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Saturday 18 November 2017
Commentary

The dead

Jean Antoine-Dunne writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

November is traditionally the month of the dead. This period is ushered in by different rituals throughout the world. There is Halloween where spirits, in particular evil spirits, roam the Earth; and there is the cleaning and the blessing of graves in Trinidad and Tobago. In Ireland the night of October 31 is associated with bonfires and revelry in a pagan rite called Samhain, which is still celebrated by modern-day Druids.

In Haiti and the Dominican Republic there is a more recent memory that is kept alive around this time, and that is the massacre of Haitians in 1937 at the behest of the leaders of the Dominican Republic. It is called the Parsley Massacre because Haitians of African descent were distinguished from people of African origin who were from the Dominican Republic, by the way they pronounced the Spanish word for “parsley.”

Such events bring into focus the mystery of death and dying and the little we know. We hear occasionally of children who “remember” being here before and there are sometimes stories of people who say they can remember a past life or events. But there is no sure way of proving these stories.

But most of us continue to believe in presences. Quite recently a young medic told me there is a strange phenomenon where the imminent approach of death often brings a strange calm, even, at times, lucidity. This, despite the fact that an individual might have been delirious or agitated. This is very often mistaken as proof that the individual is getting better.

According to this young doctor, it is in fact an inexplicable signifier that the individual knows that he or she is about to depart this Earth. It suggests that death does give warning and leads to the further thought that when we die something happens to that thing that we may call spirit or energy.

There are as many versions of the afterlife as there are religious beliefs. Many of our Caribbean writers ponder on the stories of spirits that circulate within our Caribbean imaginary. Some advocate an idea of recurrence or of vestiges that survive after death. These traces, they suggest, continue to resound and to influence how the present works itself out. In other words, the past is always in the present.

Whether we believe in soucouyants and la diablesse or douens, the prevalence of stories of beings who wander the Earth tells us that over the course of history newcomers to these islands brought their own understanding of the nether world. These mingled with the beliefs of First Peoples to shape traditions and myths about a world that we cannot truly know.

Over centures, historical events like the Parsley Massare or the bringing of the enslaved from Africa to the Americas infused these syncretic beliefs with new meanings and new metaphors.

We could, for example, think about the douen, who is thought to be the soul of an unbaptised child, as evolving from a Christian belief in baptism and suggest that he entices children to go away with him as an act of revenge on being excluded from a Christian heaven.

The soucouyant, who is traditionally a woman, has been interpreted as a female vengeful figure by Olive Senior. For her, in the collection Over the Roofs of the World, this figure represents woman who has been abused and rendered powerless by a system that makes her subservient, while at the same time forcing her to be responsible for her children. This pent-up anger quite literally “explodes” in a fire of rage and becomes the shape-shifting soucouyant.

Many of our writers including NourbeSe Philip and Kamau Brathwaite have sought to find a way of giving voice to the dead, in particular those who peopled these islands. For Philip, who is a Trinidadian/Tobagonian, those who died in the Middle Passage on the journey from Africa need to be remembered so that they can find rest. They need to be mourned.

Remembering the dead is not simply about honouring our ancestors or relatives. It is about acknowledging that the past impacts on our present.

If we are to progress beyond trauma, then we need to acknowledge the hurt and the evil that have gone before, mourn them and pay due homage.

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