Call Me by My Name

OK, here is the image that sparks the Facebook thread partially copied below and this very post. A person I know personally responded to this image, including the poster who I sort of know from around, so all names have been scrubbed to protect identities, including the folks I don’t know personally.  An attempt has been made to show where the same person posted again on the thread. The person who posted this image of PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar‘s Divali greetings captioned the image (quote): “kamla where the black children.”

  • Person A :hmm.. I thought i alone saw that!
  • Person B: black children observing divali?
  • Person C: for real
  • Person D: EVERYBODY is observing Divali… it’s not a race thing… it’s a “light over darkness” thing. Steups.
  • Person B: no, its a hindu festival.
  • Person E: There isn’t any problem with that. Sometime ago, when Trinidad was Trinidad EVERYONE used to observe Divali! Whether it was simply cooking curry, making sweets, watching “light up” and or lighting starlight and other fireworks, it was observance and believe it still is! It’s just T&T is not the same as 10 or 15 years ago.
  • Person D: Yes, it is but it’s about all of us as one human race celebrating with each other…
  • Person D: Not all Hindus are East Indians BTW…
  • Person B: ok maybe observe is the wrong word… celebrate.
  • Person B: cause celebrating divali is not just lighting deyas. so are african children doing the fasting etc and all the other things that come with divali?
  • Person D: Maybe… but we are honouring, respecting and celebrating a festival which has great meaning for all people. LOVE!!!
  • Person B: religion is not about one human race celebrating each other, its about believers celebrating what they believe in. yeah but the number of people who are not east indian and are hindu are the vast minority. do you think its unfair to not represent that minority in a diviali ad?
  • Person D:  I have no idea what your point is. Trinidad is a country to be emulated for the way we embrace each other unlike all the intolerance all over the planet. If all people, regardless of race or religious beliefs, can show the Hindus that we love, respect and honour their beliefs and traditions, what’s wrong with that? I live in Florida in a traditional American neighbourhood with no Hindus (and I am NOT Hindu BTW) but I light deyas for Divali… for light over darkness. I am TOTALLY WITH [pic poster] on this. And, FYI, I don’t believe in ANY organized religion but in spirituality. I respect the religious choices of others.
  • Person B: my point is embracing someone else’s religious holiday by participating in the aesthetic events of it by no means qualifies you for representation in an ad.you are not a hindu. why do you feel you need to be represented in a diviali ad?
  • Person B: lighting a deya and cooking curry is no grounds for inclusion in a hindu festival.
  • Person D: Because, like I said above, all practitioners of Hinduism are NOT ALL INDIAN… white, Chinese, black, mixed, red, whatever… it’s not a race, it’s a religion…
  • Person B: how many africans are hindus in trinidad and tobago?
  • Person D: If lighting a deya and cooking curry makes a non-Hindu feel like they are celebrating with their Hindu brothers and sisters, why are YOU so AGAINST it? Do you have some other belief? Because you are arguing without giving an alternative to what is a wonderful thing.
  • Person B: no no no I not against it… by all means, do it. but that is not grounds for inclusion or representation in an ad.
  • Person D: But Divali is not just about Trinidad … it is about Hindus all over the world… and a head of state like Kamla should acknowledge that!!!
  • Person B: so by that reasoning we should have santa claus, snow and chimneys in christmas ads then?
  • Person D: Kamla became a “citizen of the world” when she became Prime Minister and quite frankly, if there is only ONE BLACK HINDU in Trinidad, he/she should be represented.
  • Person B: Amm, the alternative is to not make a scene out of something that is not a scene.
  • Person D: Okay… now you are getting ridiculous… Santa and chimneys have NOTHING to do with Christmas… OMG… this discussion is going nowhere.
  • Person B: amm… it is used to portray christmas around the world.
  • Person D: I gorn… later…
  • Person F: I am an East Indian but I do not belong to any religion. I respect people and their beliefs but they are not mine therefore I do not take part. I don’t celebrate Divali or Eid not even Christmas. I don’t understand how you can belong to one…
  • Person B: you just say divali is not about trinidad its about all the hindus in the world and as such the ad should reflect that…

    so then if we doing local ads to reflect celebrations around the world we should incorporate global imagery… i just saying what you say.
  • Person G: it still have ignorant ppl like you out there? fml….
  • Person B: yeah it still have ignorant people like me out here. anything else?
  • Person D: I also said, B, in case you can’t read… if there is ONE BLACK HINDU in Trinidad, it should be reflected… why is it about numbers? KR, THANK YOU!!!!
  • Person B: yeah but that is what YOU think… you think that everything YOU think should be taken into consideration by this govt?
  • Person B: YOU think if it have ONE black hindu he should be in the ad… so what?
  • Person D: OMG!! This time I REALLY GONE….[original poster’s name].. love you but this ridiculous debate is too much. xx ♥
  • Person B:this is not a debate friend… a debate is when you could actually make a point not just state how you feel.

    All you doing is stating how you feel. I actually explained my position on the issue.
  • Person H: wait nah , allyuh fitin dey?? allyuh fuh real?..steupsss
  • Person B: meen fighting, i just stating an opposing view. not bringing any emotion or anything into the discussion, not calling anyone any names.
  • Person I: And may the lights of Divali..lights your way to see clearly the love of all humanity.
  • Person J: i know black ppl who are hindu’s ?? wats up with that anty kam.
  • Person G: that’s all good and well B, but pls stfu cause your ignorance and racist behavior is not welcomed on a day like today. Lets celebrate light over the darkness of hate, rascism, and ignorance. Trinidad is made up of all races and c…See More
  • Person F: It would be wrong of us to assume that any one race belong’s to any one religion….that’s is what you’re saying right? So then this picture should be discussed also. http://www.trinidadexpress.com/featured-news/Spiritual-Shouter-Baptise-118892209.html Because I don’t see any East Indians there….if that’s the point your’e trying to debate!
  • Person G: K, there is deception by the media. Both pictures wrongfully display what our country is at its core. We as the citizens should not feed into it.
  • Person D: Hear nah… all I was doing was agreeing with D. I don’t live in Trinidad and therefore, don’t see the papers and cannot comment on every ad. As far as I’m concerned, my only point about the ad from the PRIME MINISTER is that she is not representing a race or religion, but the COUNTRY. Separation of church and state. Okay, I swear… I really gone this time…
  • Person J: to miss k l, my sister in law is baptise and she is indian so what’s your point. hope you all understand that we all black here in trinidad .
  • Person F: That’s my point exactly…I don’t see the need to point out that there aren’t any Afro Trini’s in the picture with our Prime Minister because there are pics like this that would raise questions also….so let’s not make this about the government which is clearly what the post is trying to do….make Kamla look bad!!! So who should be blamed for the Shouter Baptiste pic???
  • Person J: sorry we dont hav to make her look bad she doing that all by her self , and those ppl aint our prime mister ???
  • Person G: like they aint know that L….black and indian both have skin pigment of a person of color….and K, even though there is no one to “blame” with the shouter baptist pic…kamla is the prime minister and she has to be weary of the…See More
  • Person I: As head of state she should represent STATE..every one should be included!
  • Person K: Let me inform you people out there.In India there are black people who are Hindus.FACT!In parts of Africa(Ghana)there are black Hundus.Indians in general should NEVER look at themselves as a race but a nationality.Having a black child should not be an issue.Even have a Chinese or a White child in the add should not be a problem because in India all 3 major races make up India and are Hindus.Talk done.
  • Person F: I am saying L that if you want to contest that Afro Trini’s should be included in the Divali pic then you have to contest that Indo Trini’s should be in the Shouter Baptiste pic!
  • Person F: That’s exactly what I’m trying to say, the media nor the government isn’t always correct in their representation of us as a united people…why bring it up only in this light when in happens all the time!
  • Person I: Did you know our Prime Minister, is Baptiste? a practicing one at that!
  • Person B: ha racist behavior? well that’s the easiest card to play here and also you a false dichotomy. just because i do not think that africans should be represented in divali ads means that i bear any hatred or ill towards africans. it may or may not matter to you that i myself am of african descent.
  • Person J: smarty you jus took a pic of ppl from shouter day ? right those ppl are not the prime mister ? right so she should know better , and not just afro trini’s but all other races we have ent ? is a simple matter of right and wrong on our pm part , she should have use her brain some more .
  • Person J: last post we all black
  • Person B: K.. divali is not about this country and all of its inhabitants, it is about the hindu community. A divali ad doesn’t have any responsibility to represent all the ethnic groups of this country.Would you say then that a documentary on divali that does not portray africans celebrating would be a misrepresentation of the festival?
  • Person G: we all “mixed” cause some where along our history and family lines we will find someone of a different culture or race in the mix. So it dont matter if you LOOK indian or black…unless u JUS land from the Mother Land of India or Africa (and even there have white africans and black indians) then all this race talk is just a waste of time. It have no AFRO Trinidadian, Indi Trinidadian. It just have TRINIS period….I only read half of the comments but I’ll say this. A big part of racism is making things like this into issues.When we live in a society where it doesn’t matter what races are in a ad then we’ll know we reach. Getting vex with someone fo…See More
  • Person B: I myself am an atheist N, so is not like I even fighting any battle for any particular religion.
  • Person K: OMG!Indians are not a race!In fact most Indians in Trinidad fall under mixed or Negroid. Hindus are in this country are bascally black. Divali is a ‘black people’ festival. Trinidad should not be fightin’ down the ad. Next year hopfully it will incorparate ‘everyone’ i.e. African,Chinese,Syrian,White,etc.
  • Person B: E, Divali is a Hindu festival.*

Well! Where to begin? This conversation thread goes on quite long (not much longer than where I cut  though) but it was fascinating for multiple reasons: this here is basically why, on average, it’s hard — really damn hard (for me personally, anyway) to have a proper discussion with the average Trinidadian about race, representation and identity. Segments of this conversation are also great, typical examples of how nationality narratives are problematic causes for concern and why they bother me so much. Mainly because of erasure — or the fear of it — someone is always getting erased in the process and I don’t think that’s something we want to work towards. People lost their lives and limbs, broke backs and poured sweat in the process — that any of this exists is a testament to their survival. Meanwhile, here we have multiple instances of people advocating the erasure of a religious Hindu festival or, at least, it being subsumed into some nationalistic Trini expression of national culture so we can (or since we do?) all freely participate.

What? Why? Did anyone pass this by the Maha Sabha? I know we all love to celebrate our pluralistic cultural identities, as exemplars for the rest of the world, supposedly, but what frustrates me even more is why so many Trinis persist in drowning issues and constructs of race, religion and diaspora inside nationalistic narratives because it doesn’t end up just adding texture to the national narrative — we end up trying to erase it, from its specific racial and cultural origins. We end up telling self-identified Afro-Trinidadians that you can’t be African and self-identified East Indians that you can’t be Indian — just Trinidadian. It ends up telling me and other people what to call ourselves. Call me by my name, thank-you very much, when I tell you what that is — call me by my blasted name, whatever that may be.

So, someone reiterates that it’s a Hindu religious festival first and foremost, it’s not just up for grabs on the nationalistic-holiday-assimilation buffet and people are busy decrying how it’s more Trinidadian than anything else. And why are you bringing race into it and blah, blah, blah. If you have a valid critique — you’re of course, being racist. If you dare contextualize the value of claiming a serious, religious celebration as somehow part of the quasi-representative fabric of who we are and only that and nothing else — you’re also, probably being racist. We weave this fantastical, utopian, nationalistic identity that ends up with discussions a lot like this. And how do you do this without even tussling with who we are? What are we trying to bundle under the banner of Trinbagonian-ness and Trinidadian-ness and why?

And because pluralistic notions of Trinidadian identity means everyone is by default included and we all have equal access to each other’s cultural expressions (black, white, Chinese etc–all ah we), the Facebook poster expects this reflected in the PM’s message.  But the PM is speaking to a specific community on a specific holiday, inclusion is not necessarily part of the agenda here and I think the outcome is representative of the aim of the message: to send a greeting to the Hindu community that they can relate to, not to send a rainbow-people-coalition greeting to the Hindu community. Why on earth would that happen? And what does it mean for the rest of us who feel ‘left out?’ (Not saying that I do) but some do.

How do we find spaces for everyone in these displays of nationalistic ‘cultures’ that bind together to form the Trinbagonian one — and why the hell are some of us so damn invested in doing so? Will these celebrations one day ever be divorced from their origins? Should we ask people what they want from the inclusion of their respective cultural heritages as nationalistic badges of Trinidadian cultural identity? And why are some of us so quick to assume that individuals cannot straddle multiple identity spaces at any given time? African identity doesn’t negate a Trini one; Syrian identity doesn’t negate a West Indian/ Caribbean one.

Of Afro-Latina identity, Puerto Rican writer and academic, Mayra Santos-Febres had this to say (bold and italicized are my doing): “I don’t know what it means to be a Black woman in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. I know how it feels. It feels as if you exist in virtual reality, as a symbol of ‘our shared African heritage’, as if you passed out of an episode of ‘Roots’ and started roaming around the island without any connection whatsoever to the transformations that you see unravelling in front of your eyes. You are the past.  In our island nations, the future is not Black. Nor is the present. Each of the contemporary manifestations of race in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba is criminalised or brushed away as fashion, assimilation, or plain craziness. Rap, for instance, international hip-hop culture, Afro-Antillean religion. All of these manifestations of race become domesticated through the rhetoric of the nation. Merengue and Bachata become Dominican, and since Dominicans are not Black, according to the nation’s rhetoric, then the genre miraculously becomes White. The same goes for the rumba and salsa. But something weird happens when the genres are needed to attract tourism. In such cases, the nation folklorises the musical expressions, dresses Black musicians and dancers in funny costumes, and Voila! The origins become theatricalised and blackness becomes a performance from the distant past” (Via: Lati-Negros).

This is what I am afraid of (and not just for black people) and this is why I usually side-eye usual Trinidadian (I’ll tactfully leave Tobago out of this, cause it’s usually Trinis) rhetoric about nationalistic culture that attempts to erase the varied stories of people who came to our country (some involuntarily) by telling us that’s not who we are anymore! It’s enough to make you headdesk repeatedly — violently.

* Addendum: on the real — there are just loads upon loads of racefail and bad conflations of nationhood and identity and race throughout the entire conversational exchange; no examination of intersectionality, confused notions of history and heritage, and terrible logic (using the mere existence of white Africans to support the ‘mixed’ lineage of black people several generations down in the West Indies) etc. and etc.

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5 Responses to “Call Me by My Name”

  1. derevolushunwidin Says:

    fyah!

    This was one of the infuriating things about living in Trinidad, the “all ah we is one” mentality completely undermines all elements of appropriation that people were so comfortable practicing. And it being pushed as being “truly Trini” makes it ever harder to argue against.

    This I think is partially why many people are so invested in identifying as mixed, once we have the blood of the indigenous people as well as African, Indian, Syrian-Lebanese, Chinese, Portuguese and the list goes on… no one can call into question anything we are do, b/c we are truly Trini. Fully absolving us of the responsibility to question our privilege, oppression and position as oppressors.

    Thank you!

  2. soyluv Says:

    Yes! It’s hard to push against and its pervasive and people are quick to act like you’re this crazy, ‘racial’ separatist and I feel like under the nationality narrative is a real complex web of sometimes strange & complicated things, (not all of which I even managed to touch on here) thus, one can find way too many people asserting that Trinidadianess is an ethnicity–an actual racial identity onto itself and it’s like grasping at straws because if I am that–then I don’t have to deal with being anything else, if I don’t want to. Even if I happen to be something that’s clearly racially and ethnically identifiable. Even if what that is, is beautiful and unique and special in its own right.

    This in addition to the mixed-ness that you refer to and how that plays out as part of the so-called national narrative (the rainbow people cultural meme, quite distinct from how people are free to self identify: where the rainbow is in everyone and anyone who says otherwise is being anti The Nation)–and I have no issues with how people choose to self identify per se, but you can’t force the rainbow on and in everyone. And not inside the space of religion, or race or elsewhere that easily. Touting mixed-nation narratives for everyone is not the only way to nation build. And you’re on point: there’s absolutely an element of privilege and oppression as well. Thanks for that added insight!

  3. David Says:

    Soy,

    This is really a fascinating issue. I completely agree that “all ah we” nationalism can be a real cop-out sometimes. A lot of times it seems to be a way of not talking about real differences that exist in our societies, and as you say, issues of oppression and privilege get swept under the rug where we can’t address them. This is something that I’m really wary of, at the same time that I have a desire for a more integrated society in the USVI. It’s a tricky issue – getting people to see where their experiences overlap without erasing or silencing anyone. When we are all comfortable with each others’ narratives that’s when I think we will start to see less of a need to downplay real difference. I enjoyed reading this – very well written as always.

    All the best,
    David

  4. fyah links « Add Fyah And Stir Says:

    […] if a fyah piece by soyluv that talks about appropriation in the Caribbean, specially the religious Hindu festival Divali and […]

  5. soyluv Says:

    Thanks David! You’re so right, it is “a tricky issue.” And what’s frustrating and scary to me sometimes, is that it can be hard as heck to get context in. Nationality narratives do a seriously, strong kind of brainwashing at times (for lack of a better, less alarmist word)–that makes it a little tough to get to that place you succinctly describe where different “experiences overlap without erasing or silencing anyone.”

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