The Rights of the Child, Race Matters and Political Media

Both the People’s National Movement and the United National Congress have posted photographs of children in the images of campaign engagements. Children in political media is not a problem in itself, some children in the media are children and relatives of candidates, children of prominent community political activists and also children whose parents explicitly authorised consent for the reproduction of their image in formal campaign publications. However, there is a common practice to “gather” children (and adolescents) for photographs in the community, three or four youth, sometimes holding up posters and party giveaways in hand, standing up as props in the background of a political campaign photograph.

Ethics on the production of minors in political media need to be a part of the wider conversation for future general and local government elections. While I do not have any empirical analysis to offer in this discussion, I have observed that there is a specific targeting of not only minors but also children and adolescents of working-class communities and African origin. Particularly, the young, black, male, in a vest and slippers,“on the block” has come to signify the image of “reach” and “impact” to the “at risk” and most “needy” people. Ironically, it is consistent neglect of this group and the reproduction of racist stereotypes of poor, dark-skinned, African descended people that put them up as a “political prize” to those who want to show they have “impact” or have to capacity to ground with “de real people.”

On August 6, 2020, a political advertisement “Trinity’s Triangle” was published on social media. The video portrays a couple in an argument when a socially displaced black woman approaches them asking for assistance. Chris, a young, dark skinned, black male, is portrayed to be angry and resolute in the position that he will not help or assist the woman since she could “do something better” than “be out here harassing people.” He also states that woman seeking assistance could possibly be a thief. After, a young, brown skinned, black male, Kamal, assists the women in need and hands over fruits and vegetables, which are conveniently all yellow, to her. The video closes, “Would Trinity fall for Bad Boy Chris or caring Kamal?” Bad Boy Chris is meant to represent Dr. Keith Christopher Rowley, the PNM political leader and Kamal is meant to represent Kamla Persad-Bissesar, the UNC political leader. Trinity is the mixed-race person that is a stand in for the conscience of the nation. The video attempts to portray “Bad Boy Chris” as scornful and dismissive of the struggles of another black woman, in spite of her vulnerabilities. It attempts to show the Rowley-led PNM as anti-social welfare and hostile to the interests of the poor. However, this is racialised and the brown skinned, Kamal, lighter in demeanour and complexion, delivers relief to the woman and provides an alternative image to the angry and unreasonable, dark skinned Chris. Notably, this may not be an official ad of the political party and therefore, the degree of responsibility of the UNC’s political campaign team is in question for the production of the ad. However, the video was shared by candidates and members of the party when it was launched.

I do think, however, that the “UNC Victory” advertisement was the more problematic advertisment. How could a video which highlights a racially diverse roster of candidates still reproduce racist subtext? The young girl who is the protagonist of the video is lost. Black people as an ethnic group are singly portrayed to be poor and destitute. Her natural hair is in a free style and she is wearing an oversized t-shirt. She falls to the floor and candidate David Nakhid lends her a helping hand. When the video closes, she is fully clothed with her hair combed, in the company of the UNC political leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

These ads are specifically targeted to black youth in working-class and under-resourced urban communities. What they do in their targeting is create a narrow view of black life in those circumstances. It focuses singly on poor black people without an attempt to show how poverty and displacement shapes the life of other racial categories. The ads are cheap and they frame poor black people as a political commodity to compete for.

To critique this video, one does not have to say, “I was never poor. I was never hungry as a black person.” The reality is that there are many poor and hungry black people who are victims of social neglect and class inequalities. What we need are representations that are closer to life and not to our prejudices. This also demands that we move beyond the racist scorecard that counts what PNM does racist and what UNC does racist. To build a more racially just and equal society, we should be brave enough to speak up and call out what is wrong.


I am not certain how much the backlash against these advertisments in social media will change minds of voters but accepting a party platform and rejecting racist representations are not mutually exclusive.

April Fool’s & The “Recalcitrant Minority” in Trinidad and Tobago

In Trinidad and Tobago, you would be shocked to know how much a very specific term “recalcitrant” especially when married to the word “minority” is part of the popular vocabulary. The phrase “recalcitrant minority” has a particular resonance in the “young, multiethnic, multicultural, newly-independent state” (Rohlehr 1997, 849). Rohlehr’s description of the society in 1997 as “young” and “newly-independent” still apply when we consider the long view of history. One hundred years in the life of a civilisation is a short time. Therefore, the cultural realities, social hierarchies and public attitudes that we wish naturally changes (for the better) over time do not.

On April 1, 2020, Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley in the now routine media conference about COVID-19 opened with his talk that covered a number of issues. His discussion gave context to the global situation of the coronavirus, the struggles of tourist economies, the considerations the cabinet is making on more humane conditions for inmates and then an important justification of the state’s approach for public persuasion rather than punishment and discipline with the instrument of the law at this time.

During his talk he made reference to the phrase “recalcitrant minority.” At the time, listening to the speech with my family, my brothers and I responded, “Damn.” We knew the historical weight of the term. We anticipated the social media backlash. For some who separate the intentions of language from the outcomes and resonances, they may refer to it as a “public relations blunder.”  For those who listen to how people feel, they may come to the awareness that is was culturally offensive. And of course, those who are offended by the term can charge that it is fundamentally racist.

My intention here is not to discuss whether or not the Prime Minister had ill intentions in the use of the term. I cannot read his mind. However, I can read language and put it into historical context. I am writing to push back against the ahistorical public responses that have copy & paste or screen shot definitions of the term “recalcitrant” from Dictionary.com to suggest that the term “recalcitrant minority” is not offensive to Indo-Trinbagonians.

Language is not neutral. Political meanings are a part of language. Whether it is Hilary Clinton’s description of young (black) offenders in the 1990s as “super predators” or David Cameron’s racist dog-whistle against Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral election of 2016, political platforms give greater context to language because the discourses represent the intent and ideologies of public policy or at least the mindset of public decision-makers.

At the media conference, PM Dr. Rowley said:

I want to say that if it turns out that the biology is against us we will take further measures if it turns out that we cannot encourage and control the recalcitrant minority (that famous phrase) then the force of law is with us.

The fact that he said “that famous phrase” acknowledges his awareness of the historical and political weight of the term. Therefore, it is not a misstatement but a deliberate use of language. What is the utility of this term in a national conversation? How does it make the message more effective? When ethnic division and misunderstanding are part of our society, how does this choice of language challenge these problems?

The tem “recalcitrant minority” is specific to the history of Trinidad and Tobago and April Fool’s Day (April 1). Before the prospect of single state independence in Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Eric Williams campaigned for the British West Indies Federation. He felt that the political vision of “West Indian nationalism” was undermined by national and racial distinctions that opposed a federal project. Williams’ legacy was complex as was his relationship to the diversity of ethnic and social groups in T&T. For example, he argued for the full participation of Indo-Trinbagonians in the political and cultural life of the society as well as his political party but he also discouraged the formal teaching of Hindi in schools fearing that this would undermine the nationalist ethos of education. For him, cultural distinction of Indians (and Africans) was an anathema to nationalism. Yet, his desire for a non-racial nationalism was still fundamentally constructed on Afro-creole terms.

In March 1958, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) with a substantial proportion of its support from Indo-Trinidadians defeated the Williams-led PNM and affiliated West Indies Federal Labour Party. This defeat shocked Williams, emboldened his critics and came on the heels of a bitterly fought campaign on both sides that fueled racial animosity and mistrust.  On April 1, 1958, in an address to his supporters at the University of Woodford Square, Williams sought to explain the possible reasons for the election results that “poses a dangerous threat to the stability of our country and new nation.” While it is commonly mistaken that Williams spent the entire speech disparaging Indo-Trinbagonians, he attempted to draw comparisons between the India of Jahawarlal Nehru and the “Indian nation” of local activists, saying that it was the former that was progressive and invested in interracial solidarity and not the latter.

I quote directly from Colin Palmer’s Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean (2006) to explain historical context for the term “recalcitrant minority”:

…Williams went on to denounce the Trinidadian advocates of “an Indian nation” as “the recalcitrant and hostile minority of the West Indian nation masquerading as ‘the Indian nation’ and prostituting the name of India for its selfish, reactionary political ends.” This was arguably, the most controversial and criticized speech that Eric Williams delivered during his long political career. (266)

Palmer argues that this “unfortunate use of language” was used by Williams’ critics to describe what they thought was his entire attitude to the “entire race” of Indo-Trinbagonians. He goes on to explain that “it is unlikely that this was his intention, since the PNM included many pro-federation and Indo-Trinidadians – as did the DLP” (266). Interestingly, Rohelhr writes, “It is not clear to this commentator whether by “recalcitrant minority” he meant Indo-Trinidadians or the cadre of French Creoles, other whites, off-whites and coloreds…” (857).

These words help illustrate the cultural reality of Trinidad and Tobago in the 1950s and the challenge to all of us governing in 2020. What is at stake here is neither the intent of language nor the dictionary meaning of words; we are here to understand, critique and learn from its cultural resonances. Who would have known that a speech on April 1, 1958 would reverberate through April 1, 2020 of another leader in the same political party?

Ethnic, racial, cultural, gender, age differences are part of all societies. Historical knowledge is the precondition to working through them.

A challenge to the Prime Minister on his choice of words is a challenge to all public leaders to consciously use language that includes rather than excludes. Washing our hands can help stop COVID-19 from spreading but we cannot wash our hands of our history.

References:

Palmer, Colin A. 2006. Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean. Kingson, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers.

Rohlehr, Gordon. 1997. “The Culture of Williams: Context, Performance, Legacy.” Callaloo (Autumn): 849-888.

Hello, Rum and Coca-Cola Neo-Colonial Fantasy

Spoiler alert: Sociological critique of the construction of a white man’s paradise and neo-colonial gaze with reference to the Caribbean

 

“The national bourgeoisie organises centres of rest and relaxation and pleasure resorts to meet the wishes of the Western bourgeoisie. Such activity is given the name of tourism, and for the occasion will be built up as a national industry…”

– Frantz Fanon

Kes The Band is a household name in the Caribbean and international soca scene. For years they have advanced groovy soca music infusing folk melodies and instrumentals with soothing lyrics. I have been fortunate to listen to Kes, himself, on more than one occasion, speak at The University of the West Indies with deep insight about carnival as an industry while he exhibited confidence about his development as a performer. Soca has a way of conjuring feelings of joy and happiness. It is also a liberating cultural form that celebrates openness about sexual expression publicly. However, neither as genre of music nor as cultural product, it is free from biases and patriarchal premises.

On August 3, 2018, Kes The Band published the music video for “Hello” on YouTube. “Hello” was the flirtatious hit groovy song for Carnival 2018 that mobilised wide sections of the population demanding “that sweet type of love”. The video was directed by Shaun Escayg. Escayg is a Trinidad and Tobago born, Los Angeles-based animation and video director with a creative eye for detail and colour. What could these two homegrown creatives produce if they joined forces? Beautiful art and unoriginal storylines should be taken to task. Some race, some gender and a lot of global inequalities are at play in this music video. Postcolonial and critical race studies help us interrogate these cultural products and “…describe the way in which the colonial body emerges as a visual object of observation, control, desire, derision, fear, fetishism, and ambivalence for the Western traveller and/or coloniser” (Belghiti 2012, 10).

The “Hello” video is fundamentally a Rum and Coca-Cola neo-colonial fantasy portraying available black and brown exotic bodies for consumption by the white male subject. As a bredrin of mind put it across best, “de video is about white man ting!” A white male tourist seeking “The Other.”

The video begins with the protagonist, Jim, a white male who does not speak in an accent native to Trinidad and Tobago, suggesting he is a tourist. In search of a Tarot card reader, the interpreter, local comedian icon, Sprangalang asks him to draw a card. Jim draws the ‘Karnival’ card but Sprangalang is certain that Jim is not interested in a card reading, rather, he desires a woman. Sprangalang encourages Jim to drink a shot glass of alcohol (“fire”). Magically, Jim is transported to a backyard setting of a multi-ethnic carnival party, at night, where a brown woman embodying ‘Karnival’ draws Jim’s attention and seduces him with her sensual and intimate dancing. After they dance for a short time, the setting disappears and they arrive in a new pub setting. The portrait of Che Guevara on the wall and design of the pub suggest this is a Havana nightclub. This is an interesting juxtaposition of the revolutionary icon Guevara, a guerilla fighter who struggled in revolution to break the sexualizing of Cuban society as the “whorehouse of the Caribbean” and the pub scene recasting sex work and white desire against this historical backdrop. The final scene is on a beach where Karnival sexually pursues Jim on the sand. The scene ends abruptly, returning to Sprangalang’s location, and Jim is offered another drink.

A closer look at the video shows how the production of fantasy and agency ultimately rest in the hands of Jim, the protagonist of the plot. The concern of persons who critique the video does not lie in the argument for or against interracial unions or showing how inclusive carnival is; it is about the historical movement of Northern white male bodies consuming black and brown female bodies in the South.

The high praise and reception of the videos lie in its high definition visual quality, popular soca track, inclusion of folklore archetypes and the aesthetic. The aesthetic, unfortunately, is reductive and reproduces a do-nothing-for-locals tourism advertisement that markets neo-colonial desire in ‘sun, sex and beach’ for international audiences. Sheller (2004, 170) observes, “Caribbean tourism is vested in the branding and marketing of Paradise”. The video collapses multiple geographies into one symbolic Caribbean location and constructs the terrain as a paradise and landscape of pleasure for Jim’s Northern imagination.

That said, the vision for the music video is interesting. It illustrates the magical qualities of Caribbean culture – blending taboo and spirituality in a shot glass. Through the intermediary, Sprangalang, Jim is able to travel across time and place in settings framed in party atmospheres rich with choreographed dances. The scene I enjoy the most of the video was the dance routine and imagery of a kind of underworld passage through the “realm of darkness” (3:12 – 3:27). This is a metaphor popular in classical literature signifying the journey of doubt and trials in the beginning and self-discovery and freedom at the end.

For those who take time to read, this is blog is a call (another one actually…) for the development of a carnival culture (and industry) and Caribbean aesthetic that are not marked by Northern white male eyes and domination. Instead, I would like to see a more complex set of representations that illustrate social life with nuance and the power to collapse old colonial and oppressive narratives.

‘Karnival’ and the other women in video do not speak. The women repeatedly make advances to Jim at the party, in the pub and on the beach. This makes us question whether Jim “wanting a woman” as his wish was ever about romance/love or sexual adventure? The video makes me wonder about the refrain “Hello, hello”. Who is saying “hello”? Is it the lost white male tourist, entering the darkness? Is it a greeting to the happy, forever smiling, and openhearted natives? As an artist and as a people we may not have the power to change our history, but we do have the power to reimagine bodies and narratives to represent our lives with complexity and intelligence the colonial gaze never allowed.

While the video begins with white male adventure, the ending is more alarming than what meets the eye. Sprangalang offers Jim another shot glass, urging him to “take a drink” again, to consume the magic potion that would return him to his fantasy and repeat his adventure.

This was too much like history, always repeating itself.

Hello, hello…Goodbye.

References

Belghiti, Rachid. 2012. “Dance and the Colonial Body: Re-choreographing Postcolonial Theories of the Body.” PhD. dissertation, Université de Montréal. Accessed August 9, 2018.

https://papyrus.bib.umontreal.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1866/9690/belghiti_rachid_2012_these.pdf

Sheller, Mimi. 2004. “Natural Hedonism: The Invention of Caribbean Islands as Tropical Playgrounds.” In Byond the Blood, the Beach and the Banana: New Perspectives in Caribbean Studies, edited by Sandra Courtman, 170-185. Kingston and Miami: Ian Randle Publishers.

King of Soca and Consent: If Machel Montano Was A Feminist

Interviewer: Mr. Montano, this carnival, it was widely published that thiefin’ a wine could be addressed as an offense under the Summary Offenses Act. This has initiated fiery debates on social media about women and feminists’ attack on “Trinbago culture”. Many women have spoken up demanding a culture of consent. What do you say to persons who think otherwise?

Machel Montano: “You could get charge for wining like dat, you might make a jail.” (Illegal, 2011)

Interviewer: Wow. Is it that the King of Soca believes that he must have consent before he approaches anyone else for a wine each time? What do you do? Do you have to engage in some long talk and ask for permission? Didn’t you tell us that there was no long talk in wining?

Machel Montano: “No long talk when we come to wine!” (Lip Service, 2017)

But you need to ask for consent because “All said she wanted was one wine from meh, all said she needed was a little bit of my time.” (One More Time, 2007)

Interviewer: But doesn’t this take away the fun? Some are even labeling the fun as ‘harassment’!

Machel Montano: I sing with Rose last year. De woman say “Leave me aloneeeeee!” (Leave Me Alone, 2016)

Interviewer: This sounds like a different Double M to me. Aren’t you afraid that you will alienate some of your fans with these views that seem to defend women and gender equality?

Machel Montano: “I really don’t care what nobody say…What they say they say because a people does talk…” (What They Say They Say, 1997/1998)

Interviewer: Lately, your statements have been taken as provocative and on social media you are being called out for your “progressive politics.” People say that you’ve gone soft and you just focus on your music.

Machel Montano: “Dey come out to buss meh head” (Buss Head, 2017)

But…

“I come out to live meh life, live meh life, play a mas and live meh life. I’m the happiest man alive!” (Happiest Man Alive, 2013)

Interviewer: Okay. So how would you tell other young men to approach women in this “carnival of consent”? What should they do or say first?

Machel Montanto: “ I just want to dance, with you. Party over here now, for two, girl I got this feeling so true, whenever I’m dancing with you.” (Dance with You, 2006)

Interviewer: Thank you Mr. Montano. Our interview has come to a close. Do you think our Trinidad and Tobago carnival and society will ever change?

Machel Montano: “When you’re on the right road, don’t turn around, I know, we gonna make it…Yea, yea” (We Not Giving Up, 2005)