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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Interview with a Native Anthropologist

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in Belair, Carriacou. The wind is blowing softly though the trees that line Heritage Park- the main venue for the annual Big Drum festival. Because it’s a steady wind, we slip a foam sock over the microphone. Our interviewee speaks slowly, naturally giving weight to certain words in unbroken rhythm. “It is in the sound of the drum that you can feel the common vein within all the world’s religions… it is the voice of God.”

Mr. Fleary is a local oral historian. “When I was growing up,” he said, “I learned these things from older people- people who were 80, 90 years old. The oldest, I believe, was born in the 1880s, and they learned these things from people who were then 80, 90 years old themselves. So some of those people were former slaves! And so you have this continuity; generation after generation, my family’s story has been preserved.”

The recounting of oral history is a lost art of the ancients that probably suffered greatly from the invention of writing. Think of the epic tales of Homer, for instance. Before they were written down, performers delivered thousands of lines of this poetry from memory. Such mnemonic powers seem superhuman in a world of Wikipedia and iPhone apps. It took me two, agonizing weeks to memorize the Gettysburg Address in High School, a famously terse rite of passage that no longer seems relevant to a society glued to computers.

And yet, Mr. Fleary was full of verse, peppering his conversation with poems, quotes, and sayings from all over the world. Caribbean, English, and American poets all flowed, unabridged from his lips- including, at one point, the lyrics of “If I had a Hammer” by Pete Seeger (a once frequent visitor to Carriacou). He spoke of slavery, the history of Carriacou, and the importance of his beloved Big Drum Nation. He knew the specific areas of Benin and Guinea his ancestors had come from. There was even a story of being drugged and sold into slavery, waking up in the unforgiving bowels of a ship sailing towards the Caribbean.

There was a connection between Mr. Fleary and I that I hadn’t anticipated. I wasn’t sure how he would feel about this white Peace Corps Volunteer/anthropologist videotaping him, but there was clearly an understanding between us- an appreciation for the things he was saying and the thing I was doing. This man was keenly interested in preserving his culture, declaring (to my relief) that, “the future lies with the anthropologists, and the oral historians, and those who truly understand people.” For six days, a number of other PCVs and I helped an NGO on Carriacou called PIA, doing all types of work. But it was this interview that stands out the most for me. Mr. Fleary is at the crux of his culture- a custodian of an important history that faces extinction with a young, apathetic population.

After the interview, we checked the video to see how it turned out. No one thought to change the tape. The next day the camera was used to film an annual boat regatta, and my entire interview with Mr. Fleary was overwritten. As upset as I am, I think it was a sign: Stephanie and I need to go back to do another, more extensive interview with this new friend of mine- the native anthropologist.