a day in the park

Since returning to Jamaica from the US a couple of years ago, I have been keenly aware of race and the positioning of whiteness in the Caribbean broadly and in Jamaica more specifically.  A few months ago I found myself in the area of New Kingston at Emancipation Park.  Located between the Jamaica Pegasus hotel and the Courtyard by Marriott in Kingston, this well-trafficked park and thorough-fare boasts two 11-foot-tall bronze statues (see picture below). To quote the park’s website, “This prominent sculpture comprises of two naked black male and female statues gazing to the skies – symbolic of their triumphant rise from the horrors of slavery.”

redemption-song-monument
Larua Facey’s “Redemption Song” at Emancipation Park,  Kingston, Jamaica

When I paused to observe the statues, a dread-locked man who was already near the statues, stepped back and moved towards me. After a quiet good afternoon he said: “Yuh know seh ah one white ooman mek dat?”  As he asked, he gestured, and his hand seemed to be pointing to the foot-long penis. I side-eyed his apparent comment on the hyper-sexualization  of the black man by the white woman; but he quickly clarified his point: “Ah one white ooman mek di statue dem.  Eeen all ah Jamaica ah no black man and no black ooman dem could find mek big-big statue?”  I did not have a ready answer for his question.  While the sculptures have been in New Kingston since 2003, I had paid greater attention to their immense nude presence than to their creator. And, to some extent, I wonder if I had presumed the sculptor to be of the Afro-Jamaican majority.  After a bit of silence, I finally replied, “You make a good point, my friend. And I’m sure, nuff black people it tek to set this big-big statue in place.”  He nodded, we both looked on for a few more seconds, then he went his way, and I mine.

 

“Nuff black people it tek to set this big-big statue in place” — I’m realizing now — was double-speak. The park’s website says that more than 100 people were called in to install the works in Emancipation Park. But how many hundreds of thousands of black men and women lived, worked, and died under a British slave system only to have their emancipatory moment cast in bronze by a white Jamaican artist or, as my dread-locked friend said “one white ooman”?

What does it mean for white Caribbean people to produce art that tells the stories of Afro-Caribbean people? What does it mean for white Americans to tell the stories of black Americans? And what does it mean when white people are questioned for their choice to tell these stories?  In no way supporting Kanye West’s recent comments that “slavery was a choice,” I will say that the history and legacy of slavery does not belong only to African-descendants in the New World.  Slavery belongs to Europe’s descendants in the New World, too.  After all, we are both recipients of this colonial history, and depending on where we fall on the racialization scale, slavery willed us either a burden or bequeathed to us a gift.

As I think about the questions that public art and public discourse can provoke, I too am provoked by the conversation I shared with a stranger while we both stood before two enormous black-bronze nudes in a public park.  Accessible public art like Laura Facey’s “Redemption Song” installation in Emancipation Park should regularly invite discourse about society.  It is meant to remind passersby that black people in Jamaica are both redeemed and emancipated. But do these conversations frequently take place and have white Jamaicans been made aware that they too were freed by abolitionist legislation?  That is to say that when the enslaved were freed during the 19th century, so too were massa and miss.   But, even though I have tried, I cannot think of any monuments that were erected to remind the descendants of masters that they are emancipated now and that they no longer need to subjugate the descendants of Africans.  Without reminders, how will massa and miss understand that slavery has been over and that they have been free to be without prejudice for more than a century?  How will the white West Indian know that he or she no longer has to play the role of oppressor?

What do monuments actually want us to remember? Are we meant to remember that we are free or that we are enslaved when we look at Facey’s sculpted “Redemption Song”?  There are so many mixed messages residing in our memories.  Allow me to recall just a few.  Remember when Jean-Jacques Dessalines ordered a massacre of the white people who remained in Haiti following the success of the 1804 Haitian Revolution?  Remember the 1950s when “Massa Day Done” became a successful campaign slogan for Trinidad’s first prime minister, Eric Williams?  Remember the 1970s when Michael Manley’s democratic socialism in Jamaica spread the fear of murder and rape throughout white Jamaica?  Remember the hemispheric War on Drugs?  Remember the global War on Terror?  Remember trans-Atlantic and hemispheric trade embargoes?  Remember international travel restrictions?  Remember economic inequality and how it mirrors racial hierarchy from here to anywhere to everywhere?  Remember unequal policing, unequal charges, and unequal jail time?  Remember a few years ago when white masculinist studies programs and clubs started surfacing at US universities?  But we thought massa day was done?  And while  Black activism held the media spotlight on the abuses sustained by Black American bodies, the introduction of last year’s #metoo trended public attention away from Black bodies and towards “white women’s tears.”  Massa may be under pressure, but only because miss is doing the threatening.  Many of the predatory men who trespassed against these women still maintain their civil liberty, wealth, and freedom to oppress others.

Maybe this is why Childish Gambino recently invited both miss and massa to experience the video monument that is “This is America” (see below).

And as I saw the rich, pained layers that went into the conceptualization of this visual project, I wondered if miss and massa would see it too?  I thought also of the Caribbean and race inequality, class disparity, prejudice, willful blindness, and willful silence here.  “This Is America” led my memory to recall Rihanna’s layered club-banger and recent Howard  University protest song, “BBHMM” from 2015. Remember? This was the song that think-piece writers said was about colonial reparations?  Watch it again post-“This is America” and you may read Rihanna anew.  Watch it again knowing that Rihanna owns her masters (double-speak intended). Watch it again knowing that Rihanna named the first album she made on her own independent label Anti?  (Read Erin MacLeod’s 2016 piece in NPR here.) Watch “Bitch Better Have My Money” again knowing that Rihanna has done for the epithet “savage” what Black Americans have done for “nigger.”  What more clever way to re-appropriate the colonizer’s negative perceptions of the indigenous Taino and the imported African cargo, than to name her new lingerie line Savage

As white West Indians negotiate the nuances of these distinct national spaces that make up the Caribbean, do they think introspectively of privilege or its consequences like white Jamaican writer Anthony Winkler did?  I wonder. And when a white woman dresses up, powders her face with a perfectly-matched Fenty bronzer (carefully created for all shades), and props up her bust with a Savage bra, rihanna supwill she think of how  black women’s beauty was denied for centuries?  I wonder.  And as white Americans sway to Atlanta’s best trap music, will they think of the war on drugs and how it further crippled and criminalized America’s Black communities into dangerous trap neighborhoods?  Nicole Arbour’s quick to YouTube adaptation of Childish Gambino’s video monument, “This Is America: Women’s Edit,” tells me the answer is likely no.  While Lil Dicky and Chris Brown’s “Freaky Friday” just leaves me speechless.

Massa day not done. And miss isn’t vacating her seat of colonial privilege yet either.  If only they knew or could be reminded that like their enslaved counterparts, they have been emancipated and are free.  But the funny thing is, emancipation and abolition are not synonymous. Emancipation is a process, while abolition is an action.  The 1834 proclamation of emancipation only presented freedom to the youngest of the enslaved people in the British colonies.  From 1834 to 1838, enslaved Africans over the age of six years were emancipated from the title slave only to become “apprentices” who provided the same unpaid labor, suffered the same tortures of violence and oppression, and faced fatal punishments if they chose to attempt an escape.  Under the Emancipation Proclamation’s apprenticeship system, the former colonial slave masters ceased being slave masters only to become violent and oppressive apprentice masters instead.  Emancipation presented freedom for very few.

As I think about my day in the park, I wonder how might we relate to each other in Jamaica differently today, if Emancipation Park were actually called Abolition Park?

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.