Tag Archives: Caribbean

Just Limin’ in the Caribbean

by JT Talley

Note: This is the fourth in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

Limin’: Trinidadian slang synonymous with resting, relaxing, hanging out, or just chillin’. It falls in line with a culture of knowing and enjoying what you are, who you are, and where you are in the moment. And we definitely enjoyed ourselves in Trinidad and Tobago. During the Purdue Black Cultural Center’s research tour to these Caribbean islands, we were tasked with unmasking blackness in a culture of celebration. And Trinidad is widely known to be the founding country of the largest celebration on Earth: Carnival.

We got a taste of this celebration on the very first day. The same night we arrived in Trinidad, the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago gave us quite a show. They had us parade with them around Queen Savannah Park and introduced us to some traditional characters of Carnival. There was loud music, fire blowers, whips cracking, weird costumes, and beautiful women. The whole experience was confusing, scary (I’ll mention why in a moment), and EXCITING! It was exciting because you could feel the spirit of celebration in the atmosphere. It was scary and confusing, though, because everything was so new and different.

_BCC1768

It was hard to see and understand the point of some of the characters at first. There were devils, people in skeleton costumes with a collection of skulls, masked giants on stilts, and women holding babies looking for the father in the crowd. Especially being a man of Christian faith, I was not sure how to interpret the presence of devils and men with skulls. After letting myself be open to the experience, however, it all became clear.

These characters were not just for some random method of celebration, but rather played a double role in life lessons for the future generations. All the characters and all the costumes had a purpose of showing and teaching on having pride in one’s heritage and warning them about things such as drug usage, alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy. Everything seemed to have a purpose, down to the tiniest detail. And the artists embraced this purpose to the fullest extent, tying everything they did back to the character they portrayed.

_BCC1676

I mean, it really only makes sense when you think about it. Carnival itself has a great underlying purpose that many outsiders don’t seem to recognize. The people who started Carnival weren’t celebrating for no reason. It wasn’t some period of overindulgence before Lent, like in the European version made in an attempt to copy the originators. It’s a celebration of resilience of a people to overcome adversity. It’s a celebration of survival and freedom from the injustices of the olden slave days. And you can see this very clearly in their pride, in their performance, and in their speech. Because if you try to ask them who they are, someone will answer, “You know who I am. My name’s survivor.”

Advertisements

Experiencing the Mask

by Keturah Nix

Note: This is the third in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

While on the trip to Trinidad and Tobago a phrase that was stated stuck with me: “Look through the mask and see the expression of the people.” This was briefly said in a demonstration workshop we attended conducted by Matthew Wiley who portrays the traditional bat character in the Carnival celebration. For me, this phrase helps to contextualize the experience. When thinking about a mask, there are two perspectives, the one from the onlooker and the one from behind the mask. On this trip, we were able to experience both angles.

As an onlooker, we participated in a Carnival re-creation celebration at Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain where we learned about the signature Carnival characters and their African origins and connections. This experience was enlightening because I was introduced to the history of Carnival in Trinidad. Learning that the origins of many of the characters are exaggerated representations of the slave masters and the slave experience was very interesting. For instance, the Blue Devil, a popular yet frightful character is a representative of the lost slave souls from the Middle Passage to the island and the ones who died and were killed working the fields. The Blue Devil goes around with a sticky substance on his or her body forcefully beckoning for money from crowd members and threatening to smear the sticky substance and blue paint over people. We found out that the sticky substance is molasses and it symbolizes the sugar cane fields in which the slaves had to work. The reasoning behind this character’s petitioning for money serves as the symbolic payment for those slaves and servants who never received payment for their endless work. It is a devil embodiment because many of the slaves viewed the White slave masters as the devil. This and other characters have similar roles chronicling the slave experience in the entire Carnival event.

A Blue Devil flame-blowing at the Carnival re-creation performance at Queen's Savannah Park in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
A Blue Devil flame-blowing at the Carnival re-creation performance at Queen’s Savannah Park in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

As part of seeing the mask from the inside, two workshops I believe helped with this are the Idakeda Group ‘s workshop on “Anansi and the Drum” and the Extempo workshop with Calypso artists “Short Pants” and “Lord Superior.” The Idakeda workshop was an intense 4 ½ hour session of learning about African storytelling in the Caribbean. In this workshop we engaged in song, dance, and acting to help foster a historical perspective to the slave experience. In the Extempo workshop we had an opportunity to hear and even engage in what would be considered freestylin’ but with a more political and international twist. This was fun because old and young Calypso artists explained the importance of Calypso in Trinidadian culture and we were able to feel the fun, lighthearted, and informational vibe extempo can possess.

One of my favorite days on the trip was when we went on a glass bottom boat in the Caribbean Sea to see the coral reefs. In certain parts of the sea the reefs form natural swimming pools where we had a chance to get off the boat and either snorkel or just play around in the water. After some major coaxing from friends, I ended up getting off the boat and into the water (I admit I was kind of scared because I didn’t trust my swimming skills, plus I was having sinus issues that day.) But, I must truly say that I am glad I got in the water! It was refreshing and awe-inspiring to stand and swim in the middle of the sea while looking out and seeing no land anywhere. It was a moment that I will cherish because I was literally a tiny spec in a massive ocean surrounded by water and sky. I could feel the magnitude of God’s power through nature.

A sunset picture of the glass bottom boat at Pigeon Point Beach, Tobago.
A sunset picture of the glass bottom boat at Pigeon Point Beach, Tobago.

These were just a few of the moments that I reflect on from my first trip to Trinidad and Tobago. While I understand that it is implausible to learn and experience every aspect about a culture or location in 5 days, I am appreciative of my experience because the exposure has helped to increase my interest in looking more at the social developments of culture and identity within this nation. I think that this trip has helped me begin to see the mask from an insider’s point of view and an outsider’s point of view so that I can better understand a rich heritage full of color, liveliness, soul, and the tradition of hosting the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

 

American Girls Love Bacon

by Shana Hardy

Note: This is the second in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

I stepped out into the sweltering heat of Trinidad pleasingly shocked by how instant my emergence in the culture felt. I realized that the individuals that surrounded me all looked like me. However, they did not sound like me. I found it a little hard to understand the Trinidadian dialect, which is a fusion of proper English, Spanish, and French. As off-putting as that was, my excitement grew as I begin to soak in the differences between this country and the United States.

One of the major differences was evident in the food. Trinidad and Tobago offer plenty of curried options, callaloo, rice, roti, doubles (my favorite), salted fish, shark, and several different tropical fruits. The traditional Trinidadian dishes included, but were not limited to blends of Indian, African, and Creole influences. Interestingly, they have a KFC or Church’s Chicken fast food restaurant on nearly every corner. I didn’t realize until this trip how much beef is integrated into my diet. For most of our meals, we were offered curry chicken or some version of light flaky fish. I craved for a little more meat variety evident in my request for bacon during breakfast in Tobago. The waitress laughed and responded “American girls love bacon.” Though a funny comment, I began to think of some other things I would love to have that would be indicative to the perceptions of a privileged American.

Another distinction that was quite refreshing was the scenery. As we loaded onto the bus to head to the Normandie hotel, the background of Trinidad was overwhelmingly beautiful and humbling at the same time. There were lots of houses in an assortment of colors, shapes, and sizes. They were beautifully dispersed through out the hills and valleys of Trinidad, with a few sky scrapers in the backdrop. This was absolutely breathtaking and a huge contrast to US suburbia, often uniform in conformity. A lot of these houses and buildings in which our workshops took place were designed to allow for open air circulation. There would be these huge fans that were often times off. The heat was almost impossible. And of course there was no air conditioning. I think it is accurate to say that American girls also love air conditioning.

Port of SpainPort of Spain, Capital of Trinidad

Understanding the African diaspora in Trinidad and Tobago was the main focus of the research tour. I have to say this was one of the most moving experiences of my time in T&T. We had the opportunity to participate in an Idakeda group workshop. This group introduced us to the African heritage in Trinidad and Tobago. They shared many of the songs, dances, and stories that were intrinsic to Afro-Trinbagonians. The workshop also contextualized Trinidadian staples such as the steelpan and calypso music. I definitely identified with this portion of the experience due to the common origin of African presence in the US. Afro-Trinbagonians reveled in securing their freedom and their independence. And maintaining that spirit. American girls love the underdog.

Another aspect of our trip was dedicated to understanding the origins of carnival and carnival characters. Carnival is the most significant event to occur in Trinidad, attracting participants from all over the world. Carnival features calypso, soca (a contemporary derivative of calypso), and the nation’s official instrument, the steelpan. I was especially interested in the Baby Doll character. She would be dressed in a frilly or lacy garment, often wearing a bonnet. She would walk around carrying a white baby with blue eyes stopping male passersby and accusing them of being the baby’s father. Uncovering the origins of carnival revealed that the babydoll character was a mocking statement at whites having babies with black women and then abandoning them. Many of the other traditional carnival characters grew more complex as we learned more and more during the tour.

Baby DollIdakeda Group portrays the Baby Doll character,
a traditional Carnival character.

I have come to realize that celebration is homogenous in the twin islands, Trinidad and Tobago. The entire time I was in the tropical paradise, I celebrated T&T’s rich cultural identities that ranged from Afro to Indo-Trinbagonian. It was absolutely amazing. I know that I will miss the tropical climate, the biodiversity, and more importantly, the rich people of Trinidad and Tobago. This American girl fell in love with the people, where the culture of T&T dwells.

Afro-Latin Experience in Puerto Rico (Keturah Nix blog post)

La Bomba de Loiza

Blog 1:

As the Research Tour trip began, I felt as though I had a good perspective on what to expect from the history of Puerto Rican culture based on our discussions in the Black Thought Collective. Taking this knowledge with me on the tour I was excited to gain a more modern view of the culture and society. With the progression of the trip, one of the most memorable moments for me that is a representation of Puerto Rican culture is our trip to Loiza. This was very enlightening to me because while the exterior of the city may not be an “ideal” living situation – the houses, building and overall physical appearance – the people possess an extreme amount of talent and passion for their culture and heritage. Artist Samuel Lind is a wonderful example of a person documenting and paying homage to one’s origins and culture. This trip to Loiza has helped my perspective on my purpose and place in African American culture in the United States. It is very important that we not only focus on where we are presently and hope to be in the future, we must also remember the rich heritage and origins from where we came. This is our duty as emerging leaders.

Blog 2:

Now that the Research Tour to Puerto Rico is coming to a close, I am so appreciative for this experience not only because this is my first trip outside the continental U.S., but also because it has taught me a lot about the expansion of the black community on a broader scale. I am currently taking an Early American and Colonial literature course where we have been discussing colonialism and European influence on indigenous people and, while being here in San Juan and Loiza, the various influences are very prevalent. The fusion of Spaniard influence, African influence, and Indian influence is demonstrated in the food, music, mannerisms, and architecture. The passion for Puerto Rican culture and society is a celebrated experience. I am glad to have had the opportunity to witness first hand for a few moments.