All tied up

All tied up

I’ve worn head ties all my life, experimenting with shapes and colours and not just on bad hair days, haha!
In my teen years I was often laughed at for my head ties (the laughers were always as black as me) another manifestation of my outsiderness. The sting of derisive laughter has worn off but I remember it and I know the fear that those who laughed were harbouring.
In Nigeria I submit myself to the superior head wrapping skills of women who are artists of the cloth. Actually there’s a kind of effortless sense of style and awareness of the body that I admired in women both in Naija and Ghana.
But the body confidence exists alongside a paradoxical loathing of dark skin and natural hair. It weirds me out that this self-schism exists and I’ve been thinking of the ways that this affects me as a black woman living in the west.
It’s complicated and part of the uncomfortable conversation we need to keep having. When you see your reflection, are you seeing you or an amalgamation of your racial, historical and social complications?
Style is both personal and political and the negotiations black women constantly have to make are not always what you want to confront when you wake up to get dressed in the morning.

This time next week, I’ll be in the midst of the bacchanal that is Jouvay. Jouvay is truth in a way that nothing else can be.
So as I get my heart and mind ready for this week, I’m reflecting on my Jouvay truths. My love for Trinidad and Carnival and art.

On Becoming a Warrior of Huaracan

You eh see nothing until you see a man pull feathers from a dead cobo. That trip to Icacos on Sunday was a lot more than I had bargained for. 
About two years now I’ve been singing a song about how I want to play a Black Indian mas big big on Tuesday, because sometimes youse have to go back to the root to move forward. Anyway it so happen in the way that only Esu could manage that powers align and next thing you know it having a band called Black I and we wanted to link up with ‘real’ Black Indian to get a sense of the tradition to build on that and help inform the mas we, the Vulgar Fraction, going to play.
It was a rough journey. Andy who responsible for the band Warriors of Huaracan talk for the whole road. And I listen with a mixture of horror and fascination as he would be talking and then scream from a place that has no name and then break into a chant and then go back into a story about the clash of Indigenous beliefs, Congo magic and Orisa practice that then came to live in this Black Indian masquerade.
I had to walk away as he pull out the cobo feathers. And it took me a few days to realize that mas, like life is about ability to take even death and make it beautiful.
Mas is beauty and horror. Mas as a whole can’t and shouldn’t be a version of reality that edits out the blood and pain. 
I real excited to be becoming this mas this year. I real excited that this evening at 6 in Belmont I get to listen to the great Nari Approo talk about mas and all that it could possibly be. Come nah, if you able. 

Got My Hair Un-did

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It took three weeks, a pack of broken combs, some tears, a fair amount of cursing.
But I did it. I combed out all 169 locks on my head and am now the proud owner of a little awesome Afro.
It’s been a few years in the making, the desire to start again. But I couldn’t just cut off 17 years of living and loving and travel and jouvay, you know?
I’m actually really happy I chose to unlock it. It gave me a chance to say goodbye to my locks. To let go of all that I had been through and experienced for all those years.
Hair is emotional.
I talked about it for a couple weeks with my sisters (who gave me the look specially reserved for my frequent mad ideas). On Christmas Eve I started at the centre of my head. My arms hurt. I cried. A few days in I lost all zeal to continue. Somehow I kept going (I started to run out of headties).
As my hair started to emerge in all its mad curly glory I became overwhelmed by a sense of how completely we have been made to hate ourselves.
A thing as fundamental to your sense of being as your hair gets undermined from the time you are born. This was not the case in my house and thank the goddess I had two older sisters to comb my hair for me.
I realized last year that I missed those times with my sisters when they would comb my hair. I think the loss of those rituals between women of different generations is part of the further destruction of community and a sense of (haha) rootedness.
The more of my hair I saw, the more I became excited that I would have those moments again. When someone would show care in my appearance and give me a bad ass hair style that didn’t come out of a bottle or a heating appliance.
When I was in India last year I got questioned about my hair a lot, given that the only people there who wear their hair in locks are Saddhus and the warrior ascetics known as Nagas.
I tried to explain that locks were a totally acceptable way of women wearing their hair, to which the response was ‘and men find this attractive?!’
In truth, locks for me have been a kind of anti-beauty. A deliberate subversion of an idea of what hair should look like for a black woman. Some men find the idea of that attractive. That you are determined not to fit into what society says is beautiful.
But my time with my locks taught me that what is most important is to be comfortable enough in your skin, in your sense of who you are, in your sense of where you are going and where you have come from. I was never a ‘Revlon Rasta’. I wasn’t one of those compulsive groomers. My hair was wild (and still is) and occasionally depending on my mood I tried to tame it into what may have been loosely construed as a hairstyle.
But I feel like I’m into another phase now. One that gives me the room to play with my image. I’m really enjoying my afro, like getting to know a new friend. My hair is so fricking awesome!! I’ve been spending a lot of time just playing with it. Loving it. Anointing my scalp with coconut oil. The variety of textures, the need for care.
Your hair can teach you a lot about your own complexities. I’m loving getting to know myself in a totally different way.

What Caricom did next….

It is especially repugnant that the ruling ignores the 2005 judgement made by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) that the Dominican Republic adapt its immigration laws and practices in accordance with the provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights. The ruling also violates the Dominican Republic’s international human rights obligations. Furthermore, the ruling has created an environment where, with the abrogation of rights that flow from citizenship, arbitrariness can flourish as illustrated by recent media reports of the forced deportation to Haiti of persons claiming to be Dominican and with no linguistic or familial ties to that country.

 - Caricom Statement on Dominican Republic’s citizenship ruling.

Last night I attended an impromptu audience with Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves who was in Trinidad for the Heads of Government Meeting at which they finally made their statement condemning the shocking and racist court ruling in the Dominican Republic against Haitian descended Dominicans.

The meeting was hosted by Jouvay Ayiti – a Trinidad based collective dedicated to addressing the question of Haiti through what Rawle Gibbons described last night as the ‘mechanism of mas’.

Jouvay – the opening of Carnival celebrated in several islands across the Caribbean- has always been a point of protest and social commentary in Trinidad.

So the choice to use mas as a means of confronting our past, present and future engagement with Haiti is not only valid it is vital.

Jouvay Ayiti first responded to the DR question on November 6, with a mas action in Port of Spain. This was followed up with a petition sent to Caricom.

Meanwhile it’s taken over two months for a statement to come from Caricom and it is largely, I am inclined to believe after last night’s audience with the SVG PM, due to his agitations. He even joked about the similarity in the language of the Caricom’s statement and the letters he sent to the DR’s  on October 11 and another on November 11 (neither of which has received a response to date).

As Angelique V Nixon points out in her article on Groundation Grenada, Haitians are also regularly discriminated against and deported from the Bahamas.

The Bahamas — somewhat like the DR’s new ruling — also denies rights to the children of migrants, the difference being that children of migrants do have access to birth citizenship rights, which they have to apply for at 18. However, this process can take years, especially if one does not have access to legal assistance. Unlike the DR, Haitian Bahamians do have the right to stay in the country until they turn 18. However, many Haitian Bahamians remain stateless after 18 because of the difficulty in securing their status. On top of the legal challenges that Haitians and Haitian Bahamians deal with, they are socially stigmatized — from slurs and stereotypes to poor treatment at public clinics and hospitals, Haitian people bear much blame for a variety of social ills in Bahamian society. When times are rough, tourism is down, crime is on the rise, or people get laid off, Haitians are the scapegoats for everyone’s troubles and strapped resources. This resonates eerily with what has happened in the Dominican Republic, and I offer this comparison to remind us of the vulnerable position in which many Haitian migrants find themselves — not only in the DR but also elsewhere in the region.

Gonsalves openly stated last night that he disagreed with Caricom’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach. He read the two strongly worded letters he sent to Medina and also the letter he sent to Venezuela’s  Maduro, calling on him to consider suspending them from the Petrocaribe agreement.

So aside from threats of suspension from Cariforum and CELAC, the Petrocaribe issue is probably going to be a defining factor in the outcome of this regional embarrassment.

Money talks, after all.

And in as much as I am glad that Caricom has finally found  voice and interest enough to make a statement (Norman Girvan in introducing Gonsalves last night said it was the first time he could feel proud of the Community) I’m still concerned about issues of free movement in the Caribbean. 

Since the issuing of this statement, the planned talks between Haitiian President Michel Martelly and a high profile team of officials from the Dominican Republic have fallen through.

So what comes next? Aside from the threat of sanctions and diplomatic snubbing how are we really going to start to address institutional and other types of racism in the Caribbean between nations?

It brings me again back to my concerns with regards to the reparations issue – what is Caricom’s policy position on the complexities of our ethnic and racial interactions?

How are we engaging with these complexities at the level of education, at the level of policy, at the level of government initiatives?

 

Because let’s face it, the reason for our lack of action on Haiti is the fact that in 1804 a bunch of enslaved Africans had the audacity to fight against the French, win and then declare themselves a Republic.

And the question of blackness and/or African ancestry is still a point of shame for far too many Caribbean people of African descent, despite the fact that we have given the world some of the leading luminaries of Pan Africanism (Henry Sylvestre Williams, Marcus Garvey, CLR James, George Padmore, to name a few). And of course one of the major issues plaguing our relationship with Haiti is the continued fear and loathing of African spiritual traditions

One of Gonsalves’ closing observations was the virtual non-existence of any critical thought or action coming from the University of the West Indies.  This is something that has bothered me for years. I’m watching and waiting but I’m not terribly hopeful.

Gonsalves started his speech talking about his days as a student at the University of the West Indies Mona campus when he organised the protest against the banning of the late great Walter Rodney who dared go into the ghettoes of Kingston to ground with his brothers. 

45 years later the issues we are afraid to confront are similar if not exactly the same.  

Azonto Lessons

There is a pause when the lights go at 1 a.m. and the fan stops whirring. Until the generator shudders to life and the air returns to the room, the fan whirring reassuringly over your head again. In that pause you hear the world of other sounds that exist outside the electric drone. A neighbour’s child, the thunder of a storm making its way across the night, the dying moments of an evangelical service, a lone dog barking in the distance, insects whose names you do not know. The sounds of nighttime Accra are so familiar that in those seconds when I wake up in the sudden and unbearable stillness I get confused about where I am.

There are many moments of confusion during my time in Ghana. It is déjà vu for something I have not yet seen.

Excerpt from Azonto Lessons, a piece I wrote for this month’s issue of Caribbean Beat.

Read the full piece here

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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Obeah and other Black Powers

So a man comes up to me after a talk hosted by the Windrush Foundation on Obeah Laws in the Caribbean to ask me how come I know so much about ‘dis ting’.  I told him to go home and do a search on Ifa/Orisa.  He had heard the word Orisa before but never Ifa. 

But it’s much deeper than that. Any self-respecting woman, regardless of ethnicity or culture needs to have a sense of her own personal power, her own obeah.  It is crucial to survival and self-preservation in a world that is quick to convince you that you are powerless. 

What was missing from the conversation today is what we know as obeah is really the practices of people trying to make sense of a world that was against them.  For example there was no suggestion of the possible connection between the word ‘obi’ aka bizzy or cola nut which is a central part of healing and divination in Ifa/Orisa belief – in the etymology of the word obeah. 

Just like in Trinidad, people laughed when one man talked about pouring rum at the four corners of a new house, or the experiences of Caribbean people who came to live in England and had to use their knowledge from home to confront the white ghosts they met in the houses here.

I fail to see what is so funny. No Catholic laughs at the suggestion that when you take the eucharist that it does not actually become the body and blood of Christ.
I can’t ever be afraid of the science of my ancestors, that’s part of why I am here today.  As CLR James pointed out in Black Jacobins voodoo was the medium of conspiracy. The idea of a black God still makes a lot of people very frightened. Especially, unfortunately, it terrifies black people.

I might not practice it in the same way but I understand that that body of knowledge is part of a wider corpus of ancient healing knowledge that is far more modern than the simi dimi that sometimes parades as Western medical and scientific knowledge. 

Castle in the Sand

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I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish I could do all the things that I can’t do
Though I’m way overdue 
I’d be starting anew

—I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, Nina Simone

 

 
At a bend in the road, you turn right at the University of Cape Coast and the sight of the sea is startling. Not just for the sun shining silver on its surface. The row of coconut trees makes me feel like I’ve fallen asleep and woken up on the road to Mayaro. And I know that somewhere far far away on the other side of the Atlantic, I’ve stood on the beach watching the same sun shining silver on the sea’s surface imagining what the coast in Africa looked like.

But now that I am here, there is a lump in my throat and a sense of dread building in my ears. Elmina is a pleasant enough fishing village. Some of the inhabitants are light-skinned, a leave over legacy from 400 years of ownership of Elmina Castle by the Dutch, the Portuguese and finally the English. They say they came here first for gold. But as we enter the Castle and begin the tour our guide says they were always on a mission to trade in humans.

We go down into the dungeons where the stench of centuries of human decay is still palpable. We go down into the belly of the castle to meet the noise of ancestors screaming out in agony. The roar of the sea is distant as is sun’s light. He shows us where the Governor would stand and select women captives to rape. He shows us the death dungeon with the skull and crossbones over the door where no-one came out alive. By the time we get to the Door of No Return I am plotting ways to escape.

Even as I walk here I am having that kind of out-of-body experience. This is not really me. We retrace the steps of millions of people whose names we do not know.  Who died here covered in the filth of others. Who suffered every possible indignity known to humankind to make others wealthy. The familiar weight of my bag, the camera in my hand. I focus on these things to protect me from the magnitude of what I am confronting.

To those who say it is time to forget I say that the stench of 400 years of human waste is unforgettable. To those who say black people should get over it, I say we need more than ever now to understand that enslavement is real and present and as much a threat now as it was 170 years ago. Some of us choose enslavement now. To material things. And people. And the god of someone else’s ancestors. And the drivel of politicians. And looking like someone else. 

We have the freedom to choose these prisons. Far from Elmina. Far from the plantations. Far from the stinking, fetid dungeons and ships, we choose to be shackled to death and decay. It is history but it still lives. The virulent strain of capitalism that runs the world right now will not think twice about reintroducing chattel slavery. And they might not ship us across the Atlantic anymore. But some of us don’t mind the cheap labour that makes our laptops. The sweat shops that make our clothes.

Some of us don’t see the connection between the material possessions that we crave that keep other people in grinding poverty. Elmina is Elmina. Elmina is also a clothing factory in Bangladesh that collapses under the weight of its own greed. Elmina is a mine in South Africa where police officers shoot to kill when the miners demand better wages and working conditions. Elmina is the scorn poured on trafficked women from South America in a police-run whorehouse in Trinidad.

Elmina lives and breathes and laughs in our faces. The dungeons are still full of the stench of our complicity in the enslavement of others for our benefit. I flee from the stench and the darkness. I run from the Door of No Return, hoping to never have to be there again. In that hot, dark place. Bent and broken.

With my modern mind that knows only freedom I wonder whether I would have survived. Whether I would have chosen death rather than face the uncertainty of the dungeons, the crossing, the plantation. Survival is a mark of defiance. I feel another surge of pride that I belong to them. They must have had serious belly. They must have been the bad-minded ones. I wonder if they didn’t long to join the sea’s percussion. Their bones the rhythm section for the waves’ endless bass. 

I feel another surge of pride that we made it. That the ancestors on whose shoulders I stand were strong enough to endure that Hell that I shudder to imagine. So that I can stand here now. Free as ever. In the light at the top of this castle. Watching the sea and longing for Manzanilla.