Colin Robinson is a leading activist in Caribbean LGBTI organizing. He lives between Trinidad and Tobago and the United States and continues to serve as the director of imagination for CAISO: Sex and Gender Justice, a civil society organization committed to the inclusion of sexual diversity in social policy and public life in Trinidad and Tobago. In 2016, his debut poetry collection, You Have You Father Hard Head was published by Peepal Tree Press. This interview took place over the course of several e-mails in August 2019.
Amílcar Sanatan: Thank you, Colin, for the opportunity to engage your thoughts and experiences as an activist and poet. Throughout the years, there is fluidity in your political and creative work between the Caribbean diaspora and your homeland, Trinidad and Tobago. Activisms across geographies, even in the interest of a single community of people, have interesting synergies, contradictions, and tensions. Tell me about your start in social movement organizing.
Colin Robinson: My LGBTI organizing began when I was an undergraduate student in New York City in the early 1980s, at the confluence of perhaps four crosscurrents of movement activism. My politics were shaped in part by social analysis I was learning from white instructors in the university classroom, but more by the search for community and belonging.
The 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights had stoked organizing at the intersections of race/ethnicity and sexuality by LGBTI people of color in US cities. Much of this work overlapped with a growing feminist women of color movement. Some of the first people I followed were black lesbian feminist organizers. Away from blood relations, queer movement was not only a place for political engagement; it was also a space for building family and community. Activism was often a practice of friendship, sometimes sexual.
By the mid-eighties, the HIV epidemic was transforming LGBTI life and public sexual consciousness, and gay men of color began specific forms of organizing. I cut my leadership teeth in a few of these forms, notably in a community of black gay male writers called Other Countries (that produced a peer writing workshop, print publications, and a public reading program) whose founder’s vision was that as black gay men our words were doing the work of “creating ourselves.”
Moving in Caribbean communities in New York in the Reagan/Bush era, during the rise and demise of the Grenada Revolution, violence against Marxist governments in Latin America and southern Africa, and the struggle against apartheid also gave me a political grounding. I was often a lone queer voice in these spaces, though I was a co-organizer of an LGBTI Art Against Apartheid event that featured Essex Hemphill and Audre Lorde.
And while much of my work in queer spaces was intersectional, in them my Caribbean identity still functioned more as a cultural than a political one. I moved as a “black gay man” of Caribbean heritage. By 1984 my student visa had expired, with my degree unfinished, and I decided against returning home to a dead-end job and a small horizon. For a decade and a half, before social media or even highspeed internet, I remained unable to visit T&T, cut off in many ways from it as a material grounding. But far from invisibility as an undocumented immigrant, my involvement in US LGBTI and HIV activism became more public.
By the second half of the nineties, that began to change. Not only did I regularize my immigration status, I started making annual carnival hajj and meeting the burgeoning queer movement groups in the region. By 1998, my organizing base in New York began to shift to Caribbean queer community—Caribbean Pride formed, after a meeting with Trinidadian playwright and LGBTI activist living with HIV Godfrey Sealy around my Brooklyn dining room table. My politics shifted to concerns about the erasure of immigrants from black queer organizational politics, despite a majority of black New Yorkers being foreign-born or the offspring of foreign-born people, and a critique of the US colonialist engagement (including African Americans’) with the queer Caribbean, which was imagined as a place where machete-wielding homophobic mobs were waiting at the end of the tourists’ jetway, while LGBTI natives with no agency cowered under rocks voiceless, waiting to be rescued.
AS: Describe the nature of your political organizing and the implications of what some may understand as movement building in the global North and the global South.
CR: I began to insist on Caribbean voice, agency, and self-determination; to question a queer Caribbean politics of internationalism and human rights as opposed to domestic political engagement, and of rights demands over strategic work of alliance-building and inclusion; and to relentlessly critique the lack of imagination about liberation that I concluded underlay this.
Though I’ve maintained a legal and economic transnationality throughout, my “return” to the Caribbean in the late 2000s was in part the product of a deep sense of betrayal over ethnic conflict with the African American board of my nonprofit employer and a sense of organizing failure as a young management leader.
Over the past decade, as I’ve found myself rooted in the Caribbean in a different way, I use the term movement often but always with some sense of impostorship. LGBTI activism in the region is sadly not terribly connected to grounded visions and practice of social change. It’s unfortunately nonprofitized, discursive, and has a fetish with the Privy Council over political work. My own organizing has had an easy landing in relationship to the feminists I started from, people I’ve noted were advocating for Caribbean gay men’s dignity before we gay men ourselves were. LGBTI oppression and freedom in the Caribbean are even more firmly rooted in patriarchal gender systems, and engaging with feminist transformation has got to be a key to LGBTI liberation. My same concerns about imagination and colonialism persist, but now the latter struggle is with Caribbean people themselves and how we houseniggah for the international LGBTI movement.
AS: Despite ongoing indignities and exclusions against LGBTI Caribbean peoples, you articulate a “sense of place” that roots your activism and consciousness in everyday life. I have found myself at odds with scholars, activists, and artists who are quick to disavow nationalism and national commitments. What are your thoughts on this type of commitment?
CR: The idea of nationalism and nation building motivates my organizing—the notion of a postcolonial, feminist nationalism, one that is generative, not Old World and patriarchal—a visionary idea of being part of creating a nation that all can share. The excitement of creating a nation the same way Other Countries was creating black gay consciousness and community, through loving work in a small and shared space.
AS: Our paths have crossed less in poetry and more in feminist activism for more than a decade. As an ally of the women’s rights and feminist movements, please discuss male participation in gender justice work in the Caribbean. Why do so few men engage in gender justice advocacy? How do men confront their privilege as allies?
CR: I don’t see myself as an ally; I see myself as a part, a partner in a gender justice movement, working on women’s issues with women who work on mine. Perhaps because we gatekeep men’s socialized thrust to drive and prioritize, men don’t experience these movement spaces as shared and rewarding, and fewer of us engage. Overall in the Caribbean, we have problems confronting privilege and cultivating empathy; perhaps the solution is not gender specific. We men engage in gender advocacy all the time—for ourselves. The lack of confidence that we can engage in joint advocacy that yields justice is the problem.
AS: While we worked together in activist circles, I remember my first interaction with you was listening to your poetry reading at Campus Literature Week 2009 at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. You write poetry, but you also perform spoken word. In your weekly newspaper column, you have used the platform for literary criticism and contemplate on the arts as much as you do for current political issues. What is the relationship between activism and poetry? More so, why must some poems be read aloud as a public performance?
CR: Interestingly, I have never seen my work within the local spoken-word tradition. Our history in Other Countries, where I first began to produce poetry, was to take the work into gay bars and dance clubs and community spaces, to where people were, and to create ensemble performances with it. So I’ve always seen not just the orality but the kinesis of the word as a key element of it. There are all kinds of poems across multiple sensory dimensions. So it’s just normal that some are more visual page poems, and others are more aural and kinetic work.
I worry that the activism and poetry question is a formula. I’m not sure I want to take it seriously. The whole point of writing (not specifically poetry) is to shift consciousness. Both drama and poetry allow for a different kind of performative engagement than prose lends itself to in doing change work.
AS: You published your first collection of poetry, You Have You Father Hard Head, in 2016, which dug underneath the discourses of Afro-Caribbean manhood, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, mother-son relationships, and citizenship. Some of the poems in the collection confront your feelings of loss and love in light of the deaths of gay men to HIV/AIDS. Could you say more about this impact on your life and writing?
CR: The HIV section of the book is its smallest, with just six of its fifty-six poems, including its shortest. Other Countries was a place where, in one sense, HIV was all we wrote about, as I answered the education director of Studio Museum in Harlem who was tentatively inquiring whether we had enough material to create the institution’s first “Day without Art” response to World AIDS Day in 1988. HIV so suffused our lives it left no part of them untouched. Much of my earliest work came out of that crucible. But that’s also most of the work that was left on the cutting room floor of a volume spanning thirty years. The HIV poems included are wistful, playful; two of them comic.
As for the impact of HIV on my life, half my generation is dead. Outside the HIV section, “Writing Is an Arsenal” reflects on the impossibility of mourning such a torrent of loss and how it turns into cancer, and “Bereft” on how those who are mourning find disappointment impossible to forgive. So the poems confront less death than living with HIV.
AS: In the poem “Sums,” you write,
My father manhood straightstraightstraight
not like my own
like he was rushing through he times tables
two wife three children
one dead one throw way
introducing theyself just so
whether is J’Ouvertmorning
or over the man dead coffin
I use this poem specifically as reading material in my classroom and workshops on Caribbean masculinities. You go beneath a simplistic narrative of male dominance and deliver the qualities of complexity and feeling. Are the poems part of a wider political vision to transform understandings of masculinities and patriarchy?
CR: “Sums” is one of fifteen poems in the final section of the book that I see as unpacking my Caribbean experiences of sonhood by telling small stories. They’re about the carelessness of masculinity, childhood desire and fantasy for it, stigma and shame around its performance, violence and rage between women and men, black masculine self-hate and the pride in a big dick, men fathering, how women punish their sons for being their fathers, children’s helplessness, abortion and family suicide, ageing parents, making family and family struggles. These are the textures of Caribbean sons’ daily lives in the families we have, our complex feelings and experiences with our siblings, grandparents, parents, and of ourselves as parents and sons and uncles and godfathers—sometimes noble, often base. It’s more a reckoning with the messiness of family than simply patriarchy. I’m just interested in telling more nuanced stories about Caribbean sons.
I forgot I’d wanted to also tell the story of “Sums.” I grew up thoroughly Afro-Saxon middle-class aspiring, rhythmless, and at a distance from jamette culture. I was the whining nerdy child stravaging behind my grandmother at jouvay. I became a writer as a black gay man in the US, writing in Standard English. “Sums” is my one poem written entirely in a Creole voice. I wrote it in the first Callaloo Caribbean writing workshop in 2014, a globalization of the workshop Charles Rowell’s signature black literary magazine has held in the US, through partnerships with UWI Cave Hill (and also Oxford University). The poetry instructor was Greg Pardlo (pre-Pulitzer Prize).
One of the students, Heather Thompson, brought in a poem written, as I recall, in a Bahamian child’s Creole voice. Pardlo asked her to explain her choice, why the girl’s voice was in Creole. “Because it is!!” I remember thinking with a sort of outrage, going home and changing the poem I’d started for our next assignment to a Creole voice.
AS: But I think of you as a J’ouvert man. I recall a Facebook profile picture of you wining through Port-of-Spain dressed in a diaper and your participation in the Bocas Lit Fest ole mas’ competitions.
CR: Maybe some epigenetic memory gets triggered when people leave the Caribbean and find their Caribbeanness. How mas’ for the freshwater when you finally come back home is a hajj, and you find this profound spirituality in it. Although I did have enough sense of myself as a masquerader the one time I played mas’ before leaving for the US, in Peter Minshall’s Danse Macabre, that I was confident in rejecting the whiteness of his instructions to our section as we prepared to cross the stage, about how to wine the mas’, thinking, “No, no, no; you done sell me dis mas’. I inhabit it now.” I am grateful that at least I am part of the generation for which mas’ is about playing something and not yourself.
AS: Your poetry tells stories of travel but also the difficulty in sustaining relationships and lovers. To some, your transnationality may appear to be a kind of splattering of political and social activity. This neither wholly nor sufficiently describes your organizing history; however, you have experienced a series of interrupted academic studies, the publication of a debut collection of poetry in your fifties and a journey with cancer you prophesied in “Writing Is an Arsenal.” What role does poetry take in your life now, if there is one?
CR: I’m not sure the role of poetry—or writing in general—changes. Like mas’, like activism, it remains a site, a tool for testimony, for narcissism, for license, for pleasure, for adventure, for remediation, for risk. And more than the other two, for treachery.
Amílcar Sanatan is an artist, academic, and activist. He is a PhD candidate in cultural studies at the University of West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. Sanatan serves as the Trinidad and Tobago representative for the Commonwealth Students Association and coordinator of the UWI Socialist Student Conference.