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.

Rush Rhetoric (with my morning coffee)

This won’t be long. 

I was in an African American history class my freshman year at Medgar Evers College, and (in a stroke that seemed pedagogically doomed from the start) my professor blurted out,

“Jesus Christ is a bastard, and his mother Mary is a whore.”

Everyone gasped, and then a hush fell over the class that felt about as comfortable as nausea caused by the kind of rotting crap you’re likely to find in a certain writer’s sink when he’s caught in a days-long writing session. After a while, some of the less conservative among us asked, almost in unison,

“Wait, what the f*ck did he just say!?”

He repeated himself and stood reveling in the reaction with a “herein lies the lesson” kind of expression on his face. And what was the lesson? Just because you can say something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. For those of us who make our living with words, it makes a certain sense. I was no fan of censorship, always been apt to do my own thing in my own way, so I got the point. I thought back to the first time I cussed. (I was walking home from school, and my friend Elvis dared me to say it. I did, and nothing happened. Something to do with the fact that my only audience was a seasoned “cussbud.” Elvis. Audience matters.)

So anyway, I’m returning to the Twitter after a couple days of sloth and self-indulgence, only to find that there’s a “Harriet Tubman Sextape” on the All Def Digital YouTube Network endorsed by Russell Simmons as one of the funniest things he ever saw.

Jesus be a fence!

Now, you may say it was satire. It was a rhetorical strategy, a ruse of misdirection to get folk talking about something other than the launch of your digital channel (offering no link, sorry). You may say you were just being a gadfly, that it was intended to spur vigorous racial discourse, using humor, for a nation jaded by its history and its contemporary fits and starts and failures to sustain a meaningful discussion down from the rarified air of institutions and the intelligentsia–black or otherwise. You may even go so far as to invoke Ellison in your defense, who wrote in Shadow and Act,

Very often…the Negro’s masking is motivated not so much by fear as by a profound rejection of the image created to usurp his identity…. [It] is in the American grain. Benjamin Franklin, the practical scientist, skilled statesman and sophisticated lover, allowed the French to mistake him for Rousseau’s Natural Man. Hemingway poses as a non-literary sportsman, Faulkner a farmer; Abe Lincoln allowed himself to be taken for a simple country lawyer—until the chips were down. America is a land of masking jokers. We wear the mask for purposes of aggression as well as for defense, when we are projecting the future and preserving the past. In short, the motives hidden behind the mask are as numerous as the ambiguities the mask conceals. (55)

You may do those things, but then you’d have to find some way to further substantiate your motives, particularly if you’re called upon do so (say, like now, when people like me react with outrage to the “joke”). If not, you’re likely to have your audience–intended, extended, whatever–view your act as one of terrorism. (And, make no mistake, I consider any act that is intended to demean the very soul and struggle of a people an act of terrorism.) Hell, you don’t even need to apologize, especially if you feel justified. But some clarity about your motives would certainly help. Some of us aren’t as sharp and require some explanation about what you were trying to achieve when you chose to turn the need for freedom into a shadowy slutwalk, replete with f*ck talk and hijinks. Race is hard to navigate, and some of us avoid it. So you gotta say something that’ll help us understand what you were really trying to do.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. I get it. You can’t please everyone, as the saying goes, right? And given that there’s an inherent selection process that helps you determine who your audience is going to be, and a similar process that helps audiences determine (Taxi Driver-like) if you talking to them, I know I could simply discard what I consider idiotic or offensive or blasphemous (according to the degree of the insult) and just keep it moving. I don’t want to.

So I wonder: who in the hell are you talking to when you endorsed a Harriet Tubman sex tape? If not me, a black body still reading the effects of a legacy like tea leaves and chicken bones, then who? There had to have been a point to it, right? For whom is rape a joke, other than rapists and the otherwise depraved? For whom is the implication funny that sex was her preferred currency, or that her body was barter for the freedom of other bodies, the implication that she was just pretending not to enjoy the repeated sexual torture as more than a violation? For whom is terror and terrorism funny? Who among your card-carriers, viewers, listeners, or readers, considers the trauma of slavery, the need to escape it, and the persistent risk of being hobbled, bitted, whipped, shot, lynched (by rope or flame or both before and after you die) something that, framed as a joke, could elicit something more than consternation and disgust? What is there to gain from this sacrilege?

Yes, sacrilege. That’s what you do when you insult a prophet. And I know what you’d say, too. Harriet Tubman is not above critique. What makes her so elevated that she assumes the role of prophet for African Americans or anyone, for that matter? Well, that’s kind of my point. You know, the whole “mother is the name for god on the lips of children” thing? That.

But when the “apology” came, it was, as my friend @hystericalblkns put it so succinctly, “pure fuckery.” Yeah. F*ckery doesn’t really come much purer than that. I’d like to say that I was unmoved by the apology–unconvinced by its patent arrogance and disingenuousness, the abject lack of remorse. I wasn’t.

You see, there’s a critical difference between saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you” and saying, “I’m sorry you feel hurt by what I’ve done.” The former suggests remorse, while the latter simply does not. If anything, it compounds the insult by letting the injured party know that you’re really not sorry for what you’ve done, and that the problem is really with them and their perception of what you’ve done. It’s a tactic common to politicians, preachers, and regular people. We know you ain’t sorry. You ain’t even sorry you ain’t sorry.

And when you say that your “buddies at the NAACP” ask you to remove the video, that’s like tweeting,

I really think rape is funny. She was asking for it. #confessyourunpopularopinion.

Even idiocy deserves a comment. So here’s mine: In the Caribbean, we have a saying.

Joke is joke, but damn joke eh no joke.

As in, that ain’t no damn joke to tell, or what kinda damn joke is that? Or, as in this case, that “joke” is damned.



RiRi (with my morning coffee)

This won’t be long. There’s more to say, but I have a deadline.

Deadline: by the time my coffee gets too cold to enjoy.

As I see it, my job is not to legitimize the Caribbean, its people, or our culture to people who obviously don’t want to understand. And for those who want to understand, the legitimacy is already presumed, so we can usually get to more important stuff pretty quickly. As a rhetorician, I try to explain particular phenomena; specifically, I try explain “rhetorical” ones, gleaning from them what forms of intention, expression, and outcome I consider useful or meaningful to Caribbean people and their audiences that (imho) would improve our collective understanding and so hopefully improve our lives. It’s a difficult pursuit. So it’s with a particular degree of annoyance that I write this for the @rihanna haters out there–those who thought her wining during CropOver the other day was problematic. I don’t really have an issue with folks who called it “twerking.” That’s easily correctable:

Nah, nah. Dat ent no twerkin. Is wine she wining. It does look de same, but it ent de same–it different.

Boom! Corrective done. What I do have an issue with is that some folks found it so problematic that they were willing to ignore the fact that she was performing in a festival that is historically grounded–about two and a half centuries grounded, as a a matter of fact. Context matters.

My coffee cup conclusion is as follows: It’s not that you can’t understand us and what we do and who we are but that the mechanism for your understanding–inquiry–is significantly outperformed by the default mechanism for reading differences in/between cultures. Ignorance. That ignorance is not unique to African Americans; rather, it’s a reflection of the kind of myopia that one is likely to find in any insular social formation. According to how much power you possess, your myopia can masquerade as conservatism or, worse, full on exceptionalism, along with the usual ideological accoutrements.

I suppose it’s easier to cast aspersions than ask questions, to make pronouncements on what you don’t know about rather than learn.

Coffee done.

Addendum here:
[View the story “RiRi (addendum)” on Storify]


Regarding common sense: If you look hard enough, and sometimes if you don’t, the mundane will reveal itself, unfolding unmysteriously, like a prophecy conceived, written, performed in the language of everyday life. At other times, they remain concealed, evading our understanding, except when we are able to glean some semblance of meaning from recognizable terms. What are we to do in such times, when things seem to occur outside the province of common sense? It’s anyone’s guess. The jury, as they say, is out.

This is such a great song, isn’t it? “It Was A Very Good Year.” Sinatra’s version (which, frankly, might as well be the only version). Half century later, it still resonates. The beautiful Brooklyn city girls who lived up the stairs moved me. I don’t know any “blue-blooded girls of independent means,” but still.

I mean, who could forget that opening montage in The Sopranos Season 2 premiere? James Gandolfini was a genius in the role, wasn’t he? Of this there can be no doubt. The song’s opening verse is even more compelling. I hear it now and think of other 17 year-olds–living and dead–as I sit reflecting on my own 17th year:

When I was seventeen
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for small town girls
And soft summer nights
We’d hide from the lights
On the village green
When I was seventeen
(“It Was a Very Good Year,” 1965)

When I was 17, a couple months after getting home from boot camp at Parris Island Recruit Depot, South Carolina, I walked into a tattoo parlor on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. My inkman, Vinny, was meticulous and unsympathetic. He didn’t seem to take any sadistic pleasure etching the tribal panther on my chest, nor seemed to press harder as he filled in the outline that thorned and barbed and clawed its way into the unmarked areas of my skin. There was no romanticism from my end, either.

Wait, that’s not exactly true.

The impulse to have some kind of symbol that represented courage was driven by a somewhat romanticized notion of a tattoo as an example of primal badassness. And, having failed to be a marine, I felt as though I’d earned an alternative. Or needed one. Because, no matter what you tell yourself about needing to get out of something, there’s always going to be a part of you that misses it, still the odd dreams. It’s not magic: any break in routine will result in withdrawal. My particular break came when the “innocent” heart murmur threatened to become a bit more problematic. After a few weeks in Medical Rehabilitation Platoon (MRP) then Physical Conditioning Platoon (PCP), I got picked up by Platoon 2016. I’ll have some things to say about those days another time. My Senior Drill Instructor (SDI), SSgt Shaw was alright, as far as SDIs go. Very thorough. As I lay on the gurney after collapsing in the sqaudbay, for example, he came to make sure I didn’t have any “allegations” of misconduct to report–like the ass-whooping he gave me in his office (we called it a “house”) because he thought I was being a “little bitch.”

At 17, I weighed about 147lbs fully clothed, soaking wet, so he had little difficulty tossing me around the place. I was surprised when he lunged at me, but I remained compliant, using my hands only to get my balance or push myself up from the floor. That sucked, but we did a lot of push-ups, so I was good at it. I had it coming, I suppose, like the “blanket party” my fellow recruits threatened me with. I had it coming. I’d fallen asleep on firewatch, so (notions of implicit misogyny, abuse, and homoerotic tensions of military organizations aside) I didn’t feel the need to allege that my SDI had done anything out of order. Along with racism and religious intolerance, misogyny, abuse, and homoerotic tensions were the norm. I became hard. “Born-again hard,” as another movie-quoting DI put it.

No allegations.

Besides, when you’re breeding warriors–killers with the justifiable cause of war or some other sanctioned aggression–those kinds of things are to be expected. The bottomline for them was that I had no allegations. It was too much, and–let’s say, for now–I didn’t have the heart for it. Forms were signed, I spent a few days in Casual Platoon, ate great food at the good mess hall, and prayed to god and other miscellaneous sex deities that the stories I’d heard about saltpeter were apocryphal. Then I was on a bus back to Brooklyn. February 6, 1992.


Part of being trained to kill “the enemy” is becoming comfortable with the fact that you’re also a target. It’s common sense. So, at 17 and back in Brooklyn, when the NYPD rolled up and drew their guns on me and my boy as we got to my stoop on East 95th St., it didn’t occur to me to be afraid of what they could do. There was adrenaline mixed with the absurdity of an errant gunshot blocks away that we would have been more likely to be hit by than to have fired. No fear, though. Even with a 12-pound trigger pull, it was unlikely that they’d miss. Hard to miss at 15 feet. Harder at 2. But no fear.

"Love Me, A Target," 2011
“Love Me, (I’m) A Target,” 2011

This was no doubt an inheritance from boot camp, where I’d learned to bracket my responses to aggression. One of the other DIs, SSgt Allen, helped me put things in perspective. During training, in between the drills and the punishment, he and SSgt Crumbliss offered useful sayings in MRE-sized portions that would become lodged in our throats. This one remained:

You better wake the hell and realize where the hell you at.

The implication, in a no-frills context, was that we were asleep and, should we choose to remain asleep, would be in for “a world of hurt.” (Yeah, they quoted lines from films, too. Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Casualties of War. There were other films. Faces of Death was a favorite among us. When I was 17, my friends and I had looked at enough of them to anticipate the initial shock and nausea of human death–and, death notwithstanding, to laugh–normalized as we were to blood and other things. They were pleased we were becoming hard without noticing too much.)

It was an admonition to get ourselves together. Yes, but more than that. A civilian now, I could improvise. For me, it was more like:

wherever you happen to be at, you better wake the hell up when you there–or when you get there.
And, what’s more, you better stay woke.

We know what that means. Even if we’re not familiar with Erykah Badu‘s remix of “Master Teacher” and messages of hope and critique like this one that it inspired, we still know what that means, don’t we? Of course we do. We know because we are who we are and must stay woke. Mired at all times in discourses of desperation and survival, we know that justice for the dead is a task for the living, not because ghosts require any vindication but because we can imagine better. So we stay woke. I’ve thought for some time about these dynamics and have come up wanting of a resolution. We know. Especially when, bewildered by the desiccated ethos of a nation intent on leaving its hypocrisies unresolved, we take upon ourselves the responsibility to admonish those among us we consider complacent. We know that staying alive is an act of courage. It’s common sense.

They searched us, questioned us, and let us be on our way–back to the stoop, a few feet to the left. Cloaked in this skin of mine–this black and sweet and hated skin of mine–I had to become comfortable with the fact that I was a target. I hadn’t yet enrolled as a non-degree student at Medgar Evers College, but I was already aware of the normalizing, absolving powers of my society’s beliefs when it comes to how people like me are treated. I was aware, even then, of what a friend described as “the claustrophobia that is US racial discourse for black people.” It was then what it is now. What are the conditions under which I, a black body, can be assured of justice? At 17–hard as I was and with a couple guns pointed at me–I really wasn’t thinking about that.

I just didn’t want to be shot in the face. Or the heart.

I wasn’t. So I figured I’d earned a tattoo. Somewhat romanticized, I guess, but not really.

Rhetoric and the Stoning of Rachel Jeantel

These are the facts:

Granny solved the issue for me pretty early.

She called me “black boy.”
I answered easily, lovingly.

Of course, I didn’t know there was an issue that needed solving, steeped, as I was, in my own naïveté–a condition no doubt precipitated by the time spent in my mother’s womb. And besides, who runs around a few years later–jumping over ravines, hunting birds by slingshot (“pull-and-go” rubber, not “pull-and-stop”), pitching marbles badly in the dusty rings of cocoyea broom-swept yards, and finding other manners of mischief to occupy the mind–and still finds the time to think about the blackness of one’s skin? Well, you. You, if you were one of us. I know that I was not the only one, nor were the children I played with in any way unique in our knowledge that we were, indeed, black. Black and, thus, different. We didn’t need to know that. Didn’t need to make the connections, to deduce and conclude, and so we made little effort to. You see, “difference” was as default a condition as our naïveté at that age. And at that age, a few years outside the womb, where there was no longer any amniotic fluid to filter the noise of a world only experience and adulthood would allow us to make sense of, we relied instinctively on the experience of our forbears.

But filters fail from time to time, as we know. So when a “brown-skin” girl I loved told me I was “too black to wear yellow,” it was nothing less than a laceration on my soul. “Kids are cruel” is what we’ve learned to say, which is shorthand for dealing inadequately with our hurt. And when her sister, equally brown, fell in love with a man as black as I was, the pain of preference bore a certain tint. A deeper hurt.

More lacerations came, along with the coagulations and resulting scars that have taken deceptively simpler, axiomatic forms and have since connected themselves to the mind and heart:

black and beautiful
black and stupid
blacker the berry
black and ugly


And so it is that following an airing of the Dark Girls documentary on the OWN network the other night, I got into a brief twitter exchange with Dr. Yaba Blay, who wrote an article for Clutch Magazine in response. In that article, Color Me Beautiful: A Dark Girl Reflects on “Dark Girls,” Blay noted–correctly, and, for my part, thankfully–that missing from the documentary was a sense of nuance–complexities and subtleties. According to Blay:

The voice of the confident, assured, self-affirming, self-loving, “I wish you would tell me I’m not the ish” sister, who although she can relate to the pain refuses to stay stuck in it and has somehow figured out how to find beauty in her reflection. We needed that voice, not to distract from or to negate the experiences of pain, but rather to balance them with the capacity for triumph, if the purpose of the dialogue is in fact our healing.

My response to the article was succint:

@fiyawata boom goes the mfkn dynamite.

It was an unveiled reference to Scandal, a tv series we find ourselves tweeting about. We mused on the possibility of a “dark boys” documentary and whether the commensurate hashtag–#darkboys–was yet a thing. It was. I went about my business, thinking about how I could join the conversation and express some of the nuance that Blay challenged me–all of us, really–to bring to the fore. Nuance was all around me, but you know how things go. Things come up, and we get caught up. I’ve explained this a little bit before. Nuance was all around, and someone else more capable would take it up and make of it what it deserved to be.

We academic types must be judicious in how we pick our battles and our projects, after all.

I tend to view a great deal of things as a rhetorician, so I acknowledged the deeper, more implicit challenge–that the purpose of dialogues about trauma ought to be oriented toward healing–as a key example of how rhetoric can lead to meaningful outcomes for those directly and indirectly involved. Then I just kinda passed the plate. Others would take it up.

Then came Rachel Jeantel, a key ear witness for the prosecution in George Zimmerman’s trial for the second degree murder of Trayvon Martin, a child. But this is about Rachel Jeantel. She is black. She is 19. Her friend is dead. The man who killed him sits in the same room a few feet away. These are the facts.

Much has been made of Jeantel’s testimony over her two days on the stand, which has stoked people’s passions beyond the immediacy of the trial. This is not to say that people have forgotten that Trayvon Martin ended his life face down in wet grass on February 26, 2012. People haven’t forgotten that George Zimmerman pulled the trigger and now sees his freedom hanging in the balance in a Florida court.

Pass the plate, Kevin, pass the plate. Yeah, nah.

Rachel Jeantel is black. She is plus-sized. Some would say she is fat. Some would chuckle, others would laugh, and (lucky for us) others will be reminded of other public shamings and remind us of the inherent problem with this. On Twitter, exemplifying the latter, Joan Morgan (@milfinainteasy) pointed out that:

[T]he defense simply strategizes that her black, female body makes her foreign and suspicious enough to cast doubt on her credibility…but the real tragedy is that this strategy can always rely on black folks self-hatred to help it right along.

Even more was made of her language. She speaks Black English. Atlantic Creole. African American Vernacular English. Ebonics. Black sound. She also speaks Haitian Kreyol and Spanish. These three, Jeantel noted, were the languages she grew up speaking.

Never mind that, though.

Predictably, others in social media and on tv have taken it up and have begun debating whether the attacks by the defense or her stereotypically black reactions to them were more objectionable. Lest there be any confusion where I stand on this, let me be clear that I think Rachel Jeantel’s composure was commendable, especially so given the context, and I challenge anyone to maintain such composure while being harrassed, as Jeantel was by defense attorney Don West (as is his, or any defense attorney’s, prerogative), about what you really heard on the phone the night your friend was followed, interrogated, wrestled with, shot, and killed. Maintain your composure then.

Rachel Jeantel is not just a black woman, she is very black. Darker than I am. She is the kind of black that rests at the heart of traumatic connotations and self-hatred. The kind of demeanor that Lolo Jones sought to make fun of by comparing her to Tyler Perry’s “Madea” and which was described as disrespectful, immature, uneducated, and so on and so forth into the far too familiar territory of angry black bodies–bodies cursed to be grotesque and unsophisticated as the natural consequence of an indelibly black skin. Talk about shade, right? Right? She is, like many of us are: marked as different by default. This is a principle with which we are supremely familiar. But she could handle it–and did–right? As Rachel Samara, writing for Global Grind has noted, “Rachel was raw, emotional, aggressive and hostile, and she was unapologetically herself.” Agreed, to a point. To a point because I wouldn’t want to conflate the elements of Samara’s list. With Blay’s charge still fresh, I went in search of nuance–most of which I’ve restricted to my Twitter timeline. Among other things, I noted that, “Black language is on trial.” I should have added that black language–visual, oral, and aural–was also on display.

We saw and (mis)interpreted the kinesic features, such as her “cut-eyes” when she determined a question was ridiculous. We heard the tonal semantics or paraliguistic features embedded in the range of “Yes, Sir” responses. You remember that thing Jeantel did with her mouth? That was a steups. In my book, Tropic Tendencies, I discuss the steups:

The steups… is used to express disgust, disrespect, insubordination, impatience, anger, and frustration. Conversely, it is also used to effectively show empathy, regret, and relief. [It] also communicate[s] that the practitioner intends to be seen and heard by the subject. (62)

Unfortunately, what is missed is very often missed by choice. Never mind that the languages we all speak are nothing if not consistent and subject to logical rules and discernible redundancies. You know, a grammar. There’s a grammar in play, for example, when she said, “I coulda heard,” which could mean either “I could hear” or “I could have heard.” In both cases, the tense used could refer to something that actually occurred, even though the latter could also be read as possibly having happened. We don’t need to get but so technical, here.

Regardless of complexity, speakers of black languages have historically been and continue to be maligned in the classroom and wider society–that is, marked primarily in the context of cultural, educational, and sociolinguistic models of deficit. From that point of view, it is the speaker who lacks the intelligence, skill, capital, and credibility to be effective. Not that the listener has either failed or refused to listen to what was being said. A person subject to deficit lacks the polish, the sense of sophistication that would garner respectability in the mainstream. This is not news. As you can imagine, the criticism was all too familiar and far too easy to find–such that it was likened to a social media stoning. Rachel Jeantel’s body, her brain. I made no attempt to apprise myself of that firestorm. Not news. Naturally, as in any asymmetrical power dynamic, speakers of the nonstandardized language have to defer to the speakers of the stanardized language:

West: “Can you understand English?”
Jeantel: “I can understand you.”

Think of Jeantel’s response as demonstration of a kind of forced versatility and a common characteristic of vernacular education. We speakers of black language have had to deal with this kind of discrimination in every aspect of our personal and public lives. As a consequence, we are forced to make hard choices about how we represent ourselves as language users–these, academic types like myself will corroborate, are examples of complex rhetorical choices that demonstrate the practitioner’s awareness of a situation and (often) her conscious response to it. You see, the response would have to be conscious because, unless completely beaten down, a practitioner like Rachel Jeantel would be unlikely to “just take it” without the impulse to talk back or fight back. Yes, Sir. There are other processes at play that show Rachel Jeantel to be a particularly astute practitioner of black rhetoric, but you get it, right?

Regardless of what you hear, or are led to believe, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is ignorance. There is no satisfactory synonym, no substitute for not knowing, which is why you often hear the term ignorance paired with the adjective “plain” (and about as much as you hear the above pairings). And, try as we may, there is no known process for someone else knowing something for you–it’s one of those things you must do on your own. You must draw upon what you would like to know (motive) and find a balance with what you happen to know (memory). It’s a process. What will Rachel Jeantel remember of all this? What attitudes toward white people will linger, whether justice is served or not? Will there be any exoneration for her language, her confusion on the stand, her apparent failure to parse the nuances of culture and community, her exasperation? What will she deduce and conclude from this time in her life?

I don’t really know (can’t know) but I have to ask because this is where I find myself, right now: in the echo chamber that is my mind. Maybe it is that all things begin in the mind, that vast reservoir of memories and motives that seem to shape us regardless of whether we are aware or not. Maybe not. Right now, though, this is where I find myself: obliged to consider what occurs at the intersection of memory and motive, of what I know and what I can prove. Once there, knowing little and proving nothing, I am obliged to consider what and who I see.

Right now, I see Rachel Jeantel.

Obviously, this is not about Rachel Jeantel the person. I don’t know her personally and have the impulse to reject attempts–say, by major news networks–to “get to know who she is.” General curiosity aside, I understand that the Rachel Jeantel I saw on the news is a representation–a symbol–upon which we could but shouldn’t heap fears, frustrations, proclivities, prejudices.

I don’t know the child whose friend was murdered.

This is not about her. It is about a challenge that I have failed. In a way, I had to fail. Because there was no nuance that I could see in how Rachel Jeantel was treated on the stand, try as I did to look for it. Condescension is not nuanced; it is raw, uncompromising, and unmistakable. It is neither soft nor smooth. Abuse is never subtle. And yes, condescension is a form of abuse–it is meant to demean, undermine, ridicule. Never mind that.

In the end, I had to fail because Rachel Jeantel is a effin boss, because in the end (or by the end of the news cycles that often define us or our timelines), it is clear that Rachel Jeantel–whoever she may turn out to be in the wake of this–never needed me to come to her defense. Instead, this “confident, assured, self-affirming, self-loving, ‘I wish you would tell me I’m not the ish’ sister, who although she can relate to the pain refuses to stay stuck in it and has somehow figured out how to find beauty in her reflection” has come to mine, a black man whose grandmother once called him “black boy.”

Abrahams, Roger. Everyday Lives: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2005.
Gilyard, Keith. True to the Language Game: African American Discourse, Cultural Politics, and Pedagogy. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Mufwene, Salikoko, ed. Africanisms in Afro-American Language Varieties. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1993.
Richardson, Elaine. African American Literacies. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Rickford, John. African American Vernacular English. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: the Language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1986.

This essay was published on July 9, 2013 in Enculturation, a refereed journal that explores contemporary theories of rhetoric, writing, and culture. You can download the pdf here.

Carib House, San Fernando (2012)

What do children care of history? Some will say that growing up, if we do it well, is about  experiencing life on our way to somewhere else–to being grown up–without being so distracted by that life that we forget to grow. That sounds like nonsense to me. Some things we miss, others we recall. And we are left to sift through the pleasures and traumas for the meaningful things that rest, leaning to one side like obstinate milestones, along our half-forgotten path. And while we can’t, or aren’t supposed to remember everything, the same could be said of forgetting–that is, forgetting, like remembering, should be subject to selection.

Okay, that sounds maybe kinda like nonsense, too. Maybe.
I’m working some stuff out, here. ‘llow meh, nah.
Time to go to the archives.

In the vast catalog of regrets for things I didn’t do as a child, for some reason more times running around the massive pillars beneath the Carib House in San Fernando is absent. Not surprisingly and not for any profound reason. Pillars offer little in the way of excitement: they are too easily negotiable, limiting our movements only to the left or to the right; they offer little in the way of a hiding place (after, say one or two times before being a default place to be checked); and (because of their immovability) cannot be bent, broken, thrown. In a word: Boring.

Carib House, ca 1965 (Angelo Bissessarsingh)
Carib House, ca 1965 (Angelo Bissessarsingh)


In my day, the house wasn’t painted–pretty much looked like it did in 1965.  It was restored in the 80s, but it retained the gritty, unfinished texture of its late 19th century youth when Samuel Atherly, a Bajan stonemason, was thought to have built it on a lot first occupied by Charles Le Cadre–this according to Geoffrey Maclean. Atherly apparently had a thing for arches. (As far as load-bearing structures go, arches are certainly up there, but I think they were about as interesting to me as the pillars that anchored them.)

Mom, Brother Austin's House Front Steps, ca 1960
Mom, Brother Austin’s House Front Steps, ca 1960

So why the Carib House?

I’m getting to that–there’s a bit of a story involved. If I’m being honest, it never moved me in quite the same way as the other structures do in the post on early articulations about the rhetoric of houses. For example, when I mention Brother Austin’s house, an image of my mother comes to mind. She’s wearing a can-can dress on her birthday. She’s about thirteen. What also comes to mind is a photograph I took a few decades later, when I went home in 2003. You’ll see that not much had changed, except perhaps the wooden panels had been replaced by galvanized sheets, the plants and the wooden/wire bleach are gone, the concrete casting at the base of the pillars had worn away, like the gumline of a smoker. My mother was, by that time, in New York, struggling.

But notice the arch, the fixed jalousies.

Looking at where my mother stood, by then more than half a life away from me, I notice the implicit connection, the extension of perspectives across fading decades.

Brother Austin's House, Front Steps, 2003
Brother Austin’s House, Front Steps, 2003

You’d find that I’m operating in a different rhetorical–and, let’s face it, aesthetic–register than would make the Carib House meaningful to me. I make no attempt to mask this fact. Arches notwithstanding, there’s an emotional connection–a pathos, even with the houses whose occupants I do not know–that just isn’t there with the Carib House. Even if you were to excuse the contrivance of visions–whoever took the picture of my mother, she in the former, me behind the camera of the latter, she present like a suggestion in the latter but not visible, and so on–reading my history selfishly means that I am restricted by context. And context, at least in this case, is significantly determined by what I’m able to recall and reconstruct. You know, meaning-making, and all that.

To me, to many of us running around its pillars, or walking beneath it on our way to somewhere, it carried as much wonder as an elevated block. The “somewhere else” places–those places we had to get to in the unhurried pace of our late 20th century youth–were more interesting. Like Marryat Street, a short distance away, where a piano repairman lived like a solo virtuoso troll in a manmade cave near the corner, across the street from the doctor’s office where my mother worked for a while. Or, nearer, finding ourselves by Alistair and Lester, noted undesirables, against whom we were taught (like fools) to cast a discriminating eye. They both played pan in the adjacent yard (though, by that time, badjohns like Mousey and them had mostly quieted down, the cutlass and bottle more of a rarity than a norm, even at carnival). Come to think  of it, our relationship to the supernatural is like that, as well, isn’t it? I doubt we ever acknowledged, with the same attention we paid the jumbie bird, that legacy of obeah that was embedded in the crossroads like a bottle cap in asphalt.

But this post is not only about these things, or the memories of people and places and things that can be linked, like a rabid network, from one to the other until we (the erstwhile livers of those memories) are related either by indelibly traceable blood or, as indelibly, by myth. Essentialist, vernacular mitochondrial, or something technical like it.

This is also about being at the crossroads of my relationship with the past I’ve left and that which remains, about the everyday monuments I’ve missed, about how easily elements of history can get forgotten, and how careless I’ve been with the histories I’ve had at my disposal. It’s not a cautionary tale, per se, though I appear to pose the moral early–and in the form of a question, no less. But when I look at the Carib House as it is now–the roof has been replaced, the original attic space halved, the windows have been redone, the ventilating function of louvres taken over by bricks, the sandy texture now painted–I wonder. What to do when the apparent significance of an archive seems to skip a generation? What happens when the attempt to reflect yields an image that is barely recognizable? The point is not that no one is going to do the looking for you. That’s obvious. Tell your own story, and collect the materials necessary to do that. The point is not that there is no reason to wait. That’s also obvious.

The point is that there’s a photograph of me, my cousin Leon, and his then girlfriend Natasha posing (me like a fool) with the Carib House in the background. It’s somewhere. I’ve looked, but I don’t know where it is. And as I consider the monuments that stand at crossroads, I fear what would happen if I did find the photograph and had no idea what there was to see–or that I was ever even there.

Carib House, San Fernando (2012)
Carib House, San Fernando (2012)

That is the point.

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Grenada Marketplace, St. Georges (1984)

So when I began scribbling about Caribbean rhetoric, one of the impulses was to think of it in relation (or contrast) to Greek precedents. Understandable, I figured.

We are not Greek.

It helped me focus early on, especially in those areas of differentiation–that is, what makes Caribbean rhetoric Caribbean as opposed to being just a substitution of Greek terms for Caribbean ones. (I discuss that at length in Tropic Tendencies, as well as the ways what we do on a vernacular level constitutes rhetorical activity at its most complex.) The flipside to such differentiation is the all-too-obvious similarity–the kind of similarity that works so well it could pass for substitution. But what can you do? Once you recognize that rhetoric is social activity, and that social activity is common to all people, it’s kinda pointless to deny that there are gonna be areas of overlap. Tropes, themes, concepts, and logics all have their corollary because they all have us as their common denominator. Now, this isn’t an essay or a lecture, but here’s an example of what I mean. In the application of classical rhetorical concepts, a major one is that of the Agorá (Ἀγορά)–a public place, a marketplace where people congregate to buy, sell, share, gossip, learn. The agorá shapes social interactions in the simplest way possible: it provides a space for those interactions to occur. It contextualizes. Like a yard or a marketplace in town.

No rhetoric lesson necessary. You see where I’m going with this.

Grenada Marketplace, St. Georges, 1984
Grenada Marketplace, St. Georges, 1984 (Arlene M. Roberts, used by permission)

This photograph of a Grenadian agorá was taken by attorney Arlene M. Roberts (@arlenemroberts) when she visited St. Georges for a weekend–she wanted to go teach for a year following a call for volunteers. I won’t go into Arlene’s story because it’s hers to tell. It’s pretty amazing, though. I hope she tells it soon. Anyway, she started following me on Twitter (@drbrowne) after finding me live-tweeting panels from the Caribbean Studies Association conference earlier this month (#csa2013).

After hours of conversation, I had the privilege of seeing her remarkable archive. Of the hundreds of images I got to look at (and touch with great care!), this one struck a rather poignant note. As typical as it is iconic, the image seems to possess a degree of relevance–even urgency–that, in my view, precedes more esoteric considerations of the agorá and its icons–

black bodies, green bananas, barrels, brooms, wooden stalls, ground provision, polyester parasols

–that comprise the scene. Taken less than a year after the Revolution’s failure and the US “intervasion” on October 25, 1983, it is an exemplary text–a staging point, if you like–for extending the scope of a personal digital archiving project as a contemporary recuperative practice in Caribbean rhetoric. What does this mean? Well, to begin with, it enables us–those of us interested in the exploration, preservation of, and reflection on the everyday lives of our ancestors, our elders, and ourselves–to ask questions that could actually yield answers.

We are in need of answers.

Like I said, this isn’t a lecture or an essay, but I do have another example. A common refrain during the conference was that many of the Grenadian youth have no idea that a revolution even occurred–far fewer understand their place in the legacy of leftist thought in the region. 1983 was 30 years ago, after all. The unraveling in Guyana in 1953 was 60 years. That’s a whole lifetime, isn’t it? Nowadays, as the story goes, it might as well be ancient history for people caught up this “fast-paced, globalized world.” And this may be the problem: that the past is viewed as history, and history is viewed synonymously as something that happened a long time ago, ended when it did, and has no bearing on our lives today.

We know that’s not true–that history doesn’t matter–but we also know there’s a big difference between knowing something and acting on what is known. The problem may be that the context has gotten lost. I could be wrong that this is the problem, or part of the problem, but it does allow us to ask other questions about context itself, questions that may allow us to reclaim it and reframe it for our purpose.

If we begin here, with a photograph like this; with an agorá not so far removed from our contemporary cultural memory; a market scene bustling a year after Maurice Bishop, Unison Whiteman, Norris Bain, Jacqueline Creft had been executed with others at Fort Rupert (now Fort George); after a revolution had failed; a year after that failure was compounded by the presence of US troops; after Bishop’s body disappeared along with the dream of a Grenada that should have been, what do we find, and where do we find ourselves?

Hard to say, but the good thing about reflection is that it endows us with the benefit of knowing that context is not subject to the constraints we set for ourselves. Time spent reflecting is not a waste.

I’m no expert on the Revo–that should be clear enough. In fact, my primary concern is not the Revo as such but the people themselves, the ones we see and those we do not see but know were there. The ones who heard about it. Those who forgot it even happened. I don’t need to be an expert to know everyone was touched. You see where I’m going with this.

There’s a special kind of violation that comes with being touched and not knowing about it–a special kind of denial in appearing not to.

I won’t go on. There are many questions that can come up in the course of our examinations of images, archives, and texts we have at our disposal. I recall Merle Collins, who reminded us at her lecture that Grenada’s story is not only Grenada’s story but the story of the entire Caribbean. (I’d like to push it even further to include all marginalized people.) She was right, of course.

So look at the photograph (or one of relevance to you for whatever reason) and ask: Who do I see? And who, among those I see, do I recognize? Do I recognize anybody in it who is still alive? What can they tell me now? What other questions do I have about what I see? What other images can I locate–under the bed, in a box, a dusty album, the forgotten pictures of forgotten people–to do this kind of work?

Think about it. Write about it. Make an agorá of your own and invite others in to visit, to buy and sell, to share and learn. Share. Learn. We are in need of answers.

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This is Bob…

Seriously, this is one of my favorite captions. I don’t know who this is. I mean, it’s Bob, of course, according to the note on the back of a photograph I found among other photographs.

This is Bob, Back
This is Bob, Back of Photo (#965)

This is Bob.

Despite my inclination, I am unwilling to ask the usual biographical questions about Bob. This is not for lack of interest but because I’m fascinated by the inherent tension between memory and mystery. It seems to be my mother’s handwriting, though she seems to have forgotten about him–far less about his whereabouts. This was Brooklyn in the 60s, a couple decades well before she came to New York. November 3, 1985. A Sunday. I’m sure if I were to press her enough for information, recollections of Bob–however brief or extensive–would come back. You know how it goes, don’t you?

“Bob was a this.”
“Bob was a that.”
“Bob was a the other.”

Bob. He whistled better than he sang. He didn’t like ties or black suits. He liked jazz, though. Frankie Beverly and Maze. Yes. Mongo Santamaria’s 1959 Afro Blue. Yes. He felt you’d be crazy not to love that.

Love the Oscar Brown, Jr. version, myself–burned it onto a CD for a lover a few years ago, along with Mighty Love and some other classics. She loved it. I loved her. She cut herself pretty badly trying to dice onions, and I helped calm her down when she saw her blood and panicked. Then we ended and walked away without much fanfare, anger, or love. It’s tempting to wonder if that was Bob’s fate, or my mother’s–tempting to add layer upon layer of speculation on them both. It makes a certain kind of sense, I think, because even with other people’s stories, I am not inclined to reproduce something I consider boring. I almost want Bob to be as cool as he looks, hanging out with Mozart’s bust. He didn’t like ties, remember? And yet, I am not inclined to follow this course too deeply. Yes, my aspirations to creativity can, at times, take precedence and encourage me to dream–even if those dreams are stated poorly.

But there’s also a subtle pleasure in taking Bob–whatever he is–as he is, without the overlay.

This must be applied to every archive with the diligence of a historian.

Still somewhat presumptuous, there’s a respect for Bob that, to me, outweighs the need to make stuff up about him, the need to have “my slumbering fantasy assume reality,” as Oscar Brown himself would put it. Afro Blue. For, as complex a web of imaginings as I can construct, my feeling is that it will result either in my own entanglement or my readers’ confusion–neither of which I desire. So I have to stop, take a breath, lift my fingers off the keyboard, and look more honestly (if not knowingly) at what I see. This is the case with any archive: whatever its story, it will come only in the context it alone can provide.

Whatever path it–or any archive–sets me on will begin with what it alone can suggest.

Now to begin again. This is Bob. He stands, a black man paling in comparison to the heroic scale of Mozart’s bust, in contrast to his pale suit and white shirt. The piece, sculpted by Meuller, and presented as a gift to the people of Brooklyn, neither sits nor stands. He’s of average height, even in Mozart’s shadow. This makes him normal by default. Bob trains his gaze toward the pagoda. Perhaps he ignores the photographer, or is directed to do so. There is an implicit discomfort in his pose, as he leans forward a few inches lower than seems natural. He manages to pull it off, suggested more by the apparent absence of discomfort on his face than the awkwardly angled pose of the body (to which the comfortable face belongs).

This is Bob
This is Bob

Normal and immortal, like the Ozymandian block behind him. I suppose, in a way, I almost want Bob to be a mystery because I find that something profound occurs when we encounter actual physical evidence of that which is, in spite of what we see and can touch, unknown. But maybe the mystery of Bob, or the idea of a memory of him that I do not possess, tells me more about myself in the end. Basic stuff, like: maybe I still hold on to the wonder of not knowing something, in spite of my personality and professional training. Maybe I like the idea of thinking about Bob, aging at the same pace as Mozart’s bust, standing fully embodied, taking in the unknown goings on of a Prospect Park afternoon in the summer heat. I’m just vibing, here–riffing a little bit, but not entirely lost in the question if who he is, resting instead in the fact (proven by this image) that he was–and was here.

So, to begin again. This is Bob.

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Thesis Statements (Of Sorts)

Cliches are cliches because they embody a recognizable logic, if not a basic truth that is as undeniable as it is annoying (particularly when used in small talk). Remixed, this particular one goes something like:

Ask any writer, any arranger of words, images, sound, or any of those combined, and you will hear that what we do is hard. Not for the faint of heart, pen, fingers, etc.

My colleagues and friends and students will readily attest, as will my Mom. As will I, for that matter. Despite a few decades proving the contrary, many still seem to think that the text emerges already polished from the mind of the writer whose intelligence, sophistication, and experience have all cooperated on the writer’s behalf (and conspired against the student/writer who, once assigned to write on this or that matter of crucial import, must now struggle to do so at the risk of grades and the like).

My sympathy is there—with the struggling writer—because as a writing teacher, I have had both cause and occasion to consider my own process—though, only to minimal effect.

Nevertheless, as part of that consideration, I’ve realized that I’ve taken a number of things for granted—specific to my point in this post, I’ve taken for granted the fact that all the texts I produce have meaning in terms of conception, methodology, and practice. I don’t know why I’ve let that fact slide, especially when knowing, and acting on what is known, is at the heart of my work and of my conception of what we do as vernacular practitioners of every life. Have I forgotten that I intend to practice what I…theorize? No. Have I decided to recant and start anew with an idea that what we do amounts to nothing? No. Is it an internal contradiction I’ve yet to resolve? I don’t think so. Me and my demons are good. The reason is frightfully mundane, I’m afraid: I got caught up. Doing things. Living. Trying to make ends meet. Simple as that. Funny, I imagined this admission with a bit more flourish. I could try restating, but no.

I got caught up.

I’m continuously revisiting the latter parts of this circuitous path that I took to get to it. The book didn’t just happen—couldn’t just happen. These early articulations—the semi-literate scribblings in notebooks—ought not be relegated to the nether regions of untapped memory, dry-rotting in the mind like an unkept artifact.

Page One of Notebook One, 2008
Page One of Notebook One, 2008

Instead, I’m interested in whether anyone else would be interested in how this notion of Caribbean Rhetoric was originally articulated, how it developed, how it was turned into and on and away from itself, how the ethos of a Caribbean rhetorical theorist was able to coalesce in a recursive process of composition. It’s a huge presumption, I know, but the alternative is unacceptable to me. I’m also interested in having others join me, confident that their ideas and approaches to rhetoric are not only valid but essential. This begins with me doing what being caught up has trained me to do: to take for granted that the texts I have produced over the course of the last few years of thinking about Caribbean Rhetoric do in fact have meaning, that they ought to be preserved, shared, engaged with. It begins with Notebook One, Notebook TwoNotebook Three, and Notebook Four. It begins there because I don’t have a cool answer for why I do what I do, but I want people to know that it is being done. That’s the thing about vocations—that, strangely enough, doing is the ultimate articulation of that which you have been called to do. No cool answers. Only a bunch of flailing questions tethered, as it were, to a basic statement. On Page One of Notebook One, I write:

My idea is to posit Cbean rhetorical forms as the sine qua non of the superisland ethos.

We’ll see.


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Grampadaddy’s Hands

Everything we do is a placeholder for another work-in-progress.

De other day when ah was in Trinidad, ah take a chance to take some picture ah meh granfather hand. “Grampadaddy.”

Grampadaddy: a name ah make up when ah was a youth. There are no theories about that.

Anyhow, ah dey playing with de camera and end up adding a “magic pen” effect to de picture. And then Boom. Meh fascination with he hand finds its roots where most fascinations do: with things that strike the fancy, stir the imagination, but are hardly ever known. Those mysteries that form the parameters of your life, providing the yard for your consciousness to go and play around in without the risk of getting lost–well maybe a little lost, but not entirely.

Grampadaddy's Hand, with Keys
Grampadaddy’s Hand, with Keys, La Romaine, Trinidad, 2013 (“Magic Pen” Effect, Samsung Galaxy SIII)

It have a poem inside here fuh meh to write, eh, buh it ent come yet. Ah hatuh wait on it. In de meantime, ah thinking. Thinking bout home. Thinking bout which one ah dem vein ah come from. De poem coming. Ah coulda even kinda hear it jumping up inside meh head. Then again, was carnival season. Christmas did just done, and the speakers and them by the bars and them turn up loud.

The rhythms can deceive yuh. Yuh could get lost in them.

But if getting lost in the things that have conspired to make me is at the heart of my fascination, then I suppose Grampadaddy’s hand is as good a place as any to start to find my way. There:


For those still left to consider whether there is a rhetoric here, and whether this particular inquiry of digitized/digital archiving aligns in any way with my scholarly interests and ambitions, I say there is discernible motive:

The urgency of finding a way. The implicit contingency of making a way on your grandfather’s veins where there seems to be no other way, at least none you could see on your own.

On top of that will probably come a more carefully crafted consideration of symbols, their actions, and the inherent tensions between their metonymic aspects and their metaphoric ones, the dynamics of composition–de degree to which this or that is embodied or is simply meant to evoke the body, mine or his, or whomever’s, as well as…etc., etc.

That will come because it must. Because that is what I do. It’s kinda my thing.

Fuh now, though, is only this hand, with some keys, digitized to show the veins.

And I good with that.

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Us as Kids (1976)

Us as Kids, San Fernando, Trinidad, 1976
Us as Kids, San Fernando, Trinidad, 1976

It is this simple: I want to be remembered. I look at this picture of myself and my cousins–Leonel on my right, Dionne to my left, Rhonda behind me, and Noel behind her–and feel sad that my nostalgia for other things is not as effective here. It shouldn’t be like that, but this is what it has come to.

It’s tempting, of course, to opt for the obvious symbolism as I grasp at straws for a language to explain what I mean. Symbolism, a domain I frequent. The matrix stands out (but, truthfully, it can scarcely receive more of a mention than this, reserved mostly for this or that conclave of skeptics and cynics with whom I tend to keep company from time to time). It’s enough to say that the framing was deliberate–perhaps as deliberate as the steel frame that taught us too well about gravity and texture. But this is how temptation works, I suppose. So it’s best to take it in stride.

The sadness is a trump card, though. A far better frame for my regrets, for things I miss and have missed. Funny how the regrets pile up in proportion to what we have not done, rather than the alterations we think we’ve made to history. No such luck, we find out. Often too late.

What happens then? When, having been put through the ringer, we come face to face with the stark limitations of an “all-too-humanness?” Hard to say conclusively, but (for me, at least) I turn to words. There’s a prophecy embedded somewhere in that: “turning to words.” A possible transformation. A wish. A story coming to pass (because, as the people say, What ent meet yuh ent pass yuh). So here it is: a project on a conception of the self whose beginnings are etched out in public, like an idea that through practice calls itself into account.

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