Quick! Your Best Smile

Yeah, my layers are thick

And I’ve got bad attitude.

Yeah that knife in my back

Has fingerprints that belong to you.

Got a grudge, got a grudge

Got a grudge that I’m holding

For as long as I like

Cuz you lied, you lied

You lied to my face

And that’s something that I can’t forgive

—Fuel My Fire, The Prodigy

Quick! Let’s see how much of ourselves we can polish up in the next two weeks. This is an urgent assignment. This is like the whole country putting on its Sunday best to go and parade for all the neighbours to see how well its doing.

I mean, who doesn’t want to look nice for their guests? So hurry up and get with the clean-up programme. Come on man, it’s just three days. We can do it! Yes we can! We can make the whole city look like a million dollars. Oh no, make that 600 million. This is no time for sticking, T&T. These last 12 days are a grace period in which we can have a total makeover! It’s like a facelift and a tummy tuck for a bored housewife. We’ll worry on April 20 about the cause of the boredom or why the housewife let herself get fat and frumpy in the first place.

Quick! Look busy. Obama is coming. And we don’t want him to think he’s coming to a meeting on some mosquito-infested banana republic. Move a little faster! This is no time to question our own leadership. This is no time to be thinking about local government elections or possibly corrupt ministers or spending millions to build a stadium on sapatay. No, no. We need to forget all of that bacchanal and get focused on the two weeks left before an even better plundering of the national coffers than Miss Universe 1998. 
This is the biggest, best mas we will ever possibly have to play. So we better play it and play it well.

Imagine all the things we’ll get for our $600 million. We’re bound to see a return on our investment, because of course Fox and CNN will be walking in the streets singing wild praises at how much like Miami our waterfront looks.
And what else do we want but the nice white people from for-eign to think that we are advanced? I mean it says it all when our buildings are taller than coconut trees.

Imagine the jealousy all our small-island neighbours are going to feel when they see our Papa Patos standing there welcoming Obama to Trinidad. It takes a real man of vision to pull off such a brilliant move. How it go look if his vision is hard to see in the La Basse smog. Quick! Say a lot of prayers that these next two weeks don’t turn rainy. We wouldn’t want to be having the Summit under water. We wouldn’t want Obama to get marooned on his way to the meeting if it rains for ten minutes.

And pray too that the guntas take a killing holiday. Pray that they’ll just go away. Or better yet, maybe we should build a platform and put a couple containers and put them on some North Coast beach to make sure they’re not in the city that weekend. Quick, let’s try and get the place looking good before the Summit, so that after it’s finished at least people will have good memories and not notice if we have to devalue the dollar or that many more thousands are going to be on the breadline.

We’re going to have to pull out all stops to make it through this one. So we’ll need all hands on deck. No pesky protesters trying to make us look bad. No stinking vagrants, no cavernous pot- holes. Quick! Can you imagine what is going to happen when all those international media come here? And God alone knows they’re going to be looking for some dirt. Quick, quick. Put some ads with cricketers and soca stars in the papers so that people don’t make out that, actually, we have had no luck securing our citizens, we don’t have a clue how to promote human prosperity and our idea of energy security and environmental sustainability is to rapidly monetise natural gas and put up a smelter and a steel mill and some ports in mangroves.

Get those streets cleaned, chop chop. Clean up nearly five decades worth of dirt congealed on city streets. Hide the human filth in the closets. Put away the street children. Hide away anything that would suggest that we have screwed up priorities and should be spending $600 million doing the things we are paying lip service to in the Summit of the Americas declaration.
Let’s put on our best smile and hope the world doesn’t notice the holes in our teeth.

Now that don’t kill me
Can only make me stronger
I need you to hurry up now
Cause I can’t wait much longer
I know I got to be right now
Cause I can’t get much wronger
Man I’ve been waitin’ all night now
That’s how long I’ve been on you

Stronger, Kanye West

On a hot day in a school in Laventille, I am reasoning with a student. This beautiful young woman of 17 years or so. I say to her, what do you want to be? She laughs and says a stripper.

Her classmates laugh too, because to them it is a joke, as funny as their lives being lived out in predictable boxes.

On a hot day in a school in Laventille painted in colours disturbingly similar to the wall around the Royal Gaol, this beautiful young woman sums up the totality of her potential in saying that she wants to be a stripper.

I am not amused. I am also not surprised that she doesn’t hesitate to respond in the negative. I fight the urge to run from the room screaming and crying because she is living proof that you can build buildings but if you don’t build the people, your social fabric will crumble and then what is the point of phallic concrete edifices in you city?

I suggest to her that she creates her own reality. I suggest to her that words have power and if you call yourself a whore enough, the ease of the words on your tongue will numb you to the dread reality of your actions.

I ask her again what she wants to be. She says that what she wants for herself is not what other people want for her.

She says she wants to be a hairdresser and a singer. And I wonder who has told her that she can’t be anything she puts her mind to.

And because I’ve been spending hours a night online watching with a mixture of hope and exasperation the countdown to the US election, I can tell her that Sarah Palin’s make up and hair consultations came up to $41,000. I can tell her that my friends who do hair for a living make a lot more than I ever could on my chosen profession of word peddler.

I tell her about days travelling through China and Europe when I wished I could ‘do hair’ to make a little extra money.

Her classmates get the point. They get that I’m not kicksing with them. That I’m not another motivational speaker type trying to shove some cheesy sunshine ideology down their already jaded throats. Two want to be nurses, one girl wants to be an architect. The fellars are going for trades.

In my mind I replay lots of discussions I’ve had with grown-ups who think de youts an dem not up to anything much. But in this room of 17 and 18 year olds I see a future that we are deliberately dampening.

That there are so many programmes out there that no-one is taking advantage of. And there is much truth to that, but how do we get to the point where people can’t even see themselves as anything else but at the bottom. How do we get young people out of their feelings of worthlessness that create this immobilization and/or inclination towards criminality.

I ask them what they think the rest of the country says about them. They say what I hear. That they will die young. That they won’t amount to much. And because I’m indulging in an escapist fantasy like everyone else who is watching the US elections but can’t vote, I say to them that they can be anything they put their minds to.

For those of my generation who have always lived in a time when our leaders look like us but have never managed to capture even one percent of our hope, dreams or aspirations unless they involved rum, roti or a free jersey and bus ride, we are madly hopeful.

So I say to these 17 and 18 year olds that their role for the next five or so years is to defy the expectations this society has of them. To live outside of a box or live in a box of their own making.

Because if a man called Barrack Hussein Obama can have a reasonable shot at being the President of the United States of America then by ShangoAllahShivaJesus, anything is possible.

I want to apologise to them for raising them to doubt themselves. For raising them to think that asking for a hand-out from the government is the way to survive.

These have been a most bizarre few months full of ridiculous hope, when I didn’t even want to entertain the possibility that a man like Barack Obama would be nominated, let alone live through a campaign.

We can only indulge in escapist fantasies about what it would be like to actually feel motivated by a politician. But whatever the result on November 4,  a 17 year old girl doesn’t have to be a stripper and the boy sitting next to her doesn’t have to be a shotta.

Things are possible if you choose to believe in your capacity to make them happen.  That basic principle of survival is easy to forget in a national chorus of accusation.  So much so, that you begin to doubt that you were ever good.  The role of those who know better is to serve as a constant reminder of our goodness and our beauty and our potential.

Lost in the Floods

You may say that I’m swimming against the tide
You may say that it’s just my sense of pride
But I still believe that no one can match our natural energy
Even though we seem to be running on empty
I still believe that we’re the land of plenty
I can still hear it in the sweet lilting way that we talk

Beloved, David Rudder

Red, black and white buntings flap in the rain. Red, black and white dresses in shop windows. Red blood spilt on black asphalt. White rain falls on my rusty galvanise roof and I wonder late into the night about people on the other side of the island whose houses are swimming.

It’s the week before Independence and the streets are hot with people bawling at the price of school books, even as sportswear outlets encourage parents to buy brand name shoes so that their children will feel good about themselves and therefore be more willing to learn.

The rain comes with as much vengeance as the heat, a sudden dread greyness descending on the city, sending shoppers, posers and commuters scampering.

In the shadow of red, white and black buntings, as Papa Patos flies around, trying to convince others to get together, hear people talking independence talk.

They are watching the fruit of their litterings bring floods to lap at their feet clad in too-expensive brand name shoes.

If the white people was still in charge, hear a woman say. If the white people was still in charge we wouldn’t have these problems. Say what you want about them, the white people know how to run a country. They put everything in place for us to run the country and what we come and do with it?

If the white people was still in charge we would of know our place in the world and it wouldn’t have floods to stop us from reaching home.

Even as New Orleans braced for another battering three years after Ms Katrina swept through to reveal that even white people in charge could run their countries inefficiently and with a startling lack of concern for poor people. Our leaders have learned well.

Red, black and white buntings flap in the rain and a pirate blasts songs about Laventille sung in a Jamaican construction. There’s a sound clash going on, between the pirates and the water rushing like Port-of-Spain is a big river.

Women in nice shoes shelter from the rain, talking loud above the din about who saw whose photos on Facebook, the most stylish mode of macoing for the upwardly mobile Trini. They talk their Independence talk about what fetes are on this weekend. What red dress they will buy to show how independent they are. They don’t need no man to buy nails for them. They are independent. They are free to shake their assets, free to spend their minimum wages, free to wear good hair made in China.

The rain eases up and people move on, returning to the regular Port-of-Spain beat. The more things change the more they stay the same. Square-jawed soldiers, big-armed with big arms, walking around, keeping the peace.

Endless jam session on the streets. The highway floods again and the Works and Transport Minister thinks it’s bizarre. He thinks it’s a man-made problem, blaming it on irresponsible citizens who denude hillsides and not at all on an irresponsible government deregulating the quarrying industry and rabid concretisation by big and small business.

Red, black and white buntings flap in the breeze like flags in a fete, and on Thursday night like the red, white and blue flags in a stadium in Denver where all eyes are on a wondrous sight.

And the man in the stadium in Denver speaks with eloquence and fire and spirit and a whole set of things that you wish you could get in more politicians.

The thing that stands out the most is when he says we can’t meet 21st century challenges with 20th century bureaucracy.

It’s the truest truth ever expressed about Trinidad’s failure to truly experience independence in these here times, even though it’s not about us.

Bunting flaps to the rhythm of our shortcomings, un-lived dreams and broken promises of fathers in dark glasses who leave us only words. Words that 46 years later ring hollow. Somebody else’s dream from somebody else’s time.

Surely we are more than red, black and white bunting. More than parades and fetes and changing the names of awards.

We are more than we can imagine in this Independence time. Bizarrely, all that is worth holding on to keeps being washed away in floods.

Yes we can too

It’s been too hard living
But I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there
Beyond the sky
It’s been a long
Long time coming
But I know
A change is gonna come
Oh yes, it will.
Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke

Yes we can. Yes we can. Say it like a mantra, because if you chant it enough you might actually begin to believe that it’s true.

In this cynicism time, in this hopeless time when I am tired and fed up and just about ready to give up on humanity, a source of possibility comes from the least likely of places.

Here in the shadow of the US, here where our resources are being used to fuel their excesses so that we can then afford to make them ours. Here where foreign men are given absolute power to make decisions about how we are to see ourselves. And conquistadors still think the natives will be fooled by their shiny trinkets.

And it’s not like I want to count egg in fowl bottom or anything, but someone like Obama as President of the US is almost too much for my radical heart to bear.

With little black boys falling like so many tears of so many mothers.

With Mugabe frothing at the mouth in Rome and Papa Patos smelterising on fertile soil that we could be using to feed ourselves.

Obama’s newness is enough to make you think that it really might be possible for things to start to change. And no, I don’t think that one, maybe two four-year terms is enough to repair 200 years of genocide and Manifest Destiny. One, maybe two four-year terms will not make me forget Grenada or Iraq.

And no I don’t want a black messiah. No, I don’t want another black man for us to make excuses for. I don’t want another jive-talking politician. And I don’t want to be a member of anybody’s fat-arse brigade.

I just want something else. Something different. Not another old white male fossil. And it’s not that there is anything wrong with old men per se. Jah know we need our elders now more than ever to remind us of what used to be good about Trinidad. What they were able to create in spite of enslavement and indentureship and war and oppression.

Not another big business, old money, barely literate liar like Dubya. Enough already.

In the same way, we desperately need something different here in the shadow of America. Not another old African/Indian male fossil. Spouting the same rhetoric. Bankrupt of ideas. Bankrupt of vision. Bankrupt of integrity. Making us feel that is the sum total of our potential. To become somebody else’s version of ourselves.

A society’s politicians reflect that society. So it’s opportune that Obama has arrived when he has in the way he has. Maybe there are more people in America now who want something different.

But if we are to take that same principle, what do our politicians say about us? And what does it mean about us if no brave souls with integrity and vision are willing to come forward and take a chance?

Down here in the shadow of America I have to say he’s as much my presidential candidate. All of us have to take an interest in what goes on for the next few months, because it’s as much about us as it is about them.

And I never thought I would find myself saying these words, but this is one time when we should be following America. This is one wave to become caught up in. This is one wave I want to arrive at our shores and wash away the apathy and the lack of political substance.

To relieve us of our extreme boredom with what passes as leadership in the Lower House. A bunch of bepping kicksers who have nothing new to contribute.

Yes we can too. We too can change our politics. We too can get rid of the old guard. Even if the new guard is to make mistakes.

Chant it like a mantra. Chant it until you too start to believe.

Dreaming with Obama

I want to write about Barack Obama, but I find myself thinking a lot about Toussaint L’Ouverture.Toussaint who dared to think that he had a right to be in control of his own destiny.

Toussaint who did what no-one thought was possible.

We all know, or at least we’re supposed to know, the story of Haiti, even as now Haitians languish in 200 years of punishment for the sheer farseness of thinking that they could rule themselves.  Toussaint, the revolutionary, the great black hope, who died in a French prison. Haiti, that great statement of fight that was forced to pay reparations to France for the loss of their most lucrative colony.

In the past few weeks, in a flurry of e-mails sent back and forth around the world, in the din of endless debates and polls and reports and never-ending coverage, I’ve been thinking about Toussaint.

What would it mean to this region to have a black man as President of the United States of America?

What would it mean for a region that has so consistently since Independence been disappointed by leaders, African, Indian, European and in-between?

In truth, we haven’t had much luck with people who look like us. In fact in many cases, the people who look like us have turned out to be even worse colonials than the colonials themselves.

It’s a peculiar and troubling time to be black in Trinidad, in the world. And I’m not on any victim trip, but Jah, why is it that we’re still so uncomfortable with talking about race? We daily refuse to acknowledge the thing that is most used to divide us.

African-Americans are overcome with hope. It’s a huge deal for them because there’s never ever been a black President of the USA. They want it so badly, they can taste it. They don’t know like we do that it’s possible for your leader to look like you and still jam you with dry pommecythere seed.

The problem with Obama is that he fits none of the stereotypes that the world has of black America. He’s not a rabble-rouser, or thug gangsta, he’s no jive-talking mofo. And so perhaps he is more dangerous, because the possibility in his eyes is infectious.

Perhaps if he weren’t so near the ideal image of a dignified, well-spoken, determined black man I’d be more comfortable with him.

I would not invest any emotion in him. My heart wouldn’t skip a beat at the beginning of a debate as if it was Brian Lara’s wicket I was terrified of being taken by the dreadest of the Australian spinners.

I don’t want to like him just because he’s a black man, in the same way that I don’t want to like Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman.

Those characteristics don’t necessarily a great leader make. I almost don’t want to make myself like him, because I don’t think I would be able to take it if he turned out to be a disappointment in any form.

The closer and closer it gets, the more terrified I get. That they’ll try to kill him. That he’ll turn out to be a huge disappointment. That he’ll try very hard but the neo-cons and the big business massas will undermine his ability to make a difference. Because in America, just like in Trinidad, it’s not just the President that’s running the country, but the people with the paper.

The problem is that Obama will inherit a civilisation in decline. On the brink of collapse and of course it will all be the black man’s fault.

I fear that the people who want things to remain the way they are will not permit someone like Obama to survive.

Or maybe the time has really come where even a black man can get a bligh.

We would all really like for Obama to be the one. To make us love America again. To make things okay again. To see Martin Luther King’s much bandied dream come to light for real.

Barack Obama must have a terrible weight on his shoulders, to return hope to a generation of men and women who have known more disappointment than is reasonable, given our lack of chains and our wealth of resources.

Who are tired of martyrs and even more tired of sell-outs.