Thanks so much to those of you who came to Thursday morning’s panel at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest—An Equal Place? —especially those of you who introduced yourselves to me as readers of the column.
The panel, of course, took its name from TT’s national anthem. My family loves to repeat one of those pappyshow narratives about my childlike attempts to render the anthem’s words, which resulted in “With boundless gifts in our destity.” Our panel tried to make sense of the anthem as well, adding a question mark at the end of three of its words, to interrogate its ideas about nation.
All writers and commentators, each of the panelists, like me, have been a columnist for one or more of the daily newspapers at some point. We were not too far apart in age, but different in ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, family and economic backgrounds.
A former prosecutor and judge, attorney Sophia Chote’s commentary is currently heard on the floor of the Parliament as an independent senator. Sheila Rampersad has a radio column, has been a public affairs editor for many years, and is active in Women Working for Social Progress. Recently elected president of the Media Association of TT, she was careful to point out that she wasn’t speaking in that role.
Opening the conversation about equality were two quite different voices. Attillah Springer, a self-styled "J'Ouvert-ist," I first became aware of through her activism on sustainability. She once hosted a television magazine, and her writing and practice engage with mas, culture, African spirituality and memory and family. Mariano Browne is a banker and a leading popular and published commentator on development economics and finance. Currently a talk radio host, he served in Patrick Manning’s Cabinet as trade minister and as one of the ministers for finance. You can watch Thursday’s conversation on the festival’s YouTube channel or Facebook page.
Ours, however, is far from the first effort to sing back to the anthem.
Many of us remember David Rudder’s forcefully ironic 1996 reminder that “Forged”—a motif of corruption— “is the first word of the anthem.”
“Here we are in the land of The Mimic Men,” Rudder opened his own anthem, Another Day in Paradise, invoking Naipaul’s early post-Independence novel about ethnicity and coloniality.
A decade after Rudder, Denis Solomon lampooned the anthem as a Welsh melody adapted by Pat Castagne “and fit…out with the meaningless lyrics he had composed as an anthem for the West Indies Federation (luckily this country is two islands, so the 'islands of the Blue Caribbean Sea’ line didn’t have to be altered).”
Castagne, Solomon mocked, “could have put in a hint or two of our history and character instead of the pseudo-pious crap about fires of hope and prayer and invocation of divine blessing. Even a passing reference to indenture or the Middle Passage would have given the anthem a bit of authenticity.”
Even the couplet— “Here every creed and race / Find an equal place”—from which our words were chosen, and which are repeated as the anthem closes, have been well parsed.
Their choice of “find” instead of “finds,” has been a subject of much argument, with one of them making the case that it is not a matter of ungrammaticality, but the “optative” mood of the verb. Solomon puts it in another, sardonic way: “the expression of a wish implies non-existence of the condition wished for.”
“But home is home,” I reminded our audience that Rudder also sings in the same tune—about people working for their children’s sake, who aren’t quite ready to give up on these ideas of paradise. For whom “This town nice” is often sincere.
That’s actually how our Thursday panel concluded, contemplating the ways in which, outside of institutions or laws, of politicians or managers of the economy, real people in the ways in which we engage directly with each other create equality. Making an equal place for each other.
It was a good place to end the conversation.
Yesterday afternoon, I was supposed to play ole mas in a dress. I’ll let you know more about it in the next column.