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OFF CENTRE: Mout’ open . . . and wha’?


Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: Mout’ open  . . . and wha’?

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Once upon a time . . . in Barbados the word oral was associated with more than sex.
Once upon a time (40 or so years ago) on the radio, Frank Collymore and Alfred Pragnell opened their mouths and stories jumped out.
The short narratives of George Lamming, Timothy Callender, Bernard Graham, Monica Skeete, Trevor Yearwood, Jeannette Layne, Karl Sealey, Louis Parris, A. N. Forde, Geoffrey Drayton, George Barker-Aimey, Flora Squires, Andrew Salkey, Samuel Selvon, Barnabas Ramon-Fortuné, Edgar Mittelholzer, , John Hearne, Michael Anthony, Collymore himself and others would come into our ears with slowed down, close-up renderings of life.  
And we listeners would throw our hearts into Collymore’s readings, 15 minutes at a time on Sundays and, I think, Wednesdays, on the then Radio Barbados, and into Pragnell’s tellings on other days, which ones I can’t remember now, on Rediffusion.
And around that time as well at the newborn National Independence Festival Of Creative Arts (NIFCA) we heard and saw earnest, mostly unpretentious storied takes on life.
Back then an evening of oral presentations offered you live storytellings.
It seems that we had grasped the centrality of stories and how they embodied the complexity and uncertainty of life.
But somehow rationalism blew our minds.  
So, instead of serious storytellers, we now have faux artists who simply co-opt some of the superficial means of an art form to deliver thinly veiled sermons. Taking up the former public space of the oral storyteller are preachers, soapboxers, propagandists and assorted wannabe activists beating us about the head with their angst and ideology and cerebration and unbelievable certainty.
And then there are those who want the comedian’s laughs but crave more than punchline time, so they deliver overwrought excuses for tales.   
These “artists” show what Willie van Peer in The Inhumanity Of The Humanities calls fear of humanity – a strong disinclination to engage and explore human emotions and relations in authentic ways. Their supposed art is now often principally and nakedly about ideas. They treat story, that most fundamental of human social impulses, as though they have been living on Mars.
They’re trying to “educate the masses”, they say, like if I en teach and diligently study teaching for 31 years and know that you cannot – cannot! – educate anybody with intellectualistic modes (at the most, you will appeal to the already converted).
To tell you the truth, I fear these people. Why? When ideology runs ahead of humanity – and it often does – we get a situation like the response of the American opposers of the Vietnam War. They demonstrated and howled and burned flags and all the rest of it.  
And when the soldiers (somebody’s dad, somebody’s husband, somebody’s brother, somebody’s somebody) returned home, they booed them and left them, like outcasts, with their shrapnel, their morphine addictions, their psychological wreckage, their all-day nightmares, and shattered tomorrows – because they fought in an “unjust” war for their country.  
Our own oral artists these days, like those protesters, bring to mind Linus in the Peanuts comic strip: “I love mankind; it is just people I can’t stand.” For, after all, where are the people in their offerings? These “artists” are now often the only characters in their “art”.
So, the emotional participation, the rehearsal of life that stories afford are virtually lost to us in relation to our own situations.
With rationalistic approaches, we are made passive. But “healthy stories challenge us to be active characters, not passive victims or observers . . . . Seeing ourselves as active characters . . . carries the power to transform lives.” (Daniel Taylor, Tell Me A Story)
CBC, Starcom, NIFCA, and others, see wha’ yuh could do about bringing back real story – read, acted out or told live. ’Cause while a little girl is sexually abused, a sister fights cancer, a brother is ravaged by a drug habit, a father with trepidation gives away his daughter in marriage, a 16-year-old girl “falls in love” with a 29-year-old man, about oral art what can we honestly say, “That captures my situation”?
You know, they didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but if they come to Barbados they will surely find weapons of mass disconnection.
Give me back my story.

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