In his child's mind, lining up in Mr Kean's Shop on Old St Joseph Road, Laventille, in post-war Trinidad among 15 or so people with his ration card in hand was a normal weekly occurrence for Dr Hollis Liverpool, known to many as Chalkdust.
With an abundance of fruit from the mango and sapodilla trees in his parents' yard, he enjoyed life for the most part, along with his six siblings, unaware of his family's poverty and scramble to make ends meet amid food shortages and other uncertainties following World War II.
Reflecting on his growing years, Liverpool told Sunday Guardian last week that the current pandemic which has sparked massive global unemployment, a return to food cards and general distress, is reminiscent of the era during his early childhood and represents the cycle of life.
Born in Chaguaramas in 1941, Liverpool said he was raised in Laventille, Tobago and Belmont by parents, Isaac Liverpool and Edwardline Bartholemew.
Dr Hollis Liverpool and his guitar.
“I was conscious of being alive while in Chaguaramas, but understood a little more about life when I lived in Prizgar Lands, Laventille,” he said.
“My father was the man who was in charge of Prizgar Lands. He used to collect all the rent and so on for Prizgar Lands and he built houses for people etc. The irony is that he gave a lot of people houses (because of the nature of his job), but he never took any for himself.
“We were very poor, but I didn't know I was so poor. I didn't know anything about (was not aware of) poverty as a child because plenty mango trees in the yard, plenty sapodilla trees in the yard. We ate sapodilla and mango in the morning before we had breakfast. Breakfast was basically bake and bush tea. My mother was a lover of bush tea,” he said.
During World War II and in its aftermath, food cards were issued since basic supplies like rice and flour were in short supply. Families were allowed a strict weekly quota of certain food items. Ration cards ensured that authorities kept track of what each family received. Liverpool said as far as he could recall, the goods on the card were either free or covered by a small fee from cardholders.
Revealing that one of his ration cards was stored somewhere in his home library, Liverpool said he believed each person in a household was given a card. The cards had 52 slots and every week when you collected your goods, the shopkeeper would punch your card. But finding it hard to satisfy seven children and two adults on the meagre weekly rations, Liverpool said his mother found a crafty means of squeezing more food from the shopkeeper.
“Rice, flour, sugar were the main things my mother used to send us to get. I used to go by a shop on Old St Joseph Road (Laventille)–pass through the back of Prizgar Lands where that big steelband is now–a shop called Mr Kean Shop. One time, I remember buying rice and something else on my ration card and when I reached home, my mother changed my red short pants and gave me a blue pants and sent me back for two pounds of rice again. We changed clothing to fool the Chinese man,” he laughed.
“We would go to the left-hand side of the shop with ration cards where the oil and the pitch oil were and so on and there was another part of the shop for milk and other provisions. I remember that well.”
When Liverpool was seven or eight, his father sold their “little” house and moved the family to Tobago.
There were no ration cards then. His mother would catch her “nenen” to buy provisions to feed him, his three brothers, three sisters, his father and herself, Liverpool recalled.
“So when we went to Tobago, my mother and father started planting. Somebody gave them land–a woman called Mrs Crooks–and my father planted potatoes.”
He said his Trinidadian father drew on his Vincentian background, also cultivating peas and corn.
“My father said his father named him after (Sir) Isaac Newton (famous British mathematician and physicist). He was a very smart fella. I didn't know my father was so smart until I got older and remembered the things he used to say,” Liverpool recalled.
Memories of the ration card
In his 80 years, Liverpool has lived through the aftermath of WWII and the Black Power Movement. He has seen this country's independence and various political, economic and social changes. A griot who skillfully weaves events in Trinidad and Tobago into lofty, hard-hitting parables in song and a stoker of social and political conscience, as a calypsonian since the age of 26, Chalkdust has been the eyes and voice of the people. He has weighed in on many critical issues through an art form he has fought to preserve.
Asked to compare aspects of his life in order to better understand some of the economic and social fallout of this pandemic, the current Head of Arts, Letters, Culture and Public Affairs at UTT and holder of a PhD in History and Ethnomusicology from the University of Michigan said it was a case of history repeating itself.
“I never thought I would live to see the Government giving grants to the unemployed, to people who lost their jobs etc, so it's history-making. People who are getting those now, they wouldn't know about the ration card. When I saw it, it brought back memories of the ration card.”
He said that the grants being given out today were better than ration cards in terms of value.
“I'm sure it's a big help for people. It's good to see the Government give grants. They gave a grant to calypsonians, artistes. They got a $5,000 grant. A lot of them claimed it. Those who could claim, it helped them,” he said.
Last Monday, Finance Minister Colm Imbert delivered the 2022 national Budget which some dubbed “a crix, pigtail and water” budget in response to the removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) from certain basic food items beginning November 1 in an attempt to ease food prices. Asked about his thoughts on this, Liverpool, who said he was not partisan, sought to put T&T's situation into perspective using events that were unfolding daily on the international scene.
“'Pigtail, crackers and water budget'? I do not think the people of the Caribbean are au courant with the hardships of people in the rest of the world. For eg, A guy sent me a story to show that if you're living in a house and you have a salary, water and a little food, you are living in the top six per cent in the whole world.
Dr Hollis "Chalkdust" Liverpool.
“People don't realise the suffering of people in Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia with all the wars going on, and the hunger of all those refugees; people dying every day, people dying just to get to Northern Africa, people dying to cross the Mediterranean Sea every day, thousands and thousands trying to get into Mexico, including the Haitians. The population trying to get into Mexico is bigger than Trinidad's,” he said.
“I don't think Trinidadians know of the sufferings of people outside, so even though they may say it's a pigtail budget, it is so much better than what millions in this world have who can't buy pigtail or can't see a pig.
“Take Europe right now; when you go to Italy right behind where the Pope living, you see thousands and thousands of migrants begging for food every day. My wife and children went to Rome three years ago and when they came back the first thing they told me is if you see the amount (number) of beggars, if you see the amount (number) of migrants in Rome,” he said.
He said although people were hard-hit by food prices in Trinidad at present, we were in a much better position than many, especially, “anybody in the British Caribbean.”
He said although our diverse cultures and ethnicities were a strong point, they also posed problems for any leadership to please everyone, as he had been told by leaders like Dr Eric Williams and Makandal Daagar.
'We are going to survive'
Turning to the division over the COVID vaccine which has given rise to a tense climate, especially in the US where vaxxers are forcefully pitting themselves against anti-vaxxers, he said while there would always be people who would challenge or resist the system, they had to be tolerated.
“Today many are exposed to technology to which people yesterday were not exposed. People of yesterday weren't able to see what was happening in the States, in China. When I was a boy when my father sent money for me from Tobago it used to take a whole week to reach Trinidad. Today people are putting on the TV and seeing what is happening all over. News is spreading much faster so people take positions.”
Liverpool said more knowledge gave people more choices.
“When I went to school and when I taught in primary school, children had no choice. When the doctor come in the school at Nelson Street, every man line up and if you didn't, the principal had a big whip and buss yuh tail...and if you didn't take the vaccine you couldn't go to school. Parents had no options.
“In fact, I like what David Rudder said in a concert (three weeks ago). He said if he had received the vaccination for polio, he would have been walking (normally) today,” Liverpool said.
He said concerns about taking the vaccine also stemmed from “a small minority” of superstitious people, “a bigger minority of people who believe the vaccine would kill them” and “a large minority who say governments out to kill black people.”
Liverpool said people formed their opinions depending on where they got their facts; on which books they read and must be careful in doing their research.
However, pointing to climate change and the occurrence of hail in Trinidad recently, he said no one, not even scientists had all the answers to explain many recent phenomena, so it was not the place of society to judge those who held different views.
“Some say the world is coming to an end. So I don't get angry. You can't be judgemental about people who say they not taking the vaccine.”
He said some with opinions that contradict the majority could become agents of positive change.
“All through my life, I've seen problems. I've seen challenges, but at the same time, I have seen growth and development. When you look at the Black Power for eg, you see people marching for their rights...it was the minority. From Butler's days come right up, we have always had people who are anti-government, who are anti-whatever the society is saying. You cannot condemn them. In the days of Butler people were beaten, people were arrested. Butler was jailed for eight years. People were locked up for beating (playing) pan, people were arrested for singing calypso on Wrightson Road.
“People were shot to death in the Water Riots in 1903 because they demanded water. Trinidad's history is filled with all sorts of struggles, but we are still here. In all this pandemic, we are going to survive. Some will die, but we are going to survive.”
Redeemed by Prime Ministers
After the pandemic, there would be other obstacles as this was part of the cycle of life, Liverpool said.
The kaiso bard who began his singing career in 1967 said he was given “licks” and “long penance from 3:30 pm to 5 pm for three days” when he dared to go against the rules and sing calypso as a student of St Mary's College.
“Now I am on their (trophy) wall as a distinguished son.”
Liverpool who taught at primary and secondary schools from 1958 to the turn of the century, recalled that in 1968 while a teacher at St Mary's, he was dismissed from the Service for again, singing the art form that was frowned upon at the time.
“Eric Williams saved me. They (the media) asked Dr Eric Williams: what do you think about Chalkdust being sent home for singing calypso? These were his exact words: I don't know why they humbugging the young man. And the Teaching Service Commission reinstated me,” he laughed.
Liverpool said he was also redeemed by another Prime Minister–ANR Robinson– when he got into some hot water while studying for his PhD in Michigan while still a teacher. The Ministry of Education wrote to him, telling him he had to return home, saying he did not need a PhD to teach History at the secondary school level. He was therefore not authorised to be on leave to pursue his studies. Liverpool said he was at a top university and not wanting to lose the opportunity to complete his doctorate, he wrote to then prime minister, ANR Robinson.
“Would you believe I got an answer in the registered mail? Robinson wrote me back: Dear Chalkdust, stay right there, signed ANR Robinson.”
The former director of culture and Founder of the Carnival Institute of T&T said one of the high points of his singing career was singing to 20,000 people in Jamaica alongside Jimmy Cliff and receiving a standing ovation in 1976. In the height of Bob Marley and reggae, he was heartened to see their appreciation of calypso, he said.
Liverpool, who is known for his signature white beard, said God had played a major role throughout his life.
“Whether you like it or not, there is a God. You may not believe it when you are young, but as you grow older you see it. In my life, I have seen God in so many different ways, that's why I don't shave my beard. It reminds me of God,” he said.
Sharing an experience where he saw God at work, he said in 1987/1988 he had enrolled in Michigan University and was at the airport in Detriot deciding between coming back home for a vacation and flying to Atlanta to give a lecture. He said he finally decided to forget Atlanta and take a flight via Miami to Trinidad.
“I changed my ticket to 'Miami to Trinidad'. While I was waiting, I went and took a drink in the bar and the plane I was supposed to take to go to Atlanta crashed and killed everybody. One child was saved. The next day my beard turned grey. The doctor told me with the scare, all the hormones in my body changed.”
Recalling another miraculous incident in his life, he said one day while crossing Maraval Road and carrying his guitar on his way to do an Independence Day performance at TTT, a driver suddenly swerved and crashed into the wall at TTT. Liverpool said he had to run for his life and fell on the road. The driver who had recognised him as “the Mighty Chalkdust” because of his beard and had done his best to avoid hitting him, later told him his beard had saved him.
Flashback March 2017: Dr Hollis "Chalkdust" Liverpool performs "Learn from Arithmetic" enroute to his ninth Calypso Monarch title during the 2017 edition of the Dimanche Gras show at the Queen's Park Savannah, Port-of-Spain.
Q&A with Dr Hollis Liverpool
This month is Calypso History Month. The traditional avenue for calypsonians to air their views, be the voices of the people has been frustrated by the pandemic. They have not been able to perform for two seasons, how do you think they can reclaim their voices?
I do hope that when calypsonians can sing again in front of crowds that the tents would be packed. Long ago, the tents used to be packed. A lot of calypsonians are in problems right now because they can't get to sing. The ones who are serious and really do research want to compose and sing about what is happening and the country is missing them, the Government is missing them because the Government also listens, the Opposition listens, the businessmen listen.
You have to understand that to put out their work and record costs money and the Government has not put anything in the budget for calypsonians, in fact, they said very little about the arts. When Tanty Joan (Yuille-Williams) was around, Tanty Joan used to find money to give calypsonians. Studio costs, rehearsals, paying musicians, it's a lot of money you have to put out so the country is suffering from the lack of the voice of the calypsonian. And not only the country because the diaspora is listening, looking for calypsoes. London is listening. People are dancing to Trinidad calypso in Sweden and the Government has to realise that in this time of the pandemic, calypsonians need help because they market Trinidad overseas.
Some calypsonians would have to take out a loan, seek help from TUCO, but I'm sure they will do something. A real calypsonian would not be comfortable unless he composes and sings a calypso.
You have been a teacher for many years, how do you feel about having a parallel school system where teachers teach vaccinated students in person and unvaccinated students at home virtually?
I feel you need to teach all children. Those whom you have to teach face-to-face would present a problem because some teachers would not feel comfortable in front of children who have not been vaccinated and some parents would feel uncomfortable to have their children taught by unvaccinated teachers. The Government has to re-organise the whole system. Nothing could make up for face-to-face teaching, and certainly, we can't teach just part of the nation. You looking for problems. People who give us problems are children who are not educated properly. Once a child does not have basic education he would be tend to become a truant, a criminal.
We are at war with COVID-19, an unrelenting enemy, how do we rebound as a nation?
If I had to talk to the nation I would say to eat properly so your body can survive– food is medicine–avoid crowds, places where there will be disease, avoid people who are wrathful, live well with others–you bounce a man in the road, say sorry, live your life for God.