Wednesday, November 21, 2012

God Bless the Child That's Got His Own.... Or Not Quite.

He has a brown bag with a 40's bottle to his mouth and is shouting at anybody who would listen "My life sucks, but I love it, it's the only one I got!". The 40-something year old broken record of a Chicano on Church Avenue, repeats his sentence as though he himself acknowledges the poetry of it, and is satisfied with how concisely he has been able to describe his life in the brief open narrative. I have been paying more attention to the homeless people in my neighborhood in recent months, and the fact that I see these very specific people at least four times a week, has made them a troubling part of my environment.

There is the young man with the black and red jacket, and the nike's to match, exposing his bone at the ankle. The story is that his mother lives on my street corner and she put him out because of drugs. On average twice a month he calls out to me and laughs with a sustained giggle when I don't respond to him. Honestly, I am afraid of him, since I see him at least once a day and he does not say much. I have understood that the quiet ones are those who purge in the most radical of ways, and usually avoid him when I can.

There is the man with the balding scalp who asks only for dollar bills. The fear I have for him is different. I have seen him everywhere, which is unlike this city. You barely see the same people twice. I have seen him at three restaurants in my neighborhood, just outside my campus, once inside the grocery and one evening on the train. All within the space of three months. He has a very personalized way in asking for money and I started wondering at one time if he actually knows my face and targets me. Bell Hooks in her discussion of Performance Practice as a Site of Opposition mentions "the notion of manipulative performance for survival". He begs so discreetly that you think it is a private matter between you and him alone, which has some type of emotional effect on the way people generally respond to him.

Hooks explains that these homeless people "are possessed spirits. In another culture- not a while supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal nation- their words might be listened to, their wisdom heeded." This sentiment reminded me very much of an experience Ryan and I had in the Eastern Cape, while waiting for our fifteen hour bus-ride back to Joburg. This old homeless man came up to us, speaking as much English as he could extract, and asks Ryan for money. Upon receipt of a few rand, he proceeds to give us advice for our relationship, and the importance of fidelity. He had approached only us out of the group of people there, and spoke at length on how we should live our married life. He ends his spiel by talking about Barcelona and Manchester United football teams with Ryan. It was as though with the transaction he felt indebted to us in some way and worked to compensate with his story. The old man walked a few steps up the street and it was as though he disappeared completely. We scanned the area for him a mere thirty seconds after he left us, and he was nowhere in sight.

All these examples tie into an internal conflict of wanting to engage people but being afraid of what they are capable of. I would even add that my being a woman has mostly raised my perceived risk level, these are people who are still out on the street when I am walking home late at night. I cannot be naive about the city and its monsters. But, what if they are not the monsters? And which one of them is Christ? I am caught daily wanting to help people, but I have never before been so aware of death and violence as probability since I moved to Brooklyn. My thoughts for now have been laid out, but not finished.

Also, this has been a wonderful project in Trinidad that works to capture the stories of the homeless, please check it out:

  • Let's Get It On: The Politics of Black Performance Edited by Catherine Ugwu Bay Press 1995

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Trinidad James and The Gold Plated Embarassment

Coming after what seems to have been a national outcry by the socially conscious adult public of Trinidad and Tobago, (admittedly gauging mainly from intensely angry facebook posts in my newsfeed), there seems to be much disapproval on the identity politics surrounding Atlanta-based rapper 'Trinidad James'. The young man explains in a promotional interview that he hails from Port of Spain and Mt. Hope,Trinidad and left the island to come to America where he entered the second grade in elementary school (which would land him at about 6 or 7 years of age at the time).

He explains that he was raised by his mother and that he moved from Trinidad such a long time ago that he does not remember much, but recalls a few anecdotes such as a childhood friend, eating doubles and drinking his first coconut water. He expresses that he had conflicts within himself as to determining who he was and "finding" himself when he moved to the US. Surely I can vouch for him here and say this is not the easiest transition to make in one's life. He also admits here that by the 4th grade, he lost his accent.

The rapper has prospects of returning to the island and even wants to enter into the soca monarch 2k13 competition. What I have so far outlined is important for me because I am currently looking at the circular immigration process and developing something I have called the 'Cascadoo narrative' (more on this later). I would therefore venture to say that Trinidad James is now recognizing this dual consciousness within himself, however distasteful we might find his exploration of this world. He is trying to uncover a part of himself that "he cannot remember", but he identifies himself as something while standing on the outside of that very thing.

He is wanting to be a part of this world. He has named himself after the island, and in his debut music video "All Gold Everything" can be seen sporting Trinidad's national colors, much in the same way that American gangster culture uses particular colored bandannas to represent their clique affiliation. His cadence follows the usual Atlanta drawl while his language is interspersed with pieces of Trinidad dialect "all in my" can transition to "all in meh" as "jeh watch" to "jus watch". I would also argue that gold has traditionally been the Caribbean's precious metal of choice for exhibiting wealth, as opposed to the now popular American bling diamonds and platinum. As Caribbean people we all had at least one family member or neighbour with a gold tooth in their mouth in the 90s (or at present?).

Trinidad James is actually performing his confusion, and should not be blamed entirely for what he considers as a journey towards himself. Nuttal looks at a number of adjustment strategies employed by adolescent Caribbean youth who migrate to America and have listed them as:

a) conformity (individuals dislike themselves and admire members of the dominant culture), (b) dissonance (conflicts arise between individuals depreciating and appreciating feelings for themselves, views held by the majority culture and other minority groups, and their own personal feelings), (c) resistance and immersion (individuals begin to appreciate themselves, ethnocentric feelings emerge, and they begin to dislike the majority culture), (d) introspection (individuals explore and examine the reason for liking themselves or their group, and the ethnocentric basis for judging other minorities and the dominant culture), and (e) synergetic articulation and awareness (individuals begin to accept and respect different cultural values of other minority groups, the dominant culture, and their own; Nuttall et al., 1990).

In accordance with James' interview, he sounds like he went through a number of these stages at different times in his life and is now in a space where he accepts American culture as his own, but recognizes still that it is not the only thing he has. I think that we actually have no right to determine that he is not Trinidadian on the basis that we do not see ourselves in him. Actually, I think that we are so frightened by how much we see our country in him that it's easier to dismiss him as ridiculous and 'shameful' than engage the mirror he is offering us.

James is the primary school friend who disappears from school one day and never comes back and the teacher announces that "he went to America" (these children hardly ever say a formal goodbye to their class). James is the product of readjustment probably with a mother who had to work multiple jobs, provide for him and did not get the sit-down time with him when he got home from school. James has the same ancestors as I do and we are probably remotely related somehow. James wants to somehow be included in that world he was pulled from. James performs America because America (gangster rap et al.) is what has raised him, you cannot give what you do not have. James is an adaptation to his environment, leopard print fur and everything therein.

James is a product of neglect and lack of guidance. What he chooses to represent is his own conundrum and we cannot decide on its legitimacy because we do not like what we see.


  • Mitchell N. Academic Achievement Among Caribbean Immigrant Adolescents: The Impact of Generational Status on Academic Self-Concept. Professional School Counseling [serial online]. February 2005;8(3):209-218. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 10, 2012.
  • Nuttall, E., DeLeon, B., & Valle, M. (1990). Best practices in considering cultural factors. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology (pp. 219-233). Washington, DC: The National Association of School Psychologist, 35, 1061-1070.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Dia de Muertos

“Dia de muertos” at the Mexico-US Border in Mexicali BC Mexico border with Calexico CA US. 

My father was born in the La Seiva Road cemetery in the 1960s. I grew up with my parents reminding me on every late night visit to my grandmother's house that I should fear the living more than the dead. It is only after having moved to America that I've come to appreciate my own worldview and the traditions that influence it regarding death and the afterlife. I have only seen two funerals in operation since I've been here, and one day I remember asking my friends whether they themselves go to funerals. The answer was no, not really.

Over the two odd years of my being here, having a mother who has often found herself as lead cantor at funeral services at our church in Sangre Grande, she has sometimes had as many as three funerals in a week. Surely I would attribute this to a closer-knit society and Caribbean culture where death is something commemorated by the community. People still feel the need to pay respect to the deceased, or merely lend support to the grieving family. In America, bodies are kept at the parlor where they are stored, then eventually they may or may not do a short service of sorts, after which people go to look at the coffin in the cemetery but never see it descend into the ground.

My theory is that grieving is such a sophisticated and drawn-out process in my culture that we give time for the dead to make the transition and for the living to begin adjusting to the absence of this person who has passed away. We often have open-casket funeral viewing, the body is sometimes brought to the house of the deceased, we have bullhorns announcing the death in the community, we keep wakes every night, we have nine nights (of prayer) after the passing, and we keep a church service forty days after the death date. In America, very few (if any) of these practices exist, even within a Caribbean community like Brooklyn. In my mind, this possibly has a connection to Halloween culture and how the dead are often demonized as evil zombies in popular culture.

Also, I think that America is lost to the idea of the realms of life being connected and a shared space for the unborn, the born and the ancestors (dead). If this were the case I think the abortion debate would be less of an issue. This is surely not a Western route, but what has been interesting for me as a black Catholic is the idea of the 'communion of saints' where those who have gone before us await us in the kingdom. As for who exactly constitutes a 'saint' by the standards of the RC church and its minority of canonized non-white saints, that is another blog post. I would say that I have been shaped by both West African philosophy and Catholic theology, which are not necessarily at loggerheads with each other. What these two things surely exclude is the limiting American (western) ideology that we belong to the present living state and that only.

I dreamt my grandmother last night. She was preparing to die but wanted us to comb her hair properly with a jeweled pin in her braid before she left this world. She said that she needed to be ready for the next. Bless her soul.

and may the souls of the faithful departed though the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.