Open letter to Ngugi wa Thiongo
When did I start reading you? I believe it was after I wrote She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks because I know that when I began to read you, there was a sense of recognition. Although, looking at the date of publication Decolonizing the Mind was published two years before She Tries… in 1986. Why do I say recognition when there was so much to learn from what you had to say? I say recognition because She Tries… had taken me some way to understanding the “politics of language,” however the roots of recognition is to know something again, although we may be meeting it for the first time. When I read what you had to say, I knew it for the first time and yet recognised it. I recall excited discussions about your being about to stop writing in english. It was a revolutionary act, especially for those of us who had no other language to turn to. I wished, indeed, still wish that I had that luxury— to write in an Other language— a language other than english; “this/ fuck-mother motherfuckin- this/ holy-white-father-in-heaven-this/ ai! ai! /tongue.” This primal wound that will not heal, and no possibility to maroon myself linguistically. It interests —and perplexes— me that not many have followed the path you took.
Would I still feel stranger if I were to learn an African tongue.
As I write tears prickle— well up.
I cannot write a scholarly or academic essay about what your thinking has meant to my writing and thinking life. It calls for another language… or even an Other tongue.
And the wound heals from the inside out. Always.
In the alchemy of history are we the nigredo trans(trash)substantiating into then and now
translated from we into they
whitened faces history’s floating pieces
“Can I eat it?” she says, on seeing the red earth of Africa
She wants to eat the earth
He, the Ancestor wants
to return and turn and return to the land redolent with i lose
we lose found—
He wants to eat the earth
i find you in the red so red
earth — the am in i and the i in am you
How would one—you— say that in Kikuyu?
Google translate does not provide translations into or from Kikuyu! There is Swahili, though.
Why a letter? I’ve often wondered whether it would have made a difference if we’d been able to write letters “back home” to those in Africa, telling them what was happening. This side of the Atlantic. During the Maafa —a Swahili word that comes from your region of Africa. Naming that which resists naming. In English. Would it have? Made a difference? Letters are anticipatory, aren’t they, filled as they are with possibility. How will the recipient receive what I have to say? They may choose to not even open it, as I have done with letters whose contents I fear. They may open it and decide not to respond; they may open it and, even more frighteningly sometimes, choose to respond.
This letter does not anticipate a response—perhaps it doesn’t even qualify as a letter; it is, rather, a vehicle to talk to express what your work has meant to my thinking and to my own work—
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
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 (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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.