On September 7th, the day of the nation’s general election, I ‘voted’ (well, it depends on what you consider voting). And I, like many voters with smartphones, I took a photo with my inked finger, a sign that I participated in the sacrament of engaging with our democratic system. But it was not the conventional picture. Not in the slightest…
Of course, some folks were quite entertained. Most people were entertained without knowing quite what it meant. Others were disappointed by me, insulted that I would jibe at their performance of the sacrament in more traditional ways. They, too, don’t know what it meant.
I still understand completely where those who were disappointed were coming from. A middle finger, truly, is not a patriot’s call. But it is the honest learned symbol of disgust. I was told, in fact, that the middle finger is not a sign of solidarity. I see what they were getting at…but now, as I write this, I can’t help but disagree…
All the same, I took it down after some words from someone really dear to me. There were, honestly, a great deal of things that I refused to take into consideration when I put up such a photo on Instagram. However, contrary to what the dissenters might expect, there was actually a great deal of forethought that went into such a photo. More than some of those same dissenters’ votes, I imagine…
When I started doing Spoken Word back in 2008, my mentor Camille Quamina once warned me and a room of other poets never to curse in our poetry. “That’s a shortcut to a real emotion,” she said. “Use your words!” And I think that it’s that same concept that had folks disappointed in me resorting to a symbol like that – that an otherwise eloquent and respectful young man would stoop so low. From Spoken Word to ‘Youth Elect TT’ to ‘The Chair’, I apparently built up the reputation as the articulate, conscious black boy with the nappy hair. Hardly the lowly negro with his middle finger up saying ‘f**k the system!’.
It’s worth keeping in mind that, as much as I value my mentor Mrs. Quamina’s advice, I no longer use it. Well, to be fair, I use it in some places. But I’m also very much aware that the respectability politics imposed on certain people with a certain lack of power – like me – is all about ensuring that there is still some power out of my reach.
Even in a system where I am part of 40% of the nation’s population, my voice is reduced to only the bits that people of power are willing to listen to. If I can mitigate my blackness, my youth, my poverty, by sounding intelligent enough and being respectful enough and not speaking from the source of my principled outrage, then I’m worth hearing. As far as elections go, that means lining up, voting for the lesser of two evils with as much of a smile as I can muster, coming back home and taking a photo with my stained finger and posting it to encourage others to participate in the broken system in the ways the status quo prescribes.
A shortcut is not a bad thing. Especially not for an emotion that requires release and catharsis. Especially not for an emotion that so often goes unresolved in this country, flaring up in real and sometimes even dangerous ways only quinquennially. In fact, what Trinidad & Tobago and its democracy needs is much less eloquence. I desperately needs reality, no matter how angry and disrespectful and frightening. You can’t be more disappointed in my finger than I am in my governance. If you think you are, not only are you wrong, you’re so woefully blind to the systemic breakdown our country has been going through since independence that my finger might be for you as well.
Language is symbolic. It’s not about what you say, in how many 10-dollar words, and how high your chin can be while saying it. It’s about who hears you, and who understands you, and who can continue the conversation with you in the words they have. My finger isn’t for Hamid Ghany, or Nigel Henry, or for the Lovely Christian people I shared a sermon for the day before the election (who regrettably I must have disappointed). My finger is not for the young men and women who I had the pleasure of sitting next to on ‘The Chair’, nor is it for the ministers that I sat opposite. Those folks will read this, and for that I am grateful. But that, much like sitting in a pew for a Sunday morning sermon I was privileged to give, is a derivative of the power that only few people have.
That picture, however, is for the thousands of men and women in this country, young and old, who do not and have not gotten to engage with ministers and other decision-makers in the way I was lucky enough to have. It’s for the hundreds, who know they don’t know what’s going on, and know that others are taking advantage of them as a result. It is for them, who know that the system is broken, but their place in life and other people’s respectability politics inhibit them from saying, in whatever symbols they have left, that enough is enough.
It’s also for the system itself. Not the men and women operating in the system as honestly as they could, but the ones that have been manipulating it to thrive, and who design and redesign it to be manipulable for the gains of the select few with power and influence over a nation.
The middle finger is a sign of solidarity. For all those who don’t meet the quota for respect and power that allows them to respond to the system in ways that change it. For all those who would rather tilt the system than prop it up. For all those who would rather their votes, and even their bodies, become symbols of the discontent they feel. This is just one symbol. But it’s just as valid as all others. So I intend to use it every five years until I don’t have to anymore.