BAR Book Forum: Lia T. Bascomb’s “In Plenty and in Time of Need”
Politicians ignore at their peril the power of popular culture and its people-moving practitioners.
“The musical icons that the text focuses on root themselves in Barbadian culture.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Lia T. Bascomb. Bascomb is Associate Professor of African American Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Her book is In Plenty and in Time of Need: Popular Culture and the Remapping of Barbadian Identity.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Lia T. Bascomb: In Plenty and in Time of Need illustrates the intersections of formal, cultural, and lived politics. Throughout each chapter Barbadian literature, politics, and musical performance are intricately intertwined. When calypsonian the Mighty Gabby was sued by then Prime Minister Tom Adams, his response showed how he understood the power of political performance, the power of musical performance, and how each is remembered through time. He told the Prime Minister’s lawyer outright that his music was more important to the nation than anything the Prime Minister was doing and would be remembered much more fondly. Soca artist Rupee draws on a multitude of performance practices and uses his visibility as a musical performer in his activism against one of the most devastating diseases of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, HIV/AIDS. Alison Hinds has become one of the most celebrated and respected women in the Caribbean region through cultural practices that were once seen as low-class.
The book also shows how any one nation’s politics and culture inevitably influences and is influenced by a larger world. This allows readers to see where they get the ideas that they put in practice every day. What does it mean to be a citizen? To be a man? To be a woman? To be a migrant? To be respectable? How are these definitions shaped by official state structures, educational institutions, and various media, and how do people rewrite them for themselves? Exploring these questions through concrete examples also sheds light on the ways that history lingers in the present and how publics make memory and produce future histories.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The book names a number of political and cultural activists throughout Barbadian history. Many of them were politicians, labor organizers, and newspaper editors. And the book also looks at a number of artist-activists and how their craft as artists is used in their activism. I hope that contemporary activists and organizers are reminded of the complexity of identities and thus the complexity of representing large and small groups.
There are still some people who see music, culture, literature, etc. as “the opiate of the masses,” as frivolous and not serious. I hope that if any of those people are reading this book they see the power of the popular. Artists have immense impact on their audience. And in turn audiences speak to what they want from their representatives. This is as true of the artists that they support as it is of the politicians they vote for.
I also hope that those whom are not traditionally acknowledged as activists feel seen in this work. Sometimes it is easier to acknowledge the most visible activists and activities as activism. And yet the seeds for change can be planted in a novel, over a drink, in a music video, in a classroom, or in a seemingly offhand conversation. So for the activists and community organizers reading this text, I hope that they see and value all of the tools at their disposal, all of the intersecting avenues that lead toward social change. I think that many activists have already recognized this, and I hope that this text reminds them or opens up a new possibility that perhaps they hadn’t thought of before.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
For readers who are outside of the Caribbean, I hope they unlearn the prevalent trope that the region is merely a playground for foreigners. I hope that they can disabuse themselves of the stereotypes that restrict the region to sun, sand, and sex. And I hope that they can see how they are connected to the region.
For those in the Caribbean and for Barbadians in particular I hope that they see Barbadian culture on center stage; that they see there is such a thing as Barbadian culture; that we are not merely mimics of others, but that there is a distinct mosaic of influences that have produced Barbados, and that Barbadians have creatively used these influences to determine something that is their own.
And for all readers I hope that they see the ongoing contributions that Barbados has made and continues to make to the world. The activist organizers I write about, like many of the Barbadians mentioned throughout the text, traveled across the globe. Their ideas and ideologies were in conversation with professional and organic intellectuals around the world organizing around black nationalism, anticolonialism, global health, and international and local politics. The musical icons that the text focuses on root themselves in Barbadian culture and refuse to be overdetermined by anyone’s ideas of what Barbadian culture is. So I hope that readers unlearn rigid definitions of nationalism, culture, race, gender, and sexuality.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
This work began, I think, when I first saw Rupee’s 2004 “Tempted to Touch” video. Seeing sites of Barbados on all of the big music video sites around the world struck me in a way. So one big intellectual inspiration is the musical artists. I think the skill with which they practice their craft, their social commentaries within party vibes, the turns of phrase, the visual signifiers all say something really smart.
A second big influence are all of the scholars and artists who have done this work before me: Hazel V. Carby, Curwen Best, Rinaldo Walcott, Patricia Saunders, Leigh Raiford, Brandi Catanese, Robert Stepto. These scholars opened new worlds to me. I am inspired by the novels, memoirs, poetry, and essays of George Lamming, Cecil Foster, Audre Lorde, and most especially two who have recently passed on: Paule Marshall and Kamau Brathwaite. Paule Marshall’s work taught me the importance of language in all its forms. Kamau Brathwaite taught me theory through poetry and that the limits of each form can be tested. Both of them allowed me to see the specifics of Afro-Barbadian and Afro-Barbadian migrant experiences within and in conversation with a larger black world.
Even more than the professional scholars I read and was trained by, I am inspired by all of the “ordinary” folks whom I have learned from. Everyone at the kitchen tables, in the rum shops, in the front rooms, watching old performances, liming and listening and sharing – that’s where I learned politics. And I have been influenced by the old folks, the elders of the communities in which I have lived and those who passed on long before me and passed their lessons on through stories and proverbs. That’s how I learned that scholarship comes in many forms and is often communally shared.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
In a 2006 interview on www.trinijunglejuice.com, soca artist Rupee said, “There’s a difference between people who have sight and people who have vision.” By beginning and ending the book by questioning the burdens of history, I hope that readers are inspired to envision their own new futures. Histories continue into the present, but we all still have some agency in deciding our futures. Those futures are individual and collective. As the title suggests, whether in plenty and in time of need there’s always something to create with, always something to imagine.
Enslaved runaways and black women hoteliers were limited in their movements and their business prospects, but at least some of them found ways to change their circumstances. Calypsonians and soca artists provide social commentaries that critique the present while advocating for something different in the future. Many activists, politicians, and artists refused to “stay in their lane” and/or needed to have multiple careers. Either way, they branched out into multiple enterprises crossing law, politics, media, music, film, fashion, theater, and behind the scenes production.
Whether you have a lot or a little, whether you travel the world or stay home, whatever your circumstances, you have a place in the world. And you get to determine, at least to some extent, what that’s going to look like for you. You have that responsibility and that freedom. Even under the strictest of constraints, you can imagine. And as you imagine the world you want to live in you can begin to think of what tiny start you can make toward building it.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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