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.

Castle in the Sand






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.

In the Dungeon

When you enter the final dungeon in Elmina Castle the stench is unbearable, as is the noise of millions of ancestors who died in agony or made their final journey out of Africa there. I felt like my head would explode so Eintou gave me guinea pepper and white rum to stabilize my Ori. The doorways are so very narrow, the final insult for those who survive the horrendous conditions to make the crossing is that you have to bend, practically crawl into the last dungeon. Even me with my less than fat self, had to hunch my shoulders in and turn a little sideways to get through the Door of No Return. The sea roared. Yemoja wailing across centuries. Through my tears I notice how much Elmina looks like Manzanilla.

A dose of Reality

Gone are them days
When we loved each other
Gone are them times
When we were together
No more smiling face
No more warm embrace
In my home I’m like a stranger.

—Gone are the Days, Lord Shorty

The silence in this part of town is dreadful at this hour. It is about 8 pm on Emancipation Day and at the bottom of George Street only haunted souls seek refuge in the shadow of buildings that look as broken as they do. The mother in her wisdom decides that my nephews, who have had a spectacular day filled with dancing, drumming for Aunty Kamla and generally just being their fabulous selves, need a first dose of another kind of reality.  So we are going downtown to distribute food. I remember my days of doing this too. When the mother would make us pack baskets of food and take for children in the various homes around the country, especially during the holidays. We would sing and perform for children who had no mothers. Or absent ones. And mostly I remember something like jealousy for all the children who would be clamouring just for her hugs. The lesson I imagine we were supposed to learn is that we should never take for granted the blessings that we had. Even though we didn’t always get what we wanted, she insisted that we recognise that we were fortunate to have food and shelter and a good education and, most importantly, people who loved us.

The promise of better for the future is in this next generation, the children of my sisters. Who have so much, despite not having those contemporary trappings of affluence that parents are now bending over backwards to be able to afford for their children. For me as the number one auntie it is important that I help them hold on to their childhood for as long as possible. Insist that they enjoy life before they become too cynical. That they cultivate a desire for learning new things and be their best selves all the time. They are surrounded with so much love that maybe in a few years when they are surly teenagers they will accuse us like we accused our mother and her contemporaries of smothering us in their covering of love and almost manic protection. We take great pains to protect them from the big, cruel world. They live a sheltered life, where everyone loves them. They live a charmed life, where there is always enough, there is always someone who has an answer.

But every now and again it’s good to give them a good dose of reality. To remind them to be thankful for what they have. In case in the arrogance of youth they come to think that they are still entitled to things that they do not work for. Do not give thanks for. Do not recognise that someone else has to sacrifice to ensure that they have. It is a much steeper learning curve than I could have imagined. They are stunned by what they see. In these hours when they are home eating, or watching TV, or getting up to every imaginable mischief. And you might see vagrants in the day. But at night the spirits that walk the streets of our capital are a testimony to how many lonely souls inhabit this place. Earlier in the day we passed all these streets, kept moving to the sound of drums and the shuffle of our feet marching in time, picking up the polyrhythms, jumping with relief that we are still free. Like my father says, his mother could never even say the word enslavement, calling it instead “that thing” to describe what her mother had just narrowly escaped. Terrified that the colonial powers might change their minds and bring the shackles and the whips back. And I wonder what she would say now, of these shadows of men stretching out their hands to take this small offering of food from my niece and nephews on a big Emancipation Day when just hours ago we were dancing, happy to be free.

A tiny sliver of a man is pushing his cart up George Street. We slow down and my niece asks him if he wants something to eat. His hesitation lasts for a couple seconds, like he is trying to remember a time when he wasn’t having to accept a mystery box of food from young strangers. He says thanks as my niece hands over the box. And we move on. Not wanting to look back at the size of the load on his cart and where he finds the strength through his hunger to push the cart up the street. Further up the road we slow down again. There is a young man sitting on the pavement, and when Kayode asks him if he wants some food he puts his fingers in his ears and pulls his knees up to his chest. And Miles Davis is wailing out of the car’s speakers like a siren calling for some higher power, even as distant police sirens punctuate the long silences. Soon the boxes run out and when this happens the car is surrounded by three or four pairs of eyes, staring at us in a combination of distress and accusation. The children are bewildered by the outstretched hands that will get nothing from them this night. Kayode is apologetic and I am nervous that we are isolated on a street with desperate people. Who may or may not be in touch with their humanity.
Shanya has a tremor in her voice and for a moment I fear that this is too much of a baptism of fire for them. Yes they know that there is poverty in the world and people who have nothing. But that is for other places. In this land of plenty it is hard to believe that there is anyone who has nothing. Either by choice or by circumstance or by crack habit.

And I say to her that it is not for us to feel sorry for them, but to bring into sharp relief how fortunate we are to have the things we do. The miracle of plenty that is considered to be nothing. I think about the guava tree that gives a daily present of over 30 perfect, worm-free guavas. Forcing me to question why we describe hard times as guava season and not the season of possibility. And to compound this I go online and discover that the lowly guava is good for high blood pressure and good for your skin and good for fighting cancer. And it’s not just about food. Food is easy to find, here. I imagine that what we throw away daily is enough to feed those who we scorn for digging in dustbins, without realising that we are the depraved ones for throwing out good food. The real tragedy is people who have no one to love them. I can hardly imagine how long it’s been since anyone has reassured them, you are real. You are important. You are loved. Even those people who have not made it to the streets. Even the boys hardly living to be men are dying for someone to hold them. And tell them they are loved. They are human. They mean something to someone. If you don’t have this then food and money and life mean nothing. That is why it is so easy for them to take it. To give it up. This is what makes life worth living. This is what makes freedom something worth fighting for. This is how we find our humanity. In giving a bit of our excess love and light and joy to people who may have forgotten what that is like.

Vybz Kartel – the new face of freedom

See me, want me, give me, trust me
Feed me, —- me, love me, touch me
This whole world is cold and ugly
What we are is low and lovely
I am the most beautiful boogie man
The most beautiful boogie man
Let me be your favourite nightmare
Close your eyes and I’ll be right there

—The Boogie Man Song, Mos Def

It’s no accident that Vybz Kartel is in T&T to perform this weekend. Of all the weekends in the year, Emancipation weekend. When we allegedly celebrate freedom. When we dress up like Carnival time in costumes that we do not understand, that may or may not reflect who we are. When one group separates itself from the rest and the rest look on, unmoved. Feeling no sense of solidarity or understanding that freedom is a collective investment. I can’t say I’m terribly fond of Kartel. He’s not my generation of music, but I guess I understand why young people would like him. He appears to be the antithesis of everything that the rest of society stands for while not so subtly reinforcing age-old capitalist, sexist, racist notions on irresistible dancehall beats. But this is what freedom is about. The freedom to choose who you are and what you look like. Vybz Kartel is probably the world’s first post-black star, bending our notions of who we are or how we want to look. Because freedom was never only about getting rid of the chains. Freedom was never about one day when somebody else told you you could do whatever you wanted with the life you hadn’t known while you were busy making someone else rich.

Not much has changed and these days most people are still engaged in the act of making other people rich off their endless labour. Thinking that money can buy them freedom engages them more in their enslavement. To clothes, to Courts, to Forres Park, to sex. Kartel is the new face of freedom. Free to bleach. Free to mask himself and I wonder what Franz Fanon would make of him. And I wonder if his ancestors are glad that they worked themselves to death so that he could feel good about making himself look like a permanent minstrel. The truth is, though, that women of Africa, south-Asia, the Caribbean have been lightening their skin for centuries, but women are usually the ones prone to self-mutilation in the quest for acceptance. Kartel represents a kind of new black man. Who is no longer simply confident in the privilege of being both absolutely feared and desired at the same time. This is equal opportunity self-transformation into something more visually appealing. Because if they change the way they look maybe then the rest of the society might change the way they see black people.

The girls love off his bleach-out face, he boasts. With relief that he is finally on equal footing with the red men that run the region. Thank Jah for emancipation. If not we wouldn’t be free to be what we want to be. And at the opening of the Emancipation Village the Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism fumbles over the word decimation. Not remembering perhaps that he sang about this same thing years ago.
Decimation. Decimation. It’s a hard word to say and swallow. It’s what is happening every day to little black boys that Gypsy and his government and the Emancipation Support Committee and anyone else who expresses any interest in saving must face. But Vybz Kartel, who has in the past year become the face of post-Dudus dancehall, part gangsta, part vampire, is a challenge to those of us who think emancipation is just about one kind of freedom. These days with every other cable station carrying its own vampire show and Americans coming to make our folklore real with heat-seeking cameras and white girls boldface enough to ask Count Lopinot why he still jum-bieing the people’s lives, the cult of the undead lives in dancehall. In vocals they kill each other for fun, while their Gaza and Gully neighbours kill each other for real.

Like a ghoul out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video that used to give me nightmares back in the 80s, Kartel haunts my mind, and I try to resist the desire to dance, because I can hear his words and they are far more terrible than what he has done to his face. It’s kind of funny when you really think about it. Vybz Kartel, the voice of emancipation for young people. In keeping with the level of hilarity that exists in this country. Because if you don’t laugh, the likelihood is that you might spend all your days weeping. Or hiding. Or hiding and weeping. If nothing else Vybz Kartel with his cake soap and his tattoos and his unfathomably banal lyrics represents either the failure or the success of past generations to pass on a sense of what a diaspora African identity is supposed to be. But this is what freedom is about I guess. To be so confident in your blackness that you attempt to erase every trace of it. To be so sure of yourself that you feel no qualms about moving from disguise to disguise. Until there is no difference between you and the mask. The mask is you. The mask is real. The mask is permanent. But that’s okay because it’s white and white’s alright. That is true freedom. That is true emancipation. Because blackness is the prison that black people fear the most.

Some Kind of Freedom

Meanwhile yuh dancin to dis musik
And tryin to figure out these lyrics
Meanwhile yuh drinkin and havin fun
Watch out
de revolution a come
Betta be a part a de solution
Dis mite be di final confrontation
Betta awake to dis reality
Dis is no time to lose yuh sanity

Any Which Way…Freedom, Mutabaruka

The smell of rotting sugar hangs over the Priority Bus Route like a ghostly reminder of times past.

It mingles with the more industrial smells of cars and burning copper.

The drains are dark brown into dark green, into plastic shiny silver in the early morning sunlight. Depending on what pollution the companies on the right side of the Bus Route are kind enough to share with the people of Beetham Gardens.

Emancipation Day comes and the smell of rum hangs like the spirits of all those angry restless ancestors.

Freedom, it seems, does not extend to the ability for some sections of our society to be able to breathe clean air.

Freedom does not mean that you have a right to enjoy the fact that massa day is done. And the bush that once lured your ancestors away from plantations is yours to roam free in whenever you please.

One hundred and seventy years later I am still trying to make sense of freedom on the Emancipation weekend.

One hundred and seventy years is much more than people can begin to imagine.

In the immediacy of these times, in the up-to-the-minute news and readily available everything-in-the-moment technology, yesterday seems like a faraway time and place.

One hundred and seventy years could very well be prehistoric times to young people who don’t have a sense of the presence far less for the past.

It seems like all celebrations are doomed to lose sight of what they really represent the further away from the event you go.

So Christmas becomes a reason to drink and eat to excess and Emancipation becomes a day to spend a lot of money to look like a free person.

And while the celebration continues and a holiday is a day for enjoying the fruits of one’s labours, who is really considering what it means to be free?

And in the same way that political leaders take an opportunity to dress up and pretend they care, and companies who don’t bother to support education programmes, never mind Emancipation programmes, put on big sales to sell pretty African fabric made in China, you have to wonder who are we pretending this sense of freedom for?

Too besides, do we really understand what it is to have chain-free ankles? Who knows that massa day is done? Who has switched physical chains for enslavement to a job and a house and a car?

Doomed to fail, for sure. Doomed to be forever divided between an underclass that has neither motivation nor means to improve and a black elite so profoundly terrified of being thought to be black, whatever that is.

The complication now is not the chains on the feet or the amount of work to be done. But how to find the fine line between not black enough for the masses and too black to be socially acceptable.

So you resolve to enslave yourself to the things that now count as acceptable masters. To conspicuous consumption. To big gold chains or designer shoes. To a way of thinking and being that convinces you that you belong.

You have to wonder if freedom is some bizarre notion that only exists for some people and not for others. Because the way this society operates, it’s as if some people have more of a right to be free.

Some people have more of a right to enjoy this country while others feel they have a right to stop them from enjoying it.

They set us up that way and left it like that for us to wallow in our hierarchies and stereotypes forever.

Here every creed and race find an equal place but there is no solidarity. Only the Africans celebrate the fact that they are free. Only the Indians celebrate the fact that they arrived. What is the point of being cosmopolitan if we can’t even be bothered to share our triumphs and our failures?

What is the point of being happy for yourself and no-one else?

In the stink of my own rubbish and the stink of rotting molasses and the horror of buildings that say that I am better than I used to be, I wonder if it isn’t a Pyrrhic sort of victory, if a victory at all, when there are plenty who are convinced that you should still be in chains.