Emancipation and its impact on the culture and shape of society

Last week the Caribbean celebrated  the anniversary of Emancipation and we commented on the great impact it has had on the culture of the region.  One of the high-points of the celebration and one of the illustrations of that cultural impact was the Crop-Over festival of Barbados whose peak was Kadooment Day on the first Monday in August.  Emancipation Day was also marked in that country resulting in a public holiday on August 3, but the high mas and focus was on Kadooment.

What happened in Barbados for Crop-Over 2010 is very instructive as a way of highlighting one of the many important Africanisms in Caribbean culture as a development out of the deep influence of emancipation. There are several of these African cultural elements in Caribbean society and the experience of this year’s Crop-Over can speak to the way they have been misunderstood and misinterpreted by the people of the Caribbean.  These have been mentioned before, but an important context to the present misunderstanding may be found in the historical dimension which includes how the people were socialised under slavery and the way they responded through the popular culture after emancipation.

The ‘Africanisms’ in the culture include the Creole languages, the spirituality, the sense of morality and the sexuality which are all misinterpreted and undervalued elements in contemporary society.  We have already mentioned how many of these cultural forces have faded or disappeared, and how this had to do with the attitudes of both the colonising ruling class and the Black people, added to the effects of ‘modernisation’ and cultural diffusion.  Each of these factors deserves separate full treatment, but the focus now is on the developments in Barbados and the important factor of sexuality.

During the Crop-Over period in the days leading up to Kadooment both the Advocate and the Nation newspapers carried editorial comments, remarks by columnists and letters to the editor deploring the general behaviour of revellers on Kadooment Day.  Similar comments were aired on radio and television expressing the hope that there would be more decency and less “lewd” dancing and “outrageous” displays by band members and all on the road.

Kadooment day a few years ago

Some implored Barbadians to exercise restraint and imbibe less of the “spirits” of the festival so that the parade of bands and the revelling would be free of “lawlessness.” One of those commentators remarked that the contemporary dance moves were really “simulated sex” and wondered whether the people could find no other way, and whether the national festival of Crop-Over could not be “defined” by anything nobler than simulations of the sex act.

The response of the soca singers and providers of the popular party music that drives the festival was to give more of the same and promote a more pronounced exhibition of that definition.  Calypsonian Red Plastic Bag retorted “yu wukkin up again!” while Soca Monarch Blood won the Road March with a composition that aptly described the quality of “wukkin-up” that was taking place on the road, calling it a case of “Foot on Fire.”  Another popular contender, Lil Rick exhorted the revellers to “Guh Dung” in moves which take them down to the ground while asking with admiration “who taught you to wine like that? Ah never know you coulda wine like that!”  Neither was this musical response to the repeated annual pleas for good behaviour anything so new, since many songs expressed the ambition to “get on bad!”  Years ago Allison Hinds led a chorus of defiance in the face of the authorities proclaiming in one of her soca hits “we are not afraid of the wuk-up police” poking fun, as so many Barbadians did, at the attempts to monitor and control the levels of “vulgarity” on the streets.  Another singer defended what appeared to be excessive ‘wining’ by saying “I not a Caucasian, I am a Barbadian” and “the highway belongs to we!”

The response of the newspaper headlines was often a treatment of what they observed with good humour.  A few years ago the bold front page caption was “Bumper Crop-Over!” while last Tuesday morning after Kadooment 2010 it was “Heat on the Road!”  They were capturing the blatant response of the people whose largely uninhibited quality of revelling was in defiance of any prohibition and an ‘in-your-face’ reply to those who called for “decency.”

The headlines carried puns on the lyrics of the soca choruses as well as on the sensibility of the revellers. They used the language of the popular culture which is a reflection of the popular consciousness containing the usual contemporary expressions of sexuality.  “Bumper Crop-Over” had two meanings.  The festival was a resounding success in all areas with extraordinarily large crowds and, especially, financially.  A particularly huge haul of money was made.  The other meaning was the pun on the popular response.  “Bumper” is current slang for the female posterior which is prominently flaunted in carnival revelry, emphasized by a few dance moves (including the “back-ball” of some years ago) and featuring seductively in various brands of wuk-up choreography and often daringly exposed in the skimpy styles of costume on the road.  There was, therefore, plenty bumper in action at Crop-Over.

“Heat on the Road” was similar double entendre.  Kadooment day was hot and temperatures were high in all respects.  However, particularly high was the sexual energy generating heat from the heavy ‘bumper to fender’ traffic on the road on the already warm day.  There were excessive exhibitions of wukking up, wining and skimpy female attire.  It was also a take-off on the Road March since there were cases of “foot on fire” because of the heat on the road as alluded to by the lyrics of the song.

What then is the meaning of all this overflow of sexuality?  Is it common ‘wuthlissness’ or vulgarity and lewd behaviour by a lawless people?  One of the songs provides an explanation.  The singer identifies himself as a black Barbadian – “I not a Caucasian, I am a Barbadian” and explains that it is his culture.  But he uses the first person plural since his posture is to speak for all black Barbadians for whom it is a natural cultural expression to wuk-up on the road at carnival time.  He isolates those who would prohibit or legislate or otherwise censure this free expression as belonging to a different group or class and proclaims that “the highway belongs to we!” It is their stage for expression on Kadooment day.

According to the singer this mode of expression is not only Barbadian but African.  He is not very far from the truth of it since all these issues surrounding public expressions of sexuality is a factor of the African psyche or cosmos in Caribbean culture.  It exists alongside other elements of the African ethos such as spirituality, rivalry and forms of violent resistance.  These have all been very seriously misunderstood and subject to strong denunciation.  “The highway belongs to we,” for example, is a claiming of territory, a warning to rivals and defiant resistance.  It is both the response of the popular culture to criticism of their tendency to wuk-up and closely related to the African propensity to rivalry and expressions of sexuality.

This Barbadian example is a re-run of history.  After emancipation the former enslaved citizens of Trinidad were free to take part in carnival which could no longer be as segregated as it was during slavery.  Their growing presence and eventual prominence in the festival led to great resentment and opposition from whites, coloureds and the rising middle class.  This was expressed in many ways including disparaging newspaper editorials about lewd and violent exhibitionism.  Conflicts deepened to violent clashes in the Jamette Carnival and the Camboulay Riots of the 1880s.  The main response of the Blacks was defiance which included more outrageous parading of sexuality and ‘in-your-face’ performances at carnival.

The writers in the Sun and weekend newspapers in Barbados between July 30 and August 1, 2010 raised questions about what defines us, and this was similar to the reservations of a Trinidadian columnist Lisa Agostini a few years ago.  She expressed concern about the way Trinidadians’ choice of the song for Road March said something regrettable about what defined them as a people.  However, what is seen now as vulgarity, or the mindlessness which bothered Agostini, has more profound meaning in the African context from which it emerged.

Expressions of sexuality were not so casual, superficial or gratuitous in the African tradition.  It had to do with the cycle of life and the importance of cycles and rites of passage in the traditions imported into the Caribbean from West African nations.  There are rituals and theatrical expressions that have vivid sexual reference with links to marriage, birth and the passage from one stage of life to the next.  Sexuality is strongly related to ceremonies concerning marriage and fertility.  The traditional African society is highly patriarchal and success and power are often expressed in terms of potency including virility, again often expressed in terms of sexual power.  Ironically, sexual expressions regarded today in the Caribbean as gratuitous and vulgar are employed for moral guidance.  Speech events and performances are used for the instruction of new brides who are assumed to have no experience in sexual matters and called upon to censure deviant behaviour and sexual misconduct.

Good examples of these can be found in the Guyanese rituals of Kwe Kwe (queh queh) and nansi tori.  Both of these are not African, but Guyanese, yet they express themselves very much within the African cosmos and are excellent examples of the African presence in Caribbean culture.  Notably, they are linguistically vivid to the point where they seek absolution in such sayings as “nansi nah gat bad word,” which means sexually explicit references must be forgiven because they are not “bad” but are used within a licence of free expression for the purpose of instruction.  In the African traditions, again, many social functions are performed through theatrical expressions including the sexually explicit verbal performance or gesture.  This passes over into other traditions such as stick-fighting or kalinda and the calypso where expressions of sexuality are common.

This means then, that overt expressions of sexuality in the Caribbean which seem unrestrained and uninhibited come from a history of African traditions and social resistance.  That is why their prevalence in the Jamaican dance-hall, which is now a Caribbean-wide phenomenon, is not to be easily dismissed or denounced in spite of much obvious commercial exploitation and gratification.  It includes the need for an understanding of what these mean to the working class psyche.  The laments of the newspaper writers about what defines us and our national festivals is a less than thorough reading of the expressions of sexuality.  They are misread and misinterpreted because of superficial understanding of their roots.  Placing them properly can be helped by a better knowledge of these roots which may be found in the Africanisms in Caribbean traditions.  Today many of them have been extensively re-interpreted in the popular culture.

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