*This is the fifth post in a new blog series on Women, Gender and Pan-Africanism edited by Keisha N. Blain. Blog posts in this series examine how women and gender have shaped Pan-Africanist movements and discourses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. In this post, Petal Samuel details Erna Brodber’s vision of a Pan-African present.
Pan-Africanism is often viewed as a form of thought we must retrieve from the past. It is remembered fondly, but is decidedly associated with the early-to-mid twentieth century black world. Particularly in the Caribbean, Pan-Africanism seems to recall a period of great political and artistic possibility and unrest—such as the spread of Garveyism, the rise of Rastafari, and the flowering of Négritude in the Anglophone and Francophone spheres respectively.
Today, however, as scholars like David Scott have observed, the forms of political exigency in the Caribbean that once fostered Pan-Africanist solidarities and fueled anticolonial and socialist movements seems to have faded. Yet, other scholars, like Tsitsi Jaji, express hope in her book, Africa in Stereo, that even as Pan-Africanism now seems outmoded, “revisiting the history of these forms of solidarity from a fresh perspective will uncover and renew the latent political energies of pan-Africanist performance.” The contemporary sites of Pan-Africanism’s “latent energies” are as critical to our understandings of the movement as the early-to-mid twentieth century figures and events that typically characterize it. What might a history of Pan-Africanism’s present yield?
It is from this perspective that we must examine the importance of Jamaican community activist, scholar, and writer Erna Brodber’s inclusion in the lineage of Pan-African women thinkers. Brodber, who discusses the 1960s and 1970s as crucial intellectually formative years, was profoundly impacted by Pan-Africanism, and its tenets continue to shape her writings, politics, and activism. Writing in the decades following Jamaican independence in 1962 and the fall of the West Indies Federation—where ideas of nationalism seemed to take precedence over global black solidarity—Brodber’s insistence on thinking in terms of the “African diaspora” rather than the “Caribbean” makes her an important vanguard of Pan-Africanist thought and practice.
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.”1
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 the inferiority 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.
Brodber has also demonstrated an interest in the particular barriers that black women face as they shape their identities. In perhaps her most famous novel, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, she catalogues the challenges facing the protagonist Nellie’s growing understanding of her gender and sexuality as a black woman in the aftermath of colonial rule in Jamaica. Brodber famously wrote this work not as a novel, but as a “case study” for her social work students, who lacked examples that reflected their own social and historical contexts. Only later, was it published and marketed as a novel. All Brodber’s novels call attention to the limits of the anthropological methods that have historically been used to study people of African descent. Many of her works, such as Myal, Louisiana, and her most recent novel Nothing’s Mat, heavily emphasize spirituality and the psychic healing that results from a positive embrace of one’s blackness.
Finally, Brodber’s home community of Woodside, St. Mary occupies a central position in her work. She highlighted in our interview that intellectual capital tends to accumulate around and within universities, rather than in rural communities like her own. As such, she has become a key community organizer, and has been at the helm of projects such as instituting an Emancipation Day celebration—commemorating the emancipation of slaves in 1838—and advocating for a number of historical sites in Woodside (such as “One Bubby Susan”) to be declared national heritage sites. In 2004, Brodber published a history of Woodside, Woodside, Pear Tree Grove P.O., which deals extensively with the community’s history and the impacts of slavery and emancipation. For Brodber, cultivating a positive embrace of African descent is both a transnational and acutely local enterprise.
All of these examples underscore how Brodber engaged Pan-Africanism in post-independence Jamaica—a significant contribution that should not be overlooked. The figures that often capture our imaginations as quintessential Pan-Africanist symbols are often male figureheads: heads of state, prominent intellectuals, and mass movement leaders. As a result, women like Brodber—whose work appears at the margins of organized movements and the academy—are too often marginalized. Examining Brodber’s contributions expand our understanding of the range of milieus in which—and the range of methods by which—meaningful Pan-Africanist activity takes place.
Petal Samuel is a postdoctoral fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. She earned her PhD in English from Vanderbilt University and specializes in Afro-Caribbean literature, history, and politics. Petal’s manuscript-in-progress examines the role of sound in tactics of colonial governance and Afro-Caribbean women’s anticolonial writing in the twentieth-century Anglophone Caribbean.
- “Pan-Africanism” and “diaspora” are heavily contested terms that are neither interchangeable nor unrelated. Brodber’s use of both terms here, however, points to a conceptual overlap in their emphases on African descent as a crucial connective tissue that produces similar experiences of oppression and expressions of resistance, culture, and life throughout the black world. ↩