Put the Mask back in the Mas

Notting Hill Carnival in 2013 Brianna McCarthy Maker + Mender mask.

Notting Hill Carnival in 2013 Brianna McCarthy Maker + Mender mask.

One jouvay morning in Port of Spain a couple years ago, an Egun priest told me that the ancestors were upset because we were playing mas with our faces uncovered. This year for Jouvay I covered my face and at Notting Hill Carnival yesterday I made the transition back to a mask.

I had the pleasure of wearing a piece of art made by Brianna McCarthy, one of Trinidad’s most exciting young mixed media artists.

The politics of beauty in Trinidad is problematic at best. Look at any band launching event and notice that black women, dark skinned Indian or African women are virtually non-existent.

I am really excited about the ways that Brianna’s work confronts this.

Her website says:
‘Her work takes on the intricacies and dynamics of representing Afro-Caribbean women who are portrayed as being strong, long-suffering, exoticised and picturesque beings against a backdrop of poverty, hardship, abuse and/or scorn. McCarthy’s constructions and representations revolt against and subvert the stereotypical trends of representing the black body.’  

Once upon a time Carnival was a space for women to claim power. These days I can’t tell if Carnival is a space of power or – given the size of the costumes, the expense of the make up and increase in gym membership from October to February – a space where women are forced to seek approval under the gaze of a society that is male and judgemental. 

So the mask is part of that confrontation that needs to take place.  I loved the fear, awe, intrigue, attraction that the mask caused. Men begged me to take it off, children cried, old people smiled and bowed.

Culture should never be fossilized fragments. It should always evolve to serve the needs of the people who practice it. 

But we always need rituals. And performance as ritual – we’ve lost that from our Carnival with the loss of the mask.

And that is what I loved most about about wearing Brianna’s mask – it was a very contemporary take on a very ancient practice of masking – for the purpose of healing, for the purpose of transformation, for the purpose of liberation.

It’s a key part of the obeah that is Carnival and it occurred to me yesterday that half of the reason why the Carnival has lost its power is because of the removal of the mask.

‘Nutting’ Hill Carnival – a lament for Claudia Jones

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Notting Hill Carnival is on this weekend. Whatever the festival reflects and represents now (party and bullshit and party and bullshit) I’d just like to take a moment to remember and celebrate Claudia Jones, who gave England its first taste of Caribbean Carnival in 1959 in response to the Notting Hill race riots of the previous year.

She was born in Belmont, Trinidad in 1915 and moved to the US at age 9 but was deported in 1955 for her involvement in workers rights and the Communist Party.

She was given asylum in England and it was here that she organized the first London Caribbean Carnival and an Afro-Asian Caribbean Conference which then led to the formation of Committee of Afro-Asian and Caribbean Organisations.

She also founded the West Indian Gazette which later became West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News.

She was a journalist, activist, trouble maker, public speaker and allround badass.

She was also the original Jouvayist because she understood the transformative power of culture and the role that Carnival, the carnival of the masses played in defying the boundaries set by a system designed to make migrants invisible and sub-human.

That first Carnival event she organized in January 1959 in Pancras Town Hall featured the Boscoe Holder Dance troupe, the legendary Fitzroy Coleman and Cleo Laine. It was broadcast on the BBC and funds raised from the event went towards court fees and fines of convicted young black men.

I wonder if a penny from any fete, boat cruise, mas band this weekend is going towards addressing any of the many issues in the Black British community….

It’s unfashionable these days to be critical of Carnival. We have earned the right to wine up ourselves in the streets. To pay ridiculous amounts of money to wear the same costume every year. To dress up and go to fete and adopt postures of freedom and wild abandon.

I love to wine as much as anybody else, but I’m looking at least for a bit of irony, for an undertone of menace for even the shadow of a threat. We don’t even understand the significance of all these English in the street essentially giving thanks for the protests and sacrifice of the generations of Africans and Indians who worked to make this country wealthy and then came here after the World Wars as part of the rebuilding effort. 

The ConDem government is telling people to go home  even as we find out just how much David Cameron’s family got in reparations after Emancipation.

I guess it’s the lack of irony that upsets me the most. The total and complete lack of consciousness at how powerful Carnival could be if we weren’t so busy trying to forget the very things that ensured that we have it in the first place.

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Breasts of Iron

Peter yuh doh know
The pressure I undergo
From these mad man and woman
Ah feel the full weight of dey hand
They make they oppress law
They never care about the poor
Peter these people had they day
Well now is time for Stalin to play.

—Bun Dem, Black Stalin

 

I am a little girl again standing at a bus stop in England waiting to go to school. Studying the display of Sindy dolls in the Woolworth’s window. And then dry so, without warning, like cobo falling dead out of the sky, an old woman walks up and punches me in the face. No warning. No shouted threats. Just an old mad white woman coming up to me at a bus stop and punching me in the face.  

I have no frame of reference for such violence. My tears are not from pain but from shock and confusion at what I could possibly have done for an old woman to come up and punch me in the face. My sisters are beside themselves and when I get to school with a bloody nose my classmates form a protective shield around me and share their fish fingers at lunch time. Even the hateful Claire Sommers doesn’t call me chocolate factory worker that day. 

By the time I get home my mother is pacing like a caged lioness. Somebody is going to die. My nose isn’t bleeding and there is only a little split on my lip, but she inspects me like I’ve been at war. A police officer is at the door soon. She talks for a while, trying to calm my mother who is in angry hysterics. 

She explains that this is what happens when you cut back on welfare. Old mad women are turned out of homes. Old mad women who have probably seen two black people in their lives, get nervous and disoriented and violent. This is what happens when you have iron breasts that don’t know what is nurturing. She said there is no such thing as society and society died. But people didn’t die and some of them roamed the streets like zombies lashing out at anybody who happened to be too close. 

 My nose healed up—she didn’t hit me hard enough to cause permanent damage—and after a while I wasn’t terrified to death of standing at the bus stop. But it hadn’t occurred to me how much that moment still affected me until I was walking in a stush part of London one night last summer and clutched my bag cowering as an old white woman walked swiftly up behind me. 

 She looked at me with such absolute confusion, as if she couldn’t imagine what I, an almost six foot, wild-haired black woman could possibly have to fear. Thatcher’s England still echoes now. In the policies of this new Con Dem government, in the naked neo-liberalism and war-mongering of Tony the Phony. In the bulldozed housing estates and the bedroom tax. In the bounding and unbridled and unregulated behaviour of banks and the expectation that taxpayers will bail them out. 

There’s no love lost between me and Mistress Margaret. She of iron will and unwavering principles. Breasts of iron do not belong to women who are interested in building a future for their children. She is no role model to me and I’d rather not have female leaders if that is what they do.

Still, I can’t bring myself to go to a party to celebrate her death. I am relieved that I know better and I am not from a place that makes old people invisible and because of her terrible example of what it is to be human, I appreciate the people around me who are more in touch with their humanity. 

Thatcherisms ripple across the globe. Thatcherisms multiply like mosquitoes in a foetid pond of global capitalism. And the London Stock Exchange and the business district are what my activist friend from India calls a Paradise for Parasites built on a solid foundation of slavery money. I think of her dying in the comfort of the Ritz hotel. I wonder what happened to that lonely, frightened old woman who punched me in the face. If she died alone and cold. 

I can’t vex with the cobo for falling out of the sky on the day that Margaret Thatcher died. As if the cobo themselves could not bear the possibility of picking the flesh from those iron bones. I don’t believe in Hell but if I did Mistress Margaret would be in it, spending a million lifetimes to account for all her sins. And maybe then she might weep real tears and rust a hole through her iron breasts and maybe then her heart might hurt for all the pain she caused.

First published in the Trinidad Guardian April 13, 2013

London is the Place

 

I still smile every time I come out of the Brixton Tube station and turn left, and it’s like being in Africa and Asia and the Caribbean all at once. The incense man outside the supermarket is really from Barbados, though he pronounces “incense” like a Jamaican. A car passes, blasting the latest funky house summer scorcher, the unholiest of combinations of high life’s easy groove, dancehall’s driving bass, and soca’s call to wine.

 

Piece I wrote for Caribbean Beat Magazineon my ongoing love affair with Babylondon.

 

The Whole World is Watching! Vedanta AGM Protests in London

We chanted the name of Anil Agarwal, record breaking polluter, champion of environmental injustice and murder. We called on them to answer for their crimes against the people of Orissa, Zambia, Goa, Sri Lanka, Liberia. We called on them to clean up their mess. It seems like the stock exchange answered

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Protests against Vedanta in London, India and Zambia

On Tuesday 28 August, protesters from Foil Vedanta, South Asia Solidarity Group, Save Goa Campaign and other organizations will be picketing the AGM of controversial FTSE 100 mining company Vedanta at the Lincoln Centre, London. In Goa, Tamil Nadu and Orissa in India, and Chingola in Zambia parallel demonstrations involving hundreds of people affected by the company’s activities will take place.

Vedanta have been named the ‘world’s most hated company’ by the Independent newspaper for their long list of environmental and human rights crimes for which they are being opposed all over the world1. Most famously Vedanta’s plan to mine a mountain sacred to the Dongria Kondh tribe in Orissa, India, has led to mass protests and the Bank of England among others pulling out investments.

Protesters in London next week will coordinate with activists at four of Vedanta’s most damaging projects to highlight some of the other major scandals surrounding the company:

  • In Goa villagers affected by Vedanta subsidiary Sesa Goa’s pig iron plant in Amona will stage a large demonstration on 27th August. Houses in the area were swamped with black powder from the plant just last weekend2. Sesa Goa have also caused toxic mine waste floods and are accused of large scale fraud (1). The Goa Foundation will coordinate the demonstration. Their Director Claude Alvares comments;

Vedanta is committed to turning Goa into a graveyard in which it will bury not just the Goans but their environment as well. Almost every mining lease Vedanta is operating violates some environment or mining law, from mining in excess of environment limits to overloading its trucks to distress ordinary folk on Goa’s roads in the mining belt. The company violates its environment clearance conditions with impunity.“(2)

 

  • In Tamil Nadu activists will draw attention to the major violations of the Tuticorin copper smelter where 16 workers died between 2007 and 2011. The plant has been shut down by the state courts twice for having no permission to operate and for major pollution incidents.

  • In Orissa demonstrations of Dongria Kondh people alongside farmers and villagers will oppose mining of the Niyamgiri hills for the Lanjigarh alumina refinery. They have fought a seven year battle which has so far prevented the mine, leading this week to a major lack of bauxite for Vedanta, who are now being pressured to close the plant in view of their huge losses3.

  • In Zambia residents of Chingola will protest the ongoing contamination of their water supply by Vedanta subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines who were already fined $2 million in 2011 for turning the Kafue river green with copper pollution.Edward Lange of Southern Africa Resource Watch comments:

“The Kafue river in Chingola on many occasions has been heavily polluted by Konkola copper mines (KCM). Today the river has virtually no form of life in  its waters. The boreholes are rarely used by the local Shimulala community because they contain Copper, Iron, Acid and other dangerous minerals. 

Protesters in London will confront Vedanta’s shareholders and its CEO Anil Agarwal with a 30 foot long banner proclaiming ‘Vedanta: Olympic Champion in Murder, Environmental Crime and Corruption’, and placards with slogans such as ‘Anil Agarwal Wanted for Murders and Environmental Crimes!’. They will also draw attention to recent news including:

  • Vedanta’s involvement in a major coal scam currently rocking the Indian government (3).

  • Accusations in the British parliament that Vedanta has given the FTSE 100 a bad name.(4)

  • British Government’s ongoing support for Vedanta through DfID, and even David Cameron, who were recently revealed to have forced through a deal to buy out energy company Cairn India by pressuring the Indian Government4.

  • Resignation of the whole of Cairn India’s senior management since Vedanta’s takeover.5

  • Vedanta’s ten billion dollar debt crisis.(5)

  • Vedanta’s continued donations to India’s two main political parties, the ruling Congress and the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP6. Under the name Anil Agarwal foundation, it also supports projects such the Krishna Avanti school in London run by the I foundation which has close links to the Hindu supremacist groups.

Amrit Wilson (South Asia Solidarity Group and Foil Vedanta) says:

This year the list of Vedanta’s atrocities is longer than ever before and there are massive popular struggles against it in India and Zambia. Like the notorious Lonmin in South Africa, Vedanta is bringing shame on the London Stock Exchange. Isn’t it time they were deleted from it? We call on the British government to stop backing this lawless and murderous corporate.”

 

Doing Time in the SoE

This is the dark time, my love,
All round the land brown beetles crawl about
The shining sun is hidden in the sky
Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow
This is the dark time, my love,
It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery
Everywhere the faces of men are strained and anxious
Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass
It is the man of death, my love, the stranger invader
Watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.

—This is the Dark Time, My Love Martin Carter

There’s something about going to prison that cures you of all desire to know what it’s like to not have your freedom. I spend the few hours on the inside fantasising about the hour of my escape. But I’ve chosen to be here, volunteering my time in a women’s prison in north London, working with hardened criminals whose smiles are sweet and light, who tell jokes and hug their children like there might not be a tomorrow. Oh but for them there is no tomorrow and this is a rare moment for them to spend time with their loved ones. I am struck again by how normal these women seem. How regular their needs, their names, their pet peeves.

They are not the most disagreeable people I have ever met. And I have a hard time seeing them as anything else but just like me. It always surprises me the women that I meet in these prisons, the ones who are the best behaved and so they get to come to the gym and play with their children and us the volunteers get to work with them on creating toys and tools and mementoes that have special significance to them and their families. This day it’s a woman from Barbados, who drops her English accent when she hears my unapolo- getic singing Trini-ness. My voice reminds her of home, she says. Her smile is wistful and I am dying to ask her how she ended up in this place of high walls and not very much light. But it’s not the time and it’s not my place.

We are in outer space today, and I help the mothers and children make fantastic spaceships to take them to outer galaxies in a sky we cannot see from this room. But the imagination is a hell of a thing and I am astounded by what they manage to do, without blades, without scissors. They construct magnificent vessels of escape out of paper plates and straws. To take them and their children away from this place of walls and mistakes and punishment for sins they may or may not have committed. The time drags for me. The doors locked. I have to get a guard’s permission for the toilet. I find it unbearable. The minutes  go so slowly and I fear that three o’clock will never come. Or the guards will forget us here. Locked up in this gymnasium where I cannot see the sky.

Perhaps they love their children more. Perhaps they will love freedom more now that they have a chance to reflect on it. I am thinking of spaceships and prisons on the flight back to Trini-dad. It is sunset and we are circling the Caroni Swamp and the sight of a flock of Scarlet Ibis flying like a red arrow below us makes me smile. From up here  everything looks so green, so beautiful in the light of a golden hour. There are no walls here. No walls that I can see from up here.

Later I listen to the silence descend at 11 pm. By 11.11 I am weary of it. It closes in like the walls of the prison’s gymnasium. I wonder what the rest of the people in the neighbourhood are doing. I cannot hear a television or a thought. Even the dogs have fallen silent as if they too are fearful that some boots will come trampling through the night and deal them a blow of silence like their scared masters. I remember one of the women in the prison in Babylondon telling me that for some people, prison is a far easier choice. Freedom comes with too much responsibility and so they prefer to be in a place where their meals are prepared, where their time is managed, where someone else has the keys and someone else makes the decisions.

Other people to manage your freedom so that you don’t have to take responsibility for your mistakes, for your shortcomings, for the fact that you’ve made a mess of your life, your children, your community, your country. It is a terrifying statement that haunts me well into the hours of the morning. And I want to believe that it’s jetlag that has me awake and watching the road, hoping for a sign of life, something, anything that has the freedom to move, freedom to own its body enough to not care who says not to go where.

But the silence is all that I can see or hear. Silence like a gate that I do not have the keys to. It is terrible and deafening. I wait for the dawn. For the time when the gate of silence opens. When I can own my body again and do with it what I must. I find that I am not rushing to run through the streets proclaiming freedom. I am trying to think of ways to make it through another night in this prison.