Monthly Archives: November 2017

Reconciling with the Past; Visualizing the Future — Martin Felix

Proceedings from the 1st Annual Symposium on the Grenadian Revolution of 1979 – 1983, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, October 19, 2017

Harlem (“What happens to a dream deferred?”)

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

– Langston Hughes (1951)

Incidentally this poem was penned in 1951, a year of massive labor upheavals in Grenada led by Eric Matthew Gairy, founder of the Grenada United Labour Party. That year culminated in a general strike for better working conditions for agricultural workers. These events were dubbed ‘red sky’ because of the many buildings that were engulfed in flames. British authorities were forced to bring in military reinforcements to control the situation. But among the victories gained was that on October 10, 1951 Grenada held its first general elections on the basis of universal adult suffrage. Keen followers of our history will see similar patterns of this ebb and flow of struggles (gains and losses), virtually all major turning points ending in foreign interventions/invasions. Major disappointment and successes co-existing; a peaceful, communal lifestyle of the people side by side with state violence. Within the last close to 70 years – from 1951 to the present – Grenada experienced four different manifestation of state violence – the British colonial state, Gairy’s authoritarian rule, the heavy manners at the end of the Grenada Revolution, and the persistent destabilization and ultimate invasion by the US state.

We are faced with the fact that Grenada has been and remains today one of the countries with the lowest murder rates in the Caribbean throughout the last 70 or so years. Yet the country has experienced one of the highest levels of state violence during this timeframe. And there has been very little effort at restorative justice and reconciliation.

One of the remarkable legacies of these 7 decades of political turmoil and its distinct junctures is the absence of closure and serious efforts towards reconciliation or social or individual therapy. Health is as much socio-political as it is individual. It is therefore important to take stock of these decades of struggle, its successes and failures and to provide closure where possible. In this respect, the importance of Bernard Coard’s book What Really Happened can be measured.

The book is a significant contribution to Grenadian history and in particular the historiography of the Grenada Revolution. It is perhaps the most anticipated book on modern Grenadian history. At the very least, it is the only book that seeks to answer the vexing question Grenadians, Caribbean people and supporters the world over have had since the demise of the Grenada revolution: What really happened to such a hopeful project. How honestly or comprehensively Coard’s book answers this question is something that will continue to be examined. But this is not my major focus. My concern is to locate this book within the context of necessary steps towards closure, genuine truth, and reconciliation among Grenadians.

US PSYOP Aerial propaganda Leaflets to Grenada, 1983

To be fair, US invading forces in 1983 did conduct some form of mass psychological work among Grenadians. Unfortunately this psychological intervention was of the violent kind and added negatively to such a process. The US deployed an entire battalion doing this work on the population – psychological operations unit (PSYOP). According to a 1984 NYT article, these “operations command units played a key but still largely secret role in the American invasion of Grenada…” and, “…the US lost at least four men who were [specifically] killed in [these] operations.” The article concluded that much of the operations remained officially classified up to that point. It was further revealed that much of the work carried out by the PSYCOP unit was to pacify the population, and make the invaders seem as welcomed as possible. This involved painting of walls and dropping of leaflets from helicopters and presenting the revolution, and surviving party members, and the war from the US’s own perspective. Some of the works of the PSYOPs unit was exposed when spelling purporting to be locals were written in American English. So that was clearly on the side of mischief, pouring salt on psychic wounds.

The closest Grenada came since 1983 to formal, indigenous reconciliation was an attempt by the the then NNP government (1996-2000) at the turn of the century when the Grenada Truth and Reconciliation Commission began gathering information in September 2001. The Grenada Truth and Reconciliation Report claimed to be in the spirit of other national reconciliation efforts around the world. Many have attributed the Commission’s lack of success to its design and scope. Nonetheless, Grenada TRC claimed success in producing a three volume Report. An important aspect of this report are source copies of letters and statements and other documents presented to the Commission, mostly in lieu of a personal appearance in the body. It did not serve as a vehicle for the confrontation of conflicting parties working towards resolution.

In her book Between Vengeance and Forgiveness (1998), Harvard professor Martha Minow argues that reparations – whether monetary, restitution, memorials, apologies or opportunities for future education or development – serve to legitimize and acknowledge the damage suffered by victims, rather than represent any form of equitable recompense. This is why I believe that Bernard Coard’s What Really Happened? is a necessary aspect of Grenada’s reconciliation process. The book can go even further than the government initiated process to reopen this conversation, and can go a long way in helping us reach a better understanding of the tragedy. This conversation here as well as others that will sure emerge is testimony to this.

Minow, in considering the polarity between the vengeance and forgiveness dichotomies, points out that although revenge is a basic, natural, automatic reaction to transgression that can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving is unpredicted. Martha points out that the act of forgiving is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly. Yet she warns against too much forgetting, which sweeps the atrocities under the table and denies the reality of the victim’s experiences.

Alimenta Bishop and Grand daughter Nadia Bishop

Such I believe was the action of Nadia Bishop in visiting the then-still incarcerated Grenada 17 in January 1999. According to Nadia, when she forgave the man who shot and killed her father (Iman Abdullah), she began setting a more public course, hoping, she says, to enable others to realize the “state of grace” and “incredible, irrational joy” she experienced at the end of her struggle to forgive. She points out that “[her] goal was to be free of this feeling of bondage to these men, because of the hatred I felt toward them, the anger. In so many ways it feels like I had been in prison myself, emotionally, just as long as they have physically.”

Nadia posits that “[t]he end result was this really profound feeling in me that my father was very unhappy, because growing up the one thing clear was my father’s passion and love for the people of Grenada, (and) the people whom he loved so greatly, whom he considered his family, were still fighting and hating each other in his name.”

“One person I was terrified to see was Abdullah, the last person to see life in my father’s eyes, the man who actually shot him,” Bishop says. “And when I met the group, I sat across from him and didn’t recognize him. When it was his turn to speak, he said, ‘I feel even more a sense of awkwardness here, because I’m the one who took your father’s life.’ I got up, went over to him and hugged him. There could not be anything other than miraculous in that. Over the years, I dreamed of doing a lot of things to that man and it certainly was never hugging, in any of those dreams.

“I had this sense, that this was the last person to connect with my father in life. It was a sad and brutal connection, but it was a connection,” Bishop says. Ms Bishop also explained that she demanded no apologies or admissions from the men she forgave: “I didn’t need for them to acknowledge anything to me. I came. I was there for the sole purpose that I loved my father, the way my father loved Grenadians, and I felt he wanted there to be peace in his family, the people of Grenada. And it would free me to move forward in my life, and not live in the shadow of this past act.

“I think the point for me in forgiveness is freeing myself, really, of being bound to people in a negative way,” she said. “I’d encourage everyone to release conditions. You free yourself more than them.”

It is important to note too that Nadia herself was honored in her home state of California at the 12th annual International Forgiveness Day celebration in San Rafael, organized by area attorney Robert Plath (in 2008). According to her citation, she is recognize for “trying to heal her whole country [Grenada].”

In addition to these exemplary actions towards reconciliation, Nadia Bishop is but one of the many women that have had to bear the brunt of these 70 years of political turmoil that I have briefly chronicled. Some of Gairy’s most militant fighters were very poor agricultural women. Even further back, Edward Cox has indicated in the Fedon Rebellion: Causes and Consequences that  many women were involved in the Fedon Rebellion.  And, at the end of the rebellion, many women who were relatives of the rebels were denied reentry to Grenada after being banished to Trinidad.  This should give us a sense that women played critical roles in that struggle, in spite of such examples being relegated to the footnotes of our history. The evidence of our history is there to show that women’s contribution transcend our historical timeline. Women have played extraordinary leading roles in the revolutionary process. I recall the exemplary women of my village who were the bedrock of the anti Gairy struggles, organizing the youth, hiding Jewel newspapers in their clothing and being some of the more feisty and articulate voices in the rallies. Recognizing women in the Bishop family, and especially appreciating the sacrifice of Mrs Bishop, who lost a husband and then a son in the struggle is an aspect of our reconciliation.

Bernard Coard and Maurice Bishop – Revolutionary Years

David Scott’s Omens of Adversity is another book that can provide us with some guidance as we come to terms with these legacies. Omens examines the historical trauma caused by the events of ’83, revealing why so much is at stake for historical writing about the tragedy for the Grenadian people and the wider political project of liberating the Caribbean people from neo-colonialism. And how the present is inextricably linked to the past. According to Scott, the past can be a force that strangles the present, preventing people that have gone through political catastrophe and psychic trauma from moving forward. It is perhaps ironic that the main slogan of the Grenada revolution is “Forward Ever, Backward Never.” But we must move forward and use the past, not as a burden, but as a resource that can push us forward.

Scott sees a lot of agency in the younger generation of Grenadian leaders in coming to terms with these generational trauma that paralyzed their present generation. He points to examples of the Young Leaders, a group of high schoolers whose purpose is to find the bodies of Maurice Bishop, et al. The Young Leaders see these missing bodies as symbolic of more than losing any one human death. These youngsters see the past as healable but something that can come to terms with reparative or restorative justice.

It is from this perspective that some aspects of the shortcomings of Bernard Coard’s What Really Happened can be viewed. Although Bernard Coard attributes much of the blame for the missing bodies to the US invading forces. The question is logically asked: what happened to the bodies before the US invasion, October 19-25? An understanding of the condition or location of these bodies during that time-frame may have given us a better clue about the ultimate possession of the victims of the October 19 massacre. The quest for these bodies can help bring closure to this chapter and take us closer to reconciliation thus ushering in the ‘state of grace’ that Nadia envisions. The importance of a proper burial site and funerary rites for the October 19 victim is also important in the sense that Grenada is a largely catholic-influenced country with deep traditional African retention. All-saints, for example, is an occasion in which there is informal reconciliation. Families that have been divided through conflict come together at the grave sites to pay respect to the ancestors at All-saints. It is symbolic reconciliation and memorializing. Alimenta Bishop has pointed out that even the mother of Christ received his body to be buried, declaring “how can I forgive when I don’t have [the] result about my son.” 

Although it has been among the most traumatic chapters in our history, the October crisis has hastened the urgency for reconciliation. The renaming of the international airport Maurice Bishop International Airport in 2009 is another on-going act of reconciliation. And so too, it can be argued, is continuing efforts of the main political parties to actively recruit former members of the PRG from different sides of the divide into their ranks.

Eric Matthew Gairy

Yet another is the recent (Sept 29, 2017), installment of a full body statue of Grenada’s Father of Independence, Eric Matthew Gairy, unveiled in the botanical gardens in St Georges. The statue is among the most important monuments of reconciliation in the country today. Like him or not, Gairy is the nation’s founding father and is still respected by many, especially the older generation of working classes for the heroic struggles he led against colonialism. As an arts and literary journal, we want to recognize the work of artist Maria Mc Clafferty for her monumental work.

Reconciliation is a process and art and artists have always played central roles in societal health. How we approach these collective and individual responsibilities will determine whether, to again borrow from Langston Hughes, our past will sag like a heavy load, explode into cyclical pain, or blossom with hope and renewed vision. Big Drum Nation vows to continue functioning as a vehicle to both reflect and shape these processes.

Martin P. Felix is an editor and regular contributor to BigDrumNation.



“Generational Ties, Revolutionary Binds: Literature, Archive, and Questions of Gender” — Laurie Lambert

Proceedings from the 1st Annual Symposium on the Grenadian Revolution of 1979 – 1983, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, October 19, 2017

I come to the Grenada Revolution through stories.  First the snippets of stories, family histories really, relayed to me mainly by women—my mother, aunties, and grandmother. In these stories, which were really conversations that I was allowed to listen in on, everyone agreed both that the revolution was a progressive period in Grenada’s history, and also that the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada was necessary, that it had saved the nation from some unexplained calamity. Perhaps it was in the way these points were made, that even as a child, I understood them to be contradictory. For many years my grandmother kept a framed, black and white, eight by ten photograph of Maurice Bishop on display in her home in Toronto, where she had migrated from Grenada around 1984. I accepted these fragments (oral and visual) as part of a history that never quite coalesced into a fully formed narrative.

I collected more of these fragments while living in Grenada as a teenager in the 1990s. I realize, in retrospect, that the revolution was a subtext to everything in our daily lives. It was occasionally in the news with the story of body bags found at Cemetery Hill, the very public debate of whether to rename the airport in Bishop’s honor, and then, of course, the tense dialogues about the fates of those who were imprisoned. It also touched my personal life by way of whispers about who one could be friends with depending on various familial and political affiliations, and conversations with loved ones about who and what they lost.

I also come to the revolution from an entirely different set of stories – the published writing of Trinidadian-Canadian Dionne Brand and, of course, Grenada’s own Merle Collins. As a young woman, the novels, poetry, and essays, of these women writers exposed me to yet another set of contradictions. It is from a desire to work through these contradictions, to think about the questions they raise, that I have pursued the work of literary criticism, not purely for the sake of appreciating literature (although that is a valuable pursuit in and of itself), but also to contemplate how these stories serve us as Grenadians, as Caribbean people at home and in diaspora, indeed as humans. My presentation today will outline some of the themes from my book project entitled, Forms of Survival: Black Feminist Revisions of the Grenada Revolution. The book is a literary analysis of representations of the revolution where I ask how women writers project alternate visions of Caribbean sovereignty from their male counter-parts. I answer this question by attending to the gendered implications of political trauma and showing how Caribbean women writers use authorship as a means of critiquing the inadequacy of hierarchical, patriarchal, and linear histories of a black radical tradition as they narrate the Grenada Revolution.

Joan Purcell, former President of the Grenada Senate

It was from the radio station, arguably the most important target of the paramilitary attack the New Jewel Movement (NJM) launched on 13 March 1979, that Bishop initially addressed the island in a speech now known as “A Bright New Dawn.”  His voice played over the Grenadian airwaves, bringing a message of optimism and change: “People of Grenada, this revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children and great-grand children.” For the Caribbean and Latin America, Bishop’s use of the term “revolution” immediately put Grenada in a tradition, at least rhetorically, with Haiti, Venezuela, Mexico, and Cuba. What these other revolutions had in common, however, was protracted violent struggle involving significant sectors of the population.  The violence proceeding the revolution in Grenada was quotidian and on a smaller scale, with the occasional flagrant episode such as Bloody Sunday and Bloody Monday in 1973 and 1974, respectively. While the Grenadian masses had participated in strikes and demonstrations protesting the ineffectiveness of Gairy’s government, generally they had not responded violently to his corruption. What the Grenada Revolution had in common with these other struggles, however, was a predominantly male leadership.

Bishop once said that the revolution was about creating a new man and a new woman.  Writing on the Grenada Revolution manifests the pressure black radical praxis places on the politics of gender and sexuality in the Caribbean. The People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) promoted women’s rights in a way they had not been promoted before.  This advancement worked in theory and, to a certain extent, in the public sphere.  It struggled to take hold in the private sphere, however, and in many ways traditional gender roles continued even within the households of the government leadership. I am interested in texts that represent women, poor, and queer people as the ones who enter into the revolutionary project knowing that their needs may not be met, and their contributions may not be acknowledged, but that any hope of success depends on their efforts. Their stories may not appear in historical archives, but the trauma they experience as the revolutionary process fails them or dismisses their importance is a key part of the literary history my research uncovers.

The historiography of Caribbean Revolution is filled with narratives of heterosexual men, figured as bold, revolutionary subjects, for example Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe in Haiti, Simon Bolivar in Venezuela, and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba.  In Grenada, the image of Maurice Bishop fits the mold of the iconic revolutionary male subject. Bishop was the revolution’s most visible icon and his charisma made him an easy fit into what was already a pantheon on Caribbean revolutionary leaders. My interest is in how literary and political traditions are somewhat parallel in the Caribbean until the end of the Grenada Revolution because a different kind of masculine authority arises around the Black Power period.  During the 1970s the Victorian masculinity of figures such as T.A. Marryshow and C.L.R. James did not dominate the political scene.  It was a more macho form of masculinity tied to black consciousness that prevailed. This marked a generational difference between Bishop and writers such as George Lamming and Derek Walcott, whose work also forms part of my study. The younger generation did not want to prove that they were as English as the English.  They wanted, instead, to express pride in their Caribbean identities. They were rebellious.  They wore shirt jackets and military fatigues instead of suits. They were educated abroad but spoke plainly in the kind of “nation language,” to borrow a term from Kamau Brathwaite, with which the general public could identify. Politically they wanted to flout certain norms, such as the Westminster system of democracy they had inherited from Britain, in order to pursue a third way, namely socialism. People found Bishop charismatic and appealing.  In Grenada, the PRG founded a Center for Popular Education (CPE), whose cornerstone initiative was a literacy campaign that used locally produced texts instead of British primers. These texts presented students with explicitly Caribbean scenarios for learning.  The CPE was one of the PRG’s initiatives to promote the revolution that relied on Caribbean literature and folk arts. Local writers such as Christopher DeRiggs, Jacob Ross, Francis Urias Peters, and Merle Collins were part of this new generation in Grenada. They drew inspiration, and often support, from the way the PRG promoted the arts.


Grenada’s revolution was a response to an incomplete transition from colonial dependence to postcolonial independence. It borrowed from Cuba in its turn to a creolized socialism, but it also bore influences from earlier generations of radical activism in Grenada including Marryshow’s push for a strong Caribbean political identity via Federation, and Gairy’s early focus on the right of peasant workers to earn fair wages and form unions. The men leading the revolution had a very different approach to women’s rights, however, from the previous generation.  They put legislation in place that benefitted women, including maternity leave and increased access to education and childcare. The revolution’s official policies on women promoted women’s equality. The women involved in the revolution, including Phyllis Coard, Jacqueline Creft and writers such as Brand, Collins, and Merle Hodge, were more visible within political and literary arenas than the women writers and political activists who came before them.

Edited by Merle Hodge, et al

It should be no surprise then, that women’s voices are at the center of the literary response to the Grenada Revolution. Part of my project is to read literary texts that consider the kinds of decisions women made and carried out in Grenada, the ways that they influenced political thinking both during and after the revolution, the kinds of ideologies they created and supported, and the legacies that they left for future Caribbean societies. The book is divided into four chapters, each tracing how the revolution fits into a Caribbean-inflected black radical tradition while investigating the limits of that tradition in creating conditions of freedom for Caribbean people. I include a chapter each on Collins, Brand, and Grenadian politician Joan Purcell, as well as a chapter on Walcott, Lamming, and Andrew Salkey. For these writers the revolution is about diasporic kinship and inheritance, tensions between local and global influences, and political and spiritual ways of knowing. The questions motivating this project involve the relationship between revolution and nationalism in the Anglophone Caribbean, how the project of nation-building changes from the late 1960s and 70s to the early 1980s, and the shifting importance of a black internationalist vision of Caribbean sovereignty during this time. I am interested in how visions of nationalism and internationalism were often situated uncomfortably alongside each other, as Grenada moved through various forms of revolution and resistance.  Underlying these questions is my investment in bringing black feminist perspectives to the challenges raised by the Grenada Revolution because these perspectives are uniquely positioned to critique and re-read the hegemonic narrative as well as the radical, anti-imperial counter-narrative. Both narratives are problematic in their exclusion of women and sexual minorities and when this “blind spot” is addressed new ways of thinking about revolution come to the fore. These are ways that see the black radical tradition as truly working across generations and genders to secure the well-being of black people throughout the diaspora.

Near the end of Collins’ novel The Colour of Forgetting (1995), she offers the following thoughts from the mind of Carib, a warner-woman who walks the island telling of tragedies past and speaking prophecies of violence to come.  In the wake of revolution Carib sits near Leaper’s Hill contemplating Grenada’s history – the leaping of the Caribs in the seventeenth century as they resisted the French colonizers, and the leaping of bodies amid gunfire at the end of the revolution in 1983.  Carib struggles with how to remember these souls: “Is dream or is wake? Want stone. Want gravestone. Memory. Want remembering. Bush choking. Want name. Is me. Is you. Want name. A gravestone. No name. No engraving. Stone. It fading.” When I think about the literature of the Grenada Revolution I think about textual monuments: these are texts that want us, the readers, to remember, and to engage this history rather than allowing it to fade. But the service of these texts is greater than that because they also offer a three-dimensional vision of time (past, present, and future) and a call to live with history, not only the history collected in archives—the history of great men—but also the more intimate histories, emanating from spaces where women’s voices can be heard. At the beginning of Colour the narrator speaks of a legend about the sea near Leaper’s Hill which often “churned up with remembering”. This remembering is angry, Collins writes, and especially dangerous for the people who live around the sea but choose not to remember. If, as Walcott tells us, “the sea is history” then Collins extends this idea by showing how history, like the sea, is constantly changing, and the meaning of history is different, then, for each subsequent generation. I will close with some of the questions this literature has made me turn over: What is the legacy of the revolution for Grenadians today, and particularly for a younger generation? What is the work for us to take up today? Are we having enough cross-generational dialogue? And for those of you who lived through the revolution, what do you want those of us who did not (or are too young to remember), to learn from it?

Laurie Lambert is Assistant Professor in the African and African American Studies Department at Fordham University in New York City.

The Grenada Revolution Symposium Presentations – Atiba Rougier (Introduction)

The Grenada Revolution (1979 – 1983) and its subsequent collapse

On 19th October in New York City, a symposium was held in memory of the Grenadian Revolution and those who died on 19th October, 1983. 34 years ago, on Fort Rupert, located in St. George’s on the small island of Grenada, at the bottom of the Caribbean basin, a revolution died.

The Symposium, entitled 1st Annual Symposium on the Grenadian Revolution of 1979 – 1983 focused on two points: the revolution itself 1979 – 1983 and the days 18th, 19th, and 20th of October 1983. The relevance of these dates is still locked in mystery, misinformation, disinformation, and secrets. There are many unanswered questions and many ‘truths buried in facts’ (Puri 2014). This gathering attempted to excavate information that can guide a comprehensive understanding of that turbulent but, prolific, period in Grenada’s History. A history that is not taught on the island to this day and given Bernard Coard’s recently published autobiography The Grenada Revolution: What Really Happened?, attendees were given a chance to dialogue, share, and learn.

Four of the presentations from the symposium are now gathered together for publication in this first volume. This volume is an act of remembrance to and for those who died on that fateful day in 1983. Laurie Lambert, Paul Clement, Patsy Lewis, and Martin Felix all delivered polemic presentations/projects that will eventually lead to new understandings of the Grenada Revolution, what happened, and what we need to remember about that period in Grenadian, West Indian, Caribbean, and World History.

Why should we remember what happened on that small island in the West Indies? What history is available for the next generation when the “Revo” generation is no longer with us? These are questions asked during the symposium and during the presentations that are now gathered here for your engagement.   

As we continue to imagine reconciliation and what that means and what is required, given the release of Bernard Coard’s book and his forthcoming volumes, it is crucial to remember the work being done at this moment, for example, Paul’s work on indigenous engine of growth, John Cotman’s work on Maurice, Patsy’s work on healing after trauma, Laurie’s forthcoming book on literature and textual monuments, Caldwell’s memoir, and my work on collective memory, just to list a few.

As the crows fly above on 19th October, 1983, under the scotching sun overlooking the turquoise water where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea, mounted on volcanic rocks, history was created, a revolution died and bodies were buried; and, like vessels at the bottom of the ocean, hopefully, not forgotten.

Brooklyn, New York (November, 2017) — Atiba Rougier








  1. Laurie Lambert: “Generational Ties, Revolutionary Binds: Literature, Archive, and Questions of Gender”  

2. Martin Felix: “Reconciling with the Past; Visualizing the Future”

Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott; Trinidad? – Llewellyn Mac Intosh


By Llewellyn Mac Intosh

In the year 1977, a calypsonian from Trinidad & Tobago named the Mighty Unknown caused patrons to the calypso tent to be falling off their seats when he performed a calypso called, “Ah Vex”. Unknown, in his cleverly constructed offering, threw four stanzas of piccong at the St Lucian poet whom the calypsonian alleged had had the temerity to be critical of the place which had been good enough to extend to him, its generosity;

Derek you must be fou bé dangé or mad

Sit down on river stone and talk river bad

You wouldn’t talk about we pitch lake, oil and sugar

That you have enjoyed, through we ancestor;

What about we multi-racial society

Who are so friendly and full of courtesy,

Carnival is we festival and commerce

And sex is ah must; through the universe

You see why ah vex, ah more than vex

Derek Walcott say Trinidad is Carnival and Sex

Ah vex! Ah s-s-s-stammering vex

Derek suffering from one big, big, big complex

Derek go back to St Lucia and you would see

All kinda vice and sexology

Man marrieding man and is tee-la-lee-lah

And Derek wouldn’t say ah thing about St Lucia.”

Unknown was selected for the National Calypso Semi-Finals that year and his composition, beyond its triggering of the nerve of sensibility in a population fiercely protective of its new-found nationalism in that post black power era, would have made the average Trini, sadly, just barely aware of the genius that literally walked and worked amongst them.

Walcott had lived and wed and wrote and worked in Trinidad & Tobago. The Mighty Unknown must have been on hand to over-hear one of the programmes, like “Cultural Miscellany,” that were state sponsored and frequently aired on one of the two radio stations that operated then. Walcott would, at the time have been a regular contributor, in the same way that he had regularly contributed to one of the daily newspapers with his regular features. There was therefore an awareness of his presence here; an awareness that prompted Unknown’s indignation at the poet’s need to bite the hands that were feeding him;

Derek you must be fou bé dangé or mad

Sit down on river stone and talk river bad…”

Perhaps the 1977 episode though, was an aberration in the defining of the relationship betwixt the Nobel Laureate and the Trinidadian, for everything that this writer grew to learn and to know about the man Derek Walcott during the next forty-odd years signaled attitudes and emotions that were extremely contrary to those provoked by Julian Pierre’s singing in the mid-nineteen seventies.

There was respect, admiration, love and hero-worship, in some cases notwithstanding the brusqueness of attitude that Walcott displayed periodically, when he felt that his colleagues fell short of his expectations. But, much of this came later.

Our first official “meeting” came when as a first year, part-time student of West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, the vacation assignment was – over Christmas – writing a book report of the Walcott anthology, “In A Green Night” (1962).

The crispness in his presentation of successive lines of soul-touching poetry was fascinating. The subsequent satisfactory grade for the Yuletide exercise further encouraged and heightened the interest in the man and in his work and by the culmination of the semester, there was another student admirer of the craftiness of the magnificence of the poet’s use of the idiom.

In my teenage years, I had met VS Naipaul and had enjoyed the images presented in the mirror. Titus Hoyt, Man Man, Hat and Laura—characters from a collection set in wartime Trinidad–were real. I knew them. They lived in the yard in which I grew up in Boissierre Village No. 1. I had not, however, analyzed and joked at their frailties until the writings of Vidiadhar  Surajprasad  had skinned and presented them for further examination… the pathologist would do to a patient etherized upon a table.  Within a few years I was also to meet Ganesh Ramsay Muir and Mohun Biswas—the principal characters in two novels by VS Naipaul. Their narratives were engaging and even enjoyable in the comic sense, and the tragedy was spiced with dashes of comedy.

Walcott, when I met him, triggered no laughter. The seizure was different. The language of the poetry was compelling. One marveled at the range and the depth of the imagery. And, the messages resonated right off the galvanize fence in my backyard. They were localized and they teased and awakened my curiosity. I did not need encouragement, therefore, nor prompting, nor another Home Work exercise to find the SPCK Bookshop on Abercromby Street, Port of Spain and begin to peruse my next two anthologies; first “The Castaway” (1965) and then, “The Gulf” (2004).

The growth of a quiet admiration was sustained, even as I read some more. Walcott seemed to understand – and if he did not understand, appeared to be giving voice to a common struggle.

My other colleagues – almost all of them – in that primary year at St Augustine had given up. Walcott was too abstract, they said….inaccessible! I found their disenchantment and rejection of the poetry painfully disappointing, but could not blame them entirely when they opted for Second Year Sociology or Second Year Government. I begged to differ and lost a few friends, for regular paths became separated by the dictates of the time tables. Their rejection of Literature then, was absolute….as absolute as my resolve to continue.  Sure, not everything was grasped at the first or even the second reading sometimes; but, in the lines and in the language there was so much joy – not laughter, nor ridicule; but joy in the pure aesthetics of what the lines contained. I have had no regrets…

An old lady writes me in a spidery style

Each character trembling, and I see a veined hand

Pellucid as paper, travelling on a skein

Of such frail thoughts its thread is often broken;

Or else the filament from which a phrase is hung

Dims to my sense, but caught, it shines like steel,

As touch a line and the whole web will feel.”

(A Letter from Brooklyn, 1962)

Additionally, works like; “A Far Cry from Africa”, “The Hurricane”, “Hic Jacet”, “Codicil”, “The Castaway”, “Almond Trees” and “The Gulf” addressed troubling, personal and universal issues – seemingly within a microcosmic universe that, for a young student of the language, was Trinidadian. Walcott appeared to be grounded within the country and to have a predilection for the things that concerned us here.

Black consciousness in the era immediately after 1970, negritude, colonialism, patriotism, the crisis of identity – his and ours, the brain-drain, the impact and the effects of/on the natural environment,  the sea, the exodus to North America, theism, death, the weather……even my fear of flying! – All his themes seemed to reflect my own concerns. Walcott became personal. I did not – could not perhaps, go as far; but many, many times we journeyed along the road together. Line after line of his images were “home-grown”-

Lavantille: “To go downhill from here was to ascend.”

“How can I turn from Africa and live?”(“A Far Cry from Africa”

“At Cedros, thudding the dead sand

in spasms…” (Tarpan”)

“Bethel and Canaan’s heart

Lies open like a psalm…” (“Crusoe’s Island)

“Above the beached, rotting pirouges,

They were venomous beaked clouds at Charlotteville.” (“Codicil”)

“Dusk. The Flight, Passing Blanchisseuse.

Gulls wheel like from a gun again,” (“The Flight”)

And, how could I not but personalize his (or is it my) “Laventille”?

Lavantille: “To go downhill from here was to ascend.”

It huddled there

steel tinkling its blue painted metal air,

tempered in violence, like Rio’s favelas,

with snaking, perilous streets whose edges fell as

its Episcopal turkey-buzzards fall

from its miraculous hilltop


down the impossible drop

to Belmont, Woodbrook, Maraval, St Clair

that shine

like peddlers’’ tin trinkets in the sun.”

Derek Walcott

The description is impeccable. The imagery is unique. The style is mind-boggling in its accuracy. Even the presentation of the lines on the page is reflective of the ‘unharmonius’ nature of the terrain.

Walcott continues;

“…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

In the flat, coloured city, class

Escalated into structures still,

Merchant, middleman, magistrate, knight. To go downhill

From here was to ascend.

The middle passage never guessed its end.”

He writes this for VS Naipaul, Trinidadian novelist. And for the university professor, another Trinidadian, Kenneth Ramchand, Walcott writes, The Saddhu of Couva

“And to that gong

sometimes bald clouds in saffron robes assemble

sacred to the evening,

sacred even to Ramlochan

singing Indian hits from his jute hammock

while evening strokes the flanks

and silver horns of his maroon taxi,

as the mosquitoes whine their evening mantras,

my friend Anopheles, on the sitar,

and the fireflies making every dusk Divali.”

The imagery is precise; and like the painter with a skillful hand and accurate eye, the language captures and presents the detail of the scene with amazing flawlessness.

The next magical piece that is selected to make the point, evokes that Trinidadian calypsonian who above all others fascinated listeners with amazing tales from his boundless imagination. The singer and his genre are both Trinidadian and as if to complete his trilogy of references and assist in emphasizing this writer’s argument; Walcott selects for its dedication, Earl Lovelace – the Trinidadian novelist…

I have a room where I keep a crown,

And Satan send me to checkout this town.

…I beg him two weeks’ leave and he send me

back up, not as no bedbug or no flea,

but in this limeskin hat and floccy suit,

To sing what I did always sing: the truth.

Tell Desperadoes when you reach the hill,

I decompose, but I composing still:”

The style is rhythmic. The language is ‘calypsonic’ and almost pedantic. The message is savagely brutal, ay, akin to political rhetoric…..”lyrics to make a politician cringe (“Calypso Music”, David Michael Rudder—1987).

“The time could come, it can’t be very long

when they will jail calypso for piccong,

for first comes television, then the press,

all in the name of Civic Righteousness;

it has been done before…”

“…rumour can twist

Into a style the local journalist –

As bland as a green coconut, his manner

Routinely tart, his sources the Savannah

And all pretensions to a native art

Reduced to giggles at a coconut cart,

Where heads with reputations, in one slice,

Are brought to earth, when they ain’t eating nice;

and as for local Art, so it does go

The audience have more talent than the show.”

“Is Carnival, straight Carnival that’s all

the beat is base, the melody bohbohl,

all Port of Spain is a twelve-thirty show,

some playing Kojak, some Fidel Castro,

some Rastamen, but, with or without locks,

to Spoiler is the same old khaki socks,

all Frederick street stinking like a closed drain,

Hell is a city much like Port of Spain…

and Lord, the sunlit streets break Spoiler’s heart,

to have natural gas and not to give a fart,

to see them lineup, pitch-oil tin in hand:

each independent, oil-forsaken island,

…but from Jamaica to poor Dominica

we make them know they begging, every loan

we send them is like blood squeezed out of stone,…

and, more we give, more we congratulate

we-self on our own self-sufficient state.

In all them project, all them Five-year Plan,

what happen to the Brotherhood of Man?”

(The Spoiler’s Return”, 1981)

The poetry was not all.

I met and read the plays and in a sense; the poetry again. There were lines of drama that were poetic in their expressions!

Well I was coming through the forest now

And I passed by the white spring, and I saw

Some poor souls going to work for the white planter.

He’ll work you like the devil, but that’s what you want,

You and your impatience and arm cast in iron,

So turn to the right, go through the bamboo forest,

Over the black rocks then the forest will open,

And you will see the sky, below that a valley,

And smoke, and a white house that is empty,

The old fellow is hiring harvesters today” (Ti Jean and his Brothers, 1985)


And all of this…all of my encounter with Walcott, so far, has been within the twin island republic of Trinidad & Tobago. Walcott stood, for me at least, like a Colossus;

“I’ll be what I am, so to hell with you. I’ll be what I am. I drink, and I drink and I feel nothing. Oh, I lack heart to enjoy the brevity of the world [The FIREFLY passes dancing] Get out of my way you burning backside. I’m the prince of obscurity and I won’t brook interruption! Trying to mislead me because been drinking. Behave, behave. That youngster is having a terrible effect on me. Since he came to the estate, I’ve felt like a fool. First time in me life too. Look just a while ago I nearly got angry at an insect that’s just a half-arsed imitation of a star. It’s wonderful! An insect brushes my dragonish hand, and my scales tighten with fear” (Ti Jean and his Brothers, 1985)

I was fortunate, as a young man to see “Dream on Monkey Mountain”, “Ti Jean and His Brothers”, “Beef No Chicken” and, of course, “The Joker of Seville”.

The latter drew me to Woodbrook; three or maybe four times, in 1974 when Walcott’s poetry and his prose; emerging from its Spanish antecedents and harmonizing itself with the music of Galt Mac Dermott was to fill the cramped interior of The Little Carib Theatre night, after night, after night as the patrons’ insatiable desire for the jousts of bodies and language awakened in Trinidad & Tobago an universal desire for the theatre.

The front sign of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. May 7th, 2015.

Notwithstanding an understanding of the many components that must interface to have the drama going, one must acknowledge the genius of Walcott – conductor on the bandstand – in his ability to draw citizens from all parts of the country for the  exciting and exhilarating performances. It was undoubtedly the single occasion when Walcott’s poetry, unlike the commentary I had heard so many times before, was accessible to all.

The drumming of Andrew Beddeau, the crooning of Syd Skipper, the harmonies of Mac Dermott, the sobriety of Hamilton Parris and the chicanery of Nigel Scott; within their various roles have etched for all time notes of pleasure that regularly surface on the landscape of memory.

Whilst it is true that Galt Mac Dermott and Syd Skipper and Helen Camps and Wilbert Holder might not have been the Trinidadians in the team, Walcott’s direction then,  like with other presentations before and after the Joker, brought to the fore some of the best that the country has had to offer in the realm of theatre performance.

The magnificence of the troupe that one saw was a reflection, not only the writing; but the vision, the direction and the passion of the father of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop….and perhaps, in a real way – the Father of Trinidad & Tobago Theatre!

The front sign of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. May 7th, 2015.

Walcott’s labour of love had culminated, in the Joker of Seville into an amazing gestation and the offsprings were; Hamilton Parris and Nigel Scott and Norline Metivier and Pat Flores and Errol Jones and June Nathaniel and Andrew Beddeau; and like the others before and after, they had morphed their craft and their talent – where it did exist – into perhaps the finest dramatic scenes that the country has known.

Walcott’s raison d’etre, is perhaps best explained in “Hic Jacet”;

They’ll keep on asking why did you remain?

Not for the applauding rain

of hoarse and hungry thousands at whose centre

the politician opens like a poisonous flower

not for the homecoming lecturer

gripping his lectern like a witness, ready to explain

the root’s fixation with earth

nor for that new race of dung beetles, frock-coated, iridescent

crawling over people.

Before the people became popular

he loved them” (“The Gulf and Other Poems”, 1969)

Derek Walcott founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop and remained here, maybe because he loved us…or maybe, he felt that he was one of us.


Llewellyn Mac Intosh, a free-lance radio broadcaster and a calypsonian (Short Pants) who practices his craft in Trinidad & Tobago, is a retired secondary school principal who currently spends his time supporting the provision of educational opportunities for socially disadvantaged  young men in the twin island republic.