Here is not “West India”: Roi Kwabena

A production of “West India,” a musical spoken poem of my late friend and collaborator, Dr. Roi Kwabena, from his Y42K album. This video plays on the weight of Eurocentric constructions of Caribbean history and identity, a zone where hegemonic European and American fantasies were played out. In response, Kwabena calls for a reclamation of an alternative identity, a localized and indigenous one, that emerges from within the region’s primordial self.

Seeking to counteract the Eurocentric construction of Caribbean indigenes as cannibals, Roi chose to place a transcription of the poem in his post, “OUR Indigenous ancestors were NEVER CANNIBALS“:

here is not west india
here is not west india
here is not west india


so how dare you
baptise our emerald isles,
Home to canabales…
these mountain tops of atlantis….
aquamarine basin of unclaimed
shipwrecked treasures, soothing
drunken dreams of criminals,
pirates, buccaneers an’ slave traders…

here still live
cayman an’ agouti

take back these identities
you gave my wind swept
Volcanic rocks

st croix…
st kitts,
st eustatius
st vincent
st thomas

these names of saints
made hallow by some
Christian praise… yet
who have never, ever trod
our shores, bitten by sand-flies
nor mosquitoes,
dem never even feel a hurricane
or even sucked mango or sugar-cane

look.., we reclaim
playground of julica
our rainbow….

anguilla, that eel
remains my sacred retreat…
with reverence to jocahu
in rainy season..
the salt of our tears…

get thee hence sint maarten
patron of tourism
spending us dollars
yet not half French
not half dutch
but plenty cruise ship

look. …Look..
look raleigh on fire,
cancer an’ legal hysteria
multi-national tobacconists
running for cover….

Oh tobago
was never home
to man Friday
Or robinson crusoe…

neither can
la isla de la trinidad
replace my paradise
home of ya’ay’a

here is not west india
here is not west india

nor the taino
mistaken sarawak
Or dare you call the
Gallabi a carib

Warrahu an karfuna children
Still eating pone…

ya’ay’a ya’ay’a

Dr. Lauri Ramey, Professor of Creative Writing and English in the Department of English at California State University in Los Angeles, and Director of the Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, offered readers her appreciation of the use of language in Roi’s poetry:

in ‘westindia’, cultural identity is reclaimed through the careful repetitive construction of the negative case. The poem is framed with the opening and closing couplet: “here is not west india/here is not west india.” Names, our most primal linguistic emblem of identity, are shown to be symptomatic of the problems of the colonial legacy. The list of place names is solemnly intoned

st croix
st kitts
st eustatius
st vincent
st thomas

as the poem echoes the litany of saint names for locales where the namers “never, ever trod.” The word “look” is repeated, a plea and demand in one, as the poet begs and insists that the irony of the situation be recognised and acknowledged. This drumming of an intoned and highly significant word becomes in this collection what is what is commonly known as leitworter (Martin Buber) — a frequent device in biblical narrative as well as the earliest African American poetry, notably spirituals (which so strongly influenced much of later Black American verse) — where single words or phrases accrue the weight of a central theme, beyond what an individual word can ordinarily bear.

In Roi’s work, Ramey explains, “language is used aesthetically and politically — for purposes of appropriation, disenfranchisement, construction (and deprivation) of identity, the agony of erasure and marginalisation, the insistent shout for recognition, and the exuberant joys of sensuosity.”

Roi’s political and aesthetic project is one of decolonization, and in this work he anchors the counterweight to Eurocentrism in the histories and lived memories of the indigenous peoples, as well as the everyday practices of common folk, their foods, and their names for elements of the local ecology. Roi’s project is, explicitly as you hear in the poem, one of rewriting and reclamation. He himself reclaimed his indigenous ancestry, as well as indigeneity in a deeper philosophical and spiritual sense. There can be neither “fake Indians” nor “wannabes” — no room at all for any such vulgar calibrations and certifications of quantifiable data of interest to the oppressor — in a decolonized cosmovision.

Roi notes what the alternative to indigeneity has been, the “fantasies of the master race” (to borrow a line from Ward Churchill): Man Friday, Robinson Crusoe, Cannibals, stories of hidden treasure and legends of bucaneers and wanderers in search of gold like Sir Walter Raleigh. A contemporary political economy continues that story of European wanderlust and exoticism, featured in the form of the cruise ship, producing a deformed moral economy of half-witted identities, “not half French, not half Dutch, but plenty cruise ship.”  Plenty cruise ships spending “US dollars” (pronounced “us,” as if to echo local ways of speaking jokingly, with a double meaning suggesting that the dollars spent are really “ours,” a legacy of wealth extracted from the Caribbean). The sea which was a vehicle for the indigenous peoples to commune, and combat, now becomes a mere conveyor belt for foreign impositions, for various criminals landing in their planes, establishing their palaces and their churches (now referring to the images that I chose to accompany Roi’s words). The video, as with Sour Chutney, ends on a note of transcendence and ascendance, symbolized in the previous instance by birds, in this instance by an open sky seen closely from below the clouds. I am aware that Roi was conscious of the dichotomies that history handed him, and of the constant tension played out in his work as a result.

Producing a visual expression for Roi’s work is not all that easy, as much as his work evokes a visual script. Given the depth of the marks left by history, older archival footage seemed most appropriate. I choose archival film on Haiti, the bulk of the video, from 1942, with short clips from Jamaica (1933), and the closing title from Martinique (1946). I began the video with segments of “classic” ways that the Caribbean was produced for American consumption: a documentary from the United Fruit Company on the “new Caribbean gold” (bananas); Judy Garland playing “Minnie from Trinidad;” Rita Hayworth as the “Trinidad lady” (did you all cringe as much as I when watching her?); and this was followed by the Andrews Sister’s famous appropriation of a Trinidadian calypso, “Rum and Coca-Cola” by Lord Invader and Lionel Belasco, sung with faux Trini accents, yet from an American perspective celebrating the prostitution of local girls to American sailors who were based in Trinidad (hence, scenes of the US naval base at Chaguaramas, and the painting of a sailor chatting up a local girl, under a Coca-Cola sign):

Since the Yankee come to Trinidad
They got the young girls all goin’ mad
Young girls say they treat ’em nice
Make Trinidad like paradise

I end without a conclusion, because this story still does not have one.

3 thoughts on “Here is not “West India”: Roi Kwabena

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