Arts & Culture / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 3

Cow Pastor: Song Lines of Memory

Gopal Donogo, Interior Chaos No. 1

Image Credit: Gopal Donogo, Interior Chaos No. 1. (2015). Courtesy of the artist.

In or around 1995, the Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020) bought a property, which included a three bedroom dwelling, in Christ Church, Barbados, in the vicinity of the international airport. Brathwaite referred to this property as Cow Pastor or Cow Pasture. Shortly after purchase, the Barbadian government informed him he could neither build on nor extend the premises, which included an old slave outbuilding. Among the reasons given was the proposed construction of a road related to the functioning of the airport. In an email dated March 5, 2005,1 which was circulated widely, Brathwaite pleaded his case to the public at large. Within the contents of that letter, which could be better described as a manifesto, he included a 9-point program which set out a two-pronged vision for the property: it was to be his place of residence for himself and his wife where he could collect and store his archives which had been scattered:

(8) I had also hoped, when we found this place, to found my nation here
– my maroon town, resistance palenque. Bring in my archives from their
shattered world – shattered in Jamaica since the Gilbert Hurricane of 1988
– an archive stretching back now almost 100 years….

Brathwaite also envisioned the space as being central to a Caribbean reawakening—environmentally, ecologically, spiritually, intellectually and materially. This would be the Bussa Centre:

(9) The dream the vision was to in-gather the scatta archives (Ja & NYC)
here, try heal them and from this wound of miracle, set up a BUSSA CENTRE
for us all – enough peace & space & beauty surpassing any other in the
world – in a small sacred bless – to build a place to live to love, a
place for the LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA, a conference room, performance
outdoor places, chalets for writers, artists – that kind of possible dream– because we had the dream we had the space we had the means – destroyed by my own Govt – w/out DISCUSSION – and digging us down and STRANGLING the holy past & constellation flute & future of this place – the egrets gone because the cattle gone. the woo doves mourn. I itch from deconstruction cement dust…

By the time Brathwaite made his case public in 2005, he had been fighting the Barbadian government for some ten years. As a result of his publicizing the issue, a colleague of his, Tom Raworth, built a website (no longer in existence) to publicize the issue more widely. In a 2005 interview2 he stated that in 2000 an Ancestor, Namsetoura, appeared to him on the property and instructed him to fight for the property—a fight that would eventually prove to be futile. He also described how, on orders of the Barbadian government, the animals—cows and goats— which grazed on the property, had been removed by their owners, and bulldozers were sent in to raze the land and fill in the pond on the property.

In that same email, he poignantly wrote:
I cannot even die here now. no strength to even burn myself upon this pasture as I want to do. As I still may. Because my love, whe else is
there to go, to try to build again at 75?

Brathwaite believed that “[a]rt must come out of catastrophe,” as he stated in the interview mentioned above. “I’m so conscious of the enormity of slavery and the Middle Passage and I see that as an ongoing catastrophe… One thing about catastrophe, for me, is that it always seems to lead to a kind of magic realism. That moment of utter disaster, the very moment when it seems almost hopeless, too difficult to proceed, you begin to glimpse a kind of radiance on the other end of the maelstrom.”

In response to my becoming aware of what had befallen him, I began a letter to Kamau in the Fall of 2005. What follows is an excerpt from a much longer piece that engaged with Kamau’s dream and vision for a less fractured and fragmented Cari be oh, and therefore world.3

*******

Dear Kamau:

This is the third time I’ve begun this letter to you, although the first time I’ve committed it to paper. Fall, October of 2005 to be exact, was the first time I began composing my thoughts to you in response to reading about your predicament concerning your land at Cow Pasture/Cow Pastor, Christ Church, Barbados.

Fall in Canada is a time when the land begins a slow burn as trees and shrubs blaze in shades of red and orange–the maple, that now ubiquitous symbol of Canadian nationality, shouts its defiance of the inevitable –the harsh approach of winter. The sumach metamorphoses into a multitude of red flags. Fall is all about change. That we should die in such robust beauty–parade our aliveness–our “livicality” as the rastas would say.

I think of your description of Cow Pastor (I like your riff on Cow Pasture) as I walk the fields and hear the honking of the Canada geese as they bank and turn, move into formation–“follow the leader, leader, leader, follow the leader,” as the soca artist sings– they are headed south in V formation where it’s warm, where winter is not to be found in the temperature outside but is more a state of mind. An absence of hope–a withering of desires on the vine.

This is a land worth loving. As are our islands. A vast land–as our islands are not.
As I walk I think of the many, many issues the information on the Cow Pastor website has generated for me. Issues of place and belonging; of exile and homecoming. Issues of “where we lan?” despite all the Soca slogans that proliferate in my island home about being “Trini to the bone” and “sweet T&T.” Issues of how we, the flotsam and jetsam of 500 years of “dis/place hard, oui,” own what our erstwhile masters never intended us to own.

The events surrounding Cow Pastor and your experiences since purchasing it remind me of the centrality of the land to the First Nations Peoples here in Canada–the land speaks to them–offers them her wisdoms, so when you talk of getting “messages from trees,” it in no way appears odd. Their continuing fight today on Turtle Island, named Canada by the European, is for their land, for respect for treaties that guaranteed them their land and their traditional ways of life on that land.

Their plight is that they have had their land taken from them–land which has shaped them through millennia, and yet it is no longer their land in some cases. In the legal sense of the word, that is. It is and will always be theirs. It is one resource that Africans on their continent continue to possess–their land. Or is this actually the case? Zimbabwe and South Africa have still to settle adequately the issue of land reparations. In the case of both these countries much of the better land is still in the hands of the former colonisers. Also, the havoc that HIV/AIDs is wreaking on the peoples of Africa is bound to have an impact on land ownership. The growing impact of China as an economic power is also being felt in Africa in terms of land ownership and control of resources. For instance, China not so long ago vetoed UN resolutions regarding the genocide in Sudan because the latter is a source of oil for them.

It is also the one resource we Caribbean people have–or appear to have–land–in the wake of the European “retreat” leaving us these tiny pieces of rock–volcanic and coral. To call our own. Our home. Now activities like tourism have turned them into destinations for the white northerner, where their every desire can be fulfilled. We market ourselves as good time destinations where the native is always smiling, always servile, and whose raison d’être is always the happiness of the tourist. Where the African male’s function is to service the white female and male, depending on the sexual orientation of the tourist. Maleness and masculinity is a product and Black maleness a significant part of the product that is sold as part of tourism. The Black female in these contexts–in this time of globalization–plays a different role–that of the mammy, cook or hyper-sexed, wining4 object.

Now you come long, Kamau and talking ‘bout a sacred space-a Bussa institute; a space where spirits can connect and commune, where memories can take hold and take root, where we can begin to knit the fragments of a fragmented soul–individual and collective–back together.

You mad or what? Or just crazy? You don’t realize we living in a globalised world where we selling our sun, sex, sand and sea–we don’t even have to wuk for it–just wuk up–for the highest bidder. And pretend we all right, oui, with we multichannel universe, we roll-on roll off cars and we new house. So what if the plantation come back. If it resurrect. And our souls lie dormant; our ancestors, nameless and homeless, moan and roam the oceans and haunt these pissin tail islands.

Of course, these two apparently dissimilar realities–the abundance and depth of European history and culture vis-à-vis the paucity and apparent shallowness of Caribbean history and culture–are linked and more interrelated than they appear–with Europe and the West in general continuing to play their historical zero-sum games in Africa and the Caribbean. And Cow Pastor, with its Bussa Institute, becomes for me a weight dropped into the unknown sea of memory, sounding the depths. For what? Signs of life? Traces? Or, perhaps an anchor tying us to a past we seem intent on fleeing before we even understand it. A sight and site of resistance to the bulldozing, transnational forces of globalisation that seek to erase all and sweep away everything that stands in the way of this process. My mind turns to the film Life and Debt that chronicles the destruction of the local infrastructure of the Jamaican economy–the banana and dairy industry to name but two sectors—by World Bank and IMF demands, while tourists enjoy what tourists come to Jamaica to enjoy and indulge in– pastimes like crab racing.

Cow Pastor appears to point to a daring to dream, a willingness to imagine other possibilities or ways of being where we can be in active contact with all that has contributed to our terroir and terror.

In a post 9/11 world the latter word has been overused to the point of meaninglessness; the former, bearing a striking resemblance to the latter and missing I’m tempted to say the I ’n I, offers me some insights. The terroir comprises those peculiar and unique qualities of a particular piece of land–its climate, its soil, and history—that produce all that is unique and individual in wines from that particular region. Terroir is more than the sum of its parts–it is a mysterious quality that lends a wine its personality. Cow Pastor for me simultaneously conjures, and I use the term advisedly, the terroir and terror that is Barbados and the Caribbean. Terroir in its attempt at bringing together the history, the memory, the physical terrain, even the ancestors’ bones, in a place, a locality, that would and could offer a corrective to the present-day erasures of memory and history in service to the tourist, which, in turn, could be seen as an act of terror, in a tiny island in lockstep with a globalized world.

All of which brings me back to Cow Pastor, which appears not so much a place as a space/time configuration. A space/time of the sacred, of remembering, of maroon and palenque; a space/time where we can allow a haunting of those ancestors who were caught up, consumed and spat out, in that earlier globalisation–I refer of course to the four-hundred-year trans-Atlantic slave trade in African bodies. A space/time of understanding how it all begins and ends. With the land. Whichever land we stand upon as we are moved by forces apparently beyond our control. Where we can understand that marronage and the palenque are states of mind as well as physical states, and that in a globalised world we will need to employ those resources as a challenge to the many ways of death that globalisation now offers. Cow Pastor is a vital element in this challenge: this is its legacy in the face of the simultaneously seductive and brutalising forces of globalisation.
NourbeSe
ps

Shortly before leaving Barbados in March my cousin, her husband and I set off to look for Cow Pastor. It was close to the airport and it seemed to make some degree of sense to visit it on my way to the airport. We meet and ask many people in the area but none of them appear to know anything about it. This surprises me, since I know letters have appeared in the newspapers and there has been at least one call-in show on the issue. We felt that some of the people knew but allowed as how they didn’t–you can run but you can’t hide. And just as we were about to give up, someone pointed us in the right direction.

I felt a presence on that land, Kamau. It had a patient, serene, windswept quality to it. As if it was waiting for something. I saw the pond, or what is left of it, the lone bearded fig tree. It did feel magical. Was it my imagination?–there goes my Western-trained mind. For if it were my imagination–all the better. For that is what we will need to do–imagine worlds that defy the capitalist nightmare that presently holds the world hostage. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, once suggested that hunger presupposes the existence of bread. So too I think our hunger for worlds in which we can recuperate the erased memories of another time, presupposes the existence of those worlds. Worlds that Cow Pastor signals (and I use that word in more than one sense). What we need is time–the right time, that is. When our past becomes us and we become our past.

********

I remained in touch with Kamau on and off over the years. During that time he shared information that he believed his archives and books were being stolen from him; I also became aware, although not from him, that he was leaving NYU. I later came to understand that he had returned to Barbados to live. I heard nothing more about Cow Pastor until June 19, 2019, when I received the following email from him.

My dear NourbeSe, been ages since ‘meditation on cowpasture’ and
all’s been more or less Quiet here until this morning w/the news that
the Govt has leased the Airport/of which CP is physically and
ecologically and more or less economically a part, to a private conglom
for the ujal 99/or 999 or 9999 years – instead of selling it – so that
our Calibanic ‘Quiet’ since you was here is coming to an end/

Works Cited
1 The lass days of KB and CowPastor Vandal, thepublicarchive.com.
2 Joyelle McSweeney, “Poetics, Revelations, and Catastrophes: An Interview with Kamau Brathwaite.” https://www.raintaxi.com/poetics-revelations-and-catastrophes-an-interview-with-kamau-brathwaite/.
3 In May of this year, I offered a different, but related elegy to KB.
4 Wining is a vernacular word for a type of dancing emphasizing the circular movement of the hips.

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