To PC or not to PC?

I’ve been travelling back and forth, from Trinidad to Boston, quite a bit in the last few years. Naturally, people are curious, people ask questions. Like, “What’s the difference between Trinis and New Englanders.” My standard reply has always been, “Trinis are extremely warm but impolite. New Englanders are extremely polite but not warm.”

I say this because people in New England (much more than any place I’ve ever been) seem to be motivated by the demands of “political correctness.”

In Trinidad…not so much. I’m pretty sure New England females didn’t grow up having to walk down the street with salutations like, “Glasses!”, “Convent Girl!”, “Friend…Family!” being shouted by random men. I’m certain New Englanders don’t, in casual conversation, address/refer to each other by ethnic/racial monikers: “Aye! Chinee, long time no see,”; “Dougla, you looking nice today,”; “Blacks is a fella could real sing,”; “Where Red-man?”

And I’ve never seen New Englanders arbitrarily comment on each other’s physical state: “Sexy Pregnant Thing!”; “How you looking so small, boy? You have worries or what?”; “Like you putting on some size, girl? W’happen the man treating you nice?”; “Tall-man how school going?”  In Trinidad, this is all regarded as good-natured, mundane conversation. And should you betray even the slightest sign of feeling wounded, real insults – hot like Moruga Scorpion Pepper – would then be rubbed in, just to teach you a lesson for being so “thin-skin.”

The meaning of “political correctness” has evolved over time. It was first used around 1970 in the United States and its abbreviation “P.C.” started appearing in the late 1980s. The original sense may be summarized as: the political movement and phenomenon, which began in the US, with the aim to enforce a set of ideologies and views on the topics of gender, race and other minorities. It refers to language and ideas that may cause offence to some identity groups and aims at giving preferential treatment to members of those social groups.

However, its meaning has bloomed over the years, from just covering minority groups to basically everybody. Take, for example, this definition from a 2015 Upworthy article: “what it basically comes down to is political correctness means not being a jerk to others. Political correctness is nothing more than treating others with respect. Being kind. Being a nice person.”

Simultaneous with this expansion in meaning, the term “politically correct” acquired derogatory connotations in the United States. As one commentator put it, “it’s often used as an epithet … something we say to people who we think are suppressing necessary truth for fear of offending.”

If the 2016 US Presidential Race is any indication, views on “political correctness” have polarized that country. To grossly over-simplify the debate, I’ll just say that the political left seems convinced that being PC means just being a decent person; the political right seems to view it as a form of speech policing.

Once the USA catches something, the whole world gets a fever. So it’s no surprise the concept of “political correctness” has spread to Trinidad and Tobago. Recently, a friend of mine was on Facebook lamenting this new trend of Trinis copying the US “hyper sensitive society…where everybody is offended for something.”

He raises an interesting question. How does “political correctness” work in a place like Trinidad. How does it work where whites, progeny of the slave-owning class, are the minority? Is it supposed to protect them? Should we never mention the atrocities of their forefathers so as to protect them from embarrassment, discomfort or white-guilt?

And there is this: How does PC operate on an island that was British, but spoke French and Spanish, and was populated mostly by Africans and Indians, with the later addition of Chinese and Syrian/Lebanese immigrants – and then everyone began to have sexual relations with everyone else? When you’re mixed with at least three different ethnicities, who is The Other and who is your brother?  When your father’s family is Muslim, your mother’s is Hindu and you’re married to a Christian, which God do you defend? And since there is always some Other in you, wouldn’t you end up being offended every five minutes?

My friend’s objection to PC is not the same as the US complaint that it inhibits truth-telling. He is saying that a too-ready adoption of PC will undermine the School-of-Hard-Knocks in which both he and I were trained and blooded to face the world. He is suggesting that we are swapping out Trini thick-skin for US brittleness; trading in our emotional dexterity for the flat-footedness of taking offence. Maybe he’s right.

In a seminal 1996 article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell tried to analyse the success West Indian immigrants have enjoyed in America. He talked of his Jamaican cousin, Noel, who “had a job once removing asbestos at Kennedy Airport, and his boss there called him “nigger” and cut his hours. But Noel didn’t take it personally.” Instead, Noel rationalized that the boss “didn’t like women or Jews, either, or people with college degrees–or even himself, for that matter.” Gladwell also mentions Noel was aspiring to move his family to a bigger house in Garden City. When a Black-American friend pointed out that Garden City was mostly-white and “no place for a black person,” Noel wasn’t fazed at all – being “fair-skinned,” with a white grandfather, he didn’t consider himself black at all.

Complicate that situation with two or three other family ethnicities and/or religions and you have the average Trini.

Maybe that’s part of our prowess. We can tolerate other people calling us names because we call each other those things first. We mentally side-step prejudice by convincing ourselves that our tangled genealogy makes us exempt. Maybe that is the key to our hardiness. Maybe that’s why Trinis spring up everywhere and thrive, like weeds, some might say. Maybe Malcolm Gladwell is correct: for us, people from a tiny rock marching with our funny accent and non-white skin into a big, hostile world, a too-ready assimilation of American values – like political correctness – may be tantamount to suicide.

I’ll tell you one thing: whenever I step foot in the US -New England or otherwise – I wear my Trini exoskeleton with pride. It’s a good look for me.

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The Five People You Meet On Facebook

1.The OCL – Obsessive Compulsive Liker

This friend is the greatest cheerleader of all. They like all your posts. All. Your photos, your opinions, your jokes, your memes, your videos. Everything. If you “checked-in” at the toilet and updated your status to “pooping bricks”, they would probably be the first to like it. And there’s never an accompanying comment to even indicate that they’ve processed what you’ve said. Always just that good old…

Sure, we all need someone in our corner supporting us no matter what. But usually, that role falls to either your Mom or your Significant Other. When it’s done by someone with whom you’ve shared neither a gene-pool nor a jacuzzi, it can seem weird. You begin to doubt the sincerity of the attention. Maybe it’s just a brush-off? Maybe he/she never even read it or opened the video? Or maybe…(queue Law & Order suspense music: duh-dunk!)…maybe it’s a sarcastic like?  That last one, you have no choice but to think that if you’re Trini: the national pastime is “shittin people up”, “chaining them up” – insincerely egging them on for our own amusement, e.g. “Yeah, for sure, we voting for you boy! You go win!” Social media is a fertile space for those kinds of mind-games.

Men, I’m telling you, beware of the OCL. In some romantic relationships, being found in possession of a disproportionately high number of “Likes” from one FB friend is regarded as an offense. A strict liability offense, i.e. it doesn’t matter if you’re innocent or not, if you know the person well or not, or if it’s been ages since you last spoke. From your Significant Other’s perspective, the crucial question is: “What going on between you and she? Why she liking up all your posts so?”

Truth is, I’m borderline OCL. And I prefer to think that all the OCLs on my FB feed are simply well-meaning but busy, just like me. They scan Facebook and try to keep in touch by extending quick, supportive gestures to people they consider worthy of their time. But I could be wrong.

2. The Phantom

While the OCL is highly visible on your FB Timeline, this other friend is nowhere to be seen. While your most mundane post will make the OCL spring into action, you’d need a séance to make this other friend show herself. Oh but she’s there…you can feel it. Like all forms of paranormal activity, you can sense in your bones that The Phantom is reading and gobbling up every damn thing you post.

As we say in Trinidad, she’s a macco. And that’s why she doesn’t “Like” anything: she doesn’t want you to know she’s the Macco Superior of your Timeline. Or maybe she’s an ardent fan, who doesn’t wish to be mistaken for a macco. Or maybe she knows that Facebook broadcasts all “Likes” and so she is careful to only associate herself with posts which directly reflect her personal tastes. Or maybe the bitch just can’t stand you, spends her days sticking pins into a doll that looks an awful lot like you and she would rather die than acknowledge your merit in any way. Whatever.

Trinidadian folklore is well acquainted with the problem of surreptitious, hovering beings. Take, for instance, that blood-sucking nocturnal hag, the Soucouyant. If you think there might be one of these stalking your neighbourhood, you confirm your suspicions by baiting her with heaps of raw rice around the perimeter of your house. She won’t be able to stop herself from picking up each grain; dawn will find her at this task and she’ll be exposed.

Same goes for The Phantom. If you know her well enough, post something you know she won’t be able to resist. Something that will fall in her yard; she must bend and pick it up. Or to paraphrase the great Bob Marley, throw your corn – you ain’t call no fowl. All of a sudden she’ll make contact, and just casually slip some mention of that post into the conversation. Chuckle internally – a nice, long evil chuckle – as you smile and play along with her hide-and-seek game. She ain’t fooling you.

3. The Amnesiac

This friend “Likes” and responds in all the appropriate ways, at all the appropriate times. Birthdays: you get a personal greeting – not just “HBD”. Anniversaries, Bar Mitzvahs, childbirth – this friend is on FB biggin’ you up. You tag each other in posts, share jokes, you’re active in each other’s FB feed. But when you bump into this character in person, she acts like you just escaped from a leper colony and your hand is dropping off.

Due to Trinidad and Tobago’s multi-ethnic society, the national calendar of public holidays and religious observances is always packed. It’s not just about Easter and Christmas. No, we have Eid-ul-Fitr (Muslim), Divali (Hindu), Shouter Baptist Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, Indian Arrival Day, Independence Day, Republic Day, Labour Day etc. Amidst all these festivities, The Amnesiac remembers to get on Facebook and send you best wishes or an inspirational quote. But, in person, if you wave, smile, make any overture of friendship, this person will turn away and deny you thrice before the cock crows. It can be scary.

However, in these situations it helps to remember that, just as with the spider in your bathroom, this friend is probably more afraid of you than you are of her. Not everyone feels comfortable in face-to-face interactions. Social media is the only space where some people can be social. They aren’t bad people, they are just shy. Don’t take it personally.

4. The Foster Sibling

Here we have the antithesis of The Amnesiac.

So you worked with this chick five years ago in a company whose phone number you’ve long since forgotten. In fact, you didn’t really work with her – you just said hello every once in a while; and at the Staff Sports Day you ended up on the same tug-o-war team and she fell on top of you. She adds you on Facebook and you accept because, well, you’re that kind of person. Then, couple months later, you see her at the gas station and she’s like, “Girl, your mother could real cook! I see all them pictures you does be posting. When she inviting me? But your brother, he need to leave that girl he dealing. I know somebody who does live near that girl and they say she’s a real ho. He could do better than that.”

Too familiar. So wrong. Being Facebook friends with someone is not your right. It is a mutual privilege. Every time someone “friends” you, they commit a vulnerable act: allowing you access to their personal life. But you don’t have the right to assume that life, to presume that it is yours. Their friends aren’t your friends; their family isn’t your family. Know your place.

5. The Arsonist

This friend seems to trawl from status to status, friend to friend, making inflammatory comments. They never have anything positive to say in response to your (or anybody else’s) posts. But negative comments, objections, arguments and counterarguments – they have them at the ready to pelt like scratch bombs, to “bun down Rome”.

I often wonder why. If someone posts their opinion on their Facebook page, that is their platform, their right. If I have a different opinion, the place for it is on my Facebook page. What is there to be gained by posting contrary, argumentative comments on their page? I am not Luke Skywalker; I am not interested in turning anybody from the Dark Side.

In fact, science has proven time and time again that you can’t just change someone’s “false beliefs” by giving them information or even arguing. If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he simply discards the information if the beliefs are strong. Continued intervention and pushing more and more information or arguments at such a person can even have what’s known as “the backfire effect” of deepening his beliefs. I think we all know this instinctively. I think the Arsonist knows this – he/she is usually quite intelligent. So I can only guess that the Arsonist’s goal is self-aggrandizement: to preen and display his/her perceived intellectual or moral superiority.

Depending on the frequency and intensity of the fires being set by the Arsonist, it may be best to just go Elsa on his ass and let him go, let him go-o-o-o-o.

 

Making Art Grenadian Again

When I think of Grenada, I think of steaming mugs of cocoa tea. Notice, I didn’t say hot chocolate. I’m not talking about a drink made with processed, powdered stuff you buy in cans. I’m talking about a drink coming to the table straight from this island’s rich volcanic soil. I’m talking about gnarled black hands, knuckles swollen, grating a ball of raw chocolate, then  cracking nutmeg, then splintering a piece of cinnamon bark, then boiling it all together. The whole house engulfed in spicy, earthy aromas. I’m talking about lifting that mug to your nose and seeing the fat of the land, the cocoa oils, floating above the milk.  Sip it, taste the blackness and opulence that has borne these crops – spice and cocoa – for centuries. There is nothing more creole.

And then here comes this white-boy, Asher Mains. Red-haired too, and bearded, like the pirates that once rummaged Grenada’s coves.

What draws me into the Mains’ art gallery in Grand Anse, is a painting leaning against the leg of a desk. An androgynous black face covered in bluish flowers. Full lips, wide flatish nose, high cheekbones, luminescent skin – all familiar. But it’s the eyes and the frown – the expression of painful disappointment – set on that regal face and surrounded by flowers.

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As I approach though, my eyes skid away to the left, enticed by three giant women. They stand in their floor-to-ceiling canvas wearing work-clothes: t-shirts, long pants and rubber boots. Two balance loads on their heads, one holds a basket of fruit. One is sullen, two are grinning – the mirth on their faces is so real I find myself smiling back at them.

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What are they? Three black muses? Patronesses of agriculture? I turn to the man seated at the desk, only on the periphery of my awareness till now, to ask about these paintings.

“Hi,” I say, but then there’s an awkward pause as I notice the huge portrait on the wall directly behind him. A dreadlocked lady leaning playfully to the side, propping her chin. She also wears work-clothes; a cutlass is stuck into the ground at her side. She is beaming, mischievously. In my mind I name her “Cutlass-Tanty,” and it seems obvious that she was painted by the same artist as the female triumvirate.

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The similarity is in the faces. A palpable dignity and pride in each one, self-possession – even the flower-covered man (I’ve decided it’s a man). This artist’s work evokes a uniquely Caribbean adjective: “conscious” or, as black Americans would say, “woke”. But not in an angry, fight-the-power way. No, in a proud-of-who-I-am way. I sense that these people are being portrayed exactly as they are and would wish to be seen by the world.

Finally, I ask the seated, long-sleeve-shirted white-man, “These are fascinating. Is this a local Grenadian artist? Who is it?”

He gets up from behind the desk and says with a shy smile, “Actually these are mine.”

“As in: you own them?”

”No, I’m the artist.”

I was not expecting that. There’d been nothing in the portraits to suggest the work was that of The Other. Nothing flippant. No exaggeration of physical features. No attempt to exoticize. Nor even anglicize – to paint “black” women who are basically white girls dipped in chocolate.

I temper my surprise and ask him, in a nonchalant tone, about his inspiration.

That’s when Grenadian artist, Asher Mains, tells me about the Cocoa Farmers Project, which he completed during his MFA in Creative Practice. He painted portraits of real, ordinary Grenadian cocoa farmers. Some portraits, like the large pieces I’d been admiring, had been displayed in the Mains Gallery and shown internationally. But there were others, smaller portraits, which he gave to the farmers themselves as gifts, to display on the walls of their homes.

The idea, he explains, was to give agriculture the recognition and pride of place it deserves, but has been getting less and less of, in modern Grenadian society. Grenada farms some of the finest cocoa, and yet the younger generations – sometimes the farmers’ children themselves – hold that livelihood in low esteem. Portraits should not only be done of famous and wealthy people, Asher believes, because it does something to see yourself rendered in art. He is passionate about that “something”.  He tells me of the grandchildren of Cutlass-Tanty coming into the gallery, being so excited to see their granny up on the wall, and their elation when they looked at the tag and realized their granny was worth so much.

A customer enters the gallery, so I release Asher and stroll along to another section, mulling things over. I can’t be the only one who’s been surprised by his work, who senses the dangerous undercurrents he’s waded into. A white man capturing images of black farmers, in a land built on the agronomics of forced plantation labour.

A new grappe of faces, dark blue and stenciled, draw my attention. Four separately framed but identical profiles of an afro-wearing woman. The background of each is a different colour but they lack the lushness, the blended pigments of the cocoa-farmer pieces. These are more edgy and monochromatic, like what you might print with an inky stamp-pad. And yet, I suspect they are also Asher’s work.

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He returns and confirms that they are. I ask him outright, “Have you taken any flack for painting black people?”

Yes, he has. One lady, a conflict resolution specialist, told him all she sees in his art is racial conflict. Others, commenting on the Cocoa Farmers Project, have accused him of being the prototypical white exploiter. He confides that when he first started doing portraiture, he used only three colours – red, yellow and purple – so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the dynamics of being a white renderer of black skin. With time, though, Asher has grown brave. He trusts his motives and understands that people will always view his work through the prism of their own prejudices.

“And your motive is?” I ask.

Asher explains that the Cocoa Farmers Project involved real dialogue and exchange with the farmers and their families. He learnt about them, they learnt about art. He realized that for those Grenadians, even if they were interested in pursuing art, the materials were too esoteric and unavailable. The paints, charcoal, brushes – it all came from abroad and was expensive. Fine art was a rich man’s pursuit, not a cocoa-farmer’s.  Asher became passionate about making and sourcing art materials exclusively within Grenada.

He runs over to the other side of the gallery and returns with a jar of crooked black sticks – drawing charcoal which he’s made from the stems of a quick-growing local plant. Then he ushers me to two other stenciled pieces, these emitting a sepia, historical tone like old photographs. “Here I experimented with making my own pigments,” he says, “using vinegar, pomegranate leaves and rust.”  Looking closer at the canvas, I can actually see little pomegranate leaves embedded.  Then Asher points to the four afro-lady stencils and explains that, in each case, a different plant had been overlaid. “Just leaves of plants I have around the house,” he says. We go back to Cutlass-Tanty, my favorite, and Asher shows me the brown geometric pattern in the background. “I made that with cocoa tea,” he says.

The tour de force comes when he tells me about his current project, Sea Lungs, which will be on display at the Grenada National Pavilion of the Venice Biennale 2017. Grenadian sea fans (underwater vegetation) are backlit casting a shadow onto the portraits, evoking the bronchial effect of lungs.

I get what Asher is saying, I understand his passion for authenticity – that the subject-matter and materials of his art should reference each other.  But there’s something more at work with him. Asher Mains is no pirate, no white plunderer of blackness. He is a Grenadian. He seeks, in his art, to give expression to and enter into relationship with Grenadian identity. With who he is, really. In that sense, Asher Mains creates self-portraits.

Missing: Fifty Books

“A child is more likely to go to college if that child comes from a home where there are fifty books.”

When I first heard that statement from an MFA lecturer, I thought, “Big deal. Everybody has books.” Then she went on to quote a study which found that many African-American children lived in homes where this threshold was an impossibility.

That discussion stayed with me. Big, hard-back, thirty-nine year old woman that I was, it had never entered my mind that there were homes in the Western World with no books in them.  I had been naïve. And that realization left me feeling implicated or even…accused.

As I typically do in such situations, I decided to research the point. Google led me to a 2010 article at sciencedaily.com entitled, “Books in home as important as parents’ education in determining children’s education level.” The article quoted from a 20-year study conducted by the University of Nevada, Reno which found that children of lesser-educated parents benefit the most from having books in the home. Having as few as twenty books in the home still has significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit.

Well, guess what. I am a “child of lesser-educated parents” and the first in my family to obtain a “higher level of education.”

So again, I felt this research was saying something important to me, about me.

I tried to recall how many books there had been in our home while I was growing up. More than twenty? More than fifty? A hundred? I really couldn’t say for sure but I realized the books that did live with us were mine, i.e. bought specifically for me, e.g. children’s books, school books, a World Book Encyclopedia set.  I couldn’t assert a claim, though, that I was born into a home with a pre-existing book collection. I couldn’t remember ever seeing my parents reading books.

Wait…what? Had I really never seen my mother and father reading?

Then I remembered: newspapers. They read newspapers. All the published newspapers: dailies, weeklies, informative, smutty – ALL. I remembered Daddy coming home with a thick wad of “papers”, and he and Mummy changing and exchanging as they worked their way through the pile. I remembered him sending me to the neighbourhood “parlour”, up the street, to buy papers: Express, Guardian, Mirror, Bomb. I remembered being scolded during weekends and school vacations, “Look, move from in front that damn TV. You read the papers for the day yet? No. But you watching cartoon.”

Papers was Life. It was how my parents stayed on the pulse of things. It was how they knew what the Government was doing and not doing. It was how they could confirm “Mr. So-and-So dead.” And which store was going into receivership, and which had sale.

As I got older, my parents didn’t have to force me to read the newspapers anymore – I wanted to.

Papers was Big-People Thing. It was what adults – even my barely literate grandmother – did. Oh, to mimic them: to crack back on the couch with a long-ass Guardian newspaper covering almost my entire little body. Oh, to know the things the adults knew, to be able to secretly break the codes of their tongue-in-cheek conversations.

Yes, reading storybooks fueled my creativity and imagination. But seeing my parents read the newspapers fueled my appetite for knowledge.

What happens now in 2017? When my little daughter lives in a house where we buy no newspapers because we get our news online.  What happens in houses where parents are avid readers, have the latest Kindle or the latest tablet with Kobo and Goodreads and all the latest reading apps and hundreds of saved e-books? What happens when there is a virtual library in the home instead of a tall bookshelf? You know…the kind you have to dust and polish as part of your weekend chores, the kind where you have to care for the spines and tape up the torn pages and find the missing dust-jackets.

What happens when our children never see us staring at a page for as long as we stare at the screen?

I wonder what the research says about that.

 

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Welcome!

Thanks for visiting my blog. I have to warn you though: if you’re looking for topic consistency or some kind of overall theme, you’re in the wrong place. This is a blog about nothing. Whatever comes to mind and tickles my curiosity – that’s what I’ll blog about. In my head, I’ve got so many questions and much less answers. Feel free to leave me a reply or comment. I love intelligent conversation. Cheers!