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Telling Our Stories, Curating Our Lives

By James Cartwright, ICS Intern

Stories are vehicles. We can use them to take a ride through our past or to preview the future.

How we use stories and how we receive stories are important ways that communities find their purpose.

The essence of storytelling and the oral tradition of the Caribbean was the focus of the June 14 AllSPICE event, Telling Our Stories, Curating Our Lives’

Within the intimate auditorium of the World Bank J Building, two professors and a development expert – an eclectic mix – if I may so myself, stimulated a conversation about how digital media can ensure the preservation of Caribbean Diaspora history and culture.

The evening proceeded with a brief introduction and a discussion of Caribbean identity from a representative from the World Bank, Dr. Richard Cambridge, who heads up the African Diaspora Program.  After introductions by Roger Caruth, the panelists Dr. Anestine Theophile-La Fond and Professor Andrew Millingtonm, both of Howard University, talked about how digital media can be a key medium for telling the story of West Indians in the Diaspora.

Dr. LaFond offered interesting thoughts on digitalization’s relative cultural utility making the point that digitalization saves time and money, gives access to information, destroys cultural boundaries, and allows for quick comparison of information. She shared the example of a 17-century text that was recently uncovered by Howard University librarians and while it’s nice to see the text, there are limitations for touch because of the aged nature of the book. As a complement – and in some cases alternative – digitalization allows preservation of very delicate but culturally significant artifacts.

Digitalization destroys the traditional boundaries between custodians of information and custodians of artifacts and that cost and access are the key drivers of its success. For her, the issue does not lie in the actual digital preservation, but in the fact that such digitalization and preservation cannot influence people’s appreciation of their history. Which if West Indians, in the Diaspora or at home, value their history and culture more, then the fight for preserving would be without debate. She pointed out it’s not just the Diaspora that is struggling with telling their story but in the region, governments have to be pressured to see the value in museums and historical sites. That MUST change.

Filmmaker and Howard University professor Andrew Millington relates a popular folktale of the camel and the scorpion, moving from one island to another for a fete. The scorpion says “let me go across the water on your back”, to which the camel replies “you are a scorpion, you will sting me”. After much resistance camel agrees, and they both get to the fete. They have a good time, and it’s time to go back home. They return the same way they came and just before they get back home, the camel feels a stinging pain in his hump. “Why? Said the camel.” Said the scorpion: “see brother this sting is in my nature, it was bound to happen sooner or later”.

Ask Millington and he will tell you unabashed that he is a storyteller. That’s what a filmmaker is, he says. And as a storyteller (filmmaker), there are two essential questions to be asked:

1) How do we use stories?

2)How do we receive stories?

On the politics of the griot: he quotes Pierre Janay “narration created humanity”. Stories are vehicles, he says, that take us to different places. They help us to organize time and make sense of events. They give us a sense of purpose. Space is a framework, a “practice place”. The space that we create for ourselves is a battleground of ideas and of memories. One day, as Professor Millington related, he met a fellow Bajan. He recognized this man’s accent , but when he questioned his identity he did not receive the positive response he anticipated. Instead of finding common ground with the man, he untapped hostility. The man simply stated that Barbados was a place that he didn’t want to ever go back to because his aunt was robbed three times and it was “a horrible island, dat place”.

In Professor Millington’s words, the man “made peace with the place that he had to create for himself and was content to never return”.  We learned that in storytelling there is a measure of healing, and that the griot’s ability to testify as a storyteller is his greatest medicine. Battling with traditional historiographies, a Caribbean-American person has to define his own space . “We have to look for a source to mediate our reality, so we gather together through festival arts to recreate a sense of self, a sense of community, of identity.” Professor Millington then went on to describe what he called the ABCs of development for Caribbean peoples in America: affirming identity (discovering who are we), building community (carving out a group identity within our space and developing a vision), and recreating in the space  (inserting oneself into history, thereby achieving power by telling one’s own story.) He reflected on Rex Nettleford’s expression  that “telling our own story is the exigency of creating the concept of a Caribbean Civilization” and suggested that digital media was the ideal way to tell these stories in the 21st century, to build a bridge to islands. He quotes Lahming “Create a space, create a place, and one day we will find a monument to Caribbean Civilization…the role of the artist is to return a society unto itself”. When we tell digital stories they should allow members of the community to empower themselves.

At the end of the evening, Dr. Nelson offered remarks that emphasized all that was said. Caribbean Americans should embrace digitalization to build visibility, voice, and identity, she said. It can be a KEY to establishing a communal identity that would allow Caribbean Americans to deftly navigate the American cultural space.  It is of paramount importance that Caribbean Americans begin to have a greater voice, that they have the agency to tell their own stories and to claim a piece of the American dream that everyone is here to claim.



The Ladies are Upstairs Book Reading

Merle Collins’s reading from her new book, The Ladies Are Upstairs, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts was an exquisite blend of artful prose and personal honesty. It was the first reading I’ve ever seen where people in the audience excitedly shared how moments in the novel reminded them of their own or their parents and grandparents’ experiences. The book follows Doux from her childhood tribulations in Paz to her life as a grandparent in the Northeast of the US (Boston and New York City). However, it is elevated beyond other immigration stories for because of the intimacy the reader feels with Doux. To me it is more a Caribbean life story than it is an immigration story.

The first except Collins read depicted a scene in which young Doux is hit by her teacher who thinks she forgot her homework. Ultimately, after she proves her innocence, the teacher admits he was wrong to hit her in front of the class, shocking the class of young children, convinced still in either the infallibility or stubbornness of adults. The delicate innocence and power of this incident shows Collins’s allure as a writer. She is a true storyteller, a beautiful presenter of oral history. She breathes life into youthful experience, simple but profound. Her words and mellifluous voice filled the small auditorium with almost musical melody and rhythm.

The most evocative passage Collins read follows Doux, now a grandparent in Boston, as she wanders around her basement apartment thinking about, though remarkably without bitterness, how trapped she feels and how it really wouldn’t be much trouble for people to stop by and see her once in a while. Collins presents this moment beautifully. She perfectly captures the wise and noble despair of Doux whose world has all but forgotten her: a new energetic, distracted, and youthful world. Collins doesn’t seem to appraise whether this is good or bad; she delicately depicts the subtle tragedy, a fact of life.

This passage elicited an emotional and excited response from the audience as people were reminded of their own and their forebears migration stories. This speaks to one of the most valuable elements of The Ladies Are Upstairs. It is a Caribbean story, firmly part of a movement to create a collage of experiences. The book is a great assertion of the greater Caribbean story, which claims personal narratives as a cultural resistance to the enduring pains “Othering”. The reading itself was a part of this movement, an honest mapping of oral history.

article by intern David Manning

by Marielle Barrow

A Day “In the Spirit”

On a typically sweltering and muggy DC day I encountered the “In the Spirit” exhibition (featured at the Inter-American Development Bank), a refreshing opening to the ALLSPICE Festival. I innocently sauntered through the doors, much as a tourist would, anticipating an artistic chronicling of the visual and chromatic brilliance of the Caribbean. The beauty of the exhibit was confirmed the moment I walked through the doors. There is a staggering array of colors and methods throughout the exhibit, an awesome artistic collage. It was a true learning experience. While initially I was taken aback by the intensity of the art, I grew to appreciate the strong undercurrent of empowerment it displays.

I was first drawn to Joshua’s Crossing by Angelica Barrow. It was the only one I felt I understood after my first walkaround. The other pieces were initially perplexing to me, part of a narrative I didn’t understand: “beautiful but dark” I scrawled in my notebook early on. I loved Barrow’s painting’s mythological feeling, with a distant unnamed city looking on a great tidal wave (that looked almost to merge with the sky) in the foreground.

Many of the pieces dealt with the notion of Othering, a loss of self and spiritual displacement. GA Gardener’s work was especially intense. He collaged a startling array images and features that recounted a deep social despair. The carving at the spatial center of the exhibit contributes to an underlying sense of darkness. The figure (by Antonius Roberts), almost tribal looking, seems to be struggling against some brutal unseen force, the body trapped in the wood that birthed it. There are elements of these pieces that are dark, but is much more complex than that. They speak to the aesthetic elevation of a struggle, both personal and social. Not as much dark as they are exquisitely human.

The brilliance of the exhibition is the different paths that each person takes personally, and even spiritually for some, as they walk through the intimate artistic space. One is rewarded for giving it more time; there seem to be limitless realizations throughout the journey. It is stunning as a visual multimedia display, as it is fascinating for the honesty of many of the artists who generously expose their personal odysseys.

That was a key element of the exhibition that slowly developed in my understanding. What I had in some cases interpreted as darkness or beauty was part of a more important narrative of candor and intensity. Nikolai Noel’s small colorful ink drawings opened this world for me. They are bare and organic, strong icons of personal experience.

The exhibit provides a gorgeous elevation of the artists’ personal experiences of Caribbeanness. This, perhaps, is a piece of what the “Spirit” is. The artwork is a bold assertion of the Caribbean identity. The intimacy of the exhibit refuses the impulse of a tourist; it compels the visitor to move beyond being a passive observer. There is a sense of a mythology being created, a unique story that is gracefully interwoven into a greater narrative. “In the Spirit” is an important contribution of Caribbeanness, showing both the talent of Caribbean artists and their formation of a distinct voice. When I left it was still hot and muggy, but I had an added bounce to my step…

I encourage all to visit the exhibition from June 6th-June 11th at the Inter-American Development Bank, 1300 New York Ave, NW (open 12-6 daily). Keep an eye out as we’ll be posting some images from the gallery and linking to the artists’ work.

ALL SPICE – Caribbean American Festival of Arts & Humanities

We all like a little spice in our lives.

Get a taste of some of the most authentic creative Caribbean talents during the ALL SPICE Caribbean American Festival of Arts & Humanities in Washington, DC June 14-18 sponsored by the Institute of Caribbean Studies.

The week features storytelling, reggae music, intellectual stimulation and of course, visual exhibits.

Kicking off on Monday, June 14, enjoy a night of music and conversation with a tribute to legendary reggae artist Bob Marley. The event entitled “The Legacy of Bob Marley: Word, Sound & Power” highlights the international musical icon’s music as a voice for social justice. The discussion is led by those who knew and worked with the legend.

Check out other events:

Tuesday, June 15        Six O’Clock Caribbean Time                                    6:30 p.m.

A traditional storytelling presentation with noted authors Merle Collins and Elliott Parris

Location: Atlas Theater, 1336  H Street NE

Wednesday, June 16    Melting Pot Blues                                                        6:30 p.m.

Preview of stage play “Melting Pot Blues” that highlights the challenges of Caribbean men who have migrated to the north.

Location: Atlas Theater, 1336 H Street NE

Friday, June 18  Voice Prints: Reggae, Jazz & Word Rhythms               6:30 p.m.

Acoustic reggae and live music from Image Band and Proverbs

Location: Zanzibar on the Waterfront, 700 Water Street

Don’t miss out!

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