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


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…” The statue, a bronze sculpture of Christopher Columbus installed in 1881, had come under renewed scrutiny as #BlackLivesMatter protestors around the world vandalized and destroyed their own Columbuses, along with other colonizers, confederates, slavers, and supremacists, whose likenesses had littered public space for years. Regarding our Columbus, entangled in the tape by a local chapter of anonymous activists, I felt moved. Their appropriation of a symbol of law enforcement in postcolonial Trinidad felt radical. If the tape is synonymous with crime and police presence, what kind of readings might this co-optation generate? Superficially, we might read: “DANGER, this is a criminal.” But Columbus was well within his legal rights when he led the expeditions to our shores and abetted the attempted-genocide of Indigenous Caribbean communities. Instead, I read: “DANGER, this is History.” 

Perhaps this was why some of my compatriots were offended; they did not see a subversive intervention, but an attack on their ‘History’. In a letter, UTT professor Kumar Mahabir argued that “despite the horrendous history of Columbus, his statue represents a tangible historical link to the [sic] Europe, Africa and Asia since 1498.”[2] Mahabir denounced what he believed was an “Afrocentric agenda” and “fascist, extremist and warring campaign to remove the Columbus statue.”[3] He decried the caution tape intervention, referencing Trinidad’s anti-vandalism laws. His diatribe failed to acknowledge, as author Corey Gilkes later responded, that these laws were “created for social containment of subjected people considered ‘naturally’ inclined to criminal behavior.”[4] Hence the tragic irony: the anti-vandalism laws Mahabir so ardently cited derive from the same legislature that safeguarded colonizers and criminalized their victims. Columbus’ bronze is preserved and protected by the same brutal regime that condemned Ornella Greaves to be fatally gunned down by local law enforcement while at a protest near her home.[5]

Many of us witnessed anti-brutality protests in quarantine, while unencumbered by monotonous routines and trivial distractions. We had an unprecedented opportunity to grapple with the reality that Caribbean countries needn’t have a white majority to uphold neocolonial, supremacist systems.[6] Yet, some Trinbagonians retreated into denial and defensiveness. Willfully ignorant of ongoing class warfare and racial division, they vilified local activists and blamed Greaves for her killer’s actions, as though standing with her neighbors and bearing witness to their pleas warranted a bullet. And, like Mahabir, they saw Columbus’ statue as a national treasure, part of our immutable origin story. In their objections to rewriting canonical ‘History,’ they did not acknowledge that the story of this land was already underway when Columbus himself overwrote its Indigenous name, said to be Iere.[7]

Our national identity is predicated on disrupted stories and diabolical myths. We still cling to myths of colonization as a ‘civilizing’ and ‘enriching’ endeavor. We are schooled in myths of our intellectual and creative inferiority to the West. The architectures within which we live and labor are buttressed by these myths. We have seen that when the frail bandage of our fifty-eight-year-old independence is peeled back, we find our flesh to be putrefied. The cavernous wound that Columbus, the monarchs, and their militias left is festering beneath, oozing out as nationalist illogic, congenital self-hatred, and compulsive colonial apologism. 

II: Intervention

How might we begin to decontaminate our oldest, deepest wound? Dismantling the mythomania of public monuments is a worthy start. Using these statues, we can challenge people to disinvest from the typical ‘History’ of our nations and think critically about the hegemony it maintains. The defacement of Trinidad’s Columbus demonstrated that the arts are capable of sparking contentious but necessary conversations about publicly-glorified figures. Activating an existing public artwork can, according to art historian Veerle Poupeye, constitute a kind of “creative iconoclasm.”[8] Creative iconoclasts appropriate the statue’s materiality to excavate and accentuate neglected memories from the margins. There are several examples of incisive interventions by artists that unsettle the dominant ‘History’ of famous figures and re-center the perspectives it attempts to erase. Most importantly, interventions help us to imagine against the legacy we’ve inherited and seek other means with which to craft the future.

The Cloaking of the statue Ponce de Leon at the Torch of Friendship on Biscayne Blvd, Miami, Florida, (2019), dye-sublimation print on spandex fabric and wood structure, 7 x 3 x 4 ft. Photo by Zachary Balber, Courtesy of Fringe Projects Miami.

In one recent example, Dominican-American artist Joiri Minaya enshrouded two public statues in Miami, Florida with printed fabric. Her intervention, The Cloaking (2019), targeted statues of Juan Ponce de Léon and Christopher Columbus, wrapping them in floral textiles. [9] In an interview with art historian Marsha Pearce, Minaya explains that the botanic illustrations referenced in her prints recall colonial practices of categorizing and consuming nature, laying the groundwork for today’s exploitation of Caribbean resources and land.[10]However, the plants featured on her tropical patterns were used to combat colonial forces; Manchineel produced the poison that killed Ponce, while Castor was used by enslaved people for healing and traditional spiritual practices.[11] The plants are evidence of anti-colonial epistemologies pioneered by Indigenous and Black communities. Thus, Minaya appropriates a “colonial tool” of organizing and visualizing nature to “[highlight] stories of resistance and resilience.”[12]

Detail of Manchineel pattern design by Joiri Minaya, 2019.

In another public art intervention, Ewan Atkinson’s Neighbourhood Project calls attention to sites in his native Barbados by projecting images onto them.[13] In Starman Visits (2009), a mysterious character is projected onto the statue of Horatio Nelson, a British colonial admiral, located in Bridgetown. Starman is a visually arresting, five-pointed figure of light that spans buildings or hovers above landscapes in Atkinson’s nighttime photographs. Starman is described by the artist as “not native to the area…a builder at heart” and “purported thief.”[14] In Atkinson’s photograph of the projection, a constellation of purple, red, and white stars dot the statue’s chest in a burst of emancipatory radiance. Nelson’s features are lost in a sea of starlight, the details of his face and body unreadable in the image. Starman overwhelms and supersedes the stone underneath, his illuminated legs stretch past Nelsons’ and down to the pedestal. The visual and conceptual productions of Starman coalesce to overwrite Nelson’s, gripping imaginations long after the sun rises and the mysterious character disappears.

Ewan Atkinson. Untitled (Statue) from “Starman Visits”, 2009
Ewan Atkinson. Untitled (Empire) from “Starman Visits”, 2009

Public statues also depict famous figures in the field of science, like that of J. Marion Sims in New York City. Dr. Sims, a late-19th century gynecologist, conducted agonizing experimental surgeries—many of which failed, caused immense pain, and were performed in front of audiences—on enslaved women without anesthesia.[15] In his Patriots series (2018), Guyanese-Scottish artist Hew Locke photographed Sims’ statue and collaged it with metal embellishments, filigree, beads, chains, cowrie shells, and other materials to explore how exploitative methods used by the scientist overshadow his achievements. Skulls are prominent, along with the Staff of Asclepius, a symbol of the medical field. By conflating symbols of death and healing, Locke highlights the torment Sims inflicted in the process of his discoveries. The figure of a Black woman, Anarcha, emerges in gold-plating. Her image is based on a painting of her and Dr. Sims, the only known representation of the Black women behind Sims’ practice, as he used white women’s’ bodies to formally present his findings, in yet another case of historical whitewashing.[16] Locke complicates the image of Sims by re-inserting representations of those who not only suffered at his hands but whose names, faces, and voices were erased from his version of history.[17]

J. Marion Sims, Central Park, from the Patriots series (2018), c-type photograph with mixed media, 72 x 48 ins. Courtesy of Hew Locke and P·P·O·W, New York

Sasha Huber, Agassiz Down Under, poster series, 42 x 60 cm, (2015).

Swiss artist Sasha Huber also highlights the harmful legacy of a prominent 19th-century scientist, Louis Agassiz, who pioneered the racist, pseudoscientific dogma that would become foundational tenets of Nazi eugenics and apartheid. Informed by her Haitian roots, Huber’s postcolonial practice includes a prolific series that exposes Agassiz’s legacy.[18] As an immigrant and professor at Harvard University, Agassiz brought his beliefs to the US, where a generation of scientists—and the field itself—would be influenced by his xenophobic teachings.[19] For the exhibition Agassiz Down Under (2015), Huber used an image of Agassiz’s statue to create a series of takeaway posters.[20] During an earthquake in 1906, the statue had fallen head-first off a building and was embedded upside down in the concrete below, where it was photographed. Huber captioned the black-and-white image with information on contemporary US police violence and neofascism, as well as Agassiz’s history. The poster draws parallels between his influence on American academia and contemporary manifestations of racially-motivated violence. Ongoing anti-Black brutality is rooted in the historic formalization and naturalization of racial difference, established over centuries by scientists like Agassiz. Huber’s plural, recurrent interventions unpack the present-day consequences of the systematic, scientifically-sanctioned dehumanization of Black people. 

III: Banishment

The above-mentioned projects conceal public statues while exposing histories and perspectives that are not readily apparent. In Joiri Minaya’s work, Columbus and Ponce’s effigies become unrecognizable, amorphous shapes, while the botanical epistemologies used to subvert colonial control are visibly memorialized. Comparable to Minaya’s fabric, Ewan Atkinson’s Starman projection implodes Nelson’s figure with light and mythology, paradoxically drawing our attention to and from his history simultaneously. J. Marion Sims’ statue is also overwhelmed by Hew Locke’s collaged materials. The newly refashioned statue references the doctor’s malpractice and the enslaved Black women central to his discoveries. Sasha Huber’s posters prominently feature an image of Louis Agassiz in which he is unrecognizable, his face buried underground. Like Locke, she re-contextualizes the statue by centering those who have been harmed by Agassiz’s legacy. All of these interventions destabilize the dominance and veracity of ‘monumental’ histories. They co-opt hyper-visible historical figures and shift our gaze to the unseen. By monopolizing our attention, these artists have highlighted the truths excluded from and obscured by public monuments. 

While public art interventions can temporarily center historically-marginalized perspectives, what happens when they are no longer created? Will the monuments be allowed to remain in public, proclaiming the unopposed white lies of ‘History’? Despite their successful reorientations, the interventions are undercut by the statues’ apparent intransigence, anchored in place by ongoing state-sanctioned preservation. Even when re-framed, the ostensible permanence of the monuments is imbricated with insinuations of fixed power and an indelible ‘History’. As such, the statues cannot be allowed to remain on their pedestals indefinitely. They should be banished from public space. As a reminder of how glorified they have been, the statues could be photographed in order to create a useful archive of images that can facilitate future interventions. As we have seen, artists have used photographs as documentation of and mechanisms for interventions. The images can memorialize the statues’ inaugural placements after they have been removed.[21]

In the new necropolis, we will revive living memories which have too-long been abandoned while ghostly deceptions are religiously preserved. With every project—readings, wakes, counter-narratives, ceremonies, exhibitions, performances, lectures, and more—we will remember against ‘History,’ slowly and painfully eroding its hold. 

If 2020 is any indication, public parks (and other outdoor greenspaces) will only become more imperative to our collective well-being in the future. Communities of Black and Indigenous people, who have been doubly-plagued by the pandemic and state violence, should not be confronted by the violence of these statues on their daily commutes, taking a walk, or playing with their children. Of course, not all people of color are offended by the statues; as previously-noted, some Trinidadians disagree that the statue of Columbus in Port-of-Spain should be relocated. However, we cannot continue ignoring calls for its removal, especially by Native peoples. Our disregard for the Indigenous community’s requests perpetuates a long, grievous history of silencing and erasure.[22] We must listen to the cries of those who experience not only historical trauma, but also ongoing structural discrimination, especially if they are in the minority.[23] The modus operandi of public space must begin with a simple mantra: do no harm

IV: The Necropolis

Simply banishing statues of dead colonizers cannot dismantle the myths at its core. As such, these monuments should be collectively relocated to a new site, deposed from their pedestals, and put back on display with more nuanced and fluid framings. There, they can be used as platforms from which a new wave of consciousness might be launched. I share concerns about moving them to museums, which, despite brilliant contributions by radical artists, curators, and historians, continue to reinforce the colonial and imperial foundations on which they were built.[24] Unlike many art institutions, which have alienated visitors of color as well as those from working-class backgrounds, this new space should not further marginalize, patronize, stereotype, or scorn the general public. It should welcome all members of the community and be as accessible as possible.

I propose the specific designation of a new necropolis wherein the challenge of reflection and relearning can be met head-on. It will be a place of mourning, re-memorialization, meditation, and unbecoming, a cemetery in which the phantoms of colonizers can be properly exorcized from the Caribbean psyche. Hence, a compromise between ongoing public displays and removal to private, inaccessible institutions: a semi-public art space. In this newly-allotted space, viewers can elect to confront the statues, acknowledging that traumatic memories from fraught histories may be triggered. Knowing this going in, they can prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for an overdue historical overhaul. The statues could continue to serve as platforms for creative interventions, not only by visual artists, but also poets, activists, community members, and educators. Through open calls and new commissions, varied perspectives can be drawn from local cultural workers and scholars, fostering reparative, creative, and interdisciplinary approaches to decolonizing history. When the time comes that these interventions are no longer being produced, the statues should cease to be actively preserved or prominently displayed.

Ideally, the new necropolis will reorient the history of the land itself. There is hardly any stretch of land in the Caribbean without some horrendous history of subjugation, death, and destruction. However, tropes of tropical paradise continue to overshadow the dark histories of the land in service of tourism and other neoliberal exploits in the region. In Trinidad, for example, the Lopinot estate is a heritage site advertised as a must-see for tourists. It lies at the foothills of the three-peaked Northern Range that inspired this land’s inaugural historical erasure, Columbus’ renaming of Iere. The estate is named after Charles Joseph Comte Lopinot, a French soldier who fought alongside the British in Haiti against iconic revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture. After fleeing Port-au-Prince, Lopinot settled in Trinidad in 1800, where he was given land as reparations by the British. According to historian Claudius Fergus, not only was this land seized from an existing Indigenous community, but it was also used to establish a cocoa plantation by re-enslaving Black people who fled Haiti after they were legally emancipated. Fergus emphasizes that the story of Count Lopinot and his estate have been romanticized to an absurd degree:

For over 200 years, artists, anthropologists, historians, writers, poets and curators [of Lopinot estate] have propagated a glorious but false portrait of Compte de Lopinot as a loving, benevolent slave master, while stereotyping the Africans…as sheepishly docile, subservient and loyal to their enslaver… Many of the writers were slave owners and received substantial payments…Yet, against such prejudiced accounts, our first generation of post-colonial anthropologists and social historians simply resurrected the contemporary portraits of slavery and recycled them as authentic colonial narratives.[25]

This fable of a peaceful plantation filled with passive slaves led by a kind patriarch has been debunked by historians like Fergus, but the narrative prevails. Though legend has it that Lopinot himself haunts the grounds, the ongoing whitewashing of this stolen land—on which Black people were trafficked, oppressed, and slaughtered—is surely the more ominous specter. This boneyard—already echoing with the fury the of the re-enslaved—is as much an ode to colonial falsehood as Columbus’s statue. That is precisely why the estate must be reclaimed as a new hub for reparative history-making. 

In the new necropolis, we will revive living memories which have too long been abandoned while ghostly deceptions are religiously preserved. With every project—readings, wakes, counter-narratives, ceremonies, exhibitions, performances, lectures, and more—we will remember against ‘History,’ slowly and painfully eroding its hold. This space will be a new funeral plot for the old guard of ‘History,’ where previously-prominent statues will be buried by an avalanche of radical interventions. When enough time has passed, it will provide fertile ground for history-makers to continue sowing living, growing, mutating stories of their own. Then, the necropolis itself will be buried, and we will begin anew. 

[1] Sharlene Ram­per­sad, “Columbus Statue Defaced,” Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, June 16, 2020.

[2] Kumar Mahabir, “Black Power Agenda Threatens National Treasures.” Letters to the Editor. Wired868, June 25, 2020. 

[3] Ibid.

[4]  Corey Gilkes, “Colonial Monuments Carry Offensive Symbolism.” Letters to the Editor. Wired868, June 25, 2020. 

[5] The Chief of Police has denied allegations against his officers although eyewitnesses and video footage appear to contradict his statement. As of writing, no police officer has been indicted for Greaves’ murder and investigations are reportedly ongoing. For more context on the colonial-era law enforcement system in Trinidad and Tobago, see Johannah-Rae Reyes and Levi Gahman, “Hot Spots and Kill Shots in the (Post)Colonial State.” ROAR Magazine. August 1, 2020.

[6] A recent Supreme Court ruling in Jamaica, for example, upheld a school’s order that a child must cut her dreadlocs (styled for self-expression, not as part of her religion). It concluded that “The objective of creating a more controlled hygienic environment is important to the proper order and effective learning at the school and does not prevent the claimant from enjoying religious freedom.” Virgo v. Board of Management of Kensington Primary School, [2020] JMFC Full 6, Friday, July 31, 2020. While the ruling does not preclude Rasta children from attending schools, it harkens back to archaic stereotypes of Black hair being intrinsically ‘unhygienic’ or ‘unkempt.’ Hlonipha Mokoena, “From slavery to colonialism and school rules: a history of myths about black hair,” July 31, 2016.  

[7] Christo Adonis and Dr. Jo-Anne S. Ferreira. “Amerindian Languages in Trinidad and Tobago”. STAN. The University of The West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago.

[8] Veerle Poupeye. “Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 1.” Personal Blog. June 10, 2020.

[9] See T.D. Allman’s “Ponce de Len, Exposed.” for more on the Leon. New York Times, 2 Apr. 2013, p. A23(L).

[10] Marsha Pearce and Joiri Minaya, “The Relevance of Making Art,” Quarantine and Art Webpage. July 29, 2020.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Atkinson, Ewan. “The Neighbourhood Project.” Artist Website.

[14] Ibid.

[15] It was a commonly-held belief that Black people felt less pain than whites. Versions of this myth still covertly pervade the field of medicine today. See Tonya Russell’s “Racism in Care Leads to Health Disparities, Doctors and Other Experts Say as They Push for Change,” July 11, 2020. Washington Post

[16] Their ordeals went unacknowledged for over a century until activists like Harriet A. Washington and Viola Plummer drew attention to the issue. See Shankar Vedantam and Maggie Penman, “Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology.” National Public Radio. Also see Washington’s “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.” Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008.

[17] That version, “The story of my life”, published in 1888, is a prime example of how limited, biased historical ‘evidence’ leads to the whitewashing of problematic legacies. 

[18] Huber is part of the campaign, Demounting Louis Agassiz, which is committed to removing his name from a mountain in the Southern Alps. It is spearheaded by historian and activist Hans Fässler. See Hans Fässler (Translated from German by Billi Bierling), “Time to Change the Mountain Named after a Racist,” SWI, June 16, 2016. 

[19] Christoph Irmscher, “Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

[20] Sasha Huber, “Agassiz Down Under Posters,” Artist Website, 2015.

[21] It was recently announced that the statue of Nelson in Bridgetown will be taken down. The statue of Sims was taken down from Central Park just weeks after Locke snapped his photographs. Nadia Sayej, “J Marion Sims: Controversial Statue Taken down but Debate Still Rages,” The Guardian, April 21, 2018.

[22] Caribbean people have notoriously perpetuated the colonial myth that the Indigenous communities on our shores were wiped out. See Melanie J. Newton’s “Returns to a Native Land: Indigeneity and Decolonization in the Anglophone Caribbean,” Small Axe 17, no. 2 (July 26, 2013): 108–22. 

[23] It should be noted that there is also disagreement within Trinidadian indigenous communities about the statue. Trinidadian Indigenous peoples are internally-diverse and hold a variety of perspectives. See Ryan Hamilton-Davis “First Peoples Clash,” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, October 12, 2018.

[24] Kelli Morgan, “To Bear Witness: Real Talk about White Supremacy Culture in Art Museums Today,” Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper, June 23, 2020.

[25] See parts one and two of Fergus’ account for a full history of how Lopinot’s legacy has been whitewashed by estate proprietors. “From Romance to Reality: Why We Deserve the Truth about Compte de Lopinot and His ‘Contented Slaves.’” Wired868, October 9, 2018. 

Anchor image: The Cloaking of the statue of Christopher Columbus behind the Bayfront Park Amphitheatre, Miami, Florida, (2019), dye-sublimation print on spandex fabric and wood structure, 12 x 5 x 5 ft. Photo by Zachary Balber, Courtesy of Fringe Projects Miami.

Ashleigh Deosaran (b.1992, Trinidad and Tobago) is a multidisciplinary artist and writer. Her work has been published and exhibited in the U.S. and the Caribbean. She earned a B.A. in Fine Arts & Psychology from Pace University (’16), an M.A. in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University (’19), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Art History at Northwestern University. She researches contemporary Latinx art with a focus on the Anglophone Caribbean, through the lenses of critical theory, decolonial thought, and gender/sexuality studies. She is currently featured in the Pace University Alumni Exhibition, Sights Unseen, curated by Barbara Friedman. 

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.