Lessons from Louis: Academia, Idealism and the Work that Must be Done.

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I haven’t published a post in over a year. Today I felt inspired.

Love, Nicosia.

 

On Thursday March 10, 2016, Louis Lindsay, a great Caribbean intellectual, teacher, mentor, friend, brother and father, was laid to rest. As people gathered in Kingston, Jamaica to pay tribute to him, I was in Providence, Rhode Island attending a workshop on Inclusive Pedagogy. That workshop and others, are part of Brown University’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP) constructed in response to student activism around racism, sexism and the other -isms embedded in the university since its founding in 1764. Throughout the United States, students have mobilized around similar issues, and the Fees Must Fall Movement in South Africa, and other student protests globally, are boldly  confronting oppression within academia and the wider society.

 “Males who nurture? Older men who care about young women’s brains? Is this a double paradox?”

When Louis transitioned on February 25, I didn’t fully reflect on his life and death. Like many Jamaicans I was pre-occupied with the results of the latest national election, and like many Brown students I was pre-occupied with the diversity crisis. I mainly confronted the sadness of his death, and liked memorial Facebook posts by his former students and my contemporaries. The day of the funeral, Maziki Thame, one of Louis’ friends and former students sent me the tribute she read. And Nadeen Spence, a former student, posted a moving Facebook post about him. Maziki spoke about Louis’ intellectual gifts to his students, his struggles with illness and his role as her confidante, counselor and friend. Drawing on former student, Taitu Heron’s tribute to Louis, Nadeen located him within a collective of Caribbean men, who nurtured young women − who “gave them wings”. To this I would add that these men were not wholly immunized against patriarchy (most of us aren’t), but they were progressive. Males who nurture? Older men who care about young women’s brains? Is this a double paradox, or an indication of what happens when people with a certain privilege are able to self-reflect? That it would even seem paradoxical is an indication of how much we have bought into gender role fallacies.

My father introduced me to revolutionary thought at the age of seven when he told me that God is Black. I was given a beautiful Ghanaian children’s book that had an image of the Supreme Being in it. God was Black with thick lips, a broad nose and crinkly hair, and he wore a bright gold earring. As I grew into my womanist consciousness, I questioned the maleness of the image, but at that point, its mere Blackness was enough to inspire me. That was the moment when I realized that the world is not what it seems – that power comes through images and representations as much as it comes through economics and military might. My mother is the one who taught me how to make and subvert images through art. From drawing to crochet, to play writing to acting, there was nothing that she could not create, and I watched and learned from her. She also taught me the importance of spirituality and culture and their important role in intellectual development. My parents were children of the 60s and 70s: my father in particular is a major adherent of Black Power, and socialist thought. They gave me the name, Nkosia Machel in recognition of the Southern African freedom struggles. (The jury is still out on how the first name got changed to “Nicosia” after my parents registered me). As a teenager I read books by CLR James, Walter Rodney and Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and The Black Jacobins were placed alongside high school literature books that were equally impressive: Edgell’s Beka Lamb, Anthony’s Green Days by the River, Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Brathwaite’s Odale’s Choice.

 “… that rare academic who treats the student like a colleague”

By the time I got to the University of the West Indies, Mona I was already a Caribbean idealist: seeing the world as it is, knowing it could change and preoccupying myself with how to change it. UWI was the intellectual bastion for that idealism. I took classes with, and met scholars whose work I had long admired: people like Rupert Lewis, Carolyn Cooper, Barry Chevannes, Trevor Munroe, Erna Brodber, Clinton Hutton, Tony Bogues, Brian Meeks, and Verene Shepherd. Because Louis never published a book, I wasn’t aware of his work until postgrad when I did classes with him. He was a fascinating man; a scholar who was as bright as they came. His essays, “The Myth of Independence”, and “The Myth of a Civilizing Mission” should be mandatory reading for anyone studying the Caribbean. Louis was also an intellectual who openly admitted his flaws and his personal struggles. He was that rare academic who treats the student like a colleague. He didn’t break the academic hierarchy. He simply ignored it.

Caribbean academia, like all others, is at a critical juncture: we are seeking neo-liberal economic models as short term solutions, progressive voices are being shrugged off as too utopian, women’s progress is being interpreted as a threat to men’s power and pressing identity issues are increasingly being ignored. Similarly, in the United States, many departments and universities that are supposed to represent marginalized peoples are reproducing the very systems they intellectualize against. We need to question a lot of our thinking. For example, we may be over-employing structural analyses. Our discourse around oppressive “structures” is very useful, because it allows us to de-individualize and broaden how we think about oppression. But I fear its overuse has created a blind spot. What can get hidden in the structural analysis is the behavior of powerful individuals,[1] including Black, and other people of color, who continue to re-enforce these structures: The behavior of sexist Caribbean/African/African-American academics who mistreat bright woman colleagues in order to enforce their manhood project. The anti-LGBTQ behavior that is damaging us. Our various anti-Black behaviors that lead us to dissociate from the poorest and darkest people. In sum, we need to focus some more on pinpointing the destructive behaviors of individuals, including ourselves.

Louis Lindsay spoke about the challenges of the Caribbean: historical pain, the struggle to overcome the colonial past and imperialist present, the suppression of progressive movements and increasing neo-liberal apathy. But he also spoke about and embodied the Caribbean’s strengths: amazing talent, brilliance, beauty, perseverance, inner determination belying physical drawbacks, audacity, joy in life’s everyday pleasures.

Towards the end of her tribute to Louis, Maziki said,

the light of the 70s went out for Louis and for many Jamaicans and he struggled to recoup and to continue the effort. I met him during that struggle and he passed it on to me, he asked me and all his students, without really asking, to continue, to rethink, to reorganize, to trust ourselves and the people.”

That statement encapsulates how many of us who studied at UWI in the 1990s-early 2000s feel about him and other inspiring teachers and colleagues.

“our responsibility must be to nurture idealistic thought and practice, and it will mean making some hard decisions about our relationship to White supremacy and how it seeps into the way we think and behave.”

As I think about contemporary global activism: the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Caribbean Reparations movement, anti-war struggles around the world, a re-valuing of socialist paradigms, and essentially, what might to be a brewing revolutionary moment, I wonder about the role of academia. I believe that our responsibility must be to nurture idealistic thought and practice, and it will mean making some hard decisions about our relationship to White supremacy and how it seeps into the way we think and behave. The way Louis related to his students can be understood as useful political practice within academia. One that centers the communal voice, but respects the individual. One that sees enjoyment, uninhibited self-expression and spiritual awareness as indispensable in overcoming our subjugation. One that self-reflects and admits to its flaws.

Rest well Louis, and all my progressive teachers who have passed on.

 

 

N.B.  The featured photograph is of the Fees Must Fall and anti-outsourcing protest at University of Cape Town, South Africa on October 20, 2015. Photo by N. Shakes.

A part of the sub-title of this post signifies on Marcus Garvey’s famous 1937 speech, The Work that Has been Done, more commonly known as the “mental slavery speech”.

[1] W.D. Wright offers a good critique of the philosophical aspect of structural analyses in Black Intellectuals, Black Cognition and a Black Aesthetic. (1997.

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