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On the Third Day, Negroes Again

Published: 
Saturday, February 26, 2011

Keith Smith RIP—Part III In 23 years of writing Thank God It’s Friday, there have been only two deaths before Keith Smith’s that spurred three columns from me: my own father’s, in 1993, and Andre Tanker’s in 2002; they’ve come at ten-year intervals, I notice. (Lloyd Best’s death in 2007 provoked a whole newspaper, the tribute issue of the Trinidad and Tobago Review I guest-edited). Three weeks after the most recent extinguishment, I find there still resides in me, or is carved out of me, a gaping hole named “Keith Smith,” which leaves me yearning; honest to God, I could name a dozen others I’d rather have seen dead than Keith; maybe a hundred. For the first time, I find myself glad not to be in Port-of-Spain permanently. The city I’ve loved from the time I discovered it, at age 11, in Form One at St Mary’s College on Frederick Street, seems tremblingly empty once you start to approach the old Catholic cathedral; you wouldn’t think I spent a lot of my time quarrelling with Keith, the way I’m reacting to his removal. Not that the quarrels were very serious, most of the time. Keith often wished I wouldn’t write about the damage done to the human psyche by organised religion but, that apart, he liked TGIF and often boasted he had discovered me. (Now that he’s dead, and Raoul remains alive, I’ll say that, while I wouldn’t deny Keith’s flattering claim, it was Raoul Pantin who agreed to let me write Thank God It’s Friday, 23 years ago, come this Ash Friday; whether that was less an act of “discovery” and more one of “unleashing on an unsuspecting public” you would have to judge.)

One day, about three years ago, I walked into Keith’s office to find him unusually quiet; not the quiet that went with preparation for writing a column or editorial, nor the quiet of momentary R&R before the next barrage of incoming reporters, but a dread quiet, a near absolute stillness of soul. When I looked closely at him, I realised Keith was blinking back tears. “You want me come back later?” I asked. Without speaking, he motioned to the chair opposite him. I sat. He said—nothing. We remained sitting in silence for so long, I grew uncomfortable, and was about to make an excuse to leave when he looked across at me. “You really don’t believe in God, BC?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders. “You don’t go to church?” he asked. “Weddings and funerals,” I replied. He was silent again for nearly a minute before whispering his penultimate question. “You don’t pray?”

I shook my head. I’ve never figured out how prayer is supposed to work: does God change His preordained plan because I beg pitifully enough? Or is it my piety that turns the Almighty mind around and, if so, why did He need me to display it—didn’t he know? Could a God who happily put his own son to death really care about my career or Lotto prospects? What sort of omnipotent being will prevent rain to facilitate my cake sale? No, not counting the vague notion of “offering my work up” or “sending good vibes into the void” for an unwell loved one, I don’t pray. Keith’s voice cracked when he asked his last question. “How you does cope? I could just firetrucking barely hold on sometimes.” In that instant, I saw Keith Smith completely: the price of the enormous talent was enormous suffering. Keith took on so much for so many; if he cuffed down the occasional bucket of extra crispy or fondled the occasional leg and thigh, it was poor recompense for the solitary burden he carried. It was from that dark place that Keith pulled out his most shining odes to us, his best pictures of us. For all our shortcomings—which, often, is all I can see—Keith loved us and celebrated our successes; and he did so, not from the perspective of the envious or the insecure, the Afro-centrist liar who pretends black people invented everything from writing to the iPad, but from the informed position of one who knew.

When Keith, the DJ, wrote of the ten tunes you could play at any party and have everybody dancing, when he wrote so lovingly of the pan, when he celebrated pepper sauce and black pudding and the number one goalie’s jersey, Keith Smith knew what the firetruck he was talking about. If he gave some of us too much credit, he did it out of love. And how the hole in me aches: did the people, the place he loved so much understand what they had in him? Would they appreciate, now, his loss? Would they ever? Since Lloyd Best’s death in 2007, every time Trinidad became too bizarre to understand, he would say, “If Lloyd were still alive, he’d tell us what to do.” And then he would pause and say, “You realise how much we lost with him?”

And I would agree. Keith Smith is dead and today, in Parliament, the debate on hanging will continue, I am told; if he were alive and working, Keith Smith would be in a foul mood, a mood of near despair, carrying the weight of another child-murder, another suspicious drowning in his heart; but he would have reached into that dark place into which we now seem to want to descend, and have pulled out some small light to shed on this, on us, something that might have prevented us from picking up the first stone. And anybody who stood up to talk about killing killers today would have had to sit back down again; because Keith knew, and would show, you do not stop pain by inflicting more. It may only be when baby and bathwater alike go down the drain that we realise Keith Smith was the last plug between us and complete empti-ness.

BC Pires is missing. Read more of his writing at www.BCraw.com

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