The art of storytelling is widely regarded as the oldest form of education, entertainment and cultural preservation.
In fact, some assert society can be transformed by storytelling.
Christopher Laird’s keynote address at the 18th Annual Africana Studies Student Research Conference and Luncheon explored this notion in Bowling Green State University’s Olscamp Hall Friday.
In his address “Nobody’s Diaspora? Africa in the Moving Picture Memory of the Caribbean,” the film producer, director and writer discussed how Caribbean culture has been preserved and shared through a digital archival process that has helped record aspects of Caribbean culture and politics and project it across the world.
The address’s title was inspired by Trinidadian author and activist Marion Patrick Jones, who spoke out against the concept of “being someone’s diaspora,” a scenario in which the effects of European and American colonialism and imperialism frames Caribbeans as “overseas” Europeans, Indians, Chinese and Africans.
“We are not overseas Africans. We are nobody’s diaspora. We have our own diaspora and that, we are interested in,” Jones said in the clip. “We are Trinidadians, born in the Caribbean, with roots in the Caribbean, with a culture we fabricated and we struggled for.”
Laird showed the clip as an example of the treasures in the digitized archive from Banyan Ltd.’s film productions, where he has been the managing director for the past 30 years.
The Caribbean Film and Video Archive is the largest in the world to document past and recent cultural, social, political and folk events in the Caribbean, Laird said.
The archive includes 400 television programs, 2,500 video files and over 1,000 hours of video from the first free, all-Caribbean television station, Gayelle.
Gayelle was created after “Western media couldn’t be convinced” to play Caribbean content by Caribbean people, he said.
Thanks to the programming of Gayelle, Caribbeans could finally relate to those they saw on TV, Laird said, and they rejoiced.
“It might be different for (Americans) to imagine what it’s like not having your image shown,” he said, leaving Caribbeans to “decode” the Western messages they saw prior to Gayelle.
“What happens when you have to dream other peoples’ dreams?” he said.
With Gayelle’s programming, Caribbeans could articulate their view of the world and no longer have to “rely on stories about us.”
Gayelle was so influential, viewers would be late to run errands or pick up their kids from school because they’d be so hooked on the stories that were, for once, about them, Laird said. “It was groundbreaking,” he said. “Made for the Caribbean eye.”
Pauline Baird, a Trinidadian doctoral student at BGSU, agreed with Laird, saying she remembers reading books called Caribbean Readers as a child with titles like, “Mr. Joe Builds A House. “
She couldn’t relate to a character who was clearly English or American and not Trinidadian like herself.
“Well, Mr. Joe doesn’t look like me and he didn’t build any house that looks like the one I grew up in,” she said.
As she grew up, she began to read books with messages that spoke to her as a Trinidadian and the difference was like night and day.
“It was so fascinating to see the dialect I spoke in books. Before that, it was always the queen’s English,” she said.
As she continues working on her dissertation, Baird plans on incorporating Jones’ quote and others from Trinidadian women, for whom she is committed to sharing their stories.
Her village is known for one particular story in which women blocked the train carrying the governor of British Guiana in 1862 in order to protest unfair taxes.
“I realized I am these women. Their blood runs through my veins,” she said.
Banyan’s archive, as well as Baird and like-minded students sharing their community’s stories, are an act of resistance to being erased by Western culture, Laird said.
Protecting the stories through the archive and students’ work allows their contributions to change the world.
“I know many of us have wondered what life would be like without African contact … there’d be no blues; no rock and roll; no carnivals; no Spike Lee,” Laird said, rapidly firing off cultural gems.
“Without these riches, we would be so poor. None of us would be who we are today.”