The term ‘freedom of expression’ is bandied about so much that we often forget that it is not a political slogan, often abused by various politicians at rallies or in parliament to harass their opponents. It is also used to stifle thoughts or words that do not fit the ‘ultra-right’ platforms that have been normalised in the leading Western countries. Radicalism is no longer the purview of ‘others’.
As a writer living in the English-speaking Caribbean island country of Antigua and Barbuda, I am not immune to the shackling of voices—it took a Privy Council decision in the 1990s to allow for the opening up of our media and the emergence of an ‘independent’ press, because of political broadsheets favouring one side more than the other, with glaring headlines and short stories to suit a population that has been told that they ‘are not a reading public’ (attributed to the country’s father of the nation). One very popular media house coined the phrase ‘Talk as me like’, and the people haven’t stopped talking about what they think, hear or feel. Sadly, this ‘freedom of expression’ does not come with responsibility and has led to social media spats.
The shackling of voices also includes the silence around issues of sexuality and gender—in this small space, we see and know people from the LGBTQIA+ community, yet this fact is treated as an open secret, and acknowledgement of the community is met with righteous indignation and homophobic slurs; we are African and independent or British, colonial and Christian, depending on the issue we wish to condone or condemn. Even those who parade as allies still propagate language and tropes that are far removed from the present day. We ignore that these issues are discussed amongst the young in safe spaces, and occasionally, they challenge us elders. There lies the hope that the coming generations will be more courageous and will stand in their full ‘freedom of expression’—challenging, listening, discussing what it truly means to be an independent country in the 21st century.
The writers featured in this edition of adda live far apart, yet they share with us the uniqueness of their voices, without apology; stories that unite us as they share the common thread of owning their story. The beauty of storytelling is that it speaks to us as humans—people, no labels—as we all carry stories that we would like to share.
I am a child of immigrants from the then British West Indies, who went to the ‘mother country’ as a teenager with a five-year dream to settle. Many like me settled in homes where we were free to be West Indians—Antiguan homes behind painted front doors and hand-stitched lace curtains, changed every Easter and Christmas. We ate home food long before we learnt the term ‘soul food’—it took a bus journey and the arrival of the ‘Indian man shop’ for us to eat as we did. In our home, we were free to listen to old stories and new music—ska, blue beat, rock steady and American blues and soul with a little Elvis (my mother was free to love this white blues singer). We were free to be punished and churched in West Indian style.
But we were not free to question how we were treated or what we were taught outside our homes.
We were not free to be West Indian in school. We ate the food given to us—suet puddings, thin slices of meat with bland mashed potatoes, custard for every afters, and prunes, sponge cakes and crumbles. We played kiss chase, acted out scenes from our favourite shows (Lost in Space and Land of the Giants). We picked blackberries and tart, crunchy apples…
In secondary school we were not free to be Black and British; we were treated as newcomers—asked questions about where we came from. We had to digest their disbelief as we replied ‘here’. Trying to find a country on the world map that did not name the places we knew were the West Indies. We were not free to express ourselves when we refused to run on the track during the summer exam months. We were aware though that we were freed to excel in sports and not excel academically. When at college we watched a film that depicted us, and people who looked like us, as property, as stereotypes or characters with no real feelings or lives, with an illusion of being ‘free’, and we freely expressed our disgust, we were met with ‘it’s only a film’.
It took running away from the land where I grew up to the land of my parents’ birth to feel free to claim all of me—Black, British, Woman, Caribbean, to feel free to grow into my own freedom of expression through the pen of a journalist and then of a writer—no longer explaining or apologising for being me.
These courageous writers ask questions and hold a microscope over society—showing us that being ‘other’ is often a label created by those who wish to control our freedom of expression, from how we wear our hair to what we should remember and what we will become. These writers remind us that in order to be fully free, we have to ask the difficult questions and make people see us—all of us. They also remind us that with great freedom of expression comes great responsibility to challenge, inspire and create spaces like this so that many other voices can be heard.
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