I’ll warn you up front that this piece has curves and potholes and, like a slow Sunday afternoon drive, I’m not sure of the destination; so read at your own risk. But I feel compelled to explore my thoughts coming out of the probing presentation by Hilary Beckles last Wednesday night at the University Centre – in that open air space where theatre once thrived in Antigua.
The lecture wasn’t part of the night’s plans but a little nudging from my girl, Gisele, and the magic words – Hilary Beckles – did the trick. In as much as one can be a history groupie, I am a fan of this particular historian, have been ever since he helped put cricket – a game I’d dismissed as just too slow for my tastes – into socio-historical perspective for me in the book Spirit of Dominance.
Then there was his lecture, rebroadcast by the Leonard Tim Hector Memorial Society in a downtown open air presentation, on the case for reparations – as grounded an argument as I’ve heard on that touchy subject.
Then there were his widely circulated post-quake pieces on Haiti’s journey from triumph to tragedy that had me discussing with a close family member, with whom I rarely discuss history, the merits and demerits of weighing oneself down with the baggage of history to the point where you’re constrained from moving forward.
We were on the same page for a time, this person and I, but then his patience with the Haitians ran out amidst the tales of Haitian on Haitian violence and in particular the attacks on women. But I’ll circle back around to that, maybe.
My point though is that I enjoy rediscovering history and not just African or Afro-Caribbean history. If the History Channel is showing a World War II documentary (and when are they not?) or I can find archival footage of same on YouTube, I’ll watch it.
I’m the girl who spent her first night in Boston reading one of her host’s books on the Salem Witch Trials. Edwidge Dandicat’s Farming of Bones was fascinating to me as much for drawing back the curtain on the bloody history between Haiti and the Dominican Republic as for the fictional story that encased it.
True, I get most of my history from fiction, but when recently I started reading her most recent non-fiction work Create Dangerously, it was the image of two martyrs of the Papa Doc era stoically awaiting the bullets of the firing squad before the massive crowd mandated to be there that drew me in as surely as my desire to sit at her feet and access my own creativity. That I was reading this even as the world tried to make sense of Baby Doc’s return only underscored what would be a central point of Beckles’ speech this week, at least in my view, that history until we’ve unravelled and come to terms with it, will continue to haunt and define us.
It is for this reason that I despair when the young people I come into contact with indicate that the study of history is not encouraged, that it is deemed irrelevant in this utilitarian concept we have of education à la the tiresome rhetoric of politicians, “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Born into the Antiguan working class in a culture where name and birth still means too much, I know well the importance of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” But I also know that reading To Shoot Hard Labour, for instance, helped me to understand the space in which I exist as surely as reading books like The Last of Eden and Annie John spurred in me a desire to write from that space.
Understanding where I stand is not about being defined or limited by it; it is, though, about understanding my people’s journey to this point, understanding that it is a point in an ongoing journey.
At the University of West Indies, at least during my time there, studying the development of civilisation (as a whole) – from where we come and the things that shaped us – was, as I remember it, mandatory in my programme.
It was mandatory much like, in my communications programme, learning research skills and/or the technical aspects of the job. In the same way, understanding my history, not only in a general sense, but as a woman, as a person of African descent, as what the late Rex Nettleford – in whose honour Wednesday night’s lecture was held – called a “new African” is critical to understanding where I stand.
And since I do not exist in a vacuum, where we stand, after all, the fate of our region, our world lies in our collective hands.
It is for this reason that I bemoaned the lack of young people at the UWI lecture. Since I am myself in my 30s and saw there one or two people younger than me that is a bit of a generalisation; but, frankly, not much of one. So, I wondered, where was generation next – the high schoolers, college students, university students, young working people. Were they, like me, unaware of the event until the last possible moment, or did they simply have no interest?
I would say it’s their loss – because it was quite an interesting presentation – but I feel more certainly that it’s our loss, collectively, that we’re too busy, distracted by red herrings thrown up by politicians or other more benign distractions to look around and inside ourselves to properly examine where we stand.
It’s easy to dismiss Black History Month, especially in a predominantly black society, but surely this is its value – that it encourages us for a minute to stop and take stock of where we stand. (To be continued)