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.

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.

From Home to Home

lookbeyond

Ah went away
Ah leave and ah forward home
Ah forward to stay
Ah must see mih way
—Forward Home, Andre Tanker

You know that move? The one when the pressure from the drumming gets to be too much. When you feeling like your spirit might separate from your body. You ketch the power of the rhythm and it’s like your spine can no longer keep your body upright. You are water and fire and moving air. You are one in a crowd heaving like jouvay morning when you on that Savannah stage and the sun coming up over your Laventille hills.

Your knees buckle and you dip. Your arms end up on top your head—you can feel all your chakras open and the kundalini rising like smoke from some sacred fire burning inside you. Your feet do steps you never knew you knew. Your bottom is a republic.

I am outside the palace of the Asantehene in Kumasi dancing with a couple hundred other people I have never seen before. It is the day before the funeral of someone I do not know. I was passing by and heard the music and the combination of a riddim section and sweet brass was too much to resist. It’s a telling moment in this my first visit to Africa. I submit to a bigger force that has drawn me here. I submit to what Africa has done to consolidate itself not just in a vague way in my imagination but in the front of my mind.

I’ve seen a few different Africas in the past three weeks. I’ve seen the Africa you see on television. The one they want us to believe is the only one that exists. I’ve seen the Africa that made me want to plead with the gods of personal hygiene and promise to never take indoor plumbing for granted again.

I’ve seen the Africa of my imagination. The one that looks like home. That feels like I belong here. That I blend into and don’t feel like an outsider. And people who don’t question why a little black girl like me should be interested in the things that I am interested in. I have seen more Christian churches than I can count. And the fear on the face of the woman who accompanies me to witness a roadside ceremony that marks the death of a powerful traditional priest.

I have seen the kind of wealth that would make my uptown London friends feel like paupers. And discovered another level of pan-Africanism that we forgot that out little T&T that has given the world. Speak the names George Padmore and Henry Sylvester Williams and CLR James and Kwame Ture in some quarters and the air starts to vibrate with the memory of the contributions.

I have met Ghanaians who want to know what scenes Trinis really on. They want to know how come the T&T Government acted so shady in signing the gas deal that eventually went to the Chinese. They want to know if Trinis don’t want to deal with Africans, if they really believe the fiction that black people not good at business.

They want to know if we know that it is because their past President Gerry Rawlings came to Trinidad for Emancipation that the Door of No Return at Cape Coast castle was reopened and that every year people come from all over the diaspora to walk through that door.

Ghanaians pick at their wounds too. We talk politics into the wee hours. E-mailgate rubs up against a court hearing on irregularities in their recently held general election. We laugh on the outside at the colossal stupidity of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. But weep on the inside. At how we are still confronting the same post-colonial monsters.

We commiserate with the African Americans who have only recently discovered what we have known for 50 years—that because your leader looks like you it doesn’t mean that he or she has your best interests at heart.

I wish I could bring a few people from T&T to meet all the little black boys and girls I was hanging out with. The highly educated ones. The ones who do not feel the need to apologise for their blackness or don’t feel like you curse their mother if you call them African. Who understand that being sure of who you are isn’t a threat to anyone else’s identity. In fact, your surety puts you in a better position to contribute to forward movement.

When I regain control of my body and the music is just an echo, my spirit is dancing still. To the music of possibility. I wash off the last remnants of doubt on that same coast where my ancestors were taken away in ships. I left home to come home. And they welcomed me like I had never left. When I leave home to go back home, I hope the welcome will be as warm.

eintouandmecoast

Dancing for Dawn

There I go again, talking about the only thing I love more than starch mangoes…

The glorious morning has come, and I don’t know if to laugh or cry. Because I’ll have to wait another 364 days to feel this way again. J’Ouvert is what happens when someone opens the prison gates. J’Ouvert is the moment of truth in lives of endless fiction.

Check out the full piece in this month’s issue of Caribbean Beat Magazine.

On becoming a Stickfighter.

Just finished another stickfight lesson and am still in awe at the focus and discipline necessary to protect your head. One hand is stronger than the other so I’m working on having the same kind of response time with my left hand as with my right. But apparently because I’m an ‘ambi winer’ I should get the hang of it soon. The thing that’s struck me about learning stick is that flag waving is a complimentary artform. I find the movements are similar, as are the intentions. A flag woman is a thing of great beauty and abandon but also a dread warrior on whom an entire band is dependent for direction. The style I am learning is from Moruga – pretty stick’ they call it. In other words you get so distracted by the beauty of the dancing you don’t see when the bois coming to buss your head. It’s maths and physics and core strength and left/brain right brain coordination. It is also letting go and giving into to what the drum tells you do do with your body and let it speak a language you never thought you knew. Serious Ogun tings. The warrior in me is awakening.

On becoming a stickfighter

Had my first kalinda training session with the Bois Academy on Sunday. Really steep learning curve, given that I’ve always considered myself a pacifist and the least graceful person on the planet. But demystifying this martial tradition from the point of view of a player of stick for me is crucial as is the grounding that taking part in something so physical gives you. My shoulders still hurt and my left little finger is cramped from the terror I felt gripping that bois to protect my head, but here are the two most important things I learned:

1. Stickfighting is a beautifully deadly art that requires technical skill and a heightened consciousness of yourself in your body.

2. I am not a pacifist.