[Blackstudies-l] The House on Coco Road: A New View of Grenada’s Revolution

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Fri Jul 28 10:10:06 EDT 2017

lisaparavisini posted: " A review by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro for the New York
Review of Books. In May 1801, Thomas Jefferson sent the Marines to Tripoli
and Tunis to battle “Barbary pirates” who were menacing American merchants
off the coast of North Africa, thereby launching th"
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New post on *Repeating Islands*
<http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/> The House on Coco
Road: A New View of Grenada’s Revolution
lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>

[image: grenada-invasion.jpg]

A review by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro for the *New York Review of Books*.

In May 1801, Thomas Jefferson sent the Marines to Tripoli and Tunis to
battle “Barbary pirates” who were menacing American merchants off the coast
of North Africa, thereby launching the young United States’ first overseas
military venture. Over the two centuries since, the list of foreign
countries invaded by US forces has grown to include some 70 nations (not
including the “first nations” on what became US territory itself). Some of
these have become metonyms for their eras—Vietnam, Iraq. Most, though,
dwell in Americans’ minds only as flickering features of news cycles from
the past. One such is the small Caribbean nation of Grenada: an island that
few Americans knew about before October 1983, when TV screens filled, for
some days that fall, with images of paratroopers dropping between tropical

Grenada is located at the base of the Windward Antilles, about one hundred
miles off the coast of Venezuela, and is famed for its nutmeg. When Ronald
Reagan ordered the 82nd Airborne there, he said the choppers bellowing over
its beaches had come to safeguard several hundred American medical students
from the civil unrest that had gripped the island after the apparent
implosion, a few days before, of its government. Before 1983, Grenada was
best known to West Indians for producing, along with its famous spice, the
great calypso singer Mighty Sparrow. Afterward, it was known for the
traumas left by this sad episode of the cold war whose legacy, for our
current political era, is the subject of a welcome new documentary film, *The
House on Coco Road*, directed by Damani Baker.

Reagan’s invasion, of course, had more to do with geopolitics than med
students. Grenada had until that month been led by a charismatic and
capable socialist, Maurice Bishop, whose admiration for Castro’s Cuba—and
his acceptance of Cuba’s help to build a new airport for his
island—bothered the US government. Reagan claimed that Bishop’s new
airport—a project also backed by countries like Britain and Canada, and
whose completion would enable jets carrying needed cargo and tourists to
land there—was in fact meant to turn this tranquil island into “a
Cuban-Soviet colony” and “a major military bastion to export terror and
undermine democracy.” US soldiers had rehearsed the invasion for months on
the US-Navy-held island of Vieques. Their actual landing there was quickly
and roundly condemned at the UN as illegal, but Reagan was determined to
maintain the Caribbean basin as an “American lake.” Sabotaging Grenada’s
experiment at socialism, which had begun when Bishop’s party seized power
in 1979, was an example he needed to make.

Invading Grenada worked out pretty well for the Gipper: Reagan won
reelection in a landslide a year later, and would eventually see himself
charitably recalled as a victor of the Cold War itself. But in the
Caribbean, the one-sided battle in which US bombs killed dozens of
innocents, and buried a political experiment that had inspired people
across the region, is remembered rather differently.

In his film, Baker examines Grenada’s revolution through a highly personal
perspective. Baker’s mother, Fannie Haughton, was an activist and educator
in California who came of political age in the late 1960s amid the heady
rise of the Black Panthers and the birth of university programs in Black
Studies. She was a close confidante and comrade of Angela Davis, who also
became, by the early 1980s, a mother concerned about rising crime in
Oakland. After a trip to Grenada, Haughton impulsively decided to move her
young family from the Bay Area to Bishop’s island. When they landed there
her son Damani was ten years old. Thirty-four years later, Baker has made
an absorbing film that’s framed as a record of his quest to understand, as
an adult, what happened in Grenada—both in the life of his family and in
the broader light of history.
A clip from *The House on Coco Road*, 2016

Baker builds his story with grainy home movies of island life, and
interviews with his mother and her friends (including Maurice Bishop’s
winning mum). Their stories are supplemented by archival and news footage,
and by Baker’s own narration as he visits sites in Grenada where Bishop’s
New Jewel Party thrived. In 1983 Reagan’s bombs arrived to kill, among
others, twenty-one patients in a nearby mental hospital. Baker and his
sister took shelter under a bed for three days, until his mom got them off
the island on a military plane that Reagan had sent to rescue those
benighted med students in flip-flops.

This is the film’s climax. But to explain it, *The House on Coco Road*—which
takes its title from Baker’s mother’s childhood home in Louisiana—reaches
into the past. Baker recounts how his mother’s parents, seeking a safe
place in which to raise black kids, fled southern racism for California in
the 1950s. His ambition is to connect what happened in Grenada to the saga
of African-American struggles for freedom reaching back to the toil of his
sharecropper forebears in Dixie and forward to the Black Lives Matter
movement today. This expansive approach has its hazards, and makes his film
as much a personal tribute to the women who raised him as a historical
narrative. But Baker’s intimate approach certainly lends human force to his
rendering of Grenada’s revolution and its catastrophic end.

We see Ronald Reagan building a rhetorical case against the island and then
proclaiming, after invading, “We got there just in time.” His words are
jarring alongside footage of nothing more threatening than smiling people
in the sun, a “popular education brigade” teaching peasants to read, and
black women hailing Bishop’s declaration that henceforth in Grenada “equal
pay for equal work” would be law. Reagan’s mien is also strikingly
juxtaposed with that of an afro-ed Angela Davis, who is shown smiling in
gap-toothed exultation as she visits Grenada in 1982. But among all of
Baker’s revelatory footage, it is perhaps that of the Grenada revolution’s
leader that most impresses.

Tall and striking, with an excellent beard, Bishop was an eloquent
barrister who favored guayabera shirts and exuded the confidence of his
London education. With his patient smile and light-brown skin, he was Fidel
Castro with humility and Bob Marley without dreadlocks, as loved by
Grenada’s peasants as by the academics and activists who crowded to his
speeches in New York. His New Jewel movement (its name was an acronym: the
New Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation) was born in
1974. Its aim was to fight the corrupted regime of the man who’d become the
island’s first president, after the longtime British colony won its

Eric Gairy was a petty despot who quashed dissent with a secret-police
force whose slain victims included Maurice Bishop’s father. The younger
Bishop’s party was at first forcibly repressed by Gairy’s police, then
defeated at the ballot box in a dubious election, before its members took
more drastic steps. One morning in 1979, while Gairy was away at the UN,
Grenadans awoke to a smooth low voice on their radios: “Brothers and
Sisters, this is Maurice Bishop.” That dawn, a few dozen New Jewel men had
peacefully seized control of the island’s army barracks and its main radio
station. “The dictator Gairy is gone,” Bishop intoned. “This revolution is
for work, for food, for decent housing and health.”

And that—food, housing, health—is what his revolution fought for. A drowsy
old sugar island whose slaves’ descendants were now mostly farmers and
fisher-folk became vibrant with people crowding revolutionary rallies to
dance and chant slogans that sounded like reggae songs and were affixed to
brightly colored signs around the island: “Forward Ever, Backward Never”;
“It takes a revolution, to make a solution”; “Not a second, without the
people.” Their language may have been perfectly suited for V.S. Naipaul to
ridicule, in an incisive but typically ungenerous appraisal
<https://harpers.org/archive/1984/03/an-island-betrayed/> of the “revo’s”
shtick. But its aims meant rather more to the legion admirers of his
movement, from the West Indies and beyond, who came to celebrate and
support it. An early review of Baker’s film, recently quoted by Ava
DuVernay (whose distribution company, Array Now, picked up Baker’s film) on
Twitter, described Grenada in this period as “a functioning paradise for
and by black people <https://twitter.com/ava/status/879742531960848384>.”
One of those black people was Damani Baker’s mother. And her personal
backstory, which we learn as the film progresses, becomes important to how
she—and her son’s film—narrates the Grenada revolution’s end.

The basic facts of what happened in Grenada, in the fateful weeks before
the US invasion, are clear enough. That fall, the party’s central committee
was struggling under the weight of all the projects their revolution had
taken on, and debating how best to tackle them. Some of its members
proposed that responsibility for the party’s leadership be split between
Bishop and his erstwhile deputy, Bernard Coard. Bishop at first agreed. But
then he went on a long-planned trip to Eastern Europe and, upon returning,
informed his comrades that he no longer felt that power-sharing was in
their revolution’s interest. They replied, with the help of the party’s
security forces, by placing him under house arrest and announcing that
Bernard Coard was now in charge.

Coard, though a devoted party man, was as uncharismatic as Bishop was
loved; his wife, Phyllis Coard, although a prominent New Jewel minister,
was also unpopular (perhaps mostly because she was Jamaican). A rumor
spread that the Coards were planning to kill Bishop. Thousands took to the
streets. Hundreds marched on Bishop’s house and succeeded in springing him
loose, and bringing him to the island’s old colonial fort that overlooked
St. George’s Bay. But soon soldiers arrived—the army had deposed Coard and
declared itself in charge. Someone gave an order, or didn’t. Either way,
Bishop and eight loyal colleagues were lined up against a wall and shot by
men who until a few days before had been under his command. Their bodies
were never found.

This chaotic, violent finale has always been somewhat mysterious. In
Grenada and on nearby islands, pedants and scholars have long been occupied
with arguing over and apportioning blame for what happened. (These debates
also occupied a more purely expository documentary about Grenada’s New
Jewel years by the Trinidadian filmmaker Bruce Paddington, called *Forward
Ever*: *The Killing of a Revolution*.) Baker, for his part, doesn’t get
into these arguments. To him, the basic reason for what happened is clear.
And it’s to be found not in Grenada but in 1969 in Los Angeles, where
Angela Davis was fired by then-governor Reagan because of her membership in
the Communist Party.

UCLA was also roiled that year by the killing on campus of two young
members of the Black Panther Party by rival activists. It later emerged
that these murders, which threw the Panthers’ local chapters into turmoil,
were at least partly precipitated by COINTELPRO—the FBI’s illegal program
to infiltrate and destabilize subversive groups. Agents had fostered
conflict between the Panthers and their rivals by sending fake letters
between them. And Baker, when it comes time to explain Grenada’s tragedy,
essentially points to this example. He spent happy months as a boy playing
in the yards of both Bishop and the Coards; he’d known both as fast friends
of his mother. “Why,” he asks, “were two friends who’d built the revolution
together now fighting?” He answers that question with a definition:
“‘Destabilization’: to cause a government to be incapable of function. Done
successfully, it can happen without a trace.”

The moment reveals how Baker’s intimacy with his story may hinder its
recounting. He’s the son of a woman for whom the word “Grenada” means,
above all, “a loss of friends, and the loss of a utopia.” As she reads a
fond letter sent to her from Phyllis Coard in prison (both of the Coards,
along with sixteen other people, were convicted of Bishop’s killing), it
seems the possibility of actual discord between her friends is unthinkable.
One understands this, emotionally—and knows, too, that Fannie Haughton is a
woman with deep knowledge of the US government’s capacity for harming those
it deems threats. It’s also no doubt true that the US executed an avid
propaganda campaign against Bishop’s government, in the Caribbean and
beyond, and that US agents sought and likely found other ways to unsettle
its leadership. But neither of those truths mean that Grenada’s revolution
wasn’t also beset by genuine internal tensions.

Naipaul had a point when he wrote that “the Revolution was a revolution of
words”: painting slogans for “the people” is much easier than actually
running their economy—especially when you’ve nationalized important
industries like the nutmeg trade, as Bishop’s government did, with a plan
for growth comprised largely of “making the new man and woman.” The
revolution had to work out how to thrive, as its heady hero phase began to
wane, and debates over how to do so weren’t simple. “The leadership had to
rock back,” is how Selwyn Strachan, Bishop’s Minister of Mobilization and
Labor at the time, recently explained it to me in Grenada. “To prioritize,
analyze, and rationalize.” It was through those discussions that the
party’s central committee reached a decision to divide the prime minister’s
duties with the aim, as Strachan put it, “of marrying Maurice and Bernard’s
respective strengths, and leaving their weaknesses behind.”

Strachan should know. He was a party stalwart as close to its leaders as
anyone: when Bishop returned from his trip in October 1983, it was Strachan
who went to pick up his friend at the airport, and whom Bishop first
informed of his reservations about the power-sharing agreement. Strachan
was later convicted for his putative part in Bishop’s ensuing death, and
spent twenty-six years in prison. He’s now a dignified man with a
salt-and-pepper beard who was only released, after years of appeals, in
2009 (Bernard Coard was released the same year). In 2015, I sat with
Strachan on a porch near the troublesome tarmac that’s now named the
Maurice Bishop International Airport, as he reflected on the missteps and
triumphs of a small group of people who—surely facing huge pressure, not
least from a superpower waiting to swoop in as soon as things went
wrong—made errors and had disagreements of a sort quite understandable
among people of good will. And Strachan was never more animated than when
he insisted that—despite the pain of his friends’ deaths and despite his
own decades in jail—he had no regrets: “The Revolution is the greatest
thing that ever happened to this country.” His eyes flashed as he recounted
how he and his colleagues raised the island’s literacy rate to 99 percent,
and he argued that support for the revolution on his island has never
waned. “A black revolution, in the West Indies. It was earth-shattering.”

*The House on Coco Road* concurs with this sentiment, and so did the
theater in Brooklyn full of rapt and cheering Grenadans with whom I saw
this affecting film. It’s also the sort of movie that you may leave,
especially at this polarized moment, wishing that its director, rather than
preaching to a choir, had tried a bit harder to prove his case to strangers
and render this complex story with greater nuance.

But what’s inarguable is the mendacity behind Ronald Reagan’s treatment of
this island’s people. And in that there are warnings for us all as a new
performer-turned-president stalks the White House, perhaps hoping for a war
that might boost his own agenda and image—and as he looks, frighteningly,
at foes far more formidable than little Grenada.

*The House on Coco Road**, directed by Damani Baker, is playing in select
theaters <http://www.thehouseoncocoroad.com/>and streaming on Netflix
*lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>* |
July 27, 2017 at 11:28 pm | Categories: News
<http://repeatingislands.com/category/news/> | URL: http://wp.me/psnTa-wqp

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