Erna Brodber by Keshia Abraham

BOMB 86 Winter 2004
086 Winter 2004 1024X1024
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Erna Brodber, ca.1970s. All photos by Velma Pollard. All images courtesy of Velma Pollard and West Indies and Special Collections, Main Library, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.

Reading Dr. Erna Brodber’s novel Myal (New Beacon Books, 1988) is a transformative experience that unchains both truths and memories and moves you to explore what she calls the “half that’s not been told.” A reader of Brodber’s novels grows through awakened knowledge and memory to reach another place—a place, perhaps, beyond the innocence of childhood ring games, as in Brodber’s first book, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home(Wesleyan University Press, 1980). This novel, written to help her students understand psychosocial development in a rural Jamaican landscape, is constructed out of her profound knowledge of Woodside, the community in St. Mary’s, Jamaica, where Brodber lives in a mazelike home built around the house in which she was born.

Brodber’s third novel, Louisiana (University Press of Mississippi, 1994), raises a myriad of conjectures about connections in African diasporic experience, the focus of her work today. A paragon of cultural memory, Brodber lives truly, completely and freely as a cultural historian, sociologist, novelist, teacher, community organizer, social activist, caregiver, mother, entrepreneur, healer and chronicler. She has realized her vision of a refuge for working, thinking, politically and culturally engaged creative black people by founding Blackspace, a place sited around her own home peopled with richly scented guava trees, mangoes, passion fruit, yard fowls and a powerfully spirited husky. Through Blackspace, Brodber lives out and passes on the spirit of emancipation in both essence and practice. As the founder of Woodside Day, an annual local event that celebrates the lives of the first Africans to live and work in town, and a preserver of the Emancipation Day celebrations in Woodside, which centers on a reenactment and a remembrance ceremony for those emancipated from enslavement here in 1838, Brodber humbly maintains that it is the strength, legacy and determination of her community that sustains these memories. It is my honor to have experienced this wise woman, this warrior woman, as friend, mentor, teacher and elder.

Keshia Abraham I thought we’d start with the category of writing, because that’s how I came to know you, before I knew you. How would you describe yourself as a writer?

Erna Brodber Well, I write because I am too shy or too lazy to do something else—go around and preach, for instance. If I could do other things, I don’t suppose I would write. Of course, writing takes you much further, and the audience is wider. If you want to say something, you put it down, and in a hundred years’ time someone might read it, whereas if you just said it, it could be lost. That’s important to me—that it can last for a long time.

KA The notion of longevity makes me think about some of the messages and ideas that come through in your work as to why it’s important to preserve culture, not just superficially, but in a thorough way.

EB Those are pieces of history that people need to know way down the road. I remember watching a film at the University of London with the graduate students and thinking, “What a marvelous thing this medium is—you can actually see the color of these people.” Fifty years from now, if it weren’t for that medium, you would just hear Satchmo, and not even know what he used to signify. It’s not exactly the same, but that’s the kind of thing that makes me want to write certain things into my books. When I was writing Louisiana I discovered this early female doctor, black. I had to put her in it. Remember the child whose parents were grooming her to be a doctor? She had a picture of this woman in her room. I’m hoping that somebody will ask, “Why is this woman in this narrative?” and realize that this is one of the earliest female doctors, and she was black. So it’s not just a culture, it’s a history that needs to be preserved. There have been so many omissions in our history.

KA What are some of the other large omissions that you’ve hidden in your writing? I’m trying to think of some myself—

EB Oh, well, Bob Marley.

KA Right, in Myal.

EB And Christopher Gonzalez, the fellow who did that marvelous sculpture of Marley, which was rejected and taken down from Celebrity Park in Kingston. I wanted to record that.

KA That was a powerful image. It reminds you of the pieces of history that you can’t afford to forget.

EB And in Myal, too, it’s Satchmo with the handkerchief, somewhere in the end, where the spirits get together and say something like chic-a-bow-chic-a-bow. You know Satchmo always had his handkerchief. So, yeah, that’s one of the things I set out to do: to preserve.

KA While you were growing up, what were some of the ways in which people reinforced that sense of history and the need to preserve it?

EB That need to preserve might have come from my knowledge of how people’s history gets distorted and stolen. I was brought up in a household that was very aware. One of the first times I ever saw my father angry, he was angry about colonialism. I remember him coming in from the farm, sitting down on the steps and taking off his work boots and quarreling about cocoa: how the farmers had to listen to England tell them how much to grow and how much it’s worth. He was very clear that one of his children must go to the university and study history. He had a good knowledge of family history. So had my mother, but whereas his was just normal family history, she had history like her father having fought in the Ashanti wars. He was very angry as well. Her father died when she was nine, so how she remembers all these things I do not know. That is in Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home. The golden stools that are stolen? I got that from her, which she got from her father. And even though he died when she was so young, his anger was something of such power that it stayed with her, and she passed it on.

KA That’s the kind of thing you meant when you talked about the “psychic landscape of people” some time ago.

EB I don’t know if my parents made a special effort—well, they must have made a special effort—but that’s where I met Toussaint L’Ouverture, at home, just thumbing through books. I mean, among all the white people, he was there too. I was quite pleased with this black man. I knew then that I wanted to go to Haiti as soon as I could afford it. And I did. But it was just for the weekend.

KA Was the experience what you needed it to be?

EB No, because there’s not much you can do in a weekend. Not having the language is another difficulty. What ideally should be possible is to just float around and relate to people, but you can’t do that without the language.

KA How do you feel about the politics of translation in relation to your work? Do you think it should, or can, be translated into different languages?

EB Myal was translated into German, but as far as I know, that’s the only one. And if I hadn’t gone to a conference where somebody was delivering a paper on the translating of it, I wouldn’t even know that it had been translated. The German publishers just ran with it, but I gather that happens. The business of being translated—it’s an honor if people from somewhere else, another language group, another culture, want to hear what you have to say.

KA How translatable are some of the cultural aspects dealt with in Myal?

EB Well, I don’t know. I can only say that when I wrote Jane and Louisa, I did it for my students, so I was just imagining a small group of mostly Jamaican people who would be able to understand it. I was quite surprised to find out that Canadians were reading it, and many other sets of people. Let me put it this way, by telling you something that happened to me. At 17, believing that I’m brighter than everybody else, I go down to the institute of Jamaica to an art exhibition and see a Cubist-style painting marked Early Dawn. And I look and I say, “Oh my God, this is so great, look at the early dawn! I can just see the dawn coming through.” And I’m there carrying on about this thing, and a man comes up and says, “Where do you see early dawn?” I say, “See there.” And he says, “I don’t see a thing.” I’m trying to show him the early dawn and he’s saying that this is nonsense. Total nonsense! I turned around to him and said, “But you just don’t know about art, because there it is.” Then he said, “Suppose I tell you that the man finished this work at early dawn, and that’s why he called it Early Dawn. What would you say?” I said, “But clearly, that’s ridiculous.” “Suppose I tell you I’m the painter?” And he was. So, right as he is, I saw early dawn, but he had done something else. My work belongs to the people who are reading it. That’s how I hold with the work going away: people have the right to put their interpretation and their meaning into it—it is in the public arena. Whatever it is, you can’t deny it, because they’re right.

KA I’m thinking about Louisiana, in terms of both the historical project that it is and the possibilities it opens up for new ways of thinking about cultural memory. And I’m thinking about where you’re sitting, because I can hear all the sounds in the background through the phone—the peeny-wallys, the crickets, the frogs, the echoing stillness—and it’s making me think about the hill in front of your house, Louisiana Hill, where it seems my grandfather’s people might have come from. Let’s talk about how that project came about, how Louisianadeveloped in relation to your perspective on history and cultural preservation.

EB History, yes—and politics, perhaps, even more than history, though the two are so closely related. Louisiana was part of my larger interest in Africa and diaspora, and the need for blacks of the diaspora, and to a certain extent of Africa, to know each other and to understand that you have to get through it together, for political purposes if nothing else. This is where my preaching comes in—I told you that if I had the courage of a preacher I probably wouldn’t write. When I visited Egypt and Somalia with a group of African Americans and Africans, we were so torn, there was so much fighting among us, and I swore that part of my business would be to let us know that we have to be one. What with constraints of time and money, I can’t really take on the African part; I can only take on the diaspora, and then only Jamaican blacks and American blacks. But Louisiana was an attempt to say, “Look, we’re the same thing.” So it’s not just the preservation, it’s also the preaching.

KA Right.

EB An amazing thing happened to me: somebody, I think she’s African American, wrote me through the publishers at the University Press of Mississippi telling me thanks for making New Orleans so clear to her. It is what her parents had told her about, and do I have any more information for her, or know where she can get more information.

KA Oh, wow. Well, that’s how I felt too. It answered questions about migration in my family’s past.

EB At a reading once someone said, “My God, you’ve got it. My relatives told me about New Orleans. And those houses, which were really houses of pleasure.” This tells you what people see that you didn’t necessarily know that you put in. (laughter) I didn’t know that I was writing about a house of pleasure. I was interested in mystical things. The Madam Marie I had read about didn’t have a house of pleasure. But it comes out very nicely. I’m not at all sorry that it comes out like that.

KA It comes out beautifully. Reading that part, you recognize the other aspects of culture around these things that are very sacred and spiritual. It makes them even more tangible, more real, more grounded to what I understood New Orleans to be about, at the level of parties and music and everything else that goes on in those houses. And there’s so much opulence.

EB Well, things just come, there it is. Things come. That particular piece of work was blessed by insights that were not mine, not mine at all. At that time I was really low, and three women from Louisiana came into my life and helped me. The title of my book is Louisiana, and the piece of land where you have stayed, here, was at one time called Louisiana, St. Mary’s. It was just too coincidental, and I thought, “I have to work with this Louisiana business.” And I wanted the people in the book to be doing the Marcus Garvey back to Africa thing, because I believe that African Americans of the South were very important to the Garvey movement. When I read Tony Martin’s book on Garvey I realized that Louisiana had more Garvey units than anywhere else in the world. I told that to my colleague, Carolyn Cooper, and she got goose pimples all over her skin. And the other thing was that I needed the spirit of the passing to move from one person to the other—so that as one person’s physical body dies, the spirit enters the body of another, and I just didn’t know how to do it. One day I picked up the newspaper and read that Queen Mother Moore [a leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and founding leader of the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women] had come to Jamaica to be with a friend of hers who was passing, a nurse. And they described how it works, that one person puts the palm of their hand on the other’s upturned forearm and strokes down to the fingertips. And I said, “Oh my God, here it is! It’s just been given to me.” So significant things like that, the things that you wanted to do, were just there for you to pick up. I was lucky.

KA (laughter) Well, we’re lucky that you did it. Your understanding of diaspora and the subtlety with which you write about it makes that experience of the passing come through so hauntingly. It was the first thing I ever read that connected Jamaica to everyday African American experience in a significant, tangible way that hints at parts of a forgotten history. Reading your work made me look further at the waves of Jamaican migrations into the ports of Louisiana, providing a context for understanding aspects of African-ness embedded in African American-ness and African Jamaican-ness that contributed to our ability to survive. This is not a piece of our collective history that has received much serious attention. Knowing this suggests new ways of understanding the cultural material that Jamaicans brought with them, and how they brought it, that would have contributed to what emancipation could mean for Africans in the U.S. This is no small thing.

EB There is no way that the emancipation that happened here in 1838 and the emancipation in the U.S. in 1865 aren’t connected. I think I’m very close to finding that kind of connection, through orthodox history.

KA What do you mean by “orthodox history?”

EB I mean the history that can be checked out, as the historian does. I would like to write the orthodox history of people like me, the blacks of the diaspora, but where is the material? Where is the data? That has always been a problem. Also, because most of the time that I have been writing and thinking, I have not had a steady job. I haven’t had the resources. So I do what I can through the fiction—I put a lot of research, and a lot of history, in the fiction. Some of the connections are guesses—I have data, but I can’t make a straight connection, because I do not have the piece that is needed. So the connections are often fictional. But when I was teaching in North Carolina this spring, I was able to do a lot of research that can lead to an orthodox history of the relationship between African America and African Jamaica.

KA That so needs to be done. I’m looking through a piece that you did, The People of My Jamaican Village, and thinking about what it would lend to your research, the clues that could be compiled, if people were doing these kinds of pieces throughout the New World.

EB We’ll jump from that, we’ll jump from that. In writing that piece, I noticed that on the plantation down the road, Palmetto Grove, about a third of the enslaved people there were African American born. There was one African American on the Woodside estate. One of the larger questions we had was, “How did he get here?” And I have been moving, moving, moving with that. That’s the kind of thing I was doing in North Carolina. And would you believe—I’m just going to give you a little part of it, because this will take me five years to do, and this time I cannot go and work in America, come back and write, work in America, come back and write, because I don’t have the time. Because I’m old. But the Palmetto Grove estate was owned by the former governor of Georgia. So the connection is there. But it took so much research and also plain serendipity to get that piece of information in my hand. One of the things I want to do now is look at the possible relationship between those African Americans down the road and Woodside African Jamaicans. Have you ever been to any of the reenactments that we do?

KA No.

EB During the reenactment, people get up and speak about emancipation in voices from The People of My Jamaican Village. And last year we had some American students here, and they taught our people to do that fraternity thing—the step dance. And they were written into the play.

KA That is great.

EB So, the people here know about the American connection.

KA Do you think that eventually there will be more African Americans participating in the Woodside Emancipation?

EB We would like that. We would like the sharing. There were African Americans here this year. And Africans are into it too. I went to Zanzibar to the most exciting conference I’ve been to—it’s a conference of academics who are working at the grassroots level. There’s a small number of us, maybe 25. I was presenting a paper that dealt with the fact that we of the diaspora have been knocking on Africa’s door so long, and we don’t hear any answer. No door opening. And one sister there—it was really very moving, we were all very close to tears. There was a sister there from Nigeria, with whom I’ve kept in touch since, and she wanted to point out the pain that they had, knowing that their children were kidnapped. I hadn’t really been looking at that, at the fact that there were people there who were hurting just as much as we were hurting here. When they sing a lullaby, and they sing the history of the family, there are still reminiscences inside those lullabies of the people who were taken away. So we put that into our play as well. And before we do any of these things, we have two weeks of Emancipation School for the village people, so they hear about these things before they act them. So that piece of information, concerning us, is going into the village play and I hope the village memory and understanding.

KA What is Emancipation School like?

EB We teach songs that I collected for a project I did a long time ago, and other people have given songs that were sung at Emancipation. And we discuss the history of the village, the history of Jamaica, the history of black people. Kathy John has been coming down from the University of Oklahoma to teach African systems of religion. And we stage what happened in 1838 and before 1838, and I explain what is happening, what it is about. Some of the structure, for instance, the fact that we started using a booth, came from the children: they asked what a booth was, and somebody went and built them one, and they wanted to stay up for the vigil because they learned that that was what people had done. We’ve had a reenactment for the past five or six years.

KA Wow.

EB So that is one of the ways of preserving, not just through the fiction, or even through the orthodox historical work, but through the play.

KA And the school. What is the relationship between Blackspace and Woodside?

EB That is a relationship I am in the process of working out. For me, Blackspace is for the descendants of enslaved Africans. I think that there is a lot we need to talk about, and I think we should stand up and look at things through our perspective. I don’t think that has been done because we’re rather embarrassed to have a perspective, or we feel that we don’t have a perspective because people tell us all the time that we don’t, or people behave as if we don’t. But I can’t push that onto other people, so my house here and my place around here, what I do inside here, is Blackspace. And Blackspace cooperates with Woodside by supporting the community’s educational projects. But there are people, of course, who are not particularly thrilled with this black business.

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Erna Brodber talking to a gathering in Woodside, St. Mary’s, Jamaica, where she lives.

KA It’s interesting to me that that kind of dissent exists. The amount of history and education that has happened in Woodside is disproportionate to any other community that I’ve heard of in the diaspora; people are being educated from within in a very consistent way. I think the fact that there is dissent is testament to a fuller understanding of history and an appreciation for difference.

EB There is something at work, you see; it probably needs to be researched. Some of it is social-psychological. I’ll give you an example. There was a young lady, fairly close to me, from one of the families that we can trace back to before 1817. One day she said, “I heard of this slavery business in Africa, but I didn’t know that it was real!” And she had gone to high school.

KA Oh my.

EB And her aunt, who had certainly had post-secondary training, said that she knew it happened but that she didn’t know it happened in Woodside!

KA Really.

EB I was quite shocked. People read about these things in something called “history” at school, but it’s not made to relate to your real life. You hear about the slaves, and who wants to be related to the slaves? They’re not people, they’re some creature that you read about. So why would you believe it happened to your people, or anywhere near you? So even if we’re doing all these things, you are not quite sure how much of it is sticking—but it’s worth a try. (laughter)

KA Thank goodness for that. How do you envision Blackspace a few years from now?

EB I want somebody to come take over the concept. I am getting old and tired. I would like to see young people from all over the black world coming here or wherever and sitting down and learning about their past and their present, learning the art, learning about the writers, learning about the artists, learning about the musicians, learning about the languages we have made. And I would like them to be as in the 1960s, to wash their hair and find ways of wearing it without having to make it hang on their shoulders. I would like them to be healthy. I would like to see their faces scrubbed and cleaned. I’d like them to understand about the body, to prize their cheekbones, to learn that there is a black aesthetic—biggish bottom and so on. That kind of thing. This is what I wanted Blackspace to be. But I don’t know anybody in Jamaica who wants that. And I don’t know if there is anybody anywhere else who wants that either.

KA Well, I can think of some people. But in a world full of people who are constantly interacting with each other, why is it hard to find people in Jamaica or other places who could carry that vision through?

EB Not only carry the vision through, but send their children. I don’t know. I don’t think I’m being bitter or anything like that. It’s just that—well, I was having a discussion with a friend of mine who teaches black history, and he was so upset because all of his students are white. The people who are going to these conferences, who are going to make statements about us, who are going to be specialists about us, aren’t black. I can’t get the black students to come. And a friend of mine who’s a dean of students tells me that when you go to an African dance performance, ain’t no black people, no black students in African dance. You go to a Pan festival, there are no black children, no black students, playing Pan. I suppose they want to learn chemistry, they want a Nobel Prize in microbiology, they want to enter that area, and that’s fair enough. I think it’s not the school’s business to teach black people the things I’m talking about; it’s black people who are going to teach them that. It’s really the responsibility of parents. So the question is, “Why aren’t parents doing this?” And that I can’t answer. There are many people who are angry, there are many people who say they are black, and I don’t understand why they don’t follow through to see to it that their children get a black education, or not even a black education, but just not cut them off—

KA Yeah, to ensure that they know who they are, and they know who came before them and all of that. All that’s around them and what makes them who they are. Living here in Miami, I think about that a lot. This is a city in which you have black people from all corners of the black world, coming together, but living so as to maintain their Jamaican-ness, their Trinidadian-ness, their African American-ness, their Haitian-ness, without sharing across those spaces what makes them who they are. It’s a very closed space.

EB I think that part of the problem is that somewhere along the line, black people began to feel embarrassed, and it is not right. People hear about Blackspace and ask, “Why is it black? Why isn’t it open to everybody?” We’re not allowed privacy. We should be allowed privacy.

KA The challenge is the failure to recognize the power that we had historically, the ability to connect with and utilize our power from within. It wasn’t that people who were enslaved remained enslaved because they didn’t know how to fight against slavery. What kept them alive was their ability to stay hidden, their shared knowledge of how to live, how to find spirit within themselves, how to transform themselves, how to manage.

I don’t think that black people these days really want to be into anything with black people. They feel that they’ve grown, or that that’s something you grow out of.

KA And as an educated, elevated person, you’re supposed to be the one who advocates assimilation and openness.

EB But you can’t assimilate until you are something. Then you have something to give other people. My position is this: the universe, the universal, is beautiful, but if you imagine the world as a set of plates piled on each other, there’s this one that’s a little skewed because of a particular history in the New World: our history, that of the descendants of the slaves, is skewed, and it is at the bottom. And if you don’t settle that one, all the others will fall and crash. So that one has to be settled, has to know itself, so that it can take its place sitting firmly with all the other plates.

KA That is strong.

EB It will continue to run away from us. People don’t know what it’s like, being snubbed for how you look, always being seen as the sniper or whatever. How can they know, unless we stick up for ourselves and say this is who we are.

KA People still need to recognize that’s what’s happening.

EB So we’ve gotten into this political thing. (laughter)

KA As happens. I miss having this kind of time with you, starting off in one place and then letting things go.

EB Yes. It didn’t even feel like an interview, just chatting it off in the usual fashion.

KA Yeah.

EB Yes, Miss Keshia.

KA Yes, Miss Brodber.

Karyn Olivier by Michelle Lopez
Fairground tent with a single chair behind a wall covered in various cloths and clothing items. A passerby examines the tent.

At the heart of Olivier’s sculptural inquiry is the fate of our existing and future monuments. How can they teach, and change us?

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins by Hilton Als​
Branden Jacobs Jenkins 1

The playwright discusses his formative years, rejuvenation of historical material, and how race is coded into theatergoing itself.

Kara Walker & Larry Walker
Walker 01

“I would like to do more of that kind of thing: travel, spend some time in a place and really work from a different vantage point. I don’t know what will happen in my work from that, but I trust my ability to find the tools to find my way into my work. I think I will sit out in the woods more.”

Originally published in

BOMB 86, Winter 2004

Featuring interviews with Brooke Alfarmo, Stanley Greaves, Santiago Sierra, Erna Brober, Jorge Volpi and Martin Solares, and Jesus Tenreiro-Degwitz and Carlos Brillembourg.

Read the issue
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