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.

Donna

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

Research

Book Manuscript: Gender, Race and Performance Space: Women’s Activism in Jamaican and South African Theatre. Under contract with University of Illinois Press. ***Winner of the 2017 National Women’s Studies/University of Illinois Press First Book Prize.

About the Book

Africana women’s experiences are characterized by a milieu of differences and intersections – of time, of space, of place, of physicality; distinguished by race, sexuality, gender, class and cartographic boundaries. These are affected by the experiences of the middle passage, colonialism, segregation, apartheid and modern spatial trans/figurations such as gentrification and the ghettoization of Black communities throughout the world.

Considering this history and present, how do Africana women use performance to define and redefine the gendered bounds of geographic space ?  And

How is this defining and redefining situated in imaginations of democracy and freedom  that center racial, gender, sexual and economic justice?

In response to these two questions Shakes’ book makes two central assertions. First, that theatre exists as an essential theoretical and practical means through which Africana women have forged feminisms and womanism.  Second, an examination of public and site-specific women’s theatre allows us to comprehend the different ways that Africana women are creating pedagogies that frame democracy beyond its electoral-specific conceptualization to encapsulate gender, sexual, racial and economic justice.

The book focuses on the work of four groups, projects and organizations. These are, Sistren Theatre Collective and the Memory, Urban Violence and Performance Project in Jamaica, and The Mothertongue Project and Olive Tree Theatre Company in South Africa. Shakes locates them within nationally-specific contexts of Jamaican and South African theatre as well as the global context of Africana women’s performance-based pedagogy.  Through public and site-specific performances these groups disrupt the problematic ways that women’s bodies are racially and sexually interpreted as they move within the public sphere. Concurrently, by focusing on marginalized Black communities they transgress the geographic manifestations of gender-based, racial and economic inequalities.

Watch her speak about her research, with reference to Sistren Theatre Collective, Jamaica and The Mothertongue Project, South Africa here.
hannah-town-picNicosia Shakes with members of the Hannah Town Cultural Group, creators and performers of “A Slice of Reality”in Hannah Town, Kingston, Jamaica, June 2015.

Creative Portfolio

CREATIVE VISION:

I create, perform, coordinate and theorize about performances that comment on social issues, especially those connected to race, gender, sexuality, and class. My main influences are theatre artists in Africa and the African Diaspora who dedicate their careers to developing innovative techniques while learning from rich theatrical traditions found across the globe. I am in the early stages of developing a career in playwriting that draws on two decades of experience in theatre as well as the transnational networks I continue to form with a diverse set of theatre/performance artists.

 WRITING

AFIBA AND HER DAUGHTERS – A Play in Two Acts

Rites and Reason Theatre, Providence RI, May 25 to 28, 2016. World Premiere.

Afiba and Her Daughters is my first full length play. It had its beginnings as a treatment for a screenplay that I submitted as part of my application to the MA Program in Scriptwriting at Goldsmith College, University of London in 2009. I was accepted by the Program, but could not pursue it because of financial reasons. However, four years later in 2013, I began developing the story into a play in Elmo Terry Morgan’s Research to Performance Method Playwriting Class at Brown University. Afiba and Her Daughters is an intergenerational play that represents how the women in a Jamaican family negotiate racial, gender and class oppression in the country. Afiba is an enslaved woman who suffers dearly after performing a single act of liberation in 1818. The protagonist, Dana Carnegie, Afiba’s descendant, belongs to the group of feminist intellectuals that came to voice in the 1970s in Jamaica. She serves as the playwright’s surrogate as she writes and tries to publish her family’s story with Afiba at the centre. From slavery to colonialism, to the early post-colonial era, to Jamaica’s experiment with democratic socialism in the 1970s, the play offers snapshots as well as details about the context in which these women try to live fulfilling lives. Rites and Reason Theatre produced the play under the direction of John Emigh, Professor Emeritus of Theatre and Performance Studies, Brown University. It opened on African Liberation Day, May 25, 2016 and had a successful four-day run that closed on May 28, 2016. Afiba and Her Daughters features original songs, and original music by the playwright and Providence-based, musician, Lon E. Plynton.

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Photos: Top left to bottom right: Angela Nash Wade (Amy Spencer) and Becky Bass (Miss Watson), Shenyse Leanna Harris (Afiba/Christine Carnegie), Sylvia Ann-Soares (Besi) and Cleveish Bogle (Cubah), Angela Lynsey Ford (Dana Carnegie) and Ezekiel Olukoya (Jonathon Griffiths) in scenes from Afiba and Her Daughters. Photos by Nicosia Shakes.

 
PREMIERE RUN: May 25 to 28, 2016, Rites and Reason Theatre, 155 Angell Street, Providence RI 02912. PRODUCTION TEAM/CAST (Abridged): Director: John Emigh, Producer: Karen Allen Baxter, Dramaturg: Elmo Terry Morgan, Production Assistant: Kathy Moyer, Technical Director: Alonzo T. Jones, Musical Director: Lon E. Plynton, Costume Design: Lisa Batt-Parente. Actors: Becky Bass,  Cleveish Bogle, Angela Lynsey Ford, Viraj Gandhi, Warren Harding, Shenyse Harris, Angela Nash, Ezekiel Olukoya, Tom Paolino, Sylvia-Ann Soares. BAND: The Mystic Jammers.
Watch a video clip here

TWO STORIES – A Play in One Act

Tallawah Drama Festival, November 1999.

Two Stories, a one-act play with three characters is about a conversation that accidentally happens between two women connected to the same man. One is married to the man, the other is engaged in an illicit relationship with him. In a series of flashbacks the women talk about their experiences, from the beginning of each relationship to the problems that eventually result. It was written as an entry to the Tallawah Drama Festival, a national theatre festival held at the Phillip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, University of the West Indies, Mona. The play received the awards for Best New Script and Best Actress.

PREMIERE PERFORMANCE: November 18, 1999, Phillip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, University of the West Indies, Mona, Kingston, Jamaica. PRODUCTION TEAM/CAST: Producer, Director and Costume and Set Designer: Nicosia Shakes, Actors: Tonni-Ann Brodber, Shelly-Ann Wittock and Shaun Thomas.  AWARDS: Best New Script, Best Actress (Tonni-Ann Brodber), High Commendation in Directing (Nicosia Shakes).

LOST SON – A Play in One Act

Tallawah Drama Festival, November 1999.

The late 1990s was an unfortunate turning point in Jamaica’s history of gang-related violence. Murders were at a record high and many Jamaicans, including myself, felt that the tone of the violence was becoming more and more indiscriminate. People who may have previously been considered “off limits” as possible victims, including babies and women, were being targeted mostly for retaliation. Lost Son tells the tragic story of a young couple from one of Jamaica’s volatile inner-city communities, who become enmeshed in the violence. The main protagonists are Stacey, a newly pregnant young woman, Tony her partner and Paula, Stacey’s inquisitive and supportive friend. It was as an entry to the Tallawah Drama Festival. I received High Commendation for directing it.

PREMIERE PERFORMANCE: November 19, 1999, Tallawah Drama Festival, PSCCA. PRODUCTION TEAM/CAST: Producer and Costume and Set Designer: Nicosia Shakes, Director: Andrea Grant. Actors: Nicosia Shakes, Martin Thame and Dionne Thompson.

BLACK PEARL – A Performance Poem

Tallawah Drama Festival 2000.

Part dub, and part pentametric, this poem is a meditation on anti-Black racism and Diasporic Africans’ connection to the continent.

PREMIERE PERFORMANCE: November 19, 2000, Tallawah Drama Festival, PSCCA. PERFORMER: Clive Forrester. AWARD: Best Poem.

  PRODUCTION COORDINATION

SONG FOR THE BELOVED: MEMORY AND RENEWAL AT THE MARGINS OF JUSTICE

An Interactive Exhibition and Performance by The Memory, Urban Violence and Performance Project, The Garvey Great Hall, Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey, Kingston, Jamaica, May 2015.

Song for the Beloved: Memory and Renewal at the Margins of Justice was an interactive exhibition and performance mounted in Kingston, Jamaica in 2015. It was one in the series of performances from the Memory, Urban Violence and Performance Project, initiated by Honor Ford-Smith who is also Principal Researcher. Ford-Smith is a Jamaican scholar, actor, playwright and former Artistic Director of Sistren Theatre Collective. She teaches in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. The Project began in 2007 as a Jamaican-centered transnational exploration of the ways in which people who reside in volatile urban communities remember and forget the lives lost as a result of violence. It blends visual arts, public performances, theatre, multimedia and art installations/exhibitions, and has been enacted in Kingston, Jamaica; Toronto, Canada; Bogotá, Colombia; New York and New Jersey, United States. The exhibition/performance consisted of memorial tables influenced by Jamaican Revival, images of Jamaican persons who died violently, and a multimedia slide show of memorial street art in urban Jamaica. The exhibition opened with a staged reading of the monodrama, A Vigil for Roxie, co-created based on ethnographic research, by Honor Ford-Smith, Amba Chevannes, Carol Lawes, the actor and Eugene Williams, the director. This exhibition/performance was dedicated to the lives lost during the 2010 West Kingston Incursion in which seventy people were killed (49 unarmed), mainly by the Jamaican police and army. May 25, 2015 was the fifth anniversary of the incursion. The exhibition was curated by Honor Ford-Smith and Anique Jordan and designed by Honor Ford-Smith, Anique Jordan and Kara Springer.

 audience single-bottletable-and-image2   carol-lawes

Photos, top left to bottom right: the audience, two sections of the interactive exhibition and Carol Lawes reading A Vigil for Roxie. Photos by Nicosia Shakes.

PRODUCTION RUN: May 25 to 28, 2015. PRODUCTION TEAM: Principal Researcher – Honor Ford-Smith, Curators – Honor Ford-Smith and Anique Jordan, Exhibition Design – Honor Ford-Smith, Anique Jordan, Kara Springer. CREATORS OF A Vigil for Roxie: Amba Chevannes, Carol Lawes, Honor Ford-Smith, Eugene Williams; Actor: Carol Lawes; Director: Eugene Williams.

DIRECTING

A READING OF SLAVE NARRATIVES FROM THE CARIBBEAN AND THE UNITED STATES

Performed at SANKOFA: A Symposium on Slavery and its Impact on Contemporary Jamaica, organized by Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey at The Institute of Jamaica auditorium, 12 East Street, Kingston, Jamaica. February, 2004.

SANKOFA: Slavery and its Impact on Contemporary Jamaica was the first in an annual symposium that I organized while working as Research Officer at Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey, a cultural and educational institution dedicated to Marcus Garvey, the important Jamaican Pan-African philosopher and leader. As part of the symposium, I collated and directed a performance of five slave narratives from Jamaica, Bermuda, Cuba and The United States. The narratives were woven throughout the symposium and performed at different points in the program with the readers/ actors approaching from various sections of the auditorium. I directed the narratives as well as performed an excerpt from The History of Mary Prince, a woman enslaved in Bermuda during the early 19th century.

jasmine-everett-reads-the-slave-narrative-of-akeiso-renamed  abbebe-sankofa nicosia-shakes-reads-an-excerpt-from-the-slave-narrative-ofPhotos, left to right: Jasmine Everett reading the narrative of Akeiso [sic] enslaved in Jamaica, 1700s, Abbebe Payne reading the narrative of James Fisher, U.S.A. 1800s and Nicosia Shakes reading the History of Mary Prince, enslaved in Bermuda in the 1700s to 1800s. Photo Copyright Liberty Hall, 2004.

PRODUCTION: February 27, 2004. PRODUCTION TEAM/CAST: Producer – Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey, Director/Costume Designer – Nicosia Shakes. Performers: Jasmine Everett, Cleon “Ras Ja Ja” Golding, Donna MacFarlane, Abbebe Payne, Nicosia Shakes, Wayne Modest.

PERFORMING

SONG FOR THE BELOVED

Performance at the Tenth Encuentro of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, University of Chile, Santiago, Chile, July, 2016

Song for the Beloved is the most recent performance in the Memory, Urban Violence and Performance Project, which is directed by Honor Ford-Smith who is also Principal Researcher. Song for the Beloved was an interactive performance installation done as part of Encuentro eXcéntrico: “Cuerpos, soberanías y disidencias“, the Tenth Encuentro of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics in Santiago, Chile. Influenced by Jamaican Revival, an Afro-Christian religion and philosophy, the installation consisted of a large memorial table bearing stones with names of persons who had died violently in Jamaica and other countries in the Americas, a multimedia slideshow of performances of the MUVAP project in Jamaica and Canada, and three tables featuring one performer that interacted in different ways with visitors/participants. I was positioned at the Justice Table where I invited visitors to talk about loved ones they had lost to violence and their vision of reparations. The other performers were Camille Turner and Honor Ford-Smith. The performance was created by Ford-Smith, media performance artist, Camille Turner and visual artists, Kara Springer and Anique Jordan. It was dedicated to Black Lives Matter.

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Photos Left to right: Nicosia Shakes at the Justice Table, visitors/participants at the central memorial table, “Song for the Beloved”. Photos by Kara Springer, copyright Nicosia Shakes.

Read the extended version of Nicosia  Shakes’ Creative Portfolio.

Staging Jamaican Herstory with “Afiba and Her Daughters”

 

The past, the present and the future are not separate. They bleed into each other. This is the philosophy put forward by my new play, Afiba and her Daughters. It is based on powerful African wisdom, like the Adinkra principle of Sankofa; and the acknowledgement that the ancestors are ever present in our day to day realities.

In 2003, I had an idea to write a screenplay about a Jamaican university student who comes of age in the 1960s, using the 1968 Walter Rodney protests as the catalytic event. For years this idea marinated but never manifested. Then in 2009, I successfully applied to the MA in Scriptwriting program at Goldsmiths College, University of London with a proposal to turn this idea into a screenplay that would be called, Brother Wally, centering Walter Rodney as the protagonist’s inspiration. Julian Henriques, director of the scriptwriting program saw much potential in it. But I never got to go to Goldsmiths. It was too expensive and I was not eligible for a scholarship, because I already had a Master’s degree, and UK rules were strict on providing funding for foreign nationals who already had equivalent degrees. However, three years later this screenplay became a theatre play after I began studying at Brown University. I made two major changes : First, my male protagonist became female. Not only was I wary about writing from a male perspective, I was also uncomfortable about reproducing yet again the narrative of the radical Black man, with supporting woman characters. Secondly, the story became more complex, and grew to centre on Black Jamaican women’s struggles and triumphs. I wrote act one in Elmo Terry Morgan’s Research to Performance Method class in fall 2012, and act two was written with director, John Emigh’s encouragement in 2015.

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Shenyse Harris as the title character, Afiba. Photo by John Emigh

The play is an inter-generational story about a loving but troubled family. It spans the period of slavery leading up to Emancipation, the 1930s, 1940s, 1960s and the turbulent late ’70s on the brink of the end to democratic socialism. It has been and will continue to be a challenging but rewarding process: trying to manage the exhausting tasks of writing a dissertation, while developing a very complex play (which includes three original songs penned by me) separately; writing about Black women; writing about trauma while trying to have the characters also find joy in their lives; writing a Jamaican play in the United States; being guided by research but harnessing as much artistic freedom as possible; and trying not to self-critique to the extent that I become unable to create. [1]

Difficult but cathartic”

The process has been difficult but cathartic.  I am participating again in theatre, one of the great loves of my life, after too many years of only doing non-theatrical work. And I have the support of an institution dedicated to plays that do not fit the norms within mainstream commercial theatre, with an amazing talented director, cast and crew.  The play has allowed me to sort through my own complex understandings of Jamaica’s legacies of slavery and colonialism, and more contemporary oppressive structures. It has also strengthened my admiration for the intelligence, strength and beauty of Jamaican people, people of African descent in general, and all of the rebel women who continue to guide us.

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From left: Lynsey Ford, Shenyse Harris and Angela Nash in rehearsal. Photo by N. Shakes

Afiba and her Daughters opens on African Liberation Day, Wednesday May 25, 2016 and closes on Saturday, May 28, 2016. Performances will be on May 25, 26 and 27 at 7:00 p.m. and May 28 at 11:00 a.m. Discussions will follow the May 27 and May 28 performances. It is being directed by John Emigh and produced by Rites and Reason Theatre, Africana Studies, Brown University, with original music and two original songs by Lon E. Plynton and featuring Becky Bass and the Mystic Jammers.

rehearsal
Music rehearsal with Lon Plynton (on piano), From left: Tom Paolino, Becky Bass, Lynsey Ford, Viraj Gandhi, Sylvia-Ann Soares and Shenyse Harris. Photo by N. Shakes.

 “It takes a Village”

It takes a village to make a play, and Afiba and her Daughters has a huge transnational village.

My profound gratitude belongs first with The Creator and The Ancestors, who inspired the story. Thank you to the hardworking creative team at Rites and Reason: Karen Allen-Baxter, Alonzo Jones, Elmo Terry Morgan and Kathy Moyer, as well as the Department of Africana Studies, headed by Prof. Brian Meeks. And thanks to the director John Emigh, who is  deeply committed to the project. The following list reflects persons with whom I worked closely on developing this play and on my general research. There are/will be myriad others who work with the crew, and will be acknowledged in the play’s program and later writings by me:

Development of the Script/Advice on Craft: John Emigh, Honor Ford-Smith,  Kashka Hemans, Elmo Terry-Morgan.

Production and Technical Support: Rites and Reason Team: Karen Allen Baxter, Alonzo Jones, Kathy Moyer.

The Cast and Crew: Becky Bass, Lisa Batt-Parente, Cleveish Bogle, Lynsey Ford, Viraj Gandhi, Warren Harding, Shenyse Harris, Angela Nash, Ezekiel Olukoya, Tom Paolino, Lon Plynton, Sylvia-Ann Soares, Emily Varden.

Research (Jamaica and the United States): Tony Bogues, Carolyn Cooper, Anani Dzidyienyo, Warren Harding, Taitu Heron, Rupert Lewis, Brian Meeks, Abbebe Payne, Keisha-Khan Perry (diss. advisor), Shani Roper-Edwards,  Edward Shakes, Elaine Shakes, Maziki Thame.

Participants in developmental readings:Arielle Brown, Alexis Green, Dennis Kozee, Ashley Mitchell, David Samuel and Kyle Vincent Terry.

Props  sourced in Jamaica: Rion Smith, sculptor;  Phillip Supersad, drummer/sculptor, drum maker, the Institute of Jamaica.

Thank you as well to all of the family members, old friends and new ones, who listened intently to me as I talked endlessly about this play and gave me advice: people like actor/playwright, Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni and my sister, Tracey Clarke.

Asé Ire, Love and Balance,

Nicosia.

[This is a longer version of the playwright’s notes that will be published in the program for the play].

 The featured image at the beginning of this post is of a grave marker (from the period of slavery in Jamaica). It was reproduced by Jamaican sculptor, Rion Smith, from the artifact housed at the Institute of Jamaica, Kingston for this play. Photo by N. Shakes.
[1] Self-criticism is absolutely necessary. However, Black woman artists have to add to their own self-critical reflective process, intense external perceptions: of inadvertently re-enforcing stereotypes, of not being representative enough of the group, of not providing the audience with enough information, of not being “political” enough, of being too “political”. This makes the general process of creating art stressful for Black women as much as it has also been pleasurable, and  a necessary part of our self-expression and activism. For Black woman artists from developing countries working in developed countries, working-class Black woman artists, and Black queer woman artists, the process is even more difficult. This is one of the topics I explore in my dissertation.

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

 

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. 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.

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”.

 

The UWI’s Unacceptable Response to Reports of Gender-Based Violence

(This blog was published in The Daily Gleaner of February 11, 2015 under the title, “UWI Blind to Sexist Violence”)

I read with dismay the official response of the administration of the University of the West Indies to claims about gender-based violence at the Mona Campus, published as the Letter of the Day in the Saturday February 7, 2015 of the Daily Gleaner. I am dismayed, but not surprised that the UWI administration seems far more concerned with its reputation than with actually investigating and trying to engender (pun not intended) a proper conversation. Its defensive letter of response may partly stem from the sensational headlines accompanying the Sunday Gleaner article that prompted this recent controversy. (It is hyperbolically titled, “Halls of Horror”). But, the tone of the response is also characteristic of the University’s general approach over the decades to this issue. Taitu Heron’s 2013 study, “Whose Business is it? Violence against Women at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus,” is available online. She includes among her findings, information about the way in which the University administration reprimanded a student group that tried to have a proper conversation about the problem some years ago. Others can attest to this somewhat reactionary position of the University administration over the years. In her article, “Sexual Assault and UWI: Can We Talk?” Annie Paul gives numerous examples of members of the UWI administration reprimanding individuals and groups who have spoken publicly about gender-based violence there.

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Regional headquarters of the UWI at Mona
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UWI Mona main library

Additionally, I am disturbed by the rhetorical gymnastics employed in UWI’s response. I will only look at three of these problematic statements: Firstly, the response points out that the cases reported constitute “fewer than one per cent of students … over a five-year period.” This appears to reference Taitu Heron’s findings that 67 cases were reported between 2010-2012 to the office of security services. The UWI’s letter of response does not specify whether they found any other reports from campus security about gender-based violence since then. In my opinion, the number given by Heron is still a large one in such a small community.  It may or may not indicate a rampant problem, but considering that studies show that most people do not report gender-based violence, the figure is still shocking. Secondly, the response is careful to mention that “70 percent” of the students at the University are female. I guess this is supposed to lead us to conclude that a female majority means that women are disproportionately empowered and that gender violence could not possibly be a problem. Without going into a long lecture about how patriarchy operates, including the fact that women also participate in it, and that it relies mostly on power structures, and less on numbers, I will just simply state one thing: A particular gender’s demographic majority does not ipso facto equate to said gender’s empowerment. Thirdly, the response states, “the university is a microcosm of the wider society,” as a way of diverting any specific blame from the campus towards the country and region.  Since UWI has carefully made that observation, we can engage with it by asking the following question: Given that the wider society has a big problem with gender-based violence, wouldn’t the University as a microcosm of this society also have a big problem with it? Furthermore, in many ways there is a specific campus culture – particularly on halls of residence – that amplifies sexism within the wider society, including problematic notions of masculinity and femininity. There are certain initiation practices and traditions that are disturbingly sexist. A case in point is the infamous “panty tree”, which was decorated by men on one of the halls of residence.

Gender-based assault on university campuses is a global issue; where the UWI administration differs from many others is that it is yet to acknowledge the problem in a meaningful way that will lead to a transformation. There are many ways in which UWI could have responded publicly to this controversy in a manner that shows concern for students and that also seeks to defend its reputation. For example, the University could have begun the response by categorically condemning gender-based violence while at the same time questioning the labeling of its campus as a “haven” for sexual assailants; it could further investigate the matter and prepare a report that is sent to every student, staff and faculty member; it could display a willingness to critically re-examine measures in place; it could choose not to conflate gender violence under the generic rubrics of “campus security” and conflict management, but treat it as a unique offence in which survivors are usually shamed into silence. By implying that it is more concerned with its reputation than with the plight of violated students, the UWI administration compromised itself long ago as a safe avenue through which these students can report their experiences. How many students and staff members will now be willing to come forward and report cases, without feeling that they are destroying the UWI’s reputation? Finally, as a past student of the UWI, I know of many cases of gender-based violence while I was there; including stalking, beating, sexual assault of women and anti-gay violence in different forms. I once had to report a case of stalking to the campus police. (I hope they are better trained to deal with this now than when I was a student, because I found them very insensitive at the time). Over the years, I have had conversations with students and staff members about this continuing problem. Whether you are the survivor of an assault, a witness, or someone who heard about an assault, we understand one thing: that the administration of the University of the West Indies does not like when people speak up about this, and you are likely to be reprimanded when you do. I left UWI as a student 13 years ago; I gained much from my time there and I feel a deep love and loyalty to that institution. For this reason, I am extremely disappointed that this problem continues, and that the critical conversation around it is yet to happen.