Petal Samuel details Erna Brodber’s vision of a Pan-African present in this essay for the African American Intellectual History Society. Here is an excerpt. Follow this link for the full essay.
Erna Brodber’s scholarly and creative works examine Afro-Jamaicans’ lives, experiences, and links to other branches of the African diaspora. Born in the farming village of Woodside in St. Mary Parish, Jamaica in 1940, Brodber spent the politically transformative period of the 1960s between Jamaica and the United States. She studied and taught for many years at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, but later left the university to work full time in her home community of Woodside. While studying at UWI Mona—where she received her PhD in history and MSc in sociology—Brodber witnessed Jamaica’s transition to independence in 1962 and the government’s subsequent clashes with pro-black and leftist groups who protested the government’s ongoing collusion with and exploitation by the political giants of the global North, such as Britain and the United States. In her travels to the United States in the same period, the civil rights, Black Power, and second-wave feminist movements struck her as being in powerful dialogue with Jamaica’s ongoing political movements. This was an early indication for Brodber that the plights of African-descended peoples globally were linked and should be confronted in solidarity.
What most powerfully affirmed this idea for Brodber, however, were not large-scale intellectual debates or forms of organized protest, but her fieldwork in Jamaica. While conducting interviews with Afro-Jamaicans for her book, The Second Generation of Freemen in Jamaica, she marveled at how prominently slavery, emancipation, and African cultural inheritances featured in her interviewees’ memories and accounts of their lives. She remarked about this work in an interview with Nadia Ellis that she “saw how Africa was on their [Jamaicans’] minds,” that “[i]t was exposure to the field that made [her] into an Africanist, and made [her] see the diaspora.”
Brodber’s work, therefore, contests the notion that concerns about the nation overrode Pan-Africanist sensibilities in post-independence Jamaica. In a nation which had adopted the national motto, “Out of Many, One People,” Brodber maintained that Jamaica’s relationship to the African continent and to the African diaspora needed affirmation before such a national vision could be realized.
In Brodber’s interview with Ellis, she remarked, “I don’t deal with the word ‘Caribbean’….I’m ‘African diaspora.’” She elaborated, “‘Caribbean’ is nice and creole and mixed and all that, but….I don’t believe the point is reached yet, where what it is that we have of Africa has been honed and has been given to the world….So I’m not jumping to Caribbean nor ‘Out of Many, One People.’” Brodber reminds us here that Jamaica’s racial and cultural heterogeneity is a product of a number of forced migrations of, among other groups, enslaved Africans and east and south Asian indentured laborers in order to sustain a plantation economy ruled by a small white European elite. The very historical and economic conditions that brought disparate peoples into relation presumed theinferiority of African-descended peoples.
Brodber’s suspicion, then, of the post-racial subtexts of “Caribbean” and “creole” signals how these terms can house a subtle strain of anti-blackness: the celebratory frame of hybridity and mixture often masked the reality that these constitutive elements (Europe, Asia, Africa) were not equally embraced. African descent remained a mark of the underclass; claiming hybridity often became a way of tempering blackness, of distancing oneself from its stigmatizing effects. As Brodber remarked in her interview with me in sx salon, “from a political point of view, creole wants to forget where we’re from and focus on what was made here in the Caribbean. And I think it’s too early for that. I think, first of all, especially for the Afro-people, you have to look at where you’re coming from first.” Brodber calls here for solidarity rooted in shared African descent, the hallmark of earlier Pan-African movements.
Brodber’s community activism and intellectual work are devoted to offering affirmative accounts of black history, cultural inheritance, and connectivity. Themes of Pan-African unity permeate all genres of Brodber’s writing. In her collection of published lectures, The Continent of Black Consciousness, she asserts that the simultaneous preponderance of Pan-Africanist thinkers in the US, Caribbean, and Africa in the early-to-mid twentieth century—with the famed Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and the international spread of Garveyism the center of this genealogy—is evidence of a shared “continent of sentiment” that unites African-descended peoples that in spite of national divisions. Garvey again looms large in her novel Louisiana, as several of the work’s central characters are active Garveyites. The novel’s African-American and Afro-Jamaican women protagonists (one from Louisiana, USA and the other from a town also named Louisiana in St. Mary Parish, Jamaica) develop a psychic bond foreshadowed by the shared names of their home communities.
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