These are tumultuous times; in fact, they have been so for a good while. The tumults began before George Floyd pleaded for his life in vain, before thousands shouted his name on the streets letting America know that it’s enough, or before we were reminded that a Bristol Square is not the space to celebrate slave traffickers and that Black lives – past and future – matter. Tumultuous times began before COVID-19 became the pandemic that disrupted a globalized economy ingrained in human experiences and interactions. For at least the past decade, societies across the world have been grappling with the kinds of conflicts that come along with the deep changes that historians write about, once time affords us the necessary perspective to look back and understand. For now, we, the protagonists of these tumultuous times, remain uncertain yet not paralysed. The direction of change is being deeply contested because never before in history have so many felt that they have a say in determining the path of our collective journeys. Here is where the roots of today’s conflicts lie.
The powerful are no longer powerful enough to control the course of history and we, the so-called masses, are no longer (if we ever were) the homogenous mass that is easily led on marches in response to shared grievances. For much of our history, rulers sought to enforce social homogeneity as they strived to create standardized societies that made their job easier. Here in Jamaica, the children of Africa, Asia and Europe were told that despite the different origins of their ancestors and the many conflicts that have afflicted the island’s peoples since the arrival of the Europeans in the late-15th century, they were one. The “out of many, one people” national motto sought to disguise (sacrifice) realities of the past for the sake of social stability in the present. As we commemorate some 180 years of emancipation and nearly 60 years of Jamaica’s independence, I look at the disruption and tumults around us and Jamaica seems an island of tranquillity, almost out of sync with the times.
A quick look at world news shows the extent to which today’s youth have become a formidable force pushing for change, heavily involved in discussions, actions, disruptions about capitalism and inequality, climate change and sustainability, LGBTQ rights and citizenship, feminism and gender relations and identities, or race and representations of the past. Noticeably, young women have become the most visible spokespersons of their generation, uttering words full of wisdom. Take for example Tamika Mallory, Kimberly Jones or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who recently reminded us that “we learned violence from you”, but “they’re lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge,” because now, now we understand that “this is not new;” none of it is new. The powerful voices of these three very different women resonate beyond the US, inspiring many to believe in the power of activism. Yet, in Jamaica, the silence of the youth is deafening and we must wonder what this means about our society and the course of a country that, not so long ago, prided itself on being a nation of rebels.
Over the years, I have tried to engage my history students at The UWI (The University of the West Indies) in conversations about past and present, so they understand that this is, actually, what history is all about. Nearly a year ago, I asked them why there was no activism to speak of in Jamaica. Some might take issue with this question being posed in a history class, but I would argue that this has everything to do with history or, rather, how historians and students of history go about trying to make sense of the past.
Contrary to common belief, past events are not historians’ main concern, they are simply the subject of our studies. Our main concern is change; how and why societies change. This is why we continuously seek for drivers of change. Activism, especially in modern times, has become one of those drivers, giving a chance to ordinary citizens to transform their societies, which is just what we’re missing in Jamaica. My students did not take issue with the premise of my esoteric question and tried their best to answer. As they grappled with it, they argued that this was a sign of the times, for youngsters no longer engage in activism as they once did. If BLM in the US (this is before it spread outside its borders) is a contemporary example of a “woke” youth engaged in activism, this is because young Black Americans are regularly confronted with the ugly reality of racism and all the problems that come with it.
Yet, Jamaica is not short of problems and ugly realities, is it?. When I asked my students how many had considered migration as an option to better their lives, unsurprisingly most of them raised their hands. While I don’t have any evidence to back this up, I suspect the answer would be very different if I asked this question in a classroom with mainly Black American students. Perhaps, this is why they are “woke.” Unlike our Jamaican youth, they believe that they can have a better future in their country if they push for change hard enough.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has exposed the fragility of our societies and BLM that has deeply questioned race relations while spreading as the cure against the lingering effects of the European colonialism virus, my original question is particularly relevant today. We must all wonder why Jamaica lacks the type of activism that mobilizes the young and not-so-young to push for change and bring to an end the challenges that make the lives of many Jamaicans an obstacle course that is best left behind in the hope of finding a better life far from the land they love. I suspect some of the answers lie in the past.
As we fete yet another Emancipation and Independence day, we should all take the opportunity to engage in conversations between present and past. Only then will we begin to envision alternative futures that can allow us to build a country where the lives of Jamaican women and men are less challenging and the youth start to believe that there is a future for them here in the land they live. Jamaica is, after all, where their ancestors once fought for freedom and human dignity some two centuries ago, making it possible for their successors to strive for independence and the right to determine Jamaican destinies nearly six decades ago. I am a historian, but it is as an educator that I have learned from my students that the past only becomes meaningful when we’re actively engaged with the present and believe in our collective future(s).
Image credit: Annie Paul. Negril, July 2020.
Enrique Okenve teaches African history in the Department of History and Archaeology at the UWI at Mona (Jamaica) and is currently the Head of Department. A child of the Nzomo clan and Africa’s post-independence exile, he was born in Spain just as the country started its transition to democracy. There, he grew up aware of his belonging to Equatorial Guinea, while learning about his family’s opposition to colonialism and the successive dictators that have plagued the country since its independence. He received his PhD in History from SOAS (University of London) and his research relies heavily on oral history to bring Africans’ historical experiences to the fore.