#Healing: Life beyond abuse

How do we end gender-based violence? How do we heal? How do we create change?

Angelique V Nixon and I have been asking these questions over the past few years through our co-created art and reflection projects on gender-based violence (GBV) in the Caribbean. This year, we decided to focus on breaking silence and healing.

It is a very fitting theme given the widespread participation of women and girls in the #lifeinleggings movement. (See #lifeinleggings hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).  Women from across the Caribbean region and Diaspora have been sharing their stories of public harassment, sexual assault, abuse, molestation and rape.  The posts have been intensely gut-wrenching. Those who have chosen to participate by sharing and by reading these stories have all been having deeply emotional and psychological responses, to the horror of other women’s experiences and remembrances of their own past traumas.

Angelique will be hosting a workshop in San Juan, Trinidad, on the evening of December 9 (see Facebook for details), open to survivors of GBV, including LGBTQI persons.

My own version of this healing workshop was conducted a few weeks ago at Rutgers (New Brunswick, NJ), and I hope to  a second session next semester. This workshop was not specifically for victims of GBV but was conducted with LLEGO, the LGBTQQIA People of Colour Organisation at Rutgers University. In this post, I want to share some of the strategies we employed and practiced at the workshop, where participants consented to have some of what they shared there, be used in this post.

We began with an exercise in unmasking, by making masks that showed the side of us that we share with the world, and the insecurities that we hide.  Here are some examples:

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“This mask is myself. I generally come across as calm. I like making people laugh, cheering people up, being there as a friend and as support. But on the other side, I am smaller and less happy. While I have other people’s backs, the majority of the time, I don’t have my back. I’m in the process of learning how to do that and take better care of myself”.

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“I project confidence, determination and courage. This is not what I am, but what I want to display. Not that I am a fake, but these are what I aspire to. But inside, I battle these things – fear, longing and guilt. I have a tendency to idolise people and I feel like everything is perfect with them and not me.”

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“This is me and all the little things that comprise me. I tend to hide behind my hair and my school work. I have a lot of interests, that’s what this grab box represents. But I’m a star. I am intimidated by vulnerability, like this exercise itself was one of making oneself vulnerable, so I am uncomfortable doing it, but I still want to. I feel insecure about my body and about my intelligence when compared to peers, especially because my personality is ‘out there’, so I’m not perceived as smart. I have a hard time relating to straight women, like… even just communicating with them. And lastly, I had a difficult childhood and I’m still battling with that.”

Twelve masks were made that night and each person shared their stories of trauma, of losing loved ones and friends, of being too scared or anxious to face the world. The making of the masks brought up emotions, both positive and negative, so the next part of the workshop sought to help us work though these emotions.

Sitting cross-legged in a circle on the ground, I talked us through an exercise using the breath to pump emotion, tension and energies into, through, and out of the body. With each breath, we drew energy up from the floor, pulling positivity into our bodies, and breathing out negativity. Any stress, anger, fatigue or frustration is exhaled with the breath.  The full exercise can be found here.

There were more tears as each person went through their own journey of release and replenish. We did not talk about the particular events and circumstances that people were carrying.  Instead we talked about how they felt, and how they can work on dealing with those feelings. Doing the exercise together helped amplify the energy in the room.

Lastly, I wanted to encourage a spiritual practice of community, and the idea that we are can help each other to be strong, without having to face our obstacles on our own. What strength or gift do I have that I can share with someone else? What strength do they need now in their life? How can we contribute to the overall health of our community?

Still sitting on the floor, we placed out hands to our hearts in the mudra for receptivity and drew one of our own strengths and shared it with the person beside us, slowly taking the time to connect with that person, share and strengthen each other.  Gifts included compassion, optimism, self-confidence, empathy and kindness, people to love you, respect, peace of mind, and being a “bad bitch”.

These exercises brought the participants in the LLEGO group together in a different way. They already knew each other and were building friendships through their weekly meetings, discussions and activities. This healing exercise saw them unveil parts of themselves that they hid even from this group. Also, by ending with a sense of community and connectedness, it served as a reminder that we are all on this journey together.

This type of work is not done once and is over. This labour of self-preservation and community building must be part of our every-day praxis. Mindfulness of how our actions, words and thoughts affect us and others. It may be utopian and unrealistic to expect others to steadily engage in an ethic of care towards us, making it even more important for us to perform this labour ourselves – a labour of care for self and for community.

 

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Over the last two years, for the #16Days campaign, Angelique V Nixon and I have engaged in art and activism projects on social media. In 2014, our three-part project, Outrage, Body Power and Change comprised original poetry, artwork and music, including a video with our voices.  Last year, in 2015, we attempted to build on this project instead reaching out with questions on Facebook and Instagram, to stimulate conversation about how we can end gender-based violence and the systemic power relations that sustain it.

If you are in Trinidad and are interested in participating in the upcoming workshop (December 9, 2016), facilitated by Angelique V Nixon, please see Facebook for details and registration.

On Freedom and Action: An evening with Lennox Hinds and Angela Davis

On Wednesday, Rutgers celebrated the service and retirement of Professor Lennox Hinds, who had been a faculty member there for over forty years. Professor Hinds built his career on social justice, serving as legal counsel to Assata Shakur and the third woman to be placed on the F.B.I.’s most wanted list, Angela Davis. Professor Hinds was also legal advisor to Nelson Mandela, during his inaugural visit to the U.S.A. in 1990.

Hinds and Davis shared the stage at last night’s celebration of Hinds’ career and distinguished service at the University, as friends and comrades-in-arms who have been fighting for racial justice for the past five decades. Davis recounted their meeting as she was detained in New York City in 1970, and a subsequent encounter with New Brunswick police after an event held at Rutgers (circa the late 1970s, 1:05:00 to 1:09:00 in the YouTube video). Paralleling the struggles of black youth in the 1960s and 70s to contemporary over-policing of black bodies and mass incarcerations of people of colour, Hinds and Davis both recognised the enmeshing of capitalism with policing and criminal justice. As Hinds asserted, the motto of the police is ‘To protect and serve’, but “to protect and serve whom?”

Hinds and Davis demanded accountability from police, noting that “police misbehaviour” was not a new occurrence, but just one that was becoming more visible through the availability of recording devices. Professor Hinds gave a brief review of the laws of the USA, starting with the constitution, illustrating the foundation of these laws in racist ideology, leading up to the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the US, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted“.

As Lisa Cacho explores in Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected, racism creates populations who are “dead-to-others”, who lack inherent value, and who are denied personhood, and can then justifiably be politically repressed and imprisoned. In the fifty years between the rise of the Black Panthers and of Black Lives Matter, the continuity of these oppressive societal structures necessitate the persistent under-valuing of racialised groups and the attribution of criminality to their skin colour. “The criminal” is ontologised as the black body, just as the “job-stealing-immigrant” to America is the Latinx (often read as ‘Mexican’). These presuppositions of one’s nature are rooted in ideologies that devalue these bodies, and thus deny personhood, protection and justice. Adhering to established structures, then, would not revaluate these lives.

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One of many memes with this quote circulating on social media.

Davis challenged us to dream of a future beyond reforming the systems we currently have, referring to Audre Lorde’s advice about the master’s tools being ineffective when trying to dismantle the master’s house. Why should we try to change systems of oppression? Why not abolish them? What would it mean to develop a notion of security that does not require constant policing?

Having prisons means we believe people would continue to commit such harm that they require being locked up. Instead, Davis suggests we move towards the elimination of prisons. How do we get rid of the harm that people inflict on each other?

By removing the situations of oppression that cultivate harm-causing behaviours, such as monopoly capitalism, premised on exploitative manufacturing practices, inclusive of the under-valuing of human life and labour.

Angela Davis took the opportunity at the forum to clarify her being misquoted by supporters of Hilary Clinton. During her Sept. 30 keynote address at the “Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism” conference at the University of Texas at Austin, Davis said, “I have serious problems with the other candidate, but I am not so narcissistic to say I cannot bring myself to vote for her.” Davis articulated that the political system does not protect the vast majority from the perils of the capitalist, sexist, elitist, hetero-patriarchal and racist state, and called for the formation of a new party informed by the ideologies of feminism and black radical activism, that was invested in labour movements and the working-class, was anti-capitalist and sought environmental, sexual and economic justice. Davis suggested that to vote for Clinton would allow a climate for such a party to emerge, and to open possibilities for future generations.

Davis recognised value in young activists’ new ways of thinking and organising around these persistent oppressions. In the face of mass incarceration, mass graves of undocumented Latinx migrants, of environmental justice and indigenous rights, Hinds and Davis encourage young activists to not lose hope, to keep fighting, noting the only alternative is surrender; we must either engage in radical critique or assimilate and become silenced under the status quo. Hence Davis’ unwavering stance on abolishing systems of oppression rather than trying to fix them.

In what context can we be free? We must imagine this future and then build it. As Davis asked, “Can’t we dream?”

Finding Indo-Caribbean identities

On April 29 to May 1, 2016 (Grenada’s Indian Arrival Day), the first ever International Conference on the Indian Diaspora in Grenada and the Wider Caribbean was held at the St. George’s University Campus, True Blue, Grenada. The first of its kind in Grenada, from the opening ceremony to the closing remarks, the conference highlighted the past and current complicated social, cultural and political-economic relationships existing between India and the population of Indian descendants living in the Caribbean and other places where Indian indentured labour was utilised.

Spearheaded by Dr Kumar Mahabir, the conference was organised by the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre, the Indian Cultural Organisation (Grenada) Inc, and the Indo-Grenadian Heritage Foundation, with support from the Belmont Estate Group of Companies, and the High Commission of India to Trinidad and Tobago (also servicing Grenada, Montserrat and Dominica). In addition to the Indo-Grenadian community, presenters came from Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica, Belize, Guyana, New York, and Guadeloupe. References were made to these and other places with the Indian Diaspora, including Suriname, Martinique, Mauritius and Fiji, true to its claim as being an “international” conference.

Mansraj Ramphal and Dr Kumar Mahabir both presented archival data on the specific ships that brought indentured Indian labour to the Caribbean colonies, particularly to Grenada. They listed the births and deaths occurring on ships and on plantations in the colonies. What I most appreciated in the organisation of the conference was the trajectory of the discussions, from this historical review of how the Indians came to be in the Caribbean to addressing questions of cultural survivals and contemporary Indo-Caribbean identities.

Mr Jean Sahai described the struggle of Indians in the French Antilles for gaining citizenship (in 1923 in Guadeloupe, and later extended to other French regions), up until which point, they had been considered stateless. Even within other Caribbean territories, discourses of the post-colonial Creole nation have erased the “Indian”. A few presentations jostled with these questions of ethnic and national identity, for instance, showing its historic relevance for Indian indentured labourers in Grenada where planters, set in the mentality under which chattel slavery flourished, renamed the Indian workers with their own names, such as Thomas or Adams. This was the beginning of the assimilation of indentured labourers into the post-slavery colonial society. Speakers from the Indo-Grenadian Heritage Foundation, such as Wilbur Jawahir Adams, reflected on their sense of loss at not carrying the names of their ancestors who had left India with “Hindustani” names, but left the world bearing the names of white estate owners. They would have stood out with their “different” or different-sounding name, but naming and misnaming as a project of colonialism sought to make them invisible and better integrate them into an invisible position of subjugation.

The conference was a path of discovery and reconciliation, whereby people of Indian descent could find themselves, their histories, their families, their legacies and the legends within their lineages. It was a way of recognising the contribution of people of East Indian descent to the development of social, political, academic and cultural fields, as well as to the flora and fauna. Both Jalaludin Khan as well as the keynote speaker Dr Beverley Steele discussed plants and animals of Indian origin that can be found in Grenada. Khan traced some of this presence back to global trade routes preceding Indentureship and the (forced and voluntary) migration of Indians to the region.

A number of presentations sought to find the cultural survivals and retentions in the region, connecting these to a sense of identity as “Indo-Caribbean”. Ms Mohammed and Mr Jai Sears both explored the Indian cultural presence in Grenada.  In her presentation, Shalima Mohammed noted that Indo-Grenadian migrants to Trinidad first saw certain symbols of Indian culture, like the dhoti and tassa drums, and Hindu religious practice, like flags (jhandi), when they arrived in Trinidad. Dr Visham Bhimull from the Hindi Nidhi Foundation of Trinidad and Tobago investigated the linguistic connections of “plantation Hindi” or what he calls “Caribbean Hindustani,” the Hindi dialects spoken in Trinidad, Suriname and Guyana, to regional dialects in north India form where labourers had been recruited/taken. Bhimull’s paper was based on secondary data collected in the 1970s, as living populations speaking these languages are now greatly diminished.

Understanding “Indian” and “Indo-Caribbean” identities in this way also provoked questions about race relations in Grenada and the wider Caribbean: how have Indo-Grenadians been integrated into the larger society? What sort of interactions have they had with other groups in the country, particularly with the formerly enslaved, with whom they most closely experienced subjugation within colonial societies? How do transplanted communities retain cultural practices, while adapting to new socio-political environments, especially as minorities?

The event could have had a greater impact, but was unfortunately not well-attended, being distanced from the community through its being situated on the University campus. Yet for the Indo-Grenadian peoples in attendance who were grappling with alienation or feeling distanced from their histories, the conference represented a symbolic link to community and legacy. It was a forum for gaining visibility as an Indian diasporic population and as Caribbean people.

In the vein of continuities, we must think about the future of events like these. How can we continue these conversations? In what ways can this be most useful to Caribbean peoples of Indian descent? What conversations are needed for the future of Indian descendents in Caribbean and other contexts?