by Simon Lee
It’s all too rare to encounter a committed Caribbean academic, especially one willing to escape the plantation of academe and plunge into the marronage of everyday existence. Many talk and write blithely, blandly or incomprehensibly about the same “folk”, they studiously avoid beyond the pages of doctoral dissertations or peer-reviewed journals. Fortunately for T&T, the Anglophone Caribbean, scholars and students of contemporary Caribbean languages and culture, Cultural Studies, Performing and Festival Arts worldwide, Dr. Kevin (pronounced Kee-vin) Browne, Assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at Syracuse University, photographer, poet, archivist, deep limer has–all too briefly–returned home. This Sunday (June 1, 2014) he presents an exhibition of photos (a small selection from more than 2,500) he shot of the Return of the Redhead Devils mas band from Paramin, which he followed from Carnival Sunday through to Monday night.
The same show serves as a local launch for his 2013 publication: Tropic Tendencies Rhetoric, Popular Culture and the Anglophone Caribbean. It’s hard to think of a Caribbean book which even attempts the scope of Tropic Tendencies; one would have to backtrack to Benitez-Rojo’s masterful Repeating Islands 1996, or even earlier to Edouard Glissant’s 1981 Caribbean Discourse. Significantly, both these texts originated outside the English-speaking Caribbean (Cuba, Martinique) and it’s as much a reflection on intellectual/cultural discourse–rather than simply dissing–in the Anglophone Caribbean, that in terms of theorizing we’ve had to wait so long after the efforts of CLR James, Wilson Harris and George Lamming for Dr. Browne’s book. Briefly, because Tropic Tendencies warrants a discrete review, the man who includes “midnight robber, pierrot grenade, bookman, and diable molassie among my ancestors,” along with bwa men, re-focuses our attention on Caribbean/Creole issues (language, culture, identity) as manifested in a wide range of expressions–from ol’ talk, kaiso, rapso to the “digital vernacular” and that troubling nexus of carnival, carnivalesque, mas and mask.
With the benefit of an outsider/insider’s point of view (he’s been based in America since 1989, with frequent trips back home, the last five months, the longest) Browne has been able to sidestep petty nationalisms and the clouded whirlpool of daily life in paranoid paradise, to re-visit many of the crucial issues we’ve been pushing under the carpet or wishing away since Federation days. He does so with a positive committed vision, insisting like the best “organic intellectual”, that “every act is a political act.”
Browne’s work is entirely contemporary–call it Caribbean postmodern if you will–but it arrives in the present, deeply informed by a lucid interpretation and respect for a past (previously either discarded or manipulated, romanticized or reviled) which can benefit us all, academics and the everyday person, in making decisions as engaged, conscious citizens, as to our future.
For Browne, rhetoric is not some dusty relic of western classical culture. He appropriates and creolizes the term: “Mas Rhetorica”, expanding both meanings and possibilities, while retaining the original concept that the “imperative of rhetorical activity is founded solidly in a sense of morality, ethical orientation” and that “rhetoric without ethics is a mas.”
If all this sounds too abstract, too cerebral, then Browne’s exhibition “Seeing Blue” locates his theorizing outside the academy and inside the community, the first step into agency, out of dependency or the syndrome of powerless victimhood. Rather than a UWI conference room, or one of town’s art galleries or modish bars, the photos of Paramin Devils and his book launch will be gifted to the community, in the Kool Breeze Bar on Saut D’Eau Road Paramin, where they will be followed by another expression of the Caribbean vernacular–an All-Fours tournament.
The flyer for the show features a Redhead Devil’s profile, the one visible eye connecting inevitably with any spectator’s glance/gaze, accusatory, angry, questioning but impossible to ignore.
You’re invited to see red, but something beyond the red of anger, despair and dispossession,
Browne explains and elaborates:
Mas has been so internalized that the response to what we see now is with the same degree of acceptance ‘Well–this is Trinidad.’ But we have to interrogate our national motto. To what do we aspire? Where’s the vision? It seems as though we’re a people who’ve forgotten how to question ourselves, that our primary objective as a people is to articulate in fact, that we are people. That articulation can’t be limited to the day to day and can’t be restricted to a bland acceptance of norms. We don’t even need to go so deep: if things are not satisfactory, it’s our responsibility to call that dissatisfaction to account.
In the present climate of “eat a food”, bring mo bling, murder and mayhem, a combination of cynicism and apathy has engendered a mode in which we either wail for a lost past (when kanaval was kanaval) or dismiss real reflection as romanticizing, idealizing.
As a rhetorician I don’t have the privilege of looking at things ideally. I’m not looking to overthrow hegemony, but for a reasonable stake in the status quo,
Hegemony encourages you not to aspire, but to police yourself. But is it not the most ridiculous thing, not to bite the hand that poisons you?
His own life experience encompassing both violence and poverty made him learn:
You should lose your ability to idealize when you experience reality. It’s that sense of realism that endows me with the ability to read that experience, but also every aspect of my Caribbean world.
It was a need to reconnect with Caribbean reality, after the burn-out of bringing his book to publication that brought Browne home, still pursuing the fundamental problem posed by the book: “What is Caribbean rhetoric and its role in contemporary culture.” More simply put–he was/is looking for himself and by extension–all of we.
I was in search of community. I retained only the impulse to go in search of that self I knew I’d lost. I found it in Mayaro, walking the streets of Port-of-Spain. I realized I’d been given a gift, the articulation of myself bestowed on me by this very place, Bestowing of the gift confirms the continuity between myself and others.
Early Carnival Sunday morning, his road of enquiry brought him to Fatima Junction, Paramin, where he encountered the Blue Devils and the Return of the Redhead Devils. He joined them, as a photographer, shooting 2,500-3,000 digital images over the next two days. Pragmatically postmodern he embraces the accessibility of digital photography and utilized modern technology for his interpretation of tradition because
Tradition without innovation is the past, memory…no different from a corpse.
Reflecting on the devil mas he realized
The concept of paying the devil was hyper-evident. I started to think of ways to give back, compensate for the experience I’d had in their company. There’s something interesting in the concept of being subject to the hospitality of devils, it operates as a metaphor for carnival culture and Caribbean culture at large, when read through the lens of the mas, performative arts…The idea of the demonic, the daemon, is connected to the word ‘demonstrate’-to teach. In classical mythology, monsters have a teaching function: they show us ourselves. The devils are performing a reflection of what they see, in essence, the audience. The efficiency of that performance, so well understood by these performers behoves us to ask ‘What are you/I doing, why?’
Besides presenting some of the photos to the subjects, Browne, who self-funded his show, will donate some of the proceeds of the book he’s planning utilizing all the images, to the construction of a place where Paramin can display and perform its own “grievances and aspirations.”
There’s a refreshing element of the revolutionary in Browne’s holistic Caribbean approach.
The marriage of tradition and innovation sets up a context of urgency, from which action can follow. People are talking about revolution but it’s got to be a revolution of the mind, of thinking. Is that conversation likely to emerge when we’ve been so conditioned to believe we’ve perfected the culture of the carnival/esque? We’ve bought into a Caribbean hegemony, so that when we get a real mas/bacchanal/scandal we’re loathe to decry it and afraid to change it. One of the consequences of false aspirations, is false achievement. When you believe in the illusion/delusion, the shadow of things, your ability to fight in the light of reality is affected. When you take the mas for reality, when you think you’re more mas than man, you’re not only lying to yourself, you’ve abdicated your responsibility and your right to perform conscious citizenship.
Seeing Blue (and red) may help us to review ourselves, our pasts and present and reclaim both the realities and possibilities of our conflicted Caribbean. But all this with a view to action.
[An edited version of this article was published as “Seeing Behind God’s Back” in the Trinidad Guardian on May 31, 2014. This version used with permission.]