let’s stop wagging the dog

The year is 2015.

During last night’s Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” co-anchor Michael Che suggested that the only black life that matters to white America is Kendrick Lamar’s (why else would he have received 11 Grammy nominations?).  There have been 63 anti-Muslim incidents documented this calendar year according to a recent study conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and cited by CNN.  Women’s reproductive choices are still being debated by people other than themselves.  A white male Christian terrorist who attacked Planned Parenthood has not been uniformly referred to as a terrorist (see my previous sentence).  Enrobed in the cloak of justice, another white male referenced an amicus brief as he made comments which suggested that black students lack academic fortitude (details here).  And of course I cannot not mention that the meaning of my given name is being palimpsested, written over, and reinscribed with images, ideas, and a menacing terror that is antithetical to the thousands year old Egyptian deity for whom I am named.  These are just some of the anxiety-producing realities trending today. How is one to cope?

When fear escalates and a hopeless outlook on tomorrow threatens to blanket society, those who can have often found comfort in film.  Not surprisingly, the movie industry has been soothing and stoking race, color, gender, and class anxieties since the turn of the 20th century.

Originally titled The Clansman (yes, as in in the Ku Klux Klan), D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) changed the film industry forever. Released fifty years after the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States, the film echoed the anti-Negro sentiment that continued to hold America in its grip.  Its scope, length, and production costs were unlike anything anyone had seen before.  African American film authority, Paul Bogle clarifies why this film was so critical in his comprehensive text Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film (2001, 4th ed.), noting: “[…] in articulating his thesis, Griffith seemed to be saying that things were in order only when whites were in control and when the American negro was kept in his place” (p. 10).  So powerful was this film in its depiction of romantic bigotry, that the American film industry, I would argue, has never actually recovered from it.  If you have seen the film then you know the story: the Cameron men of Piedmont, South Carolina must defend “white womanhood, white honor, and white glory” and “restore to the South everything it has lost, including its white supremacy” (Bogle 12). To do this is a mark of success and the nation is born again with the birth of the KKK.  Notably, I will add, IMDb offers less pointed summaries of the film. Imagine screening this film in 1915.  Imagine how this film soothed and stoked race, color, gender, and class anxieties.  Know the power that this film continues to carry today.

In the hundred years since the release of The Birth of a Nation, America has seen many, many movies.  Gangster films and the horror genre pulled America through the Great Depression. Sci-fi films both questioned and eased concerns about the A-bomb, aliens, and artificial intelligence. Fantasy and action movies offered escape from the humdrum of daily life. But the westerns of the 1950s and 60s (curiously, the same years of the Civil Rights era) and the more contemporary superhero film category that has grown steadily since the late 1970s and officially hit its box office stride in the early 2000s, are the two quintessentially American genres. From super-shooters John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to superheroes Batman and the Avengers, Americans have vainly been drawn to movies that uphold the nation’s sense of honor, duty, and being white knights who save the little guy or girl.  Why? Well, because these genres play up audiences’ desperate hope to – dare I say it! – “Make America great again.”

Despite the similarities we can too easily find between today and yesteryear, it is, in fact, December 13, 2015. Racists, xenophobes, and extremists of all kinds are all polling and trending right now in Global North history; but polling and trending are not tantamount to winning. Winning is a multi-national compromise being put into practice via a promise made at the COP21 UN climate change conference. The winningest person of the year is German Chancellor Angela Merkel (and Time offers 13 additional reasons why). Winning with a hat trick is Canada: the newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the 30 historically young and diverse ministers in Trudeau’s cabinet, and the faith-restoring viral video of the children’s choir welcoming Syrian refugees with a familiar Arabic song (as seen here or check your FB or Twitter feed).  And in these politically frustrating times, I cannot help but return to Wag the Dog (1997), which is a winning film that reminds us not to let divisive noise distract us from honoring altruistic achievements that benefit more than ourselves.

climate change is real and fictional

A couple of days ago my dear and long-time friend, Caroline Mair, wrote a critical piece for the Trinidad Guardian titled “Climate Change, Refugees, and Migration.”  Written from her outpost in London, the article both globalizes and personalizes the devastating effects that climate change can bring.  Mair points to Syria and notes how years of drought exacerbated the political and civilian tensions that strengthened terrorists and created refugees, such that every-day people were forced out of their home country and across Europe. (Indeed as I prepare this post, Syrian refugees are arriving in Canada seeking a better life.) Mair also points to  Trinidad, her own homeland, and highlights the damaging climate change reality for small islands as well.  With rising sea-levels and the unpredictable powerful hurricanes that have been occurring with greater frequency, do we need much more proof that climate change is real and not fiction?

It is understood that droughts lead to water scarcity and food shortages; however, some politically right critics (see this Breitbart News piece) have debated the likelihood that climate change had any part in the rise of the Islamic State and the Syrian refugee crisis. Moreover, some critics wholly deny that there is a climate change problem at all (see this evangelical piece recently posted to The Gleaner).  Yet no one will deny that the lack of basic sustenance can lead to civil unrest, political instability, and breed fertile ground for an upswing in violence.

With this I cannot help but think of my Jamaica, which is the same Jamaica that Marlon James fictionalizes in his Man Booker prize winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014).  The hefty novel that swirls around the 1976 attempted murder of Bob Marley is drenched in violence of every order. But why such violence?  The novel discloses many of those reasons so I will not spoil anything for those planning to read the 600+ page book, but I will point out that Jamaica is familiar with drought, food shortages, water scarcity, and violent upswings.  Perhaps it should not be discounted that, according to Monitoring and Predicting Agricultural Drought: A Global Study Jamaica’s Sugar Industry Research Institute reported that  “disastrous droughts  occurred in 1976” (2005: 151).  On the heels of an oil crisis that toppled the nation, economic instability, warring political camps, a rise in gang lords, the influx of firearms, and an exodus of able Jamaicans seeking safer shores, there were also severe agricultural droughts.  The sharp rise in violent crime in Jamaica in 1976 is fictionalized by Marlon James but, reality informs fiction and it is a long time now that Bob Marley has warned: “a hungry man is an angry man.”

As the COP21  Climate Conference continues to work through the details, the world waits.  We wait to see what the 50,000 participants including 25,000 official delegates from government, intergovernmental organisations, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society” of 150 nations have decided is the way to lessen our devastation on the planet.  To curb the irreversible damage caused by our own modernity, the developed world ought to pay the polluter’s share.  I agree with Caroline Mair’s article in The Guardian and I agree with COP21 attendee Adriano Campolina of the South African based NGO ActionAid, who offered the following statement in the minutes before today’s discussions drew to a close: “Rich countries have a responsibility to ensure a fair global deal for everyone, not just themselves, and as we move into these final hours of negotiations poorer countries must not settle for anything less.”   Because if severe droughts had anything to do with the menacing violence of 1976 Jamaica, or the more contemporary crisis in Syria, we would be a world of fools not to do better.  I sincerely hope that COP21 will effect change.

rabbit hole of bass

I decided to follow a rabbit down… deep down… taking the path of deep bass.  Started with lsaac Hayes’ “Walk on by.”  Hayes led me to Portisheads’ “All Mine.”  Tried to come up for air, instead found Alessia Cara’s “Here.”  Had to laugh when the next turn took me to “Tyrone” courtesy of Eryka Badu…

a relationship of so much more

[M]ove on from that painful legacy,” encouraged British Prime Minister David Cameron on September 25, 2015  as he spoke not just to a joint sitting of Jamaica’s Parliament, but to Jamaicans locally and remotely who walk with the memory of slavery. Cameron’s words entered into the ears and deep into the cultural memories of those attending at Gordon House, Jamaica’s parliamentary building.  By asking Jamaicans to “move on,” the PM effectively denied the Jamaican ex-colony reparations for slavery and refused to apologize for the British Empire’s colonial role in that peculiar institution.

In the days following, social media, academics, politicians, and mainstream news outlets weighed in on the speech, none more eloquently than Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller’s predecessor, P.J. Patterson via an open letter to David Cameron.  Patterson responded by reminding the British PM and the wider webbed world that history is never in the past:

The 180 years of slavery in Jamaica remain fresh in living memory. There are people alive in Jamaica today whose great grandparents were a part of the slavery system and the memory of slavery still lingers in these households and communities. Those 180 years were followed by another 100 years of imposed racial apartheid in which these families were racially oppressed by British armies and colonial machinery. The scars of this oppression are still alive in the minds and hearts of millions of Jamaicans.  To speak of slavery as something from the Middle Ages is insufficient. For our communities its legacies are still present in their memory and emotions. To reject this living experience is to repudiate the very meaning and existence of these people’s lives.

Patterson’s words were firm and, for me, they rang clear with reverberations of iconic reggae band Burning Spear’s “Slavery Days.”  What Patterson describes as “living memory” is also what Burning Spear queries with a haunting refrain: the unsettling experience of past meeting present.  And surely it is Babylon’s voice that was ventriloquized through Cameron as he spoke those provocative words “…[M]ove on from that painful legacy.”

In these reflective weeks since Cameron first delivered his speech I have considered his editorial choices (or those of his speech writers).  Yes, Cameron ultimately employed the mute switch regarding a conversation about slavery, but he was very careful to maintain the melody of a longstanding relationship of influence between the nations, and he was very, very careful not to imply that that relationship was ever hierarchical. Instead Cameron leaned on his memory as he began his speech: “This place feels instantly familiar, […] this familiarity [between England and Jamaica] is about much more than just bricks and mortar.”  Indeed by “mov[ing] on” and muting some of the more brutal details of history in favor of a more idyllic narrative Cameron continues the colonial tradition of historicizing.  So, in many ways Prime Minister Cameron is right. England’s relationship with Jamaica is about “much more” and that unspoken “more” is transcribed into and infused into the Caribbean’s artistry.

The kind of revisionist nostalgia that Cameron put forth in his speech at Gordon House is precisely what Jamaica’s literary and musical artists are critically working against.  And for a hundred plus years writers from across the Caribbean have been providing an alternate response to the old African proverb: until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

Politics will always be politics, but how we as a community make sense of politics ought to be balanced by our region’s various modes of story telling.  From Burning Spear to Marlon James, Joe Arroyo to Julia Alvarez, Stuart Hall to Aime Cesaire, to name just a few, the artists and critics of the Caribbean are and have been the proverbial lions.  So, to build on Cameron’s words, I affirm that the relationship between art and politics is about much more.