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.