December 2017

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Laventille – as both physical landscape and cultural site of memory – holds an iconic location in the burgeoning multi-ethnic, multicultural nation’s symbology and narrative of how it came to construct and name itself. The sprawling settlement, which overlooks the capital city of Port of Spain, was a catchment for a substantial cross-section of the newly freed slaves who embraced emancipation in 1834–38 by fleeing the estates in pursuit of a better life. They were joined by waves of immigrants from other Caribbean nations who flocked to the then oil-rich Trinidad in the early and mid-1900s.

Laventille is a large and complex community with its fair share of upwardly mobile as well as impoverished citizens and districts. While some areas exist under siege; others are peaceful. All are resilient. Laventille has its towering heroes as surely as it has its villains.

Laventille is also iconic because, as Earl Lovelace powerfully evokes, it was out of this hillside ghetto of the urban poor that restless and denigrated young men produced their compelling acts of resistance and creativity. Trinidad and Tobago’s primary cultural export – the carnival arts – was crafted by this and other settlements on the periphery of Port of Spain. Trinidad-style carnivals have grown exponentially; they have been exported to metropolitan centres to become the world’s largest street festival and gathering place for migrants of the Caribbean diaspora and beyond. More significantly, Laventille and its people have led the way in generating what Rawle Gibbons terms “a theatre of self-liberation.”

The nation, which has proven to be highly effective in incorporating the community’s energies and creative potential, has failed spectacularly in terms of alleviating its ills. This diverse and evolving community has come to be symbolically flattened and reduced in the national psyche. It has today become iconic of the grim living conditions generated by persistent poverty, State neglect, the emergence of virulent gun and gang violence and the challenge of healing dis-eased communities.

Walcott published the poem “Laventille” and the essay “What the Twilight Says” in 1970, the year of the tumultuous Black Power revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, in which suppurating fissures of woundedness were erupting to shake the foundations of the social order. The opening lines of the poem allude briefly to the emblem of hope, creativity and potentiality hammered out in this terrible crucible: “It huddled there / steel tinkling its blue painted metal air, / tempered in violence, like Rio’s favelas.” The persona ascends the hill for the christening of a child destined for a journey between the “habitual womb” – the repository of seed sprouting from loveless, passionless, mechanical couplings – and the “patient tomb”, which is content to wait quietly, certain of its harvest. The life of this child will follow a trajectory “fixed in the unalterable groove / of grinding poverty.” The persona attributes this condition to psychic woundedness caused by the ruptures of the Middle Passage:

Something inside is laid wide like a wound,
some open passage that has cleft the brain,
some deep, amnesiac blow. We left
somewhere a life we never found,

customs and gods that are not born again,
some crib, some grille of light
clanged shut on us in bondage, and withheld

us from that world below us and beyond,
and in its swaddling cerements we’re still bound.

The physical surroundings externalize the grim quality of the people’s lives:

we climbed where lank electric
lines and tension cables linked its raw brick
hovels like a complex feud,

where the inheritors of the middle passage stewed,
five to a room, still clamped below their hatch,
breeding like felonies,

whose lives revolve round prison, graveyard, church.
Below bent breadfruit trees . . .

Walcott sketches in highly compressed word pictures an external environment which reflects grim socioeconomic and psychic realities. The electric wires convey both the dense interconnectedness of the people in the community and the inevitable tensions generated by overcrowding, poverty, frustration, flouted desire and hopelessness. To ascend is to descend. The journey uphill causes the poet to envision a metaphorical parallel – the middle passage – as inflicting a deep wound through a violent blow which has cleft the brain and caused the amnesia, which Walcott identifies in “The Muse of History” as the “true history of the New World.” The journey sent dispossessed peoples into futile repetitious cycles of time, space, oppression and loss, which undermine attempts to plot a trajectory for escape. The horrific journey cannot be relegated to the past if two centuries later its survivors still live the legacy of its horrors daily “clamped below their hatch, breeding like felonies.” A pervasive culture of criminality emanates from both the historical blow and the contemporary social environment.

Walcott grounds his representation of grim outcomes of the trans-generational transfer of trauma in place. This compelling socio-symbolic construct does not emerge from an internal perspective which Walcott constructs in “The Spoiler’s Return” as a confident and condemnatory calypsonian. This persona uses his elevated vantage point in the hills of Laventille where he is “crowned and mitred as bedbug the first” to pour stringent critique of the post-independence political order. In stark contrast, the persona of “Laventille” speaking as a sympathetic outsider constructs the community as a site of raw pain in which poverty, denigration, hopelessness and despair are created anew with every passing day.

The vantage point is as significant in life as in literature. In life, those who aspire towards the hegemonic Euro-creole sensibility steeped in amnesia and / or shame generated by the African presence in must bear Laventille’s intrusive enactments of cultural rituals of transcendence and resistance, the embodied assertion of the ancestral danced faiths of the Orishas and Spiritual Baptists, the rhythms and energies of drumbeats transmuted into “steel tinkling its blue painted metal air, / tempered in violence” (Walcott).

In life, despite overall real family and community gains and accomplishments, too many inhabitants of the hill remain locked out of potentiality, upward mobility and trans-generational progress which have been accessed by more privileged descendants of slaves and indentees. While this social condition is not the full nature of the sprawling leviathan released by the Middle Passage, it is certainly its dark underbelly.

This is a 1970 poetic evocation of the impact of psychic and direct trauma on a community. Let us leap forward some forty years to 2009 to the online site www.Soca to gauge reactions to the news the “Despers Flee the Hill: Crime Forces Laventille Panorama Champ to Seek Shelter in Belmont.” (Daily Express). The fuller reading analyses both the newspaper report and a range of online responses to this disturbing news. Time this evening will allow me to zero in on one example of how Laventille is constructed in discourse, as a social barometer for the entire nation:

Pan started in those hills. Men died to play. Their deaths marked the path that pan took to reach this place, in this time. Now, in its birthplace, people are simply being killed and a pivotal, iconic band has to tear up roots. It’s just pan I know. There are more important things like food and shelter and clothes on your back. Those people who are doing the crimes don’t really see what pan has to do with anything. An old piece of tin can’t stop a fella from hacking off your wrist for that watch or slamming a bullet in your belly becuase [sic] you looked at him the wrong way.

They big and strong and armed and dangerous and ruling the hills now. And where once the pan identified Trinidad and Tobago, they are now the symbol of what we have become. (Soca Warriors 2009, reply #1)

Here, as is invariably the case in the popular imaginary, the commentator synthesizes the competing legends and narratives of origin, and the diverse experimental processes which rolled out in numerous panyards in and around Port of Spain in the late 1930s and early 1940s, into a single understanding: “Pan started in those hills.”

The second synoptic statement, that “men died to play”, constructs the steelpan as bathed in the blood of martyrs. At the inception of the steelband movement, it was perceived by representatives of the colonial hegemonic order as the noise of unruly hooligans. There was police harassment alongside confiscation of instruments, skirmishes and violence against the players. According to Stephen Stuempfle in The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago, even greater violence was generated by inter-band rivalries. In the 1940s conflicts frequently broke out over female supporters of the bandsmen – many of whom were engaged in prostitution – when they were seen consorting with men of rival steelbands. Competition for the attention and earnings of these women, which has been imprinted on the national psyche by Sparrow’s Classic “Jean and Dinah” was a major source of inter-band rivalry and violent skirmishes, on Carnival days and year-round.

The Soca Warrior post conflates anti-establishment resistance with bloodshed for a just cause as reflected in the assumption that “men died to play.” This romanticization feeds into the logic of the following statement: “Now, in its birthplace, people are simply being killed and a pivotal, iconic band has to tear up roots.” The word simply implies that people are being killed for no just cause.

By constructing the panmen as victims of the hegemonic order and of a younger generation of bad-johns, the online commentator recognizes only intragroup violence and communal breakdown threating a cherished national cultural icon. In this discursive construction, there is no acknowledgment of intergenerational communal responsibility for what the area has become; there is no acknowledgement of the impact of the socio-symbolic location of Laventille in the national psyche; there is no acknowledgement of the impact of scapegoating and denigration; racism and classism; poverty, overcrowding and underdevelopment. Yet the online commentator makes another leap. “And where once the pan identified Trinidad and Tobago, it is now a symbol of what we have become.” The equation goes like this: if Laventille’s cultural inventions are national symbols of accomplishment, pride, resistance and cultural assertiveness, then Laventille’s lacerations, violence and eruptions in crime, are symptomatic of the contemporary state of the nation.

The psychic disease and the grim social conditions which Walcott envisioned as a legacy of empire have proven resistant to healing despite decades of independence. The nascent violence then, reflected in traumatized, displaced and dispossessed Afro-Caribbean warriors, has ripened into full-scale urban gang warfare. Much of the aggression is turned inwards. Ascendancy is marked out in turf. Rival gangs slaughter each other, largely untroubled by police intervention. Entire communities are being held to ransom. Children and infants are being felled by stray bullets or in revenge killings. Vigilante justice is taking root.

The literary and popular representations point to the notion of place as archive or symbolic repository. Laventille has come to be a significant locus of meaning for all, rooted in latent personal and communal histories which reflect the traumatized consciousness of entire nation. The deeply rooted psychic lacerations generated by the known, as well as the silenced and submerged abuses of the colonial and neo-colonial social orders travel underground like rhizomes, linking people-groups into complex networks of relations and of unresolved hurt. These roots of rejection, bitterness, acrimony and loss crop up where we least expect them.

It explains in part why every contestation over national emblems proceeds with fresh rancour as the unhealed wounds erupt and suppurate anew, generating fresh pain. I contend that it is trauma’s re-experiencing, created by the inability to take in all at once the enormity of the suffering and loss in its entirety. It is trauma’s hyper-arousal which generates an intensity of response which is disproportionate to its catalyst. It is trauma’s uncanny repetition which causes this complex of issues to crop up repeatedly, intra- and inter-generationally. For a substantial cross-section of our society it is simpler to resort to avoidance of thought and feeling and distancing of shame through collective amnesia. It is more painful to deal with hypernesia – trauma’s intrusive memory of haunting ancestral presences which intrude centuries later.

If discourses of collective trauma have the power to generate a sense of collectivity, which in turn can fix its adherents into notions of victimhood, they can also be mobilized in the interest of empowerment and agency in terms of redress. In relation to the community of Laventille, there is an urgent imperative to address material deficiencies and social services. There is need for a new conversation which addresses victim blame while acknowledging shared responsibility for action and therapeutic intervention. Even more so there is need for spiritual invention to bring peace to warring hearts, individuals and communities.

But my major contention today is that the collective trauma for which the city on this hill acts as a symbolic repository or archive, is a national condition which we share with post-colonial nations globally. Therapeutic intervention is required if we are to be healed. Distancing ourselves from its historical and contemporary processes, archiving them in troubled communities, perpetuating group hostilities based on race and class will bring us no good. Collective memory is always selective. Knowledge and cultural workers nationwide need to reshape collective memory and formulate empowering group memories with which emerging individual memories can intersect. And because the body remembers, this memory work should also be undertaken in visual modes and embodied modes of dance and performance. The UWI has been instrumental here through its consistent recognition of the people’s philosophers through the award of honorary doctorates. Professor Patricia Mohammed’s recent film The City on the Hill is also exemplary of positive refashioning. Most significantly there is need to formulate a new foundational narrative, to reconstitute the torn social fabric, and to realize the potentialities of a new future.

Paula Morgan is a Professor of West Indian Literature and Culture at the UWI St. Augustine. Her inaugural professorial lecture, “Healing the hurts of my people slightly: Discourse of societal violence and trauma,” was delivered on November 16, 2017. For the full lecture (Click Here)