RIO TINTO SAYS SORRY

Diana McCaulay

An Australian story caught my attention, as global efforts to take down the statues of historical figures who had committed crimes against humanity intensified. I knew Rio Tinto was a giant mining multinational corporation and I was drawn to understand what horrors could have caused them to apologize. Turns out the world’s largest miner of iron ore had destroyed two caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. The caves were sacred sites for Aboriginal peoples known as Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) and had contained evidence of continual human habitation going back 46,000 years. The news story said that the destruction had been approved by the state government, albeit before the precise value of the site was understood, and went on to catalogue a number of similar applications to mine in areas sacred to Aboriginal peoples, all of which had been approved. We too, here, have blazed through Taino archaeological sites in the name of development. 

It got me thinking about what gets to be called a monument because so far, we seem to be focused on artifacts. You can’t rewrite history, we’re told by those who resist the removal of statuary. They honour people of their time, operating within the laws and morals of their age. But we seem to have no issue with the destruction of the places where history unfolded, along with their relics, particularly if that history was not White and Western. 

For many Aboriginal peoples, the place created the name, which was in turn connected to the events that happened there – stories of a search for a good place to live, close to water and food, able to be defended. What they made of their places is what they made of themselves and that was how the past was constructed, understood and remembered. From cultural anthropologist Keith Basso’s 1996 book, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache:  

For Indian men and women, the past lies embedded in features of the earth – in canyons and lakes, mountains and arroyos, rocks and vacant fields – which together endow their lands with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think. Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.

Although so many of Jamaica’s place names bear the stamp of conquest and brutality, there are places in Jamaica that refer to features of the landscape or to events. Cockpit Country, named either for the cockpit of sailing ships, where wounded men were taken, or for the fight to the death of the cock fighting pit. Either way, a place of blood and death. Bamboo. Bath, for its mineral spring. Bull Head. Round Hill. Dolphin Head. Canoe Valley, named for the cotton trees that made the dugout canoes of the Tainos. Alligator Head. Manatee Bay. Bog Walk – from boca d’agua – the water’s mouth. There are place names that describe journeys – Half Way Tree, Nine Miles, Eleven Miles, Passage Fort. Lacovia – the way by the lake. And there are places named for heroes – Nanny Town. Cuffee Ridge. Cudjoe Town.  

Once I went looking for a giant rock – which was the site of the port prior to Falmouth – called simply, The Rock. There was no rock, at least not that I found, but there was a cook shop, with the name painted on the front – The Rock – and I was glad to see just that.  

So on Jamaica’s 2020 Independence Day, if we’re going to entertain the argument that statues are part of a painful history which cannot be unwritten,  and therefore should remain standing, then let’s be consistent about the history written on the landforms themselves because these too are our monuments, and they deserve our recognition, respect and protection. 

Anchor image: Giant tree in Dornock. August 2019. Dornoch Head or Dornock Head is the headwaters of the Rio Bueno, rising in Cockpit Country

Diana McCaulay is a writer and environmental activist. Her fifth novel, Daylight Come, will be published by Peepal Tree Press in September 2020.

Too long a holiday

ENRIQUE Okenve 

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.

Proposal for a New Necropolis

Ashleigh Deosaran

I. The Danger

Caution tape is something with which we, Trinbagonians, have become intimately familiar. We see it fluttering across the front page, sprawled onto our screens, stretched out around our homes. “CAUTION CAUTION CAUTION CAUTION,” ripples its way through our lives so often it has almost become mundane. That is, until recently, when this familiarity was unsettled by the material’s overnight appearance on a public statue in Port-of-Spain.[1] The blood-red tape formed the shape of an X on the figure’s chest, then climbed up to wrap around his neck, warning “DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER…

Continue reading “Proposal for a New Necropolis”

Editorial: Race and Racism in the Caribbean: “So many knees on so many necks”

Annie Paul

What else have I missed today in apartheid Jamaica? Sarah Manley’s startling status update on Facebook a few days ago resonated deeply, pinpointing as it does the invisible walls that divide this society. These walls relegate poor, black bodies to oblivion while corralling the country’s profits and benefits for the middle and upper classes—Team Light-Skinned as Garnette Cadogan terms it—who run things here.

Continue reading “Editorial: Race and Racism in the Caribbean: “So many knees on so many necks””

Gabrielle Jamela Hosein

At Night

Nighttime. When she should be falling asleep, she asks the most questions. They come out of the quiet of our breathing next to each other. They come intermittently, in between the rise and fall of her chest, like the soft breeze slipping through the windows from the Northern Range. 

What we joke about as her “deep philosophical questions”, always at nighttime, may be a tactic for staying up late, but they also seem to come from far away, from thoughts she took to their logical conclusion, from questions she collected along the way there, from difficulties that generations have pondered and which it is now her turn to work through. 

In the middle of the Black Lives Matter marches, on one such night, she asked me, “Mummy, do you wish you could be White?” She wanted to know if only White people were allowed to go to America. Her nine-year-old antennae had picked up news of protests, and she was struggling to understand the rules that had been broken. 

Few other questions disturb like this one, for it’s clear that the place it comes from is deeply self-negating, and, yet, historically inevitable. She continued, “Does everyone hate Black people?” My heart hurt. For her, because I had no ready answer or solution. My head hurt. I hadn’t anticipated that our commentaries on the extent of anti-black violence, both global and local, would have left her awake and uneasy.

“No”, I explained, “not everyone hates Black people, but there is a lot of racism against them. There is nothing wrong with being Black, what is wrong is to judge somebody by their race or the colour of their skin”.

I tell her that she is Indian. I come to understand myself as a privileged representation of Indianness that she doesn’t see in herself. I emphasise that her ancestors came from India and she is Indian just as much as I am. I tell her that she is African. I say that her ancestors came from Africa and that they struggled and survived. I tell her that our skin enables us to see that we carry them all, and their legacy of being brave, working hard, resisting exploitation, and creating a better world. We must love ourselves for this reason, for this connection. 

“In their honour, in their memory,” I said, “We must not want to be White. Close your eyes, it’s late.” But it took a long time before her breathing became steady. 

From having a daughter who is part-Indian, and part-African (which, as with many in the Caribbean, also means mixed with European), I’ve learned that I understand nothing about being Black. I don’t know what it is like for other Indian mothers of part-African children, but each day as I learn more, I realise how little I know.

Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné. “Grow Love”

It’s been humbling. I recognize that my appreciation is highly political and intellectual, but not lived or personal. I have only come to understand my limitations through seeing how she encounters the world in her body, with her hair, and through her own eyes. Often, I don’t have a language to answer her questions, except to say that she is beautiful just as she is. Looking at her, I’ve learned that the privilege of not having to live the harms of anti-blackness becomes perilous inexperience, and even blindness, when you must prepare someone else who has to.

She has often told me that she wishes her hair was long and straight like mine. She compares our (similar) skin colour and says that she wishes she was light like me. Partly, I know she just wants to look like her mummy. Mostly, I’m appalled that my own hair and skin (both stand-ins for race) are symbols of her feelings of inadequacy. I can block Whiteness in dolls and books, though much less on the internet, but I can’t block a greater devaluation of African features that she’s somehow come to understand and accept.   

And it’s not the skin colour or hair differences between us that matters, it is that they come to mark unequal value. It’s that she’s familiar with this even as a child, even in a family that is fiercely committed to justice. It’s that she has learned to discern minute differences, the way one learns the nuances of a language, without my ever using those words. 

I tell her that her hair is beautiful. It’s thick and curly, a privileged form in a hierarchy she will later discover. I tell her she’s the same colour as I am and I don’t see the difference she sees. She’s nine and has impossible criteria for cool so she wrinkles her nose when I tell her that I love that she is my sapodilla, beautiful, brown and sweet. Attentive to a world of US music videos and children’s movies, school peer culture with its minutiae of cruelties, and birthday parties where parents put long blond Elsa plaits in party bags, Whiteness sets the standard in her world. 

I wonder what to do with that in the long minutes that I stay awake. I’m like every Caribbean parent trying to bring up children to love themselves for who they are, knowing that a lifetime of such resistance is their only option, for this world does not allow innocence or escape.

Race and colour are interwoven with our relationships within and across our communities and families in difficult and cluttered ways. We often don’t get the conversations right publicly, but we rarely share how we struggle through them privately. 

I’ve read pieces by Indo-Caribbean writers and activists holding our communities to account for anti-black sentiments, statements and hostilities. I admire these articulations of self-reflection and their call for cross-race solidarity. I’ve read pieces by mixed Indian-African children, described as Dougla in Trinidad and Guyana, also speaking about rejection by Indian extended family, and feelings of not belonging.  The word Dougla comes from an older Bhojpuri slur for mixed-caste children, and became transplanted onto racial mixing in the Caribbean. 

There remains intolerable anti-blackness in Indian communities. There are also Indo-Caribbean community experiences of marginalization and discrimination over the second half of the 20th century which are absolutely real and have fed such hostility. Acknowledgement of the two and how they rub against each other is painful and requires listening on all sides. 

I grew up with parents who joined the Black Power student sit-in in Sir George Williams University computer lab. I grew up with a mother who identified as Black in the now passé meaning of passionate and committed pan Asian-African solidarity. I grew up among bonds between Indians and Africans of the Caribbean left in the 1970s, groundings through which race-consciousness moved and its rancor consciously resisted. My grandmother spent the second half of her life with an Afro-Trinidadian husband, my Dougla cousins were never put down, and I was never exposed to family narratives of dissent. All that feels like an antiquated past, and an assemblage of selected memories, but my parents also accepted my daughter’s Afro-Trinidadian father, and not once was my daughter made to feel less than adored for her unique cipher of continents and ancestries. 

As Indians (including mixed-race Indians) writing our histories, and writing ourselves into the Caribbean, even while we rightfully call out our families and political parties, we also need to tell our complex and imperfect stories of generations of solidarity, intimacy and acceptance. The racist Indian community in the Caribbean is an over-determining stereotype, a cognitive and polemical shortcut, in danger of being a single story. 

Still, even with all that love and history, Ziya is conscious of skin colour and hair texture in all the disquieting ways with which we are familiar and in all the ways that make her wish she was other than who she is. I lie awake at night, an Indian mother, wondering how to raise a daughter of Africa right. I have trouble discussing her European ancestors, for I am not sure yet how to explain the nexus of labour exploitation with sexual violence, and I am not sure where such history fits with my efforts as a mother to nurture her sense of Dougla, and Indian and African, pride. I quibble with the shadows over which counter-narratives to wrap in her jahajin bundle[1], wondering whether they will sustain her in communities she claims, and those which may not claim her in return.

Everyone does not hate Black people, but the negation of blackness is historical, systemic, contemporary, ubiquitous and mundane. I have no experience of it, not like hers. When protests spark in Port of Spain over police killings that target poor and predominantly Black bodies, I want her to see her connection, to see her place and mine in these struggles in the Caribbean. We talk over dhal and rice, and I ache to protect her as she navigates loss of innocence. 

Not only Afro-Caribbean people are wrestling with the meaning of anti-blackness in their lives. As an Indo-Caribbean mother, so do I and, yet, it is clear that motherhood provides only shafts of insight, like moonlight, illuminating how little I know and how much I must learn from my blossoming beti[2], hugging up at night until she falls asleep.


[1] Jahaji bundle describes the cloth bundles in which indentured Indians wrapped their belongings, from seeds to holy books, as they travelled on ships to the Caribbean. Jahajin is the feminine form of jahaji bhai or ship brother. I use it as a metaphor to refer to matrilineal and feminist legacies of indentureship, which include cross-race intimacies and solidarities, which we carry with us today.

[2] Beti is Hindi for daughter. 

Gabrielle Jamela Hosein is a Caribbean feminist writer, scholar and organizer. Her recent writing on Indo-Caribbean feminisms can be found in the journal, The Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, and on post-indentureship feminisms in the edited collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Genealogies, Theories, Enactments. Her spoken word beginnings are in the Rapso movement in 1998, and her poem, Chutney Love, was published in the 2018 Commonwealth Foundation collection, We Mark Your Memory. Her blog, Diary of a Mothering Worker, has been published weekly in the Guardian, then Newsday, newspapers since 2012.