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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Racism’ Category

Hip Hooray for de Gracious Queen

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 5, 2012

Tibor Kalman, "Colors 4 (Race)"

Tibor Kalman, Black Queen Elizabeth. From Colors 4 (Race), 1993. ©M&Co.

Charles Roach

Charles Roach (photo: Colin O’Connor for the National Post)

With all the hoopla this week surrounding Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, it’s worth remembering that there are plenty of folks throughout her dominions who aren’t celebrating (or who, like Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, just aren’t happy being someone else’s “minion”).  In the Dominion of Canada, for example, veteran civil rights activist Charles Roach has long sought to alter that country’s Citizenship Oath, which requires new citizens to swear allegiance to the British monarch (who is technically the Canadian head of state).  Because of his refusal to take such a pledge, the Trini-born Roach, who has lived in Canada since 1955, remains a permanent resident rather than a citizen.  Although his legal challenges to the oath were rejected by a federal appeals court in 1994 and by the Ontario Superior Court in 2007, Roach, a member of the bar since 1963, is now once again arguing its constitutionality before the provincial court.

A story about this latest round in his fight (which he’s effectively conducting from his sickbed, battling cancer and stroke at the same time) appeared last Wednesday in the right-wing National Post—and immediately drew a handful of hair-raising comments from unreconstructed Monarchists and United Empire Loyalists suggesting that if they don’t like it in Canada, Roach and the rest of “these immigrants” ought to go back to the “hell holes” they came from.

In spite of its much-vaunted multiculturalism, Canada has a history of such bigotry, state-sponsored as well as petulant and personal (see “Domesticating the West Indies in Canada,” Part 1 and Part 2).  If immigrants insist on coming, some Canadians have felt, then it would be much more tolerable if they would just shut up and wave their flag (Union Jack, not Maple Leaf).

That sentiment, as I discovered when I was researching the history of Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) in Canada (see “Caresser in Canada,” “My Visit to Ottawa,” and “Canada So Cold“), extended to calypsonians, too.  Here’s a relevant excerpt from my essay “Calypso’s Cosmopolitan Strategy“:

Hip Hooray for Liz

Toronto Daily Star, 28 November 1953

…To begin with, Canadians had long delighted in noting what they regarded as West Indians’ touching loyalty to the British monarchy, especially as expressed in calypso.  A newsreel in the collection of Canada’s National Library shows Prince Edward being saluted by “calypso dancers” on his 1925 tour of the Caribbean.  In 1939, a Canadian Press newswire story in the Toronto Star remarked that six months on, the calypsonians then in residence at “Manhattan’s smartest night clubs” were still “singing sprightly ballads to rhumba-like rhythms about the [recent North American] visit of the King and Queen,” and it approvingly cited a sample stanza: “The charming, gracious, and smiling Queen, / Is the prettiest woman I have ever seen. / She was dress in an outfit of blue, / And wave to the crowd as the car drove through.”  (A similar notice in late 1953 marking Elizabeth’s first visit to the Caribbean jovially quoted from the calypso that greeted her arrival in Jamaica, “Hip Hooray for de Gracious Queen.”)

These dispatches were nothing, however, compared to the flood of coverage that accompanied Princess Margaret on her month-long circuit of the Caribbean in 1955—the “Calypso Tour,” as it came to be known throughout the English-speaking world.  All of Canada’s major newspapers featured front-page stories replete with lavish photo spreads and maps of Margaret’s itinerary, beginning in the run-up to her arrival and continuing well past her return.  “Trinidad’s Steel Bands Prepare for Princess,” shouted a headline in the Globe and Mail on January 31:  “Each band hopes to win approval and be chosen to play for the Princess.”  Indeed, claimed the Toronto Star, the “happy natives” of Trinidad, particularly its “colorfully garbed native dancers,” had been anxiously preparing for her visit for months.  Meanwhile, the Globe divulged, “Calypso writers have already produced a torrent of words extolling the virtues of the Royal visitor,” and one, the Mighty Panther (Vernon Roberts), had been chosen to “put his message across personally at a carnival in the grounds of Government House.”  (The paper reproduced the entire text of Panther’s laudatory lyrics in the next day’s edition.)

Calypso’s wartime displays of loyalty to Crown and Empire came in for special treatment.  A plummy profile of Caresser in the entertainment weekly Applause tried to establish his patriotic bona fides with the spurious claim that he had served in the army, entertaining the troops—British, American, or West Indian, it wasn’t clear.  “Many a soldier who blithely ignored the printed V.D. notices was sent scurrying to the medico by Caresser’s warbled warnings,” it grinned, “and the progress of the war was duly noted [by Caresser] in numbers such as ‘Hitler and the Rich Ukraine,’ [and] ‘Watch Out, Japan.’”[1]

"Subaltern" Mary Churchill

Globe and Mail, 21 August 1943

But it was a front-page, above-the-fold photo in the Globe and Mail in the summer of 1943 that truly spotlighted West Indians’ devotion to their martial Mother Country.  A teaser for a two-column story on the paper’s Women’s page, the picture illustrated a visit to Canada by servicewoman Mary Churchill (daughter of Winston), and featured a smiling, down-to-earth Churchill “[singing] calypso songs” amidst a group of dark-skinned Barbadian volunteers at the Auxiliary Territorial Services basic training camp in Kitchener, Ontario.  The photo-op with the West Indians, who accounted for precisely forty-seven of the camp’s 1000 trainees, was framed as the centerpiece of the story, which climaxed with the “girls” (including “Subaltern” [!] Churchill) in an impromptu performance of one of their “native” songs, clear evidence of their childlike trust in the Great White Mother:

There was a moment of shyness on the part of [the] girls from the British West Indies…when Miss Churchill appeared on the scene.  But when she sat on the grass, gathering them around her and chattering as naturally as if she knew each one, they were soon laughing hard and telling her all about themselves….

When Ptc. M. K. Evelyn from the Barbados sang a native calypso, Miss Churchill joined in the chorus heartily.  “It’s simply marvelous!” she said, clapping her hands.  “I wish we could have had a recording of it!”[2]

[1] Hughes, Betty. “We Meet the Lord….” “Chez Montreal” column.  Applause February 1947: 18.
[2] Tupper, Jan. “Keeping Pace With Father Easy, Says Mary Churchill.” Globe and Mail 21 August 1943: 10.  The story’s bad faith is compounded by the wartime files of the Immigration Branch at Library and Archives Canada, which are filled with hundreds of rejected applications by West Indian men who wished to come to Canada and train with the armed services.  “[T]he Royal Canadian Air Force hesitates to encourage [Applicant X] to make the long and expensive trip from Port of Spain, Trinidad, in view of the possibility that he may either fail to qualify for enlistment or that his enlistment cannot be effected as a result of the requirements being filled,” went a typically mealy-mouthed reply to a query on an aspiring serviceman’s behalf.  “If [X] should decide to come to Canada [to a Recruiting Centre], the journey must be made at his own expense with no assurance that he will be accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force…” (RG 76, File 471, Item 721432).

  • See also Gordon Rohlehr on “Calypso and the Ideology of Empire” (pp. 182-6) and “World War II and Its Aftermath” (esp. pp. 316-355) in Calypso & Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, as well as Ray Funk’s discussion of “reverential” royal-themed calypsos in his “In the Battle for Emergent Independence” in Anthurium 3.2 (2005).
  • Listen to Young Tiger’s “I Was There (at the Coronation)” and Beginner’s “Queen Elizabeth Calypso.”
  • An interview with Charles Roach aired on the the June 4th edition of the CBC’s Connect with Mark Kelley.  (Move the slider to 47:09.)

Posted in Canada, Charles Roach, Citizenship Oath, Immigration Policy, Library & Archives, Lord Caresser, Mary Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Racism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Domesticating the West Indies in Canada (Part 1)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 25, 2010

1998 reissue of "The Meeting Point"My Canada stint finished back in December, and much of the four months (ulp!) since then disappeared down the rabbit-hole of Life, which turns out to be one of the pitfalls of Blogging—not to mention other, more important work.  (Who knew?)   I somehow managed to get a bit of the latter done anyway, and sent an essay out for peer review just last week; more on that story as it develops. In the meantime:  part of what got jettisoned from the first draft of the piece—which reads Canada’s efforts to project a postwar “internationalist” identity through the lens of Lord Caresser’s presence there from 1946 till the end of his life—was a long-winded section on the history of trade relations between Canada and the West Indies.  (No, really:  this is the sort of stuff you need to bone up on if you want to figure out what sort of symbolic work calypso was doing in Canada!)  A post last week to the Caribbean culture blog Repeating Islands about the latest wrangling over a trade agreement between Canada and Caricom reminded me that that history isn’t over.  And believe it or not, one episode of the saga revolved around a strange sort of romance—a fitting context for the larger tale of a man with the moniker “Caresser” who styled himself the “King of Hearts” and regularly sang of his imaginary exploits as a cosmopolitan casanova.

Stay with me now: America’s recurring mid-century attraction to calypso is a long and complicated story.  But the short and simple version is: it was all about was sex.  And race.  Oh, let’s come right out and say it:  interracial sex.   As in, racist dread thereof and lurid fascination therewith.   Embracing fantasy-islanders, I’ve argued, was a roundabout way of keeping real live African-Americans at bay.  And keeping “the Negro” in his place (namely, out of the American body politic—and I use the masculine pronoun advisedly) meant, among other things, keeping him out of white women’s pants.

What I came to understand pretty early, though, as I began exploring calypso in Canada, was that its own anxieties over race and citizenship emerged, first of all, from a very different set of demographics.  For a century or so, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, Canada carefully engineered its immigration laws so as to keep the country white, and for the most part, it succeeded.  Second: the True North’s attitudes towards black folks grew out of a rather different relationship to the history of British Empire and Commonwealth.  More on that in a moment.

Domestics and Calypso

From an article in the Globe and Mail, 13 August 1956

Caribbean Domestics

West Indian domestic workers in Toronto celebrating their one-year anniversary with the Negro Citizenship Association, 1959

What I want to focus on for now is the fact that Canada’s jitters were also differently gendered: they fixated on regulating  and containing female, rather than male,  sexuality.  Actually, “domesticating” would be the better word.  For instance: between 1955 and 1966, largely in response to pressure from West Indian labor ministers and Canadian civil rights agitators (many of West Indian background) who were militating against the country’s restrictive immigration laws—oh, and to demand on the Canadian side for cheap household help—Ottawa imported roughly 2600 women from the Caribbean on what was known as the “West Indian Domestic Scheme.”  (Smaller-scale, more ad hoc schemes had taken place earlier in the century.  Several scholars have written about these programs; the details that follow come mainly from Frances Henry.)  Eligible women had to be single and under age thirty-five.  They were screened initially by the Ministries of Labor in their home colonies; put through what Henry describes as a “two-week indoctrination course”; subjected to medical, educational, and character tests—including extensive, often secret, gynecological exams upon arrival in Canada; and given final approval “by a team of Canadian immigration officials who visit[ed] the islands once a year specifically for this purpose.”  Many were actually skilled workers or educated professionals at home (some even had their own domestic servants) who joined the scheme in hopes of finding opportunities for economic or educational advancement once in Canada.  (Henry footnotes a popular calypso lampooning the exodus of overqualified women entitled “Civil Servants Becoming Domestic.”)  They had to pay their own passage, and they were contractually obliged to serve in affluent homes for a period of one year.  Afterwards, they were granted landed immigrant status and were free to seek other careers—though discrimination in the labor market meant they rarely found them.  They were also permitted to send for immediate family members and/or fiancés after the first year, “provided that they marry within thirty days after the men’s arrival” and prove the sincerity of their relationship to immigration authorities in advance with personal letters or other documents.  Women who became pregnant during the period of their contract would be sent home.

Whew.  So not only did Canada restrict these women’s entry fairly severely—100 per year at first, double that a year later, 500 per year by the time the scheme ended—it also subjected their sexuality to a fairly obsessive regime of of policing.  (Not to mention confine the women to the sorts of menial work to which many Canadians imagined West Indians were naturally suited.)   Easier, surely, to go a more traditional, which is to say, connubial, route.  And symbolically speaking, at least, that’s precisely the path laid out in a different sort of domestic arrangement that Canada kept proposing over the years.

But it wasn’t what you think.  And it wasn’t exactly proposed in earnest.  Details in Part 2.

(Above left: women participating in the West Indian Domestic Scheme are the protagonists of novelist Austin Clarke‘s “Toronto Trilogy,” which opens with 1968’s The Meeting Point.   Below: the Canadian National Steamship company’s famous “Lady Boats” began plying the waters between Canada and the West Indies in the 1920s.  By the late 30s, and especially after World War II, airlines, hotels, colonial tourist boards, and other cruise ship companies increasingly aimed their advertising at the Canadian middle classes.  Those tropical journeys no doubt confirmed Canadian preconceptions that West Indians were born to serve.  In touristic settings, the servants included calypsonians, though this naturally involved a gender-role reversal vis-à-vis the scheme above.  A 1949 ad for Jamaica’s Tower Isle Hotel that ran in Canadian newspapers actually used a generic image of the guitar-strumming troubador in its pitch, which read: “Jamaica: Calypsos Calling!  There’s excitement in the throbbing pulse of Jamaica’s calypso singers.”  The indolent woman below is feeling it…)

Serving up some calypso

Upright calypsonians (well, Mento singers--but no one was very particular about the distinction) ministering to the needs of a supine tourist. From a story on the Globe and Mail's travel page, 13 November 1954.)

Posted in Canada, Immigration Policy, Racism, Tourism | 4 Comments »

“Canada So Cold”

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 12, 2009

After a mild fall in southwestern Ontario—all across the Great Lakes, really—we’ve finally had our first cold snap:  daily highs in the ‘teens, with wind chills well below that.  (It sounds, and somehow feels, even worse in Celsius.)  I grew up in Michigan, spent my college years in da U.P., and did a decade-long grad school stint in Minneapolis, where hibernal hijinks often included winter camping in single-digit weather.  So I’m no wimp.  Or so I thought.  But as my wife put it: after fourteen years in California, even coastal northern California (think Mark Twain’s apocryphal quip about San Francisco), we’ve lost our winter chops.  As I walked the mile home from my son’s elementary school yesterday morning, a relentless, dessicating, armor-piercing wind that had somehow arrived direct from northern Alberta, skipping over Manitoba and the rest of Ontario, drilled through my forehead and kept going straight on down to my thermal core, which it kept in its glacial grip all day and night, no matter how much I cranked the heat or how many hot liquids I downed.  And it’s technically not even winter yet.

Lord Melody, "Melody's Top Ten"So this is why I can’t get the great Lord Melody‘s “Canada So Cold” out of my head.  I’ve written before about how Melody razzed Caresser for hiding away in Montreal, but in March 1958 he came up north to check things out for himself.  (I have it in my head that after signing with the American-based Cook Records and seeing his “Mama Look a Boo-Boo” covered by Harry Belafonte, he’d also made a short tour of the U.S., in an unsuccessful attempt to capitalize on the Calypso Craze.  But I may be making that up.)

Though the dating of Lord Melody Sings Calypso (the album on which “Canada” appears) is ambiguous, the tune surely comes from that 1958 visit.  Regardless, Melody’s sentiments ring true:

Between Canada and de North Pole
Ah wonder which more cold?
Canada and de North Pole,
Ah wonder which more cold?
Ah nearly dead in Canada
The intention was to hold it further
But after freezing from head to toe
I write mih mother and she told me, No
Oh lawd!

Canada had me so cold, I need some sunshine
I’m going back to the land I left behind
Ah regret the day ah pay mih dollar
And say ah was going to Canada
Is cold, cold, cold, oh mih lawd!
So ah walk back to Trinidad.

(Read the full lyrics courtesy of Guanaguanare, hear a sound sample and buy the disc at Smithsonian Folkways, or stream the track at Yahoo Music.)

“Canada has never been culturally attractive to would-be Caribbean emigrants,” says David Trotman, illustrating his claim with a nod to Melody’s calypso, “and Canadian cultural life never fired their imagination or elicited imitation.  Too cold, too clean, too policed, too white…” (187).  “A search through the literature of [Canada’s] ‘visible minorities,’” adds Himani Bannerji, “reveals a terror of incarceration in the Canadian landscape.  In their Canada there is always winter and an equally cold and deathly cultural topography” (110).  True enough, perhaps.  Still, for decades, West Indians were kept out of Canada on precisely the pretext (among others) that they were ill-suited to northern climes.  And Melody, for his part, isn’t conceding that racist canard.  Rather, as Trotman implies, he’s lampooning Canadian cultural frigidity (excepting Montreal, which is “just like Paradise,” and French-Canadian women, who will at least “let yuh try”) and calling out what Eva Mackey calls a “national identity perceived as innocent of racism” (25).

But he’s also being literal.  Is cold, cold, cold, oh mih lawd!  That’s just telling it like it is.



David V. Trotman, “Transforming Caribbean and Canadian Identity: Contesting Claims for Toronto’s Caribana.”  Atlantic Studies 2:2 (2005).  177-198.
Himani Bannerji, The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism, and Gender.  Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2000.
Eva Mackey, The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada.  Pprbk ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002 [London: Routledge, 1999].

Posted in Calypso, Immigration Policy, Lord Melody, Racism | 1 Comment »

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