Liberal Americans are outraged bordering on hysteric at how Donald Trump flouted the rules of presidential debate last week. “The worst thing I’ve ever seen,” is now a meme.
Cartoon by Dana Summers
For me it was just boring, and I drifted off in less than fifteen minutes. After all, it’s just meant to be entertainment, a circus to distract people from their powerlessness.
Those debates started back in 1960, five years before black people were allowed to vote. And ever since the 1965 Voting Rights Act there's been a continuous pushback to reduce the number of black voters, through a wide range of laws and practices, poll taxes, literacy requirements, disenfranchisement of felons. As recently as 2013 the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder cleared the way for states to make voting as difficult as possible for minorities by declaring sections of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
Seen in that light, I can’t think of any US politician who could have gone head to head with Trump in that cussout. Joe Biden was too slow, but not even the quick-witted Barack Obama could have coped, not even another Republican. As traditional politicians they are all too invested in the Marquess of Queensbery rules of decorum for a street corner brawl that might raise questions about the true nature of American "democracy".
I know it’s easy to know what should have been done after the fact, but I don’t imagine any good Trini politician falling for Trump’s low dodge-tactics of interrupting and insults. Basdeo Panday, for instance, would have given us a debate as entertaining as the best extempo or freestyle competitions. The old Silver Fox is fluent in many registers, from the highly formal to repartee and insult. It’s our kaiso tradition of picong, which can trip so lightly off his tongue.
Not so their American counterparts, who never deigned to draw on all the rich traditions of African-American verbal combat. Obama drew on the tradition of the gospel preacher, like MLK and Cornel West, who is an Old Testament prophet if there ever was. That is full of gravitas reserved for serious matters. Yet there is another lighter, more combative tradition, which they all know but dare not add to the arsenal. Think of the classics produced by Muhammad Ali:
Before the epic Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will but I know he won’t.”
And: “I’ve wrestled with alligators/I’ve tussled with a whale/I done handcuffed lightening/and throw thunder in jail/You know I’m bad, just last week I murdered a rock/Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick/I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
By Ian Casselberry, whose work can be found at Awful Announcing.
That’s like the best robber-talk, which you also get in the blues. Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” is likewise unforgettable: “I got a black cat bone/I got a mojo too/I got the John the Conqueror root/I'm gonna mess with you.”
That is the picong tradition, which people dare not bring to a presidential debate because it might just show up the whole event as a charade.
Those insulting word games fed into our extempo art form and American freestyle rap. Winston Peters, better known as Gypsy, recalled his boyhood in Mayaro: “We used to call it rhyming. When I was in school… it used to be people rhyming against one another... And I was the boss in it, basically rhyming insults. People’s mother used to be involved in it. And yes, we rhymed on each other, very insultive as little children.”
That’s identical to “the dozens”, a word game played in black American communities, where kids and young adults trade insults, sometimes in rhyme, similar to word games played in West Africa (minus the references to “yo mama”).
Remove the rhyme and we get the real thing: trash-talk. Again, Ali’s gift for it allowed him to intimidate opponents even before they entered the ring: “If You Even Dream About Beating Me, You Better Wake Up and Apologize!”
NBA player Kevin Garnett described another player whose trash-talk was at its highest level:
“I saw Gary Payton control his coach, my coach, the crowd, the lady in the front who’s on the side of the Minnesota games… he was controlling the whole game. I watched GP back down the guard from baseline to baseline, talking the whole time: “Shut your ass up.” “Forward twist.” “Ay, get his ass here.” “Ay, come up.” “Ay, you see the hand on the hip, call it if you see.” Man, how you managing all this? He talking to me, he calling the play, he throwing the ball, like yow, and still scoring the ball, stealing the ball, effective, in a huddle he got the thing.”
Gary Payton trash-talking on court.
That loquacity is part of a very traditional assertive black masculinity. “I lawa (le roi = the king),” was the supreme boast of a Trinidadian stickfighter: “with stick, with fight, with woman, with dance, with song, with drum, with everything.”
Interestingly the word “lyrics” here refers to the eloquent and seductive lines a man gives to a woman, which is closer to the original meaning (as in lyric poetry), rather than the common usage of lyrics to mean the words that accompany music.
The tradition contrasts with that of Europe, especially Northern Protestants, whose masculine ideal is strong, silent and can’t dance: Clint Eastwood. To them the talkative man, the Eddie Murphy or Danny Divito, is comical or gay.
But the African oral culture brought to the New World prizes eloquence in a man. Possession of the Word gave him social and individual power.
A trash-talking presidential candidate would have taken the fight to Donald Trump, and announced to his entire collapsing, racist society what Muhammad Ali said in 1971, after he returned from prison to challenge Joe Frazier:
“I represent the truth. The world is full of oppressed people, poverty people. They for me. They not for the system. All your black militants...all your hippies, all your draft resisters, they want me to be the victor.”
Then, maybe, just maybe, the circus might become serious.