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Finding the Forgotten

Published: 
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
The Caribbean Memory Project seeks to go beyond the accumulation of artefacts, stories and images to form passive archives, or simply recognising oral and folk traditions. PHOTO COURTESY CARIBBEAN MEMORY PROJECT

I went away, I leave and I come back home. I come back to stay. I must see my way —Andre Tanker

It’s not taboo to go back to what you’ve forgotten —Akan proverb

If you’re tempted to do a Dry Season clean-out and burn that “old rubbish”—documents, family snaps, old newspaper clippings, tantie’s hat, tonton’s ping pong and granpappi’s washikong—think twice and before you bun dong your own and your neighbour’s house consigning more of our collective and your own personal past to the flames of forgetting, introduce yourself and that pile from the past to the Caribbean Memory Project (CMP).

 Earlier in the year co-founders of the CMP, Trini-born to the bone Dr Kevin Browne, assistant professor of Rhetoric at New York’s Syracuse University and Dawn Cumberbatch, local film, video and event producer and scriptwriter, hosted a colloquium at the Trinidad Theatre workshop, introducing CMP, an online resource “to promote public awareness and participation in the collection and circulation of everyday archives for cultural, social and historical research.”

The genesis of CMP is grounded in the recent personal past of its founders. Browne, who left Trinidad in 1989 before entering sixth form at Presentation College Sando, experienced an epiphany on the day in 2004 when he simultaneously received his acceptance at Penn State to read for his PhD and news of his grandmother’s death. Returning for her funeral he was shocked to find out so late in the day that she had been a teacher. 

“This project was born of shame” (at his ignorance of this piece of family history) and he resolved to pursue his doctoral research “in honour of her.” 

 His sense of loss informed his dissertation and the book Tropic Tendencies published in 2013, “a work of reconstruction,” which set out to answer the question, “What is Caribbean Rhetoric and its role in popular culture?” 

Tropic Tendencies initiated “a conversation about the tasks we Caribbeans face” by re-viewing vernacular cultural expressions through the filter of the “carnivalesque” and the performative displays which developed “in response to a historical situation” and “misrepresentation.”

 Cumberbatch recalled meeting Browne shortly after her mother’s death, when sorting through her mother’s possessions she became acutely aware of the imperative of “preserving heritage” and Browne’s archiving project immediately resonated with her.

As Browne explained, CMP seeks to go beyond the accumulation of artefacts, stories and images to form passive archives, or simply recognising oral and folk traditions, to embrace “the aural, dance, humour and the matrix of intellectual and spiritual activities, which can raise community consciousness.”  

The project is informed by a sense of urgency, driven not only by the erasure of Caribbean cultural expressions by the exigencies of globalisation but also by the awareness that “we’re in global crisis. The sanctity of humanity and ideas is threatened. There’s a lot we’ve forgotten.”

 For Browne, Rhetoric implies collective reflection and action. “What’s our sense of purpose as a people?” He proposes that one of the ways we can answer such fundamental questions is to rethink our relationship with the past and history and develop “an alternative register of consciousness that connects with ancestral knowledge both consciously and unconsciously in an attempt to understand and articulate the vernacular spirit.”

Reflection is necessary in these times of information overload, when the past is taken for granted or not at all. 

It was his time at Penn State that gave him the distance “to see my peoples” and facilitated the “reflective and critical process of questioning the flux of (Caribbean) identity.” 

After meeting Cumberbatch, Browne began Foundation(s), a digital vernacular archive, focused on “the digital curation, rhetorical research and free distribution of texts of Caribbean import,” which provided the developmental platform necessary for CMP. 

Browne is an unusual, arguably unique postmodern Anglophone Caribbean scholar/archivist/photographer/poet/blogger; one of a rare breed who is not shy to marry theory and practice, in a praxis which interrogates such fundamentals as: “Who am I; Where are we going? What are we supposed to be doing?” 

He’s unusual in that having experienced the visceral life on the ground (poverty, violence) along with migration, exile, isolation and a belated cerebral career (after serving as a US marine), his intellectual focus and strategies of enquiry are founded on his vernacular roots, and by extension those of all Caribbeans. 

Furthermore his theory(ies) are grounded in precisely that vernacular “everyday” life we all experience, but mostly take for granted or dismiss in a digital landscape clogged with info overload. 

If we can’t keep up with Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media, is there any time left for the past? The past of old family snapshots, documents and all the detritus, we’re tempted to simply delete?  

Browne appropriates the same digital media, which is an inescapable facet of our globalised postmodern world, to allow an egalitarian access to a framing of what we take as mundane products and expressions of the past, in order to reconsider our present and future.

 CMP is driven by a sense of urgency, as Browne explains: “How to offer a working definition of Caribbean identity” at a time of erasure when “the young are dying without knowledge of the elders.”

 The wish to be remembered is as much a part of human sensibility as a sense of mortality; that desire becomes more acute in such postcolonial societies as ours and the wider Caribbean, still painfully struggling out of the straitjacket of our history of silencing and repression. 

But as the Dominican scholar Torres-Saillant notes: “Once one has learned to see Antilleans as speaking subjects, the next challenge…is to grasp that Antilleans themselves deserve credit as reliable interpreters of their own reality”, or as Browne puts it: “The fundamental motive of the Caribbean practitioners is to be recognised, seen and heard.”

CMP bypasses much of the empty “heritage” hype with on the ground, roots projects like its interviews in T&T of those over 70; gathering old documents and photos for scanning; collecting objects and belongings for documentation because “no story is too small.’ 

The CMP Web site is interactive, so anyone can upload a memoir via the Pass it On portal, upload a short story via the Tell Me Nah portal or share images and videos via the upload portal.

Although so far CMP has been self-funded, it’s highly ambitious with a pan-Caribbean scope. 

The Bahamian project has resulted in archive material provided by the daughters of the first Bahamian principal of the College of the Bahamas, along with more material provided by the daughters’ uncle—the first Bahamian born archbishop. 

Another project, The Discarded Archive, represents collective amnesia, or wilful indifference from T&T—a car-full of books rescued from the dump after being thrown out from the National Archives Library. 

Although not all the texts have Caribbean content, as Browne remarks, this Discarded Archive provides insights into attitudes in the Civil Service and why certain texts were discarded.

 The Theatre Workshop Symposium functioned as more than a simple introduction to CMP, as the audience were invited to answer three questions: “Who do you remember?”; “How do you remember?” and “How do you wish to be remembered?” 

The responses, some tearfully emotional, demonstrated how timely and relevant CMP is, in creating an easily accessible, user-friendly resource, all Caribbeans can be part of in the ongoing enquiry as to who we really are.