Letter to Senators from the Citizens Assembly

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Dear Senators,

We write to inform you that an Assembly of Citizens drawn from a number of civil society organisations has joined the call for a halt to the parliamentary debate on the Constitution Amendment Bill, 2014.
The Assembly, which was held under the auspices of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies on Sunday 24 August, 2014, wishes to alert you to the fact that the proposed amendment to the Constitution has been brought before you without input from the public. This is in direct contradiction to the Prime Minister’s pledge of engaging “a system of participatory democracy” as the basis of the Commission’s work. Specifically, we point you to her statement on the occasion of the launch of the Commission on March 02, 2013:

“We believe that the Constitution should reflect the collective will of the citizens of this country.We have learnt from the failings of some previous attempts at reform, which did not truly take into account the concerns of the most important stakeholders in this country, the people.We recognize that change must come from the people.We therefore are not adopting a “top-down” approach. Instead, through the consultation process, the views and expression of the people will be considered and will then become the basis upon which a draft document is prepared. “
We draw your attention to the fact that the proposal of a run-off vote as contained in the Bill before you, was not the subject of any public discussion before being tabled in the Parliament. We therefore urge you to exercise your judgment and authority to ensure that this omission is properly repaired before the Bill is taken to the vote.
We feel certain that you have a clear understanding of the difference between what is legal and what is right in the context of a representative Democracy. As custodians of the public interest, we urge you to utilize your Constitutional power and responsibility to ensure that this amendment to the Constitution, which is being brought to you unprotected by the requirement for a special majority vote, does not move past the Senate without the benefit of broad public consultation in line with the mandate given to the Constitution Reform Commission.

In trust

Winston Riley
Chairman

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.

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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The end of Me and Mr. Sabga Newsletter.

I’ve been trying since Wednesday to find the words to say to make sense of this Guardian folly.
I’ve never felt like the Guardian was the bastion of free press, I’ve read enough of its archive to know that since its 19 Century inception, through Independence through to 1970, the Guardian guards not democracy but the status quo, the elite power structures that keep some of us as masters and the rest of us as slaves.
The key to running a morally and socially bankrupt society is to ensure that you have certain people and institutions that keep people in their place.
People like me find a space in newspapers like the Guardian, because it fits their profile to appear to fair and balanced.
Yet I’ve had several occasions during my time as a columnist when I have had my right to fair comment compromised or threatened.
I had a public spat at a media briefing organized by ALCOA with Anthony Wilson who accused me of being unethical for writing about the smelter issue while I was involved as an activist.
And then in 2009 when Obama was coming for the Fifth Summit of the Americas, I got a call from the then Public Affairs editor Arthur Dash saying that he had been advised to let me know that there was no space for my column the following day. It was only after I made a scene on social media that they miraculously found space for my column again.
I’ve kept my column because I feel like I have things to say about Trinidad, about who we are and who we hope to become.
Few of us have a clear agenda. And that’s okay because it’s only through open discussion and constructive criticism that we’ll start to refine what that agenda is.
But I’m not sure all the voices in the conversation are focused on creating a better country.
The media needs a lot of scrutiny. As much if not more than the government.
A free press and a functional government go hand in hand and it is becoming more and more obvious that we have neither.
And MATT is not the watchdog it should be. If it was, this country would have been shut down the moment Sheila Rampersad, Denyse Renne and Anika Sandiford-Gumbs decided to pick up their jahaaji bundle and ride out. Or when Fazeer Mohammed got removed from First Up. Or when Uncle Jack threatened Denyse Renne and Asha Javeed.
But I guess MATT and the media are made up of citizens like the rest of us. You know, who have a mortgage. And 2.5 children. And long hard days. And hours in traffic.
And if nobody else is willing to, why should journalists sacrifice themselves for the nation’s entertainment?
Just like the public sector and the private sector and the unions and the churches and mosques and temples and the education system, some of my colleagues put their political affiliations before country. And some of us eating a food like the same ones we want to point fingers at. And some of us just looking for bacchanal. And some of us have allegiance to nothing.
Selfishness has us where we are and selfishness will take us where we’re going: nowhere.
The question of who stays and who goes is not the question. The question is who is keeping all of us accountable to each other? And if one person falls on their sword who is going to put up money to make sure they can buy groceries at the end of the month?
The stress and confusion and the lack of the full story created in the last couple days has exactly the desired effect of distracting us what from is really happening and that is the looting not just of the Treasury but our bank of collective responsibility.
They, (and by they I mean we), are trying to keep us in a state of fear and self-revulsion and we are obliging them.
Fear sells papers. And security services. And burglar proof. Fear is big business and the state is acting like a corporate entity peddling garbage and treating its workers like animals.
Once at the beginning of my time as a reporter an editor told me my only role was to fill space and meet deadlines.
I couldn’t reconcile that with what I imagined a journalist to be. I’m reminded of that ridiculous speech when I hear Gabriel Faria, followed by the about turn by MATT three days after they claimed that freedom of the press was under seige.
What we are watching is a freakshow where freedom and excellence are trotted out and flogged by clowns like Mr. Faria the mouthpiece of ‘establishment’ who I’ve never heard in a media context until a couple days ago. I want to know if he ever get a boof from George John. He has neither the professional nor moral authority to have anything to say about journalism.
He and the rest of the GML/AnsaMcAL massas wouldn’t know what excellence is to a journalist if somebody hit them with a Thesaurus. But they get to shout jump and the newsroom must start to levitate.
A journalist is no use without an audience. A newspaper can’t sell without journalists. They need us as much as we need them but somehow the power relationship is skewed and the journalists end up feeling like media owners are doing them a favour.
I’d rather not write for a paper that makes me or my colleagues unsure of who is going to make you bend to their will or wine for your supper.
I have nothing to trade with the world but words. Words and my reputation. My reputation is that I say and do what I think is right. I have a conscience and this is what it has been shouting at me since Wednesday: No compromise. They are threatening people’s livelihoods and that is not just madness it is criminal.
No compromise. This is war and if all citizens aren’t prepared to fight we might as well lie down and dead.