Caribbean women are noted for having made outstanding contributions in many spheres of political, social and economic life at both regional and international levels. The major efforts of many women to advance the growth and development of the University of the West Indies (UWI) has been no less remarkable. The first ever Chancellor of the UWI was none other than a British woman, Princess Alice, the Countess of Athlone, last of Queen Victoria’s daughters who – among other initiatives, including establishing the Princess Alice Appeals Fund – spearheaded construction of the exquisite ecumenical chapel of the UWI which graces the grounds near the main entrance to the Mona campus, using the stones from an old Jamaican sugar mill.
Ever since the creation of the UWI Mona Campus in Kingston, Jamaica in 1948, the institution has been blessed with leaders, academics and professionals of world-class standing in every decade of its existence. Many of these have been students who, following their graduation, moved on to positions of political leadership across the Caribbean. Others have either remained with the institution throughout their careers, or having contributed to Caribbean government, private sector or non-governmental organizations, returned to the nucleus of their tertiary education, to enhance and develop the UWI.
In November 2018, on the 70th anniversary year of the University, whilst recognizing the challenge of the task it was undertaking, KREOL Magazine visited and interviewed a small sample of the women – retired and still serving – who have made sterling contributions to the university, and who would be considered “First Ladies” of the University by virtue of having been first in their appointments or being the first women to be appointed to their positions.
There are many women who have made tremendous contributions to the UWI but who were not the first to do so, which in no way reduces the value of their contribution. Whereas the purpose of the article which follows is an effort to acknowledge and recognize the contribution of the “First Ladies”, KREOL willingly admits that the list may not be complete and accepts full responsibility for any and all omissions:
- First Chancellor: Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone.
- First Woman Warden of a Hall of Residence: Dr. Lucille Mathurin, later Jamaican Ambassador to the United Nations.
- First Woman Professor: Prof. Elsa Goveia.
- First Woman Pro-Vice Chancellor in the University and first Deputy Principal of a Campus: Prof. Emeritus Marlene Hamilton, also the first Dean of a Faculty on the Mona Campus.
- First Professor of Gender and Development, first Pro-Vice Chancellor and Principal of a Campus: Prof. Emeritus Elsa A. Leo-Rhynie, also First Woman to receive the Chancellors Medal.
- First Woman University Registrar: Mrs. Gloria Barrett-Sobers.
- First Director, Institute of Caribbean Studies: Prof. Emeritus Carolyn Cooper.
- First Head, UWI Museum: Dr. Suzanne Francis-Brown.
- First Head, UWI Centre for Reparation Research: Prof. Verene Lazarus Shepherd.
Thus, from this list, five of the “First Ladies” were interviewed.
Professor Emeritus Marlene Hamilton
Professor Emeritus Marlene Hamilton, following an early career in teaching at the high school level, was appointed lecturer in Educational Psychology at the UWI in 1973, later becoming the first woman to be Dean of the Faculty of Education at the Mona Campus. In 1991, she was appointed the first female Pro Vice Chancellor (PVC) with responsibilities for Gender and Science Education and also Deputy Principal of the Mona campus. In 1996 she was named PVC for Undergraduate Studies, and some years later, PVC with responsibilities for Administration and Special Initiatives, this, acting on behalf of the Vice Chancellor specifically. Following her retirement in 2007, she received the title of Professor Emeritus of The University of the West Indies.
Her Journey in Education Research
In her interview with KREOL, Hamilton recounted: “My academic career journey has been in education, specifically Educational Psychology and Science Education, both aspects of which were incorporated in my PhD thesis. And there have been a number of off-shoots – for example, research on co-education as against single-sex education, an issue which to this day engenders controversy. I must admit that when I was invited to leave my parent faculty and move over to administration I was a bit uncertain, given my enjoyment of working with students and their research initiatives”. The appointment was a first for Hamilton, who would later have a new hall of residence for students at the UWI named after her.
The Quintessential Educator – to see her Students Achieve
“Over the years, my graduate students have generated a significant corpus of research, too much of which, sadly, sits in the main university library. Admittedly, some has filtered into the educational system, but I think there is still a great deal of relevant and important information tucked away in the library”.
Marlene Hamilton was well known for going to great lengths to facilitate and enable her students to achieve their dreams. She rooted for them and at times would go to extraordinary lengths to see that they completed a thesis or dissertation and received their awards.
The tale is told of a student whose results arrived from the overseas examiner two days before the annual graduation ceremony. Hamilton spun around and arranged for the student to have her oral examination, in order to graduate at the ceremony. However, not having anticipated that she would graduate, the student had not rented a graduation gown and had none to wear at the ceremony. Marlene lent the student her own PhD gown so that she could graduate in full graduation garb.
Whereas she admits that it was at times challenging to get some of her more mature students with various commitments to focus on completing their degrees, she notes that she has always had good students for the most part and found it a pleasure to work with them.
Research on Gender
Professor Hamilton, during the early years of gender studies seeking to become a recognized academic body of knowledge at UWI, made her own contribution by co-authoring a graduate course in her parent faculty. She also recognized that there was a growing number of academics engaging in relevant research and generating interest, all with the intent of establishing a “unit” of some sort (later to become a Centre) . Financial assistance was to be provided by various bodies, including the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in the Hague, Netherlands; and joint research, staff and student exchanges similarly led to eventual success in this developmental area.
Hamilton supports boys being educated alongside girls appropriately. Differentials surface in the classroom and these are replicated in the wider society. Biases are recognized in different subject areas, although admittedly, not as marked as in years past. For example, in former times, she felt that no boy at the high school level would be willing to study Home Economics. However, and especially in the tourist areas of Jamaica, when this subject is renamed and marketed as being important to the hotels, boys will gladly opt to become chefs.
Academic Programme Development Issues
While Hamilton’s specialization has been Educational Psychology, she recognized that different aspects of the discipline were coming on stream at UWI. What had to be recognized, however, was the need to continually upgrade the curriculum to make it relevant to new content. So, for example, new thoughts on issues such as personal and national identity, creativity in the classroom and, as previously mentioned, gender, had to be reviewed on a regular basis to avoid students feeling the material was the “same old, same old”. She adds:
“One of my responsibilities as PVC was to ensure that new courses being proposed by any faculty properly addressed issues such as assessment methods, appropriate reading and timing, in addition to content. Importantly, each course, even if proposed at one campus, had to receive approval university-wide, in an effort to underscore the concept of ‘One University, different campuses’”
Development in the Non-Academic areas
Hamilton is rightly proud of her work in this area, one that, in her words, gave her “great satisfaction”. She expands: “We introduced programmes in Leadership and Mentorship and strengthened financial assistance for needy students. We also made provisions for students with disabilities, e.g. obtaining a Kurzweil Reader for those students who were impaired visually and mounting a campus-wide programme of ramping and retrofitting certain rooms in our halls of residence to assist the physically handicapped. It is important to note that the successes we experienced were as a result of the hard and committed work of a number of faculty, and certainly not as a result of my initiatives alone.”
While these programmes were originally campus-specific, they were in time, replicated across the region served by UWI. Hamilton is also proud to have spearheaded some university-wide policy changes. The provisions for the disabled community led to a policy on admitting a larger cohort of students with disabilities. Also of note, is the policy on Sexual Harassment and on HIV/AIDS, indicating that UWI was well ahead in its thinking to most of the English-speaking countries it serves.
Hamilton noted with amusement, “Despite retiring from UWI, I have continued to serve the institution, and am happy to do so.” Of much satisfaction is her contribution to the establishment of the Caribbean Accreditation Authority for Education in Medicine and Other Health Professions (CAAM-HP). She had chaired the steering committee which submitted its proposal to the Heads of Government of CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) for a regional accrediting agency for different arms of the medical sciences, given the need for oversight of the thirty-odd medical schools in the region. CAAM-HP was to become the legally constituted body established in 2003 under the aegis of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), empowered to determine and prescribe standards and to accredit programmes of medical, dental, veterinary and other health professions on behalf of the contracting parties in CARICOM.
Hamilton is the current chair of the Authority, and notes with satisfaction that CAAM-HP has been recognized as the appropriate accrediting agency in the Caribbean by the UK and US authorities.
She continues to serve on several committees and boards (both for UWI and elsewhere) but admits that she is slowly withdrawing from these professional activities as, in her words, “It is important to give others a chance”.
Professor Emeritus Elsa Ann Leo-Rhynie OJ, CD, PhD
“It is not an easy task to try to capture the essence of a person whose many talents have been devoted to the enhancement of The University of the West Indies’ reputation, both at home and abroad, over an extended period of time.”
(Prof. Marlene Hamilton)
The “person” referred to in the above quotation is none other than Elsa Leo-Rhynie, Professor Emeritus of the University of the West Indies (UWI). Leo-Rhynie was the first woman to be appointed to head a UWI Campus and the first woman to have served the Mona campus as both Deputy Principal and Principal. She was also the first Professor and Regional Coordinator of Gender and Development Studies playing a leading role in the establishment of what has now become the Institute for Gender and Development Studies. She had become Pro Vice Chancellor and Principal of the UWI Mona Campus by the time of her retirement in 2007.
In her November 2018 interview with KREOL magazine when speaking of her own accomplishments, the humility with which this professor sees her many achievements was apparent:
“The role of “luck” being a factor definitely applies to me. I was “lucky” to marry and have my children early. I was also “lucky” to have a mother and father who were happy to undertake many of the childcare demands, and this allowed me to pursue graduate work and take on more demanding work responsibilities”.
Combined with humility, Professor Leo-Rhynie is well known and widely appreciated by people from all walks of life for her wisdom, intellect, civility, decency and fairness. This exceptional professional was said to exhibit the same calm, dignified manner when teaching students as she would when chairing major university meetings and conferences.
Elsa Leo-Rhynie entered the UWI on a Jamaica Government Teacher’s Scholarship, obtaining her B.Sc. degree in the Natural Sciences – Botany, Zoology and Chemistry – following secondary school in Jamaica where she attended the St Andrew High School for Girls. Of this educational institution, which she still serves in the capacity of a Director of the school’s Foundation, she fondly says:
“I was the first in my family to have a high school education and I am still very conscious of the advantages I had in attending St Andrew High School.”
Upon her graduation from the UWI, following a brief sojourn as a science teacher in England, she returned to Jamaica to teach sciences at the Meadowbrook High School. She went on to pursue postgraduate studies which led to the award of a PhD degree in Educational Psychology in 1978. As an outcome of her research studies, she was invited to join the faculty of the UWI initially as a Research Fellow, later being appointed to the position of Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer in the UWI School of Education.
After nearly 10 years in that capacity, Leo-Rhynie left the “ivory tower” environment of academia for the Caribbean private sector. In 1987, she was appointed Executive Director of the Institute of Management and Production (now incorporated into the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean), a post which she undertook for 5 years before returning to the UWI in 1992 as Professor, Gender and Development Studies. By 1996, she was appointed Deputy Principal of the Mona Campus and in 2002 Pro Vice Chancellor and Chair of the Board for Undergraduate Studies. At the pinnacle of her career in February 2006, she was appointed Principal of the Mona Campus of the UWI.
Of her impressive career trajectory, Leo-Rhynie says: “I did not deliberately set out to do many of the things I eventually became involved in, and my decisions were based, at the time on a number of variables – family demands, the nature of the opportunity and expectations of the “best fit” in my life at the time.”
Her Contribution: Gender Studies & Education Research
In the years prior to her sojourn in the Jamaican private sector, Elsa Leo-Rhynie directed research and evaluation projects in education for government and international agencies and also successfully carried out consulting assignments across the Caribbean region.
During her academic career, she successfully supervised more than 50 students who themselves were pursuing Masters’ and Doctoral degrees in the areas of education and gender and development.
With her academic interests concentrated on education and gender Elsa Leo-Rhynie has published extensively. While her publications are far too many to list, those of particular note include Gender: a Caribbean multidisciplinary perspective, co-edited with Barbara Bailey and Christine Barrow; and Gender in the 21st century: Caribbean perspectives, visions and possibilities, co-edited with Barbara Bailey. Most recently, she and colleagues, Joycelin Massiah and Barbara Bailey, documented the process of institutionalization of gender studies at the UWI in a volume entitled: The UWI Gender Journey: recollections and reflections.
Without question, it is for her outstanding contribution to – and education about – gender and development that she is known and remembered in her earlier years at the UWI:
Between 1993 -1994, Leo-Rhynie co-chaired the National Preparatory Commission which prepared Jamaica’s Report on the Status of Women for the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1998. She was contracted by the Commonwealth Secretariat to prepare a reference manual for governments and other stakeholders on “Gender mainstreaming in Education” which was published in collaboration with the Institute of Development and Labour law, University of Capetown in 1999. She was asked to deliver the UWI Centre for Gender and Development Studies (Mona Campus Unit) Lucille Mathurin Mair lecture entitled: The UWI glass ceiling: splinters, cracks and scratches.
Leo-Rhynie became involved with the activities of the newly formed women’s groups on each of the campuses of the UWI. These groups which were led by Professor Joycelin Massiah and Dr. Peggy Antrobus were intended to start the process of sensitizing UWI staff to women’s issues and to lead to the introduction of a formal programme in gender and development.
Of the era leading up to the establishment of the Centre for Gender and Development, she notes “There were few women in the upper echelons of the UWI hierarchy at Mona save for pioneers like Pro Vice Chancellor, Prof. Marlene Hamilton and UWI Librarian Albertina Jefferson. There were few women professors and most academic women were concentrated at the Lecturer and Assistant Lecturer levels. Men were predominant at the Professorial and Senior Lecturer levels and in all other areas of leadership—it was a patriarchal institution.”
Today, Leo-Rhynie admits to taking pride in the many members of that initial visionary group who have assumed leadership positions within and outside of the university including Professors Eudine Barriteau, Pat Mohammed and Rhoda Reddock as well as the now former University Director of the Regional Coordinating Unit, Professor Barbara Bailey.
However, when Elsa Leo-Rhynie herself was offered the post of Deputy Principal of the Mona Campus in 1996 she admits that her initial reaction was “no way”. However, she was immediately challenged by a female colleague who said, “What! You have to do it! You keep saying that women don’t advance at UWI. Now you have an opportunity, you cannot refuse.” What happened next is now History.
Service to the Wider Community
Given the extent of her contribution to the UWI, it is amazing that Elsa Leo-Rhynie also found time to provide service beyond the walls of the institution. As a result, a number of educational and other institutions have benefitted from her leadership and involvement. She chaired the Dudley Grant Memorial Trust, which advocates on behalf of early childhood education in Jamaica, for over 25 years. She served as a member of Council of the Caribbean Examinations, the University of Technology, as well as the governing Boards of the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica, the University Hospital of the West Indies, the University Council of Jamaica, the United Way of Jamaica and the ICWI Group Foundation. She was a member of the Privy Council of Jamaica from 1996 to 2006. She has been Chair of the Grace Kennedy Foundation since 2008 and recently demitted office after nearly a decade of service. In reflecting on this wider service to her community, the Professor notes that:
“History afforded me opportunities which emerged from the legacy of the transformative work of national leaders in the evolution of Jamaican society from colonialism to self-government and independence and the educational policy changes accompanying these developments.”
Recognition for her Efforts
Elsa Leo-Rhynie is a recipient of the national honour of Officer of Distinction (Commander Class) in 2000 which was later followed by the Order of Jamaica in 2015. In 2013, she was further honoured by the UWI Mona Campus in the naming of a new Hall of Residence as the Elsa Leo-Rhynie Hall, and in 2016 she was the honouree at the UWI Mona Commemoration celebrations when she delivered the Commemoration lecture “Change and transformation at UWI 1992-2007: Back on the periphery, looking back.”
Of the many awards, honours and accolades she has received, Leo-Rhynie says:
“The two that seem to be a consolidation and encompassing of the others are the National Award of the Order of Jamaica which is a mark of recognition of my 40 year commitment to service in the educational field; and the UWI Chancellor’s Award which to my mind, reflects my long association with the University of the West Indies, my alma mater and source of nurture, inspiration and achievement.”
Prodded further about her remarkable contribution within and beyond the UWI, Leo-Rhynie recalls the Jamaican author, Malcolm Gladwell in his book titled The Outliers, in which he analyses the factors which contribute to success that is deemed “beyond the ordinary”. A particular comment of his about people judged to be successful resonated with her. She recounts:
“He says that such people are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are.”
Making way for the Future & the Next Generation
Speaking of her recent move to leave centre-stage in several of the organizations that she has served in a voluntary capacity for many years, Leo-Rhynie is demonstrating a strategy not often utilized by many in leadership who make efforts to hold on to their positions, at times, to the ultimate demise of organizations. She willingly admits:
“I no longer have the vigour and energy to be as active and involved as I should be. Also, times have changed, and it is important to keep the work of these Foundations alive and relevant with the injection of new ideas from young people who can enjoy the opportunities I had, to undertake voluntary, community work.”
Reflecting on her early years and the influences which made her the person she has become, Professor Leo-Rhynie remarks on the extent to which her parents set a foundation for living based on Christian principles, a foundation which has been critical in the choices she has made and which have allowed her to use her talents, abilities and skills when opportunities have presented themselves.
Professor Emeritus Carolyn Cooper
The Professor Emeritus refers to a “community of support” which included women and men who have encouraged her over the years: “I recall the principal of my primary school, who drilled me to recognize that I had “promise and potential”, my high school and university teachers, my colleagues and students, valued friends and family. At the UWI, I have been constantly aware of the legacy of the many women who, over the years, served the university in various capacities, women who worked tirelessly alongside the men who were in leadership. Thankfully, the legacy continues.”
Two years ago, Professor Carolyn Cooper may have “retired” from the UWI where she worked for 36 years, but no one who meets this dynamic, creative, eloquent and vivacious professional could ever think of her as being in retirement. On the morning of her KREOL interview, Carolyn, attired in neon pink and sky-blue leotards, was about to take off for her morning walk along the steep roads in Beverly Hills, where her Kingston home is situated. Describing herself today as a literary critic and culture analyst, she adds “But I don’t consider myself to have retired from academia. I’ve just stopped teaching in the formal way.”
Cooper was the first head of the Institute of Caribbean Studies. She adds: “When I became Director of the Institute I formalised it to become a department. So, my job was to regularise what was in fact Caribbean Studies. In fact, there was a whole chapter on the institutionalisation of Reggae that came out of Caribbean Studies.”
“Returning from presenting at a conference in Downtown Kingston, it occurred to me that the Reggae music industry could benefit from the value that I had added in the cultural context of that conference, through bringing an academic perspective into the mix. For instance, Garth White, a sociologist, had done a very good early paper on the Rude Boy culture. Erna Brodber, a very important writer, had looked with Edward Greene at Reggae as political protest.”
“As a result, I started a series of lecture presentations and every Friday afternoon, I would have a different artist or producer manager come and speak. And then they established an annual Bob Marley lecture, named in honour of Bob Marley but it wasn’t supposed to be only about Bob Marley because you know Bob Marley was a global brand for Reggae.”
Columnist & Author
Cooper has been a columnist, on and off, with Jamaica’s two leading newspapers – the Gleaner and the Observer – for over 25 years. She has also published a number of books on various but related topics:
“I wrote a book on Jamaican popular culture called “Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender”, which addresses the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. This has been published in the USA and the United Kingdom.” Later, Cooper would also publish “Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture At Large” which also looked at popular culture. She mentions that when she returned from overseas studies in 1980, she made a decision to focus on black people’s literature as “There were enough white people writing about white people, I didn’t need to expend my energy on that.”
Identifying a need not only for focus on Black Literature but observing that the Caribbean literature being studied was principally in the scribal as against oral tradition, Cooper looked at those she termed the Performance Poets, such as the late Honourable Louise Bennett Coverly, “Miss Lou”, actress and poet of the Jamaican dialect. She also studied the work of the Sistren Theatre Collective, a group of working-class women who translated their everyday experience into theatre.
Relishing the opportunity afforded by the freedom of retirement, Cooper is now able to devote more time to advancing earlier work such as study of the lyrics of Bob Marley’s songs as literary text, in which Cooper identified an entire literary continuum by looking at the lyrics of Jamaica’s Dance Hall and DJs, entitling this research “Erotic Play in the Dancehall”.
Edifying & Elevating Jamaican Creole
Carolyn Cooper has long courted controversy about the Creole language of Jamaica – termed by some a dialect and by others a patois. Challenging with dignity and passion the notion that Jamaican Creole was broken English and was a form of slang used by the less educated to communicate, Cooper was the first UWI lecturer to present a paper at a conference on Caribbean literature using the vernacular.
“I used to live in housing on the university community. One of my friends, Velma Pollard, lived just two houses away. I went to talk to her about this paper I was doing on the Sistren Theatre Collective for my first book. I made some points and she said: “You know the problem with you academics is that when you finish with the paper it’s not going to sound anything like that.” Cooper adds:
“The majority of Jamaicans speak Jamaican Creole. I consider it to be my mother tongue. As I tell people one of the tests is, in situations of crisis the language that you speak is your mother tongue. If somebody pinches you, you’re not going to say, “Oh my.” I like to tell them there’s no Jamaican I know who makes love in English. It’s, “Woy oy, woy oy, woy oy!” That one just kills them, you know? Because they know it’s true. That is primal.”
Professorial Inaugural Lecture in Patois!
Cooper took up the challenge. She wondered:
“How could I write this academic paper to sound like my natural voice, critiquing it? Because one of the other things is, people don’t think the Creole language is adequate for literal analysis and this kind of sophisticated thing. I started to translate what I’d written already. But when I shared what I had written, it was stilted.”
Realizing that she had not thought through the paper in Jamaican but had written the first bit in English and then tried to translate it, and it was not working, she started to write in the way she thought about it. The outcome of this radical action has been much anthologized because it was such a dramatic fissure between the English and the Jamaican.
In the manner of the rebel women of Jamaican history such as National Hero, Nanny of the Maroons, Cooper decided to present her UWI professorial inaugural lecture in the Creole language of the Jamaican people. Such an action was at one and the same time high-risk and anti-establishment but equally innovative, revolutionary and ground-breaking. It proved a spectacular success. She recounts:
“One of my colleagues from Trinidad said, “That is uptown Jamaican that you were using.” And I said, “No, it’s not uptown Jamaican, it was academic Jamaican to show that there are different levels of discourse for the language.”
“The English & Jamaican married!”
Cooper’s special delight is in the reception that her work has received from Jamaicans who are themselves creole speakers and who can so rarely read their written language. She recounts:
“A couple of days ago I stopped to give a lift in my car to a woman who was a gardener. She gets into the car and says: “Miss Cooper, Me like fi read you. It is so refreshing.”
Her columns also attract international attention. The recently updated anthology of black women’s writing, New Daughters of Africa, includes Cooper’s entertaining piece, “Finding Romance Online In 2018.” She noted that it is through her newspaper column she has courted controversy by using both “the Queen’s English” and the Jamaican language alternatively. Referring to a stand-off which she had for several months with the Editor of one of the two newspapers for which she has been a columnist, she tells, laughing:
“I told him that the English and the Jamaican are married. If you don’t want Jamaican you cannot get the English. Because that’s how we operate in our local markets. Anything that is in plentiful supply is married to scarce things so you can only get the scarce thing if you get the plentiful!”
“Miss Lou’s Daughter!!”
Jamaican cultural icon, the late Honourable Louise Bennett- Coverly, an actress, poet and pioneer in the field of elevating the Jamaican Creole language, would in 2019 have been 100 years old. She performed in national pantomimes and had her own show – “The Lou and Ranny Show” – for many years. Like Cooper, who studied in the finest academic institutions in the United States, Bennett-Coverly was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the United Kingdom and expressed and articulated the English language with the greatest of erudition.
Since her student years, Carolyn Cooper published papers on Coverly and upheld “Miss Lou” as being relentless in advocating for the appreciation and advancement of the Jamaican language. Indeed, she is fondly called “Miss Lou’s daughter” for her own pioneering work in spearheading the language of the Jamaican people.
Creole Language in the Caribbean & in the Americas
Addressing why she has championed the Jamaican language, Cooper explains:
“I was interested in analysing the literature written in the Creole. One gets the disjuncture between the language of the text and the language of academic analysis. For example, Trinidadian Creole would be similar to some degree to Jamaican, however, they have a French lexicon Creole. In Montserrat that I recently visited, their English Creole is very similar to ours. In fact, when I was there I would speak Jamaican and people would understand me. Whether it is Barbados, the Gullah people of the Carolina’s or the Gullah language of the Geechi, who even have a bible in their own tongue, all of these form Creole languages emanating from their Creole cultures.”
Education Policy & the Teaching of the Jamaican Language
Cooper displays both passion and frustration when she recounts that:
“What those of us who are activists would like to see is bilingual education established in Jamaica for primary school children. Many children come to school only speaking Jamaican and it’s not taken seriously on the formal curriculum although the teachers speak to the children in Jamaican. No sensible teacher is going to talk in English to a child whom they know doesn’t understand. I’ve gone to various schools to give talks and I hear the teachers speaking to the children in Jamaican.”
“As far as the official curriculum from the Ministry of Education is concerned, all instruction is taking place in English. That’s a fiction, but if they think that’s a reality, what we’re saying is regularise it. We want them to train the teachers to teach bilingually. In this way for the first few years you teach the children in English and they can start learning. Teach them in Jamaican and they can start learning English through Jamaican. This is the way it happens in other places.”
“Some years ago, they translated the primary school text into Jamaican, so it does exist. They ran an experimental programme in about five schools. I saw children on TV reading in both English and Jamaican and just then it was coming up to the level where they’re going to take the exams in high school.”
“At this point, some of the principals got a little jumpy and said, “We don’t know if this is going to be disadvantageous.” It would not have been because all the research shows that children who are bilingually- educated do much better than mono-lingually because the brain has to be constantly switching back and forth.”
The Future: Valuing Blackness, our Language & Reggae Music
Carolyn Cooper considers it is a desire to disassociate with Africa, its retentions and blackness that creates lack of appreciation of the Jamaican Creole language by the elite of the country. She shares the thought:
“When we’re talking about valuing the language created by African people in the Americas, because African culture is so devalued here in general, everything associated with blackness is compromised. In fact, in Jamaica we have an expression, “Nuttin black no good.” It is a kind of an internalised oppression. You had somebody like Marcus Garvey contesting that and saying – using the notion of mental slavery – “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because while others can free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”
“I would like to see a revaluation of the way we see African culture and the products of African creativity because our music is something so important that the African has created. Yet the elite never recognize that, all of what is called Jamaican culture is what has been created by the underclasses. That is a thing that goes out and defines brand Jamaica much to their embarrassment. So, when I write that Jamaican is an international language that people all over the world are trying to learn, they just think that that’s a joke.”
“My wish” she continues “would be that the Minister of Education should come to his senses and that the majority of black people in Jamaica would be able to appreciate the beauty of their own culture and not still have the colonial mentality. I would love us to have a museum of Jamaican popular music, a world class museum. It would be such a major force for rehabilitating Kingston.”
Dr. Suzanne Francis-Brown
Dr. Suzanne Francis-Brown is the first curator of the UWI museum located at the Regional Headquarters of the University of the West Indies (UWI) at Mona. She was handed this assignment in 2011 by the then Vice Chancellor Professor Nigel Harris. In her interview with KREOL Magazine she noted: “I’ve shifted through life from communications into history and the museum profession. I studied journalism as a postgraduate diploma in Cardiff, Wales after completing a bachelor’s degree at Sussex in international relations. Heritage studies and history came later.”
Early Career Path
In her earlier career, Francis-Brown worked as the Jamaican correspondent for a media entity called the Caribbean News Agency which was connected to Reuters:
“It was one of these jobs where you basically cover everything. You are the only person on the ground so you’re from parliament to cricket to festivals and concerts. I think one of the things that stand out for me was covering the international Women’s Conference in Copenhagen. I was a young journalist and the UN provided some fellowships for female journalists from across the world to come to Copenhagen before the conference. I was one among a range of persons from around the world – I especially remember colleagues from Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Nigeria.”
Reflecting on the path of her career, Francis-Brown recalled: “When I was younger I wanted to find a trajectory that was not just the traditional girls’ path of nurse or teacher – though I knew great examples of those. I was good at writing, I was good at language. I had a great interest in history and the world and I had a wide-open mind in terms of what the possibilities were. So when a family move created an opportunity to travel north and to go to university in the United Kingdom, it was a very special experience for me; a mind opener. I had never travelled out of Jamaica before. Although I missed doing my first degree at University of the West Indies, which was what a lot of my cohort did, I did my later degrees there. My European and UK experience, including that diploma in journalism and a Summer Scholar stint at the Sunday Times newspaper, set me on track to this varied journalistic experience which was very important to my exposure and development; but it was not necessarily the be-all and end-all. Later when I had the opportunity to switch into heritage studies and history, that was something I was very, very open to.”
Warming to her topic she recounts: “News was more of a day-to-day job for me; my greater interest was in people, covering human experience and trying to make that accessible to a wide range of persons. My work was being printed in Trinidad, in the UK, in India and in Jamaica. It was all over the place and that’s actually a mind-opening experience when you get the clips and you see how far your work has gone. I also worked for the Women’s Feature Service (WFS) which was connected to Interpress-Third World News Agency. So, they had a broader Southern audience, including India where the WFS office was eventually based.”
“I think the other thing that was interesting was that you begin to contextualise things. If you were only covering for one national audience you have one perspective. But here, all of the sudden you’re seeing that you have to look at things from all sides, from many different angles, from a completely different point-of-view. Again, a mind-opening experience.”
Writing Stories for Children
Francis-Brown, who has worked in international media and is currently leading a regional resource for the Caribbean’s leading tertiary institution, is proud to admit to the joy she has found in writing and publishing books for children, her most recent being “The Mermaid Escapade”. In this her fourth children’s book, available in e-book and on Amazon, she writes for young teens on an environmental theme about three children, Elena, Kwame and Abena, and two young merpeople, Lula and Susura, who set out to solve a mystery and save their environment.
A Shift in Career Trajectory
In the mid-1990s, while freelancing as a writer/editor and teaching part-time at the UWI’s Caribbean Institute of Media and Communications (CARIMAC), Francis-Brown decided to pursue a master’s degree in heritage studies which was being offered at UWI, Mona. While completing her masters, she became fascinated by the multi-layered history of the campus site – and her final dissertation morphed into a book titled ‘Mona: Past and Present’. Deciding to pursue further research on one layer of the site, a World War II camp built for evacuees from British Gibraltar, which later housed Jewish refugees as well as German and Italian civilians interned in West Africa (“Great story – right?!”), she did a PhD in history. She has also continued to pursue research on the site’s plantation history and became involved in survey archaeology with colleagues from the Department of History & Archaeology and the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS) based in Monticello, Virginia, USA.
The Journalism-History Connection
Reflecting on her own move from journalism, Francis-Brown underscores the close connection of journalism and history:
“Of course, I recognize connections across history; between the past and the present. We’re all on a continuum. We’re all moving through time – and space. I point this out to students all the time when they come in to the museum.”
“Yes – I would agree that I am breaking ground here at the UWI Museum, as I’ve tried to bring all the various skills that I have to the task of creating stories that reflect our history and heritage. The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of things we can do that perhaps are not so traditional. Some have to do with creative and flexible use of space and materials; with taking up every opportunity to interrogate people we have even brief access to and thereby fill in gaps in the record; to explore collaborations for mutual benefit; to use things like social media to create a record as well as try and get our stories out.”
“For example, when people come in and say, as happens quite often: “Oh, you know, I was in that demonstration or I was in that …”, the first thing I do is put my phone on video and put it in front of them to tell me the story. Then that becomes a part not just of our research data base but also a part of the material that we can share.”
The Genesis of the UWI Museum
Whilst pursuing her doctoral research, Francis-Brown also worked for a time as a heritage consultant on the Mona Campus, one output of which was a series of mini-films on the site’s history, spotlighting the plantation period, the World War II camps and the founding years of the university. Another output involved the creation of obelisks marking historic populations and signs to enlighten viewers on the history of campus heritage sites. She strongly felt that there needed to be a place where the documentation and material could reside and describes herself as “a bit of a mosquito” in trying to safeguard the material and intangible heritage of the Mona site as well as pushing for the history and heritage of the UWI to have its own place. At a certain point, her “sting” was felt:
“The then vice-chancellor Professor Nigel Harris was involved in building a new Vice-Chancellery building to pull together all the various elements of the university bureaucracy. As the university operates on two levels, in each country there is a campus which is headed by a principal and then there’s an overall umbrella headed by the vice-chancellor.” It was Professor Harris who pledged that the UWI Museum would be housed in the new regional headquarters for the institution at Mona.
“Looking back, sometimes it appears that your life trajectory is so clear; it could only have led here and all the elements fit together. That’s so far from the truth; it’s such a process of becoming. But of course many things that I’ve done, many experiences, contribute to this present avocation.”
Francis- Brown feels that the compelling, multi-faceted story of the university is well worth telling and that the museum must find means to capture and share the ways in which the university has contributed to the development of the Caribbean region and its constituent countries; and beyond. Indeed global outreach is the focus of the UWI’s current vice-chancellor.
“Today”, Francis-Brown notes, “I think we’ve reached a lot of people and a very wide-ranging group, though there’s so much more to do. Our most immediate audience is the students and the lecturers. Additionally, we speak to and for the alumni and retirees who help carry the institutional history; and we try to engage with a wider public that the university would generally consider as stakeholders in a broad sense. We quite often have groups of schoolchildren visiting us – people who, maybe, one of these days will be university students”.
The Walter Rodney exhibit
KREOL’s Editor, Georgina Dhillon, was given a guided tour of the UWI Museum by its curator, following her interview. The museum had recently launched an exhibition on student protest, focusing especially on a seminal 1968 march by UWI students. Francis-Brown explained:
“At this university, over the years, students and staff have responded in many different ways to issues that are going on internationally as well as issues that relate to the university as a whole. So, the exhibition that we’re focusing on here takes advantage of the moment of 1968, where there were these confrontations in terms of revolutionary intellectual Walter Rodney and his message of black consciousness and African-ness. Of course there was also a global context to be considered.
“The entire exhibit is contextualized through a timeline of UWI student protest; different kinds of student protest over the years.”
Pointing to a poster of Walter Rodney, who was a student at the university in the early 1960s, and who was involved in rallies in favour of Federation, Francis-Brown noted that the Caribbean, at one point, was meant to become independent of Britain, as a federated state, but this did not work out, although many of the students supported that idea.
She added: “So the Rodney events of 1968 were part of a longer story. What we’re doing here is looking at protest over the years both internally and in a wider societal frame. And, then, we’re looking specifically at Walter Rodney’s activities during ’68. So, the idea is to pull together all these various elements of student protest, the historic nature of it and Walter Rodney, all together into something very, very current, looking at the whole question of confrontation and protest.”
Professor Verene Lazarus Shepherd
Verene Lazarus Shepherd is the first director of the newly established Centre for Reparation Research at the University of the West Indies. The Centre was established at the suggestion of the current Vice-Chancellor of the University, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, to the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), who endorsed his suggestion. Prof Sir Hilary Beckles is widely regarded as the Caribbean’s leading advocate for reparation from countries which engaged in the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans. In her interview with KREOL Magazine, Shepherd, who is a professor of social history, spoke of her early years:
“I was born in rural Jamaica in a district which people called Africa, but which was really Hopewell, in the parish of Saint Mary. I went to primary and high school in St. Mary. Later, I went to teachers’ college in Kingston and then to the University of the West Indies where I pursued B.A. and M.Phil. degrees in History. I was then awarded a scholarship to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom where I completed doctoral research towards a Ph.D. in History.”
Reflecting on the extent to which her rural childhood in the district called Africa shaped her precepts, Shepherd noted: “As I was living in an impoverished, infrastructurally challenged rural community, people who stereotype “Africa” decided to manufacture what they considered parallels between rural communities and Africa. That was my earliest History lesson. So, I think my rural beginnings and that early history lesson, in a sense shaped my journey, to explore the past more deeply and to study History.”
“Unfortunately,” she adds, “There is still a certain “anti-Africa” view among sections of our population in the Caribbean. Whereas the situation has improved, it is still a hill over which we have to climb.” She attributes the problem to a deficit in the teaching of early childhood education, the content of education, the philosophical underpinnings of the education system that early missionaries provided and the lack of a plan to address this in post-colonial societies.
Her Groundings with other Caribbean Historians
“The UWI has, I think, inscribed advocacy as part of its own mandate in Caribbean nation building. So, these institutional beginnings and fundamentals have shaped my life and have further enabled me to be who I have become. When I came to study at the University of the West Indies I met a number of remarkable historians who were our lecturers: Kamau Braithwaite, who taught in his own poetic way; Douglas Hall; Roy Augier. I read the works of Eric Williams, Walter Rodney and CLR James. These were activists, who really helped students to understand and secure a more liberating narrative of self. Then of course there is the current Vice Chancellor, Sir Hilary Beckles, also a historian, who has continued this thrust.”
Shepherd notes that she was introduced to the notion of the gender lens in Caribbean history through the work of Lucille Mathurin Mair (also a “First Lady” of the UWI), because Mair used this to understand our history: “So many male historians had ignored the journey of women who were so influential and instrumental in our productivity and development. When I look at gender, and the role of women and men in history, I thought, all of these historians have looked at the same documents as I’ve looked at, so why didn’t they see this? I was particularly startled when I encountered documents that listed many of the people who were hanged as punishment for their role in anti-slavery wars: Women were hanged, and women were deported! Who knew? Armed revolts were typically presented as male actions. But women were there and if a woman was deported, as some of them were, then that was a real rebel woman. Admittedly, the major tendency was not to hang women or flog them too many times or imprison them and so on. But if you’re sending a woman away from Jamaica, it means you don’t want that woman to carry on the freedom struggle, you know? So, history has been very important, taught me a lot, and I’m trying to teach other people.”
Rastafari & Afro-Caribbean Retentions
“While others may deny their African origins, the Rastafarians have always been insistent that they are Africans trapped in ‘Babylon”, and so they want repatriation to the Motherland. That is their message. They unapologetically wear distinctive clothing that brands them as Rastafari. They have played a very important role in providing an alternative ideology and culture and we have capitalised on the culture of Rastafari to promote brand Jamaica, while not necessarily giving them the respect to which they are entitled.”
“So here is the dichotomy: There are many who disrespect Rastafari on the one hand as a separate group of people who embrace a particular philosophy and culture. Yet we are proud of Bob Marley and we have his messages, songs, statues, monuments and his photos all over the world. I think Rastafari has put Jamaica on the map in some ways, culturally, and I think that with a new understanding of the history of oppression of Rastafari, we now have new, younger politicians who are apologizing for the sins of their elders. So today we have more inclusion and less exclusion of Rastafari.”
Creole Culture & Africa
“We people of the Caribbean are often described as Creole people rather than as African because one’s place of birth has been elevated above one’s place of cultural and ancestral origin. Creole is also used in another sense – to describe people who have mixed heritage and culture. But African is all around us including in the flora and fauna.”
“When the son of an African dignitary visited the University of the West Indies some years ago, he looked around and said, “So this is where they ended up.” So, I asked him, “What do you mean? His answer that that he was looking at the place through African eyes, and as a result he could “See the footprints that Africans, specifically Nigerians, left.” So, I think that there are more African retentions here than we like to admit or that we realize. In fact, the kind of religious education that people have received somehow can be an obstacle to truly embracing an African-centered philosophy, education and way of life.”
“We do have obvious African retentions though: for example, in our cuisine and in the food products like yam. But we also realise after Emancipation in 1838, there was an inflow of immigrants which led to a fusion in our cuisine. We have had immigration to the Caribbean from China, India and Portugal, which leads to a blending of our food and our culture. The Indian presence is particularly marked, something I have studied.”
“For the research on my Masters thesis, I looked around Jamaica at the areas where Indian indentured labourers were located and where they went after they left plantations after the end of their contract. These were primarily in Portland, St. Catherine, St. Mary and Westmoreland and I did oral history in these parishes. It was very fascinating to look at the ways in which a small community of immigrants managed to use all resources at their disposal to come out of their oppression. But also worthy of research was the way in which the planter class constructed that racial hierarchy and placed black people at the bottom. Equally of note was how Indians were facilitated by the planter class and British colonial government. At the end of their contract, the Indians could return to their homeland if they wanted or accept land or money in lieu of repatriation. These incentives were never offered to Africans/freed people after 1838”
“All this made me have a new understanding of why it is that there is this racial tension in Jamaica between Indians and African people. I understood why African people have such resentment as at Emancipation we got nothing but freedom, but other groups came and were able to rise above us financially, and not only because they were industrious – which they were ; but also, because they were assisted to rise socially and economically.”
The Mission of the Centre for Reparation
The Centre engages in research and advocacy – applied History. The director of the CfRR wants people to understand that there is more to the study of history than merely regurgitating facts about various topics. History has to be used to change society; to change the imbalance in our societies:
“In 2013, the CARICOM heads of government decided to join the reparation movement and to add their support. It was decided to establish a CARICOM Reparation Commission chaired by the current vice-chancellor as well as to set up national committees. Today there are national committees in almost every CARICOM country. Thirdly, it was agreed to establish a research centre which would support the CARICOM Commission, the national committees, and engage in research and advocacy. The purpose of the Centre is to gather documents from wherever we can find them, to have a network of scholars because people have done research. We are not reinventing the wheel, but we’re gathering a network of scholars around us so that we can respond to queries everywhere.”
“While I do my part in the movement, I am not alone in this. There is a community of scholars and grassroots people that empower me. I think this community has also done a lot to empower people who regard aspects of our history as shameful. In other words, we have been trying to say, “Somebody did this to you. You did not get up and enslave yourself.” We’re even trying to change our language, so that we will stop using disempowering words like slaves, “When we say we were enslaved, it shifts the responsibility to someone else.” It is important also, according to Shepherd, to teach that our history did not begin with slavery, which is where the African historians come in – to support us by exposing what West Africa was and other parts of Africa were like before the trans-Atlantic trafficking.
“What is our reparation plan? Well, CARICOM has developed a Ten Point Action Plan for Reparation which is the tool to negotiate with European governments. Apology, Repatriation for those who need it, Indigenous people’s development programmes, Psychological rehabilitation, Cultural institutions to be established, Healthcare, Literacy education, Debt cancellation are all part of the demand about righting the wrongs of the past.”
“Europeans like to talk in terms of grants and aid. That is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about getting them to own up to their responsibilities, accepting that their ancestors engaged in illegal acts and accepting that despite being a modern state, these former colonists also have historical responsibilities.”
Shepherd concluded her interview by emphasizing: “Lastly, I know of my connections to the continent of Africa. I did my DNA test. So, I’m invested and personally connected. No one can tell me that I don’t have a stake in this battle for justice. It’s a personal commitment and it is what I will do for the rest of my life.”