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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