Saturday, November 8, 2008

On The Significance of Barack Obama As President

On November 4th I sat at my kitchen table in my Oakland apartment watching CNN.Com. In fact for days and weeks before November 4th I had become accustomed to waking and before brushing my teeth or putting the kettle on, turning on my computer to see what had transpired in the presidential campaigns the day before. The US elections had become that important to me; I was rooting for Obama.

As I boiled water for tea, I watched and listened as Obama campaigned in Virginia the day before, making the same speech he had made in the other two states he would visit that day. Speaking of his campaign and the need to maintain respect for differences, he said “we try to make sure we are always reminding our supporters that we are all in this together. We are Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, democrat and republican, young and old, gay and straight, disabled and not disabled, and all of us have something to contribute…” In the crowds behind him, I saw brown and beige and pink skinned people, children and elders, women and men, most standing, some in wheelchairs, and I believed enough to be moved.

That Tuesday reminded me of another day, back in 2004, a year before I left my yellow and green stucco house in Shirlea, Nassau, Bahamas for the neighborhoods of the Bay Area, California. I had been watching the US Democratic Convention on television and a senator from Illinois happened to be speaking. I was sitting down but by the end of his speech I was standing because I could hardly contain the excitement I felt for this man I had never before laid eyes on. His words had a feeling about them, an energy that I had not witnessed in my 35 years, except in snatches of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, both African American visionaries and leaders who had been assassinated by the time I was born. When I heard Barack Obama speak that night I knew he was the one. I told my friends, this is the man who should be president, and when he runs, I am going to the US to vote.

I am a Greek Bahamian who was born in Coral Gables, Florida, so my promise was not an idle one. And on November 4th, 2008, with a long yellow envelope enclosing my absentee ballot in one hand, I left my apartment building at midday and walked the short way to the Lakeside Temple of Practical Christianity where our neighborhood polling station was open and ready to take our votes. As I stepped into the church hall, the full import of what I was about to do assailed me, and I began to weep. In that moment thoughts rushed in all at once: names and faces of the visionaries who had shaped my own most deeply held convictions, about justice and possibilities for change – Rev. King, Malcolm X, Mandela, and the writers whose teachings are my touch stones – Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Alice Walker, James Baldwin; Obama’s message of hope and unity a branch sprouted off that tenacious tree, ancestral roots many and deep. And too, I felt and saw the faces of friends and family, of Bahamians of African descent who have their own histories of liberation struggles, and how I am integrally connected to them, how their history has helped me to understand mine, how their lives today ask questions of me, and answer the questions I cannot answer alone; and of course I felt the hearts and saw the faces of friends here in the United States, many of them Africans in the Diaspora, from the Caribbean or Africa, and some from Boston and Brooklyn, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, and LA and Oakland and their stories were now part of my story and all this history felt deep and wet inside me so that for a split second I had to turn away from the hall, the quiet in there, the voters with their backs to me, to let the tide swell up and of its own accord fall gently away.

I showed the official my envelope. She showed me the black box and the narrow slit to push the envelope through. And on that day I voted for the first African American president of the United States of America. I was grateful to be alive then, and a witness and participant in an exquisite moment in history. I have never believed in the vote as much as I did in that moment. Nor understood how connected we are to all the moments that have brought us collectively to this one.

Later that day, as evening came and votes were being counted on the East Coast, it soon became clear that Barack Obama was going to win. And by 8:30pm that night, only half an hour after West Coast polling stations had closed, CNN had announced their projection that Obama had indeed won and could now be called President Elect Obama. And as the news spread so did voices across Oakland just outside my apartment windows. Horns were blowing, people on the streets were screaming, answering shouts echoed in hallways and in adjacent buildings. Strangers embraced as hoards left bars and community theaters and walked out into the night, wet-eyed and elated.

I have heard friends say that this moment matches in emotional intensity September 11th, but significantly rather than distrust in its aftermath, it has brought more openness. Strangers look at each other and smile tentatively, knowingly, and between them is a sense of the possibility of transformation. The possibility of transformation nationally in which they have already played a part, and if Obama’s election was the result, who knows what could happen next? The old story, with its inevitable limitations and foreseeable conclusions, just got told a different way. And for now the question most people I know seem to be asking is, should we remain hopeful, or cautious, or both?

African American scholar Cornell West, while applauding Obama on his election, cautions that while symbolism is important, Obama the man, the leader, must be held accountable particularly to African Americans and to the poor, and it is how much he is willing to risk on behalf of those suffering most in America that will be the measure of his success in the White House.

Others, including my friend and Bahamian local activist Erin Greene, have said that Obama’s election means very little as far as institutionalized racism goes, and that very little gain has been made as a result of Obama becoming the first African American to be elected president of the United States of America.

The truth is institutionalized racism is as strongly entrenched here in America now as it was before November 4th. And, ongoing social critique is crucial, but, to minimize and misname this historic moment by claiming, as Greene has, that “Obama’s victory will perpetuate confusion” regarding the existence of institutionalized racism, robs us collectively of this transformational moment, which, rather than perpetuating confusion, has already opened the way for real talk regarding, in poet Janice Mirikitani’s words, radical inclusiveness, in this country and globally.

As a white person living in this country, I have to believe that change is possible. I also have to make a distinction between vigilance and cynicism; I can be hopeful and vigilant, but cynicism generates in me profound despair. While vigilance invites me to be awake and ask questions and hold myself and others accountable, cynicism, (and not Obama’s victory), perpetuates distrust and failure to imagine anything better than what already exists.

Unlike Bill Maher, I do not want to ignore Barack Obama’s blackness. Barack Obama is the right man for the presidency of America not in spite of his race but because of it. It is because he is of African descent in a country maimed and wounded by white supremacy that he understands what is needed to heal it; his election calls on white America to live up to its own highest ideals, to live up to its own most cherished vision of freedom from which it has again and again fallen short. His election is a balm to the psyches of African American people particularly, and people of color in general, whose lives have been undervalued or not valued at all in a country where racism has consistently corrupted ideological lenses. Similarly, it is because of Obama's bi-racial and multi-ethnic location, and his interpretation of it, that he was uniquely able to rally together so many across class, race, gender, religious and even political affiliations. For people of every color and ethnicity, who have felt devalued because of class or sexual orientation, or spiritual affiliation, who do not fit with what are considered mainstream standards, Obama’s election has countered that devaluation, has replaced it with possibility: what was marginal has been brought to center in an extraordinary human drama, and so too in our psyches that which we have marginalized we can now bring to center and begin to know what it feels like to have (these parts of) ourselves be honored.

With Obama’s election to president of the United States of America, white and black and brown and red and yellow people are all called on not only to question the old story that white supremacy invented, not simply to cast it out either (since who knows where it would land and still find ways to grow), no, with Obama’s election to president we are called on to take that old story and transform it, word by word; to take its words apart and reconfigure them, revise them, bring new words to the table that can focus new light on old images, all the better to see and create new meaning. And it is in our power to do so. That is the hopefulness that Obama has invoked, symbolically and otherwise: it is in our power to make new stories. In Obama's words, "We are the change we have been waiting for." Ashé.

What is significant about Obama’s call to power is that he is asking his people to hear themselves being called too. In Obama’s own words, he did not win this election, the people who campaigned and believed and hoped and voted did. The people who decided to transform old stories into new ones did. And he reminded the people of their responsibility to carry on this powerful work of change in his victory speech:

“What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek -- it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you” (

Listen, the truth is, people, ordinary everyday people, have been telling new stories already. And Barack Obama is a visionary leader precisely because he has been able to hear those new stories and articulate them in a way that the majority of people in this country were able to hear. He is a product of those new stories, and it is his job now to act on them and bring about the changes they call for. It is the job of everyday people to imagine new stories (many of which are really marginalized stories that have been struggling to be heard for generations) and speak them in our homes, in our mosques and churches and synagogues, at work and on the streets, loud enough for the neighbors and the President to hear.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Unpacking Carifesta X, Part 2

Not a Small Place

"We are not specks in anybody's ocean..." -Tony Martin, Marcus Garvey Scholar

One of the most persistent thoughts expressed during the many panel discussions and readings at Carifesta X Guyana was this: The Caribbean is made up of diverse people and their spiritual and cultural traditions; our strength is in that diversity. In Guyana, the Guyanese speak of living together as six different races. They include among these the Amerindian, the Indian, the African and the European. In Suriname and Trinidad, there is a similar ethnic diversity. This diversity, while not always seamlessly lived, is the way forward, scholars and activists and artists asserted, not only in the Caribbean, but as a model for social relations worldwide.

Although the panels and speakers themselves did not always or often reflect this diversity culturally, (and, there were few women panelists, few panelists under the age of 40, and no transgender panelists or panelists who did not speak from the default heterosexual standpoint, openly that is; nor did they all embrace this idea of diversity, some panelists preferring a more purist enterprise of ‘going back’ to an identity that excludes other races; still, the idea that carried the most vital energy for social transformation, particularly for this writer, was this one of our diversity as power.

Rex Nettleford, the eminent artist and scholar from Jamaica perhaps expressed this sentiment most succinctly when he said that “the whole world has gone creole” then pointed to us, the Caribbean, as a model for this creolization of people and ways of being and ideas. He drew on his own experience as a child, being taken to a Christian church service on Sunday, a Pocomania meeting later that evening and then to the Obeah man come Friday. There was no contradiction for Nettleford, or for the grandmother who took him, between these different spiritual modalities. We survive, he said, by using whatever means and expressions are available to us, or more importantly, by creating new modalities out of those we inherited, and in that survival and in the art that we create out of these our daily lives, there is no binary or dualism – we are much more than that.

This is how I know I am a Caribbean person: because hearing Nettleford speak answered questions I have been asking myself and pondering and arguing, particularly here in the US, for some time now, if not my entire life. Wondering why I felt that I was more than one thing inside this skin, which is not quite Anglo white and not brown either; Why was it that I struggled against divisions between Christianity and a desire to worship divinity in blue holes and mangrove swamps and in the bodies and faces of lovers? Why was there an easy transition between speaking the Queen’s English and Bahamian English (and there isn’t just one of these either) and how was I to write this, reflect this in the art I wanted to make?

In the same way that our island countries are so called small places where, rather than ‘melting pots’ we are ‘pepper pots’ of multiculturalisms (our differences are not dissolved in the pot, they are distinct and necessary to the overall textures and flavors), each of us walks in the world embodying this same dynamic: we are individual and many; we are “contradictions coalescing”; we are “intertextual multiculturalism”; and if we believe we must be one thing or the other -African or European, Hindu or Moslem, Christian or Yoruba – that we must adhere to an inherited notion of binary identity, we will suffer, because the process of becoming in small places has taught us that we are both, and. Not one, or. (And I know I echo here my Bahamian and Caribbean brother Christian Campbell…)

“Pre-modern, modern and post modern all exist in a complex dynamism in the Caribbean,” said Nettleford. “We are more than a binary dynamic which Europe generated.” To resist this complexity, to reduce it or deny it, robs us (Caribbean people) of a deeply important lens with which to see ourselves and other realities outside the Caribbean; a way of seeing that serves us in our own quests for community and social transformations, as well as a way of seeing that, in the tradition of Caribbean people before us, like Marcus Garvey, Robert Love and others, can contribute to liberatory dialogues between ourselves and nations beyond our region.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sexism, What's That?

Potcakes In The Diaspora
Writing from Oakland...

So, apparently not one of the women discussants on ABC's The View, including Barbara Walters, knew or understood the meaning of sexism on her own terms (one of the women read the definition from a dictionary). They sat around arguing about whether or not a Saturday Night Live skit (featuring Palin and Clinton impersonators) was sexist, but seemed to be in the dark about why anyone would feel the need to speak to issues of sexism, or what in fact is meant by the word. (I actually don't think they were in the dark at all, or arguing, for that matter; I think they were trying hard to appease... someone... whom might that be???) (I mean, Barbara Walters actually said, "What is sexism??" What?)

I have to say watching them made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and actually, angry (Whoopi, you let me right down!). This is partly why I don't watch television anymore, anywhere, because the realities of social dynamics rarely do get discussed, and when anyone attempts to do so, she or he is ridiculed or penalized. Was the skit sexist? Actually, I don't think it was. It played upon Palin's ignorance of foreign policy. What was sexist was five grown women talking politics on US National TV and pretending they had no knowledge of the history of gender oppression in the United States of America. Astounding. Or, sadly, not.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Carifesta X: Unpacking It, Slowly

I was there. In Guyana, at Carifesta X. I was there as one of four chosen Bahamian writers to represent Bahamian literary arts, only to arrive and discover that we Bahamians were still not on the official schedule to read or speak. We knew we were not represented before we left Nassau, and in spite of our letters to our own government and to the Carifesta X Committee, we never did make headway. Good thing we were prepared to go with the flow. Still, what is perplexing is why Bahamians were left out of the Carifesta schedule of literary arts in the first place. To be fair, several of the other northern Caribbean countries were missing from official literary arts events as well, including Jamaica. And when we showed up and asked to be included, we were met with hand waving and eyes averted; a strange disassociation which we were not sure of how to read.

Was our 'marginalization' intentional or an oversight? If either one, does it point to our lack of collective involvement in a larger Caribbean literary conversation? How do other Caribbean people see the Bahamas and its artists? As isolationist? As unwilling to speak as Caribbean people? I have heard rumours, of course. That Bahamians are 'flashy' and 'arrogant'. That we are too American. Not Caribbean enough. The questions and the rumours haunt me.

Still, we eventually negotiated three minutes for three of us to read at two of the evening readings, and encouraged by two of the Caribbean's most notable novelists, Austin Clark and Earl Lovelace, we also decided to organize our own reading, at Buddy's International, where we stayed for the two week event. And speaking for myself, being able to share my writing in Guyana, with other Caribbean writers and readers was a gift. Particularly because in that location, I became more accutely conscious of the Caribbean as my audience. And of my own need to be recognized and assessed by that audience, whose desires and experiences are part of the particular diversity that is the Caribbean, and of which the Bahamas is an inextricable part.

What I'm saying is this: that reading my work there gave me a glimpse of my extended family, and hearing the likes of Austin Clark, Earl Lovelace, and of course, Derek Walcott and others gave me a different kind of permission as a writer, one that I had not encountered before and needed in order to begin to fully inhabit my writer self: they gave me permission to see my self seriously as a writer with a long and dynamic tradition, connected by ocean and by spirit and by experience to literary forefathers and foremothers who have pioneered pathways and whose work compells me now to sit down and grapple with mine.

Perhaps being left out of officially sanctioned spaces is sometimes the critical jolt that remembers us to ourselves - reminds us that no government, and no festival can create art or artists, we create and define ourselves.

Here is an In Between Place

I am here. For a daughter of a Greek immigrant mother, who grew up in a postcolonial island country off the southern coast of North America, who has, for the last three years, lived her day to day life on the west coast of that enormous land mass, being 'here' is not simple.

Being 'here' is always an in between place, a place that is hardly ever static, that is pulled between impulses: to go 'home', or to look for someplace else to grow; to go home and help build a 35 year old country, or stray, go out into the world looking for something far more individual, the desire for self fulfillment that is often sacrificed in the building of nations - and how complicated that desire is, when it is articulated, (even its articulation is complicated, heretical), since it is not part of mainstream cultural desires (at least, not visibly); it is womanish and queer, so that to be 'here' out here, is really an exile, and to go home is to take myself back to the older, former exile - to live at home where homosexuality, bisexuality are not only deviant, they are anti-Christian in a country that calls itself a Christian Nation, that speaks to this in its constitution, claiming adherence to Christian spiritual values.

I called my grandmother today, because it is Sunday, and no matter where I am in the world, Sunday is lunch after church at Yaya's, and the family sitting around a table and the newest member of the family being passed from hands to hands, the eldest looking on and smiling, though somewhat sadly, and talk of business and perhaps some sweet piece of gossip, and joking, and laughing, and today, I called Yaya, because it is not good for a Greek Bahamian woman to go too long without speaking to her Yaya, and I had to keep the tears from filling my throat and blocking the words, and Yaya said, "When are you coming home?" And I thought in that moment of all the lunches and dinners around the family table where I have sat mute, or spoken words to avoid speaking words. Where children and weddings were discussed, but my own life was carefully edited and censored before it could make it into sound much less the family discussion. I thought about how well I learned to mask my yearning, to call it something else, to speak the words that were good and acceptable so I would not be seen. How I learned to play necessary roles and pretended to want what my characters wanted, till I did not know what it was that I wanted, my own self. How I had learned to disguise my multicoloured wings, till they were of no use to me there. How I was out here learning to fly. I said, "Soon, Yaya, soon." She said, "For good?" I said, "I don't know Yaya, maybe."

And that is how it goes, out here, with the birds (Cixous), because once you start articulating who you are, you can't go back to pretending you are not the person you have been dying all your life to become.

And if I were to imagine it otherwise, I would have a different conversation with my Yaya. We would talk and towards the end of the conversation, she would say, "So, have you found someone to make you happy?" I would say, "Not yet." She would say, "Come home, maybe you will find her here." My heart would start and stumble, and I would try hard to keep the tears from filling my throat and blocking the words. I would say, "You think so?" She would say, "This is your home, isn't it?" I'd say, "Yes, it is." She would say, "If you can't be yourself here, where can you be?" Then, like some incarnation of an ancient Cretan priestess, her voice deep and oceanic, she would say, "Lena mou, come home..." and the word 'home' would bring me there.

'Here' is not an easy place. It is fragmented. It stops and starts. Codes change. What it means to be a woman loving woman in this place is not the same as it is in the place I come from. What it means to be a white woman in the place I call home is very different from whiteness in America. 'Here' is pieces and stitching them together the way I watched my Yaya do with needles and coloured thread, with needles and coloured yarn, with her working hands and a desire to create 'family' out of every and any thing she could find, far from the island she grew up on, in another sea, another time; both of us Helens, making home no matter what.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Imagining Eve

(Presented at a BACUS symposium on the Literary Arts in the Bahamas, July 17, 2008)

Dear God,

They want me to talk about the role of the writer in Bahamian society. I want to tell them straight up, the writer is a trickster. You know what I’m talking about. You set things up this way in the first place. Eve, holding in her right hand, or perhaps her left, a living metaphor: a red thing and fleshy, in its belly tiny black seeds of resurrection.

I want to tell them straight up, being a writer is about making people uncomfortable, beginning with your self. The writer is always in the middle of things and on the fringes, always wanting connection and simultaneously in perpetual exile from the center. It is our job to live these contradictions so we can make them useful. We're here to make ‘friction’ (David Bain). Anything else is pure decoration, and I don’t have time for that.

What’s that you say? Tell them about how being a writer is about being a witness? How being a witness is redemptive, even if there is no happy ending? It’s true, and without witnesses, we have no stories, and without stories, there is a way in which we don’t exist. Writers put on other people’s skins and walk around in them. Writers bear witness to the enemy as well as to the lover; they wine up inside the body of God and come back in time to write poems about it.

Of course, Eve, and all the Eve’s before and after, female and male, have all met with less than love and appreciation from their beloveds: She/he who holds in his/her hand, yes, the left hand, a red thing, an idea made flesh, in its center, seeds for a new society, is not always welcome. But this is what tricksters do, they meet the world with new ideas in their hands, hold them out to their beloveds, and with soft voice and trembling say, “This is good, eat!”

Nan Peacocke wrote “poems are rebels … they can bring down governments starting with the ones in our heads…” Audre Lorde wrote “…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.” Leslie Marmon Silko wrote “Don’t be fooled. Stories are not just entertainment. They are all we have …to fight off illness and death.” Lynn Sweeting says, “A poem makes me visible: …I exist, I’m here, contrary to what patriarchy and popular culture have to say….”

This is what Eves do: we expose our thoughts, our truths, our selves to the eye/I and there is always a struggle. We run through the streets naked, our hands snatching tufts of knowing from the air and wave them like they’re something to see, and people on their porches stare and the generous ones say, “That’s just Eve, you know how she goes” and the ones not so generous say “Lock her up.” And Eve suddenly becomes acutely aware of her nakedness and the omniscient eye/I says, “Who told you you were naked?” and Eve, out of breath, falls back onto her sofa, or bed or floor, and says, “My God, what have I done?” Because exposing yourself is one thing, and giving people a new idea to swallow is quite another, and what if we’re wrong, and what if the old ways are good and better, and how dare we…?

How dare we, indeed. Listen, in any society, creation is an act of struggle. But in a postcolonial, patriarchal, fundamentalist society, creation is not simply struggle it is also fraught with shame. Particularly for women writers. And the queer and the differently-abled. Those whom I call ‘The Invisibles’. And whereas struggle is necessary, the creative tension that precedes birth, shame is counter-productive; shame warps the creative process and disables the imagination, silencing the possibility of new ideas. The apple in Eve’s hand frozen in a too literal rendering against a landscape that does not bleed, its tiny black seeds of resurrection holed up, dormant, unacknowledged, and powerless.

And against this landscape, it is the writer’s job to steal the apple, dream it into a scarlet plum, or better yet, a mango; to tear at the skin with her teeth, and watch how, as she sucks on its sweetness, her lips and cheeks yellowed and slick, God himself changes shape into a thick breasted woman who sings, ooh, child things are gonna get easier…

The job of the writer is to say that sometimes 6 times 11 is 68 and mean it (Charles Baxter); the job of the writer is to fall asleep and dream that she grows wings and claws and swoops down on rapist boys who have morphed into fish, swallowing them whole and flying off into the blue-blue yonder (Lelawatee Manoo Rahming); the job of the writer is to make possible what does not yet exist (Julia Kristeva), to transliterate what she knows in her body into language on the page (Olga Broumas), forming a bridge between the unknown and the knowable, from silence into language and action (Audre Lorde): this is the power of the writer.

And, knowing this, the writer’s job is therefore to embody unmitigated courage to tell the stories no one wants to hear; to see the parts of us no one wants to look at. The writer’s job is to imagine, by any means necessary, and to tell new stories, the stories we need to live by. The writer’s job is to run through the streets naked announcing her visions, and back home again at day’s end, to say, “God, what have I done?” and to get up the next day and do it again. Because it is not our job to preserve culture; it is not our job to placate, or to maintain the status quo; it is not our job to replicate what already exists. Our job is to create new culture out of our everyday lives, out of the blood and guts of our bodies, as well as the blood and guts of our dreams. We are not here to make peace, but to witness to the daily wars and to point to a way forward through them all. Our job is to create new language for the worlds we can imagine and hope years from now, maybe two or two hundred, that language will prove useful to the ones we leave behind.

Yes, I believe this is what I will tell them,

Your faithful Trickster,

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Wellington's Rainbow

“Imagine a Bahamian society where no one of any sexual orientation is ever again killed or otherwise silenced because of who they love… Imagine piety, conformity and hatespeech at the altar gone from the voices of women and men who are teachers of spirit, replaced now with inclusiveness, tolerance and views that are constantly widening. Imagine us by the many thousands changing into people no longer afraid, but wholly and completely empowered: this will be a time for embracing.” –Lynn Sweeting (

Two days before I left Oakland to come home to Nassau, I found out about the murder of Wellington Adderley.

Solomon Wellington Adderley was an AIDS activist and gentle warrior. Wellington lived with HIV for over twenty years, and on May 26th, 2008, his life was destroyed by an as yet unknown entity: he was found lying on the floor of his home, clothed, in a pool of his own blood, his neck so severely cut that his head was practically severed. Wellington was the third prominent gay man to have died a brutal death since November of last year. The fourth gay man to be murdered died a week later. And as of this writing, no person or persons have been found to be responsible.

This morning, on a local talk show, Erin Greene, spokesperson for the Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas, the only GLBT advocacy group in the country (of which I am a co-founder) spoke openly about the need for citizens to help create a safer and healthier environment for all its members, including gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender Bahamians. The conversation was again and again interrupted by callers who used the Bible to attempt to shame and silence Greene, and even to justify the killings of these men. One caller stated "If you choose to live that lifestyle then you should accept that there will be consequences... When criminals engage in criminal activity, they are faced with punishment." The caller was invoking two biblical passages: Genesis 4:6-7 that says (and I paraphrase): "“If you do what is right, won't you be accepted? If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door..." and (though somehow both passages run into one in my mind) the more popular phrase, "The wages of sin is death... (Romans 6:23)"

The conversation about the rights of gays and lesbians in this country is stuck in a Christian fundamentalist scriptural war that cannot see gays and lesbians, bisexuals or transgender people as integral to the wide spectrum of human existence. And the few (read one or two) public spokespersons for the GLBT community who dare to engage in this conversation publically are time and time again drawn into a circular argument which begs the question: how can you ask for human rights if God says you shouldn’t exist at all?

And by presuming firstly that all Bahamians are Christians, and assuming, secondly, to know God as absolutely as they do, Christian fundamentalists not only reduce and limit that God, but reduce and limit the scope of what it means to be human. And I cannot help but see the metaphor: It is God lying in a pool of his own blood, head severed, and no one has been held accountable.

Last night I attended a candlelight vigil in Wellington’s honour. As friends and I walked over to Addington House, here in downtown Nassau, the sun still warm on our shoulders as it dropped lower in the sky, we were stopped in mid-step by a rainbow directly overhead. But this was no ordinary rainbow. This rainbow was inverted, curving the 'wrong way', opposite to every other rainbow I have ever seen. We were startled, even a little afraid. It's a sign, I thought, but of what?

I remembered a story told in the Afghan film "Osama", by a grandmother to a young girl child each night before the day when she would dress as a boy and go out into the village in search of work. The story told of a young boy who wanted to be a girl. He was told that if he stood under a rainbow he would be changed, from one gender to the other. Yearning for this change, the little boy did what he had been advised, and lo and behold, the boy was transformed into a girl. And, recently, while researching the significance of the rainbow serpent in traditional West African-based spiritualities, I discovered that the snake deity Oshumare, is often represented by a homosexual, bisexual or transgender priest. Specifically, in the Afro-Brazilian tradition of Candomblé, Oshumare is said to be the youngest son of Nana (one of the oldest Candomblé deities of creation) and the force that shaped the earth and connects earth and sky. In “Candomblé and the Psychological Types”, Carminha Levy writes that Oshumare

"…participated in the creation of the World wrapping himself around the earth, joining matter and shaping the World. He supports the Universe, controls the stars and the ocean, and sets them into movement. Crawling through the World, he designed its valleys and rivers. He is the great snake which bites its tail, representing the continuation of the movement and of the vital cycle. The snake is his, and that is why in Candomblé it is not killed. His essence is the movement, fertility, the sequel of life. Communication between heaven and earth is granted by OSHUMARE. He takes the water from the seas to the sky, so that rain can be formed - he is the rainbow, the great colored snake. He assures communication between the supernatural world, the ancestors and men, and is therefore associated to the umbilical cord. His color is lettuce green and all the combinations of the rainbow. Bi-sexual with a feminine aspect, he dances with ADE (the queens' crown). He is a man for six months, a woman during the other six.

"…Physically he is slim, with fine features. He is dynamic, intelligent, inquisitive, and ironic. He likes to gossip, and he attracts, seduces and entertains because he is intriguing. He is often snobbish, and likes to show off, being sometimes eccentric and extravagant. When rich, he protects talented youngsters. He is homosexual or bisexual. He is neither rough nor gross, he is refined and civilized, but his vilification can be dangerous. He has a great intuition, and can be a smart soothsayer. (The Deep Transforming Shaman,"

The connections between these fragments of story and tradition point to the rainbow as an old symbol of double gender or double sexuality for which contemporary western language may have no adequate words. I imagine that many adherents to Christianity, especially in its fundamentalist forms, will object to these findings, pointing out that, like other indigenous spiritual traditions, Candomblé is ‘pagan’, and therefore unworthy of their attention or care. But it seems to me that the wisdom embodied and transmitted through traditions like Candomblé has much to teach us about honouring differences and valuing them as essential to understanding the fullness of who we are as a human community.

At the beginning of this week I was privileged to sit beside an elder of my community. He happens to be a Catholic priest whose ideas and insights I have long appreciated and respected. We were at an event which featured speakers who had survived genocides and were there to speak of their experiences and the process of forgiveness. The Monsignor and I talked about what it means to be rejected because of who you are. We talked about fundamentalist Christianity’s black and white version of the Bible and its unbelief in the possibility of human transformation – the despair inherent in that unbelief. I told him I believed imagination was the balm for despair. He suggested the word ‘imagine’ is connected to ‘imago dei’ which means ‘image of God’. I said, Yes, yes, and the Christ is that ability to imagine, inside each one of us, that remains, that is, radically: the ability to imagine so necessary if we are to conceive of a God deeper and wider than the Bible, of a divinity as multiple and complex as we might actually be. And as compassionate as we might yet become.

But what happens to imagination when it is violated, assaulted, crucified or found lying lifeless in a pool of its own blood?

After the tributes had been given, tears shed, and red candles lit, and as the bass drums of a junkanoo rush out beat, beat, beat, I understood what is most radical about Christianity, in spite of its motherless God, its fundamentalisms, its fear of its own most ancient faces: the resurrection is still wild, untamable, unstoppable. This is what I mean: imagination cannot be destroyed. It will come back, say the drums, it will return, say the drums, this is the meaning of revolution, you can kill the story tellers, but the story is in the ground and will grow back; boom boom, say the drums, boom boom boom, says the goat skin, the hand that beats it, the heart that hears it, feels it.

Solomon Wellington Adderley was an AIDS activist and a gentle warrior. He was also an intelligent, kind, sensitive, beautifully masculine and feminine man who loved other men, though nowhere in any of the tributes to him was this important part of who he was mentioned. And yet, there in the sky above us was the rainbow, inverted, uncommon, showing its own startlingly beautiful self to those who dared look up and see.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Poetry Under Investigation

I wrote in one of my first columns for the Nassau Guardian that exercising one's imagination in this country is tantamount to heresy. The imagination is the one place that governments and churches (and any other authority for that matter) cannot control, and therefore it is seen (and portrayed) as wild and dangerous terrain. We have been trained not to question authority, and not to 'story', to tell lies, fictions. We have been trained to stay out of the mangrove swamps of our imaginations, to fear the monsters in the blue holes, to keep to the shallows and steer clear of the dark brown and black patches of water in our own psyches: all the better to uphold the truths already known, the status quo, in which those with most kinds of power are thoroughly invested.

When individuals step out of line, or cross the line between status quo and the unknown, into the dangerous and wild places of the imagination, we tell them first they are abominations; we tell them they are of the devil. We threaten them with spiritual warfare, eternal damnation and the like. When that doesn't work, when those individuals do not cower in fear for their souls, we send in backup: the physical forces of domination, in this case, the Royal Bahamian Police Force.

The story is that two young poets are being investigated by the police because of the alleged sexual content of their poetry. When I learned of this, I was shocked, and outraged. But the shock was short-lived. I have heard other stories: a young woman is dragged naked from her home by police; a young woman is raped by a policeman while in custody. It so happens that both poets are female. In a patriarchy, every act of aggression against a woman by a male in authority is calculated to control, to keep her in a place outside her imagination, in the hopes that she may forget how to get there. She may forget a place called 'imagination' exists at all. And without a way to get to her imagination, there will be no new ideas, and no agency with which to live them.

Poet Audre Lorde, a first generation Caribbean American, wrote that "poetry is not a luxury" precisely because it has the power to give birth to ideas so that they can be lived. Poetry, said Lorde, names those feelings that our bodies know but have no words for. Poetry is necessary because it can turn feeling into language and language into action.

True rebellion does not come in the form of guns, or physical force, it comes in the shape of ideas. Ideas cannot be killed. And ideas are spawned in the mangrove swamps of our imaginations. Poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists, filmmakers, visual artists of all kinds have the power to spawn ideas. We have the power to bring down walls and governments. The builders of both know this.

If Bahamian poets are under investigation by police it is because they are naming something which powers that be would prefer remained unnamed. And that is the sacred task of poets. And, if the police are investigating poets and poetry, it is because they can: we as a society have agreed not to question authority, by and large; not to make consistent and sustained protests against so many other kinds of human rights violations; and not to protect the spawning grounds of our most delicate and valuable resources: physical and psychic wetlands.

The intrusion of police into the poet's work, into the poem, is a serious human rights violation. And it is our sacred task as human beings and poets to resist violation of our bodies, our poems, and our imaginations, by every means possible. We have already been too silent, too accommodating; if we say nothing, do nothing, then like frogs in water slowly boiling, we will not understand our fate until it is too late.

May 8th, 2008, Oakland, CA

Published as a letter to the editor in the Nassau Tribune, Nassau, Bahamas on May 14, 2008

Of Heretics and Mangrove Swamps

her·e·tic: a person who holds controversial opinions; from the Greek ‘hairetikos’, able to choose.

mangrove: an evergreen tree or bush with straight slender stems and intertwined roots that are exposed at low tide. Native to: tropical coasts.

Lately, I have been thinking about mangrove swamps. How they are not much valued in this island country. And how they are necessary to the birth of new life.

Fish spawn in mangrove swamps. Fish in dreams are considered to be new ideas rising up out of the murky waters of the unconscious. New ideas need swamps, wetlands. But wetlands are being filled in, to make more room for ‘development’: condos and gated communities; hotels and all-in-one resorts. Mangrove swamps are inconvenient, wasted space. Cheap land or wholly unmarketable. Development needs hard ground.

I have also been thinking about censorship and the banning of ideas. How Brokeback Mountain was banned all those months ago. How the same group of censors (clergy) wanted to ban The Da Vinci Code. Because they know very well that ideas are powerful. The idea of a man dying on a cross then coming back to life three days later is a powerful idea. The idea that God might be comfortable in human flesh, walking among us, is more powerful still.

The Christ was symbolized by a fish. There was something of revolution in the air, all those thousands of years ago. Something dangerous in the idea of the Christ. A man who refused to die. New ideas are always and still rebels.

Writers are something like wetlands. There isn’t much use for us where development is going on. You can’t market a poem. Or build a house on a haiku. The mark-up on novels is small things compared to the sale of a sea front home on what used to be Hog Island. And of course, governments are all about development. I heard Prime Minister Christie say many moons ago that he intended to put a hotel resort on every family island. Something like Monopoly.

I was never good at Monopoly, bought the cheap properties, never had enough money to buy hotels, but I wrote my first Haiku at 12. And it was powerful. Showed me an idea I hadn’t seen before. Showed me something about myself that saved me.

Now, whenever I hear about a book or a movie being banned, keeping stories from getting told, I know there’s an idea in that story that is powerful. An idea someone doesn’t want us seeing. Brokeback Mountain was, on the surface of things, a tragic love story between two men. But really, it told of the way society threatens us with death if we dare live our truths.

If we had watched Brokeback Mountain, maybe we would have recognized something about ourselves, no matter who we were. Sitting in the dark as the credits rolled, maybe we wouldn’t have felt satisfied any longer with half truths, half lived lives. And we would have become traitors to silence, to our own cherished lies and fears.

Human psyches are something like wetlands. Like mangrove swamps. Where what is unconscious in us teams with unborn and newborn life: ideas waiting to get told. But in a society where all the questions and all the answers have already been provided by the One Book, (we are told), our psyches get neglected, ignored. It is dangerous to entertain ideas that come out of nowhere, (we are told), different ideas, original ideas, because who knows where they came from. If it is not of God, well then. But I think God lives in mangrove swamps. I think God is in the rusty brown water, salty and teaming with unborn and newborn life. Waiting and waiting to get told.

Lately I’ve been dreaming about fish and wet places. Unfortunately, I don’t have to wonder what will happen to the fish when the mangrove swamps have all been filled in with concrete and stone. I know what will happen. The censors or the developers, or the government or the churches will ban more movies, and more books. They will call more of us heretics. They will tell more of the people that the devil is afoot. They will build bigger churches and only the most virtuous can come inside. We will be told that dreams are nonsense and only sorcerers listen to them, and any ideas which contradict the ideas of the One Book are blasphemous. Our dreams will terrify us. The fish will become scarce. The people will be hungry. And the government and the churches will be fat, and very powerful indeed.

First published in the Nassau Guardian, Nassau, Bahamas, October 4th, 2006