Since tomorrow I will be moderating the Astro-Caribbean panel, Midnight Robber Chronicles, which was inspired by Nalo Hopkinson’s speculative novel Midnight Robber, I thought I’d share an a British artist whose work centers on exploring the significance of Caribbean carnival.
According to Trinidadian/Irish- British artistZak Ove, Caribbean carnival, especially those in Trinidad, started as a mockery of European colonialists, but then became a declaration of “we can be anything” and “not just what we’ve been duped” into believing we are by these colonialists. It became an investigation through transfigurement and costume into all kinds of mythologies and into a sense of Africanism that had been subdued and suppressed through slavery.
Since I’m in Barbados with my mother for Barbados’ 50th Independence Day Celebration, I thought I should share a children’s story I had been working on inspired by my mother and Barbados culture. I wanted to write a kind of Bajan Cinderella story after hearing about my mother’s childhood and learning more about the culture in Barbados, like Crop Over festival and costumed characters like Mother Sally.
The story’s title and main character is Jenny, a shortened version of my mother’s name. Jenny lives with her aunt Sheila and three cousins who treat her unfairly and have left her behind to go to the Crop Over Festival. After they leave, Jenny is introduced to a new woman coming up the road named Mother Sally.
Although I tried not to add onto the dozens of think pieces that are already out there about Beyonce’s latest video, “Formation,” sometimes I like to jump on the bandwagon to either use it momentarily like a free ride to a needed destination or to veer it off into my own direction.
The video has opened the door for much conversation and possibility of new connections, which to me is the main benefit of it, and there has been valid thoughts on all sides about it from the possible meanings of itssymbolic artistic imageryand bringing some focus to black cultures that often have been forgotten, marginalized or denigrated, even by black people themselves, to the critiques that highlight the problematic centeringof a cis-gendered, non-queer, high class, wealthy, light(er)-skinned, thinner celebrity against the marginalized realities of poorer, lower-class, heavier-set, darker-skinned, queer and transgendered people. Looking at the video and listening to the lyrics, it is difficult to ignore its use of Western capitalistic and white-centric measures of power, including Givenchy and Bill Gates, and their stark contrast against the images of disasters that affected those marginalized communities and black traditions that helped us to survive the violence and trauma created by the former. It does appear on the surface to be a form of capitalist opportunistic exploitation, appropriation and a softer silencing/erasing of marginalized cultures despite the “inclusion” of their imagery.
But as a creative writer/artist myself, I tend to look at culture and imagery more ambiguously. In trickster philosophy, various contradicting realities and meanings exist at once; we all wear various conflicting masks to negotiate with and maneuver through society at large. At the end of the day, Beyonce is a pop artist, not an activist per se, and just as I can learn and be inspired by various sources, I can be inspired by her work and apply it back to my own work.
Certain aspects of “Formation,” and responses to them, kept stirring thoughts in my mind, especially in relation to recent posts I had on this blog. Not saying all the thoughts below went through Beyonce’s mind, but these are the thoughts her video inspired in me. Let us look beyond Beyonce because it, for me, is not about her but the larger symbolism and archetypesthat are part of human psyche and social cultures.
*The Sci-fi anthology, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction From Social Justice Movements, will be released in Spring 2015 by AK Press! The anthology includes short stories from LeVar Burton, Terry Bisson, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Alixa Garcia, Autumn Brown, Bao Phi, David Walker, Dani McClain, Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Gabriel Teodros, Jelani Wilson, Kalamu ya Salaam, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Mia Mingus, Morrigan Phillips, Tara Betts, Tunde Oluniran, Vagabond, adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, essays by Tananarive Due and Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as an introduction by Sheree Renee Thomas.
*Kickstarter fundraiser for Latino/a Rising , an anthology featuring U.S.-based Latino/a science fiction work.
*Afropunk’s “FEATURE: Visual Artist Melanie “Coco” McCoy Unravels The Mystery of Sankofa & Afrofuturism:” “When you scroll through Black Twitter or Tumblr you see a lot of young, Black radicals talking about protesting the injustices against our communities and wanting to change the mainstreams ideas pressed on us. However, how many of those “activists” do you really see out in the streets making that wanted change? Visual artist and writer Melanie “Coco” McCoy is regularly amongst the mobs of protesters on and off the computer screen. She stands for Black liberation, feminism/womanism, Black history, spirituality, Afrofuturism, Black female sexuality, and Afrocentric ideals. Many of these resonate in Coco’s paintings. She uses the ideas she studies at Temple University as a African American Studies major and incorporates them into much of her work. Much of her work is based on Sankofa. Sankofa is an Akan word (originating in Ghana) meaning, ‘to go back and fetch it.’ Coco believes deeply in that saying (that we’ve all heard time and time again) ‘you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’re coming from.’”
As Ebony celebrated Katherine Dunham, Nick Cave was featuring dozens of Alvin Ailey dancers wearing 30 colorful horse “soundsuits” in his public performance piece at Grand Central station, HEARD•NY. Presented by Creative Time and MTA Arts, the 30 minute performances included a grazing pastoral music and dance sequence followed by a rhythmic choreographed dance, “crossings” in two rings in the hall. The “crossings” take place two time each day, 11 am and 2 pm, this week until Sunday. Harpists Shelley Burgon and Mary Lattimore and percussionists Robert Levin and Junior Wedderburn provided live musical accompaniment and William Gill did the choreography.
As we are in the midst of carnival season, I would like to share something interesting that I learned about carnival in Dominica. The other day I visited my family in Brooklyn and one of my cousins let me borrow his book, Ma William and Her Circle of Friends. Written by Giftus John, who taught my father in Dominica, the story centers around a storekeeper, Ma William, and the people who visit her store in the village of Senjo. The book depicts the characters coping with the rapid changes on their island and their effort to hold onto their traditions. I reached chapter four, called “Playin’ Mas,” a common Caribbean carnival phrase. I actually learned about it from Trinidadian dancer and singer Michael Manswell of Something Positive at the Carribean Cultural Center’s Roots and Stars Praise Dance event. “Play Mas” means to put on a mask or be part of the masquerade.
One interesting costume I read about in the chapter is the sensay costume. The sensay costume is of West African Twi (Akan/Ashanti) origin. It is one of the oldest forms of costume, made either of frayed rope and other fibrous material such as pounded leaves of the agave (called sisal or “langue beff”) or strips of paper, cloth, frayed plastic sacks and dry banana leaves (pai fig). A mask with cow horns is usually worn with the costume. The name comes from the Twi word senseh, which is a fowl with curled or ruffled feathers. The fowl is known for having spiritual properties amongst the Twi people.
Last weekend, I went to Brooklyn for the Soul of Brooklyn Block Party. I was curious to know what was going on there. While it didn’t turn out to be the block party atmosphere I expected, I was able to listen to a couple of steel pan players do their own version of popular songs, watched a Asase Yaa dance group performance and saw some of the costumes that will be worn at the West Indian parade in September. I also met a couple of interesting people there, like this person below. Her name is Ha! Ha! and she is a clown from Watoto Entertainment. She’s let me take her picture and she had a cute pretend dog with her, too. Also, take a look at some of the carnival costumes: