When History Comes to Meet Us

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Photograph of Marjorie Williams and her daughters from the Bearing Witness exhibition accompanying the film Four Days in May.
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Information board from the Bearing Witness exhibition accompanying the film Four Days in May.

My last column in the Gleaner was published in April this year. For the time being I’ve decided to take a break from writing a column to focus on other projects which need my attention and time. Will resume writing on Active Voice as and when time permits. Thanks for tuning in!

At a discussion after a sneak preview of the film Four Days in May, a documentary about  what survivors experienced during the blitzkrieg we refer to as the Tivoli incursion a young man said:  “We can all remember where we were when history came and met us.”

“It come like a war zone. Caw dem a drop three bomb eno. Nuff a mi fren dem dead. After di incursion mi can tell yu seh mi guh funerALS,” said another resident who can’t forget what happened to his community in 2010, when the armed forces conducted their search for Dudus, the strongman of Tivoli Gardens on whom the United States had placed a bounty.

History will record that the most senior custodians of the state lied about what took place during those 4 days. They said there were no bombs; there was no surveillance drone when men and women had seen it with their own eyes; they did not ‘recall’ any such thing;  moreover no angels had died in Tivoli. The 73 or so civilians who were killed should be seen as collateral damage they implied. What is worse is that large swathes of Jamaican society agreed with this view of things.

Nearly 8 years later the country has had to bring back limited states of emergency in different parts of the country after declaring them zones of special operations—ZOSO. While the clampdown in Montego Bay seems to have contained the spiraling violence there, it feels as if the criminals have simply scattered to different parts of the country. How else to understand the murderous turn of events in August Town as soon as 2017 ended and 2018 began?

In a remarkable article called “Teaching In The Line Of Fire” published in the Gleaner on March 5, UWI senior lecturer Saran Stewart tried her best to raise the alarm about what is going on in the country. For those of us who live and work in this corner of Kingston the last few weeks have been punctuated by gunfire, sometimes so loud it seems to be on the UWI campus itself. Wrote Saran:

It is now month three of the new year and the shots have left the dead of night and ring loudly in the peak morning time when children are still walking to school. Our educators teach in the line of fire and not only in the community of August Town, but also Denham Town, Flankers, Norwood, Cambridge and Rose Heights, just to name a few. In these communities gunmen trade bullets for the simplest necessity, such as a tin of mackerel, and barter lives for a ‘bills’ ($100). I have taught numerous students from volatile communities, whether they were born and raised there or currently boarding. Trying to centre their minds about the philosophies of education becomes futile when my students learn first-hand the ideologies of gun violence. As an educator, I have had to drift from the standard course outline and include students’ lived experiences as a mechanism to navigate their realities and consciously re-centre the course around their true learning environments. There are students who write their papers in the shell of their bathrooms by candlelight as it is the safest concrete box in the house. When the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) suspends bus services, how do children leave those said communities to go to school? As educators, we try to find ways for students to unlearn what they perceive as standard, normal activity such as seeing mourning, orphaned children, weekly funeral gatherings, yellow ‘caution’ tape, bullet holes, blood stains, smelling gun powder, and reading WhatsApp messages stating, “Daddy dead”.

Yet this excellent article remained relatively unnoticed while the media exploded in an orgy of moral outrage about silly statements by members of one political party calling a member of the other party “black royalty”. Day after day for the entire week radio talk shows gave oxygen to this banal nonsense as if we live in Switzerland or Singapore and have nothing else to worry about.

When one of Saran Stewart’s students texted her from August Town to say that her assignment would be late as a family member had been shot dead Stewart asked her to forget the assignment and document her raw emotions instead. This is part of what she wrote:

“Over 20 years of blood shed! Has violence become my norm? Without thinking about my answer to this question, I would immediately say ‘yes’, crime and violence has become my norm. Born and raised in the community of August Town, nestled in a valley in the parish of St Andrew, surrounded by hills, the Hope River and in close proximity to two universities, this is my community.”

There’s more but is anyone listening? Is this really how we want our youngsters to meet history? Brutalized, shattered and traumatized, with no one even willing to pay attention when they write or talk about it?

“Colour and the Tourist Trade”

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Gleaner column 21/4/18

In an interesting postscript to my last column “Modern Day Plantations”, I was sent a response from tourism mogul John Issa saying that my account of Evon Blake’s plunge into the Myrtle Bank Hotel’s pool was “not quite accurate”.

Apparently the story as told to John Issa by Evon Blake himself, went as follows.

“After my grandfather, father and uncle purchased the Myrtle Bank hotel in 1943, Evan (sic) Blake wanted to test if it still discouraged black guests, which it had done when it was owned by the United Fruit Co, now that it was owned by Jamaicans. He went to the front desk to buy a pool ticket and it was sold to him, he then proceeded to the swimming pool and was given a changing room and towel. He then proceeded to dive into the pool. He told me at all times he was welcomed.

“He however added, with a smile on his face, that when he dived into the pool it was like watching a movie in reverse as all the foreign guests who were in the pool came out.”

Issa went on to say that he was proud that his family had “removed racism” from the Myrtle Bank. He had also personally appointed the first black General Manager of a major Jamaican resort hotel when he appointed Willard Samms as General Manager of the Tower Isle Hotel in the early 1960s.

These details are interesting and also a perfect illustration of how deceiving appearances can be when they are decontextualized. On the face of it we might be inclined to buy this narrative of benign racial inclusiveness yet the incident involving Blake occurred in 1948, when Jamaica was still a colonial society and racism was even more pronounced than it is today. Thus you could very well have no explicit colour or race bar and still control the entry of Black people to your property. Heck, their entry is still being discouraged today, which was the point of my column.

Issa himself says that Blake told him as soon as he plunged into the pool all the foreign guests jumped out, a clear indication that it was NOT the norm, stated policy or not, for Blacks to swim in the Myrtle Bank’s famous pool. Likewise we might note that the appointment of a black general manager in the 60s while admirable, likely made no difference to the treatment of black guests, as indeed continues to be the case, more than 60 years later when it is the norm for hotels to have black managers.

Despite being managed and staffed by Blacks in 2018 too many Jamaicans who attempt to sample their country’s world-renowned hospitality find that it doesn’t necessarily extend to them. That was the gravamen of my column last week. So the fact that Evon Blake bought a ticket to the Myrtle Bank pool without hindrance is neither here nor there. The list of black guests I quoted complaining about their treatment had also paid for their stays at the hotels in question, yet it didn’t insulate them from the racial profiling they suffered. I’m sure those hotels have no explicit policy barring the entry of dark-skinned folk either. They don’t have to. Centuries of racial ‘grooming’ so to speak, cannot be undone overnight; the racism is internalized and practised by Blacks against Blacks.

Add to this the potent poison of class prejudice, something we all systematically practice in this day and age and you realize how complex the situation is. If you’re black and poor there are hardly any pools or beaches available for you in Jamaica.

As art historian Krista Thompson notes in “An Eye for the Tropics” Evon Blake was very concerned also about how Jamaicans were portrayed in tourism campaigns. He deplored the fact that in these representations black Jamaicans always appeared in menial positions, or as boys climbing coconut palms or diving into the sea to retrieve coins. Middle class Blacks were rarely featured. Blake pointed out that in contrast, neighbouring Haiti emphasized the fact that tourists would be visiting a ‘Black Republic’ where you would be expected to fraternize with ‘Negroes’.

According to Blake the unwritten message in Haitian tourist publicity went something like this: “If you object to associating with Negroes go somewhere else.” Americans who went to Haiti forgot the colour prejudice practised back home:

“They chin and chum with Negroes, and they appear to love it. They sit next to Negroes in swank hotels and clubs, bathe in swimming pools with Negroes, dance with Negro men and women, and consider themselves privileged when offered the opportunity to pay their respects to officials of the ‘Black Republic.’”

And while this was going on in Haiti, in Jamaica tourism interests were assiduously keeping tourists from meeting locals, on the grounds that they wouldn’t like to hobnob with black folk, a belief apparently alive and well today. Clearly a sea change is needed in how tourism is practised in this Black country.

Modern Day Plantations

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Gleaner column 14/2/18

The story is told in hushed tones of well-known journalist Evon Blake who jumped into the pool at Myrtle Bank Hotel, a whites-only facility in downtown Kingston.

“One summer day in 1948, as tourists and elites casually colonized the poolside deckchairs of Jamaica’s premier hotel, the Myrtle Bank, a black Jamaican journalist, Evon Blake, suddenly burst onto the brochure-promised scene. He hastily disrobed and plunged into the waters of the hotel’s unofficially racially segregated pool. The staff quickly congregated at its edges, hurling threats at the intruder. Taking advantage of the protection of the water, which prohibited security from entering the pool, Blake defiantly challenged,”Call the police. Call the army. Call the owner. Call God. And let’s have one helluva big story.”

The quote above is from a chapter titled “Diving into the Racial Waters of Beach Space in Jamaica” in Bahamian art historian Krista Thompson’s groundbreaking book

You might think that the Myrtle Bank’s covert racism in Jamaica was symptomatic of colonial times, it was 1948 after all. But I have news for you. Racial profiling is alive and well in Jamaica today, and raised its ugly head in Port Antonio recently. A video making the rounds on social media features a woman who has been visiting Jamaica for many years talking about a distressing experience. The caption below the video sums up what happened.

“CAUCASIAN tourist vacationing/visiting ERROL FLYNN MARINA IN PORT ANTONIO JAMAICA, claims her BLACK JAMAICAN FRIEND WAS discriminated against !!! Her local black Jamaican friend was warned not to swim with the TOURISTS!!! Classism.”

In my opinion the incident is a toxic mix of classism and racism. The video attracted a slew of responses many of them retailing similar stories of racism suffered by black, Jamaican visitors and tourists returning to their beloved country for vacations. I quote some of them below:

Venus Jack I can relate. While checking into the resort in Montego Bay the young lady serving drinks to the arriving guests excluded us and didn’t offer us anything to drink. She just ignored us like we did not belong there. What a welcome home! Previously at another resort we had guests and the security guards were rude to them because they were locals. Wouldn’t let them visit us in peace… they were under constant scrutiny and treated them like thieves even though they had to stay in the lobby area only. It was very upsetting.

Donna Rose Omg Venus Jack I experienced the very same thing at RIU in Ocho Rios. That hotel chain would never ever get another penny from me. When I arrived at the hotel to check in, they asked us, whey uno a go? They would not allow my local friends to park on the property. Jamaicans I tell you.

Steve Shers I’m used to being treated as a second class tourist/visitor when I visit the Caribbean although I’m from there.

Beverley Ranglin This happened to me and my family at the holiday inn in montego bay 2 years ago.

Tanya Weise That’s happened to us at Ibero Stars too.

They just pass and offered all white guest the cocktails and we were among everyone else waiting to be checked in.

Amanda Scott Venus Jack that very same thing happened to me at Grand Bahia in Ochi with the guests. I was so ready to leave by the 3rd day. Never again.

Almarie Davis She is so right. I wanted to rent a beach chair at a particular beach in Portland and was told I can’t. They are saving them for the cruise shippers.

Christine Creary-taylor My family and I went to an all inclusive resort in Montego Bay and they were serving drinks to all the new arrivals that just walked pass us. Colour not light enough I guess.

Clearly blatant racial discrimination is still being practiced in Jamaica’s world-renowned tourism enclaves. Yet in November last year when  Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Taleb Rifai, “strongly urged Caribbean tourism stakeholders to stop promoting modern-day plantations called exclusive resorts” at a Montego Bay conference on jobs and inclusive growth he was raked over the coals by tourism interests.

Rifai went on to  warn against the practice of building five-star resorts in three-star communities, where the citizens were not part of the transformation. The backlash he suffered from Jamaica’s tourist industry forced him to tone down his statements the next day.

The case of the Errol Flynn Marina places the subject raised by Mr. Rifai on the table once again. Let’s not sweep this ugly intersection of racism and classism under the carpet yet again. Racism in a black country should simply not be tolerated in this day and age. Neither should classism. Do we have to send for Evon Blake’s duppy to finish the job?

“One from ten leaves naught”

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my Gleaner column of October 15, 2017

Research on a great Jamaican scholar who went to Oxford in the fifties has led me face to face with the exciting moment when the political federation of the Anglophone Caribbean was not only seriously being considered, it had briefly become a reality. By Jan 3,1958 the Federation of the West Indies was a functioning political entity and by May 31, 1962, it was no more. Most of us are only familiar with the famous statement made by then-President Eric Williams of the federal government of the West Indies when Jamaica’s departure put paid to the future of Federation: “One from ten leaves naught.” But what exactly were the considerations that led Jamaica to leave the Federation after a referendum by the then JLP government returned a majority vote against it?

Among university students from the Caribbean at Oxford, Cambridge and other universities in England the Federation was a political entity impatient of debate. In the West Indian diaspora that developed in England, migrants from different islands were forced to shed their national identities and band together as West Indians. To begin with, it soon became obvious that to the English they were all seen as having the same racial/ethnic identity—often misidentified as Jamaican.

As they settled into their new homes and workplaces the creolization of English cities began to occur, arousing the resentment of working-class English men and women who viewed the West Indians as interlopers. This pushback further reinforced the sense of a diasporic West Indian identity.

It was natural in such a climate for there to be great sympathy for a federation of the relatively small micro islands of the Caribbean into a larger, more powerful polity. This further united the university students from the Caribbean, who felt that uniting against common adversaries would give the West Indies a better chance of postcolonial prosperity. Today the plans for a Federated West Indies are hardly remembered and it’s well worth lingering on them here to regain a sense of why the idea was so seductive.

The initial push for Federation had been made by the British, who were increasingly reluctant to foot the mounting bills to maintain their fifteen colonies in the West Indies. There were, for example, seventeen governors, eight directly taking orders from Downing Street, complete with their individual staffs, to govern the 15 colonies or ‘units’ as they came to be called.

Many of the West Indians at University in England looked forward to returning to become citizens of the independent “West Indian nation state” proposed at the time. But Federation meant different things to different islands in the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, it was synonymous with the politics of Chaguaramas, a piece of land leased by the British to the US in 1941 for purposes of maintaining a naval base there. There was tremendous political pressure to recover the leased lands for the site of the Federal Government but Eric Williams, the leader of Trinidad and Tobago was also wary of alienating the Americans by making such a demand.

It fell on J. O’Neil Lewis and William Demas, civil servants who had been sent to university in the UK by their government, now back in Trinidad and Tobago, to write a paper on the Economics of Nationhood laying out an administrative structure for federal governance. Trinidad and Tobago felt that the freedom of movement of persons enabled by Federation without concomitant movement of capital and investment would affect Trinidad the most, with other small islanders flocking to the oil-rich island for jobs. The Federation had to be able to intervene in such a situation by providing aid, funds for which could be found only if the region’s customs and income taxes ended up in its coffers. The Federal entity would also determine industrial policy for member states. Naturally, there was disagreement over such proposals particularly from countries such as Jamaica that felt it had little to benefit from such administrative arrangements.

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There was no agreement among the 10 countries in the Federation as to whether the power to regulate industrial development, freedom of movement and the collection of taxes should rest with the Federal Government or the individual island state governments. For Jamaica, for example, the ability to use its own income tax and country revenues to fund its industrial development was crucial to its economic policy. The Jamaicans countered the strong-Federation model proposed by the Economics of Nationhood with MP18, a proposal for a looser federation of politically powerful units.

There was also disagreement about parliamentary representation for the member states. The Jamaican Premier Norman Manley suggested that it should be proportional to population numbers so that Jamaica with a full half of the population involved in the Federation, ought to have fifty percent of parliamentary seats available. Although a modified version of this and other suggestions of Manley’s were taken on board by the incipient Federation, in 1961, the people of Jamaica voted in a referendum not to remain part of the regional entity. Basically, Jamaicans could not see what advantage there was in a coalition with a number of, what they considered small, insignificant islands, and were suspicious of being governed by a government external to their territory over which they would have little control.

Had British Guiana and British Honduras been part of the Federation the Jamaican decision to leave might not have been so clear-cut for it was felt that their larger markets would have made belonging to such a federation a more economically viable and durable political decision. But for various reasons they were not so Jamaica bowed out, leading to Williams’s immortal statement “One from ten leaves naught.

From Nation to Abattoir?

Chubby

 

My column of September 6, 2017. The funeral for Leonard Collins “(Chubby”) is this Saturday at Church of Christ, Mona. I still shed tears at the wantonness of his killing.

I didn’t know his given name. On campus he was known as Chubby, a dread with a bicycle and a green thumb, who worked in the Maintenance Department for many years. Involved in a job-related accident some years ago, Chubby was waiting to collect some long overdue compensation monies.

On Friday, the 25th of last month, the money finally arrived in his credit union account and Chubby went and collected it. The first thing he wanted to do was buy a cake for his two-year old son. He sat down outside his August Town home with some friends idly discussing where to buy the cake. Some said Megamart, others said he should get a Cherry Berry cake from Sugar and Spice in Liguanea.

I remember when the ‘yout’, as Chubby called him, was born. The proud father came to my office to see if I could help in any way, as there were complications. I gave him some money. What Chubby really wanted was for me to visit his son in hospital because he said ‘they’ would treat him and his family better if someone like me visited. It haunts me to this day that I allowed my fear and dislike of hospitals to dissuade me from going.

Two years later Chubby did not get to buy his son a cake. The same night he got the money, someone pushed their way into his house and robbed him, viciously shooting and killing him in the process. I don’t think his death made the news. Sometimes I wonder if murders in August Town are under-reported to protect the much vaunted but fragile ‘peace treaty’. I know that not all murders are reported to the media by the Police in time for them to carry the news.

It’s heartbreaking when from he that hath not, even that which he hath not is taken. A good, hard-working man has been struck down, separated from the one thing he could call his own—his life. What lies ahead for Chubby’s son now, joining the legion of fatherless children?

There was a series of gruesome murders in Clarendon during the same period but  it’s human nature to mourn those closest to us, especially if they lived in physical proximity and you knew them. Someone from one’s own family, country, class or caste takes precedence over nameless strangers halfway across the world. The media too spends more column space or airtime on individuals who were prominent because of talent, brains, money or beauty. Thus the murder of designer Dexter Pottinger last week has dominated social media, where shell-shocked Jamaicans have been expressing sorrow, outrage, anger and bewilderment at his killing by a person or persons unknown.

The usual arguments are making the rounds. As Pottinger was openly gay there are those who suspect he was killed directly or indirectly because of his social orientation. Others counter this by saying he was likely killed by a lover in a crime of passion, so this can’t be classified as a homophobic murder. I find the latter a strange claim the fallacy of which is illustrated by looking at women who are murdered by their partners, ex husbands or boyfriends. Does the fact that this might be a crime of passion negate the fact that beneath the casual slaughter of women lies a deep-seated patriarchal belief that they are inferior and therefore expendable? Does it negate the widespread misogyny that permeates such societies and drives violence against women?

“Please don’t make it about the fact that he was gay” implored someone on my Facebook timeline. And I get that people don’t want Jamaica to get bad press again, especially if this was a straight robbery and murder, so to speak. But the fact is if a black man is killed in a racist country, the first thing you’re going to wonder is whether the color of his skin was a contributing factor. If racists view black people as an alien species endangering the public, in much the same way as homosexuals are viewed as dangerous threats to society here, it makes them more vulnerable to violence by those who feel justified in ridding society of the ‘menace’ by killing them.

Thus some men feel justified in killing men who make advances towards them instead of politely brushing them off in the way women do 365 days of the year when men make unwanted passes at them. Imagine what the world would look like if women killed every man who made a pass at them! I’ve never understood the “I killed him because he made an indecent proposal” defence that seems to find such currency here.

We might never know the reason Dexter was killed but in the meantime how about building a nation where people are as concerned to eliminate unwarranted prejudice as they are to protect their country’s reputation?

‘Nah mek dem win’: The rise of the Tambourine Army

The following is the unedited version of my March 15, 2017, column in the Gleaner

March 11, 2017. Tambourine Army’s emotionally charged, moving survivors’ march from the Moravian Church at 127 Molynes Road to Mandela Park in Half Way Tree Square was one of several held across the Caribbean that day. It was probably also the most heart-wrenching one, organized as it was mostly by survivors of rape and abuse, for many of whom this was a cathartic experience. Impressive also were the number of men who participated in this 700-strong march, a record number for non-political or religious public protests in Jamaica.

Heralded by dissension on social media and fallout with earlier generations of feminist activists the Tambourine Army nevertheless prevailed on March 11, their well-orchestrated, rootsy, Rasta drum- and pan-driven procession moving at a nimble pace through the streets of Kingston. Led by flag woman Taitu Heron, gloriously clad in Orisha-inspired white and expertly manipulating a large white flag in front of purple-clad marchers the procession packed quite a visual punch. Such a pity that neither of the two TV stations in Jamaica seemed to be there (recalling the famous words of Gil Scott-Heron “The revolution will not be televised…”) so that it fell on social media to disseminate the colourful images.

A truck with a sound system accompanied the procession, pumping out the doleful but mesmerizing song ‘Nah Mek Dem Win’ with lyrics telling an all too familiar Jamaican story. Young girl being abused by her father, tries in vain to bring it to the attention of her family, yet:

Mama neva listen
Aunty neva listen
Mi try tell mi sista but…. She neva listen
But this is healing time…
An you don’t have to do it on your own
Just Stan Firmm.

Nah mek dem win
Nah mek dem win…

Keisha Firmm, author and singer of ‘Nah mek dem win’ is the survivor of a horror story herself. After her mother’s death her relatives sent her to England to live with a man who claimed to be her father. The inevitable happened leaving young Keisha full of anger and pain with nowhere to turn for help. Questions kept swirling through her mind. Why had this happened to her? How could society leave children to the mercy of predators with no protection whatsoever? Would she ever be normal again?

I asked her how participating in the march had made her feel. Less empty, said Keisha, less alone. A student in UTECH’s USAID-funded Fi Wi Jamaica arts residency programme, sharing her story and turning it into song has been therapeutic for Keisha, who hopes that it will help other young women like herself. During the march the truck would stop along the way allowing different survivors to share their stories, the singer Tanya Stephens, among them.

Leading the march, right behind the flagwoman, was a row of black clad women, in armour-like. outfits. They were members of En Kompane, the dance troupe started by virtuoso dancer Neila Ebanks. When the procession reached Mandela Park to find that the generator had packed up and there was no sound, the rag tag live instrumental band struck up and Neila danced a powerful ‘cutting and clearing’ dance.

Cutting and clearing space for themselves was what this march was about for the women and men who participated in it. The unseemly pre-March kass kass between older feminists who should know better and younger activists whose zeal and passion at times made them hotheaded and confrontational was unfortunate. The public’s apathy made me realize that there’s no culture here of holding protest marches, or protests generally. The Immediate response of too many is—what is a protest going to achieve? They miss the point. For the victims of abuse who participated the march was part of the healing process. For others like artist Deborah Anzinger, who brought her 6-year old daughter, it

“…felt like a valuable step and exercise. As children we never learned of organized demonstrations/protesting as an option for us to show disapproval of any social problem. It felt good introducing this to our daughter and her friend. It was an opportunity to talk to them about how far we’ve come towards basic equality and human rights for all people and how much further there is to go.”

I’ll close by quoting Kashka Hemans whose Facebook status said it all:

“… Respect where respect is due. I’d like to congratulate the Tambourine Army on their fearless and, in many ways, peerless activism in the cause of ending gender-based violence in Jamaica. I am discomfited by some of their strategies and harbour doubts about the long term effectiveness of the contestational stance they have at times taken but, you know what? So what? I stand with them on the basis of what they stand for. I also stand with others who represent a more staid approach to activism. There is space and a need for many voices and approaches. But the present moment belongs to the Tambourine Army, they are giving a platform to many women to tell their stories, to vent, to ‘gwaan bad’ and cuss claat in a country where claat cussing is the only language many in officialdom seem to understand. More power to you sisters, may your movement grow in strength and impact.”

Minshall’s Dying Swan: A Creole Requiem or what?

A facebook discussion of Minshall’s Dying Swan at Trinidad Carnival 2016 with beautiful photographs and videos.

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It’s that time of year when our Trini friends are gearing up for their annual national catharsis — carnival. Each year we follow their goings on remotely, deluged with the latest road marches, Soca and Chutney Monarch competitions, exciting costumes and panyard play from Trinidad and Tobago.

This year a poignant image started to appear on Facebook of a long, spidery daddy longlegs in white, the most delicately grotesque ballerino you’ve ever seen, dancing unlike any traditional moko jumbie (stiltwalker) to the haunting strains of The Dying Swan.

Titled “Ras Nijinksky as Anna Pavlova in ‘The Dying Swan'” the performance heralded the return of Mas man Peter Minshall after a few years of self-imposed exile from Trinidad carnival. Jhawhan Thomas’s rendition of the swan was powerful and eloquent i thought especially with all the inversions and subversions trailing behind it. Europe, Africa, male, female, traditional mas vs beads and bikinis — so many collisions were choreographed into this creation it was thrilling.

Imagine how i felt then to read Monique Roffey’s rather deflating Facebook update, above a post of the original Dying Swan:

ok Trinis, why is a dying swan at all relevant to Caribbean society? Why all the fuss?

Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) in her signature ballet, The Dying Swan, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1905.

What? was she nuts? Couldn’t she SEE how brilliant Minshall’s intervention was? It’s Creolité personified! Roffey’s question led to one of those spirited Facebook discussions one participates in from time to time that capture the heat and light of the moment. Apparently it wasn’t the only one. The St Lucian poet Vladimir Lucien expressed a view remarkably similar to Roffey’s that generated a whole other thread on his timeline.

idk what to make of da swan nuh, unless daz Minshall Ole Mas on d economy.

I’m always loathe to let such ephemeral conversations disappear into Cyberia. I have no access to Lucien’s but I reproduce a lightly edited version of the discussion on Roffey’s page here with her permission. Interspersed throughout this post are videos of Minshall’s Dying Swan, one by Makeda Thomas of Jhawhan in rehearsal along with a beautiful set of photographs by Maria Nunes.

ok Trinis, why is a dying swan at all relevant to Caribbean society? Why all the fuss?

Loretta Collins Klobah Nicholas Laughlin gave a cogent, well -written answer to that question on a FB discussion yesterday. It could have been a good editorial for the Guardian…

Monique Roffey didnt see it. Whose page?

Loretta Collins Klobah VL

Monique Roffey ha

Nicola Cross It’s absolutely stunning. The movement the fact it’s even in the “carnival” bacchanal.

Edward Bowen several layers to “the fuss” – firstly the unexpected return of Minsh, secondly, with the usual “difference” of content and presentation, often quite startling, thirdly the obvious androgyny, and fourthly, that collection and more of content = drama, abstracted, left field, story telling, theatre – our society allows him that stage, his mas, perhaps we need the stories, more stories. Thing is though, stories going on all the time, but our media not geared to diversification of their own lenses, so we do not see this creativity going on all year round, all over the country, in many divergent forms, so the Carnival stage is a brief opportunity for a kind of maximum impact scenario, or “play”, and Minsh is one of the Masters. So, we expect him to come with something to stop you in your tracks, we expect, want, need, that difference .

Nicola Cross I’m smelling people’s choice.

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James Christopher Aboud Minshall is an adapter, and the fact that the stilts fail to capture the graceful movement of Pavlova is not the point, although I noticed that at once. He made a connection with something other than ourselves, which is what the mas is supposed to do, and, by that adaptation, made it ours. Pavlova in drag is the original thought here, shocking the ballet purists and entering our transgender debate. I only wish that there was more movement. The length of the stilts make movement precarious. He went for impact more than movement it seems.

Annie Paul maybe it’s his own swan song? Minshall’s that is? would love to read Nicholas Laughlin‘s comments…

Abigail Hadeed Well if this is not Minsh at his best, when last was such discourse come to the mas! Hallelujah… Annie check Vladimir Lucien page.. Nick responds to V and Christian Campbell

Annie Paul Alas Vladimir Lucien ‘unfriended’ me some time back so I can’t but i’ll just ask Nicholas

Annie Paul Should Caribbean societies only portray things that others deem ‘relevant’ to them? The very reaction this performance has received is a sign that its hit a chord with people? though clearly not with you Monique

Gaiven Klavon Clairmont I agree with a few of the comments above, in that it was very refreshing to see the swan, and the beauty of art is that it doesn’t have to be limited to one’s own regional influences. We can interpret aspects from around the world and mould it into our own culture. So I absolutely loved this.

Judy Raymond Did you see the others? I haven’t yet this year, but they are almost always a variation on a fancy Indian or a giant clamshell-shaped thing on wheels that the masquerader drags along around/behind him- or herself. Occasionally there are special effects with lights/darkness/music.

Minsh draws on traditions from all over the world–because they’re all ours too–just as he drew on the work of Alexander Calder to produce his human mobiles–and especially stands on the shoulders of mas giants to produce something that is new–a moko jumbie combined with European ballet. And yes, as Eddie says it’s real theatre, and it included androgyny in a reference to one of the issues that this society is only now beginning to address. He doesn’t overestimate the value of originality but no one else understands how to combine the basic mechanical principles and characters of the mas into a new work of art that says something about the world and especially our corner of it now.

Abigail Hadeed I though this was the whole premise and history of our carnival appropriating / mimicing – The aristocrat / plantocract … Negue Jadin …. the free coloured / emancipated slaves mimicing the aristrocat – Dame Lorraine etc??? not a speller not an interlectual, but i recognise when something is soulful and appreciate it for what it is… the bonus is we get to enjoy and celebrate Minsh and he brings dialogue to a very mediocre dead boring beads and feathers mas

Edward Bowen de man wukin’!

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Nicholas Laughlin Since Annie asks, here’s the relevant bit of a (long but hardly exhaustive) note I dashed off last night in response to a similar “why all the fuss” question. Also interesting to read your various notes above.

Having seen the components of the costume coming together backstage at the Savannah last night, having felt some doubts, then having seen the actual performance, I find it’s stuck in my head and I’ve been thinking about it all day. I can’t escape the sense that The Dying Swan is Minshall’s meditation on the place — aesthetic, intellectual, emotional — he finds himself in at nearly the end of his career as an artist.

The ballet that inspired the maswork is about the inevitability of death (the title gives that away, right?). It’s a classic Minshall move to have taken this exemplary work of European “high” culture and translated it via two traditional Carnival characters, the moko jumbie and the Dame Lorraine. And through a minimalist but rigorously considered form, a deceptively simple performance by the masquerader, a touch of self-awareness and self-parody (it’s a burly dude in drag, after all), to have made something that his audience can plainly delight in, while feeling the little emotional quiver of recognition that this is an artist’s elegy for his art.

As for brilliance on its own terms, though The Dying Swan isn’t technically innovative (Minshall did a moko jumbie king and queen as far back as 1988, and it’s now standard in the repertoire), and certainly not epoch-defining like Man Crab, I think it achieves the simple but not-so-simple thing that Minshall’s works have long argued is the meaning of mas: to give the performer the means to express an energy, an emotion, an idea beyond what the body alone can do.

In this case, I’d say, it starts in the gorgeous elongation of the masquerader’s limbs and thus the bird-like delicacy of his steps. It’s also remarkable to me how the generally male energy of the moko jumbie is subverted here without sacrificing presence or scale. And I am obviously no Carnival judge, but the scoring system ought to reward those kings and queens that can move entirely through the muscles and energy of their masqueraders, i.e. with NO WHEELS. There are so many massive kings and queens built like small houses — all the masqueraders can do is drag them into position before the judges and try to wiggle. The costumes that can actually pick up and move — and there were several last night, including the moko jumbie queen and king from Touch D’ Sky, and a couple of joyful fancy sailors — give the audience a really basic, straightforward pleasure by communicating the masqueraders’ energy.

For the record, I also really enjoyed the king who was a giant pot of callaloo topped by a magnificent blue crab, all made from papier-mâché. Even if it was on wheels.

Abigail Hadeed Nick, thank you for this…

Elspeth Duncan It’s the only thing i’ve seen of 2016 Carnival and I don’t need to see any more to know that none of the cliche beads, feathers and clam-shapes (as Judy called them) can come close to this.

Edward Bowen “clam shapes”, being dragged, bead and fedder and sekwin!

Monique Roffey Gosh, I left that question open and went to yoga to find this thread. Thanks Nicholas Laughlin for your thoughts, as yes there is something of a swan song that may be very personal to Minshall. Many of you have touched on my reactions to it. 1) drag is in no way new or original to the mas, 2) the stilts weren’t too graceful. 3) I liked the ‘burly dude’ drag element but he wasn’t too graceful up there, and, while I love that any designer can reach beyond our shores for inspiration, I did wonder what de ass, why this, why the dying swan? I agree Edward Bowen he’s a theatrical master/genius, but like Nicholas Laughlin, this swan ain’t epoch defining, like Man Crab. It felt odd to me to see this swan and then for all the fuss. I didn’t NOT like it Annie Paul, more like, hmmm, if Minshal were to put out a dying elf, Jedi knight, imp or one of Snow Whites dying dwarfs, would we all applaud and say what genius he is?

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Edward Bowen this cultural “field” we have here is a mishmash of 500 years of continuous imports, it’s as if we apologize or attack this premise, which is still the case – it is about appropriation of whatever influence comes into that field of relavances, which is not fixed to any specific iconography or lines of thought – deal with it, deny it, it is a matter of artistic choice and thankfully that is being taken

Gin Awai The answer is yes. Minsh does ballet and the crowds ooooo and aaaaa. Next year it’ll be Minsh does Broadway on stilts. Traditional costumes aka costumes with wheels are built that way for stability to survive the roads of not only this Carnival but the other Carnivals around the world – Caribana, NY etc.

Can’t see our dying Swan lasting one concrete Ariapita Ave block.

Gin Awai Also, this is how Kings of Carnival make money to support future costumes and build the Carnival Industry through the denizens of hands that went into creating said traditional “forgettable” costume. Minsh clearly doesn’t need the prize winning money to continue producing his “art”.

Nicholas Laughlin I’m gonna disagree with you on the question of roadability, having scrutinised the costume components backstage with a very enquiring eye. Whatever seems delicate about the Swan is an optical illusion–it’s very solidly engineered. The legs are as sturdy as any moko jumbie’s, and everything is relatively lightweight and carefully balanced. In fact, it’s a king better suited to the vicissitudes of the road than the house-size behemoths designed to go the length of the Savannah stage and not much further–getting those on the road requires teams of handlers and traffic-directors. Scale is always impressive, but so is agility, and it’s interesting how the audience in the stands responds so enthusiastically to smaller costumes that can actually move without back-breaking effort.

Gin Awai Definitely looking forward to seeing Jha-Whan on the road. I hope he has insurance.

Audiences respond to drama which you described beautifully – the performance is breathtaking drama come to life. Still don’t think it’s a good Carnival King.

The theatrics don’t translate without the Minshall story. Seems more apt for Cirque du Soleil than first place. Interested to see what more drama would be created in the finals.

I predict more glitter and a blackened bird.

Nicholas Laughlin Interestingly, there was also a black swan queen from another band–I didn’t catch the title of the costume, and I can’t make out whether it got to the finals. She had a skirt of waterlilies and a kind of arbour of leafy branches.

Colin Robinson Carnival kings and queens have long portrayed mythical, “classical” themes and ones from foreign folklore. Apart from a heaping dose of Minshall nostalgia, the sheer imagination of the white costume compared to the yawning colourfulness and reductive representation of all the others is what the fuss is about. And at least half the fascination is about a king of carnival looking like a queen. Carnival costumes have lost imaginativeness in their mechanics as well, growing to the width of the stage and the weight a muscular man can drag. So Minshall pushing the one real area in which there has been mechanical imagination—the mokojumbie—even further with a simple shoe is what the fuss is about. These are a third of the costumes in the finals this year, and their Caribbean relevance: Artemisia, Medusa, Yacahuna, the Aztec Menace, Gloriana (Elizabeth I), Quecha, Demonato, Howakan, Elfurdrakos. But maybe we should be getting excitedabout bois in Moruga, wood instead of drag LOL

 

Jenifer Smith The plain was grassy, wild and bare,
Wide, wild, and open to the air,
Which had built up everywhere
An under-roof of doleful gray.
With an inner voice the river ran,
Adown it floated a dying swan,
And loudly did lament.
It was the middle of the day.
Ever the weary wind went on,
And took the reed-tops as it went.
Some blue peaks in the distance rose,
And white against the cold-white sky,
Shone out their crowning snows.
One willow over the water wept,
And shook the wave as the wind did sigh;
Above in the wind was the swallow,
Chasing itself at its own wild will,
And far thro’ the marish green and still
The tangled water-courses slept,
Shot over with purple, and green, and yellow.
The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear;
And floating about the under-sky,
Prevailing in weakness, the coronach stole
Sometimes afar, and sometimes anear;
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;
As when a mighty people rejoice
With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold,
And the tumult of their acclaim is roll’d
Thro’ the open gates of the city afar,
To the shepherd who watcheth the evening star.
And the creeping mosses and clambering weeds,
And the willow-branches hoar and dank,
And the wavy swell of the soughing reeds,
And the wave-worn horns of the echoing bank,
And the silvery marish-flowers that throng
The desolate creeks and pools among,
Were flooded over with eddying song.

Monique Roffey Colin Robinson thanks for this reply, but it has only backed up my querie, as you say, this isn’t too new. A long history of classical heroes in the mas, also a long history of dragging up. Aesthetically, it didn’t do it for me.

Colin Robinson Gotcha. But for all the limitations cited, it’s a huge breath of fresh air in the staleness of that competition.

Jenifer Smith I haven’t seen it for real yet but surely the dying swan could also be a metaphor for our failing society? city? innocence? ….and not just about Minshall’s reflection on his own mortality

Monique Roffey yes, this I really agree with Jenifer Smith.

Judy Raymond Yes, it’s about more than Minsh

Monique Roffey might be worth stating I’m a big fan of Minsh. Just not so crazy about this.

Colin Robinson Had a WTFyoumean response to Monique’s question and posted, and only now reading and enjoying the more grounded comments. I’m no ballet connaisseur but, contrary to others, I thought Jhawhan‘s mokojumbie movements did quite gracefully conjure the ballerina’s is it called bourrée?

Judy Raymond A kind of crude “drag”/androgyny as we’re calling it on this thread (not right word/s in this context) goes back centuries in the mas and is reflected in this mas: we’re not meant to be deceived into thinking the character is being played by a woman. Hence “Ras Nijinsky” and the less than perfectly graceful, “feminine” movement.

But has there ever been a cross-dressed king or queen before?

And it’s perhaps especially significant now in an age of hypersexualised pretty mas when women especially have to have perfect bodies: genitals barely covered, not an ounce of fat, exaggerated nails/hair/makeup/spray tan/glitter/lashes way out there/stiletto boots on the road etc etc (men can get away with ripped bodies & six-packs).

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Nicholas Laughlin Only belatedly it occurred to me that there might be a sly reference here too to the pisse-en-lit, another traditional “drag” mas in which men portray women to deliberately evoke disgust and disdain–and which may have a fresh relevance at a moment when gender and sexual identity and expression are being vigorously debated and (re)contested.

Sharon Maas There was something eerie, haunting about it, but the arm movements didn’t synch at all — very ungraceful. but maybe that was deliberate?

Martina Laird Towering and proud, beautiful and grotesque, tragic and comic. Sexuality explicit and concealed. An amazing drag statement of ownership made on the very mainstream stage of the Savannah. Such challenge being very much the spirit of Carnival. Not to mention the parody of Eurocentric high culture in Trinidadian context

Jason Jones It is a genius piece of performance art and politics. A LIVE BANKSY! Utter BRILLIANCE. How it only got 4th place is disgraceful considering the masqueraders bravura performance!

Gab Souldeya Hosein Minsh says it best…this is not a costume, this is a mas. It’s not European copy, it’s something never tried with moko jumbies before…that uses the natural point of the stilts to masquerade ballet shoes…it says to every European ballet which has never done this…you ent really imagine a dancer on her toes until you see her cross a carnival stage in the body of an African moko jumbie 20 feet tall. It as African as it is European…in a way only Carnival brings together. I loving it.

Nicola Cross HAHAHA!

Nicola Cross “repurposing” i like that.

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Gab Souldeya Hosein Not only that, usually with moko jumbies, the legs are hidden under pants or considered ‘wooden sticks’ underneath the costume, here they were deliberately shaped into legs! It’s the legs and ballet shoes of a dancing moko jumbie not the waving arms ‘like’ a dancer that are de heights of this mas….pun intended!!

Nicola Cross u good gurrl!

PS: And for dessert the Mas man himself, discussing The Dying Swan:

PPS: And how do you know when something has hit its mark? When it gets this kind of reaction from others in the game while the public delights. The following is from The Trinidad Guardian two days after Dying Swan placed third in the Carnival Kings category:

Acclaimed mas designer Peter Minshall’s return to Carnival after an over decade long hiatus has been marred in controversy after several veteran mas designers criticised his Carnival king costume — The Dying Swan, Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova — on Tuesday night.

The costume placed third in the King of Carnival Competition at the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port-of-Spain, where it was a clear crowd favourite.

However, after the results were announced, several veteran mas designers criticised its minimalistic design, which was in clear contrast to the more grandiose portrayals which traditionally dominate the competition.

Marcus Eustace, the designer of the competition’s eventual winner Psychedelic Nightmares, worn by his brother Ted, described Minshall’s high placing as “ridiculous.”

“Put it this way, if you call that mas, how would it look if next year everybody play moko jumbie. That is not a mas. That is why the stands are empty.

“You have people building all kinds of expensive costumes and they coming tenth and 11th, and a moko jumbie come third,” Eustace said after the results were announced early Wednesday morning.

And carnival has barely started. Such fun!