All posts by @drbrowne

Kevin Adonis Browne is Lecturer in Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad. He is the author of Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean (Pittsburgh 2013) and of the forthcoming High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture (Mississippi 2018). He is co-founder of the Caribbean Memory Project with Dawn Cumberbatch. He is currently working on a series of visual(ized) theories related to the cartographies of the Caribbean.

French Revolution Digital Archive

The Arabella Chapman Project

Call for Papers: Tropical Exposures: Photography, Film, and Visual Culture in a Caribbean Frame

Robert the Dancing Queen, Dead

“It’s not the dead you have to fear, son; it’s the living.
We don’t cry for the dead, but for ourselves.”
—My mother to me, April 1981


A dancing queen was murdered in San Fernando.
A transgender man was murdered.
Robert “Peter” Navarro.

Please, just say it, his name. Then, for balance, say your own, or the name of someone who loves you, or that of the many we memorialize—the many.

His mutilated body was found yesterday in Snake Valley, a forested trail that leads up San Fernando Hill. Naked. Brutalized. As young boys, my cousins and friends and I would find our way through that track, leading up to Breakneck Pass and the top of the hill, where I’d later hike with other cadets from F Company—Ayres, Tyson, Ako-Adoo, and them.

There are rocks, trees, vines.

He was there. Right there. Five minutes from Upper Hillside Street, where he lived. Broken up and dead, his body rotting. His brother Raymond seemed to know. We stood at the end of Ambard Street the other night—me smoking, he looking further up the hill to Romaine Street, where Robert was last seen alive.

“Ah feel dey kill him, yuh know.”
“Nah, boy. Doh say dat, nah, Raymond?”
“Yeah, boy. Ah feel they lick him up.”

You know how these things go, he seemed to say, remarking on his brother’s reputation as a dancing queen in the same breath as how good a person he is—was. His brother who people will tell you everyone loved.

I offered him a DuMaurier and noted the apparent ease with which he mentioned the facts of Robert’s disappearance to me: a phone call, a hurried exit, a far too long absence, then questions, searches and failures to search. He looked up.

“But sometimes,” he said, “ah does have to just come and watch, nah. Is a spirit thing.”
“Yeah, boy. Fuh dat.”

The apparent ease, betrayed by subsequent confessions of being torn apart for a brother who was a dancing queen. I found out the same way, between compliments of the season and the requisite puncheon. There was no wringing of hands or beating of a chest. He’d been crying earlier, though. And drinking. Grief is a hell of a thing, isn’t it? Grief in the offing.

This is a season of loss. Grief is its precipitation. We—all of us, everywhere—are soaked in it. It’s  not a question, we know, of whether grief will touch you, but rather of when and where and in what particular form. It’s a matter of scale, of depth and reach.

We, who run through the yard are accustomed to it. Just last week, I watched my aunt be cremated a stone’s throw from where she had lived as a child. She taught me things: how to care for the old and the sick and the dying. Care, she knew, was the manifestation of a certain kind of patience. And how to swallow when there is the impulse to bawl.

We learn to ride the wave. But our hearts still beat in the tide.

Call me an optimist (which I’m not), but I don’t yet think we’re as numbed and desensitized as those so deep in their well-earned cynicism might have us believe. I think we feel the loss. Still. We feel the hurt—either as a piercing or a deep, abiding nausea that circles the navel, forcing the eyes closed and the breath to grow long, just so you can swallow. We feel the grief.

We, my people, exist in a place between praise and lamentation. This is part of the reason we grieve in much the same way we celebrate, not because we lack imagination, nor fail to recognize one or the other. Not because they’re killing us—women, men, children—with the impunity one would expect from gasping empires and their foolish little upstart nations, nor even because we understand that the one is linked to the other, but because we are in a state of perpetual expectation and acceptance. This is why news of a transgender man’s murder would raise hardly an eyebrow among those who know him and his family—know, not knew, not so soon, so quick.

They will tell you that he cleaned people’s yards.
They will tell you that he sang (perhaps as well as he danced).
They will tell you that his manner was kind, but not to be trifled with.
They will tell you that he abhorred bullies and would dismantle you with his words if you tangled with him.
They will tell you that just before he disappeared, he danced in the yard.
They will tell you that everyone loved him. Everyone.
They will tell you that it didn’t matter who he slept with.

But it did.

Rumor has it that it was a former lover who consummated a threat made when he was still in prison. Promises to keep for those who think persons can be owned, that their bodies ought to be plundered, then colonized. It will come out soon enough (that much has been decreed).

For the moment, though, let us pretend that Robert’s life (as most will come to know it) didn’t begin where it ended, and that his disappearance is more than a cruel example of the way homophobia, transphobia, domestic violence, rape, torture, and murder are ignored in this place—this place, with its bloody absurdities and hypocrisies that snap at each other like mancrabs. Lest we betray the fact that, as a society, we are obliged to mistake tolerance for acceptance, let us pretend that his disappearance is not the preferred fate of “a macumé man.” Erasure. Let us, just for a few minutes, pretend that nothing can be done when a lifeless body is painstakingly picked from the branches, a full eight hours after being found, and that the stench that causes the corbeaux to circle is not his alone but the putrefaction of an entire society in the latter stages of decay.

Putrefaction. Complement to the season.

But take heart. The stink will pass, as all decay will inevitably end. Desiccation will follow (and, lucky us, we have the perfect amount of sun for it).

We simply have to do nothing.

Stay quiet, hold strain, relax. Vote. Don’t vote. Drink. Dance. Grieve in style. Trinidad nice and Carnival coming.

Somewhere, someone is designing a costume.

Oh, my people. What a thing to have to be strong only because you are weak, taking more and more (and more). What a thing to have to back away from that, from yourselves, just long enough so you can see what you must in the suffering of others. In their death.

Denial aside, it is the case that when you have cause or occasion to ask yourself (or anyone else who loves you) how much your heart can take, there comes an answer: More.

Always, sadly, more.

In matters of grief, there is a tendency to make what you feel be about you—indeed, because you feel it. It is, I think, a natural expression, an articulation of an instinctive response to protect and preserve oneself. You recognize the closeness of death and other dangers. You may tremble, perhaps because you are coming to terms with the fact that death comes to everyone, or perhaps because you have never known or seen it close enough to touch the dying (the way their bodies take to ambient temperatures, then stiffen, then decompose, until nothing). And even that—the not knowing—brings with it a burden that no ignorant bliss could outweigh.

In the midst of that feeling, though, you must also come to face the fact that your feelings are a privilege—indeed, because you can feel. And in recognizing your feeling as a privilege, endowed to you through nerve and marrow and ligament and sinew and blood and water, you must face the fact that the one for whom you grieve is dead.

The dead feel nothing.

Nothing. Not even sorrow for having taken their leave of us, the still living. The sorrow is, instead, ours to feel. Because we can feel.

Or because we can’t.

For Marjorie

For Marjorie Wright-Smith (1933-2014)

I am called upon to do an impossible thing.
I am called to do what I cannot do.
I am called upon to tell a truth I cannot adequately tell, to make with words what words cannot make.


Spasms. There are spasms. The heart shakes.

And if I should weep in the reading of these words, you will have to excuse me. I am in pain, Marjorie is dead, the shock of her absence is fresh (when, just a month ago, she told me stories at the table, I at her and my mother’s feet, as they told me about myself), and we (our family, named and unnamed) grieve openly, as we must.

Our hearts, because we are alive and human, are open wounds. They break and mend themselves—piece by jagged piece—for everyone to see. It is for them I speak.

I speak, also, and perhaps a bit more urgently, for Marjorie, who feels no pain—except, of course, for my inadequacies as I try to honor her now. She will laugh at my pretensions—knowingly, honestly.

It is a privilege that sticks in the back of the throat, makes the nose burn, and sets the pulse racing.

I linger neither in love, nor lamentation nor longing, for this is neither eulogy nor elegy but what the spirit has decreed. We are not so cynical—are we?—that we have strayed too far away from talk of spirits to find ourselves trapped in our aloneness, wandering without aim or purpose, or anchor.

With broken hearts we ask questions that have no answer, we rush about in a frenzy to find answers that have no questions.

Beset by the countless deep-hearted myths regarding life and death, of what is lost and what is gained, it is now incumbent upon us, the brokenhearted, to make of our pain a tangible thing.

Something we can see and touch. Something that will not break as we do.

And what are these myths? That we have time, time enough to prepare, to correct our mistakes, to fix the wrongs we have done, to undo the lies we have told. Time enough to change our course, like empty ships in a fog of our own arrogance and misunderstanding that maneuvre wildly, that twist and turn in panic when the lighthouse has ceased to guide. This is who she was, you know: a lighthouse and a refuge, a warning and a place of safety, a love and the harshest test of your love.

In the end, amid the pain, she longed to be where she was born, on the foothills of a green and half-quarried hill, strong and imperfect as the life she herself had lived, where she could look one more time across the expanse of San Fernando, where her father and mother had loved and struggled to raise their children in the house her father had built.



Imitation, people will tell you, is the sincerest form of flattery. So I will say what I think my aunt would want me to say in the way she would want me to say it.

About 25 years ago, I told a spectacular lie. It was, as far as lies go, spectacular—with all the twists, intrigue, excitement, and redemption that one should expect from spectacular lies. A brief interrogation, and the lie that I had woven for myself (spectacular as it was) came easily apart at its seams, like the half-made garments of a negligent tailor.

She took delight in telling this story whenever I would come home, my embarrassment giving way through the years to her laughter and, eventually, to my understanding.

In the time since, I came to learn that she, my aunt, took joy in seeing people transform from who they thought they were into who they ought to be, grasping their potential with both hands—timid, at first—then with the self-assured poise that only courage, counsel, and prayer could provide.

And who among us could know her and not change? Who could come away untouched and untaught? Who could ever visit and leave empty-handed?

It is, perhaps, an irony both cruel and kind that the one guilty of telling one of his most spectacular lies is now called upon to deliver to you a truth—not a spectacular truth, but one that is more simple, one that is not boastful or loud, but understated almost to the point of silence, such that if you were to cast your eye elsewhere for a moment, you would have missed altogether what she would try to give you.

Those who have ears to hear and eyes to see have heard and seen—and come away better.

And now that she has made a transformation of her own—having passed through from this place to whatever home we imagine—we are left to consider what we know, what we have seen, and what we will miss. This is part of the mystery—isn’t it?—that when faced with a death, we forget that the dead did, in fact, live.

When asked about her, we will see the grander parts but miss the details. We will catch the accomplishments. But we will miss more than that, even as we compete to say who it was that loved her best, knowing full well that she loved each of us more than we could ever imagine, knowing that the bounds and boundaries of our love defy even our own comprehension. We will miss the details of her care, her sometimes tough and sometimes tender hand, her willingness to give of her heart and mind, to teach and to let those whose heads were too hard for teaching learn for themselves.

She would be there, we know, always there to bind our wounds, and to treat us, to put a match to the methylated spirits and coconut oil so it could be warm enough—just warm enough—for our bodies wracked with fever.

We will, in time, miss the innumerable crossword puzzles and newspaper clippings that gather like an archive in the back room, the pictures filling drawers, the records of births and deaths.

But we will not miss the way the wrinkles that set in around her eyes and mouth would smoothen out when she laughed out loud at getting older, her skin growing thin like the crepe paper of children’s kites, and we will never wonder if she ever lived at all. We can still remember her voice.

Marjorie, my aunt, first and second mother, lived.

She was more than I have the power to imagine or skill to describe. But I will make the attempt. She danced. And when she could no longer dance, she sang and spoke of dancing and accepted the change with grace. Often, she has said, “I’ve lived a happy life, you know.” There were ebbs and flows, even in the midst of that happiness. But there was always happiness. Because there was always love.

So what are we to say now?

Notwithstanding the realities of ebbs and flows to which all lives are subjected, as far as eulogies go, what praise should we give that we are not ourselves called upon to emulate? We know there is no amount of praise that she would accept that does not come with proof. But this is a lesson each of us will come to in our own way, and in our own time. As far as eulogies go, we are her greatest accomplishment, as we have transformed over time from strangers and friends to family—her family. She would have it no other way.

She was ours, and we will always, always, be hers.


In a letter delivering the news of her brother’s death to her sister, Marjorie made the following confession: “It took me quite a bit of courage to write this letter. Hope I don’t have to write a letter of this type again or in a hurry.” I find myself in the same position today, knowing full well that it is more a privilege than a burden.

Our faith is not misplaced in those whom we love.

In Advance of a Eulogy

I want to go home.
I want to go home to Carib Street.
—Marjorie Wright-Smith

You among all beings
have the right
to see me weak.
—“The Hurt,” Pablo Neruda

Marjorie in Uniform
Marjorie Lorna Wright, 1955

This is not a eulogy.

I think I need to say that, more as a confession than a disclaimer, more for me than for whoever reads it.

It is not a eulogy. I have to write one, but this is not it. I’m not yet in that space. The space where eulogies are drafted: where the salient facts of one’s doings are catalogued, and the careful threading of failures and accomplishments strain pathos from the everyday things that comprise a life. The onset of inevitable breakdowns.

There are conventions to the genre—rules. It’s good to respect the rules or, at least, be aware of them. But it’s snowing in Syracuse, and my aunt is dead in San Fernando.

The breakdown will come. But not now.

Not while I sit alone in this icy place longing for family—or the illusion of family. Not here.

Not when there is no one for me to hold, and no one to hold me, heaving chest to heaving chest (until one, and then the other, is calm). No one to sap my head with bay rum, to pray with me (though I do not pray). This is what she did.

Marjorie, a second mother, now dead.

When I dragged my exhausted self home for Lystra’s funeral, holding myself together as if with thread, it was Marjorie who bound me up: I, on my knees, her arms around me, patting me, rocking me, praying as I passed out on the front porch, as San Fernando went about its business (as places do when they know nothing of a death, or when they do). It is best to break at home, I think, where those who know how to hold you can hold you. There are other places to break down, I know. Safe places. But not here.

Not here.

Yes, it will come, sure as the tide, sure as a metaphor of an infinite ocean that washes, beckons, buries. It will come because it must come, because I have built my love out of sand (for it is only out of sand that love could be built), and the tide creeps or rushes in to do what it must.

And there is, in me, that very human impulse to weep, to grieve as my efforts to build things erode with every wave—even as those efforts dried, then hardened, in the sun. I have learned to wait for low tide so I could begin again, to build and craft, promise and celebrate. I have learned to wait so I could boast about how hard I have worked between the tides. See? And I have learned to forget, in the midst of my waiting, that I am standing in the sand, sinking into it, its grains between my toes.

I know, I know. The sand has nothing to do with the love I have built out of it, but I prefer to break where there is sand, and where I can hear spirits in the water.

Not here, though, in exile. And no, I see no melodrama in the term. It alone will do.

For, what is exile but the anticipation of grief? What is it but longing to sit in the deadhouse, looking around for mirrors to turn, touching the shoulders of the stricken, nodding painfully, holding vigil with the weeping, lingering with the loud drunk? What is it but the excruciating calm of consoling your inconsolable mother when she calls breathless to say that her sister is dead?

Here, in my exile, I have learned to count the breaths, the rhythm of sobbing, of waiting. I have learned to breathe so I can remind my mother how to breathe without breaking apart. Here, the tide is at its lowest—it is gone, in fact, leaving me to scramble for words and grapple with the urgency of shock:

Mummy, Mummy, Mummy, Mummy.
Ok, Mummy. Ok. Ok. I know. I know. Ok, Mummy. I know.
Ok, Mummy.
Ok, Mummy.
Ok, Mummy.
Ok, Mummy.

A thousand times until she can say my name.
A thousand more.
And again.

In the droning rhythm of a child reminding his mother to breathe, there are no satisfactory metaphors. They betray me, leaving me to wait in silence for a moment to speak my rhythm. And as I sit in exile, waiting to break beautifully for my second mother, silent enough to hear things hardening in me—my breath, my flesh, love hardening into bone—I try to look at my grief like a piece of art that no one else can see.

And here set about the work of standing—standing, when all I want to do is fall.


[Drafting] True Dat(a): A Conference on Race, Digital Humanities, and Culture

Draft: Version 1

A few weeks ago, the Cultural Rhetorics Conference was held at Michigan State University. I couldn’t attend in person and was happy to follow the @CulturalRhet and #crcon (and was even happier to get a couple S/Os from fellow rhetoricians, some of whom I’ve known for a long time, like before Twitter). Referencing my In Vena Veritas project, I made a submission after the fact and in absentia, a gesture meant to demonstrate my wish to be there. From my observations online, it was an important conference, one that helped further legitimize cultural rhetoric, which is a cause to which I’m committed.

Appearing on the “The Future of African American Rhetorics” panel with Drs. Elaine Richardson (@DoctaE1), Gwen Pough, and Tamika Carey (@t_l_carey), Dr. Candace Epps-Robertson (@rhetorista) expressed the need for more scholars who work at the intersection of race and digital humanities—the problem being that there is a dearth in activity where these issues are concerned.

I was still very excited by the conversation I had a few days earlier about metatexts and the rhetorical encoding of blackness with Jessica M. Johnson (@jmjafrx) and l’Nasah Crockett (@so_treu). Made a storify, too, with a soaringly pretentious title: “Words With Friends; Or, Diaspora Rhetoric, Social Media, and the Curation of Notes Toward an Augmented Archive: A Transcript.” (You should also read Jessica’s poignant reflection.)

So when I saw @rhetorista‘s statement, I stood in my office and applauded. Slowly.

A few minutes later, I created @true_dat_a, expanding its scope to include nonacademics and anyone who may be interested not only in having these conversations, but also in seeing where they could lead and on whose behalf they could be put to work. Now, I suppose I should make it clear that although I envision a conference on race, DH, and culture, I don’t wish to consider myself an expert (especially in DH), but more of a researcher and a deep practitioner. These topics interest me a great deal, I rely on their lenses, principles, and methods, and I believe there is much to be gained from their combined study. This is how I orient myself to projects: from the standpoint of inquiry. Inquiry necessitates practice. And so:

True Dat(a), in addition to serving as the face (or avi) for the conference, is also what I would call a digital analog for understanding knowledge-making—it is not “text as metaphor” but a “metonymic text,” and a timely illustration of what drives my need to organize a conference in times that seem designed for the unmitigated undoing of persons. I’m referring, specifically, to erasure and the upsurge in racist, genocidal, mysogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic tendencies in American culture and across the globe. For me, these are issues to which articulations of race and culture in digital humanities are particularly well-suited.

Let me explain a bit of what I mean.

The title is an obvious riff on “True Dat”—an expression that, some would argue, has lost its relevance due to appropriation, overuse, or the tendency of language to simultaneously upgrade and undermine itself. The gesture itself is not too unlike other conferences that try to evoke a certain pop culture appeal. Nevertheless, one of the obvious consequences of the typical recursiveness of language (as it occurred to me at the time, anyway) is that it enables us, as conscious language users (takers, makers, mixers, etc.) to consider the progression of ideas from inception to utterance; through its cycles of use, misuse, disuse, etc.; and ultimately into the memory, or something like the memory, where they may either be preserved or threatened, accessed or forgotten.

Iterations of language use (seen in the examples below as an evolving text) have the capacity to be metacognitive both in nature and expression. That is, when reflected upon, they will at least involve (1) a deliberate thinking about the thinking that goes into the making of a text and (2) an exemplification of the inherently referential nature of texts that call attention to their intent and function.

I like the idea of it, particularly from the standpoint of compositions and their emancipatory potential in a digital age—from conception to coding to design to the actual construction of interfaces.

Pictured in the header image is an untitled 18th Century engraving of an Albino African Woman that I’d acquired as part of the Writing Praxis project I started a couple weeks earlier.

Yes, the image is partially covered by one of my notebooks—Notebook Two, in fact. And yes, my covering of it was deliberate, not merely for matters of decency, but rather to trouble my audience’s presumptions of ownership, authorship, and access to the body—or, in this case, digitized representations of the body. The far-too-easy killability and disposability of bodies brings this into more stark relief—making #BlackLivesMatter more than a trending counterpoint to a troubling trend, but a declaration of life and a constant reminder of what is literally at stake in the face of pressing erasure. That is, the conception of a vernacular self in digital environments. To add context, my creolized invocation of a Fanonian reference to skins and masks operates a coded attempt to emphasize the representational significance of the image and its role in shaping the ethos of the conference (even though this latter assumption may be solely my own).


So, following from this example, an examination of users’ consciousness of their use of language, even in this nascent view, heightens the degree and increases the potential to which these users would not only be self-conscious, but would also be more inclined to recognize the degree to which they are directly implicated (not merely implied) in the outcomes of their language use, not to mention their contribution to the production of knowledge and the texts in which such knowledge may (be) manifest. This, to me, is rhetorical activity.

I am therefore concerned with how these texts and the texts that emerge from the conference can serve as a metonymic bridge between symbolic action and material production. In terms of the manner in which attendees approach that bridge, I was thinking of a somewhat narrow take on access, memory, data collection, archiving and the interplay of technical and numinous elements in the coding and construction of a digital self.

My working claim, and the initial intent of @true_dat_a, draws on the notion that:

An attempt at a comprehensive call follows shortly with date(s), location(s), and other details. In the meantime:

Part II The devastating consequences of “symbolic annihilation”

The “symbolic annihilation” of black children in literature can have devastating consequences. 

Stuart Hall and Black British photography | Part 2