Sign II, Delaford, Tobago.

Desiderium: Opening Notes

“Breathe, Browne. Breathe. Yuh home.”

 

I almost died the other night. I was in a car accident—lost control of the car, hit a lamppost, crossed to the other side of the highway, hit a guardrail, and came to a stop at the side of the road. The car was totaled, as was the paper I had planned to deliver. In spite of that, I made sure my passenger wasn’t hurt, saw the car towed away to be either repaired, salvaged, or scrapped, got a ride from NJ to NY, then from NY to Long Island, then from Long Island to JFK airport, where I got on a plane and came to Trinidad. My Trinidad.

And what is my Trinidad?

My Trinidad is rum and coconut water, eating dry biscuit and cheese and playing cards when somebody dead.

My Trinidad is pretending to study for Common Entrance Exam and crying because yuh didn’t get into yuh “first choice.”

My Trinidad is about four or five ah allyuh breaking biche and going down by the wharf behind the scout house to take a dip in the salt, and yuh frighten because Peter did drown dey.

My Trinidad is getting the sweetest cutass from yuh fadda—fuh nothing—jes in case yuh behave bad, and make him shame when he gone to work. Jes in case he have to hear from Mr. Phillip that yuh didn’t say good morning and good afternoon to every single person from home to school to home again, because yuh have to respect yuh elders.

My Trinidad is “Jouvay morning, blow yuh whistle blow yuh whistle! Jouvay morning, knock yuh bottle knock yuh bottle!” Wining back and bending down, catching the spirit and making mas in the place.

Yeah, my Trinidad is tiefing yuh cousin bike so yuh could do a wheelie for Angeline up de hill, and laughing loud in de road at dat madman who does run amok when he hear de steam horn down in the borough yard, where Choko and Blackie used to wuk.

When Abu Bakr stage de coup a few years back, police lock up de country tight tight tight, but in my Trinidad is curfew party from six in the evening to six in the morning and if yuh cyah reach home yuh stay until six the next morning. Is nothing. Drinks flowing like water. ‘Oman still wining when de sun come up.

My Trinidad is waiting for nationwide blackout to listen to yuh uncle talk bout lagahou and douen and la diablesse and the white horse and lighting candle quick to have talent show in de dark with the neighbor children.

My Trinidad, sweet. Sweeter now that I almost did not see you again.

I hope you do not think me selfish or needlessly self-indulgent when I say these things. It is an affliction of my particular profession that we are sometimes this way: navel-gazing to the point of crippling myopia. I say them not to elicit sympathy in you, my audience (though, if it occurs, I will be glad that I have your attention), nor entertain you merely for the sake of it, but rather to let you know what has become the impetus—the spark, literally—for my remarks this evening.

It is the case with this and other tragedies—or “almost tragedies”—that we are forced to reflect on the fragility of our lives and the things that matter most and least to us. We think of our children, whether we will see them grow up and how, of what kind of life they will have without us. We think of how things are and of how we wish them to be. I say “we” because I know I am not unique when I say this, and that lack of uniqueness, that generalizability of experiences that cause us to reflect on ourselves—and on those things that matter—is what makes us collectively special. This is neither irony nor paradox, but a simple fact to which so many of us cling: Identity.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that I almost died the other night, so I want to be very deliberate in what I say to you now. I trust that some (or a great deal) of it will not be new to you, so I will proceed with the confidence that you will feel neither ambushed nor unduly castigated by the idea(s) that follow. If I am preaching to the choir, I hope you sing along when the chorus comes. If not, then I hope you at least catch the beat.

The topic at hand is rhetoric. Specifically, Caribbean rhetoric on the vernacular level, about which I will speak very briefly.

As I understand it, rhetoric is social activity—a consideration of the range of expressions and expressive features that shape our existence, as well as the orientation of those expressions toward the realization of a more meaningful life. It is the practice of conscious citizenship. Truthfully, though, I am not so much interested in whether people understand the intricacies of rhetoric on an academic level, but rather that they understand it enough to tune the dynamics of their interactions toward change. We know well enough that there is a need for change. Stand anywhere, throw a stone in any direction, and you will most certainly hit a problem. The question, then, is how? How is as much a question of process as of acknowledging the legacy of hegemony that many of us have cultivated—or have had cultivated for us—like myth, so much that far too many of us have learned to disregard not only the complexity of the normal, but also the impulse to find the language for it.

[As I note in Tropic Tendencies,] “Vernacular rhetorical activity in the Classical Tradition was viewed as a basic responsibility, which was dutifully enacted in Athenian society as a right of civic belonging—one could not be a citizen in name only, it had to be practiced. But while this may be true of all rhetorical interactions in democratic societies (or societies that believe themselves to be democratic) that go from Antiquity onward into our times, Caribbean vernacular practitioners were faced with a serious rhetorical problem—one that is underscored by Gerard Hauser’s idea that ‘publics are emergences manifested through vernacular rhetoric.’[i] The presumption is contingent not only on the fundamental visibility of that public, but also on the willing reception of an audience. ‘If we were to listen,’ he writes, ‘these are the ways by which they make their opinions felt”[ii]—or, to assimilate John Shotter’s more poignant stipulation, ‘if we can let them instruct us in how to see them.’[iii] The dynamic he describes is, unfortunately, not generalizable and reflective more of privilege than the likelihood of vernacular equity. Historically, black bodies of the colonial underclass did not have the privilege of taking citizenship for granted—rather, the status of citizenship was a thing to be granted (by birth primarily and, secondarily, by decree), not (as we would like to believe) asserted primarily through loud, insurgent, or violent means. Belonging was limited to the virtual invisibility of second-class citizenship.”

This is simply not sufficient for me—and, if I may be presumptuous, not sufficient for many of the people on whose behalf I strive.

As you have seen, I am often inclined to view aspects of my culture with a degree of nostalgia. On social media, the most public of the forums, I often (very often) remark on my need for roti, or oxtail, or sorrel, among other things. The occasional kurma, perhaps. Fudge. When the music plays, I find little contradiction in moving my body to forget the troubles of my life. But none of that can last very long for me, for though I am beset by nostalgic impulses, I find that I must compartmentalize them for the urgencies that require my direct attention. Such urgencies include the illusions of upward mobility, of opportunity for some and not for others, the blind and deliberate luck of having when others do not have, of earning by the sweat of our brow and the sweat on the brows of others. The stalemate of false binaries—us and them, rich and poor, rum and roti, African and Indian, nigger and coolie. Those of us who see our needs marginalized and are forced to choose a side in cruel compromise.

Let me be clear: I am no prodigal. You will see that my return is not to bestow any particular gift on those who have missed it, but to continue the search for what I had left this place to go in search of. Now I return to the scene of the loss to ascertain the shape of that hurt. With me, I bring a theory that is linked—essentially, inextricably—to practice.

I come from a land where mothers and daughters resemble because they both look young, or old. I have seen these mothers walking barefoot with their naked children. I have bathed in the sea and watched the waves wash on rolling rocks with a rhythm I can set my heartbeat to. I have seen a gang of corbeaux pick relentlessly at the rotting carcass of a dog, as it lay half-covered in the shade. These things and more I have seen. Each of them, in a way, representative of what Trinidad is, of what it has become: an identity held together by a stubborn, indomitable pride; an untamed, untamable beauty entrenched in itself, despite the comings and goings of the day and its difficulties; a people in limbo, locked (it would seem) halfway between emancipation and independence, so tired of writhing that many of us drop from exhaustion and have our bones picked at by those who claim to love us. There are many other metaphors I can use that will either serve as compliment or insult. No man is an island, to be sure, but neither should he be driftwood. Only because driftwood is subject to the mercies and whims of the tides and the fascination of beachcombers who find the driftwood partially desiccated in the chastening sun.

We have come a long way, some would argue, but as we look around us, the conditions tell a different story. Indeed, they suggest that we have not come very far at all.

It now becomes necessary to reject the tendency to emphasize struggle as the illusory fulcrum of Caribbean expression and view it, instead, as a rhetorical situation to which subjects are obliged to respond, react, negotiate, and improvise. The basic point being: situations of struggle are shifting all the time; our ability to confront and navigate, negotiate and transcend, are dependent on adaptability, as well as the reconceptualization of historical responses. A key example of such reconceptualization involves the need to engage directly in our collective decolonization, rather than entrust that responsibility to a government or some other institution.

Of course, one of the challenges with decolonization is that it very closely resembles trauma. This is because there is no indication that the outcome would be much different—except for a clear conception of what must come after. The distinction, in short, is that it must include a vision, one that operates in contradistinction to the illusions we have come to prefer. On a smaller scale, it feels very much like heartbreak. For one or two people, healing is a matter of therapy—of finding the sympathetic ear of a friend, or maybe finding a new lover in whom to place one’s energy. At the very least, some comfort comes from talking about it. On a national scale, the dynamics are similar, except there’s no replacement lover. All you have is the reality of your experience, the identity that—no matter where you go—is there with you. There is no escape, no excuse that you can make for why it failed. And you must now contend with the fact that where you are demands that you know who you are. We must contend with the fact that the illusion of a time we have longed for is no longer sufficient. But, in rejecting the illusion, we find that we inevitably come to face the very crisis that our actions have attempted to deny. We are forced to ask (both ourselves and each other) who we are. Forced to ask what makes us and our ways uniquely what they are. And why.

If you notice that I compare the work we must do to that of one who recovers from heartbreak, it is because of how I imagine one’s love of country and the role of citizenship in the understanding, reception, and expression of that love. In citizenship’s infancy, when it is still quite young, the love one has must necessarily be what it is: unquestioning, unconditional, uncritical. It must be, in a sense, perfect and above reproach precisely because it is new. My remembrances of Trinidad. It moves me deeply, still. And I am obliged to move with it. There are dangers about. I know there are.

So let me close with this:

Nostalgia that turns only inward yields little for a project in rhetoric. [Indeed, we must] counteract the tendency to subscribe to a nostalgic view of a people and their practices…allow[ing them] to move past the inexplicable sense of loss and the cognitive dissonance between past and present that can too often forestall pragmatist approaches to consequence by coloring experience solely in romantic, exotic, or purist terms.

I must recognize my limitations. I am a rhetorician, not a politician. I am not able to speak for you, but I long to speak with you. If you let me, I can carve out additional spaces, in multiple modes, in which you can speak for yourselves. I can help you find the language, but only if you let me.

Only if you let me.

 

 


 

[i] Hauser, Vernacular Voices, 14.
[ii] Hauser, Vernacular Voices, 11.
[iii] Shotter, “Creating Real Presences,” 275.
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Lecture: Radical Archival Practices and the Digital Humanities: The Early Caribbean Digital Archive

@drbrowne:

If you’re gonna be in NY, you should try to attend this lecture. If I could, I would, as it could certainly illuminate my own thoughts on vernacular archiving as a demonstration of Caribbean rhetorical activity that I begin to explore here: http://kevinbrownephd.com/discarded-archive/.

Originally posted on Repeating Islands:

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Radical Archival Practices and the Digital Humanities:
The Early Caribbean Digital Archive
Elizabeth Maddock Dillon
Thursday, Sept. 4, 4-6 p.m.
CUNY Graduate Center, Room 5318
365 Fifth Avenue

The promise of the digital archive is one of infinite access and endless accumulation—a democratization of knowledge. But the shape of the archive has always been determined by relations of power. Foucault, for instance, defines the archive as the site of the “law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events.” Do the new affordances of digitization change or merely reinforce existing divisions between speakable and the unspeakable pasts and futures? This paper turns to the newly-founded Early Caribbean Digital Archive project (a digital collection of pre-1900 texts and images from the Caribbean) to consider how the silences of the archive might be addressed and redressed—not simply by way of accumulation, but by way…

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“hands up, don’t shoot”

Originally posted on Gukira:

We all know that hands raised in the air at a moment of conflict indicate surrender. They say, “I’m unarmed” or “I’ve laid down my arms” and “please, do not harm me” and “I am in your power.” At least, those of us who watch tv and films, read cartoons and novels, track newspapers and magazines. This “I surrender” sign is a global vernacular, taught and circulated by children’s cartoons. (We might need to ask why children’s cartoons teach this vernacular.) And so, what is striking about “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as a chanted slogan and as printed words on handmade, often homemade, signs is that it indexes the failure of this bodily vernacular when performed by a black body, by a killable body. Blackness becomes the break in this global bodily vernacular, the error that makes this bodily action illegible, the disposability that renders the gesture irrelevant.

Blackness, after…

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Murder trial set for Oct. 27 for suspects in slaying of Costa Rican conservationist Jairo Mora

Originally posted on Repeating Islands:

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Seven men accused of killing Costa Rican sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora last year will stand trial on Oct. 27, the Prosecutor’s Office confirmed to The Tico Times today, as Lindsay Fendt reports for Tico Times. The trial, open to the public, will be held at a court in Limón on the country’s Caribbean coast, near where the murder took place.

The seven men, alleged poachers, are accused of kidnapping Mora along with four foreign volunteers at Moín Beach, near Limón, during the night of May 31, 2013. The volunteers escaped, but police found Mora’s naked and bruised body the next morning. The suspects, Felipe Arauz, Héctor Cash, Ernesto Enrique Centeno, William Delgado, José Bryan Quesada and brothers Darwin and Donald Alberto Salmón, have been in preventive detention since their arrests in July 2013.

For the original report go to http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/08/19/murder-trial-set-for-oct-27-for-suspects-in-slaying-of-costa-rican-conservationist-jairo-mora

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Film festival and National Gas Company celebrate Independence with free film screenings

Originally posted on Repeating Islands:

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The trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff) is presenting a series of film screenings to commemorate the 52nd anniversary of the country’s independence, sponsored by The National Gas Company.

The screenings take place over three days in San Fernando, Port of Spain and Tobago, respectively. All screenings are free and open to the public.

The first screening takes place on Thursday 28 August, in the observatory at the San Fernando Hill Recreational Centre, from 7.00pm. The films to be screened are the documentaries Julia & Joyce (Sonja Dumas/2010/60’), the story of two pioneers of dance in T&T, Julia Edwards and Joyce Kirton; and The Strange Luck of VS Naipaul (Adam Low/2008/78’), a portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning author.

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Then on Friday 29 August from 7.00pm, at the audiovisual room at NALIS in Port of Spain, there will be a screening of Fire in Babylon (Stevan Riley/2011/87’), the inspiring story of the…

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ARC Magazine and NLS collaborate for (e)merge Art Fair

Originally posted on Repeating Islands:

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The fourth edition of (e)merge takes place October 2-5, 2014 at the Capitol Skyline Hotel in Washington, DC. The (e)merge art fair connects emerging-art professionals from around the globe with collectors, curators and cultural decision makers in Washington, DC.

New Local Space (Kingston, Jamaica) and ARC are collaborating on an exhibition at the art fair featuring work by James Cooper (Bermuda), Stephanie Cormier (Canada), Ian Deleón (Cuba/Brazil), Nadia Huggins (St. Vincent & the Grenadines), Leasho Johnson (Jamaica), Becca Kallem (Washington, DC), Mark King (Barbados), Oneika Russell (Jamaica), Anabel Vasquez Rodriguez (Puerto Rico), and Storm Saulter (Jamaica). The exhibition is curated by Deborah Anzinger, Holly Bynoe and Nicole Smythe-Johnson.

(e)merge’s presents two exhibition platforms to inspire a new echelon of art collectors and provide curatorial access to the latest movements in emerging art: the Gallery Platform features participating galleries in hotel rooms and other spaces on designated floors; he Artist Platform…

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#SeeingBlue Remarks

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Selections from Seeing Blue

I’d like to think of it as friendly advice, but the truth is that I’ve been given a few very clear instructions by those close to me for my presentation this evening. As a way to begin, I thought I’d share them with you so you would understand a little bit of what I’m going through up here. With a little help from my friends, a list was compiled:
1. Speak from the heart.
2. Write drunk, edit sober.
3. Don’t try to be deep, abstract, or unnecessarily complex.
4. Keep it short and sweet. Or at least short.
5. Do not, under any circumstances, try to tell any jokes. This is a very important day for you, no one has ever done this, and trust me, you are not that funny.
6. Seriously, you’re not.
7. If you must tell a joke—like if it’s an emergency or something—tell someone else’s.
8. If confused, see instruction number 5, 6, and 7.
9. Don’t curse.
10. Don’t read.

After thinking about all that was said to me with my best intentions at heart, I decided to take whatever advice was embedded in these instructions and ignore about 98% of it, choosing (as I often do) to go my own way and do my own thing. Sure, it leads to a great deal of suffering, the danger of making yourself necessary, of thinking yourself relevant. But these are the risks you face when you choose to be yourself, to let your voice be heard, to share with others what you consider a vision of the world—and to do so in the communities that help make up the world.

So I’ll begin with a joke.

A guy walks into a bar, orders a stag, meets with a guy everybody calls Jesus and asks if he could have a show about devils. On a Sunday.
The guy named Jesus, without missing a beat, says “A show about devils? On a Sunday?”
“Yeah, devils” says the guy who walks into the bar.
“Well,” says Jesus, “there’s only one problem with that. It have All Fours on Sunday, so if yuh want people to come, make sure yuh have it around that time. But doh go over, eh!”
“No problem,” said the guy, “no problem at all.”

And so, here we are.
Because, in a way, this is who we are, taking serious things to make joke, making light of things that otherwise would bear serious consequences for those involved (and those who think they may not be). We claim this truth about ourselves and watch our identity form around it. I am unable to smoothly resolve the contradiction, and this is a victory.

The challenge for us, as speakers, dancers, writers, thinkers, lovers, fighters, friends, enemies is whether we actually get the joke. Or better yet, it is our ability to know when joke is joke—and when joke is damn joke.

Because everybody know damn joke eh no joke.

And at the heart of that knowing is an understanding of rhetoric that is more important than the punchline or the performance.

What remains is for us to find ways to demonstrate that we not only know but understand ourselves and the power that resides in that understanding. Rhetoric is a social activity. It emerges from the conscious understanding of shared languages, experiences, and values (to name a few) and their subsequent expression in different situations—in different times. Issues of identity, race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship do not simply occur in the abstract. They are connected to lived realities. Our realities.

Thus, our considerations of rhetoric, rather than a series of purely esoteric inquiries, should always find their practical and situational grounding in the social milieux from which their rationales, urgencies, and outcomes emerged and within which they were executed. Honestly though, I am not so much interested in whether my people know what rhetoric is or isn’t—there’s a need for that, but the term is far less meaningful than the dynamics and outcomes of conscious practice.

My work in Paramin and in life is not simply about providing a forum for complaint and the airing of grievances, but rather the attempt to enact critique through the conscious enactment of culture and tradition. It relies on the active involvement of people—regular people—and sees value in every contribution—this is because I see nation-builiding as collaborative both in its nature and in its practice.

As a rhetorician, I respond not only to urges but to very clear—even obvious—urgencies in society. Let me give you an example: The notion that Caribbean society has declined is not just a matter of opinion but one of fact. And herein lies one of the more troubling issues confronting the region and (in my view) hindering its fullest potential: that is, these facts are too often referred to with resignation and nonchalance—treated as a norm that will eventually change because, well, “it can’t stay this way forever.”

This is not the case when one finds oneself in Paramin. Like all places, Paramin is unique. And myths of Stay Home and Stay Here aside, it is because of the people who call it home that I am here. And I don’t mean to refer to some far away place, a mythical height among the clouds of Trinidad—though it certainly is that. Rather, I mean a place that is real and not the creation of some misplaced nostalgia. In fact, when nostalgia has proven as much a disappointment as any other fantasy in light of things as they are, we have little choice but to confront the inadequacy of our misgivings and—finaly—embrace the shock of unadorned misrecognition. This is what I see when I look at a Blue Devil. I am reminded, in the performance of the monstrous that the word “monster” comes from a word that means to warn. And in that warning is an element of instruction—of teaching. The monstrous thing we fear, or ridicule out of fear, or chastise out of scorn, or marvel at when bathed in pitch oil we emerge from the carnival having seen men breathe and eat fire.

They have something to teach us.

There is tradition, of course, as our remembrances of history will tell us that the Blue Devils are a variant of the Jab Molassie, that they recall a history of slavery and masked protest, that they took the Negue Jadin from the white plantocracy who had previously been using it as a way to make themselves anonymous. These symbols are familiar—indeed, impermanence, as a major consideration of the carnival and the carnivalesque, is passe once you become accustomed to loss.

So you show me a set ah dutty mas, man eating raw shark and pulling fig tree up from the root, woman spitting blood, and I will show you makers of magic, forgers of weapons held beneath the skin. I will show you yourselves and ask you to do the asking of a culture that is far too open for the taking and to which we are sometimes slow in giving.

And what of the contemporary Devil, you will ask? What of glitter and bottlecaps, brand names and crucifixes?

If we turned one eye from history and looked forward from present to future, what are we to make of what we see and of what this tradition, mixed, remixed, and renewed for our time can actually do? At what point, after realizing these men and women are who they say they are that we identify with them, seeing our reflection in their faces, in their bodies bending low to the ground for money they have danced for and earned, but which will never be enough to compensate for scorn and misunderstanding?

I don’t know, nah.

That is something we will have to work out in the coming days. What I do know is that I have no good reason for why we should think ourselves disqualified from the role of articulating our vision of ourselves.