Women's History Month
Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story. Benin, Ghana, and Togo)
Elsa Goveia (1925-1980)
Before Elsa Goveia lectured me at university in Jamaica, the history I learned was British or European. I identified with the glories of the (allegedly) Virgin Queen Elizabeth the First not to mention the (allegedly) prudish Queen Victoria of England and the (definitely) adulterous Henry VIII. No wonder that I felt at home when I first landed in England. It took me a while to learn that I was not and would never be British even though my then British passport allowed me to walk into the country with no questions asked.
So who was I? I had to return to some of Goveia’s lessons to discover myself. No, my history was not about men like Raleigh and Rodney who challenged the Spanish empire and won land and gold for “my” country. It was not about Dr Livingstone (I presume) whose supposed discoveries helped Britain entrench itself in Africa. It was not even about William Wilberforce who contributed to the end of slavery after the Jamaican Maroon had already forced Britain to accept a free Black state within a plantation colony. No, mine was not the history of the hunter.
Still, I did not appreciate Goveia when she shared with my class her passion for West Indian history. I can remember her almost in tears when she spoke of slavery, and how offended she was when one of her critics said she was imposing twentieth century values on slavery. She asked, isn’t pain the same no matter who or when or where? Isn’t cruelty the same? Separation from country, theft of freedom, torture, forced labor, rape, break up of family?
Years later, when I was a teacher of history, I was glad to be able to finally be faithful to Elsa Goveia. When she lectured me in my first year at university, I considered any kind of study as an imposition. I had gone to university straight out of school, and this was my first taste of freedom. I had the best of all worlds – no adult supervision, yet my aunt-mother would indulge me with home-cooked meals when I was tired of university food. And I could get my laundry done at home. To add to the freedom without responsibility, my grades from high school allowed me to matriculate, but the university decided I was too young to go straight to second year. I therefore decided that my time was best spent on my social life. I missed one student party that year, on as night when I chose to stay in that night with a friend who had really bad period pains.
One day Goveia told me she was on to my game. She said she knew I was not doing much work, and was using my skill in language and logic to weave a few facts into the essays I presented to her. She told me how much she regretted having to give me a “B” for that particular assignment. In those days, the B was goal accomplished so I could move on to the next grand date with a boyfriend who was not allowed to visit me at home because he was considered too black.
I came to terms with my own blackness in the years I lived in England. I learned that my color meant everything to whites around me. It determined where I lived, worked, and who could be my friends and which restaurants and shops I could feel comfortable in. Most painfully for me, color could also determine which children would play with my baby twin sons. I was almost paralyzed with rage the day I overheard them say to some white children they had just meant, “You don’t mind playing with us, even though we are black?”
So Elsa Goviea’s lectures came to be the flesh of my flesh. My greatest tribute to her came in a poem Kwame Dawes wrote about me. I taught him history at high school, and his poem describes a lesson about slavery. He says I cried as I spoke about the Middle Passage, and he writes about the impact of my emotion on this class of boys. I don’t remember the external tears, but Kwame read my heart accurately.
Today, when people ask me why I am involved in human rights advocacy, I search for answers. But I suspect I owe much of my activism to Elsa Goveia’s view of West Indian history.
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