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In the margins: the influence of the Caribbean diaspora

Brixton market credit vishnu jay

Consigned to society’s periphery, the spaces and identities of the Caribbean diaspora continue to shape the mainstream

From the creoles and patois that have transformed some of the world’s largest urban centres into unique linguistic landscapes, to the plethora of syncretic religions that entangle spiritualisms from across the world, markers of African diasporic identity often exist in a perpetual call and response with other contexts, cultures, places and even periods. They are ensembles, whereby each emergent language, style and belief articulates a collective, albeit disparate, identity. Many of these markers of identity have also become an integral part of many mainstream cultures worldwide, yet ones that continue to challenge and transform normative structures and practices. Though these emergent languages, styles and beliefs are central to the practice and image of modernity in the West, they exist in a formative tension with violent, racialised power asymmetries. And although these structural inequalities are socio-economic, judicial and even pedagogical, they instrumentalise the construction of space to physically and politically position African diasporic identities and their identifiers at the visible margins of society. Digital and physical ‘diasporic spaces’ are therefore ascribed with an explicit architectural quality: constructing the centre, constituting the periphery.

El pulp credit neotropica issue 2 november 2010

El pulp credit neotropica issue 2 november 2010

Source: Neotropica

Neotropica, Issue 2, November 2010

1910, Limón, Costa Rica

A banana plantation is a poor place to live unless you’re a banana.1 Amid swathes of banana fields reclaimed from the jungles of the Limón Province, entire neighbourhoods of baches2 are crammed with West Indian agricultores,3 women, and pickny.4 The black faces of the makeshift quarters are at the fringes of a chromatographic experiment on the Company’s5 parcelled earth,6 surrounding the comparable luxury of the Hispanic mandador and cacique7 barracks that themselves encircle the fenced-off ‘White Zone’. Black, ochre and white, all enclosed by an interminable expanse of green. Green leaves, green snakes, green bananas.

The Company’s Great White Fleet arrives every week down at Puerto Limón. ‘El Pulpo’,8 the ticos9 call it, with arms around the Caribbean: bringing negroes from the islands, taking guineos10 from the shores. But the call and response of green bananas and black bodies is taking its toll on the Antillean patria chica.11 Inclement nights are filled with more than the sounds of duppy12 and pseudogospel pounders13 as sindicato14 men rally the dehumanised labourers for the next strike. Humid days are increasingly occupied with the uprooting of railway lines, telephone wires and bridges in the jungle. Panama disease15 has hit the fields in the north, killing everything, so the margins must adjust, and the operation is moving to Honduras.

With each operational migration made by the Company and every aspirational one made by the workers, cultural, social and familial ties stretch across the Caribbean’s Latin shores and echo in song on the islands: Colon Man16 ‘a-come back to Jamaica’, Solomon’s grandpa ‘gone a Ecuador’,17 and Matilda ‘run a Venezuela’.18 Even language at the littorals is beginning to reverberate diff erently:

‘Ackee’, says the father.

‘Acqui pa’ mi’, says the daughter.

‘Patty’, says the mother.

‘Alla pa’ ti’, says the son.19

1The words of a consultant’s report on banana plantations to the United Fruit Company by Laidlow & Co in 1964

2The name for ‘bachelor quarters’ on the plantations

3A name of political signifi cance that Jamaican United Fruit Company workers in unions used to refer to themselves

4A Jamaican Patois word for ‘child’ or ‘children’. In Patois the plural is often formed through the use of extra words or is context dependent

5The United Fruit Company was a large American corporation whose industrial stranglehold on the Caribbean and Latin America is often argued to have been a form of American crypto-colonialism in the region during the 20th century

6From Pablo Neruda’s poem The United Fruit Company (1950): ‘the Jehovah parcelled out the Earth / to Coca Cola, Inc., Anaconda, / Ford Motors, and other entities: / The Fruit Company Inc. / reserved for itself the most succulent’

7A mandador is the Spanish name for an overseer on the plantation. A cacique is a Latin American expression meaning ‘lord’ or ‘political boss’, derived from the Taíno word ‘kasik’, which referred to the pre-Columbian tribal chiefs of the indigenous Caribbean

9From ticos de pura cepa: the name for ‘authentic’ Costa Ricans

10A Spanish word of African origin meaning ‘sweet banana’, coming from the expression plátano guineo or plátano de Guineo, meaning ‘banana

11Spanish for ‘little nation’

12Jamaican Patois for ‘ghost’ of Guinea’

13In reference to a letter by a young Marcus Garvey writing to the Limón Times on 16 March 1911 regarding the prevalence (particularly at night) of West Indian syncretic religious groups in Limón

14Spanish for ‘labour union’

15Prior to the introduction of more disease-resistant strains of banana, strains such as the Gros Michel were extremely susceptible to disease. This posed serious problems to cultivation and production in Central America at the time

16‘Colon Man’ is a popular Jamaican folk song describing one of many popular mores of West Indian migration to Latin America (in this case Colón, Panama)

17A Jamaican folk song: ‘Solomon Grandpa gone a Ecuador / Left him wife and pickny out a door / Nobody’s business but him own’

18‘Matilda’ is a calypso lament recorded by artist King Radio in the ’30s and popularised by Harry Belafonte in 1953, about a woman who takes her lover’s money and runs away to Venezuela. It is the same melody as the ‘Happy Birthday’ song in Jamaica

19Taken from lines in Himno a Jamaica (1978) by Afro-Costa Rican poet Eulalia Bernard Little. A patty and ackee are popular Jamaican foods

Ports and piers of the great white fleet permission needed canalzone.files.wordpress

Source: UNITED FRUIT COMPANY

Ports and piers of the Company’s Great White Fleet

1965, Brixton Market, England

If you’re regretting the fact that your housekeeping allowance won’t stretch to a seat on the next plane Trinidad-bound, take a trip to London South West Nine.20 Here, the imperial heart swoons to the sounds of its colonies’ calypsonians, whether in praise of the ‘Mother Country’ or bawling at leaving the boat.21 Pale-faced onlookers pass sinister gazes over unfamiliar Caribbean shoulders as they cross paths at St Matthew’s Church. An attractive weekend racket makes its way towards Electric Avenue,22 enticing other West Indian men and women to descend from Acre Lane.23 Meanwhile, a federation24 of proud countrymen congregate on each corner, translating the streets of London one neglected road at a time.25 Brixton is the scene of a ‘colonizin’ in reverse’.26

It started almost two decades earlier. The Empire Windrush brought with it a transatlantic stream that continues to meander through the city, depositing traces of the Caribbean Basin across town as it navigates a landscape of unwanted social housing, neglected neighbourhood centres, and postwar labour needs that eroded into discriminatory immigration policies. Flowing from periphery to centre; from Montserrat to Finsbury Park, Trinidad to Notting Hill, and Guyana to Tottenham,27 it carries with it tens of thousands of Caribbean men and women who have come to heal, fix, build and chaperone London.28 All the while, the young men and women play mas29 with their neighbourhoods, significantly fashioning the aesthetic, demography and identity of these places in their own image.

On Saturdays the stream cascades south towards Brixton and London’s Caribbean Market. Under the concrete trusses of Market Row, wide-eyed pickny impatiently wait as housewives examine fruit and veg for this week’s audition for Sunday dinner. At their stalls on Electric Avenue, traders to-and-fro over the right yam for the right ‘missus’ while their partners hawk Fyffes’ bananas30 imported from the republics.31 More than just food fi nyam,32 precious pieces are passed round the market like jobs in the Balham Exchange;33 arrive for one, leave with five, then arrive back for five more later that afternoon. For many, the market is surprising. Not least perhaps for those who, starved of familiarity for years before, now only have to take the Underground to find somewhere that looks, feels and sounds a little bit like home.34

20Taken from the opening lines of Caribbean Market (1961), British Pathé’s archival footage of Brixton Market

21London was a prominent theme of many calypso songs. Trinidadian calypsonian Lord Kitchener’s London Is The Place for Me (1948) describes the ‘Mother Country’ as a utopian destination, while Lord Melody’s London Town (1963) paints a much bleaker picture: ‘Man a bawl when I leave di boat / Mek it wuss: they steal mi coat’

22Electric Avenue was the first market street in Britain to be lit by electricity. It now holds part of Brixton Market

23The arrival of SS Empire Windrush to British shores in 1948 brought with it a few hundred Caribbeans and started the major drive to rebuild postwar Britain with colonial labour. Many of the first migrants from the boat were housed in former subterranean air raid shelters at the top of Acre Lane, Brixton and later made their homes in the area

24The West Indies Federation was a short-lived political union that existed from 1958 to 1962

25Postwar Afro-Caribbean immigrants were often housed in London’s former slums. Areas such as Notting Hill became home to a large number of immigrants from the West Indies who were housed next to some of London’s poor, white working-class communities

26Taken from Jamaican poet Louise Bennett Coverley’s poem Colonization in Reverse (1966): ‘Wat a devilment a Englan! / Dem face war an brave de worse, / But me wonderin how dem gwine stan / Colonizin in reverse’

27Finsbury Park and Stoke Newington were famously popular for families from the small island of Montserrat, whereas those from Trinidad found their way to Notting Hill and Paddington, and those from Jamaica were enticed to south London

28Early migrants from the Caribbean were often employed in manufacturing, construction, health and transport sectors. In the 10 years from 1956, London Transport recruited more than 3,500 Bajan employees

29A term in Trinidad referring to marching in costume with a band at the annual Carnival

30In 1902, 45 per cent of Elders & Fyffes was purchased by the United Fruit Company, going on to flourish as the company maintained its hegemony. By the 1980s they were one of five companies (Chiquita, Del Monte, Dole, Noboa, and Fyffes) that controlled 80 per cent of global banana trade, sometimes called the ‘Wild Bunch’

31From the term ‘banana republic’, originally coined to describe the economic exploitation of Central American countries under the United Fruit Company

32A Wolof loan word in Jamaican Patois for ‘eat’

33The Balham Labour Exchange was a common stop soon after the arrival of thousands of Afro-Caribbean men after the Second World War. Eager to start working, some skilled workers looking for jobs were initially pleasantly surprised with the offers

34In 1956, the wife of Jamaica’s then Chief Minister, Mrs Edna Marleng, proclaimed on a visit to Brixton that she ‘was surprised to see them [West Indians] buying sweet potatoes and tinned ackee … it was like a little bit of home’

 

Cover ethnicity at work 2018 08 07 cropped

Cover ethnicity at work 2018 08 07 cropped

Source: Johns Hopkins University Press

‘a banana plantation is a poor place to live unless you’re a banana’. Conditions on Caribbean plantations, such as this one in Limón, were notoriously harsh

December 2017, Brixton Market, England

Constructed with over 300 recycled banana boxes from Brixton Market, the endoskeletal frame of ‘Passageway’35 twists and turns with the structural history of each cardboard element. It compresses slightly with the imperfections of boxes from the market, which are largely used as tables, display plinths, shelters and everything other than bananas once they are transported and sold.36 They’re even used as bins. It stands taut with the rigidity of boxes from nearby supermarkets, mostly in pristine condition having been rescued from their immediate fate after being sold: the bin. Many of the boxes have heavily stylised images of idyllic Caribbean landscapes. Others, though imageless, blend beautifully austere graphic forms and shapes with royal blues, pink corals, leaf greens and pineapple yellows that evoke a sensorial Caribbean. The names of the countries and companies on the boxes, however, are of a select few. ‘Colombia’, ‘Honduras’, ‘Costa Rica’ and ‘Ecuador’ (and the occasional ‘Guatemala’ and ‘Nicaragua’) for countries. Chiquita, Fyffes and Del Monte (sometimes Favorita or Banamiel) for the companies.

The space is tucked beneath a railway line that brought prosperity to the area in the late 19th century, wedged between a unique network of Grade II listed markets, and hidden in the midst of a vociferous debate on gentrification and community displacement. It is an infrastructural afterthought caught in the throes of its far more significant physical and political environs and is soon to be subsumed by a Network Rail arches redevelopment programme that has rocked the area. Yet, for the last month, the derelict space has become a place of significance for some entrepreneurs, artists and local Brixtonians. It doesn’t teem with life most evenings and the vast majority of people walk by, only casting a glance towards the glowing cardboard grotto. But over the weeks, its importance has been articulated by conversations with passers-by and visitors who resonate with a space that echoes with the novel familiarity of diasporic Brixton throughout the decades. It’s a space where you might hear Sir Lloyd Coxsone’s dubs sound alongside Titus Akira’s photographs, Sola Olulode’s paintings,37 Zainab Abelque’s poetry, Mama D’s Food Journeys or Kwaku Dapaah-Danquah and Daniyal Gilani’s chocolate samosas. Or perhaps just a free space to be able to sit, relax and vibe for the evening.

‘Passageway’ was nestled almost surreptitiously in the centre of 21st-century Brixton. It was shaped inadvertently by peripheral sites of diasporic labour in the 20th-century Caribbean that were folded into the discrete material forms of banana boxes. It came about through a self-initiated brief but also through the intense collective need for accessible sites of cultural production in the city and a despairing pattern in which, for diaspora, these spaces are largely confined to temporary, precarious or marginal realms.

Passagway credit vishnu jay

Passagway credit vishnu jay

Source: Vishnu Jay / RESOLVE

35 ‘Passageway’, Brixton Market

1 sola olulode at passageway credit vishnu jay

1 sola olulode at passageway credit vishnu jay

Source: Vishnu Jay / RESOLVE

37 Sola Olulode’s paintings at ‘Passageway’, Brixton Market

The lead image is also by Vishnu Jay / RESOLVE and depicts a typical shop front at Brixton market (36)

You can find out more about RESOLVE Collective here

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today