The soul of Caribbean culture
Book: East Side of Flatbush, North of Love
Author: Danielle Brown, PhD
Publisher: My People Tell Stories, LLC, 2015
Reviewer: Dr Glenville Ashby
East of Flatbush, North of Love barrels through time, charting a compelling psycho-cultural journey like no other. Dr Danielle Brown is meticulously introspective, pedagogical, and prophetic. Here, personhood, nation, region, and destiny are inextricably bound. Born in the United States of Trinidadian parentage, Brown is emblematic of cultural fluidity, a representative of myriad cultures that somehow finds a monolithic expression. She is the voice of the Caribbean - a melange that is politically and culturally black. East of Flatbush vividly captures Brown’s childhood in the diaspora. It unveils a transcultural painting embedded onto a multilayered, autobiographic frame, and we are left with a picture of an ever-evolving principle that finds enduring life. Brown’s story mirrors that of millions of New Yorkers. Her work is ingeniously crafted as every theme and chapter is predicated - cued - by musical verses. A talented musician and educator, she examines the existential value of song and dance to identity.
Life, history, and destiny are revealed through music. It is the scholastic thrust of Brown’s ethnographic landscape.
Her youth unfolds with little fanfare, but each phase is telling. They are periods of cultivation, times to live carefree; but they are nonetheless pivotal - a prognostication, for sure.
Throughout, she explores every cultural nuance, and amid its blaring sociological message, there are flashes of comedic brilliance. “For some reasons,” she writes, “sitting on other people’s cars was common throughout the 1980s and 1990s,” as she relates her readiness at “no more than five years,” to confront these infractions with bat in hand while yelling out the window.
Later, she fluidly injects a cultural staple: “The Cuttail”. This unique branding of corporal punishment she defines as “a rite of passage for almost all West Indian children.” She chronicles her most memorable experience as she culls lyrics from 'I Wish', a Stevie Wonder classic. “Trying your best to bring the water to your eyes; thinking it might stop her from whipping your behind.”
And she raises the importance of spirituality to the Caribbean psyche. This is underscored as we encounter the juxtaposition of mainstream faiths with folk expressions. Brown discerns the significance and lure of mysticism and the occult. They continue to hold court amid technology and modernity. And a few intriguing tales prove her point.
We are served doses of history and geopolitics. “Prior to 1924,” she notes, “immigration to the United States from the Western Hemisphere was unlimited, and West Indian migration to the United States increased steadily until that year, when the number of West Indians arriving in the country peaked at 12,243.” All that changed with the passing of the 1924 Immigration Act, we learn, when an “upsurge in migration after 1965” was attributed to the “tightening of British immigration laws following an independence movement through the Commonwealth.” This was accompanied by “easing of immigration laws in the United States” that proved propitious to West Indians.
“East of Flatbush” is as comprehensive and instructive as it gets. Culture is unyielding through oral tradition and the repatriation of second- and third-generation foreign nationals to their mother lands, if only for a short stay.
Brown is the consummate griot, channelling the voices and aspirations of yesteryear. Relying on the cadence and poignancy of lyricists, she relives past indiscretions, failures, and successes of a region. The calypsonian is a subtle provocateur, social agitator, a dispenser of truth. Verses of Jean and Dinah are used to cement her argument: “Well the girls in town feeling bad, no more Yankee in Trinidad, They going to close down the base for good, then girls have to make out how they could … .”
Hip Hop, reggae, and every genre birthed in the consciousness of the underdog and disenfranchised is an invaluable source of social and psychological sustenance, she argues.
In redefining their own experiences, in shaping a new narrative, Caribbean artists at home and abroad have succeeded where our politicians have failed. They have united disparate, unique islands, creating a Caribbean imaginary and binding ethos.
And where our religious leaders have fallen short, the healing properties of culture have tempered racial, ethnic, and political differences. Artistic expressions narrate the past and the now, but in a mystical, transcendental way, they unveil the future. The triumph of Brown's work is the triumph of culture – Caribbean culture.
East of Flatbush is a window into the validity of the diasporic soul. Life with all its challenges and vicissitudes is made that much easier with the infinite rhythms of our inner being. Culture is a balm that soothes the longing in a faraway place.