A Praise Song for Donna

There are rare people who possess such boundless energy that it is impossible for them to really die. Donna MacFarlane has passed on, but she lives on in the imprint she made on the lives of everyone who worked closely with her and knew her well.  I remember the day that small staff of Liberty Hall moved into an almost empty building that the Friends of Liberty Hall, Institute of Jamaica and committed Garveyites and government members had worked tirelessly to restore. There we were, the baton in our hands figuring out how to fill this place and fulfill the dream of a living monument to our great Ancestor, Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

What Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey is today – that work that we are so immensely proud of, would not have been achieved without the vision of this woman. Her vision was bigger than all of us – bigger than her. She was the definition of tenacity and vigor – Black pride and self-confidence personified. Royalty.


The last time I saw Donna in person, she and her husband, Claude came to visit me in Rhode Island in April 2017.  She had gotten a break from her treatment and they decided to take a short holiday in New England. I had spent the previous 8 months in physical isolation from my Jamaican family, writing the dissertation and applying for jobs; so I was almost completely drained of energy and in that gloomy anticlimactic state following getting the PhD.  I was beyond ecstatic to see them! To congratulate me they gave me a gift of handcrafted ceramic plates and a hand painted congratulations card. Inside, Donna wrote an African proverb, “Reach up and grab all that you wish.” Grabbing all she wished meant that Donna worked and played hard. She loved fun and excitement, especially music and dancing.

Nicosia at Donna's memorial

At the celebration of life ceremony on Feb. 3, Kingston, Jamaica

The last time I spoke to her was via a WhatsApp video call made by Shani Roper, LH’s Acting Director, a week before she passed (I am forever grateful I got the chance to do so). Of all things — and this is soooo Donna — the only question she had for me was if I had gone to the Shaggy and Friends 2018 show, which she had insisted I couldn’t miss. I told her I had gotten a front row seat by watching the live stream in my bed instead of going. She smiled and nodded. We said our goodbyes without saying “goodbye” after just a minute of conversation that she had reached deep into her stores of energy to participated in. That was exactly a week before she passed.

This tension between her passing and her very real presence in my/our consciousness is the root of the loss I feel. It is a struggle to reconcile the physical end with her immortal presence through inspiration; an inspiration so deep that even when I disagreed with her, I was in awe of her.

At the 2011 Sankofa symposium at Liberty Hall, Donna read a poem by well-known Black American artist, writer and educator, Margaret Burroughs who co-founded the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. The title of the poem is, “What Will Your Legacy Be?” Borroughs wrote and Donna recited,

… Stop for a moment and listen to me and answer this question if you can.

What will your legacy be?

What deeds have you done in your lifetime which will be left for you to be remembered by?

Will it be just a gray decaying tombstone standing alone in a cemetery or will it be, as it should be, some act, some service or some deed that will insure that you will be remembered on and into the eternity of life’s game?

I ask you. What will your legacy be?

Will it be the fact that you helped somebody along the way, during the time while you were here on earth?

What will your legacy be? …

Donna spoke the words and she knew her own answer to that question. Her legacy is her family – the biological ones and the ones she gathered through her tremendous intelligence, ability for love, vibrancy and service. Her legacy is the work that she left for us to complete. Her legacy is us – the people who she taught, learned from, debated with, loved and inspired.

And now she is among the Ancestors. What a powerful Ancestor to have! We miss you, but waak gud Nana.


Dr. Donna MacFarlane O.D., pan-African intellectual and activist, museologist, lecturer, author, mother, friend, mentor, sister etc. etc. etc. was Director/Curator of Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey from 2003 to 2018.  She received the Jamaica Order of Distinction in October 2017 for her service to the nation. This article is an extended version of my contribution to Liberty Hall’s tribute at her celebration of life on February 3, 2018.


The Self-Identity touch screen exhibition in the newly renovated Marcus Mosiah Garvey Multimedia Museum. (Donna dramatizes Nikki’s story)


A section of the newly designed Marcus Mosiah Garvey Multimedia Museum in 2017

*The Adinkra symbol at the top is ese ne tekrema, “the teeth and the tongue”, the symbol of friendship and interdependence.

Images: MMG Multimedia Museum, 2017 (c) N. Shakes; Donna MacFarlane, circa 2016 courtesy of Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey;  N. Shakes at Donna MacFarlane’s celebration of life, 2018; inside the newly renovated Marcus Mosiah Garvey Multimedia Museum, 2017 (c) N. Shakes

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