Between Love and Terror: Having a Sense of Belonging is no Joke
Narratives of belonging can hide power dynamics where certain knowledges and cultures are made secondary to others.
Si sete vre
Si sete vret
ki ta genyen
If that were true
If that were true
At the age of sixteen I said goodbye to my family and boarded a plane to Puerto Rico with about thirty other high school graduates. It was time to grow up, time to learn new and more impressive things about the world we live in. My whole soul was vibrating in anticipation of this new and wondrous world, not having ever left Curaçao before. I was carrying a powerful story: that true learning happens in buildings far from where I grew up. Buildings where they did not speak my Papiamentu, did not eat the funchi ku piská I grew up with or dance the tambú I learned to dance parib’e kas as my father made the master singer Shon Colá sing through a portable record player powered by two D-batteries or else expertly played the rhythms on a bucket, since by then he did not own a drum anymore.
I was carrying a powerful story: that true learning happens in buildings far from where I grew up.
Yes, learning happened elsewhere, I thought. So, when my oldest sister told me a few weeks before I left not to study too much my mind went into a strange defensive move to protect a world I only knew from books. Her story about people going to The Netherlands to study and coming back crazy sounded like fairy tale. I had the privileged information from my social geography and social studies in high school about how different world views might clash and this was obviously one of these times. Older forms of thought, from places that did not yet fully benefit from latest advances in knowledge just did not easily give way to more modern ones. This was my reaction even though I had by then spent half my life in elementary and secondary school defending Papiamentu, and the existence of zumbi (restless, roaming souls of the dead) and reciting popular place names against the official ones my fellow classmates kept using. While I was derisively known as kultura (“culture”), I kept dreaming of the day I would learn how to make our reality better known and appreciated. All this fighting still did not prepare me for the power of books and promises of great learning. So, great was my dismay when I found out that some of the people I knew did come back from the Netherlands to be institutionalized in the mental health clinic or else were walking the streets with a vacant look, muttering to themselves, totally unkempt, rude and sometimes scolding people no one else could see. In later years my sister’s little fairy tale became a critical documentary in my mind after I became more versed in understanding stories of power and realized something was quite wrong with the world as I knew it. I learned that craziness due to too much studying in the Western institutes of learning did not only happen to these few people I personally knew. It is so widespread that in the Anglophone Caribbean it is called “studiation madness”. Since then I learned about its presence in Brazil, Puerto Rico, and several African countries, where it is known by some as “brain fog”. Psychiatry has even labeled it a “culture bound syndrome” meaning it exists in certain cultures and not others (something I find difficult to believe after I have seen how much eating disorders and stress accompanies college and graduate school in the USA). I choose to call it simply bruamentu.
While I was derisively known as kultura (“culture”), I kept dreaming of the day I would learn how to make our reality better known and appreciated.
But I want to change gears a little before looking at some of the implications of this story. Half a decade before my going to Puerto Rico another story was developing 1750 miles from Curaçao, in Durham, North Carolina, a place I would live later in life. Durham is in a liminal position, being much tied to slavery while at the same time having a history of achievements such as being a beacon for progressives since the 18th century, and having had a historically powerful African American middle class . This liminality got a new twist in the 1970’s when Durham held a forum on school desegregation. The outside facilitator ended up having the whole process co-chaired by African American community activist and civil rights leader Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan’s exalted grand cyclops, C.P. Ellis. Although Ann hated white racists and C. P. hated black activists they both eventually realized the incredible poverty and limitations children were in because of the economic and political situation. They also realized that race hatred was preventing some of the most powerful social transformations from happening. They became friends. Ann went on to even more effectively organize within the community, attacking the same structural issues from a broader and more penetrating angle. C.P. renounced his clan membership and became a civil rights activist organizing black and white labor unions.
Fast forwarding four decades and passing several huge stories along the way (including oil wars, water wars and the election of Obama as President of the USA) I want to stop at a place that has a different kind of particularity. Moving back closer to Curaçao, this is a story of natural disaster: the earthquake that occurred in Haiti just a few months back, in January. Now, how can this be called a story? The devastation caused by the earthquake is not a family story of a young woman trying to protect a younger sibling, nor the epic story of two people meeting and communing while deconstructing race. The terror, deaths and the immense suffering by those living in Haiti and abroad is as real as things can get. And the big news agencies were doing a courageous and persistent job of covering the aftermath of the disaster in a very objective way. Some even did a great job of providing a space for people to try to get information about and if possible reconnect with their missing loved ones. They also helped their viewers and readers understand that this event was made all the more devastating because of the poverty of Haiti, which meant poor infrastructure that could be easily wiped out, poor and easily destroyed construction, overcrowded urban centers that caused more people to die than a more dispersed population would have. Many more issues related to poverty seemed to have magnified the effects of the earthquake.
The silences around this reporting were deafening. Was Haiti’s poverty a pitiful destiny, never to be explained or understood further than what the brave news outlets were telling us? While people on the ground in Haiti knew otherwise and the alternative press was trying to address this the silence still remained in the larger public sphere. Pushed to the background were the fact that Haiti spent billions in today’s monetary values paying reparations to France for all the enslaved freed in 1804. They only finished paying these in the 1940’s to the French and US banks that financed the big sum. Pushed to the background was the fact that the US wanted to make Haiti a Shangri La in the twentieth century and had the Duvalier regime depopulate the countryside and push people to urban areas to create export-oriented large scale agriculture and manufacturing. Gone from current general public discussion is the fact that when this failed no one bothered to take care of the displaced population, the overcrowding, the eroded productive base, the poor construction and inferior infrastructure and other results of the Washington-Duvalier plans. If we add this historical note to recent coverage we get a story that repeats itself in many ways. Memories of reports on Katrina that only slowly made way for investigative reporting that showed how the failure of the levees was due to decisions made based on the biased sense that this was not a very important part of the region.
Edward Said argued that cultural representations of the East have served to maintain a certain image of the East as well as feeding imperialist policies and other mechanisms of maintaining power by the Europe and the US. The same can probably be argued for many other situations of unbalanced power in the world, with these narratives of power changing form and actors over and over. Imperial powers and subjugated peoples have changed over the ages. However, power narratives do not just follow the lines of defined imperial relationships. Power gets enacted, re-enacted and lived in all sorts of relationships on global, regional and local levels. The stories in this essay exemplify this in a powerful way either by being clear examples of these power narratives or by showing how this narrative is subverted by those who are harmed through the narratives of power. This is so clear in the story of Haiti. The standard news coverage from CNN , New York Times and other powerful news outlets accomplishes several very powerful things. Among them: (1) it recreated an image of Haiti as a sadly undeveloped country, (2) hides the role of Europe and the USA in creating the poverty and local limitations, (3) it created a wave of compassion and helped funnel much needed funds from citizens of many countries while not questioning the centers of power and (4) it provided a channel for people to find access to potential information about their missing loved ones. Narratives of belonging to a global compassionate, caring community (with caring news outlets at its center) but also of a world in which some countries just do not have the ability to sustain themselves and in the end come to depend on the compassion of others.
Imperial powers and subjugated peoples have changed over the ages. However, power narratives do not just follow the lines of defined imperial relationships. Power gets enacted, re-enacted and lived in all sorts of relationships on global, regional and local levels.
This narrative of belonging to a compassionate developed world in the midst ofsadly underdeveloped ones is turned on its head in the narrative of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis. While C.P passed away in 2005, Ann and others are still seeking and building the benevolent society narrated by the major news outlets. During the time that she and C.P. were shedding the race narratives in order to create better education and labor relations Haiti was still being embargoed and used as a test case for maximizing economic returns. Ann and C.P., on the other hand, subverted the narrative of separate belonging told under racism and created a new sense of belonging; one that did not limit belonging to race, region or ethnic cause.
Bruamentu highlights the power of places of learning that carry knowledge that is seen as powerful and more true than one’s own knowledge. It is no coincidence that the actors happen to be moving between colonies or ex-colonies and colonizing countries (bruamentu in the case Curaçao and The Netherlands; studiation madness in Trinidad and Britain), between colonies and imagined places of power (Curaçao and Puerto Rico) or rural areas and urban centers such as in Brazil or as in the case of brain fog in Africa. While the news coverage of the earthquake in Haiti points to a narrative that creates an image of a country that seems to be underdeveloped by historical coincidence, poor governance, and lack of modern knowledge bruamentu is a narrative that creates an image of a dangerous space of knowledge: one that can dismantle your body and mind if you are not careful. It is a narrative of belonging to a community that is in a relation of power to another community that can be dangerous if it is engaged without caution. It also happens to be a narrative that is not in the news, not part of the mass cultural imaginary. It is not available on the news networks, in dissertations, daily newspapers or cultural sensitivity training manuals. It is a story that has not been appropriated for maintaining an upper hand. Ann and C.P. showed that seemingly unchangeable and powerful narratives of belonging could be changed. Bruamentu shows that narratives of belonging that speak to the asymmetry of power exist alongside cultural representations that maintain such disbalance.
Bruamentu highlights the power of places of learning that carry knowledge that is seen as powerful and more true than one’s own knowledge.
The move from stories of disempowering belonging to those of naming power and bringing about transformation rests on a few clear characteristics that frame these narratives of belonging. Although there are probably many more, I have found the following to be especially clear and powerful aspects of narratives of belonging that recreate power relations while hiding issues of power:
- A culture of silence around how power works: this includes among other things hiding economic and political history, hiding how power affects the body, mind and community, women, the marginalized.
- Representations of those outside the areas of centralized power as unchanging actors: always poor, emotional, unintelligent, unskilled at basic governance, unable to get their act together and plan their future well, in need of help (charity, invasion, education).
- Isolationism around the creation of narratives of belonging: if the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were to be compared it would show disturbing patterns of silence about even more disturbing social relations. For this reason the narratives remain isolated from each other.
- The narratives are embedded in our lives: news coverage thrives on images of objectivity, neutrality and ethical action. These are assumed to be public modi operandi and only questioned by a few or without too much insistence. The stories are based on these deeper narratives that have become naturalized in our lives.
Stories can open doors wide or small, they can put us in straitjackets or liberate us. They can even do all of these things at the same time or in sequence. The way stories are told, performed, lived become important. I have come to ask myself if narratives of belonging carry any sustaining, empowering or positively transformative qualities unless and until they become explosively transformative like the Durham story. I choose to derive my answer from what I call the zumbi narratives in Curaçao. The following example, collected from the late master singer Martili Pieters shows all the salient features of the structure of this genre:
The slave master who used to beat the slaves was called Sutulan. Sutulan used to be at the slave houses at Plantures. Those grey houses: where slaves lived….The slave master was just back from beating slaves at Hato. He told the coachman: “Stand by, stand by, news has arrived for me. Now I’ll beat them. Because they don’t let me rest.” Remember: he was just back from beating the slaves. As soon as he got home he got news again. Well, now he was really going to punish them real bad.
He left home furiously. He told the coachman: “Hurry,” when he left Plantures to take the curve. Right at Via Maria, when they were arriving at Via Maria, the horse slipped. The horse slipped and the slave master fell and broke his neck. The horse broke its neck and legs, the coachman broke a leg. The slave master almost died. The slave master did die! News went toHato that Master wouldn’t be able to come any more.
See how God works. He was going to beat the slaves. God stopped that in such a way…. That is why, whenever you get to Via Maria your head swells up. That’s the road where the horse slipped and broke the slave master’s neck, its own legs and the coachman’s legs also. Everything stopped! Beating of slaves stopped! God made it that way….
Here Pieters performs a narrative theme that ties ideas, memories and physical connection to the past and to place in a much more powerful way than bruamentu has been able to. He tells a story of power, of the use and abuse of power as well as a story of retribution and creation of justice by an agency that is beyond the control of humans: God. However, his story does not stay there: it mentions that history has etched into the very air of the place some sort of memory that can be accessed, even unknowingly, by those who go through that place. A tale that says that injustice and its redress will remain etched in the body of the Earth where this drama plays out and then transferred to our individual bodies as we connect with this place. Other tales show that it is not only injustice but also other types of relationships, such as motherly love or despair that get etched in place and body. A swelling head (or more properly, the feeling of your head swelling) is a sign of historical-emotional memory, a sensitivity to power carried through generations, and the personification of relations in the past as well as in the present. And this physical sense is not just a narrative trick. It is a lived experience for anyone who is attuned to the identity and power of place.
A sense of belonging, one that both recognizes the existence of a historical memory that influences us all the time and tells us that we can choose to enter into the field of history that affects us or else stay out of it. If we do not go through that spot at Via Maria or other historical power spots, our heads won’t swell. Part of the way to avoid this is through collecting stories, learning about the emplaced etchings of belonging so as to not embody them unwittingly. But avoiding that which we belong to is a strange move. Running away from that which is you seems at least counter-productive.
Zumbi tell us that our sense of belonging is not just a slight feeling of recognition, an intellectual interest, a need to feel at rest. It is a historical, emotional, tactile, kinetic, narrative, energetic and memory-enacting physical force that is part of our daily encounter with an identity that is as much territorial and place-specific as it is individual and body-centered. Its driving forces, however, are on one hand the kinds of relationships we choose to create among ourselves (and their continued historical force) and on the other hand our own interactions with those places of power and identity.
our sense of belonging is not just a slight feeling of recognition, an intellectual interest, a need to feel at rest. It is a historical, emotional, tactile, kinetic, narrative, energetic and memory-enacting physical force (…).
We can choose to fall in trance of the terror or we can choose to yield to the power of love. The familial love of a sister who wants to prevent the reign of terror still admits the tremendous power of terror. It is a love that expresses a warning and demands caution, being conditioned by so many other limitations of poverty and colonial mental conditioning. Haiti’s plight created deep compassion in many. Regardless of the image of backwardness painted in the media people genuinely gave of themselves to the people of Haiti. Breaking the separation by space, forgetting that these were people “over there” in a different country, different culture, different religion people gave money, time, skill, heart. Some of the news, actually, most of the standard news captured this energy in ways that turned it into compassion towards the unfortunate instead of love for fellow human beings whose plight we were partly responsible for. A compassion that does not touch the core of why the terror of the earthquake was so great. The love that grew out of crossing the Durham race lines, on the other hand, effectively created an alternative to both the terrorist Klan organization and the terror that economic and political situations made seem common place, natural and impossible to change. The space of concrete clashes and daily physical intimidation called for a different kind of love, one that could move people to action rather than protect them. The difference between Durham, Curaçao and Haiti was that Durham’s case was a deliberate, conscious engagement of this sense of belonging. Nota re-enactment of this sense, not a retelling or a reconfiguring but a questioning: why not have a leader of the Klan and a leader of the civil rights movement take responsibility for the community they say they want to be responsible for?
It is not enough to see ourselves as the actor, the agent. The Earth is just as alive as we are. (…) While we can choose to run away, the land just stays there, changing much more slowly than us. We can choose to be in relationship with the Earth in a way that pulls the terror out of it.
But I have to come back to the zumbi. What kind of compassionate relationship can one create with an energetic presence that is so based on personal relations yet is itself so impersonal and even imperceptible until you come into direct, close contact with it? Isn’t this one case where you need to avoid and move on? Why not gather the stories, map out these places of terrifying power and make sure you avoid them? One of the lessons the zumbi teach us is that we are yu di tera, children of the Earth. It is not enough to see ourselves as the actor, the agent. The Earth is just as alive as we are. Subjective life gets emplaced just as much as it gets embodied. While we can choose to run away, the land just stays there, changing much more slowly than us. We can choose to be in relationship with the Earth in a way that pulls the terror out of it. We can chose to create relationships that replace those that have been etched into the Earth. We can also choose to intentionally become stewards of our common space instead of running away from it. And we can learn to find the place of strength, the place of power beyond any kind of terror. In the words of Elis Juliana:
fiami un piki
pa mi koba
kurason dje baranka ‘ki
mi ke deskubrí
e ardu misterioso
ku unda leu mi bai
ta keda bati fuerte
den baúl di mi sintí
di únda e grasia
ku riku o pober
di tur kredo
di tur rasa
topando riba kaya
ta grita hari kumindá
hala otro den brasa
p’esey mi ke un piki
pa mi koba té den
kurason dje isla ki
pa mi adorá
e ardu misterioso
ku unda leu mi bai
ta keda resoná
den baúl di mi sintí
lend me a pick axe
so I can dig
the heart of this rock
I want to find
the mysterious vein
that however far I go
keeps throbbing hard
in the trunk of my mind
from whence the grace
that rich or poor
of all creeds
meeting in the streets
laugh loudly greeting
pull each other into their arms
that’s why I want a pick axe
so I can dig
the heart of this rock
so I can worship
the mysterious vein
that however far I go
keeps throbbing hard
in the trunk of my mind
It is not so much a question of re-enchanting the world as it is about breaking the enchantments of the stories we have chosen to re-tell each other and the relationships we have chosen to create.
Lately there have been calls from some corners of philosophy, critical theory, literary studies, neuroscience as well as physics to re-enchant the world. It is not so much a question of re-enchanting the world as it is about breaking the enchantments of the stories we have chosen to re-tell each other and the relationships we have chosen to create. We choose systematically to ignore or put aside the stories, and the terrifying and loving physical encounters in this enchanted world we live in. A world which belongs to us all and to which we all belong in deeply embodied and emplaced ways.
Acknowledgement: This essay was originally used as a discussion piece for the theme A Sense of Belonging of the Krusa Laman literary festival organized by FPI in 2010. I am grateful for their vision and trust.
Iguana’s Newfound Voices: Continuity, Divergence and Convergence in Language, Culture and Society on the Abc-Islands, Curaçao: Fundashon pa Planifikashon di Idioma and University of Curaçao,2011:225-233.
- Baron, Suze Baron (2010). ‘Yo di’. In Poems from Haiti, translated by Merete Mueller with Dominique Herard. Elephant Journal, Jan. 19, 2010. URL: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/01/poems-from-haiti-translated-by-merete-mueller-with-dominique-herard/ . Accessed: Jan. 30, 2010; 11:10 EST
- Bruamentu literally means “to get confused”. This is not as clear as the conceptual naming in Trinidad or in some African countries. This concept has been used for several kinds of behavior where the actor is losing touch with reality or not focusing well enough. I resist turning the concept into a much more discrete one, tied solely to the issue being discussed in this essay. It is even quite conceivable that the diffuseness of narratives around “studiation madness” and “brain fog” has been eliminated by scholars, researchers, psychiatrists and others, thereby sacrificing the richness and power of their original uses.
- Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. NY: Vintage.
- Interview with Martili Pieters (1989). My own translation.
- Juliana, Elis (1974). ‘Fiami un piki.’ In Joceline Clemencia, Piedra di Mulina (p. 30.). Curaçao: Museo Nashonal di Arkeologia i Antropologia, 2004. My own translation.