Establishing Blackspace: Emancipation in Woodside St. Mary(JA)

Entrance to Blackspace

Every year the community of Woodside(in the Parish of) St. Mary in Jamaica the members of the community come together to remember the enslaved ancestors and to discuss and share song and thoughts with each other.  Woodside is a rural community in North-east Jamaica some distance away from the pace of Kingston.  This village was the childhood home of author, historian and sociologist Dr. Erna Brodber or Ms. Lixie, as she is affectionately called, and is a place she has returned to in many ways in her adult years. In her book “Woodside: Pear Tree Grove P.O” seeks to explore the social history of the village from slavery up until 1944. Her academic work as well as her fiction(Jane and Louisa, Myal, Louisiana etc) trod through the various concentric and intersecting circles with which Ms. Lixie concerns herself: the lives of women, the village of Woodside, Jamaica and its peoples or the Continent of Black Consciousness(Which is also the title of a book of lectures delivered in Woodside).Through some of the sociological and historical work done by Dr. Brodber, Woodside has been able to remember  various aspects of their history which are then incorporated into the commemoration of Emancipation Day from the visit to Daddy Rock(a meeting place for enslaved Africans) on the day before Emancipation, the vigil on that night, the visit to the site of a church of the enslaved on Emancipation morning and the reading of the Emancipation proclamation later that day.

Black Space

It is during the two days before the wider community activities that Ms. Lixie organizes her Blackspace Reasonings. The BlackSpace Reasonings and/or Lectures have been taking place probably as far back as 2004. It is, as the name suggests, a space for Black people to come and reason among themselves. Apart from persons within the community, these reasoning include African people from elsewhere. This year’s reasonings and its focus included Africans from the Caribbean, North America and the Continent. I sat with Ms. Lixie to discuss this year’s reasonings among other things.

Young lady reading a Bible verse at Daddy Rock

I first became aware of Ms. Lixie when I was reading over a thesis manuscript for a coworker and came across her book among others looking at the concept of the kumbla which I desired to explore further. I later came across her Blackspace lectures in her book “The Continent of Black Consciousness” and since then have wanted to find out more about Blackspace as well as Ms. Lixie’s work and sought out her novels but that for another time. Here is the interview.

Some fiction and Academic works by Erna Brodber

Iandiyanola: So Ms. Lixie, what I would like for you to do is to give me a little background of Blackspace, what it actually means both in terms of the actual physical space(it is the name of her home area as well) and the whole idea of black space.

Erna Brodber: Well the idea of Blackspace first. I think we all realize that the space we are living in is white space and if we want to get out of white space then we have to create our own space; create our own black space. So the notion is to create our own black space….Ummm… Which you see…all the issues here are black issues that distress black people and the other thing is that … the physical space now, a place where we can meet to do these things. Cause as you know a lot of what we have known about ourselves come from white anthropologists. And I keep remembering that occasion that happened in Barbados where there people wanted to have a little black meeting and people hear about it all over the world…and all these white people come down to the meeting and they had difficulty of getting them out and when they tried to get them out their get a reputation of being racist. (This probably refers to the event on reparations which hosted the lawyer Esther Stanford which was interrupted by some Europeans). So from the very beginning, we tell people that this is a black people’s meeting and this place is for black people to be able to talk like a family, talk bad things about each other right in front of dem face, and so on and these are not things we want white people to hear or any stranger to hear when the family is cussing out each other. The family knows how to resolve its issues.  So that is the space, why the space is physically so and it’s also the notion. I don’t know if you want me to say anything else.

I: Okay. Umm I don’t know if you want to speak about this year’s black space in terms of the particular focus and even, if you so desire, to speak about how this year the idea of governing black space and maintaining it as a black space came up, if you want to discuss that as well.

EB: Yes Yes Yes. This years Blackspace. Well we recognize through our many sitting down and thinking that we have been looking at each other through stereotypes which have been handed us by white people. And (if)we going to take away that we really need to sit down and in some sort of honesty say what it is we have been taught to think about each other. Last year we attempted to do that because I have known for some time both personally and in the literature of the distress between African- Americans and African-Caribbean people. In fact I met it, it brought me to tears in Egypt where I was with some African-Americans and African-Caribbean people – and Africans. We just treated each other so damn bad it was heart-breaking. So I decided to do that. I did that in Louisiana – the novel  Louisiana – but how many people access novels? I thought I would do that otherwise. But then we also realized after that, that we have these notions about Africans. The most liberal of us, the most intelligent of us. For instance it didn’t come up but I know to scratch the surface of a lot of black women who study abroad and they will give you the story of the African who said come up to my room and see my books. Come up to my room….I personally have met one who said come, I have just bought some new books , come up to my room and see my books. So we have it but we need to talk it out between us and the Africans. And even while I was doing this work, I realize more that it is necessary for us to do the African thing cause nowhere you going people going to see you…An African –American fella did say to me once  “Sister you better get with the programme, because when dem going shoot dem en guh ask you to talk first. And , I am saying the same thing with the Africans . We are seen as Africans.  What is the point of saying “No I am not African, I am from the Caribbean”. So we better get to understand what the Africans…how they are seeing us and understand the African thing so you can defend it in yourself. So we thought we’d have these Africans, this panel of Africans to tell us things like…you saw what they were telling us things like… getting us to understand the business of having  forty-two brothers and sisters and still getting along with them.  How is that managed? That kind of thing.

Now the other thing is how to keep the space black. We just have to be honest and tell people ‘cause it is true white people don’t think that black people have any business that they should not be able to enter into.  So you just have to make it very clear to them. This time –No not this time. This time we have something call family. …And so when this Australian journalist turned up here we just had to tell him the truth. I was helped greatly by Taitu. Who can be very …”I not moving. I not doing a ting. I not saying a word while that man is here.” So I really had no choice but to speak to the man and explain to him that he could not enter into our rest.

I: If you could back track and tell me when did the event black space begin , how long it has been running and some of the issues that have been covered.

EB: Well I have been working in the Woodside community and I have been working with the Woodside community on the assumption that they are black people. I was brought up short once when I realized that they don’t consider –they don’t think of themselves as black people. And somebody came in here and started to talk about black and they were very angry. When I came back here, they were very angry. They told me about how people spoiling up dem tings by coming and talking about black and they have no objection to white people. The white people used to come here quite a lot – white students – and I think that they saw that if somebody came here talking about black, white students would stop coming here. So I realized then that I really had to carry my black programmes. And I think the black programmes started, the really black programmes started – I started moving away, trying to make a distinction between Woodside and Blackspace which started with the….it was in the heights….I think it was like about four or five, probably six years ago, probably even eight years ago when the murder rate was so high and we got together. Shirley (Campbell) was here. Velma(Pollard) was here and so on and two prominent churchmen and Danny who’s a gardener who has really really opened up spaces for us to see things. And a lawyer was here. It was  only about 12 of us, if as many, to look at the thing. The people who look like us. The people who are being murdered look like us. The people who are murdering look like us. What are we who look like them going to do about it? So that was the first really black discussion. And then after that every year…

I: And that year was that when it first started.

EB:  I don’t remember. It could have been six it could have been eight. I don’t remember how many years ago it was. So that is how and when the really Blackspace reasonings  began. We had little reasoning like …Before that, coming from African-America and wanting to share because over there I was really doing work that was expanding my knowledge of black history and stuff like that. So when I came back here I also wanted some money. So I put on….there were Blackspace lectures. Second Sunday lectures I called them  where every second Sunday for about six months or something like that people came in and I lectured to them. I shared with them what I knew about black history. But we always had lectures here in Woodside and stuff like that. But the few people who were coming were coming because….don’t know why they were coming but there wasn’t any great interest in black things and then there were people out there who were interested. So that’s how come we had those…

I: Okay. Now both in your novels – I can think of Jane and Louisa…even Myal –as well as in your academic work you have looked at community history and family history. What do you think is the significance of people understanding  okay how did this family, how did this community come about? And evolve.

EB: Well let me go back a little bit. One of the things I experienced, passed through,  – determined that I needed to pass through was psychiatry. So I had a fellowship in psychiatry at the  University of Washington. And there I really learnt things like the significance of family therapy and the significance of something we call community therapy. Where the community sees itself as not so right and has to set itself right. Okay so all of this kind of work is therapy , Showing us our face so that you can see “ Do you like this face?’ “No I don’t like this face. I need to change here and change there.” So that the community or the family theraputises itself,

I: In Jane and Louisa –  which is a very pecular novel, well I couldn’t relate to it as such but coming to the end of it I understood what was going on – deals with the idea of colourism and how through a family the shades lighten and the appreciation for the lightening of the shade. I want you to speak a little bit on colourism in the context of Jamaica. Usually people hear of the bleaching part and think of it as peculiar to Jamaica but the aspect you dealt with in Jane and Louisa with regard to the family and how the choice of mates and that sort of thing …So what is the nature of that in Jamaica and to what extent are people even considering that issue?

EB: Actually I was not really – I don’t think I was really interested in colourism. I was interested in looking at the family and the things that happen in the family that just happens to be one of the things that happens in the family. But I was even more than that interested in pointing out to people that part of our problem was an education system which took children –the brighter children out of the village and integrating them back into the village; to the village life, to the community life was something that we had to spend some time doing. Because, I mean …

But the colour, well I imagine it’s a Caribbean thing, that we all know that…”brown stick around , black step back” and it was very rare – I don’t know very many people of my time growing up (…) my mother who when she said “What beautiful hair”  was talking about hair like Shirley’s hair or when she said “What a lovely shade that fella has!” it was going to be something which was  a sort of pot-black. So she was very much like that. But apart from my mother I know how the colour business worked; that everybody wanted “a little milk in their coffee”.  And people who then told their boys that: “Get a little milk in your coffee” and girls even if they weren’t looking knew that a nice –a brown-skinned man was better than a black-skinned man and so on. It is through the Caribbean. I don’t believe they have it in African America but – to the same extent that we have it here.

I: Also with regard to your novels, particularly Louisiana and Myal deal with what people like to call the supernatural but what I found interesting with regard to particularly Louisiana –and Myal as well – you didn’t deal with it as if it was peculiar or out of the way, it was just part of the landscape .

EB: Its part of the landscape.

I: Now we also dealt in Blackspace with the idea of Christianity and this sort of thing – and Jamaica is also well known for the extent of Christianity, the number of churches and that sort of thing. Do people generally have a space within the Christian worldview to negotiate other aspects of themselves that are not acknowledged or acknowledged in a positive way within the Christian framework?

EB: I don’t know if they are negotiating but I know that the two systems exist.  I don’t know if they are negotiating or making any attempt to pull them together but I know that they exist…

I: And … We’re approaching Jamaica’s Independence celebrations

EB: We have … We are approaching them? Yes. 6th of August.

I: Yes. 6th of August.  50 years. In the Caribbean there are two ideas of Jamaica that I’m aware of, probably among many others. One, you get the popular media image  and through the music about the violence, the crime etc but there is also something in the psyche of Caribbean people that associates Jamaica with a progressive Africanness through the awareness of people like Marcus Garvey and Rastafari. Where has Jamaica come in these fifty years and also with particular reference to negotiating Africanness.

EB: Well, I do not know that we have been very far. I’ve always – when I go down to Barbados for instance and I see on the staff so many dreadlocks on the staff I say that this is amazing. We don’t have this is in Jamaica –or even in Trinidad – We don’t have this in Jamaica. I’ve found people more willing to express their African self in those than in Jamaica and I don’t think that –although Jamaica is earning from Rastafari and all this black thing – I don’t think that these concepts have moved up . I don’t think that they are being socially mobile. They remain where they are. Rastafari remained where they are and people wear it and wear it as style. Style for a lot of the singers. Style.

I: Just finally, I know you just recently completed a book of short stories, if you’d just give us an idea of what..

EB: The short stories are about?

I: Yes

EB: That is a little bit more difficult because it has moved out of my usual style of writing and purpose of writing. This was …I was sitting down in a place, in the University of Manchester and had time and I just started writing those stories . I mean, I have the notebook in which I wrote them still. I started writing these stories and that just ….And I said to myself while I was writing them, you know, “this might help” –because I always have the notion of helping – This might be a mirror so some of the young women that I know. I mean to let them see what happens in the life of young women and take some care or whatever it is or whatever. Because I have been an ear to a number of young people and since I was a case worker. So I have seen women come in with their problems and stuff like that. So and sometimes you don’t know where they went with the problem; how the solution came. So this was kind of bringing back some of these women as kind of case studies but imagining how the case ended. So they are really case studies.

I: I’m tempted to ask you about – just based on our previous conversation – about literature in Caribbean and the various directions it is going and your view about it.

EB: And you know I don’t know. I tend to align myself more with the change – change agency – rather than the literary part of things. Cause remember my background is in history and sociology and my year in psychiatry more than (literature)…. I can’t tell you, as I say, I can’t tell you about post modern and modern and when they write things about me I don’t understand what they are saying. So I can’t really talk about the literature in the Caribbean. All I know is that there is a lot of spoken poetry and I keep wondering “How do you analyze –not analyze this. Is there going to be a new way of examining and commenting on this kind of poetry that is all over the Caribbean. And I don’t know if you would call it literature. I think they call it orature. So I think orature is beating out Literature in the Caribbean. But as we are talking here now. Sometime, one of the nights…it look like on every corner there is a poet. So I don’t know how that also ties in.

I: Ok

Interview conducted : 2nd August, 2012

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~ by iandiyanola on August 27, 2012.

One Response to “Establishing Blackspace: Emancipation in Woodside St. Mary(JA)”

  1. I love the community of woodside

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