Start with a trip to La Savane des Esclaves — French for The Savannah of the Slaves. The first thing that hits the eye is the lush green landscape. Verdant infinities. A wealth of foliage sprawled over rolling hills that awaited us beyond the entry. And then the sudden epiphany, “How do you come to a heaven like this and create hell?” I wonder out loud. Then Leon muses, “Must be in the DNA.” Leon is the elder who organized the trip. (I should mention too, for anyone who has followed my work heretofore, Leon is THEE MAN — the revolutionary scholar whose teaching inspired the eventual creation of Take Em Down NOLA, the coalition that removed four white supremacist monuments in New Orleans last year.) He was to present on the 1811 Enslaved People’s Revolt at a conference at the University Des Antilles. Like the benevolent baba he is, he invited myself and some others to come along and explore the colorful island of Martinique and its neighbor island Guadalupe (for a day) while he was at it. Eight of us all, including him — half of us TEDN members. Over the quick five days, we engaged the terrain, the flora and fauna, the architecture, the people, and most particularly the history, visiting about 5 museums while there.
La Savane des Esclaves was the first — run by a small, wiry, muscular brother named Ti Gilbe. Ti is Kreol for “little.” Kreol being the hybrid language of scattered African tongues meshed with the French tongue forced upon them. So yeah, Li’l Gilbe was doing it big. He convinced the Martinique government to let him turn this former plantation, these former grounds of pain and torture, into a wellspring of knowledge and a sacred portal into the past. When we entered through the gift shop, a stylized African hut that Gilbe built himself, I thought of the giant African hut in Duncan Plaza across from City Hall in New Orleans. Civil Rights legend Dodie Smith recently told me that Mayor Moon Landrieu commissioned it in the 70s. This one that Gilbe built was filled with accoutrements reflecting the environment: straw hats and baskets, several flavors of liqueur crafted from the crops of the grounds — banana, chocolate, more —even a graphic novel written by Ti Gilbe about the history of Martinique. It spanned from the Arawaks and Carib Natives to the Dutch, Jewish and French colonizers that stole their land right down to the Africans those European colonizers enslaved. The book even includes a whole reprint of the Code Noir aka the French Black Codes of 1685. Amazing.
Then step onto the main grounds. A couple of lazy Caribbean cats demand we step over their resting bodies. Some over-sized bee looking insect reminds me I ain’t in New Orleans no more. But the roosters clucking about take me right back to a coffee shop in the 9th ward. One in particular, with a red and orange coat as searing as the Caribbean sunset itself, reminds me that even the familiar is a bit other worldly here.
And then to the reason we came. We caught up to a group of 20 or so visitors in a hut. The tour guide stood in the middle of several statues depicting the timeline of slavery. She spoke only French plus was white so I tuned her out and let the sculptures tell the story.
An Arawak man with spears in both hands next to an Arawak woman with a staff in hers.
Then a lineage of four figures depicting the trajectory of physical violence waged on the enslaved African body. From end to beginning: a severed head on a stick depicting the final penalty for running away for the third time.
Then another figure with two shackled hands reaching desperately, resiliently skyward.
Then a man with a staff and a fleur de lis brand on his right shoulder (first penalty), hobbling on his left leg — the other leg gone up to the knee (second penalty).
A naked woman hobbling on one foot in front of what I would find out was a white man with a cane extended beneath her other foot.
Rape culture takes on a new meaning when you even get a glimpse into — much less begin to imagine— what was done to black women during slavery.
As the story went, this last pair of statues depicted how slave owners would brutalize black women that refused to have sex with them. And these were but a few samples of the terror made available in the first hour of the visit. Fact is, there were too many horrid facts to retain over the course of the day. I spill what I can in hopes that it can offer a peephole into a perhaps unknown past that might illuminate our present.
Rape culture takes on a new meaning when you even get a glimpse into — much less begin to imagine — what was done to black women during slavery. For Christ sake, word to my momma(’s momma’s momma’s momma…) a whole new race was created out of it. At least if you wanna give New Orleans Creoles (prior to the 60’s) any credit for not being black at all. As that one elderly sister tried to impart to me at one of my first jobs when I was 18 and showed up all FAMU freshman fresh with an article about the history of African-American struggle in my backpack and she was all, “why you wanna call yourself that baabay!?” — I digress…
All that to say Creole is a condition — I mean a symptom — or a race — or a state of mind accompanying an identity that spans the entire Caribbean as well as the top of South America wherever Native people were exterminated from their own lands to give way to their Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch or English colonizers who enslaved the African and sometimes Indian and Chinese (once legal slavery was expunged) — but specifically African and Native American — where all oppressed people of color were privy to race mixing both by force and choice (see: Mardi Gras Indian tradition for example).
So while Creole is usually connoted as referring to a mixing of cultures, it’s actual meaning is even more on the nose. It comes from the Portuguese (the original Western enslavers) “creola” which means “born in the colony,” according to a tour guide or whoever said that at the plantation museum. Most technically, in its Latin form “creare,” it means to create or produce. In the Portuguese “criare” it means “to breed.” Hmm… and in its more relative Portuguese “criolla” it’s even more on the nose: “black person born in Brazil, home born slave.” So our tour guide or whoever said that was pretty spot on — and even a little soft-handed — in his/her interpretation.
It’s easy to imagine how the Portuguese, setting sail to colonize the Canary Islands in the early 1400s, and ultimately securing Brazil as their fist major colony could have been in position to set the linguistic trend for the Spanish and French to follow with their criollo and creola respectively. And here we are to this day repping what we were bred to be from the 7th ward to Sao Paolo. For this and many other reasons (that I would find in days to come), the more time a New Orleanian spends in the Caribbean, the more the old adage “New Orleans ain’t the bottom of the South, it’s the top of the Caribbean,” makes sense.
Which brings me to our next stop. After a brief trek through recreated slave huts with hard cracking stone for floors that our ancestors slept on in quarters as small as 8x4x8 with minimal clothing and food supplies, which immediately called to mind every project apartment I’ve ever been in and made me think of these huts as their cosmological antecedent — we walked through the much more redeeming and uplifting Creole Garden. Here we got to witness ancient black magic at its finest. Under the duress of the whip and despite all the abuses and stress — low life expectancy, limited resources for basic life needs, abject violence, rape, body mutilation, scarification, child theft and loss, sickness, separation from family and the risk of being killed at master’s whim at every fucking turn — our people still managed to show up, show out and shine straight from the vine — literally.
I’m talking a garden full of everything from edibles to medicinal plants to poison and all of it cultivated by black hands. We broke and ate from the bittersweet cacao plant like I did in Trinidad last summer. We broke open the jasmine leaf and rubbed it on our skin to tend to those pesky mosquito bites. Walking through, we took note of several others all with signage to delineate their use. Aloe vera for wounds and sunburn, Sweet Basil for digestion, Popcorn Senna for skin conditions, Tumeric for liver disease and Jamaica Vervain for insomnia, were just a few.
Amidst it all, Ti Gilbe, who we had finally met at the top of several ascending hills by that time, informed us that much of the botanical knowledge applied to cultivate these gardens was inherent to the enslaved ancestors that created them. In other words, they brought it over with them. Which is to say they got it from the ground. And the slave owners got it when they were around. That’s right — ancient black magic in the flesh since Day 1. And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. What the hell would some colonizer from Europe know about the American landscape that the Natives (who they first weaned agricultural knowledge from) didn’t already know or that Africans (who often brought certain crops over on slave ships — especially rice and okra, for example) wouldn’t know? Damn… like what do you even do white people? Or like what have you ever done? Since the inception of this colonial project and even prior, co-optation and delegation seems to be your only specialty. Or as corporate likes to call it — project management. Ahem… I digress.
Lately, I’ve been studying a Nigerian tradition of plant based healing that refers to plants as Ewé. It’s a part of an ancient sacred science that presents the properties of plants that provide medicinal and dietary benefits for humans. Our Nigerian ancestors (among many other groups) studied it for millennia. In the ancient Nigerian religion of Yoruba, this knowledge is attributed to a spirit called Osanyin. Considering how many ancestors were actually sold and/or kidnapped from Nigeria, amongst many others from the West Coast of Africa, who ostensibly shared in these or similar traditions, it’s no wonder we came over here with all that magic.
We left the plantation. Toured the winding roads of Martinique until they took us to a circular street near the beach. Let’s say this was the opposite of Lee Circle (in New Orleans). Instead of a monument to a white supremacist, at its center was a statue to the “Neg Mawon,” which is Kreol for Black Maroon. The maroons were the enslaved ancestors who escaped bondage to flee to the mountains of Martinique, or to the mountains in Trinidad, or to the islands in Brazil (where their colonies were called Quilombos), or the swamps of New Orleans (where Juan San Milo was king in the late 18th century and solidarity with Amerindian communities sewed the seeds for what would become the Mardi Gras Indian tradition a century later). The Martinicians make it a point to venerate their rebel heroes. (Ahem… New Orleans… America… take note.) In one hand the Neg Mawon statue held a conch shell — a multipurpose near deity of a resource for the black people of Martinique. It was both foodstuff and weapon of war. At every restaurant we visited, it was the most expensive item on the menu. I think I heard it was viewed as a godlike entity back in the day as well. With the other hand, the statue held his fist up to the sky at his oppressor.
We walked from there to the beach up the block. Waded in the water — frolicked even. My comrade wrote Take Em Down NOLA in the sand. A big diamond shaped rock of an island hundreds of feet away shooting up in the sky framed our backdrop as we took pictures. We left from there to another winding road. This one led to a triangle of 20 giant statues of stone people, solemnly facing seaward. They represented the 40 enslaved Africans that died in a slave ship that drowned just off the coast of Martinique in 1807. It’s called the Anse Cafard Slave Memorial and it’s truly something to behold. It speaks to the profound dignity that this majority black island maintains despite its history of slavery, despite its enduring status as a French colony to this day.
Seeing the people here, hearing their stories — reminded me of the West Indian folks I used to see walking the streets of Brooklyn as a kid. That air of regal, self contained pride that they seemed to float on. It made more sense to me seeing a culture of so many black folks — so seemingly sovereign out of the purview or reach of whiteness. Operative word: seemingly. Earlier that day over a very long lunch at a lovely hillside restaurant, our tour guide Layla gave us a no nonsense breakdown of “conscious” (errr… woke) politics in Martinique. Said that though she’s the child of educators, she wouldn’t dare waste her time in the field because they restrict what you’re able to teach, often keeping the real history hidden. Just like New Orleans, we told her. She went on to break down the politics of gentrification and displacement as it relates to adjacent island Guadalupe’s new Memorial ACTe Museum. (I’ll speak more on that a few entries from now.) Sis pulled no punches in giving the full read on the blacktuality of things. To be expected in an island that was once governed by poet turned mayor and inventor of Negritude itself, the great Aime Cesaire. Which is where we ended the day.