Itations 'n' Reflections

May 10, 2019.

I’ve been tossing in bed since about midnight. It was about 1:30pm and I was feeling a bit “peckish” as my grandmother called it. I get creative with food sometimes, but I always draw from the years I spent watching my grandmother move around the kitchen.

“Granny, please teach me how fah cook!” I would often demand of her. She would respond that nobody taught her how to cook but I just have to watch and learn. I never bothered. It wasn’t until I moved to Trinidad for studies at UWI in January 2015 and damn-near starved that I finally appreciated how much I should’ve been taking those lessons.

By that time granny had already migrated to the US, and even when my semester ended and I went back home to Guyana, there wasn’t a chance I could benefit from a couple of her recipes. We developed a system of cooking through Viber, Skype, and Whatsapp with a combination of text messages and voice notes (most effective for recalling recipes for later date) and a video call every now and again just to see how the pot was turning out.

Of course, she’d never be able to taste it but at least I was getting it down for myself.

I navigate much better around the kitchen now. So much so that my time on Milner Hall (now Freedom Hall) in academic year 2017/2018 saw me dominating the kitchen with Guyanese dishes that were a hit with the regional students. You could always get people together around a pot and a hot plate of something good.

We developed a system– “put something in de pot and get a plate.” IT was a kind of cooperative socialist principle that ended up working out well. Even if you brought the onions to contribute to the pot, you’d still be guaranteed a plate. It’s been about a year since I’ve been away from Hall, and I’ll be returning on May 12 for a week. A lot has changed, but let’s see if the system still has value.

Tonight, I saw some boulanjay in the fridge. I didn’t feel like cutting it up and cleaning it and using oily pans and so on, so I just put it on the stove as is. I saw granny do it before. I rotated every now and again until the outer skin was burnt and you could tell the inside was cooked. I held it up from the stem, peeled the burnt outer layer, and mashed the now-steamed inside.

I added some Caribbean Seasoning (a brand) for taste with a little bit of pepper, and mixed it with……. a tablespoon of chicken stuffing I had in the fridge. A strange combination but it went well together. I ended off the whole thing with a few slices of just-fried ripe plantain. The last of the plantain I had in the fridge.

The flavours pulled together well. Tonight I am thankful for my grandmother, Margaret Rodrigues, and for the women who take time to teach, to share our culture and to teach us the value of a good pot to bring people together. I still don’t know what this boulanjay thing is called. Is it choka?

I googled it, and yup… it’s baigan choka. ❤

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Itations 'n' Reflections

May 6, 2019.

Co-Signed Letter to the Editor published on April 26, 2019, in the Stabroek News daily newspapers: <https://www.stabroeknews.com/2019/opinion/letters/04/26/social-media-personality-making-light-of-street-harassment/&gt;

“Social media personality making light of street harassment”

Dear Editor,

We, the undersigned, note with concern the circulation of videos on the social networking site, Facebook, which shows a social media personality recording himself walking up to strangers in public places and holding their hands.

Street harassment is the most common form of violence against women in Guyana and the Caribbean. Almost every woman has experienced some form of street harassment in their lifetime from catcalling, staring, stalking, physical assault or sexual assault.

Usage of social media must be done responsibly to not recreate the elements of rape culture which has made it difficult for women to stand or walk in public spaces and feel safe.

Social media must never be used to glorify or reduce street harassment and reproduce it in a whimsical way for public consumption and laughter. Too many horror stories have emerged of similar things happening to women on the bus park and in other public spaces which makes the streets unsafe for women.

Street harassment does not exist in a vacuum. Street harassment is only part of the broader spectrum of violence against women which includes whistling, staring, stalking, catcalling, rape jokes, sexual gestures, verbal abuse, inappropriate touching, physical assault, coercion, rape and murder.

Violence against women in whatever form must never be tolerated. Men must be held accountable for violence against women. Sexist and misogynist mumblings must not be allowed to stifle women’s experiences.

Based on its prevalence, the elements of street harassment have been criminalised under Section 4(1) of the Sexual Offenses Act of Guyana. Section 4(1) of the Sexual Offenses Act is not gender-specific. Men, too, can be victims of sexual violence including street harassment.

Consent, under Guyana’s law, refers to “words or overt actions by a person who is competent to give informed consent indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or other sexual contact… ”

“Sexual” under the Sexual Offenses Act of Guyana also means touching or any other activities deemed to be of a sexual nature and can include touching “with any part of the body.” Consent must be given before any sexual activity including any form of touching viewed as sexual.

For public knowledge, Section 4(3) of the Sexual Offenses Act states that “A person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for five years and on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for ten years.”

Men’s role in eradicating the scourge of violence against women means listening to their stories and making conscious, sustained commitments to see where mistakes were made and to correct those mistakes for a future where men and women can peacefully coexist.

Yours faithfully,

Derwayne Wills

Ronelle King for Life in Leggings: Caribbean Alliance Against Gender-based Violence

Clestine Juan

Ahreefa Bacchus

Renuka Anandjit

Renata Burnette

Oliceia Tinnie

Mariah Lall

Shanae Singh

Karen Abrams for K12youthcode.com

 

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Itations 'n' Reflections

May 5, 2019.

Happy Arrival Day to Guyana! Today the nation observes the first arrival of indentured labourers whose descendants now form part of the social fabric as well as the building blocks of our legacy. There are also some things which must be problematised about “indentureship” which has been a term utilised marginally to refer to labourers from the Indian sub-continent and China.

In Guyana, however, records within the national archives show a number of indentured labourers arriving from west Africa, particularly Sierra Leone, in the 1840s up until the 1860s. This practice would have followed the abolition of slavery. The idea of black indentured labourers problematises many narratives comfortably taught within the history curricula but also disrupts some notions of “African Ancestral Lands” which had linked pre-1838 experiences of the slavery system with a right of claim to land as reparations.

I’ve always been invested in the idea of knowing where I come from. I was born in Guyana, but I’m descended from both indentured labourers and enslaved Africans. I haven’t explored my mother’s side of the family but the name Masdammer connotes a Dutch influence. My father’s side of the family has a bit more details. My paternal grandmother recalls her grandmother came to British Guiana on the boat from Barbados. Ade Thorne was her name. Granny’s mother was Stephanie Rodrigues, a direct descendant of Portuguese and Bajan (maybe not the place of origin) heritage, who gave all her children her name inherited from her father. Stephanie was born around 1926 in British Guiana and died in 1992– one year before I was born in 1993.

Granny’s grandfather was Reginald Rodrigues who arrived by boat from Portugal. There’s very little record which suggests he remained here. A glance at the Portuguese ship records reveals a regular movement of ships between Georgetown, Demerara and Lisbon, Portugal. My paternal grandfather’s side of the family is a bit concealed about our history. Grandfather’s father was not Guyanese. He was described as a short “Chinese” man who farmed, but he wasn’t from China. Their memories are scanty and there was no need for them to recollect it but my great-grandfather suggestively originated from Vietnam.

For an assumed Vietnamese, Cecil Wills (as my great-grandfather was named) has a particularly British origin. This is not uncommon within colonial immigration records. During the time of indentureship, the language barriers between British officers and Asian immigrants saw many immigrants being renamed based phonetically on the closest thing to English that their names resembled. This callous act from representatives of the crown saw many family histories and legacies erased and rebooted. My paternal aunt tells me she never knew of nor knows any relatives of her grandfather. It seems she’s looking in the wrong part of the world.

I’ve always wondered if the archives in Barbados have any records of my great-great-grandmother, Ade Thorne ever leaving the island. I’ve complemented with a scan of the Guyana records, but I haven’t uncovered anything as yet. The national archives in Guyana was, at the time of my search, undergoing a digitisation process with some of the records being exported to The Netherlands for digitisation. Portugal’s ship records are quite detailed but the online version is more for referencing before physically visiting the archives building. Not to mention almost everything is in Portuguese and google translate it’s always effective.

In his memoirs, Glimpses of a Global Life, Sir Shridath Ramphal writes too about his family history. Of course, time would permit that he, in his age and wisdom, would have a much closer relationship with the era he examined. In the opening paragraph of the third chapter, Ramphal writes: “On 1 January 1881, (in the wake of Gladstone’s first letter to the Calcutta firm) the sailing ship Ellora arrived in Georgetown from Calcutta after a voyage of nearly three months. Its human cargo was indentured labourers for the sugar plantation of British Guiana. Among them was a widowed mother, Doolnie, and her son of nine, Ramphul, bound for that same estate of Vreed-en-Hoop. Her story was already remarkable, though not unique, for this journey across the kala pani was for her a third crossing.”

I’ve taken on this project of connecting my family. Of course, this depends heavily on the participation of the most senior family members in the Rodrigues (paternal grandmother), Masdammer (maternal grandmother), and Wills (paternal grandfather) clans. Some stories are unsavoury ones and the culture of shame and silence tends to break over time, but usually when the main actors of the memory have passed on already. I’ve considered exploring pursuing the subject of my family tree at the master’s level (MPhil) blending together history, biography, migration, gender, empire and race.

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Itations 'n' Reflections

May 3, 2019.

Interim Chairman of the Guyana National Youth Council, Derwayne Wills presented at a Moray House Trust Panel discussion entitled ‘Guyana’s Oil: Road to Perdition or Prosperity.’ Derwayne spoke on the youth interest in oil and gas and made a call for youth consciousness, knowledge consumption, and youth collective action in Guyana’s emerging oil and gas sector.

MHT writes: “Derwayne Wills of the Guyana National Youth Council asks some pertinent questions in this short presentation, part of a Moray House Trust Panel entitled ‘Guyana’s Oil: Road to Perdition or Prosperity.’ He cites Article 13 as a mandate for youth engagement in decision-making processes in Guyana and gives some examples of shortfalls in practice.”

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Itations 'n' Reflections

April 29, 2019.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the physical and social security risks that come with advocacy and activism, but I note also how that affects young advocates and activists still balancing their advocacy, social life, school (in some cases), and potentially their work life.

Henry Wallice Charles left Guyana a few days ago. I could spend this entire blog post writing about his accolades and fetes, but the one I value the most is his connection with the youth council movement, himself coming out of the ‘modern’ St. Lucia National Youth Council where he served as the Public Relations Officer in the 1980s. Mr Charles was in Guyana late April working along with the Department of Youth as they prepare to finalise their strategic youth development plan for 2019-2024.

The Guyana National Youth Council, of which I serve as the Interim Chairman, was invited to the sessions, but of course, I suspect this is only because Mr Charles himself insisted it. In his presentations, Charles touched on the development of youth work within the Caribbean and how it emerged out of the idea of the welfare state. Much of youth development and community development work is still premised on the idea of the welfare state, and more ideologically underpinned by cooperative socialist values in some regards.

The idea of unsafety in advocacy work is not unfounded especially in a contemporary world where the spaces occupied by the ideological left are quickly and aggressively eroded by right-thinking governments emerging in Europe, in Brazil, in the Caribbean, and in the United States.

Indigenous Rights, Protecting the Environment, Sexual Rights including women’s access to abortion, rights for LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) people, and the call for greater civic and political education to break decades of ethnic voting are among those areas of youth and community development work perceived as ‘threatening’ as it disrupts the status quo of stigmas, discriminations, and dehumanisation.

Charitable organisations and charitable initiatives not seen as having any linkages to political advocacy are given nods of approval from office bearers who seek to consolidate their own power by monopolising the advocacy landscape and determining whose work is valid. In doing so, agents of the political system exclude groups with hardline points of advocacy and activism which call for transformational change in policy and legislation, new practises, or even greater social and political accountability. These are the actions which threaten the physical and social security of the voices calling for change, and further creates a social and political climate which is intolerable of activists.

The principal objective of the political system, according to Article 13 of the Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, is to create opportunities for an inclusionary democracy where citizens and their groups are involved in the decision-making process, especially in those decisions which affect their well-being. In disaggregating the idea of the “political system,” I note this means central as well as regional and local governments. Article 13, which seems to slip out of the speeches of our leaders as I’ve never heard any of them speak openly about it, speaks more to governance than a system of government. The two are not the same, but it is the former that must pave the way for the latter.

Where there are still advocacies perceived as ‘threatening’ by the agents of the political system, is our democracy really inclusionary?

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Itations 'n' Reflections

April 26, 2019.

I haven’t blogged in a while. There’s been a lot happening with me personally, professionally, and even with my volunteer work so finding the time to sit and write has been a challenge. I tried doing a private diary but I found myself only having time to write in it when I wasn’t too busy which was most times just before or after midnight. By that time, I’d be too tired to focus and get disinterested as the bed felt more comfy.

I write now because cutting out Facebook from my life (Yes, I’ve deactivated) now means that I have way more time to think, to breathe, to feel, and most importantly to heal. It’s not the first time I’ve advocated for persons to take themselves away from Facebook every now and again. I’m not sure when I’ll re-activate but for now, my messenger remains active, and I can still be reached on WhatsApp and email.

Yesterday, I facilitated a session at the GRPA (Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association) with some of the younger members who form the organisations Youth Advocacy Movement (YAM). I was once a YAM member but now I find myself on the Board of GRPA. The session was to re-assess some of the values of the yutes and see how those values aligned with the broader mandate of the organisation. Mr Henry Charles, global youth development specialist, was in-country. So, I invited him to chat with the management of GRPA and eventually with the youth themselves. I always appreciate the way he grounds contemporary advocacy as continuing the independence project and challenging colonial-era values.

Some of the yutes talked both directly and indirectly about their sense of social and physical security when advocating for LGBT rights, or abortion rights, or even for gender equality. They identified some of the main culprits like the over-zealous religious folks, or that antagonist who just comes around simply to antagonise. But they touched on something that I felt needed to be written about, and that is the constant attack on activists and advocates by folks on social media. There was an incident involving a young fella who thought it harmless to go to a public space and video himself walking up to strangers and holding their hands.

For some, the humour was present. For others, particularly women, it reopened old wounds of walking through public places and just not feeling safe because men felt the urge to shout sexist, rapey things at them, or even to touch them about their bodies. The stories from the women who were and continue to be aggrieved just kept pouring out. But there were some who swung out in defence of the yute saying he made a mistake.

It ended up turning on the way advocates treat these issues on social media. But was it? What was really the issue at hand? I just could not handle the toxic back and forth on social media where women had to validate the stories that pretty much have shaped the way they organise their life and literally navigate the rest of the world. Street harassment must never be taken lightly. Some women have chosen to “walk the longer route” because they felt unsafe walking to school or home or to work.

For a minute, I looked at my newsfeed and I felt a bit of unsafety because the assaults were flowing, but as advocates, we have to continue pushing through the tide. I touched base with a friend, Ronelle King the founder of Life In Leggings. I needed some amount of reassurance that I wasn’t going mad. I had openly asked for feminists and feminist thinkers in Guyana so we could create a group for knowledge sharing. That too was ridiculed.

But maybe I was doing it wrong. When people have unlimited access to you, this is what they do. I needed to starve them of that access. I needed to continue to engage in the streets and in the letters sections of the daily newspapers, and completely cut away this toxic place called Facebook. I was foolish to think they wouldn’t still come for me. And so I received a message attached below. I choose not to respond. Responding gives them even more power.

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It took me five minutes to make the decision to deactivate my Facebook page before beginning to type that letter. The other time I spent typing up what was to be a Letter-to-the-Editor co-signed by others (men and women) in support of ending street harassment and calling it out where it existed. Unfortunately, I was the only man who co-signed and so greater solidarity from men is needed on this issue, especially in calling out other men. I shared the letter with one friend and asked her to share it around and then I messaged others. We had 10 signatures in the 24 hours.

There is power in collective action. I can’t help to connect with this idea of social and physical securities being challenged. There are going to be those who feel uncomfortable by the work advocates and activists do, but there’s a price for advocacy especially the ones people feel threaten their privileges.

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Itations 'n' Reflections

Aug4,2018. Gary Griffith gets no congrats from me as a former immigrant in T&T

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The front page of a November 2014 Trinidad and Tobago Newsday newspaper. 

I am apprehensive about inserting myself in the state affairs of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and I also wouldn’t wish to insert myself in a delicate selection process as the one surrounding the country’s Police Commissioner, which recently concluded.

I am reverent to this process belonging to the people of Trinidad and Tobago through their Parliament. At the same time, I must express how disappointed and concerned I am at Gary Griffith’s appointment as Police Commissioner.

As an immigrant who studied on the island, I recall this is the same Gary Griffith who, while being National Security Minister in 2014, opened the floodgates for the mass pursuit of immigrants when he grossly inflated the figures of undocumented immigrants living in the twin-island republic and cast much of the blame for the country’s crime rate and economic situation on immigrants from Guyana, Jamaica, and Nigeria.

This is the same Gary Griffith that had the University of the West Indies scrambling in 2014 to make sure non-national students’ documentation was in order because the hunt was on and no immigrant seemed safe.

One bold red headline plastered as the lead story across the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday newspaper screamed “ARE YOU ILLEGAL?” as it went on to report Griffith mustering up a multi-agency effort to “weed out” what he quoted as 110,000 “illegal” immigrants living in the country.

That figure was later revealed as being incorrect by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs which revealed that based on the country’s population of 1.3 million in 2015, international migrants were numbered at 3.7% of the total population or approximately 50,000 persons. This information is found in the UN-DESA 2015 report on the International Migrant Stock with country data based on figures from 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015.

In all those years identified above, Trinidad and Tobago’s migrant population, as a percentage of their total population, has been recorded respectively as 4.1% in 1990, 3.7% in 1995, 3.3% in 2000, 3.5% in 2005, 3.6% in 2010, and 3.7% in 2015.

Griffith’s figure of 110,000 undocumented immigrants would’ve meant that this category alone accounted for close to 10% of Trinidad and Tobago’s overall population.

Even after Griffith had left office, he continued his rantings as he was quoted in the Jamaica Observer online in April 2016 citing some 20,000 undocumented Jamaicans living in Trinidad and Tobago whom he said were exploiting the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) by abusing the six-months stay arrangement and ultimately overstaying thus becoming a burden on the state. It remains to be seen where Griffith found his figures.

But these numbers aside, one must consider the real-world implications of such dangerous uttering and what it means for the perception of non-nationals in the eyes of nationals and how that could create distrust and further strain relations between those who “belong” and those non-nationals who are scapegoats for high crime rates and a declining economy.

One must also consider how such dangerous misleading contentions from a person in authority exacerbates stereotypes and xenophobia, and further how it made the country unsafe for non-nationals who continue to contribute to the economy and the social and political systems as we have done from the very birth of the nation.

Furthermore, the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian reported in June 2017 a more modest figure of undocumented immigrants quoted by then-acting National Security Minister Dennis Moses in the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament where he noted there were 15,042 undocumented immigrants in Trinidad and Tobago between January 1 and May 1, 2017. A breakdown of the numbers by Moses tells an entirely different story which departs from Griffith’s rantings.

It is a crying shame that it requires all this effort to track down and quote statistics and research after one man in a position of authority grossly misleads an entire nation and compromises diplomatic relations between CARICOM countries.

But there a few things I’ve come to accept in the era of Trump. Not only do we continue to reward bad behaviour, but we also continue to give authority to those who are misbehaved and give further legitimacy to their wrongdoings.

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July 22, 2018 edition of the Sunday Express newspaper’s front page. 

 

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Itations 'n' Reflections, Mapping the gender justice journey

July9,2018. Sending Love and Healing to Haiti in a Time of Resistance

There is a stillness felt in Georgetown that is not felt in Haiti right now. It is a stillness quite unlike the unease I feel in my spiritual connection with Haiti. CARICOM leaders have returned home from their annual meeting in Jamaica, one of the region’s closest neighbours to Port-au-Prince. I’d also hope that those leaders felt uneasy sitting, eating, passing gas among Haiti’s president even as his country burns.

CARICOM, through its chairman Andrew Holness (Prime Minister of Jamaica), managed to conjure up a scanty seven-line statement of concern from its back-pocket on the situation in Haiti. The statement called, alarmingly in my opinion, for the assistance of the United Nations in monitoring the situation. I’d prefer not. After decades of the dark history of rape and sexual violence, lethal violence, exploitation, political manipulation, abandonment and cover-ups surrounding the UN’s Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the UN is the last thing the Haitian people need.

Regional leaders have come out one-by-one to support the lifting of visa restrictions for Haitian nationals travelling to their countries. Some still have reservations. Haitians moving freely through the Caribbean have the power to transform the image of Haiti, to change the flawed narratives that many of us have, and to contextualise and position the anger and frustration of the Haitian people so that we can join and stand with the resistance. And at the same time, I expect that Caribbean people would work towards building regimes that support the inclusion of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers moving within the region.

How quickly do we in the English-speaking Caribbean forget the mercies we received during our own time of need. Caribbean people owe a debt of gratitude to Haiti for showing us that we could be free even while our smaller rebellions were being quashed.

Haiti opened its doors to many enslaved Africans who secured their freedom once they touched Haitian soil during the early 1800s. That was a key part of Haiti’s constitution. I’ve seen correspondences from Haitian leaders during that time refusing to hand over runaway enslaved Africans to the British. Those stories need to be told.

As the Haitian government today continues to implement IMF-supported measures which blindside, anger and increase financial and economic burdens on their people, many of whom live on less than US$2 a day, the masses respond how they know best. When you live in a country where the ruling political, economic and foreign elite are merciless, where NGOs are plenty but somewhat ineffective, where your poverty is fetishized in the media and academic writing, where sex and sexual violence could be the currency for survival, where failed institutions reduce the people’s power, where people are seen as surplus labour waiting to be exploited by foreign companies, and where the legacy and history of structural violence from the state against the people is long, the people will respond in kind with a resistance aimed to cripple the heart of the elite—the economy.

The western media is picking up on the reports. Their coverage focused, of course, on the pillaging of foreign-branded businesses like the Marriott and Best Western Hotels as opposed to deconstructing and contextualizing the pain of the Haitian people grappling with decades of foreign manipulation of their political and economic systems, hunger and abandonment from their government which acts more as an agent of foreign investors than a guardian of the Haitian people.

But this has always been the case with Haiti. Resistance has always been necessary for a country still punished for disrupting a racist global order. Resistance is the very foundation on which Haitian democracy is built and preserved. It is this shining beacon that led many enslaved Africans from the colonies across the Caribbean to seek refuge in this first black Republic which snatched its independence from direct white supremacist rule decades before British powers rebuked slavery.

I see the IMF continuing its movements through the Caribbean and I worry. Even now as Barbados boasts its first woman Prime Minister, the country moves swiftly into a structural adjustment regime as a quick band-aid for its ailing economic regime. Institutions like the IMF remind us that our decolonization project is incomplete and that the comfort we find in national flags and anthems do very little to draw us out of the rabbit hole of dependency we continue to fall deeper into.

Eudine Barriteau writes on structural adjustment in Barbados during the 1980s:

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IMF policies are unpopular but Caribbean governments continue to seek them out willingly. Despite Caribbean governments’ duty to their people, the mandates and unnegotiable conditions for accessing international financing set by the powers of the global political economy threaten to break democracies and polities even in face of proclaimed sovereignty and self-determination.

Ayiti is not short on love, but it damn well needs some healing. It is love that fuels our revolution—love of ourselves, love for our family, love for our communities, and love for our countries. The Haitian people have never stopped fighting for their independence and we must see and stand with their struggle and look within ourselves to gather all the love we can generate in our still, comfortable, quiet spaces and send them northward that it may cover that shining beacon of black resistance which is our revolutionary sister-nation so that she may find a long-deserved healing for her people.

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Itations 'n' Reflections

Jan15,2017. Audre Lorde’s experience of black self-hatred in the Caribbean

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Audre Lorde died in 1992 after losing her battle with cancer

Audre Lorde, a lesbian mother warrior poet feminist activist with caribbean roots, ventured to the Caribbean in 1990 for vacation. She was almost denied entry to one Caribbean island because of her hairstyle.

In her essay “Is your Hair Political?” Audre examines, through her lived experience, the scrutiny of black hair in the Caribbean. Although our situation is not as black and white as racism in the United States, there is still need for examining pre-colonial policies which police our bodies, and the guise (professionalism, neat, tidy) under which those policies are allowed to go unexamined. Institutional racism, once unexamined, not only fosters and justifies internalised hatred but it also fosters a hatred of self in others.

IS YOUR HAIR STILL POLITICAL?

My first trip to Virgin Gorda earlier this year had been an enjoyable, relaxing time. After coping with the devastations of Hurricane Hugo, three friends and I decided to meet somewhere in the Caribbean for a Christmas vacation. From my personal and professional travels, Virgin Gorda seemed the ideal spot. And less than an hour’s flight time from my home.

My friend, another Black woman from St. Croix, and I deplaned in Tortola to clear BVI [British Virgin Islands] immigration at the Beef Island Airport. I was happy to be a tourist for a change, looking forward to a wonderful holiday, post-hurricane problems left behind for a few days.

The morning was brilliant and sunny, and in our bags was a frozen turkey, along with decorations for the rented house. The Black woman in a smartly pressed uniform behind the Immigration Control desk was younger than I, with heavily processed hair flawlessly styled. I handed her my completed entry card. She looked up at me, took it with a smile, and said, “Who does your hair?”

My friend and I were the only passengers going on to Virgin Gorda.

As a Black woman writer who travels widely, I have recently been asked that question many times. Thinking we were about to embark on one of those conversations about hairstyle Black women so often have in passing, on supermarket lines, buses, in laundromats, I told her I had done it myself.

Upon her further questioning, I described how. I was not at all prepared when, still smiling, she suddenly said, “Well, you can’t come in here with your hair like that you know.”

And reaching over she stamped “no admittance” across my visitor’s card.

“Oh, I didn’t know,” I said, “then I’ll cover it,” and I pulled out my headkerchief.

That won’t make any difference,” she said.

“The next plane back to St. Croix is 5:00 p.m. this evening.”

By this time my friend, who wears her hair in braided extensions, tried to come to my aid. “What’s wrong with her hair,” she asked, “and what about mine?”

“Yours is all right,” she was told. “That’s just a hairstyle.”

“But mine is just a hairstyle too,” I protested, still not believing this
was happening to me.

I had traveled freely all over the world; now, in a Caribbean country, a Black woman was telling me I could not enter her land because of how I wore my hair?

“There is a law on our books,” she said. “You can’t come in here looking LIKE THAT.”

I touched my natural locks, of which I was so proud. A year ago I had decided to stop cutting my hair and to grow locks as a personal style statement, much the same as I had worn a natural afro for most of my adult life. I remembered an Essence magazine cover story in the early 80s that had inspired one of my most popular poems—Is Your Hair Still Political?

“You can’t be serious,” I said.

“Then why didn’t I know about this before? Where is it written in any of your tourist information that Black women are only allowed to wear our hair in certain styles in your country? And why do we have to?”

Her smile was gone by now.

“It’s been a law for over five years,” she snapped.

And I realized she was very serious when I saw our bags being taken off the plane, and it preparing to go on without us.

“But how was I supposed to know that?” I protested, visions of our holiday feast defrosting on the tarmac, our friends from New York wondering where we were, our hostess at the airport waiting in vain to drive us to our rented house by the sea.

“I’ve read I can’t bring drugs into the British Virgin Islands. I’ve read I can’t seek employment in the British Virgin Islands. I’ve read about everything else I can’t do in the British Virgin Islands, but how are Black tourists supposed to know we can’t wear locks if we visit the British Virgin Islands? Or don’t you want Black tourists?”

By now I was outraged. Even with the hot sun outside and the dark face before me, I was confused for a moment as to where I was. Nazi Germany? Fascist Spain? Racist South Africa? One of those places where for so many decades white people had excluded Black people because of how they LOOKED?

But no, it was a Black woman, in the Caribbean, telling me I wasn’t acceptable as a tourist in her country—not because of what I do, not even because of who I am, but because of how I wear my hair. I felt chilled to the bone.

By this time the young white pilot had come in to see why the flight was being delayed. “What do you mean, because of her HAIR?”

Finally an immigration supervisor came, asking me to fill out another entry card.

“Why can’t I go on to Virgin Gorda,” I began. “I’ve been there before. And what’s wrong with my hair? It’s not unhealthy, it’s not unsanitary, it’s not immoral, and it certainly is not unnatural!”

The supervisor looked at my well-groomed ear-length locks. “Are you a Rasta?” he asked. And then it finally dawned on me what this was all about. He didn’t ask me if I was a murderer. He didn’t ask me if I was a drug dealer, or a racist, or if I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Instead, he asked me if I was a follower of the Rastafarian religion.

Some see locks and they see revolution. Because Rastafarians smoke marijuana as a religious rite, some see locks and automatically see drug peddlers. But the people who are pushing drugs throughout the Caribbean do not wear locks; they wear three-piece suits, carry attaché cases and diplomatic pouches, and usually have no trouble at all passing through Immigration.

I stared at this earnest young Black man for a moment. Suddenly my hair became very political. Waves of horror washed over me. How many forms of religious persecution are we now going to visit upon each other as Black people in the name of our public safety?

And suppose I was a Rastafarian? What then? Why did that automatically mean I could not vacation in Virgin Gorda? Did it make my tourist dollars unusable? What if he had asked me if I were a Jew? A Quaker? A Protestant? A Catholic? What have we learned from the bloody pages of history and are we really doomed to repeat these mistakes? There was an ache in my heart.

I wanted to say, “What does it matter if I am a Rasta or not?” But I saw our bags sitting out in the sun, and the pilot walking slowly back to his plane. Deep in my heart I thought—it is always the same question: where do we begin to take a stand? But I turned away.

“No, I’m not a Rastafarian,” I said. And true, I am not. But deep inside of me I felt I was being asked to deny some piece of myself, and I felt a solidarity with my Rastafarian brothers and sisters that I had never been conscious of before.

“Is your hair still political?” Tell me, when it starts to burn.

My immigration card was stamped admit, our bags were put back on the plane, and we continued our journey, twenty minutes overdue.

As the plane taxied to the end of the runway, I looked back at the Beef Island Airport.

On this tiny island, I had found another example of Black people being used to testify against other Black people, using our enemies’ weapons against each other, judging each other on the color of our skin, the cut of our clothes, the styling of our hair. How long will Black women allow ourselves to be used as instruments of oppression against each other?

On a Black Caribbean island, one Black woman had looked into another Black woman’s face and found her unacceptable. Not because of what she did, not because of who she was, not even because of what she believed. But because of how she LOOKED.

What does it mean, Black people practicing this kind of self-hatred with one another?

The sun was still shining, but somehow the day seemed less bright.

St. Croix, Virgin Islands
January 10, 1990

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Itations 'n' Reflections

Jan11,2017. Reflections on The BHS Hair Affair

123We sometimes internalise the oppressions and trappings of social systems which we can seldom control or change. I found myself accepting the necessity of respectability politics when I walked the corridors of The Bishops’ High School six years ago.

Not being “Bishops born-and-bred”, my attempted resistance against the system which dictated and policed my hair, my clothes (I can’t stand ties now), my language, and my freedom to drink water in public was met with resounding clapback from those who clearly had more power, and whose influence extended far beyond the insular walls of the school. The master’s influence became more and more evident when we received lectures about old students seeing us on the road in the uniform doing the things we weren’t supposed to be doing. There was no place where our resistance, however small, went unnoticed.

Of course, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ argument surfaced to explain away the idea that the school’s values were changing (I’ll come back to this later). It’s not to say there weren’t those from the “us” category who conducted themselves like “them”, they suffered a similar fate of being othered, marginalised, and made invisible. But at least they started from a place of ownership and belonging, those of us not “born and bred” were reminded of our otherness from day 1. This was never a system meant to acknowledge difference nor to celebrate it, but instead to create a cookie-cutter model for “respectability.”

Recognising the power dynamics and submitting myself to the false sense of security that came with the trappings of elitism associated with the school, I became the thing I dreaded. It had no place in my family at home nor with my friends who could no longer recognise me because my change, in their eyes, had become to strong too soon.

The BHS was, historically, an elitist all-girls private school serving the interests of middle, upper-middle, and high income families. Families below those income brackets either scraped up the money, or were fortunate to receive scholarships for their children. The school’s culture and historical place were shaken violently by Prime Minister Burnham’s destruction of the exclusive private school system in Guyana, and again by the coeducation policy which opened schools like BHS, SJH, QC, Saints, and Roses to both sexes.

There are those in the BHS system today who recall vividly the elite all-girls history of the school because they lived it. A time they deemed the golden years where women aspired for marriage to the Saints or QC boys and were prepared for their responsibilities as wife and mother, and in some cases for public service employment, all the while preserving the narcotic false sense of security that came with the trappings of “respectability”.

Fast forward to 2017, the policing of hair still happens, both men and women. An age-old school policy drenched in a racist colonial history which idealised sameness and shunned difference. I recall one girl, during my time, who was forced to pull her hair into one even though she had cut most of it off and was then sporting a boy cut. A ribbon was forcibly tied to whatever strands she could gather at the back of her head. School rules. Other girls, black of course, were asked to straighten their kinky hair so it could be tied neatly into one. I recall my anger with one black girl who was allowed to evade that rule. I regret my anger now, partially, because her close affiliation with those in school administration allowed her privilege to do so. Across the pond in South Africa and the Bahamas, girls protest this blatant racism.

Brassette Henry, daughter of the junior education minister and current ‘non-BHS’ BHS student, has found herself in an interesting position. Accusations made against her hair and how she wears it are intrinsically linked to a perceived devaluation of the school, and a destruction of the old heritage long preserved. The narcotic trapping of the elitist and exclusive BHS culture demands a rejection of Brassette not only because her hair is perceived defiant, but also because her defiance is seen as an attempt to tear down what she does not understand while she is part of the “them” category. I could be wrong, but what I know is that we must examine our rage against Brassette and what she symbolises.

Is it that the old guards of BHS elitism are slipping in their preservation of the status quo? Not likely. See, Brassette, by virtue of her mother’s position and influence, forms part of the 1% within the 1%. A cabal, within the already exclusive population of academic excellence, for whom the rules are always flexible. Who could talk down to the daughter of the junior education minister? I remain convinced that a clear message has already been sent to the management of the BHS that a new sheriff is in town. This is even more evident by Minister Henry’s loathful stalking of the facebook page of young former BHS student, Trisha Bhagwandin.

In the trappings of respectability politics and power dynamics, we are trained or expected- students and teachers alike- to never offend those most honourable and their progeny. While I say again we must examine our rage in this hair affair, I suggest the anger is hardly with Brassette’s hair and more about the dissonance between the school’s diseased historical values when confronted by the strength, power, and influence of the inner 1%.

Love. Liberty. Vybs.

Derwayne Wills

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