Category Archives: Petit Memoires

On Changing the World (In Transit)

The following is a post I wrote in the airport as I considered a question. I was offgrid while in transit, so (in the interest of authenticity) I’m uploading it as is…was. Follow @krgpryal and @valoriedthomas, who help make me want to be smarter.

My battery’s low because I’ve been in transit for a while and I’m cramping up, so this will be short (by regular stream of consciousness standards), possibly incoherent (see previous), and deliberately underwhelming (see previous). You should be aware of this. I can do better. I know I can, but it’s 4 a.m., which means it’s Euphemistic Hour here at JFK, where I’m sitting in a wheelchair instead of on the terrazzo floor, which would be certain to give me a cold and make me regret this latest surge in nomadism that has me bound for Panama and Trinidad on a four and a half day turnaround. It’s not glamorous, but I’m okay with it. Some TSA staff are filing in to begin their shift, many of them unable to approximate the swagger implied by their ill-fitting uniforms, embroidered badges, and their way too canny ability to transfer their apparent disdain to passengers in the form of discomfort and delays and courtesy.

The end-shifters walk differently, more loosely. They talk with greater ease. Only English speakers among them, though. I can kind of remember the “going home” feeling—worked as a security guard here and at the Guggenheim in SoHo, back in ’92. The supervisor, a cup of coffee in hand, looks on.

Yeah, so anyway.

For those of you who know me as @drbrowne on the Twitter, when I’m not teaching  or complaining about theoretical minutiae, documenting the bacchanalian vagaries of everyday life in word and image or struggling to resolve what I consider to be the very real dilemma of having a martini or chocolate milk, I sometimes take a notably reflective turn—a turn oriented, somewhat, to the task of envisioning, enacting, and possibly achieving change among those who desire or require it. Change. It’s tied to how I see rhetoric operating not as the “empty” counterpart to reality, but as practice that is theoretically informed and has the potential to enable social action—praxis. I discuss this in different places in Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean. In the book, I basically suggest that the impulse to ask questions and answer them in/on our own terms is critical because it places a significant degree of responsibility on us—the “us” that is made up of practitioners, both aware and unaware, of the range of peculiarities that bear definitive potential and allow that “us” to claim difference in relation to the operation of other(ed?) social formations and epistemological frameworks with which we may come into contact (or within which we may be forced to exist). Simply put, we are obliged to “stand and deliver.” You know? Given that, the question becomes something like what will you deliver when you stand? Keeping in mind that what you deliver will also serve as the ground on which you stand, what will you say?

Ok, pause. Starting to get a little blog-deep.

There’s a reason I find myself reflecting on this now. A couple days ago, my friend Katie Guest Pryal (@krgpryal) mentioned me in a tweet that asked, plainly, “What does it take to change the world?” “Plainly” isn’t really the right word. But I have a valid excuse. It’s (now just a little after) 4 a.m.. Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about it off and on these last couple of days (in, admittedly, a very casual way). Here is what I’ve come up with. I’m gonna write it (and read it back to myself) in the voice of the XX guy, whose authenticity is predicated on his ability to perform a role he knows you know he’s performing with the intention of getting me to subscribe to a lifestyle I cannot hope to attain. Seriously, the voice. “I don’t usually drink…etc., etc.,… but etc., etc….And concerning changing the world, here is what I have to say:”

You will have to be a liar. This is one of the conditions. You want to change the world? Lie. It is unavoidable. You may need to tell many in the course of your pursuit, but those are ancillary. Incidental. In the beginning, you will only need to tell one. And because it’s that first lie, that “original sin,” if you like, it requires some ceremony. Find a quiet place. No, better yet, find a noisy place, a place in which you can observe people you are convinced do not “get it” but need to “get it” as they go about their business (or their pleasure). Sit, or stand, if you like, but be inconspicuous enough to be able to safely cast judgment on the “others.” And remember that term. It will serve you—literally. They may not necessarily be “sheep” in your view, but they will certainly be blind not to see what you clearly do. Apathy can blind. Busy people can be blind. You will soften your assessment a little in time, abiding by a neat relativism that (i) liberates them from your “unique” brand of consciousness and (ii) liberates you from judging too harshly their choices or their shared inability not to “get it”. Your education and your experience will have either endowed you with or led you to a kind of grace that you will have honed, shaped, and then sharpened for just such a moment. Pick your place. Then say, in one convicted breath,

“I have to do something about this.”

[You should be reading in your own voice by now or mine.] Do not forget the emphasis where I have indicated. It is important. The self-awareness implied by the “I” will require no such emphasis—the assumption being that you will have gotten so used to yourself that neither the breakthrough nor your enunciation of it will be enhanced either way, so there’s really no need. There will also be a rhythmic undulation to the statement, which will provide a bit of style. You will need your energy for all the times you repeat this lie.

You will repeat this lie.
You will repeat this lie because you must repeat this lie.
You must because it is imperative that you believe you are necessary to whatever needs to be done.

You—your work, your particular set of qualities, skills, gifts, etc.—are needed to achieve an outcome that aligns with your vision.

(And before you go any further, rest assured that you ought not feel any ambivalence about it being a vision. The world you imagine will either never have existed, or you will far too young to remember when the world was anything like you imagine it to be. So be content with “vision” and move with it. Commit to it.) You are needed. At the moment of initial declaration, no one else need hear you because you will be telling this lie to yourself.

You are the one who has to believe it.

Additional statements will follow, as you offer yourself the necessary qualifications and rationale. They will vary but nonetheless align with a vision you have either been given, been blessed with, or taken upon yourself to address a thing in the world that requires your attention, your style, your whatever. I do not mean to be cavalier. With time, you will modify your qualifications enough to replace the ubiquitous “whatever” with something more substantive and convincing, both to yourself and with whom you will have (by this time) shared this mission—your audience. And, as you already know, there is more than enough to justify those modifications. “So much trouble in the world,” as Bob Marley would sing in the song of the same name—eponymous, right? So take your pick.

Concerned about the continued rape of the African continent? There you are. Gang rapes and mall occupations, and their attendant conspiracies? Go on. Have them, they are yours. Perhaps the displacement of natives turned refugees in their own land moves you to act—well, first to tears, then to act. You can have it, domestic or foreign. A war? Hunger? Gay bashing? Ally bashing? A particular cancer? The violation of women by their governments or their men or their women? There are issues in vogue and those that continue to linger in the penumbra. You will already be thinking (aren’t you already doing it?) of troubles I have undoubtedly overlooked. “Don’t get me started!” you will say. So much trouble in the world.

Take them. Get in there. Save who you can. Do what you can.

And, above all, be real (goes the lie). Whether through pretense or your appropriation of it, be real. You will, of course, have to bracket the fact that while not as crucial as the chocolate milk-martini issue, you risk visiting the same brand of imperialism on these “things” to which you direct your attention, thereby reinscribing the same forms of violence—normative violence, the trauma of the everyday—to which the respective social formations would have been accustomed long before you came around with your “awareness.” You will have to believe that change is not the same thing as, well, the same thing. It will be necessarily different, will lead to less of the problems you highlight as your thesis. You need to believe this because if you do not, who should? Others may replicate the ideologies of their respective oppressive systems, but your intervention will be different. It must be different.

Anyway, I’m getting tired. I’ve been traveling since teaching undergrads about Gayatri Spivak’s take on the subaltern and Dexter Gordon’s historical genealogy of black nationalism from the 19th century. I’m fading. So, yeah. Tired—miles to go before I rest, and all that. So I’ll break off reflection and postulation here. Waxing philosophical with waning sophistication can bode ill if drawn too far out.

Most days I’m like Montaigne with it, deferring to whatever discursive wave is bound to break with a polite “What do I know?” But @krgpryal‘s question requires acknowledgment, if not an answer. My attempt, if it is not yet clear, has been the former. If asked right now, exhausted but thankfully not too broken to backpack to nations, I might say you have a couple choices. To change the world qua world, you will have to lie because your vision will bear the mark of megalomania—no matter how subtle and regardless of your motives—that you cannot give in to, that you must rail against if you can. But there is a way around it that could save you the aggravation of doing a dance to music you have neither composed nor have developed any real skill dancing to (side-eye). You will need to change both your point(s) of focus and your means of focus—your focal point as well as your way of focusing on it (lens included); change your subject (or historically othered object) and the methodology for approaching it; what you say and, if possible, the language.

In short, seek not to change the world but to change yourself. Do not only complain about or rail against a system you must inevitably subscribe to so you can attain the credibility that will then (it is hoped) allow you to do the kind of work you really want to do.

Even revolutionaries have to eat. Ask one. They’ll tell you.

But do not stop. Do not dare to stop. Do what you must to become an expert in the articulation of your own ideas. All other ideas exist—at least, in part—for that purpose. Converse, even if it is with yourself. Know that there is no more pathology in offering a response to your own ideas than engaging those of ghosts. Do not wait upon those who come to discredit; they will find their way to you. If lost, they follow those who credit you, for they will also find their way. Of this you can be certain. Know that those like you who want to change the world are, like you, driven more by terror than by arrogance, more by ignorance than by certainty (in spite of what your vision may seem to ensure, as opposed to theirs).

If you want to change the world, get over yourself and do the work of articulating your humanity anew, of failing horribly for an ideal you understand but may not know—a vision—and recognize that it will not ever be as you have conceived it. Whether to your delight or demise, accept that it is so. Accept it, then get to work. Do something about it. I’m out.

Reflection (Or, The First and Second Person)

So today my daughter and I were discussing the Black Power Revolution in Trinidad in 1970. After a preliminary discussion, she was supposed to do some follow-up research, read what she had found, and try to make sense of it before calling me back to talk a little more. Then lunch. Then, perhaps, some general stuff about the history of the Caribbean. Videos, most likely. When she missed our appointment, I called her back. Then I called her mother. She hadn’t heard from her for a while, either. She was fine, as it turned out. She forgot to put the phone to charge, forgot to call me back. Exactly.

Panic.

Maybe she didn’t want to have to recite, from notes and memory, the details of a history she only just this past hour became exposed to in greater depth. Who knows? She has a mind of her own.

Cutesie Hooded
Cutesie Hooded

I, on the other hand, felt myself collapse beneath a pile of terrors, crawling out from under it to answer the phone and hear her ask if I was mad at her.

Me: Mad? No, baby. Not mad.

Not mad, only now nursing a splitting headache from the maelstrom of unmentionable things that saw my reason drain from me, as though I’d seen a ghost or been expecting one. Not mad, baby, only a little nauseated by the helplessness that flight or teleportation alone could resolve. Not mad, baby.

Me: Just worried. I feel better now that I know you’re okay.

Her: Okay, Daddy.

Click.

Now it’s 2004.
I am a first year grad student. I worry that my parental instinct would somehow be hampered–that I’ll be too caught up in doing what I thought I need to do that I’ll numb myself against the “other things”–the “everyday life” things that (I was warned) should not be allowed to get in the way. I listen but don’t take the warning to heart. I still worry that she, my daughter, might suffer from the focus and functional disregard of a student-father in pursuit of a degree that would license his abstractions about this or that at her expense.

I worry that I’ll be forced to make some Abrahamic sacrifice to achieve what it is I desire–admission, acceptance, an audience that would validate what I had long thought and scribbled in notebooks but only secretly shared.

When I get home from classes and teaching, they are there. Awake. Exhausted. One in tears, the other only just beyond it. My worries, I realize, have been misplaced. Her cries reorient me.

She has a fever. Her little body is all broken out in hives–“heats,” we call it–and she’d been crying nonstop for a while now.

Her mother and I are both quite new at this, feeling our way through the days and nights, feedings, changings, drifting gradually from the texts we devoured in expectation of her. We still don’t know what to expect by that point, but the time for study had come and gone, and the reality of our lives has taken a new form beyond the schedule.

New weight.
New urgency.
Fingers.
Toes.
Mouth.

A call had already gone out to our obstetrician, a new doctor whose facility with his patients is more than admirable. He handles panic, ours and others’, with a cool self-assuredness. This was no emergency, and he saw no reason to admit her (that would come later, with our discovery of a peanut allergy).

Just a little fever this time.

But parenting magnifies the vision–it bends as it magnifies. Fear and newness exaggerate. A little fever can seem to blaze into an inferno.

And when there’s a fire, there’s no time for worry or thinking, or getting mad. (It’s only in retrospect that I realize the way I hold her resembles the motion I make if I were getting in position to “think” about something, about some one of the abstractions I chase like a mangrove crab or a flag woman. That same arc is the one I imagine I’d make when, racked with grief, I would hold my belly and my head and bawl if anything happens to her.)

When there’s just no time, and I understand that ambivalence is nothing more than a luxury that has no bearing when a little fever rages and rages in her little body, the answer is simple, really. I hold her.

My Daughter and Me, 2004.
My Daughter and Me, 2004.

I hold her. Her skin to mine. Halfway between reflection and sorrow, confusion and fear, I find the whatever it takes–strength, perhaps–to hold her. I stand there with her, my child. My child. She and I both helpless amid the flames. I rock her through the tears (I still do, even over the phone, when she needs a hand to navigate a sadness or a passing guilt). I sing to her. Sade. I let her warm my heart.

I love her to sleep.

And, with her in my arms, worry passes into calm, fear into peace, and (as her exhausted mother takes a picture of our bond) I hope like hell my baby’s okay.

It’s 2013 again.
She’s called a few times now, checking on me, to see if I’m okay.

Me: I am, baby. You alright?

Her: Yeah, I’m good.

Me: Cool.

Her: Okay, bye.

Click. Lesson learned. The revolution can wait.

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.

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]

Deliberations

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.

Out.

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.

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)

See?

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.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.