we are all vulnerable, in a way

On the morning of Sunday, October 7, 2018, I turned on the television in a Miami hotel room and the NBC news scroll read: “Earthquake in Haiti, 11 dead.”*  The too-familiar words took my breath away.  Before the media footage could load, my own memory recalled the devastating aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. I said a prayer for those latest earthquake victims and I empathized with those now devastated by unexpected loss. The earth may have quaked on the northwest end of Hispaniola in Port-de-Paix, but the tremors vibrated the raw nerve of our human vulnerability.

Fast forward some twelve hours, to the relief of returning home to Jamaica from Miami, weary from a day of travel and several days of attending an academic conference. Imagine the heart-swell of good night kisses and the sweet hugs that yawn out “I missed you.”  Imagine the mundane act of fluffing a couch cushion then hearing the most unexpected terrestrial groan. Imagine hesitantly returning that pillow to the couch, dismissing the disturbance of doubt, taking a step toward the kitchen to get a glass of water, then feeling the most unexpected rumbling of earth rising from somewhere deep beneath the cool living room tile.  In that fight-or flight moment of WTF-awareness, I locked eyes with my husband and screamed out for our daughters as he and and I each took wide, balance-seeking steps towards the room’s sturdy door frames.  As I screamed, I wanted to choke it back. I was terrified that my fear would wake the children and, more frighteningly, I was fearful that I needed to wake them up in order to save them from disastrous harm.

Thankfully, in the seconds that it took to move 3 or 4 paces, the shaking had stopped.  The house had not fallen and our girls had not been disturbed.  The structure remained as sound as their sleep, even though the next several minutes saw me white-knuckling the threshold, grateful that the only shaking that remained was that of my knees.

I guess it’s true: We tend only to think of our vulnerability to nature when the worst threatens us or when the worst has come and destroyed. We find comfort in believing that vulnerability is usually seasonal. But beyond knowing where fault lines are, earthquakes are much less predictable and have no “season” to speak of.  Standing in my living room Sunday night, some 60 kilometers away from the epicenter near Hope Bay in Portland, I fought back that morning’s memories of the more than 200,000 Haitian souls who perished when the earth slipped and vulnerable, unsuspecting bodies bore the brunt of a fault some eight years ago.

In a matter of grumbling seconds, in a single sweep of high velocity winds, in a powerful surge of high tide, we become vulnerable and life as we know it can be lost.  Just ask anyone still picking up the pieces post-Hurricane Maria.  My fellow Terrapin and fellow Caribbean bad gyal-returnee, Schuyler Esprit, was featured in the May/ June 2018 issue of Caribbean Beat magazine. In the article, writer Lisa Allen-Agostini summarized the impact that the hurricane had on Esprit’s Create Caribbean Research Institute in Dominica: “September 2017 brought an immense setback, as Hurricane Maria struck Dominica, damaging or destroying ninety-five percent of the island’s buildings, including the Create Caribbean office […] and destroyed equipment Esprit had paid for out of her own pocket.”  After a disaster we are duly grateful when human lives have been spared; but our humanity is not only in our breath, it is also in what we create. It’s amazing to think that many lifetimes of work and investment can be obliterated in a single disastrous moment.

giphy-downsized

I have heard people complain with disappointment because they have never felt an earthquake. They complain as if they missed an opportunity to experience something joyful or exciting.  These folks must be thrill-seekers, I suppose. They must think that being out of control is fun.  I have heard people exclaim with delight that they would love to be in a tornado or a hurricane.  They speak gleefully of stocking non-perishables and batteries. They speak boastfully of living far enough inland to be safe from the surge, of living in earthquake-proof homes, and of having candles and generators to protect them from power outages. They speak of preparedness as if it’s a new tech-gadget that they are eager to put to use.  But if you have any empathy at all for those who live with the memory and the threatening possibilities that natural disasters bring, you would curb your enthusiasm.  Nature does not care about first-world preparations or third-world infrastructure limitations: just ask those impacted by Hurricanes Sandy in 2012 or Katrina in 2005 or the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011. giphy-tumblrAnd with Hurricane Michael having made record-breaking landfall in the Florida Panhandle as I type these words, it is not yet clear what level of devastation will be tallied when the winds stop and the water damage dries up.**

In Puerto Rico,  Hurricane Maria’s aftermath is still a clear and present reality because even though electric power has finally been restored, the psychological trauma remains and is even compounded when history is considered.  (For more, read this article by Lauren Lluveras where she takes stock of the post-Maria Puerto Rico. And read this article discussing the “modern day colonial relationship that the United States has with Puerto Rico.”)

This week celebrates a particularly violent history.  A few days ago on Monday, October 8th some folks honored the failed navigation of the great perpetrator of New World genocide, Christopher Columbus; while others honored the indigenous souls who lost their lives to colonization.  When I think of this Caribbean space, its vulnerabilities, its traumas, and its beauties, I am reminded of the words to “La Borinqueña” written by Manuel Fernández Juncos more than a hundred years ago in 1901. “La Borinqueña” is named for the indigenous Taino people who lived on what was then called Borikén but is now present-day Puerto Rico.  This territorial anthem of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico serves as a critical reminder of the entire region’s complicated history (see lyrics below).  How so? Well, consider this: How vulnerable is our Caribbean identity to nature?  Who will record our stories of trauma and how will they be recorded for posterity given the reality of our vulnerabilities? Who will tell our stories of peril and who will read/listen to them?  I listen to this anthem*** and I think we are more than the “flowery gardens” that Juncos memorializes in song.  I read the lyrics and know that we are no longer defined by Columbus’ perception of us.

Empathy is why we read. Empathy is why we watch movies. Empathy is why we listen to music. And empathy is why we plug-in to social media.  We want to feel connected to the world around us and the internet allows us to connect, empathetically at times, to people a world away. Through that connection, the internet allows us a digital space to be vulnerable to emotional devastation.

Connected as we are, we often worry more about internet vulnerability and how malware and computer viruses can erase our identities than how forces of wind, water, or fire can.  We don’t think of how the earth seems to quake when our smart phones go missing or fall in a toilet. We don’t think of how the wind and water of erasure seems to rush in when our tablets won’t power on. We don’t think of the fire that devours us when our laptops give us terrifying blue screens.  Archives like this blog, archives like our Instagram and Facebook accounts, archives like Spotify and Apple Music, and all the life experiences we’ve collectively uploaded to various servers and clouds over the years, are vulnerable, in a way.  In fact, we all are. Because, at the end of the day, whether through a storm, a quake, a song, or a profile page, we all just want to protect what we’ve created long into posterity. Am I right?

 

borinquena

*The death toll reached 12 persons for the Saturday, October 6th, 2018 earthquake in Haiti.

**At the time that this post was written on October 11, 2018, six lives were lost as a result of Hurricane Michael and more than 300,000 residents lost electric power.

***”La Borinquena” is embedded within Big Pun’s hip hop song “100 %” (2000). Tony Sunshine sings the chorus and the Puerto Rican anthem beginning at minute mark 2:50. 

 

repetition and repatriation

As the USA’s political passion heats up in response to Donald J. Trump, here is a reminder that we have been here before.  Undoubtedly, we have even been here before in the most literal sense.  So, if I may, let me preface my fact-and-fiction connections with two easy substitutions: 1) read “Anglo-Saxon Association of America” as “Conservative Republicans” and 2) read “Knights of Nordica” as “Ku Klux Klan.” Cue literature:

[The Anglo-Saxon Association of America] is a group of rich highbrows who can trace their ancestry back almost two hundred years. You see they believe in white supremacy the same as [the Knights of Nordica] but they claim that the Anglo-Saxons are the cream of the white race and should maintain the leadership in American social, economic and political life. […] This crowd thinks they’re too highbrow to come in with the Knights of Nordica. They say our bunch are morons. […] Well, what I’m trying to do now is to bring these two organizations together. We’ve got numbers but not enough money to win an election; they have the jack. If I can get them to see the light we’ll win the next Presidential election hands down. (p 100-1)

Scary stuff, huh?  Sounds a bit like the inner-workings of a particular candidate’s mind, eh? I know.  The good news, or at least the palatable news, is that this quote is from a marvelously funny satire about racism in America.

kkkpic
From my visit to the Sandy Spring Slave Museum

The quote is taken from Black No More, author George S. Schuyler’s laugh-out-loud novel published in 1931.  It’s available on Amazon and worth reading, particularly if you presently live in the United States of America and you are of African ancestry.  I do not want to give too much of the plot away — because jokes are best when you do not know the punchlines — but I will say that Black-No-More is a product and a process that makes black people black-no-more.  Genius, right!?  The fictional inventor of Black-No-More, Dr. Crookman, creates this product because there are only three possible ways for black people to solve their problems in America: “To either get out, get white or get along.” Since Dr. Crookman himself was not able to leave, and was only “getting along indifferently,” the only option was for him to “get white;” thus, Black-No-More is born (p 8).  Unselfishly, he decides to offer this race/ism “cure” to America.  The novel explores what if anything changes when racial diversity is taken out of the equation.  Are America’s problems erased?  Don’t worry, I won’t spoil your reading with an answer.

Via Dr. Crookman, George S. Schuyler raises some contemporaneously worthwhile questions.  As an African diasporan dwelling in these United States, what is one to do?  Get out? Get white? or Get along?  Racial passing has its issues and Vybz Kartel’s

Jamaican dancehall artist, Vybz Kartel

Black-No-More-like claims about his brand of cake soap is just plain shameful.  So I’m going to say that getting white is off the table. President Obama’s successful elections in 2008 and 2012 proves that gestures towards the idea that getting along has been working. But the inability of a divided system to pass progressive legislation, the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement, the violence that once surrounded the Tea Party patriots and is now surrounding Trump’s events, suggests that getting along is not on the immediate horizon.  So, perhaps Marcus Garvey was on to something.  Is now the time for America’s dark others to seek alternate shores? Is now the time for diasporans to return to prior lands?  Is it time to get out of America?

In his memoir, Sand for Snow (2003), Robert Sandiford chronicled his move from the Canada of his birth to the Caribbean island of his parents’.  Even though Sandiford had “known for a long time [that] there are options available” to him in Barbados, as he prepared for departure to the island, he recognized that “this move will be a challenge, physically, mentally, culturally, socially, and, of course, financially. Setting up home and shop will not be easy” (p 17-8).  In his 1995 book Going Home to Teach, celebrated author Anthony Winkler wrote about the difficulties of his return to Jamaica in 1975 after living in the States for thirteen years. Jamaica’s political instability notwithstanding, Winkler writes, “Shock, disbelief greeted me when I said that I was on my way back. Back to Jamaica? I was clearly out of my mind. Some of these new arrivals [to the States] said so with looks; some said so plainly” (p 33). And in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) when her fictional protagonist Ifemelu, says that she has decided to leave Princeton, New Jersey to return to Nigeria, her favorite aunt replies, “will you be able to cope?” (p 20).  Like Ifemelu, I ask: cope with what?  Despite the mostly positive portrayals of their respective repatriations, these literary examples all point to the perceived greatness of America and the presumed less-than status of Barbados, Jamaica, and Nigeria, in comparison.  If Adichie, Winkler, or Sandiford had set their stories in a time like now, in a time of political intensity, in a time of racial hostility that is being goaded by a presidential candidate, would their protagonists still have encountered doubting naysayers?

Trump’s viable candidacy has done a lot for America. Most notably it has exposed the racism, the sexism, and the xenophobia that has always been a part of America. It also exposes America as hypocritical. Think about it.  Doesn’t America try to “save” developing nations from candidates like Trump?  Alas, as he marches closer to November’s election and if Hillary Clinton is there to meet him, he will also attract the votes of the most subtle “ism,” the one coded simply and publicly as “preference.”

Get out, get white, or get along, wrote Schuyler.  Dabbling in the speculative genre and a socialist himself, Schuyler used the space of his novel to satirically stick it to W.E. B. DuBois and DuBois’ powerful assertion that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line.   And now, even though we are a quarter way into the year 2016, America’s problems remain rooted in racism.  DuBois was right. But so was Schuyler.  Capitalism is also to blame.  I mean, hey, history shows that the one has fueled the other.  So what do we do now?   We vote. We vote like our lives depend on it. And, in the meantime, we have a suitcase ready.

pon di riddim & inna di salon

This is less of a post and more of a plug…

My writing is featured in the latest installation of sx salon* (issue 21, February 2016).  Titled “Re-membering Our Caribbean through a Dub Aesthetic” my discussion article emphasizes the need for and benefits of  what I term a dub aesthetic methodology.  The article closely examines Burning Spear, dub music, and Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! (1996).  If you would like to read more, and I encourage you to read more, please click here to be re-directed to the sx salon site. And to supplement your reading experience, below I have posted the music that I reference in the article.  Click, read, listen, and journey with me into the analytical dubscape.

*sx salon is Small Axe’s digital platform for the convergence of expressions and discussions of the literary. Small Axe academic journal is a Caribbean platform of criticism.

 

finding the caribbean in rihanna’s jamaican work song

Published in 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Dominican-American novelist and activist Junot Diaz remains my top pick for masculine, contemporary, aggressive, historical, feminist, political, Caribbean, border fiction.  Yes, it lives up to all of those descriptors and more.  Early on in the novel the suspect narrator, Yunior, ventriloquizes the voice of protagonist Oscar to ask these rhetorical questions: “What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?” (6).  Well, after watching Rihanna’s latest music videos work titlefor her 2016 lead single “Work,” I am compelled to ask: what more Antilles (read Caribbean) than exploiting the black woman?  Taking this all the way, I ask what is more Caribbean than human exploitation that satisfies the distant, greedy voyeurs who cannot get enough of the sweet stuff that they crave?

I could be talking about slavery and the sugar plantation, à la Kara Walker’s 2014 installation “A Subtlety” (see video above), but this is not the 17th, 18th, or 19th century, nor is it 2014. It’s early 2016 and I’m talking, rather bluntly, about the bittersweet exotification of Caribbean women and sex. And alongside all of that, I am talking about the way that Bajan Rihanna harnesses her Caribbean-ness through Jamaican dancehall sexuality on “Work.”  I’m talking about how a Canadian rapper with no Caribbean roots continues to channel Jamaica with his contribution to “Work” where he even uses the Jamaicanism “forward” to coax Rihanna closer. (Sidenote- Do you recall last year’s “Hotline Bling”?  Do you recall Virginia rapper D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” that came out in 2014? Well, Drake used a “sunnier” version of D.R.AM.’s production to build “Hotline Bling” and when The Fader asked about him about it a few months ago, Drake defended his choice by citing Jamaican musical culture:

drake and movado
Photo source: http://www.toflo.com

You know, like in Jamaica, you’ll have a riddim and it’s like, everyone has to do a song on that… Imagine that in rap, or imagine that in R&B…”  Moreover, The Fader also pointed out that the video for “Hotline Bling” visually paralleled music videos for Jamaican dancehall artists Sean Paul and Kardinal Offishall.  You can read more about that here.  For now, let’s get back to “Work.”)

Part one of the two part video for “Work” is brought to us by none other than Director X (the same director who directed Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Mavado’s videos, Sean Paul’s videos, Kardinal Offishall’s videos, etc. mentioned parenthetically above).  The video is set in a well-known West Indian restaurant in Toronto called The Real Jerk where, according to the restaurant’s website, they specialize in “authentic Jamaican and Caribbean food.” Really? Both? What’s “Caribbean” food and why isn’t Jamaican food Caribbean too?  Sorry, back to “Work.”  Complementing Rihanna’s choice to hop on a twenty year old Jamaican dancehall riddim (Sail Away riddim, to be specific) and complementing her capacity to chat Jamaican patwa on the song, the Bajan singer wears a red, gold, and green mesh dress over a red, gold, and green bikini.  Jamaican Red Stripe bottles litter the floor and everyone in the video a gwan-bad-so.

work daggering

 

By and large, “Work” – like much of popular culture – substantiates the international belief that the Caribbean is a Jamaican archipelago. work dancingIt also substantiates popular deductions of Jamaicans as a lascivious, drunken, weed-smoking people that dance well and are hyper-sexual.  And these generalizations of Jamaica get assigned to the entire English speaking Caribbean, whereby negating the very diversity that defines the Caribbean and uniquely marks Anguilla, Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, Antigua, Dominica, St. Vincent, BVI, Guyana, St. Kitts, The Bahamas, Belize, Turks and Caicos, and Trinidad and Tobago as distinct nations with their own individual cultures.  Add to this the fact that the video for “Work” was released just after Trinidad Carnival and Director X’s own mother is from Trinidad!  All of this, yet an essentialized Jamaica is how one communicates “Caribbean” for a Barbadian global pop singer. Sigh.

While experiencing  “Work” the only visual cue that Rihanna is Bajan is in a bold but subtle flag (Kara Walker pun intended). rihanna bdos flag workIf you blinked you may have missed it. But with all the dancehall queen antics of women on head-top and men daggering, why would you blink?  With the positioning of Barbados’ flag around Rihanna’s thigh, gathered and suspended from a garter belt, why would you look away?  Sexy, isn’t it?  Exploitative, no?

Long before Rihanna’s “Work” song hit airwaves, Caribbean work songs were being sung in cane fields by enslaved Africans who stowed their West African rhythms deep in the bowels of their souls so that those melodies and connections would survive the Middle Passage.  As Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos said in their book Sugar Changed the World, “Every land where the Africans worked, where the cane grew, has its own form of beat, its own rhythms, its own songs and dances that can be traced back to sugar – and even to sources in Africa.”  The repetitive cadence of Rihanna’s “Work” echoes those Afro-Caribbean songs that survive in Puerto Rican bomba and plena music, Jamaican mentos, Trinidadian calypsos, and Haitian folk songs, to name a few.  The video for “Work” takes us back to those exploitative days when African and creolized women were commodified for what their bodies were believed to be able to do.  And, politically, the video and soundscape of “Work” take us into the complicated world of the Caribbean where big island/small island overshadowing is still very much worthy of our attention.

Despite the “Work” that she performs, Rihanna is not Jamaican.  Despite the beliefs of outsiders, Jamaica is not the Caribbean.  And despite 400 years in the New World, the Caribbean woman’s work is still bittersweet.  So, in a gesture that returns to and extends a quote from Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao, I will close with the reality check that in some critical respects, the Caribbean woman is still “a broken girl, atop broken stalks of cane” (148). work head top

*For more on “Work” and Rihanna, I recommend reading “Anti-Everything: The Culture Of Resistance Behind Rihanna’s Latest Album” by Erin MacLeod (Caribbean literature professor).  Macleod’s article in NPR came out before the music video was released.

**For more on Director X’s vision for the “Work” video see yesterday’s (Feb. 23, 2016) interview in The Fader.  In the article titled “Director X on What People Are Getting Wrong about Rihanna’s ‘Work’ Video,” X discusses dance culture in the “West Indian” community versus in America.

beyonce, formation, & contemporary black activism

Super Bowl L will go down in history as the Super Bowl that Beyoncé “slayed.”

For the last several days the internet has belonged to the Queen Bey.  Twitter subscribers, magazine contributors, news outlets, academics, fans, ranters, and racists have all weighed in on the experience of “Formation,” Beyoncé Knowles’ newest single.

Starting with internet and radio, “Formation” was introduced on the afternoon of Saturday, February 6, 2016 and enthusiastic praise rained down.  The video was set in New Orleans, Louisiana and images of the singer atop a sinking police car called forth the natural and political disaster that was Hurricane Katrina.  Images of a hoodie wearing black teenager facing angry police mobs reminded viewers that Black Lives Matter far beyond the hashtag.  In various respects — from images of New Orleans’ infrastructure to the black church and contemporary black hair-dos — images of a black American experience were presented in startling ways.

For me, having a wide catalog of Caribbean literature always present in my mind, I was taken by Beyoncé’s use of colonial era clothing (read *literally* these historical fictions: Marlon James’ Book of Night Women, Nalo Hopkinson’ Salt Roads, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea).

Beyonce and her ladies, early 2016, New Orleans (Photo source: http://www.elleuk.com)
“Free woman of color with quadroon daughter,” Late 18th century, New Orleans (Photo source: wikipedia)

 

 

Then came the live Super Bowl Halftime show on Sunday night.  By all accounts it was powerful. Black berets and black leather clothing channeled the Black Panthers.  With a machine gun chain “X” on her chest, Beyoncé’s fashion triggered iconic images of the King of Pop and global humanitarian, Michael Jackson.

Bey (2016) and M.J. (1993) (Photo source: USMagazine.com, Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Getty Images)

And when Beyoncé’s dancers aligned in an “X” formation on the football field, the never-forgotten single letter surname of Brother Malcolm was evoked.  The recorded images in her music video coupled with the live performance at the Super Bowl have marked a notable shift in who Beyoncé is as a celebrity and how fans and audiences ought to read her. From Destiny’s Child to solo artist, Beyoncé Knowles has rebooted herself yet again.  Beyonce, her 2013 album which featured hits like “Partition” and “Flawless,” ushered in what many called a feminist Beyoncé.  And graduating once again, this black American woman singer is now being considered a celebrity activist (or at least she is thought to be moving in that direction as Arthur Chu of the Daily Beast suggests in this article).  All hate aside though, congratulations are certainly in order for Beyoncé on this achievement.  (And while I have a few seconds of your attention, let me throw a little necessary shade on rapper and non-activist Nicki Minaj.  Yes, I’m still talking about Minaj’s decision to perform in Angola last December at an event tied to the African nation’s corrupt dictator).

No doubt “Formation” has stirred up a lot of conversations.  “She killt the Super Bowl!” “Coldplay, who??” “Slay.” “Slay.” “SLAY!!”  But it seems that conversations about Beyoncé are also taking some of the attention away from the words and images that she used to speak to, speak for, and speak about the experience of being black in America today.  For example, black Princeton Professor Imani Perry’s (follow here @imaniperry) arrest over an unpaid parking ticket had far fewer tweets (#StandwithPerry) when her story broke during Beyoncé’s big media weekend. This could be for many reasons (racism, sexism, distractions, ignorance, fear, conspiracy, etc.). But the intense attention paid to Beyoncé’s visual performances (live and recorded) could also point to the coding in her lyricism.  While it is a far lyrical departure from “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “7/11,” is the trap element of “Formation” obscuring a message that all — not just those Americans who are black and/or trap-oriented — but a message that truly ALL Americans need to hear and understand about being black in America?  To put it another way, I cannot help but wonder how much of “Formation’s” message is communicated through its imagery and how much, perhaps, is lost in its lyrics.  Further still, I wonder whether or not the arguable lyrical limitations of the song are subversively emblematic of a contemporary society in which a black person’s words are not heard by all American ears (read: “Officer, I have done nothing illegal” and “Officer, please do not shoot”).

In 1968 James Brown’s activism was as clear as his lyrics: 

Re-delivering the words given by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I before the United Nations in 1963, in 1976 Bob Marley’s activism was as clear as his lyrics: 

Exactly how much social investment (read: black activism) does “Formation” convey without the video or live performance as visual supplement?  I do not have a formal answer to this, but I will offer Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 words as a reminder: “You will not be able to stay home, brother/ You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out/You will not be able to lose yourself on skag/ and skip out for beer during commercials/ Because the revolution will not be televised… “

the meek shall inherit the earth

I recently visited the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery to see Jennifer Angus’ bugs. Big bugs on walls. Little bugs on walls. Lots and lots of dead bugs on walls. Even crushed and ground bugs used to make pink paint that is on said walls.  (See pic below.)

#renwickgallery
Courtesy of US artist Jennifer Angus’ exhibit currently on display at the Renwick Gallery

I found these bugs impressive and I was amazed by the artist’s ability to turn fear and discomfort into a thing of beauty. It was a happy marriage of entomology and aesthetic critique.  But, as is often the case with art, its meaning can shift with time and with the knowledge of the beholder.  For me, Jennifer Angus’ bug exhibit, particularly this image I captured of carefully preserved insect corpses arranged in the shape of a human skull, has gained new hemispheric meaning.

In the two hours that the GOP debate spent draining our time and energy, a great many women have contracted the Zika virus.  Surely, some of those women are pregnant. Transmitted in the saliva of the mosquito genus aedes aegypti, Zika virus first surfaced in Brazil in May 2015.  Since November there have been more than 4,000 Brazilian babies born with microcephaly that is related to the Zika virus they were exposed to in the womb. And, according to the World Health Organization, 3 to 4 million people will be infected with Zika in the next year.  What percentage of those millions will be pregnant women?

Aedes aegypti is a very bad gyal (the female mosquito is the one who does the “biting”). Besides Zika virus, she also transmits yellow fever, malaria, Chikungunya, and the Dengue virus.  According to the CDC, in 2013 a half million people, many of whom were African children, died from malaria.  Overwhelmingly, the people of the tropics and subtropics are the people who are at risk of these diseases. (I will resist conspiracy theory.) Curiously, I must add, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are set to begin in 188 days and their official website has yet to make mention of Zika.

For those of us looking to stay in this hemisphere while hiding from Zika, the cold is our only possibility of salvation. So, not surprisingly, it will be chilly Canada for the win. Latin America and the Caribbean are in Zika’s sights.  Aedes aegypti has already spread the infectious disease from Barbados to Ecuador and from Paraguay to Haiti.  To date twenty four countries on this side of the globe are facing real viral threat.  And while my in-depth feminist comments will be detailed in a forthcoming post, I would be remiss if I did not at least mention that in El Salvador women of childbearing age are boldly being asked by governments and health officials to postpone reproduction.

Yes, the meek mosquito has found another way of inheriting the New World. Who will suffer most this time? I think Dr. Eduardo Espinoza, El Salvador’s vice minister of health, is pointing to the answer.

a good story

Located south of the Atlantic Ocean, east of Venezuela, west of Suriname, and north of Brazil one will find the intriguing English speaking country of Guyana.  Despite being attached to the South American mainland, Guyana is undoubtedly West Indian (read: Anglophone Caribbean) and shares in that Caribbean legacy of colonization and multiplicity.  But before there was a Venezuela or a Suriname or a Brazil, or a colonizer from any European nation, before there were indentured laborers from India, and before there was an importation of enslaved Africans, there were the indigenous groups who called this little piece of the globe home. These people, their languages, their customs, and their beliefs still thrive today. They are known collectively as Amerindians. Locally, in Guyana, Wapixana, Arawak, Carib, Patamona, and Warao are just a few of the Amerindian tribes surviving today.  So why am I sharing this history lesson?  Because fifteen years ago I read a good story by a Guyanese author of mixed European, African, and Amerindian heritage and her story has never left my mind.

Pauline Melville is the author of The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997). In this novel readers are taken deep into Guyana’s (then British Guiana) hinterlands and out to the coastal capital city of Georgetown and far off to Canada as the plot unfolds during the first third of the 20th century.  The novel is ripe with everything I never knew I wanted in a fiction: incest, mythology, colonial oppression, a general fear of miscegenation (racial mixing), a general fear of culture mixing (the losses never match the gains), and a palpable anxiety for both knowledge and freedom as both come at a cost. Yes, The Ventriloquist’s Tale is a very good story and because it is very good it has continued to haunt my mind, and I mean that in the best way.

Good stories are not good because they are sweet or kind. Good stories are good because they are honest. Good stories are good because they expose truth.  Good stories are good because they show us something about ourselves and make us ask tough questions. And we know these stories are good because we connect with them and never let go.  Good stories haunt us forever.  Last month my paternal grandfather passed away after falling ill.  Three days ago family and friends gathered to celebrate his life.  As I stood at the church pulpit to read my grandfather’s obituary aloud, that good story by Pauline Melville surfaced again.  It echoed as I spoke of my grandfather’s birth in the small district of Milestone in Jamaica.  I heard it as I spoke of his move to New York City where he made a life in Queens. It quieted as I named his siblings, his friends, his wife, his children, and grand- and great-grandchildren.  But it was there as I listed his jobs, accomplishments, and hobbies and spoke of his love of mangoes and calypso.  It grew to a piercing pitch as I spoke of his date of return: ashes to ashes.

My memory of Melville’s novel surfaced because my grandfather’s obituary was not his life, it was not his good story.  Rather, my Jamaican grandfather’s life was one good story after another and always a lesson laced with humor. It was a story told in patois, Spanish, and Yankee. It was a story of carefully selected words and purposeful pauses.  It was a story told in a chuckle and a story told in a sigh.  It was a story of digressions and redirects. And always from his lips came a story of love. Love of family, love of God, love of friends, love of countries.  Always to my ears came a story of life. A life built by family, by God, by friends, and by countries.  No, his obituary was not his life. And this is why that clever, confident trickster narrator, Macunaima, in The Ventriloquist’s Tale came to me as I read his obituary.  Breaking free of the fiction, Macunaima engages the reader directly when he says: “Writing things down has made you forget everything. […] Do you think a man’s life is slung between two dates like a hammock? Slung in the middle of history with no visible means of support?  It takes more than one life to make a person” (2).

Like Melville’s The Ventriloquist’s Tale, my grandfather’s good stories will haunt me forever, in the best way. As but one of the lives who made up the person that was my grandfather, I can say that he was a storyteller of the best order.  His own memories of people and places were as sharp and as pointed as they come.  No, his life was no hammock of dates. His life was rich with experiences that he bestowed to all as gifts of memory.   And I hope that writing this down does not make me forget a thing.

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.