilege of taking citizenship for granted—rather, the status of citizenship was a thing to be granted (by birth primarily and, secondarily, by decree), not (as we would like to believe) asserted primarily through loud, insurgent, or violent means. Belonging was limited to the virtual invisibility of second-class citizenship.”

This is simply not sufficient for me—and, if I may be presumptuous, not sufficient for many of the people on whose behalf I strive.

As you have seen, I am often inclined to view aspects of my culture with a degree of nostalgia. On social media, the most public of the forums, I often (very often) remark on my need for roti, or oxtail, or sorrel, among other things. The occasional kurma, perhaps. Fudge. When the music plays, I find little contradiction in moving my body to forget the troubles of my life. But none of that can last very long for me, for though I am beset by nostalgic impulses, I find that I must compartmentalize them for the urgencies that require my direct attention. Such urgencies include the illusions of upward mobility, of opportunity for some and not for others, the blind and deliberate luck of having when others do not have, of earning by the sweat of our brow and the sweat on the brows of others. The stalemate of false binaries—us and them, rich and poor, rum and roti, African and Indian, nigger and coolie. Those of us who see our needs marginalized and are forced to choose a side in cruel compromise.

Let me be clear: I am no prodigal. You will see that my return is not to bestow any particular gift on those who have missed it, but to continue the search for what I had left this place to go in search of. Now I return to the scene of the loss to ascertain the shape of that hurt. With me, I bring a theory that is linked—essentially, inextricably—to practice.

I come from a land where mothers and daughters resemble because they both look young, or old. I have seen these mothers walking barefoot with their naked children. I have bathed in the sea and watched the waves wash on rolling rocks with a rhythm I can set my heartbeat to. I have seen a gang of corbeaux pick relentlessly at the rotting carcass of a dog, as it lay half-covered in the shade. These things and more I have seen. Each of them, in a way, representative of what Trinidad is, of what it has become: an identity held together by a stubborn, indomitable pride; an untamed, untamable beauty entrenched in itself, despite the comings and goings of the day and its difficulties; a people in limbo, locked (it would seem) halfway between emancipation and independence, so tired of writhing that many of us drop from exhaustion and have our bones picked at by those who claim to love us. There are many other metaphors I can use that will either serve as compliment or insult. No man is an island, to be sure, but neither should he be driftwood. Only because driftwood is subject to the mercies and whims of the tides and the fascination of beachcombers who find the driftwood partially desiccated in the chastening sun.

We have come a long way, some would argue, but as we look around us, the conditions tell a different story. Indeed, they suggest that we have not come very far at all.

It now becomes necessary to reject the tendency to emphasize struggle as the illusory fulcrum of Caribbean expression and view it, instead, as a rhetorical situation to which subjects are obliged to respond, react, negotiate, and improvise. The basic point being: situations of struggle are shifting all the time; our ability to confront and navigate, negotiate and transcend, are dependent on adaptability, as well as the reconceptualization of historical responses. A key example of such reconceptualization involves the need to engage directly in our collective decolonization, rather than entrust that responsibility to a government or some other institution.

Of course, one of the challenges with decolonization is that it very closely resembles trauma. This is because there is no indication that the outcome would be much different—except for a clear conception of what must come after. The distinction, in short, is that it must include a vision, one that operates in contradistinction to the illusions we have come to prefer. On a smaller scale, it feels very much like heartbreak. For one or two people, healing is a matter of therapy—of finding the sympathetic ear of a friend, or maybe finding a new lover in whom to place one’s energy. At the very least, some comfort comes from talking about it. On a national scale, the dynamics are similar, except there’s no replacement lover. All you have is the reality of your experience, the identity that—no matter where you go—is there with you. There is no escape, no excuse that you can make for why it failed. And you must now contend with the fact that where you are demands that you know who you are. We must contend with the fact that the illusion of a time we have longed for is no longer sufficient. But, in rejecting the illusion, we find that we inevitably come to face the very crisis that our actions have attempted to deny. We are forced to ask (both ourselves and each other) who we are. Forced to ask what makes us and our ways uniquely what they are. And why.

If you notice that I compare the work we must do to that of one who recovers from heartbreak, it is because of how I imagine one’s love of country and the role of citizenship in the understanding, reception, and expression of that love. In citizenship’s infancy, when it is still quite young, the love one has must necessarily be what it is: unquestioning, unconditional, uncritical. It must be, in a sense, perfect and above reproach precisely because it is new. My remembrances of Trinidad. It moves me deeply, still. And I am obliged to move with it. There are dangers about. I know there are.

So let me close with this:

Nostalgia that turns only inward yields little for a project in rhetoric. [Indeed, we must] counteract the tendency to subscribe to a nostalgic view of a people and their practices…allow[ing them] to move past the inexplicable sense of loss and the cognitive dissonance between past and present that can too often forestall pragmatist approaches to consequence by coloring experience solely in romantic, exotic, or purist terms.

I must recognize my limitations. I am a rhetorician, not a politician. I am not able to speak for you, but I long to speak with you. If you let me, I can carve out additional spaces, in multiple modes, in which you can speak for yourselves. I can help you find the language, but only if you let me.

Only if you let me.

 

 


 

[i] Hauser, Vernacular Voices, 14.
[ii] Hauser, Vernacular Voices, 11.
[iii] Shotter, “Creating Real Presences,” 275.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Mom

Mama’s Boy

Or, a Requiem for Unavoidable Cruelties

“Language is so wonderful, so deceitful.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return
“Sometimes my life seems so surreal,
I feel like I’m living in a Haitian painting.”
David Rudder, “Crossroads”

I.

The other day, I had an opportunity to hear parts of a conversation two people were having about me. I won’t go into many details, except to say that the range of insults was truly, utterly, comprehensive. Parsing the “What kind of a person does this?” and “What kind of a person does that?”, the innumerable LOLs, LMAOs, SMHs, and their (somewhat rarer) superlative SMFHs, I would soon come to find that nothing would be spared in my dismantling. Even my teeth—as the yellowing telegraphs of my chain-smoking during grad school and at other times before and since then—passed seamlessly in the vituperative rush. I was, simultaneously, a piece of shit, the biggest, most pathetic joke, and the saddest, most disgusting waste of potential they’d ever had the misfortune to encounter. I was misfortune itself. An inevitable hashtag, disappointment incarnate.

In short, I was the Devil.

It hurt to hear these things, of course (though I admit there was more than a little masochism in it). Some cruelties are unavoidable—best just to face them. I thought of my mother and how I’d been taunted in the past with telling her too much. If she had heard what I heard, she would’ve denied the things her son had done, rejected outrageous things he was accused of doing, and wept at the casual nastiness of the things being said about him. Exaggeration or not (and a good deal of it was), I imagine she’d dismiss it all on the basis that it was, quite simply, impossible.

“Not my son! Not Kevin.”
“I mean, he has his ways,” she’d probably say, “but that, that’s just too much.”
And they’d respond, harmonizing like an alto and soprano warming their voices for a duet after talking for hours, “Lady, you don’t know the half of it. Your son…”

She’d want to come to my aid and offer comfort, as mothers do, to save me in spite of everything—in spite of myself. And I, the imperfect only son of this single mother, would both long for and prevent the comfort she would try to give. (We’d grown apart when she left Trinidad in 1985 for New York. I stayed with my aunt Marjorie until I got a visa in 1989.) It would be an act of kindness and of conscience, one of the few I’d be capable of, according to my dismantlers, but one that I’d consider necessary because I wouldn’t deserve it. Not in this case. My embarrassment was not enough to warrant hers. She’d been through enough, and I figured she’d be better off guessing what happened and having me deny it. If some cruelties are unavoidable, other cruelties (like this one) are decidedly the opposite of that.

You see, parents—mothers, especially—are endowed with a talent for denial that can only be described as sublime. This isn’t a verified fact, of course, but rather a feeling, something along the lines of instinct: your child is in pain, self-inflicted or otherwise, and, well, you go a little mad, ignoring everything else until the pain, its cause, and its perpetrator are all eliminated. My mother doesn’t need the grief, and I think I’m strong enough to take a little roughing up.

I’m not going to say it wasn’t painful hearing these things. I think anyone would be hurt by it. Vicious things are, by design, hurtful things. That was the point: to make it hurt, to say things that would cause damage that was proportional to the litany of offenses they exchanged; to say things that were, in some way, intended to cause me shame and, in so doing, restore a sense of balance to the situation—every compliment, the mystics will tell you, is followed by an insult. These are not the impulsive outbursts of a teenager or the local imbecile.

So yes. It hurt like hell, which, I suppose, is par for the course, especially if the devil’s playing the back nine.

I wanted to hate them for what they said about me. (But this was justice, wasn’t it? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a word for a word, a lie for a lie?) I couldn’t really keep the anger going, though, not when I fell into a hole I should’ve known better than to dig for myself with my words. Lies beget lies, missteps lead to pitfalls. I got the point.

It was mainly reflex, a response to the initial sting of a betrayal I had set in motion. Now, forced to be a little more honest with myself, I determined that this particular guilt trip was going to be a short one. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, but then again, the same is true of a great many things. I’m not unique in this, am I?

Life, right? What’re you gonna do?

Bad decisions—and not-so-bad ones—can lead to bad outcomes. You don’t set out to get to this point; no, this is somewhere you end up. Best laid plans being left to gather dust, you come to accept that it is what it is, and you learn to make do with what you have—and, more importantly, not to dwell on what you’ve lost. It just wasn’t for you. Well, that’s what you say, anyway, to keep from breaking. But the rule still holds—for doctors and everyone else—that, first and above all things, you should do no harm. Not to others, if you can help it, but definitely not to yourself. Put another way, you have no business digging your own grave. It’s foolish—one of the more idiotic misappropriations of your god-given right to be self-centered and to seek your own best interests without hesitation or apology. To me, this is energy that would be better spent doing other things. Theorizing on rhetoric is a good one. I try to do that a lot. Thinking. Writing. This is me “making do.”

Another is owning the fact that you have, in no small way, f*cked up, that you will take the time to reflect on having f*cked up, and that you will make meaningful efforts to avoid f*cking up in the same way at some unspecified point in the future. That is, unless you want to come away from yet another catastrophe having learned nothing.

So this is what happened:
I f*cked up. My ego has conspired against me. I overshot.
I admit it.
And I was consequently dismantled.

Being human and having something of a conscience, there’s always going to be room for self-pity, but I’ve never been comfortable with the risk it entailed. You see, if you spend enough time licking your wounds, you end up with a taste for your own blood—a tendency toward self-loathing. And that’s a very, very dangerous thing. My heart is still breaking, and I’m sure if I sat still, I could hear it. So I prefer to get right to the reflection (if that’s okay). It starts, in this instance, with rain.

 

II.

Ever since I was a child, I had always “had a thing” for the rain. I say that as if I’m describing a crush and not a deep, abiding love.

“But, in a way,” you’re probably wondering, “how could it be love in the real sense?”
“I mean, come on! As a child, a child, what could he know about such things?” But you’d only be half-right.

I’ve long known that if it’s done well, love (like most things) is going to defy your understanding. It’s supposed to. If we’re lucky, we’re left dealing with its effects, its consequences. Its symptoms. It fills and empties us, our souls expanding and contracting like breath, or the bellows of a furnace. Gibran, I think, says it better. Neruda, too. It forces us—love, that is—to look for language, to bind ourselves to metaphors, to think ourselves poets, to lie and lie. As a child, I knew only the impermanence of it, how it came with a promise only to pass, like an infatuation, into the Gulf of Paria, then to press itself slowly, coolly, onto the horizon. But knew love I did. For what other than love could explain the way trees, with their rustling, mimicked rain’s crawl across the expanse of San Fernando? The sound of it dancing on the galvanized roofs, sometimes seeming to fall with such intention that it would be easy to think,

This. This is what it must sound like—and feel like—if God were tuning a tenor pan.

You could easily imagine rain as the gentler tool, an alternative to the thunder that broke open the silences around you, letting dogs loose with their barking, desperate and terrified.

I loved the rain so much that I found a way to work it into my first official essay. Standard One. Boys RC. 1981. My teacher, Mrs. Alexander, asked us to write an essay describing an activity during our summer vacation. Mine had been spent on the beach—Los Iros—with my aunt Lystra, Alvarez, her common-law husband, and her children, while my mother stayed behind in San Fernando and worked. I missed her, but I still had a pretty good time. I remember writing for Mrs. Alexander,

When I came out of the sea, the rain was chooking me.

She later “corrected” it.

Not “chooking.”
“Sticking.” The rain was sticking me.

I didn’t argue–couldn’t, really. It would’ve been pointless: to use the identical response as a comeback is a bad idea.

“Why couldn’t I use chooking instead of sticking?” I imagined the conversation going, hearing the argument delivered in my daughter’s voice, “The rain wasn’t ‘sticking’ me–‘sticking’ denoting an action, rather than the sensation that ‘chooking’ was intended to convey.”
And Mrs. Alexander? What would she say?
“…” most likely.

It wasn’t my place. I may have known intuitively about love at 7, but if you had asked me about—oh, I don’t know—the “validity of code-switching as a rhetorical strategy” or how to “navigate bidialectalism, eradicationism, and other forms of silencing in the postcolonial classroom, with its practitioners’ loyal subscription to current-traditional pedagogy,” I would’ve been sure to draw a blank, my eyes glazing over like the warm buns or coconut tarts from Steve’s Bakery.

Besides, Mrs. Alexander, who I idolized even more than my two previous teachers, Mrs. Darling and Ms. Wong-Wai, was right in all things. Even Ms. Wong-Wai, whose sister had a child with my murdered uncle Collins, couldn’t elicit the loyalty I had to Mrs. Alexander. And as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t learning how to write, but to give the readers whatever they needed. I was learning, in other words, to negotiate.

In class: sticking. Everywhere else: chooking.

“Yes, Mrs. Alexander. Thanks!” Or, rather, Tanks, Miss Alexanda! As long as I got to make my point about the rain, at home in her peculiar brand of pathos and admiration, what did I care what language I used? Small price to pay. What did it matter that “stick” doesn’t appear as a synonym for “chook” in the Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago? “Prick” appears, but it doesn’t take a genius to see why Mrs. Alexander would have chosen not to share it. She meant well. They all did. More than 30 years later, though somewhat entrenched in my current life, I can quell my pretensions long enough to invoke Harris’s defense of Alice in my own defense of Mrs. Alexander and teachers like her. Women like her. He wrote:

Some say she was a fraud that only a colonial, barren age could fabricate. I say she was the catalyst of fame at the heart of families of non-existence. She was the mystery of genius within the most unpropitious economic circumstances, a mystery that ran deeper than proof or parody of the evolution of limbo into heaven (37-8).

Harris wasn’t referring to teachers but to something far bigger. (Which, I don’t mind saying, is the point.) For Harris, Alice was the physical manifestation of a concept, both deeper and more expansive than the circumstances that bound her. In essence, she was like my mother—not perfect at all, but boundless. Back then, I might only have admitted that I loved her with the irrationality of a child who required neither explanation nor language for what he knew to be true. She was impressed with me. That made my mother proud. And, at 7, that was enough for me.

Inevitably, though, it is the case with this, as with everything else, that I would grow into a command of language that would come to ensnare me in the end, tying me up and dropping me head first in the hole I had dug with it.

“Wait! He said what?”

Funny how we learn to forfeit our own best interests, how we learn (sometimes above all other things) to betray and outsmart ourselves. Funny what brings us to our senses. Funny. The LOLs gather in my head like vernacular prophecies. I remember what it was that first brought me to this place. I know exactly where I am. I’ve been here before–at a crossroads, forcing myself to ask (again) what the hell am I doing—and what am I doing here—when all I want to do is run. To just get away when nostalgia for a better version of myself turns out to be nothing but an illusion.

 

III.

I remember running barefoot in the rain late one night with my mother.

Cats and dogs.
Bucket-a-drop.

Lystra and Alvarez were fighting again. Most of it was standard, if you know about that sort of thing. There was the leaking roof, the buckets kicked aside, the slippery varnished floor. And then, the private warfare turned public, pouring out into the yard, where Glory, Jennifer, Miss Baby, Miss Olive, Miss Phyllis, Uncle Babsie, and their children could see. It was a bad idea to get involved. Doh get in man and woman business, we’re often warned. Doh get in dat.

She man bussing she tail? Doh get in dat.
He wife horning him? Doh get in dat.
Yuh brother feelin up he son? Doh get in dat.
Yuh sister pregnant fun she father? Doh get in dat.
Dis one chop dat one, den shoot de other one? Doh get in dat.
Anybody could say any blasted thing dey want to whoever dey want and however dey damn well please. Doh. Get. In. Dat.

A simple lesson, really.

When you grow neck-deep in a culture of misogyny, patriarchy, self-hate, and abuse of every imaginable form, this is an effective shorthand for abusers and the abused, for the lookers-on and the potential jumpers-in: stay away, or something worse could happen to you.

Stay away.

I was about 7 years old. Still in Standard One and not yet cynical. She wore a cotton nightie, and I, little and black, wore a t-shirt and underwear—a jersey and jockey shorts. I don’t remember the color (I’ve tried), but my mother’s nightie was light blue. I was maybe about 70 pounds—soaking wet, as luck would have it.

Rain has a way of washing things away—illusions, for example—and making visible the things that happen in the dark. It leaves nostalgia waterlogged, turning skins, and other surfaces, reflective. In the rain that night, embattled bodies shone. Tears of anger and pain only seemed to fade but, in truth, could fall more freely then. Blood could wash off, and the lines drawn out in the yard could run more defiantly parallel and perpendicular to the imagined welts that rose in threats across the backs and faces of the fighters.

Then there was the emancipated tongue: the shouting, the accusations, the cursing, the inevitable dismantling. The epileptic contagion of fear.

So there she was, my mother, testing it, refusing to stay away as she’d been warned, refusing to shut her “so and so” mouth when everything went to hell, when (as we sometimes say) everything turn ole mas. And there I was, screaming as my mother screamed, the two of us in full voice like the warmed up alto and soprano, bawling barefoot in the yard, bawling in unison, conspiring in fear for my mother’s life.

And there we were: running the mile and a half to Aunty Marjorie’s house, hand in hand and shining, the rain chooking the exposed parts of our skins.

Out the yard.
Down the steps.
Left on Carib Street
Right on Upper Hillside Street
Left on Rushworth
Right on Blanche Fraser
Left on this, right on that, quick left, right.
Right.
Left.

Safe.

I never told Mrs. Alexander why I stayed home the next day—or the day after that.

 

IV.

I went home for Lystra’s funeral in 2011. Never blessed to sit beside a conversationalist, I took the trip in silence, thinking of my mother and how I learned to put one foot in front of the other. Cancer. I went first to Marjorie’s house—still a refuge. That house, duck egg green once but now a different color. I remember being so exhausted that I just collapsed, with Marjorie, Evelyn (my mom’s twin sister), and Jeanne (who everyone calls Dolly) scrambling to hold me up. I fell, loose like a puppet whose strings were suddenly cut.

I bawled until I passed out breathless on the verandah, my forehead sapped with bay rum.
“Yuh bawl like a cow, boy, Kevin!” my cousin’s almost common-law wife would say as I came to. “Like a cow!”
Strangers passed.

Last year, before going in, I sat for a few minutes in front of it, casting my gaze toward San Fernando Hill, squinting but grateful for the rain that obscured the shadow of this quarried hulk in whose shadow I had grown up, down whose slopes I ran, with my mother, for our lives. Running from the language that made me both coward and fighter, one who knows that the tongue can cast ripples that left us barefoot and shining in the rain, skipping puddles for fear of stones or glass, in fear for having gotten in where custom had corrupted itself. I thought, looking at this gray stain on a lighter gray sky, of nostalgia. I saw it, and the memories conjured with it, fade away like a kind of innocence. On my street, an evergreen points skyward. Ramjohn’s house is repainted, a new barbed wire fence separating it from the Hoseins. But I could never go back. Not really. That was the lesson I learned at 7, loving something and seeing that love destroyed.

In the end, I want to say that it’s basic: You don’t just get to say whatever the hell you want just because you can; understand that and you’ll see that there’s a lesson here that’s a bit more subtle than giving liberties to your tongue and fighting pointless battles at the risk of being heard. But it’s not that simple. You have to decide.

As for me, I’m listening to the rain again, thinking of justice, negotiation, and the battles worth fighting.

Of beginnings and endings. Of the things that happen in the in-between.
Of love and legacies. And the fact that I am, before anything else, my mother’s son.

 

See

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging. Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2001.
Harris, Wilson. The Carnival Trilogy. London: Faber & Faber, 1993.
Rudder, David. “Crossroads,” on Tales from a Strange Land. Lypsoland, 1996.
Winer, Lise. Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago. Canada: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2009.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Carib House, San Fernando (2012)

Carib House, San Fernando (2012)

What do children care of history? Some will say that growing up, if we do it well, is about  experiencing life on our way to somewhere else–to being grown up–without being so distracted by that life that we forget to grow. That sounds like nonsense to me. Some things we miss, others we recall. And we are left to sift through the pleasures and traumas for the meaningful things that rest, leaning to one side like obstinate milestones, along our half-forgotten path. And while we can’t, or aren’t supposed to remember everything, the same could be said of forgetting–that is, forgetting, like remembering, should be subject to selection.

Okay, that sounds maybe kinda like nonsense, too. Maybe.
I’m working some stuff out, here. ‘llow meh, nah.
Time to go to the archives.

In the vast catalog of regrets for things I didn’t do as a child, for some reason more times running around the massive pillars beneath the Carib House in San Fernando is absent. Not surprisingly and not for any profound reason. Pillars offer little in the way of excitement: they are too easily negotiable, limiting our movements only to the left or to the right; they offer little in the way of a hiding place (after, say one or two times before being a default place to be checked); and (because of their immovability) cannot be bent, broken, thrown. In a word: Boring.

Carib House, ca 1965 (Angelo Bissessarsingh)
Carib House, ca 1965 (Angelo Bissessarsingh)

See?

In my day, the house wasn’t painted–pretty much looked like it did in 1965.  It was restored in the 80s, but it retained the gritty, unfinished texture of its late 19th century youth when Samuel Atherly, a Bajan stonemason, was thought to have built it on a lot first occupied by Charles Le Cadre–this according to Geoffrey Maclean. Atherly apparently had a thing for arches. (As far as load-bearing structures go, arches are certainly up there, but I think they were about as interesting to me as the pillars that anchored them.)

Mom, Brother Austin's House Front Steps, ca 1960
Mom, Brother Austin’s House Front Steps, ca 1960

So why the Carib House?

I’m getting to that–there’s a bit of a story involved. If I’m being honest, it never moved me in quite the same way as the other structures do in the post on early articulations about the rhetoric of houses. For example, when I mention Brother Austin’s house, an image of my mother comes to mind. She’s wearing a can-can dress on her birthday. She’s about thirteen. What also comes to mind is a photograph I took a few decades later, when I went home in 2003. You’ll see that not much had changed, except perhaps the wooden panels had been replaced by galvanized sheets, the plants and the wooden/wire bleach are gone, the concrete casting at the base of the pillars had worn away, like the gumline of a smoker. My mother was, by that time, in New York, struggling.

But notice the arch, the fixed jalousies.

Looking at where my mother stood, by then more than half a life away from me, I notice the implicit connection, the extension of perspectives across fading decades.

Brother Austin's House, Front Steps, 2003
Brother Austin’s House, Front Steps, 2003

You’d find that I’m operating in a different rhetorical–and, let’s face it, aesthetic–register than would make the Carib House meaningful to me. I make no attempt to mask this fact. Arches notwithstanding, there’s an emotional connection–a pathos, even with the houses whose occupants I do not know–that just isn’t there with the Carib House. Even if you were to excuse the contrivance of visions–whoever took the picture of my mother, she in the former, me behind the camera of the latter, she present like a suggestion in the latter but not visible, and so on–reading my history selfishly means that I am restricted by context. And context, at least in this case, is significantly determined by what I’m able to recall and reconstruct. You know, meaning-making, and all that.

To me, to many of us running around its pillars, or walking beneath it on our way to somewhere, it carried as much wonder as an elevated block. The “somewhere else” places–those places we had to get to in the unhurried pace of our late 20th century youth–were more interesting. Like Marryat Street, a short distance away, where a piano repairman lived like a solo virtuoso troll in a manmade cave near the corner, across the street from the doctor’s office where my mother worked for a while. Or, nearer, finding ourselves by Alistair and Lester, noted undesirables, against whom we were taught (like fools) to cast a discriminating eye. They both played pan in the adjacent yard (though, by that time, badjohns like Mousey and them had mostly quieted down, the cutlass and bottle more of a rarity than a norm, even at carnival). Come to think  of it, our relationship to the supernatural is like that, as well, isn’t it? I doubt we ever acknowledged, with the same attention we paid the jumbie bird, that legacy of obeah that was embedded in the crossroads like a bottle cap in asphalt.

But this post is not only about these things, or the memories of people and places and things that can be linked, like a rabid network, from one to the other until we (the erstwhile livers of those memories) are related either by indelibly traceable blood or, as indelibly, by myth. Essentialist, vernacular mitochondrial, or something technical like it.

This is also about being at the crossroads of my relationship with the past I’ve left and that which remains, about the everyday monuments I’ve missed, about how easily elements of history can get forgotten, and how careless I’ve been with the histories I’ve had at my disposal. It’s not a cautionary tale, per se, though I appear to pose the moral early–and in the form of a question, no less. But when I look at the Carib House as it is now–the roof has been replaced, the original attic space halved, the windows have been redone, the ventilating function of louvres taken over by bricks, the sandy texture now painted–I wonder. What to do when the apparent significance of an archive seems to skip a generation? What happens when the attempt to reflect yields an image that is barely recognizable? The point is not that no one is going to do the looking for you. That’s obvious. Tell your own story, and collect the materials necessary to do that. The point is not that there is no reason to wait. That’s also obvious.

The point is that there’s a photograph of me, my cousin Leon, and his then girlfriend Natasha posing (me like a fool) with the Carib House in the background. It’s somewhere. I’ve looked, but I don’t know where it is. And as I consider the monuments that stand at crossroads, I fear what would happen if I did find the photograph and had no idea what there was to see–or that I was ever even there.

Carib House, San Fernando (2012)
Carib House, San Fernando (2012)

That is the point.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Grenada Marketplace, St. Georges, 1984

Grenada Marketplace, St. Georges (1984)

So when I began scribbling about Caribbean rhetoric, one of the impulses was to think of it in relation (or contrast) to Greek precedents. Understandable, I figured.

We are not Greek.

It helped me focus early on, especially in those areas of differentiation–that is, what makes Caribbean rhetoric Caribbean as opposed to being just a substitution of Greek terms for Caribbean ones. (I discuss that at length in Tropic Tendencies, as well as the ways what we do on a vernacular level constitutes rhetorical activity at its most complex.) The flipside to such differentiation is the all-too-obvious similarity–the kind of similarity that works so well it could pass for substitution. But what can you do? Once you recognize that rhetoric is social activity, and that social activity is common to all people, it’s kinda pointless to deny that there are gonna be areas of overlap. Tropes, themes, concepts, and logics all have their corollary because they all have us as their common denominator. Now, this isn’t an essay or a lecture, but here’s an example of what I mean. In the application of classical rhetorical concepts, a major one is that of the Agorá (Ἀγορά)–a public place, a marketplace where people congregate to buy, sell, share, gossip, learn. The agorá shapes social interactions in the simplest way possible: it provides a space for those interactions to occur. It contextualizes. Like a yard or a marketplace in town.

No rhetoric lesson necessary. You see where I’m going with this.

Grenada Marketplace, St. Georges, 1984
Grenada Marketplace, St. Georges, 1984 (Arlene M. Roberts, used by permission)

This photograph of a Grenadian agorá was taken by attorney Arlene M. Roberts (@arlenemroberts) when she visited St. Georges for a weekend–she wanted to go teach for a year following a call for volunteers. I won’t go into Arlene’s story because it’s hers to tell. It’s pretty amazing, though. I hope she tells it soon. Anyway, she started following me on Twitter (@drbrowne) after finding me live-tweeting panels from the Caribbean Studies Association conference earlier this month (#csa2013).

After hours of conversation, I had the privilege of seeing her remarkable archive. Of the hundreds of images I got to look at (and touch with great care!), this one struck a rather poignant note. As typical as it is iconic, the image seems to possess a degree of relevance–even urgency–that, in my view, precedes more esoteric considerations of the agorá and its icons–

black bodies, green bananas, barrels, brooms, wooden stalls, ground provision, polyester parasols

–that comprise the scene. Taken less than a year after the Revolution’s failure and the US “intervasion” on October 25, 1983, it is an exemplary text–a staging point, if you like–for extending the scope of a personal digital archiving project as a contemporary recuperative practice in Caribbean rhetoric. What does this mean? Well, to begin with, it enables us–those of us interested in the exploration, preservation of, and reflection on the everyday lives of our ancestors, our elders, and ourselves–to ask questions that could actually yield answers.

We are in need of answers.

Like I said, this isn’t a lecture or an essay, but I do have another example. A common refrain during the conference was that many of the Grenadian youth have no idea that a revolution even occurred–far fewer understand their place in the legacy of leftist thought in the region. 1983 was 30 years ago, after all. The unraveling in Guyana in 1953 was 60 years. That’s a whole lifetime, isn’t it? Nowadays, as the story goes, it might as well be ancient history for people caught up this “fast-paced, globalized world.” And this may be the problem: that the past is viewed as history, and history is viewed synonymously as something that happened a long time ago, ended when it did, and has no bearing on our lives today.

We know that’s not true–that history doesn’t matter–but we also know there’s a big difference between knowing something and acting on what is known. The problem may be that the context has gotten lost. I could be wrong that this is the problem, or part of the problem, but it does allow us to ask other questions about context itself, questions that may allow us to reclaim it and reframe it for our purpose.

If we begin here, with a photograph like this; with an agorá not so far removed from our contemporary cultural memory; a market scene bustling a year after Maurice Bishop, Unison Whiteman, Norris Bain, Jacqueline Creft had been executed with others at Fort Rupert (now Fort George); after a revolution had failed; a year after that failure was compounded by the presence of US troops; after Bishop’s body disappeared along with the dream of a Grenada that should have been, what do we find, and where do we find ourselves?

Hard to say, but the good thing about reflection is that it endows us with the benefit of knowing that context is not subject to the constraints we set for ourselves. Time spent reflecting is not a waste.

I’m no expert on the Revo–that should be clear enough. In fact, my primary concern is not the Revo as such but the people themselves, the ones we see and those we do not see but know were there. The ones who heard about it. Those who forgot it even happened. I don’t need to be an expert to know everyone was touched. You see where I’m going with this.

There’s a special kind of violation that comes with being touched and not knowing about it–a special kind of denial in appearing not to.

I won’t go on. There are many questions that can come up in the course of our examinations of images, archives, and texts we have at our disposal. I recall Merle Collins, who reminded us at her lecture that Grenada’s story is not only Grenada’s story but the story of the entire Caribbean. (I’d like to push it even further to include all marginalized people.) She was right, of course.

So look at the photograph (or one of relevance to you for whatever reason) and ask: Who do I see? And who, among those I see, do I recognize? Do I recognize anybody in it who is still alive? What can they tell me now? What other questions do I have about what I see? What other images can I locate–under the bed, in a box, a dusty album, the forgotten pictures of forgotten people–to do this kind of work?

Think about it. Write about it. Make an agorá of your own and invite others in to visit, to buy and sell, to share and learn. Share. Learn. We are in need of answers.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

1.

Thesis Statements (Of Sorts)

Cliches are cliches because they embody a recognizable logic, if not a basic truth that is as undeniable as it is annoying (particularly when used in small talk). Remixed, this particular one goes something like:

Ask any writer, any arranger of words, images, sound, or any of those combined, and you will hear that what we do is hard. Not for the faint of heart, pen, fingers, etc.

My colleagues and friends and students will readily attest, as will my Mom. As will I, for that matter. Despite a few decades proving the contrary, many still seem to think that the text emerges already polished from the mind of the writer whose intelligence, sophistication, and experience have all cooperated on the writer’s behalf (and conspired against the student/writer who, once assigned to write on this or that matter of crucial import, must now struggle to do so at the risk of grades and the like).

My sympathy is there–with the struggling writer–because as a writing teacher, I have had both cause and occasion to consider my own process–though, only to minimal effect.

Nevertheless, as part of that consideration, I’ve realized that I’ve taken a number of things for granted–specific to my point in this post, I’ve taken for granted the fact that all the texts I produce have meaning in terms of conception, methodology, and practice. I don’t know why I’ve let that fact slide, especially when knowing, and acting on what is known, is at the heart of my work and of my conception of what we do as vernacular practitioners of every life. Have I forgotten that I intend to practice what I…theorize? No. Have I decided to recant and start anew with an idea that what we do amounts to nothing? No. Is it an internal contradiction I’ve yet to resolve? I don’t think so. Me and my demons are good. The reason is frightfully mundane, I’m afraid: I got caught up. Doing things. Living. Trying to make ends meet. Simple as that. Funny, I imagined this admission with a bit more flourish. I could try restating, but no.

I got caught up.

Now, with the impending release of Tropic Tendencies, I’m revisiting the latter parts of this circuitous path that I took to get to it. The book didn’t just happen–couldn’t just happen. These early articulations–the semi-literate scribblings in notebooks–ought not be relegated to the nether regions of untapped memory, dry-rotting in the mind like an unkept artifact.

Page One of Notebook One, 2008
Page One of Notebook One, 2008

Instead, I’m interested in whether anyone else would be interested in how this notion of Caribbean Rhetoric was originally articulated, how it developed, how it was turned into and on and away from itself, how the ethos of a Caribbean rhetorical theorist was able to coalesce in a recursive process of composition. It’s a huge presumption, I know, but the alternative is unacceptable to me. I’m also interested in having others join me, confident that their ideas and approaches to rhetoric are not only valid but essential. This begins with me doing what being caught up has trained me to do: to take for granted that the texts I have produced over the course of the last few years of thinking about Caribbean Rhetoric do in fact have meaning, that they ought to be preserved, shared, engaged with. It begins with Notebook One, Notebook TwoNotebook Three, and Notebook Four. It begins there because I don’t have a cool answer for why I do what I do, but I want people to know that it is being done. That’s the thing about vocations–that, strangely enough, doing is the ultimate articulation of that which you have been called to do. No cool answers. Only a bunch of flailing questions tethered, as it were, to a basic statement. On Page One of Notebook One, I write:

My idea is to posit Cbean rhetorical forms as the sine qua non of the superisland ethos.

We’ll see. We’ll see.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Grampadaddy's Hand, with Keys

Grampadaddy’s Hands

Everything we do is a placeholder for another work-in-progress.

De other day when ah was in Trinidad, ah take a chance to take some picture ah meh granfather hand. “Grampadaddy.”

Grampadaddy: a name ah make up when ah was a youth. There are no theories about that.

Anyhow, ah dey playing with de camera and end up adding a “magic pen” effect to de picture. And then Boom. Meh fascination with he hand finds its roots where most fascinations do: with things that strike the fancy, stir the imagination, but are hardly ever known. Those mysteries that form the parameters of your life, providing the yard for your consciousness to go and play around in without the risk of getting lost–well maybe a little lost, but not entirely.

Grampadaddy's Hand, with Keys
Grampadaddy’s Hand, with Keys, La Romaine, Trinidad, 2013 (“Magic Pen” Effect, Samsung Galaxy SIII)

It have a poem inside here fuh meh to write, eh, buh it ent come yet. Ah hatuh wait on it. In de meantime, ah thinking. Thinking bout home. Thinking bout which one ah dem vein ah come from. De poem coming. Ah coulda even kinda hear it jumping up inside meh head. Then again, was carnival season. Christmas did just done, and the speakers and them by the bars and them turn up loud.

The rhythms can deceive yuh. Yuh could get lost in them.

But if getting lost in the things that have conspired to make me is at the heart of my fascination, then I suppose Grampadaddy’s hand is as good a place as any to start to find my way. There:

Motive.

For those still left to consider whether there is a rhetoric here, and whether this particular inquiry of digitized/digital archiving aligns in any way with my scholarly interests and ambitions, I say there is discernible motive:

The urgency of finding a way. The implicit contingency of making a way on your grandfather’s veins where there seems to be no other way, at least none you could see on your own.

On top of that will probably come a more carefully crafted consideration of symbols, their actions, and the inherent tensions between their metonymic aspects and their metaphoric ones, the dynamics of composition–de degree to which this or that is embodied or is simply meant to evoke the body, mine or his, or whomever’s, as well as…etc., etc.

That will come because it must. Because that is what I do. It’s kinda my thing.

Fuh now, though, is only this hand, with some keys, digitized to show the veins.

And I good with that.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Us as Kids, San Fernando, Trinidad, 1976

Us as Kids (1976)

Us as Kids, San Fernando, Trinidad, 1976
Us as Kids, San Fernando, Trinidad, 1976

It is this simple: I want to be remembered. I look at this picture of myself and my cousins–Leonel on my right, Dionne to my left, Rhonda behind me, and Noel behind her–and feel sad that my nostalgia for other things is not as effective here. It shouldn’t be like that, but this is what it has come to.

It’s tempting, of course, to opt for the obvious symbolism as I grasp at straws for a language to explain what I mean. Symbolism, a domain I frequent. The matrix stands out (but, truthfully, it can scarcely receive more of a mention than this, reserved mostly for this or that conclave of skeptics and cynics with whom I tend to keep company from time to time). It’s enough to say that the framing was deliberate–perhaps as deliberate as the steel frame that taught us too well about gravity and texture. But this is how temptation works, I suppose. So it’s best to take it in stride.

The sadness is a trump card, though. A far better frame for my regrets, for things I miss and have missed. Funny how the regrets pile up in proportion to what we have not done, rather than the alterations we think we’ve made to history. No such luck, we find out. Often too late.

What happens then? When, having been put through the ringer, we come face to face with the stark limitations of an “all-too-humanness?” Hard to say conclusively, but (for me, at least) I turn to words. There’s a prophecy embedded somewhere in that: “turning to words.” A possible transformation. A wish. A story coming to pass (because, as the people say, What ent meet yuh ent pass yuh). So here it is: a project on a conception of the self whose beginnings are etched out in public, like an idea that through practice calls itself into account.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

“hands up, don’t shoot”

Originally posted on Gukira:

We all know that hands raised in the air at a moment of conflict indicate surrender. They say, “I’m unarmed” or “I’ve laid down my arms” and “please, do not harm me” and “I am in your power.” At least, those of us who watch tv and films, read cartoons and novels, track newspapers and magazines. This “I surrender” sign is a global vernacular, taught and circulated by children’s cartoons. (We might need to ask why children’s cartoons teach this vernacular.) And so, what is striking about “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as a chanted slogan and as printed words on handmade, often homemade, signs is that it indexes the failure of this bodily vernacular when performed by a black body, by a killable body. Blackness becomes the break in this global bodily vernacular, the error that makes this bodily action illegible, the disposability that renders the gesture irrelevant.

Blackness, after…

View original 372 more words

Murder trial set for Oct. 27 for suspects in slaying of Costa Rican conservationist Jairo Mora

Originally posted on Repeating Islands:

1014015_10201065505472683_1843300007_n

Seven men accused of killing Costa Rican sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora last year will stand trial on Oct. 27, the Prosecutor’s Office confirmed to The Tico Times today, as Lindsay Fendt reports for Tico Times. The trial, open to the public, will be held at a court in Limón on the country’s Caribbean coast, near where the murder took place.

The seven men, alleged poachers, are accused of kidnapping Mora along with four foreign volunteers at Moín Beach, near Limón, during the night of May 31, 2013. The volunteers escaped, but police found Mora’s naked and bruised body the next morning. The suspects, Felipe Arauz, Héctor Cash, Ernesto Enrique Centeno, William Delgado, José Bryan Quesada and brothers Darwin and Donald Alberto Salmón, have been in preventive detention since their arrests in July 2013.

For the original report go to http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/08/19/murder-trial-set-for-oct-27-for-suspects-in-slaying-of-costa-rican-conservationist-jairo-mora

View original

Film festival and National Gas Company celebrate Independence with free film screenings

Originally posted on Repeating Islands:

unnamed

The trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff) is presenting a series of film screenings to commemorate the 52nd anniversary of the country’s independence, sponsored by The National Gas Company.

The screenings take place over three days in San Fernando, Port of Spain and Tobago, respectively. All screenings are free and open to the public.

The first screening takes place on Thursday 28 August, in the observatory at the San Fernando Hill Recreational Centre, from 7.00pm. The films to be screened are the documentaries Julia & Joyce (Sonja Dumas/2010/60’), the story of two pioneers of dance in T&T, Julia Edwards and Joyce Kirton; and The Strange Luck of VS Naipaul (Adam Low/2008/78’), a portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning author.

unnamed-1

Then on Friday 29 August from 7.00pm, at the audiovisual room at NALIS in Port of Spain, there will be a screening of Fire in Babylon (Stevan Riley/2011/87’), the inspiring story of the…

View original 182 more words

ARC Magazine and NLS collaborate for (e)merge Art Fair

Originally posted on Repeating Islands:

5364b55e-c916-4cf1-b2ea-7074dfed035b

The fourth edition of (e)merge takes place October 2-5, 2014 at the Capitol Skyline Hotel in Washington, DC. The (e)merge art fair connects emerging-art professionals from around the globe with collectors, curators and cultural decision makers in Washington, DC.

New Local Space (Kingston, Jamaica) and ARC are collaborating on an exhibition at the art fair featuring work by James Cooper (Bermuda), Stephanie Cormier (Canada), Ian Deleón (Cuba/Brazil), Nadia Huggins (St. Vincent & the Grenadines), Leasho Johnson (Jamaica), Becca Kallem (Washington, DC), Mark King (Barbados), Oneika Russell (Jamaica), Anabel Vasquez Rodriguez (Puerto Rico), and Storm Saulter (Jamaica). The exhibition is curated by Deborah Anzinger, Holly Bynoe and Nicole Smythe-Johnson.

(e)merge’s presents two exhibition platforms to inspire a new echelon of art collectors and provide curatorial access to the latest movements in emerging art: the Gallery Platform features participating galleries in hotel rooms and other spaces on designated floors; he Artist Platform…

View original 32 more words

#SeeingBlue Remarks

image
Selections from Seeing Blue

I’d like to think of it as friendly advice, but the truth is that I’ve been given a few very clear instructions by those close to me for my presentation this evening. As a way to begin, I thought I’d share them with you so you would understand a little bit of what I’m going through up here. With a little help from my friends, a list was compiled:
1. Speak from the heart.
2. Write drunk, edit sober.
3. Don’t try to be deep, abstract, or unnecessarily complex.
4. Keep it short and sweet. Or at least short.
5. Do not, under any circumstances, try to tell any jokes. This is a very important day for you, no one has ever done this, and trust me, you are not that funny.
6. Seriously, you’re not.
7. If you must tell a joke—like if it’s an emergency or something—tell someone else’s.
8. If confused, see instruction number 5, 6, and 7.
9. Don’t curse.
10. Don’t read.

After thinking about all that was said to me with my best intentions at heart, I decided to take whatever advice was embedded in these instructions and ignore about 98% of it, choosing (as I often do) to go my own way and do my own thing. Sure, it leads to a great deal of suffering, the danger of making yourself necessary, of thinking yourself relevant. But these are the risks you face when you choose to be yourself, to let your voice be heard, to share with others what you consider a vision of the world—and to do so in the communities that help make up the world.

So I’ll begin with a joke.

A guy walks into a bar, orders a stag, meets with a guy everybody calls Jesus and asks if he could have a show about devils. On a Sunday.
The guy named Jesus, without missing a beat, says “A show about devils? On a Sunday?”
“Yeah, devils” says the guy who walks into the bar.
“Well,” says Jesus, “there’s only one problem with that. It have All Fours on Sunday, so if yuh want people to come, make sure yuh have it around that time. But doh go over, eh!”
“No problem,” said the guy, “no problem at all.”

And so, here we are.
Because, in a way, this is who we are, taking serious things to make joke, making light of things that otherwise would bear serious consequences for those involved (and those who think they may not be). We claim this truth about ourselves and watch our identity form around it. I am unable to smoothly resolve the contradiction, and this is a victory.

The challenge for us, as speakers, dancers, writers, thinkers, lovers, fighters, friends, enemies is whether we actually get the joke. Or better yet, it is our ability to know when joke is joke—and when joke is damn joke.

Because everybody know damn joke eh no joke.

And at the heart of that knowing is an understanding of rhetoric that is more important than the punchline or the performance.

What remains is for us to find ways to demonstrate that we not only know but understand ourselves and the power that resides in that understanding. Rhetoric is a social activity. It emerges from the conscious understanding of shared languages, experiences, and values (to name a few) and their subsequent expression in different situations—in different times. Issues of identity, race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship do not simply occur in the abstract. They are connected to lived realities. Our realities.

Thus, our considerations of rhetoric, rather than a series of purely esoteric inquiries, should always find their practical and situational grounding in the social milieux from which their rationales, urgencies, and outcomes emerged and within which they were executed. Honestly though, I am not so much interested in whether my people know what rhetoric is or isn’t—there’s a need for that, but the term is far less meaningful than the dynamics and outcomes of conscious practice.

My work in Paramin and in life is not simply about providing a forum for complaint and the airing of grievances, but rather the attempt to enact critique through the conscious enactment of culture and tradition. It relies on the active involvement of people—regular people—and sees value in every contribution—this is because I see nation-builiding as collaborative both in its nature and in its practice.

As a rhetorician, I respond not only to urges but to very clear—even obvious—urgencies in society. Let me give you an example: The notion that Caribbean society has declined is not just a matter of opinion but one of fact. And herein lies one of the more troubling issues confronting the region and (in my view) hindering its fullest potential: that is, these facts are too often referred to with resignation and nonchalance—treated as a norm that will eventually change because, well, “it can’t stay this way forever.”

This is not the case when one finds oneself in Paramin. Like all places, Paramin is unique. And myths of Stay Home and Stay Here aside, it is because of the people who call it home that I am here. And I don’t mean to refer to some far away place, a mythical height among the clouds of Trinidad—though it certainly is that. Rather, I mean a place that is real and not the creation of some misplaced nostalgia. In fact, when nostalgia has proven as much a disappointment as any other fantasy in light of things as they are, we have little choice but to confront the inadequacy of our misgivings and—finaly—embrace the shock of unadorned misrecognition. This is what I see when I look at a Blue Devil. I am reminded, in the performance of the monstrous that the word “monster” comes from a word that means to warn. And in that warning is an element of instruction—of teaching. The monstrous thing we fear, or ridicule out of fear, or chastise out of scorn, or marvel at when bathed in pitch oil we emerge from the carnival having seen men breathe and eat fire.

They have something to teach us.

There is tradition, of course, as our remembrances of history will tell us that the Blue Devils are a variant of the Jab Molassie, that they recall a history of slavery and masked protest, that they took the Negue Jadin from the white plantocracy who had previously been using it as a way to make themselves anonymous. These symbols are familiar—indeed, impermanence, as a major consideration of the carnival and the carnivalesque, is passe once you become accustomed to loss.

So you show me a set ah dutty mas, man eating raw shark and pulling fig tree up from the root, woman spitting blood, and I will show you makers of magic, forgers of weapons held beneath the skin. I will show you yourselves and ask you to do the asking of a culture that is far too open for the taking and to which we are sometimes slow in giving.

And what of the contemporary Devil, you will ask? What of glitter and bottlecaps, brand names and crucifixes?

If we turned one eye from history and looked forward from present to future, what are we to make of what we see and of what this tradition, mixed, remixed, and renewed for our time can actually do? At what point, after realizing these men and women are who they say they are that we identify with them, seeing our reflection in their faces, in their bodies bending low to the ground for money they have danced for and earned, but which will never be enough to compensate for scorn and misunderstanding?

I don’t know, nah.

That is something we will have to work out in the coming days. What I do know is that I have no good reason for why we should think ourselves disqualified from the role of articulating our vision of ourselves.