A version of this post was previously featured in the march 2019 issue of the Caribbean Studies Association Newsletter.
Meneer Gomez is the one and only guide on the island. His stories about the island's history hold more weight than any article or book. Routinely he walks through the door of the fort every morning at 6 am. The doors of the fort don’ t actually close, like they would with any monument as to protect it. Here there are no doors. And here, on Statia, the monument needs no protection. At least not from humans. Goats maybe. The goats know about the island in a way that humans are unable to. Meneer Gomez probably comes closest to knowing those secrets about the island that the goats know. If you book a tour with meneer Gomez he will await you at the doors of Fort Oranje. But this particular morning, meneer Gomez was not at the fort. I heard an older, American couple came to the island to learn all about its role in the independance war against the British. He was most likely giving them a tour. He would probably give them a version of what was written in most history books about Statia, in an animated telling. I imagined how he would illustrate the physical ruines of battle and intimate stories of old trees. With my class from the school we had come by to explore, discover and learn about the island's history on our own. Right when we walked towards the entrance of the fort, we saw a goat crossing the empty yard and hopping towards the edge. It rested there for a second, taking in the ocean view. It then took a left, climbing upwards against the brick wall and onto the cemetary in search of a meal. “Look teacha!” Nathalie shouted softly and pointed towards the edges of the fort. She always sounded somewhat soft as she whispered, even when she raised her voice. It was unique to her. It made her stand out at times while at other times it would make her dissapear among the other, much louder students in the class. Also unique to her, was the way she let herself be surprised by life’s playful moments. While the other students exchanged social capital and chatted about who they knew worked at the fort, Nathalie and I walked up towards the edge to do as the goat did. We took in the ocean view.
A version of this post was previously featured in the march 2019 issue of the Caribbean Studies Association Newsletter.
When you walk your daily route from home to wherever you are going, as short or long as that distance may be (perhaps you are only walking to your vehicle, a bus, or all the way to your office), are you noticing the changes in the material environment? Perhaps you are paying mindful attention to your surroundings, noticing the temperature, the smell, the position of the sun, or the moon. Or perhaps you hear the sounds of nearby animals or the silence of their absence.
Within Cultural Anthropology such sensory experiences are part of ways ethnographers collect knowledge. Tim Ingold has written extensive work about how our human connection to the material world can be a vessel of knowledge. The perception we have about our surroundings informs the way we inhabit spaces and relate to all that is understood as nonhuman. Other notable ethnographers such as Annemarie Mol and Sarah Pink and have also contributed widely to the theoretical body of work on this topic. And ofcourse, the influential work of Donna Haraway on what is, and what does the Anthropocene cannot go unnoticed here. To a certain extent these works have been developed as way of an anthropology at home, moving away from the tendency to ‘go native’ elsewhere. In many ways, the discipline has largely moved on from seeking knowledge in the realm of Tristes Tropiques.
When particularly considering scholarship about the Caribbean, we may want to ask where do we stand with our collection of scholarship that seeks to understand the region in a variety of perceptions? If the quest is decolonizing of Caribbean theory, do we apply enough mindfullness in how to perceive the environment, the materialities and the ways they co-habit with human presence? In my attempt to see(k) new questions on roads that have been, I think there is urgency in practicing theory, mindfully.
__ Haraway, D. J. (2003). The companion species manifesto: Dogs, people, and significant otherness (Vol. 1). Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
__ Ingold, T., & Vergunst, J. L. (Eds.). (2008). Ways of walking: Ethnography and practice on foot. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
__ Mol, A., Moser, I., & Pols, J. (Eds.). (2015). Care in practice: On tinkering in clinics, homes and farms (Vol. 8). transcript Verlag.
__ Pink, S. (2015). Doing sensory ethnography. Sage.
A version of this post was previously featured in the february 2019 issue of the Caribbean Studies Association Newsletter.
For years during my studies I felt confused about the state of colonial relations within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. During my university years I noticed that there was no talk of the unequal ties throughout. By the time I graduated I realized there was no academic language, no vocabulary to describe the political contestation in such terms that would be accepted cross-medial and cross-disciplines. It seemed that there was always one question present in the background of what felt like an anxious silence: is there colonialism in the Kingdom of the Netherlands today? For a long time I thought there were only two sides to a possible answer.
One side belongs to those who believe colonialism is over. They are, for example, represented by Dutch government officials on European soil who refer to the Dutch Caribbean as autonomous states and public entities (formerly, special municipalities). There is no talk of the colonial in present context within this rhetoric. I also include here historically infused scholarly works and academic courses on the Dutch Caribbean. I remember a statement by one of my course lectures that slavery and colonialism have ended and the discussion about its current effects should no longer be deemed sufficient. At that time, I lacked the vocabulary to confidently critique it, partially as it left me indignant for weeks to come.
The other side of this discourse believes that colonialism is as present as it has ever been, it simply changed form. To them, the slogans from the anti-colonial movements of the 1960’s are perfectly copy-pastable. They appear to have a specific interpretation of the meaning of what counts as decolonial. These interpretations are ofcourse varied, but tend to have a reading of Marxism that does not include the humanist Marxism of Trinidadian C.L.R James. The attentive listener may note that the speakers on this side will emphasize modernity thinking, linear thought and showcase elitist dynamics.
As a lecturer myself, I currently have the task to help my students navigate the debates among and between these sides, and help them make sense of it. How do I explain these politically infused entanglements that have informed their very understanding of society, international relations, economics and in many ways, their understanding of self? Perhaps it is to see(k) another question, elsewhere. Perhaps, it is continue to build on James Baldwin in this exploration and suggest that the question of colonialism hides the graver questions that continue to legitimize ‘difference thinking’, or what Glissant coined thought of the Other. As long as the discussion circles around estimating what is true, it is not accepting the lack of truth in that which is already always there. It then lacks to pave the way for a question of what may be. I see this lacking as a threat to the quality of the world and a denial of the pragmatic optimism implicit in every living being. My wish for this new year is therefore that we may find newness in the exploration of our thoughts about our selves, all others and we way we relate.
__ Baldwin, J. (1962). The creative process. In: Creative America. Ridge Press.
__ Derrida, J. (2012). Specters of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of
mourning and the new international. Routledge.
__Glissant, É. (1997). Poetics of relation. University of Michigan Press.
__ James, C. L. R. (1980). Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin. London: Allison & Busby.
A version of this post was previously featured in the january 2019 issue of the Caribbean Studies Association Newsletter.
A promiment question in my work is to ask how we can we think the nation differently. Would we then, still think the nation after all? Working with theories of political anthropology in the Caribbean often results in an akward misfit of concepts and empirical data. Somehow, the world as we read about it does not apply in the Caribbean. Yarimar Bonilla (2015) explained this epistemic inadvertence to the assumption of national sovereignty as the norm. She argues that Caribbean islands are rarely the topic of scholarly work on political sovereignty, precisely because the reality of these islands undermines dominant notions of what sovereignty is. They are often reduced to being political aborations, all the while Caribbean islands have been a type of paragon of global processes, an argument made many times before by fellow scholars (Glissant 1997, Hansen & Steputtat 2001, Guadeloupe 2008) Such works urge us to ask: what possibilities are there when we reject the illusionary character of the sovereign nation?
Now lets be truthful in pursuing this quest. There is no denial here, or in the mentioned works about the real world effects of thinking the sovereign nation. Agamben (1989) already explained that while the ideal of sovereignty and its relation to the concept of bare life is fallible and treacherous, it is also an idea that remains to deliver real world effects, such as racism, xenophonia, genocide and mass incarceration.
Quite recently Yarimar Bonilla made a contribution to a MoMa event in a video shared on Facebook. Responding to the question if dependancy theory is a colonial myth/manipultation, Bonilla returned the question, asking, who is actually dependant on who? “After all, why does the United States have colonies?” This question reminded me of a statement James Baldwin once made about the constuction of the Other, the exception to the norm. An outsider that represents Agamben’s bare life, specifically framed as the idea of the black person. Baldwin famously spoke:
“The question you gotta ask yourself … is why was it necessary to have a Negro in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you gotta find out why. The future of the country depends on that.”
To say “give me liberty or give me death” is a claim that Baldwin said was not accessible to all citizens of the United States. Considering the global political climate, to whom does the exception of this claim belongs today? The answer to that question reveals to us the access, or lack of it, to a political community that grants us ‘human’ rights. We should thus ask ourselves: how can we imagine that community differently?
(this post was also featured in the december 2018 issue of the Caribbean Studies Association newsletter.)
Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford University Press.
Bonilla, Y. (2015). Non-sovereign futures: French Caribbean politics in the wake of disenchantment. University of Chicago Press.
____ Facebook video
Hansen, T. B., Stepputat, F., Adams, J., & Steinmetz, G. (Eds.). (2001). States of imagination: Ethnographic explorations of the postcolonial state. Duke University Press.
Glissant, É. (1997). Poetics of relation. University of Michigan Press.
Guadeloupe, F. (2008). Chanting down the new Jerusalem: Calypso, Christianity, and capitalism in the Caribbean. University of California Press.
As an increasing number of asylum seekers attempts to reach the shores of Caribbean islands, such as Curacao, in hope of a life in safety, i write this. In that same moment of writing thousands of people from Central America are in despair and hope at the same time and for weeks now, have been walking across state borders to demand their right to asylum. In that same moment of writing this is not a national problem. It is a problem of the world. No matter how goverments try to exclude themselves from the legal responsibility of welcoming those who fled the atrocities of their former home, it remains a problem of our global society. It seems almost to tempting to discuss the obvious hypocrisy of the United States towards the caravan and migrants from Mexico in general. But as I stated: too obvious.
Another noteworthy example to discuss here is the case where people from Venezuala are seeking asylum in Curacao, an autonomous island state in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Approximately eight years ago in 2010 the Dutch Antilles was dismanteld and Curacao became an autonomous state within the kingdom. Within this recent constellation the Hague retains responsibility for defense affairs, including the monitoring of all borders in the kingdom and for foreign affairs.
Over the past two years, the Dutch State has come under critique about the handling and treatment of refugees and the asylum policy by the Kingdom. Curaçao has indicated on several occasions that they are not capable of obviating the issue without assistance from the Kingdom. Representatives of Interior and Kingdom Relations, and Foreign Affairs replied that the Dutch state should not have any involvement in the handling of refugees: it was argued to be a national affair and not a kingdom matter.
Although asylum is a human right as declared in article 14 of the Human Rights Declaration of the UN[i], the reality is that few are granted this right. It is a common, but threathening reality that for many turns violent as it subjects them to the most vulnerable elements of xenophobia.[ii]
How come the fundamental grounds for what came about as the notion of popular sovereignty - our common understanding of democracy – seems to always contradict the reality of democracy in the reality of the contemporary moment?[iii] The truth is that the contradiction is not one of the contemporary moment, but something always already present in the complexity of the relation. To understand what is going on within the contradiction it is essential to understand that the contradiction is exactly what we need to be able to acknowledge instead of understand.[iv]
Asylum is a right. No human being is illegal.
(This post was also featured in the newsletter of the Caribbean studies Association, november 2018 issue.)
[iii] Kauanui, J. K. (2017). SOVEREIGNTY: An Introduction. Cultural Anthropology, 32(3), 323-329.
[iv] Derrida, J. (2012). Specters of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning and the new international. Routledge.
My teenage cousin who lives accross the Atlantic is a huge fan of BTS, a K-pop group from South Korea. As I helped my cousin to prepare for university life, she took the time to explain to me the workings of K-pop. We did all this through social media, as contemporaries of this era. K-pop, it’s name referring to Korean Pop, is the music style that is rapidly gaining popularity accross the world. It took rise as a form of cultural critic on South Korean nationalist culture in the 1990’s. Cultural analysts still wonder about the growing trend of K-pop taking over European and American music charts and has recreated Beatles-like fandom accross the world. Inspired by American hip hop and R&B it transformed well beyond artistic expression into a formula of profit. At some point the South Korean goverment endorsed a financial push to build a cultural trademark: it became a national product. However, no K-pop song can be reduced to one style and it is usually performed in more than one language. If you have ever listened to it, you’ll know that it is as Caribbean as is Moksi Alesie. It includes sounds from dancehall, trap, to baroque and techno, all-in-one song. K-pop has no genre.
What my cousin’s explanation argued was not merely a plea for K-pop, it was essentially a plea for the world. Her testiment invoked Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation (1997) where every particular expression is but one particle of a world made up in constant relation, a chaotic dance, or a blurry painting of echoes of all sorts. K-pop is part of this dance. But to view K-pop as being in relation, as something of this world, we must not reduce it to something national, or even regional.
In comparison, we may follow Tsing (2005: 270), who argues that area studies as a field in the social sciences has a problematic tendency to exclude itself from the universal. When a phenomenon is studied it is excluded from its relation to other echoes. Echoes that have inevatibly been part of its coming about. In order for area studies become universal, we have to study these areas in relation to a continously changing world. For example, taking into consideration the field of Caribbean Studies, the places of study are often juxtaposed against their metropole, or in comparison with other islands. Such an approach reproduces socially contructed notions of how the world is sliced and divided. If we understand K-pop as merely Korean we see it as something that is closed off from the universal and may only want to relate to it in comparison to music styles commonly accepted, such as classical and rock. If you were to follow the histories of these sounds you would find that they were created through echoes of other sounds. You would end up on an endless search to find a root to these sounds. K-pop hints to the chaos-monde that Glissant described, reminding us that there is only disorder when one assumes there to be an order (areas, nations, genres). K-pop has no genre and the chaos-monde has no keys. Who is to say that K-pop is not Caribbean?
This post was also featured in the 2018 october issue of the Caribbean Studies Association newsletter.
It was 5.30pm on a Thursday afternoon. The sun was slowly laying down on the Caribbean Sea. It was at this hour that the evening would rise and the silent layers of the island would be waking up.
The water walsed below the fort but soon started moving in a slightly heavier performance. Large waves hit the shore and immediately changed texture as they pulled back from the sand to birth a few baby crabs. Two killy killy birds sat on one of the old fire canons by the fort, looking out over the sea.
When the wind passed by the shore it greeted the birds and took in the smell of the fresh coconut and rusted iron left behind. It decided to pause for a moment and transform into a breeze, to have a conversation with the surroundings. As the resting sun turned it’s light upon the old fort, the breeze decided to inquire.
“What are your memories?” The breeze asked the sea as it touched the wet shells of left behind coconuts.
“My memories? I have many.” The sea answered.
“Tell me the most important one.”
“Who is to tell from what I am built”, the sea replied. “All roads lead to me. I keep many memories and many memories have been taken from me.”
The breeze moved in confusion. It had travelled every place in the world and anytime it asked for memories it would learn about that one time that was so perfectly significant to remember the exactitudes of the place it was visiting. “What do you mean?” The breeze asked.
The sea brushed it’s waters against the large fort. “Over here, they call me the Golden Rock. But the gold here has many colors. And it has many stories. I have held countless bodies in search of it. Once upon a time the gold here was blue. It has had many shapes and movements as well.”
Some of the bricks in the fort had holes in them. The breeze dared not to touch them and looked to the sea for answers.
The two birds flew off north, towards a cloud.
The breeze suddenly felt the meeting of raindrops with treeleaves, coming from a big willowtree in the middle of the fort. “Tourist Office”, it read on the walls behind the tree.
“It is said that within these walls many secrets were kept”. The sea whispered softly as the sun turned the stones into a gold-like orange. “Each year the rain works hard to wash away any of the pain that is left. But each year, after the rainseason dries up, the drought reveals the sadness in the stones again”.
Taunting with the breeze’s curiosity the sea continued: “come back tomorrow and I will tell you about the memories that the animals passed onto me”.
This post was also featured in the September 2018 of issue of the Caribbean Studies Association Newsletter.
During carnival my social media timelines floods with messages about everything related to the celebration. Messages about carnival in London, Rotterdam, Brooklyn, Aruba, Sint Maarten, Statia, Trinidad or any other place in the transnational Caribbean, usually refer to Soca music in some way or another. One thing I learned throughout the years while visiting different carnivals, is the indispensible presence of Soca music. To enjoy Caribbean carnival, you have to enjoy Soca.
During the taping of a film about Statia that I made with fifth grade students, I learned something new about carnival and it’s relation to Soca. As their teacher I asked the students to visualize how they would introduce their island to a stranger. They decided that they needed to make a film that explained their island and its way of life through local festivities. The film included music, visual storytelling and drama. For every important local festivity the students wrote, directed and enacted a scene. Combined these scenes present their version of Statia. In every one of these scenes the story of global connections is present as the world is present in Statia. It has always been this way. But this presence of the world is heightened during carnival season when young people from other islands in the region visit Statia, and Statians from all over the world come home to admire the parade and enter the pagaent.
In the film the students enacted local carnival. They selected a Soca song about carnival, changed into their leisure wear and danced in procession down the road. While recording that scene they shared that carnival is about celebrating what you already have been gifted with, and what is yet to come. And I learned that it is specifically the task of Soca to put this energy into motion.
When you carefully listen to how children interpret the cryptic and subliminal messages they find in songs, you’ll often hear an optimistic take on things. For example, when life is challenging, acknowledge that “nobody said this woulda be easy” but the key is to stay determined and trust that thing will get better eventually. During Statia’s recent carnival this very determination was a message expressed by a fifteen year old artist from Trinidad and Tobago, Aaron Duncan. During a radio-interview he reached to the microphone to send a message to Statian youth: Never give up. Let your parents support you, because without them we cannot accomplish what we want. Anything is possible. But God is most important.
While carnival and Soca music for many go together with intoxication and ‘winin’, for others it might be about personal growth, releasing worries and celebrating freedom. The youth on Statia proved to me that one does not need to exclude or condemn the other. They go together like all the other seemingly contradicting elements of life.
This post was also featured in the august 2018 newsletter of the Caribbean Studies Association.
 It's Carnival, by Destra
 Better Days, by Aaron Duncan
One of the questions I currently grapple with is: how do we learn? More specifically, how do we learn to affiliate with where and how we belong, to things, groups, places or spaces?
One way we do this learning is by remembering. Perhaps we learn to remember most explicitly in the realm of what is called history, and in school when we are thaught what is necessary to learn and worthy to remember. Museums are also a place where we might bring a visite to the past with the hope to find a connection to our present existence.
A while back, I was part of a group of students remembering one of the most famous stories in ‘Dutch history’. We visited the Anne Frank house, a museum I remembered from the countless visits during my youth (this was long before you had to wait hours in line to get in).
For the visit I joined students who were ‘new’ to the European mainland of the Netherlands. Most of them recently traveled from Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire to study at universities and applied colleges. The visit, complete with a formal reception, was arranged by WeConnect, a foundation that attends to Caribbean students by organizing educational projects and events throughout the territories in Kingdom of the Netherlands. They arrange this visit every year. Notably absent were students from the other three islands. Hurricane Irma had recently raged over the Atlantic and passed the islands Sint Maarten, Saba and Statia only weeks before. Nearly all of Sint Maarten was left destroyed.
The director of the institute introduced us to the detailed version of Anne Franks’ story, and concluded with a critical statement by Otto Frank, Anne’s father, who urges us all to question the relation and difference between learning a history lesson and the lesson that history teaches. Cryptic for many, it seemed. And so we left our bags and coats, put on the heaphones handed out to us and continued to the exhibition.
“The time will come when we will be people again and not just Jews!”
Margot and Anne immediately collected their valuables in their schoolbags when Margot received the call to report for duty in a German, so called ‘working camp’.
Myself and two of the students stood there, gazing at the walls on which this was printed. The students next to me wondered what to bring along when you are forced to leave home, so suddenly. What did these girls collect to bring with them on that fearful quest? We exchanged looks of not knowing, also wondering what we would bring with us in that schoolbag. What are the things most valuable to help us remember who we are?
The audiotour paused when we arrived in the backhouse. The floors squeeked in the former secret annexe. Silence swept the room as the students allayed themselves to whisper, switching between english and papiamento. “I’m trying to walk real soft”.
(this blog was posted earlier in the July 2018 newsletter of the Caribbean Studies Association.)
"The bees. Yeah…
The bees can’t do anything if nature is not providing."
It was Statia Week’s Night of Culture when I first met Celly. It started to rain during the concert and we all sought refuge in the MYF tent. It's plastic purple sheet covered us almost completely. My two colleagues from the after school program where hosting the tent and relaxed in their chairs. It was not until we’d hang out more that I would find out that Celly and my colleague are siblings. He is the brother of my colleague and the uncle of one of the students. It made sense, as he, his sister and his niece continuously referred to his mother as the lady of culture on separate occasions. I’ve been told by them that she keeps guard of what is truly Statian in a way that described her like a woman who knows the answer to every question. “What is Statia’s culture?” I asked Celly when he visited my house. “Statia culture is uhm, the culture that we had back then”, he answered. Walking along with him through the unexpected sites of the beehives he keeps would help me to imagine the Statia he was describing.
“..I was mostly a kid who was always to myself. And I never really used to talk. If we would go out, they aksed me if we go out and I would go with them but I am always...the group is here and I am there. And everyone is walking so I am in the back of the crowd, walking. So I am always to myself. So I was always a person just in my zone...[.] It's like comfort zone in a sense..[.] I like to go [weird places] in the botanical garden by myself, but that is in the night. So it's dark over there and I feel...it feels good. I go to the quill, to the top. I walk up there by myself, I sit on top Panorama point. I just sit up there in the dark. It's really nice when the full moon is out, when the moon is bright. It's so bright, you don't even need a flashlight. [A nearby rooster crows in the background.] And there is also nice insects, different type of insects that come out in the night so you can also see as well.”
He described black and white TV’s that had antenna’s and stone ovens that were used outside. "That was Statia. "And what is Statia about today?" I asked. "Pffff, money. Everyone is hustling because of the different changes, a lot of things changed. Back then taxes was not like how it is now. And then you have different bills you have to deal with now and everyone got so caught up in that realm.”
"We used to jump on dirt bikes and stuff and just go off trails going into the bushes and stuff. We eliminate the bees and we take the honey and all that and we would just enjoy ourselves. We take it home, we squeeze it out and we put it in bottles and we used that for like, putting on our barbecue. And we mix it with sauce and stuff like that." He slurps. "Ow", licking his fingers: "we had a treat! We just did that a couple years you know, I was just a freelancer I was just having fun during that phrase of my life. I wasn't really serious with anything, you know, just living life..[.]. And then I start doing my read up on them and you know, I started realise the dying of bees and all that stuff. Getting involved more, reading more, more aware.”
"I decided I wanna get involved with other beekeepers. went online and found a guy, so i just saw a number and just called. It was a guy in the States and I called and he just picked up. And he said 'Oh. I can link you in. If you have a place to stay I can link you in'. It also helped them as well...I realised that the material that they used of beekeeping is totally different from what I use. [.] I talked to a guy, well you know, he is my cousin. He told me it is not good to put the bees inside of treated wood because of whatever chemicals the treated stuff is in and it may probably hamper with the honey and all that stuff. I said, that don't make any sense, what he saying then ...[.] because I remove hives a lot of places out of people roof. This is the material here with the lines in it [he points to the outside wall of the house we are sitting in front of. But the bees are perfectly fine inside of there. So I said this makes more sense and I made all these boxes out of that material. Right now my goal is to build 300 hives, minimum [on Statia]."
"Its like a drug. They just can do without it, they just want the stuff. I would say the majority of this island want this stuff. The majority of Saba wants this stuff. Sint Maarten the same way. Right now, I am trying to figure out what's going on at St. Barths. Because my stuff reached all the way Canada, it reached Holland, England. It went really far: Florida, New York, uh. And they love the stuff!
"Everyone calls me Celly, Celford is my name, so Celbees.”
Oranjestad, Sint Eustatius