Author Archives: NourbeSe Philip

Race-baiting and The Writer’s Union of Canada

Race-baiting and The Writer’s Union of Canada by NourbeSe Philip

Hal Niedzviecki has every right to express his opinion, as badly argued and uninformed as it is; after all, we do have protections regarding free speech short of hate speech. What I find inexcusable, however, and profoundly disrespectful is that the Writers Union of Canada (TWUC) would publish an issue of Write dedicated to Indigenous writers—long overdue, I might add —and have the editorial introducing the work be a flippant and uninformed piece about appropriation.

I enter this debate for two reasons: some twenty-five years ago this very same issue erupted in Toronto and resulted in the then Women’s Press splitting. The cross-country debate back then was equally fierce. My response to that was “The Disappearing Debate: Or how the discussion of racism has been taken over by the censorship issue,” a title that speaks for itself. It’s troubling to witness the return of these issues with apparently no greater understanding, truth and reconciliation notwithstanding. As a presently a paid-up member of the TWUC I feel implicated, albeit unwittingly, in this issue and it is as such I enter this debate.

I want to draw readers’ attention away from the issue of appropriation for a brief moment and ask them to focus on a smaller, less controversial issue — that of hospitality and protocols around how you welcome and treat a guest. It has many reverberations in the history of colonialism.

The culture I come from — African Caribbean — as do all cultures, traditional and modern, and, I might add, even Western cultures, have protocols about the guest and how the guest should be treated. Indeed, in early Christian times, Christians were expected to keep a bed, some bread and a candle for the unexpected guest. In African cultures, it was often the occasion on which a large animal would be killed, so that the guest could be fed. (Invading colonisers often used that practice to further exploit the people.) In the history of the many, many cultures colonised by the European you will find numerous instances in which the guest, the European, was taken in and treated well— even taught how to live on the land. As we know so well now, that generosity was often repaid by conquest. My point being a very simple one — when a guest comes to your home, especially an invited guest, you honour them, you provide them the best. More to the point, you do not invite someone to your home or living space and then insult or disrespect them. What TWUC did was the equivalent of this and I suspect that had those writers known what the editorial was going to be about, none of them would have submitted their work. What kind of culture, literary or otherwise, produces this kind of uncivilised behaviour? A culture whose very integuments are woven around a kind of everyday racism against peoples of colour.

The TWUC, one of the gatekeepers of Canadian Literature culture in Canada, invited these writers to submit their work and then published an editorial that entirely disrespected the sea-change that the publication of these writers represent. Why didn’t the TWUC invite an Indigenous guest editor, as often happens when magazines have themed issues, and of which there is a long history in the culture of literary Canadian magazines? Why did the oversight committee not catch this travesty before it was published? What has happened is tantamount to publishing an issue dedicated to women’s issues or feminism and having an editorial, written by a man, making light of, or challenging the widespread sexual abuse of women, or domestic violence against women. Can we imagine the firestorm that would have erupted over such a glaring and brutal example of sexism and misogyny? Instead, what we have is a firestorm over appropriation, which was not raised by the invited writers, with the two camps arrayed against each other. I am suggesting here that the debate about appropriation simultaneously erases and supplants the racist act that the publication of the editorial represents; further it illustrates how systemic racism functions and how we can all be baited to participate in a debate that hides even as it reveals.

Yes, the issue of appropriation is a very real one — I might add here that living in the present, globalised, commodified world, there are very few of us who do not indulge or partake in practices of other cultures — from yoga to mindfulness meditation to Buddhism, to karate and other Asian martial arts. Is any of this appropriation? If not, why not? Further, Black culture — especially musical culture — has always been and continues to be appropriated by all cultures, bar none — Elvis Presley, Adele, Lily Singh, A Tribe Called Red, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones — the list is long. There appears to be no understanding that Black music bears a name, has an address and a particular and tragic history. Indeed, to use a digital example, Black culture is approached as if it is a Creative Commons to which everyone ought to have access. And it is a zero-sum game because the widespread consumption of Black culture has not resulted in any greater respect for the original creators. Indeed, in an extractive capitalist world, the opposite has been the result. Indigenous peoples have their own arguments about how their cultures have been appropriated, as, I suspect, do all colonised cultures and peoples.

Appropriation is a complex issue, which often stems from a racist power structure which can do real harm to those who are racially, socially and politically marginalised. The debate over appropriation of voice, which this particular debate is all about, often lurches between those who are rightly concerned with the dangers of literary censorship on the one hand, and those who are concerned about very real damage that can be done by appropriative practices. There are those who argue that you cannot cage what is uncageable — the human imagination and inspiration, and that creativity and inspiration cannot be boxed in by identity politics. This is true, but it does not necessarily mean that one has a “right” to poach the cultures of others, particularly those whom your own culture had a hand in destroying. As I argued earlier, a sense of humility is necessary approaching another culture. Further, the imagination does not exist in a vacuum and is, more times than, not affected by one’s social milieu. Just think of how many metaphors we use today that come from the digital world we live in.

As I argued in “The Disappearing Debate,” however, the solution to appropriation of voice will not be found in prohibitions. The deeper structures of exclusion and marginalisation have to be dismantled. We, those of us who have borne the historical, political and social brunt of white supremacist practices, are often suspicious of the practices that Western, humanist cultures hold sacrosanct, like freedom of speech. We know only too well how these beliefs have been used against us. However, as we watch the pillars of democracy, albeit a very imperfect one, being dismantled south of the border, it sharpens the appreciation of these practices and beliefs. Being against appropriation does not necessarily make one a supporter of censorship: there is a deeper wound that is being identified that perhaps a secular, Western state does not yet have the language to address. Being in support of being able to imagine the lives of others who may be different from you, does not necessarily make you racist.

What is important is that we realize that art does not exist in a vacuum, that writing, publication and success come out of many, many small decisions that can contribute to or hurt the coming to voice of the historically displaced, marginalised and erased. Writing and publishing are material acts in a material world, pace Madonna, and racism, sexism and all the other harmful practices impact negatively on those acts.

The pros and cons of appropriation are not the issue here, although many found Niedzviecki’s opinions offensive. Indeed, his resignation was demanded because of what he wrote, which he complied with. His arguments reveal an astonishing ignorance and can be easily demolished. I maintain, however, that having an opinion in support of appropriation while offensive to many, is not necessarily racist, just as those who feel it should not happen are not necessarily in favour of censorship. At the risk of being repetitive, I return to the more fundamental one of respect for the literary guests the TWUC invited to publish in its magazine, Write. Why, for instance, wasn’t the editorial about the literary history of Indigenous people in Canada, dating back to the poet, E. Pauline Johnson and before, so that we, the readers, could have a better idea of where these newer writers fit in? Why did the editor see fit to write an editorial about appropriation to introduce the Indigenous writers invited to submit work, when appropriation was not the theme of the issue?

The TWUC editorial was racist for the following reasons:

(a)it made no attempt to place the work of the Indigenous writers in any literary context, and by arguing for appropriation, revealed a dismissive and thoughtless attitude towards the writers, especially given that this was an issue dedicated to Indigenous writers who had been invited to submit work; (In other words, the editor couldn’t be bothered to do any research on the literary history or context of Indigenous writers and the issue of appropriation appears to be the primary association he makes with Indigenous writers).

(b) the publication of a deliberately incendiary editorial, intended to inflame the feelings of Indigenous writers and incite debates between those on opposing sides of the issue, showed that the editor was completely indifferent to the writers, their history and culture, as well as the destructive, colonial history of Canada; (In other words, he used his editorial as bait— it could be said to be a form of literary race-baiting.)
(c) Indigenous writers were solicited to submit work on the understanding that their work would be treated respectfully and seriously. Instead the editorial was used to further debate on appropriation which was not the theme of the issue; (In other words, the editor employed a literary bait-and-switch technique).

(d) in his editorial the editor privileged an issue that would ensure that white voices would be amplified, the result of which is that we now have a call for an appropriation prize. (In other words, he ensured that white people’s voices would continue to be privileged in the ensuing debate.)

This is not the discussion we should be having as a consequence of the TWUC publishing an issue of Write dedicated to Indigenous writers. By linking the issue of appropriation, as he did in his editorial, to the publication of work by invited Indigenous writers, Niedzviecki was being mischievous at best; at worst, unintentional or not, the editorial resulted in racism.

Appropriation is an issue for all cultures dominated by white supremacist attitudes and practices, but speaking for my own culture, it’s not an issue Black writers are overly preoccupied with. We engage with the full spectrum of life, including trying to piece together memories of cultures that have been pulverised by the onslaught of colonialism. We, like all writers, struggle with time management, grants, getting published and all the demands that writing exerts on one. Not to mention relationships and children. I suspect it is similar for Indigenous writers. Except when a red flag is waved in front of them as it has been in this case. In this context, this is an issue for white writers who object to those who rightly challenge systems of power and reveal how they also exist in art and artistic practices. Those who feel this way, know they can appropriate and know that much in this culture supports them. As we see happening with contributions to the Appropriation Prize.

The issue of appropriation of voice is not new and there is no excuse for this happening. Twenty-five years ago this was the very issue that split the Women’s Press in Toronto and spawned intense debate across Canada. If there was any real interest in why it was an issue for those writing from formerly colonised cultures back then, we wouldn’t have had the insulting editorial, nor would we have had the vague, confusing apology from the Chair of the TWUC regretting “the pain and offence caused….” and talking about Write magazine offering “a space for honest and challenging discussion” and being “sincerely encouraging to all voices.” Expressing regret for “pain and offence” is not a true apology, nor was there anything “honest” or “challenging” about Niedzviecki’s editorial, which has done nothing to encourage Indigenous and other writers of colour to submit work to mainstream publications.

We have all been played to some degree because the debate about appropriation will be with us for the foreseeable future, which is not necessarily damaging. The more discussion and respectful exploration of the issues there are, the more we benefit. However, if we fail to drill down below the issue of appropriation in this case, we miss the deeper, systemic racism at work here.

Some twenty-five years ago I proposed that the Union set up a committee to look at racism in writing and publishing, which I was interested in being a part of. I did not receive a response to my letter and my proposal went nowhere. The TWUC must be called out on the blatant racism of inviting Indigenous writers to submit to an issue and then disrespecting those writers and their efforts. Anti-racism workshops are not enough. The Union should name the issue clearly— we are writers and words are our medium. It needs to name what happened as racism — the ROM’s recent apology, some 28 years later, for the anti-black racism of the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit could be a model for the Union’s action. Intention is not relevant, particularly as it relates to the functioning of organizations like the TWUC long-steeped in colonial practices. No one may have intended to be racist but the result is a racist one, and The TWUC needs to apologise to the invited writers, the Indigenous communities and the TWUC membership for this racism. Then it needs to meet with Indigenous writers and figure out where to go from there.

Afrofest: We Will Not Be Moved

Afrofest: We Will Not Be Moved

Black bodies are always being moved around and are always made to feel illegitimate in “white” spaces, even as Black cultural products are appropriated and consumed by non-black cultures. Witness Caribana aka Caribbean Carnival aka Scotiabank Caribana aka Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival (now defunct), each name change reflecting and representing the obdurate confrontation between Blackness and its other. And it always appears a zero sum game. In 2011, Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam was adamant that Afrofest be moved from Queen’s Park: “If we continue to let them come back, because of lobbying efforts and a campaign to stay in Queen’s Park, then we throw out every other objective.” Toronto Star, July 10, 2011. The “them” has unfortunate connotations, intentional or not.   One of the “other objective(s)” was the health of the park, which is important. But no mention of the cultural richness of the festival; of the economic spin-offs for the various African communities, which are plagued with higher rates of unemployment; no mention of what a bracing example of an inclusive city it was– if one wants to speak the language of multiculturalism (She and others missed the powerful message that Afrofest being located at Queen’s Park sent out to our communities and to the world.); no mention of understanding what the festival’s location meant to African and Black communities. Of what a deep, deep joy it was for us all — those of the Afrospora (the African Diaspora) as well as our brothers and sisters from the continent.  It was a moment– a moment when what was lost connected with what was found.  All under the trees. I recall all the inspired musicians who performed there, including the incomparable mbira artist and performer Stella Chiwese, as she called down the Ancestors, incense wafting up from the stage. There, you witnessed Muslim women grooving to their and our African rhythms; you saw Ethiopians, Eritreans, young and old, shaking their shoulders in ways foreign to us who weave rhythms with our hips, but still recognizable; you saw families of all backgrounds camped on the grounds of the seat of power of this province. What a ting! What a ting! i saw a woman/once/dance- in front of the stage/she dances/dust swirls/a black woman dancing on a land/not hers/yours or ours /then and now/feet draw veves of/thanks and praise to the First/and Last Peoples. At Queen’s Park. Of all places! And little did we know we were there on sufferance. As we appear always to be in these spaces marked by the geographies of loss. Ours.

Hard decisions often have to be made in the complex world we live in, and, perhaps, Afrofest’s days were always numbered at Queen’s Park, but had all the stakeholders been involved – and those who support the Festival comprise one of the most important stakeholders; had respect for our cultures and our communities been demonstrated — then the arbitrariness of moving and policing Black bodies might have be lessened.

Today, in response to the Black Lives Matter occupation, Councillor Wong-Tam is one of the councillors calling for possible changes to the SIU when racialized individuals are killed. She might not recognize it, but there is a link – a direct one at that — between the arbitrary moving of Black bodies, which she was a part of in 2011, and police shootings of Black people. It’s all about control.

 

luv song for rob ford

luv song for rob ford
(a work in progress)

Rob Ford wuz here – graffiti in toronto ravine

ever smelt the early
morning smell of green
in deep ravines
seen the flash of red
cardinal or
the red winged black
bird poised for
flight    the bushy- tailed
fox slinking away through the
trees
          have you
crested davenport hill
on bathurst                  stood on
what was once
the shoreline     seen
the city slope
down to the lake
the cn tower standing at
phallic attention
ever
waited on queen for the bright-eyed
cyclops
trundling along
on a wintry evening
shoulders hunched
up above your
ears                  seen the spadina car move
through continents as it traverses its north
south axis         the ossington bus carrying africa on
its back making its way up to eglinton                         have
you stirred up the dust under the trees at queen’s park
at afrofest as the many strands of africa
coalesce to listen to the beat thought lost
long ago   listened to mapfumo
cherished  chiwese
as tuku music talked back to you
walked any of the many
trails in high park that make
green mockery of the city
watched the ducks being
ducks in their iridescent
duckishness  stood under the
garish lights of kinko’s
seen another face of
the city at 2 in the morning
all pretence gone    making
images black  white
& coloured     walked
along bloor as tired shopkeepers put
out their garbage
bought walnut cakes
from the korean store
an ice cream from baskin
robbins across from christie pitts
a falafel from gazal
stood in line at the bloor cinema
borrowed a video from queen video
or suspect that earns its name
honestly   had a beer
at the brunswick   late night nachos
at sneaky dees    have you
ever smelt the early morning smell
of this city
familiar as a lover’s smell
as it rolls over groans
sighs and lets her many
many lovers loose
some too busy to see her virtues
some only too willing to
curse her flaws
others indifferent
all linked willing or
unwilling moving through
yet another day in the city        have you
stood cheek by jowl with
the young man you don’t trust
ever    too close for comfort
to the suit  with her brief case
offered your seat to the old
jamaican lady hugging her
bible close  as the street car rocks
its way across st. clair
sat across from the young bay
street type working or
pretending to in these
times that try then test
the best in us
ever seen schools disgorge
their screaming
laughing  we- are-the-world
populations onto playgrounds
loved these hard streets with your feet
marching against the bomb
against war
against  apartheid
for a woman’s right
to her body   for men
women & children we don’t
know a long
long way away   against
the many myriad  ways
power runs amok
holds us hostage
as it does today
making us all
communist     have you
wined on university to the
beat of a caribana band
watched the pride of the
that other nation unfurl its
rainbow  for us    will you
can you
have you
cycled or walked
                            ever
across the viaduct spanning the
valley of the don
looked down to where many
have embraced too soon
what comes to all
as the city reaches out
to bind
them to it  to us   with tendrils of steel
eaten a roti on
bathurst      have you
sat at dooney’s when it was
drank an espresso
or capuccino and watched the
world saunter by
paid homage to the french
in upper canada
and eaten a poutine
the only place you
will find gravy today    gone
up to eglinton
where sometimes  wanton bullets
have sped
with brutal disregard
for a people who have survived
so much   had a patty
or dumplings on spadina
a somoza on gerrard
seen the young students
from central tech
edgy in their youth
their energy flooding bloor
and bathurst at noonday
or raised your
eyes up           up to where
moriyama’s vision of
space and light creates
a visual prayer to books
at yonge & bloor
to learning without
ads or logos
&draws the every in
us to the lure of words
                                       have you ever
taken the pulse of
this city   felt it quicken as the world’s rhythms
join the first heart beat of the mississauga
to allow for a moment when the
possible moves closer
walked along davenport road
clotted with cars on an early
morning and listened
if you walked softly
quietly enough
to the tramp
tramp of the first peoples who
first bent the grass
into path then trail
followed by farmers
to defy the historical
odds against them &
remind us all that
we are
newcomers to turtle
island                       have you ever
wandered
through kensington
where jew and black met
recognised the each in other
where not that long ago you
could buy a squawking chicken
for sunday dinner and had
a rugla  along college where
the unia was a refuge
for black folk unwelcome
then in this city             have you ever
been to a black
church   talked to a black mother
any mother who has lost
a  son a daughter
explored a schwarma
on yonge    understood  how
the frightened the
persecuted the talented
have brought a fire to
this  place             this space
still held in trust seven
generations into the
future                  followed the ghost of
garrison creek as it winds
its way underground past
the lcbo at st clair & alberta
under christie pits
all the way down to the
lake   seen the don come
alive again     the lake welcome us
once more   have you
cycled around
this city bike lanes or not
sparring with cars
taken a street car on an early
morning towards the sunrise
along queen to
the beach sat on the shore
listened to
the gulls    smelt that smell
we know from before
time when we scavenged
beaches for food
taken the ferry across
the blustery lake
with its cargo of  children
bikes lovers
nudists  hikers caribana
partiers or just plain folks
living in the moment that
is this place  this space      have you
heard
ever
nusrat fateh ali khan
summon angels at harbourfront
send them floating across the lake
all the way back to mecca
or david rudder invoke our
father through africa
have you    will
you can you
hear fado meet funk
see reggae and klezemer
shake hands
laugh as bhangra sits down
eats with calypso and chutney
rock with folk and r& b
as zouk and hip hop break bread
to the strains of mozart & beethoven
here in
this place they and we
call a meeting place    t dot
the rappers say     the place
we all love
to hate that is still
home
          have you
ever
       been at the parkdale
tavern when it was
felt the energy
crackle of an evening when
welfare cheques arrived
stood back
                  behind the yellow
line in the subway
waiting for blast of
air down the tunnel
given a looney to the homeless
man standing
outside the station      watched
the squirrels’ tails
purl the wires as
they prepare for the long hard
of  winter   heard the city
exhale one long sweet
green breath as spring
enters                          grieved with a city for shoeshine
boys young girls taken too soon
young men too angry to talk
except through guns
laughed at the army sent
to rescue us from snow
and nooobody                 wishing
for a viaduct across
the growing chasm between jane
finch and rosedale
the bridle path and
flemingdon  while regent
gentrifies itself                  have you
seen how the many tongues
of a fractious world ever more fragmented
cleave communities out of
a hard strange city licking
shaping  them lovingly
into little towns
did you
have you
would you
                 ever
dream
              a dream            a city
on a hill               call
it a meeting place
call it  say
its syllables           echo
its name  with bullhorns
for when the pulse slows
and anomie curdles
into anger             when the train has
left with the gravy
that never was
anything but us
all that will be
left is
          rob ford wuz here

m. nourbeSe philip

Letter to Haiti

February 9, 2010

Haiti, I weep for you. I hide my tears because I’m on a flight from Kelowna, British Columbia, to Toronto, and who knows, with all the heightened security I fear they may think something’s amiss. That I’m weeping as a prelude to joining my ancestors. So paranoid have we become. But I weep for you, Haiti, for your people, for the shit — the unmitigated shit — that life seems to throw your way. Again and again. And, to adapt the words of one of your warrior daughters, Maya Angelou, “still you rise,” to greet another green, tropic day that holds hope ransom, as you tear your people limb by painful limb from a hell that eschews fire and opts instead for the hardface, stoneface indifference of concrete that, Medusa like, seems to have frozen all of your magnificent history into slabs of cement. Now fragmented they litter your landscape as if some giant, angry at us mortals, had decided to stamp on your already precarious country. There was a time when our Caribbean houses kept faith with wood, whether one-room homes — some call them chattel houses — or larger, more graceful estate houses. Time was when the thatched Ajoupa bequeathed us by Taino, Arawak and Carib would have swayed to the groans of the earth as she eased her suffering, opening herself along her wounded fault lines to the ever blue skies, the constant love of the sun, to release all her pent up grief for us, birthing we don’t yet know what. Time was when hands steeped in skills of building homes brought from a homeland a slap, kick and a howl away, across a roiling ocean, would have gently patted mud over wattle, weaving branches to create cool interiors, shaping shelters from the earth that would not, could not, betray the safety in home to crush, obliterate, to fall down around your ears. Like the third little pig in the nursery rhyme, Haiti, you built your home of brick — it was supposed to protect you.

Each and every time I hear or read the words that describe you as being a poor nation, the poorest of the poorest — I weep.  

Poor you most certainly are in all things material, but your riches are immeasurable, woven through your history, your culture and your people.

Yours was the first and only successful slave revolt in the Western world and resulted in the second independent nation after the United States in the so-called New World. In taking the name the Taino had given the “Land of Mountains,” Ayiti, you returned the country to its First Nations roots. How many know that the USA embargoed you for sixty years because you fired a shot across the bow of history by liberating your people under the brilliant leadership of Touissant L’Overture? How many know that you became a pariah in the world for taking a moral stance in favour of justice and freedom and against racial exploitation and oppression? Then, you were at another epicentre, along one of the many fault lines of history, the reverberations of which seismic, political shift would be felt around the world. Indeed, are still being felt, I would argue. No one rushed to help you then, Haiti. Instead, what we had were France, Spain, Holland, Britain and the United States (albeit secretly) — shall we call them the coalition of the ready, willing and able, or simply the usual suspects? — preparing to invade you to re-impose the yoke of slavery. How many know that your liberation determined the eventual downfall of Napoleon? So decimated were Napoleon’s troops under his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, by fighting in Haiti and by yellow fever, they could not provide the necessary support for Napoleon’s subsequent campaigns in Europe — against Spain, Russia and Prussia to be exact. In November 1803, France, under Napoleon, capitulated. In January 1804, General Jean Jacques Dessalines

declared you an independent nation. How many know that France, that bastion of revolution and freedom, by the Ordinance of 1825 exacted the sum of 150 million francs as compensation from you for loss of “property” — read: formerly enslaved Africans? How many know or even care to know that you did, indeed, pay your extortioner through a series of loans that bankrupted you? The equivalent of that sum is $21 billion in today’s money. And how many know that the USA invaded you in 1915 and occupied you until 1934? Hearing that the US military now controls the airport makes me shudder. Makes me want to hold my head and bawl.

Despite the historical and contemporary demonisation of Vaudon, you have enshrined the religion of your ancestors in your constitution, making it an official religion alongside Christianity.

Only South Africa among a continent of African nations has dared to do this — most flee this reminder of who they are. No other Caribbean island nation has followed suit. Most of all, Haiti, you are rich in your people — their dignity, their love of homeland and willingness to struggle for freedom. What more fitting example of this is the recognition of the language of the people, Haitian Creol, as an official language? With the exception of the three formerly Dutch colonies, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, no other Caribbean island nation has officially recognised the language of the people, for the people and by the people — the vernacular, the demotic — Kamau Brathwaite’s nation language — as worthy of recognition. Ah, but most of all, Haiti, I weep for the “dream deferred” that Langston Hughes so eloquently wrote about. What has happened to the many deferred dreams of your people? Where have they gone? How many know that at the start of your fledgling nation in 1804, democratic principles were central to your constitution? First, you abolished slavery, then moved to enshrine one of the most frighteningly revolutionary and emancipatory ideals in your constitution — racial equality — even granting citizenship to Polish soldiers who had fought alongside Haitians against the French. In 1804 that would have been the equivalent of an earthquake measuring at least 8 on a Richter scale of oppression. You were at the heart of the awakening of modernity — albeit a deferred modernity. More than anything else, you presented, in the words of the Canadian poet, Jordan Scott, a profound “threat to cohesion.” The cohesion of imperial power founded on brute racism.

I weep for you, Haiti, and for I ‘n’ I, because when I bear virtual witness to your despair and your suffering, when I see the mountains of rubble and concrete, the broken roads, the tangle of electrical wires, and hear the voices droning on and on about the lack of infrastructure, I think of my own internal infrastructure — spiritual, psychic, intellectual and political — and realize that your history has played no small part in its structure and design. I recognize you writ large through CLR James’ The Black Jacobins that I first read as a young Caribbean woman trying to find her place in a world and a history that had hardly begun to be told. Your history, your struggle, your survival, epitomised through the successful Haitian revolution, as told by James, became a part of my own struggle to understand my place and the place of my people in this world — on all those tiny pieces of coral or volcanic rock scattered in the ever blue Caribbean Sea. Through The Black Jacobins we, each and every one of us who read that work, grew in stature internally as Caribbean people, children of the volcano all, to quote the brilliant Martniquan poet and founder of negritude, Aimé Césaire

; became larger psychically, and more intellectually secure in our role as agents of change. In our own history.
The Haitian revolution became woven into our psychic and political DNA, a scaffolding to support our personal structures of personhood; an aide memoire to our silenced history, a map for our journey to greater self-awareness. 
 
Toussaint’s name lived in our minds and on our tongues as young Caribbean thinkers, the first generation to have access to widespread, tertiary level education. The coloniser’s language may separate us, but only superficially, for CLR James who brought your struggle home to us and helped us to understand ourselves through the lens of history, is as much a son of yours as Boukman, Toussaint, Dessalines or Christophe. Indeed, your daughters and sons know no borders. For African-American poet and writer, Ntozake Shange, “TOUSSAINT waz a blkman…who refused to be a slave…TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE waz the beginnin uv reality” for her. A dazzling, polyvocal, linguistically innovative tour de force, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, although located in the US, grounded itself in a historical reality that began with Toussaint. Samuel Huntington (him of The Clash of Civilizations) had the impertinence to describe you as “the neighbour nobody wants” and as being “truly a kinless country,” and in so doing reveals how little ignorance respects knowledge. Little does he know how far, how wide and how deep your kin are spread.
There was a time when for five hundred years the world, with very few exceptions, was indifferent to the suffering of African peoples. They entered the maw of a history drenched in brutality, as history most often is, through the doorway of the slave ship and, by way of what we so euphemistically call the Middle Passage, were washed up on these Caribbean islands like so much flotsam and jetsam the Atlantic was rejecting. To enter the machine of the plantation. Who shed a tear, beyond those left in Africa, for those entombed in slave ships? Who shed a tear for those whose bones litter the sands below the Atlantic? Who shed a tear for the living death of the slave plantation? As recently as 2005 we were witness to the indifference that greets the suffering of Black folk in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. By their own government. Under George Bush.
This time seems different: the world is responding, although many of those responding have been complicit in beggaring you.
 
Always an agricultural nation, you once grew your own rice, then cheap subsidised rice from the USA flooded the nation and your self-sufficiency in rice was lost, so that during the 2008 food crisis (which continues), when the price and availability of staple foods like rice shot up, you were particularly vulnerable. According to Peter Hallward, writing in the Guardian in January 2010, during its occupation of your territory the US “violently and deliberately” resisted “every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in the words of Jean Bertrad Aristde) ‘from absolute misery to a dignified poverty’.” And make no mistake about it, had it not been for the support of the Soviet Union, Cuba would have been beggared in the same way by the embargo the US imposed after the Cuban revolution.
Today, they say it’s your culture that prevents you from moving forward — that vaudon creates a fatalism that is out of step with the ideals of progress endemic to the West. And I wonder why that fatalism didn’t keep you wedded to a slave culture.
I will not romanticize your history; cannot pretend that the dreams and hopes of that seminal revolution have not been curdled over the years. Toussaint may have abolished slavery, reorganised the administrative and justice systems, built roads, schools and bridges, but Papa Doc and the Ton Ton Macoutes did exist. So did his son, Baby Doc.
The African-American dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham, another of your daughters, had a long and deep relationship with you, even becoming an initiate of the vaudon religion. In Island Possessed she describes her relationship with the Haitian people and her involvement in the culture; she talks of buying the plantation that once belonged to selfsame General Leclerc and of her need to cleanse it of the remnants of the sordid, brutal history of empire she could feel on the property. With the help of her Haitian godmother she does, indeed, shift the negative energies she first felt there. The sheer enormity — the apocalyptic nature of this tragedy — makes me wonder if there is something larger at work here, with you, Haiti, once again being at the epicentre of some violently physical, yet spiritual, temblor, echoing that earlier one two centuries ago. Is this simply, and not so simply, the human longing and search for meaning on my part? Is it this urge to find meaning in our lives and experiences, particularly catastrophic ones, that drives the likes of Pat Robertson, a so-called man of God, to describe your plight as punishment for making a pact with the devil — a comment so egregiously lacking in compassion as to take the breath away? If nothing else he has made the choice very clear: if fighting to free one’s self puts you on the side of the devil and being on the side of God puts you in a place where, like him, you cannot express a scintilla of compassion for another’s suffering, then my sympathy will be with the devil. Always. It is early days yet, I tell myself, to attempt to find meaning in this violent  catastrophe whose scale and scope often appears to exceed language, even as my mind feverishly tries to find meaning. Trying to link your history as an unblinking beacon for the Black struggle for civil and human rights, for the quest for freedom, for justice and for dignity on the part of African peoples, to this present maelstrom, as if we didn’t have maelstroms aplenty already. Indeed, in this time of acute suffering it feels premature, if not sacrilegious, to rush to meaning. So, I resist that, for the present, understanding and accepting that any meaning to be found, lies, perhaps, in the sheer absence of meaning — shit just simply happens, it seems. But I do recall another of your English speaking sons, the novelist George Lamming, who feels the heft of your history, making reference years ago in The Pleasures of Exile to the Haitian Ceremony of the Souls, which brings together the people and their ancestors — the living and the dead. What links them is a shared interest in their future — in the one case continued life, in the other eternity. There is a sense in which James’ The Black Jacobins drew us all in the Caribbean into an extended performance of the Ceremony of the Souls: we, the living descendants of the
enslaved, being in active relationship with the memory of Toussaint and his supporters.
Many years ago, David Rudder, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most beloved performers, sang a soca ballad titled “Haiti,” its refrain a simple lament: “Haiti, I’m sorry.” It begins: “Toussaint was a mighty man/ and to make matters worse he was black/ back back in the time when a blackman’s place was in the back.” The ballad recounts your history and how badly served you have been by history; how we, and in particular Caribbean peoples, have misunderstood you, turning our faces from you. It pains me that more of our island nations have not, over the years, offered refuge to your people — how many heads of state from the Anglophone Caribbean attended the two hundredth anniversary of your revolution in 2004? One, I believe. Haiti, I, too, am sorry, but I do not weep for you, for that would be to pity you; I weep with you, Haiti, with compassion, wanting to share your suffering, which lies at the root of the word compassion. Today I am Haitian and forever in your grief and your undeniable survival, because survive you will. You must. For all our sakes. All I have are my broken words. And my tears. And my more tears. My so many more tears. With you, Haiti.

Viva Toussaint!

Today your dead lie all around you, and despite the lack of dignity of their final resting place, you honour them in your deep dignity, notwithstanding the pictures of the Star, and in your resilience.

And once again, through your undeserved suffering, but then suffering of the innocent is never deserved, you become a symbol for me, for us all — your children in spirit — a symbol of the will to survive in the face of apparently insuperable odds. It is what makes us human and simultaneously calls on our humanity. In that respect, we are all Haitian.

Class and race divisions in Haiti are alive and pernicious, but when I hear Bill Clinton talk about the need for Haiti to shake off her history, I wonder what history he is  referring to. The history of Toussaint, or the history of Papa Doc, or both?

And when I hear of George Bush urging people to send money, not clothing, I laugh. I remember him urging his populace after 9/11 to go out and shop. And look where that got them. And I think of Obama appointing these two men and I laugh again. Because if I didn’t, I would sure be crying.

Fired in history’s unrelenting sun, we Caribbean peoples who hunger after justice, who long for peace, who have lived cheek by jowl with, and sometimes in the belly of, the beast, have always punched above our weight through history — I need only mention Castro, Fanon, James, Césaire, Wynter, Brathwaite, Walcott, Lamming and Claudia Jones, to name but a few; we grasp the import of our role in history, and no small credit for that must go to Toussaint L’Overture and all the history that swirls around him. We understand, being the subjected to them for far too long, the effects of great power machinations; they continue to reverberate in our tiny island nations as well as in the psyches of the people. The coloniser may have withdrawn but he has left his mark.

But what good is history when your child done dead and gone? Or your mother bury under concrete, or your daddy, grandmère or grandpère nowhere? You cyant eat revolution, you cyant drink freedom. And, as the saying goes, a hungry man is an angry man. It is not surprising, but still I am surprised at the rapidity with which the trope of violence has raised its head: not even a week has gone by before the Toronto Star has a front page picture of a naked, bound man being beaten. The following day the headline screams about violence marring the relief efforts. The following day still a front page picture appears of a knife-wielding man appearing to attack someone for food. It’s the stereotype with which the media and those that “run tings” have clothed us. Beggars or criminals. Or sometimes both, as the Star makes out. Even as they purport to help, they construct prisons of stereotypes for us. How quickly the world has forgotten the unspeakable violence that slavery meted out on African peoples for at least five hundred years. Indeed, Leclerc wrote of his intent to “wage a war of extermination” to reintroduce slavery in your barely formed nation. You have never been forgiven for successfully resisting his violent attempt to subjugate you. To decontextualize the violence in Haiti, as the Star has done in those three issues, under the guise of needing to show Canadians the “true horror of this disaster” appears to be nothing more than a crass and racially exploitative attempt to sell more newspapers.

The world has found you now, Haiti, but where was it when France was extorting blood money from you, ably assisted by the US who arranged loans to help you repay France — loans designed to break you economically? Where was it? The world. It is against the principles of international law that a victorious country should pay a country it defeated for its freedom, yet the nations of the world have been silent on this travesty. One of the claims Aristide made during his tenure was for reparations from France for these immoral and illegal payments. Where was the support for these claims from the world? Where was the world when the US occupied you? Busily fighting to save Europe from the calamity that Hitler portended, shoring up the principles of freedom in resounding Churchillian phrases, where the fuck was the world? As the flag bearer of democracy crushed a small but proud island nation, and today, even today, as hungry, frantic Haitians take to the seas in desperation, seeking refuge anywhere, even in water as their ancestors did, even today, the US Coast Guard turns them back. Where was the world when the US rounded up your boat people to return them, unlike the Cubans, to their home country? Where was the world, Haiti? And will it still love you when you occupy your rightful place? For occupy it you will. Our very survival — the survival of every one of your children depends on it.

Today I saw a little boy birthed from a concrete womb a mere letter away from a living tomb, his rescuers pulling him from the rubble as if he were being born again — for the second time in his so very short life. They snatch his frail-limbed body, whitened with concrete dust and, cradling him in their arms, run with him. And I think, so it was when you defied the long, the very long historical odds against you, and out of the living tomb of slavery created a womb to birth yourself. Blood and all.

I gaze at a map of Port au Prince in a newspaper identifying high profile sites of destruction: it is as if someone decided you had to start again, and wiped the slate clean: the Ministry of Justice — gone; the Presidential Palace — gone; administrative offices — gone; the penetentiary — gone; the hospitals — gone; churches — gone; the cathedral — gone. Hundreds of thousands of people — gone. All gone — just like that. In the clichéd wink of an eye — God’s perhaps? Or the devil’s snap of fingers. Leaving nothing but bright mornings filled with mourning, despair, grief and pictures of little Black girls with locks made blonde by concrete dust, who look out at the world through glasses, bearing the weight of history and a building on their little legs. Oh God, oh God, why hast thou forsaken us? This is the language — the language of the Bible — that bursts forth, as if the apocalyptic nature of the disaster itself demands a language of Biblical proportions. Because flesh hurts, and love and grief know no bounds when your loves are entombed before your very eyes, sometimes leaving no one to mourn, no one to cry out, Why? Why? Why? And, worse than that, no one to answer why.

Set Speaks Other/Wise: About Coffee

October 28th

So, after another drug-induced night of sleep, courtesy of Big Pharma, I’m once again sitting in the restaurant of the Guest Quarters at the University of Ghana. My choices for breakfast are decidedly simple and simultaneously stress-inducing for a Westerner who, more often than not, has a panoply of choices for something as basic as a toothbrush, let alone breakfast. Here, you can have eggs or eggs: fried, scrambled or, perhaps, boiled; bread – brown or white. This is included in the nightly rate of $55.00 U.S per night (How soon before we start quoting rates in the Chinese yuan?), but for an extra two cedis I can have oatmeal porridge. Today I decide on scrambled eggs – done really nicely. Ghanaian cooks are reputed to be prized around West Africa, and yesterday’s lunch certainly confirmed that reputation – fried cassava fish with joloff rice and fried plantains all done to perfection.

But back to breakfast and drugs. My morning drug of choice is coffee, which is in no way intended to make light of addiction, but simply to underscore how deeply habituated I am to coffee, which is addictive, and how ritualised my behaviour around my consumption of it has become. Often I find myself thinking about, and looking forward to, my morning cup of coffee the night before! In an effort to assuage my Western guilt I only buy fair-trade, organic, shade- grown coffee, thereby by killing two metaphorical birds of the environment and exploitative labour practices with one cup of coffee. I even roast my own beans and have even – dare I confess? – attended coffee school – yes, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, coffee school – run by a coffee proprietorship in Toronto whose practices ensure that coffee growers receive a fair price for their beans. So, I’ve learnt about roasting and I’ve learnt about grinding; I’ve learnt about Ethiopia (some say it’s Oromia) being the place where coffee was first brewed, and I’ve learnt that there are over 800 different flavours in coffee, which far exceeds those found in wine. But I didn’t learn that traditionally coffee drinking is a communal activity; that you would roast the beans along with cardomum and cloves; that you would also burn incense which you would pass around alongside the pan of roasted and now smoking coffee beans (for many people in traditional coffee cultures, simply inhaling the aromatic smoke from the roasting beans is enough) to the accompaniment of women ululating. Nor did I learn at coffee school that coffee is a ritual food used to honour and worship Waaq, the pre-Abrahamic, indigenous divinity of the Oromo people of Oromia (presently located inside Ethiopia), and that Waaq’s symbolic colour is black (like the roasted beans), as is the colour of the holy and sacred (within Oromo culture, that is), as well as the colour of spirit and soul. That the smoke from the roasted beans drifts upwards to Waaq, whose abode is the sky – this I did not learn. I did learn, though, that the price of coffee is determined in New York and that if the buyers of coffee would only pay a fraction more to the growers in Africa and around the world – something like 5 cents a kilo – they would be better able to feed their families and build schools for their children. Hence fair-trade organic. The growers have a fighting chance that way, and I can feel a bit less guilty about my habit. I think.

Imagine, then, how my heart sunk on observing that my morning drink – my first, and often only, hit of the day will be coffee courtesy of Nescafé of Nestlé fame. The same company implicated in the baby milk scandal of the 70′s in Africa. Nestlé, at that time, encouraged mothers to stop breastfeeding so that they would turn to Nestlé powdered milk to feed their babies. There was only one small drawback– mothers often didn’t have the money to continue to buy the milk after the first promotional offers, or didn’t have access to potable water to mix the milk, or both. Result? their babies became malnourished and died. In English and French the Nescafé tin assures me that it is “Classic Pure Instant Coffee.” The tin is chockablock with information about coffee breaks and stimulants and the importance of anti-oxidants which apparently abound in coffee. The image of a beautiful, young, African woman complete with – you guessed – café-au-lait skin and braided hair drinking a cup of coffee completes the branded image. A website address will provide you with more information on the benefits of coffee, if you so need, and several West African countries are listed with contact phone numbers. The print is fine and there is a lot of it, so it would have been very easy to miss that Nestlé, the parent company, has been around since 1866. I do the calculations – some twenty-eight years after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and eight years before the abolition of slavery and trading in slaves in Ghana itself!

This is all about trade, isn’t it? It has always been about trade.

This is not my first time drinking instant coffee courtesy of Nescafé. Indeed, combined with evaporated milk, which is how it’s drunk in the Caribbean as well, it has its own charms, but the Nestlé baby milk scandal (and ensuing boycott) throws a long shadow here in Ghana, since it is so illustrative of how the world, and in particular the corporate world, continues to exploit Africa and Africans. The dumping of toxic waste in certain African harbours comes to mind, not to mention the illegal scouring of the sea beds along the coast line of Africa by international trawlers resulting in a paucity of fish for the local populations, in turn resulting in young men turning to piracy etc., etc., etc.

I look at the brown granules so reminiscent of animal turds (No Waaq here) and think of the long process – let’s call it the three E’s – exploitative, exhaustive and extractive — that brings this product of Africa back to Africa. Like myself. Different colour. Different quality. Different taste. Processed. As much by the three E’s as this coffee I now pour hot water on and stir. But when I roast my beans, watch them turn from green to brown to black and inhale the smoke, perhaps I take a little bit of Waaq, a little bit of soul, a bit of the sacred back into myself. As I grind the oh-so-black beans, I am aware of how we, New World Africans, were ground fine between the grindstones of history, and as I drink the black and not- at-all-bitter (if made properly) brew, perhaps I become a part of Waaq – for that moment – hopeful that my gesture of caring for someone whom I know not at all, in Africa, South America, or Jamaica – wherever trade attempts to erase the human – does matter. It is unfortunate that the caring can only be expressed through trade – through paying a bit more for coffee, but it is what we have at present, and I want to believe that Waaq knows and sees all.

My god, all this before my first cup of coffee.

Set Speaks Other/Wise

October 27th, 2009  — in the Year of Our Word (to quote Looking for Livingstone)

Haven’t  been in Africa 24 hours yet.  Am sitting in an internet cafe writing a blog for the first time ever.    At my age there are not many first- times-ever left, or perhaps shouldn’t be.    But I’m also thinking that you’re only old once, which to my mind is far more relevant and meaningful than you’re only young once.    After all, in the latter case you have your whole damn life in front of you.    In my case it feels like my whole damn life is behind me, or under me, or sometimes above me pressing down with all its might.  And then again sometimes there is no ‘or’ — I’m completely encapsulated by my life.   Which doesn’t feel like such a good thing.

Perhaps that’s what I’m doing here.  In Ghana.   Trying to escape my life… perhaps trying to chase a life that escaped and still escapes me.  Anyway hunter or hunted, pursuer or pursued, here I am in Afronet.    That’s the  ever- so- cool name of the internet cafe.    So many resonances there that connect with African cultures that, at their foundation, work on principles of connectivity and breaking (dance); synapse jumping and colliding;  bouncing off this, riffing on that, picking up stuff here and leaving it there.     Like jazz, I mean.  Or Negro music as Ellington wanted to call it.

It’s warm outside and cool in here with 2o or so people, mainly men – young men, working industriously at computers.   Whoever runs Afronet  has it locked down in a positive way  — there are always one or two people walking around to give assistance.  You — I — notice these things in Africa because so much doesn’t seem to work, and I fret like an anxious parent.    When are we going to get it right? (If the media were to be belived, the only thing we seem to get right is killing and raping each other.)  When are we going to get out from under that life that is “downpressing” us so relentlessly?

So why am I in Africa — what am I doing here at this particular point in time?  Three years ago, while in the throes of working on my last book of poetry,Zong!, I  visited Africa — Ghana, believing I needed to ask permission (of whom?) to bring to light the voices of the submerged that are at the heart of that work.   I always knew that once the work was done I would have to return.    John Keats advanced the theory of  negative capability –”being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”    And negative capability best sums up — often with lots of irritability and anger, though — my thoughts, such as they are, and feelings about a journey which is not metaphorical but very real: should I, for instance, take malaria pills or use herbs or homeopathic remedies and prophylactics instead?   Which immediately brings up the apparently irrevocable link between disease and Africa, which I will explore in another posting.   To return to negative capability, however,    I “knew” I had to shave my head after I was done with the work — took me some time but I did do it.    I also “knew” I had to wear white after I was done.    So I did that as well.   Interestingly enough, this morning in conversation with a friend here about the death of my mother at the age of 90,  he tells  me that white would be worn for her because one of the practices here in Ghana is to wear white when there is a victory of sort.  If a woman, for instance, has had a difficult labour and survives, she would wear white.  Or, as in the case of my mother, her living a long life is considered a victory, so we, her survivors would wear white.    I say hmmm to myself and listen some more.

I’ve learnt that having a bald head and  not having to worry about twisting and/or combing one’s hair frees up a lot of time and that one’s head get cold very quickly.  I’ve also learnt that  you can wear  an article of  white clothing  a lot longer that you think you can and it still “looks” white.  But I sense that there is more at work here than these trivial pieces of information  — perhaps, it has to do with the roots of poetry being in the sacred and in ritual, and, perhaps, some resistance to that on my part.     So, I will continue in negative capability around this trip “without reaching after fact or reason” and continue to post as the spirit moves me.