Breasts of Iron

Peter yuh doh know
The pressure I undergo
From these mad man and woman
Ah feel the full weight of dey hand
They make they oppress law
They never care about the poor
Peter these people had they day
Well now is time for Stalin to play.

—Bun Dem, Black Stalin


I am a little girl again standing at a bus stop in England waiting to go to school. Studying the display of Sindy dolls in the Woolworth’s window. And then dry so, without warning, like cobo falling dead out of the sky, an old woman walks up and punches me in the face. No warning. No shouted threats. Just an old mad white woman coming up to me at a bus stop and punching me in the face.  

I have no frame of reference for such violence. My tears are not from pain but from shock and confusion at what I could possibly have done for an old woman to come up and punch me in the face. My sisters are beside themselves and when I get to school with a bloody nose my classmates form a protective shield around me and share their fish fingers at lunch time. Even the hateful Claire Sommers doesn’t call me chocolate factory worker that day. 

By the time I get home my mother is pacing like a caged lioness. Somebody is going to die. My nose isn’t bleeding and there is only a little split on my lip, but she inspects me like I’ve been at war. A police officer is at the door soon. She talks for a while, trying to calm my mother who is in angry hysterics. 

She explains that this is what happens when you cut back on welfare. Old mad women are turned out of homes. Old mad women who have probably seen two black people in their lives, get nervous and disoriented and violent. This is what happens when you have iron breasts that don’t know what is nurturing. She said there is no such thing as society and society died. But people didn’t die and some of them roamed the streets like zombies lashing out at anybody who happened to be too close. 

 My nose healed up—she didn’t hit me hard enough to cause permanent damage—and after a while I wasn’t terrified to death of standing at the bus stop. But it hadn’t occurred to me how much that moment still affected me until I was walking in a stush part of London one night last summer and clutched my bag cowering as an old white woman walked swiftly up behind me. 

 She looked at me with such absolute confusion, as if she couldn’t imagine what I, an almost six foot, wild-haired black woman could possibly have to fear. Thatcher’s England still echoes now. In the policies of this new Con Dem government, in the naked neo-liberalism and war-mongering of Tony the Phony. In the bulldozed housing estates and the bedroom tax. In the bounding and unbridled and unregulated behaviour of banks and the expectation that taxpayers will bail them out. 

There’s no love lost between me and Mistress Margaret. She of iron will and unwavering principles. Breasts of iron do not belong to women who are interested in building a future for their children. She is no role model to me and I’d rather not have female leaders if that is what they do.

Still, I can’t bring myself to go to a party to celebrate her death. I am relieved that I know better and I am not from a place that makes old people invisible and because of her terrible example of what it is to be human, I appreciate the people around me who are more in touch with their humanity. 

Thatcherisms ripple across the globe. Thatcherisms multiply like mosquitoes in a foetid pond of global capitalism. And the London Stock Exchange and the business district are what my activist friend from India calls a Paradise for Parasites built on a solid foundation of slavery money. I think of her dying in the comfort of the Ritz hotel. I wonder what happened to that lonely, frightened old woman who punched me in the face. If she died alone and cold. 

I can’t vex with the cobo for falling out of the sky on the day that Margaret Thatcher died. As if the cobo themselves could not bear the possibility of picking the flesh from those iron bones. I don’t believe in Hell but if I did Mistress Margaret would be in it, spending a million lifetimes to account for all her sins. And maybe then she might weep real tears and rust a hole through her iron breasts and maybe then her heart might hurt for all the pain she caused.

First published in the Trinidad Guardian April 13, 2013

Farewell to the King

Heartbreak enemy despise
Love shines in my eyes
So let love take us through the hours
I won’t be complaining
’Cause your love is alright, alright
—Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough Michael Jackson

The first man any of us were in love with, notwithstanding Amitabh Bachchan on a Sunday afternoon. And now that they say he is gone I remember the eighties and long for that innocence again. When my big sister Didi was the coolest person alive. Because she could do the moonwalk and to add insult to injury allowed me with my annoying six-year-old self to lime with her and all her cool friends, not least of all, the boyfriend whose name was, oh sweet Lord, Michael. When Thriller came out and we listened to that record for hours and staged concerts in our living room for a scandalised George Lamming who had, to our own disgust, not yet heard of this marvel called Michael Jackson.
Back then, before the pederasty, before the plastic surgery, before Jacko became wacko, we loved him like a brother. Like a part of the family. He sang for us, for every black child wanting to be great. Wanting to be more than just skin and hair and nose. When those things became tangible talent, superstardom to take to you to moon and back, to soar endlessly. I laughed til I cried years later when Didi was in London and sent me a letter detailing her fainting as he came onstage at Wembley. By then he was thinner and whiter and stranger but still a star. Still worthy of causing my otherwise sensible sister to faint from the sheer emotional exertion of being so close to greatness. He was too great for this Earth. And so he became the joke, the freak show that we all are desperate to avoid. The non-belonging artist on the moon, far out in orbit, trying to get his fans to take the trip with him. No one is that amazing we try to tell ourselves. No one can be so great.
He soars higher still, but we decline the journey preferring to lose ourselves in the driving sex-soaked bass of dancehall and the frustrated realism of hip hop. None can deny though, not Sizzla, not Public Enemy, not Method Man, that the King is the King. His time is gone now, a sacrifice at the feet of superstar gods who demand the ultimate price for such genius. Madness haunts any who dare to fly so high. His face melted like Icarus wings and none of us held out our hands to catch him. And it occurs to me that the thing we robbed him of is the thing he represents the most to all of us. He gave us the happy childhood he never had, haunted as he was by genius madness and demands for those less talented for him to reach never-before-seen heights of superstardom.
He gifted us a less difficult time. A less complicated time when you could be in love with a superstar. When you could dance away your troubles. Back then when you didn’t know every awful gory detail of his life, you couldn’t hear the pain in his wailing. You couldn’t hear the loneliness in his high fragile voice. You could just see the moonwalk as a dance and not a man retreating to some far far place where none of the people who exploited his immense talent could reach him. I mourn not just a singer. I mourn a symbol of my own struggle to know and love myself. How many black people wished they had that Jackson money to change their faces into something that might be more beautiful by someone else’s standards.
How many want to rub out their reflections so that the nightmares do not stare back when they look into the mirror. How many fight demons every day. His heart broke because we didn’t believe in him anymore and I am sure he stopped believing too. Part of me wants to believe that he is not dead. Because he was meant to be immortal. He was meant to transcend this physical place because the Earth was far too puny a place for him. The King is not mere flesh that withers on the bone. The King is pure electricity now. Existing in our nerve endings, infectious and divine. The King stops time and space to make people forget their troubles and dance. Forget their sorrows and dance. Like the first time you heard Billie Jean and wondered what manner of man could make their spirit want to jump out of their skins, just so?
It is the power of music. In that moment of moonwalk nothing else matters. He walks on the moon alone. He trods the superstar road alone. He dies alone. Unrecognisable by those who came to know themselves through his music. Far more than any of us have wished for ourselves. Far more than any of us could have dreamed for him.

On arrival

We know that mankind have one destination
Which is to fly which is soar
High above the trees
Be the king of all he surveys and sees
Mankind pushing out here
Struggling out here
With one breath of life
Searching for higher
Doh mind the road might be rocky or steep
We not going sleep
We not sticking
—Wrong Chord, 12

They call it Arrival Day but do we ever get there? When we get on the boat and cross the waters, leaving behind everything we know and love, what do we meet on the other end? When we arrive are we welcome? Do we have a right to belong here? Who decides that for us? And where here is, anyway? What is the place that we call home? Whose right is it to call here home? What of other Indians who were here long before Columbus got a case of wanderlust? Who celebrates this arrival? Who is happy to see more migrants? Who is willing to share what little they have. Who will learn to eat my food and sing my songs and dance the dance of my gods? Who will believe the hype that the other is bad? Who will go to great lengths to keep from mixing up too much?
We have arrived. At some place where some are more equal than others.
We have arrived at a time when the race paranoia should be dead and gone. Should be. If not for political manoeuvres and hand-outs so meagre that the almost forgotten sting of the $17 million pappyshow Summit opening gala comes back like heartburn from mother-in-law. We have arrived at some kind of purgatory where death stalks the innocent and the guilty with equal ferocity. Where smelter plants grow big and poisonous and those who were lied to about receiving nonexistent jobs come to confront the reality of ecological disaster on their doorsteps. We have arrived at a place of great sadness and shame.
Sadness for those who celebrate a day that others act like they greatly regret. Shame for those who look like me but do not act in my interest.
We have arrived like never-see-come-sees to the top of our interchange, to take pictures at how fast we can get to our uncharted destinations. We have arrived at nirvana. Where a temple would see no problem with cutting down a 184-year-old samaan tree, because not even for the pantheists is the earth sacred anymore. We have arrived at no integrity and no accountability and no solidarity. We have arrived at Presidents and priests close enough to God to absolve themselves. We have arrived at the conclusion that this place is not worth fighting for, so we devote all our energy and attention to far more important things like who wins the Champions League or which big lawyers are fighting over which young attorney.
We have arrived to a place where everyone is unwilling to ask the questions or seek the answers. We have arrived so we think the journey is at an end. That we don’t need to confront the past. The places that we came from, the place that find ourselves in now, what we will leave for children. We have arrived and now we get on with the business of living. Of loving and dreaming, of creating a whole new world. With old ideas that do not fit our present realities. We have arrived at institutionalised racism and a dictatorship that used to creep but must be having a Star Trek moment because by Jah it seems to be hurtling at warp speed.
We have arrived but for some it is time to leave again. To arrive at some other place, to reshape some other identity. We have arrived but don’t know the difference between legacy and longing. Between culture that lives and customs that change to suit the place, the climate. Where bhajans can be played on pan and Mama Osun hails Ganga Mai in the sweet waters that run through these hills. We have arrived but do not yet understand that douglarisation is as much intellectual as it is physical. That we celebrate Arrival Day because at some point we were all brought here. By force or by choice.
Nothing is an accident and perhaps the universe has conspired for these arrivals so that we can confront what we left behind and how we will build what we have here.
We are still arriving. This is not the end of the journey. We still have a long long way to go.

Love and Baigan – A Maticoor Meditation

Republic Maticoor

When Gab, my sistren from the year nought jokingly suggested that I organize and host her maticoor at the Republic a month ago it didn’t seem so odd. 

Given that I am a post modern Orisa/Rasta ecofeminist and Gab is a Rapso feminist activist, former Miss Mastana Bahar and her family is actually Muslim Indian via Afghanistan. AND she was getting married to an African man in Christian ceremony.

I engaged in the process the same way I engage in any kind of celebration, with wild abandon and excitement.

This was not to be a regular maticoor by any stretch of our imaginations.  It was less than rites but more than tradition.  But that is the Trinidad experience — creating new interpretations of old things, making culture relevant  and current and alive and vital.  

 It didn’t matter that I’m not Indian or Hindu or a family member.

In our reasonings about what we wanted the maticoor to be, Gab and I agreed that to call it a maticoor was to take the name with its local cultural and social significance specifically to women and make it our own.  

As women confronting this Trinidad landscape, claiming space, expressing views, thoughts, dreams, desires we know the restrictions on this freedom.  The maticoor then becomes that last chance for us to come together and surround our sister friend with all our light, all our hope and all our admonishing that this mouth called marriage doesn’t swallow her up, consume her so totally that she no longer is the person we knew.  A better stronger person perhaps. Because what is love if it doesn’t give you the energy to be an amplified version of yourself?

On the day of the maticoor I ended up in a shop in San Juan market with the mother.  I bought some coconut oil and wicks for the deyas I planned for Gab’s circle of light.  I stood there talking with the female shop owner, asking her about the various puja items on sale.  We chatted for a long time too about the similarities between Hindu rites and practices and Ifa/Orisa rites and practices.  About the late Orisa priest Baba Sam who often said his prayers in Sanskrit, of Ravi Ji who I call Uncle.

An Indian man,  a Jehovah’s Witness tried to engage me and the mother in a conversation about Christianity and why the Bible is the only truth.  There was a lot of snorting and steupsing from us at this point.  A few shoppers stopped their shopping to hear how the conversation was going.  Anyway to cut a long story short, the mother shouted at the man ‘Conversion is the worst crime perpetrated against people like us.  A lot of Indian people had to convert to Christianity, change their names and their way of life to keep their jobs, to send their children to school.  Orisa people used to have to run from police for playing their drums.  Pay respect to your ancestors who sacrificed so much for you to be here!’

In our circle later that night, after Burton had sung his ribald maticoor songs and then orikis to Orisa goddesses Yemoja, Osun and Oya and of course Sparrow’s Maharajin and we sat watching our mehendi’d hands dry, we all dressed as our personal sheroes – I am Phoolan Devi, in a circle of Parvati, Gaia, Winnie Mandela, Artemis, Athena, Yemoja, Osun… 

I spare a thought for the Jehovah Witness man who must still be scratching his head over the encounter with me and the mother.  I spare a thought for his version of the story which can only ever be one way.  That his worldview is limited by his belief system that says there is only one truth.  

We gather there in that circle giving Gab our love and advice.  The melongene comes out and we collapse into giggles.  Love and baigan are things that we all know. Experiences that we all share.  We give our best ideas and advice.

Trini men are special enough for us to try to figure out how to love them and demand that they love us in ways that are affirming, empowering, enlightening.

In a place and time when we presume women are disempowered, whether by marriage, religion or just the goddamn competing patriarchies that battle for women’s bodies and minds in this country, the maticoor then is a space of power for women where they can celebrate themselves, their femininity, sexuality freely.

 The maticoor is a moment of woman obeah.  To remind us of our power and how to use it.  That setting of a stage where the bride knows that the women have her back.  

Trinidad is such a subtle, nuanced place.  It’s easy to get it wrong. It’s easy to think that race divides us, which it does in bizarre ways.  That we succumb to the politics of nigger and coolie paranoia, which we do in the worst of times.  No mistake, there are a lot of people in Trinidad for whom that is a reality.  There are a lot of people in Trinidad who fully and committedly engage in the politics of resentment.  Who use difference as a dividing line.  

But it is never that simple.  So it is up to us who have had this upbringing that is all of the above: Indian and African and western and Baptist and Amitabh Bachchan on a Sunday afternoon and Viv Richards and pan to develop the capactity to deal with our cultural schizophrenia rather than try to disentangle it and try to construct some singular identity.  That’s not just impossible, it’s impossibly boring.

Maybe it is up to the women to lead the way to this easier understanding of this country’s complexities.  To an acceptance of how we mix and mingle and our sharp edges become softened by a constant rubbing against the Other. Until the other is yourself and you are the other.  And maybe a dougla maticoor is not the answer to all our problems.

 But surely love and baigan are key ingredients in any effort to bring us all a little closer.

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.