Dear Prof. Beckles,
I must admit that I find myself with a firestorm of feelings in my belly as I begin this letter. I have vehemently defended the University of the West Indies (UWI) as a philosophy and an institution. Although I am known inside the university for my long letters about matters of concern regarding the operational functioning of many aspects of the student experience, I have deliberately kept my frustrations within UWI because I believe in everything that UWI is and will ever be.
Since my article last week, I note that you have come to various media to explain/defend the press release which was issued by UWI after a three-woman protest against Dr Ralph Gonsalves. Now Prof., I have read almost every academic treatise you have ever produced. I believe that your work on West Indies cricket is some of the most seminal ever done in sports research in the Commonwealth Caribbean. I also have appreciated your writings on gender-related issues and the psychological remnants of slavery, especially for black women who went through various forms of abuse as a part of the plantation system.
Now that you have emerged from behind the UWI banner, Prof. let us reason. One of the earliest works I read by you on issues of gender was, Nursing Colonial Wounds: Nita Barrow and Public Health Reform after the 1930s Workers’ Revolution. Based on the way that you set out the case of Nita Barrow and her philosophical departure from colonial ideals in spite her training being heavily colonially influenced, I came to understand the concept of agency in female advocacy. Basically what you cut to the core of in the article was Nita Barrow’s agency.
She took the training given to her as a nurse and used it for the improvement of health care delivery in the shadow of the 1930s workers’ uprisings. In your summary of Barrow’s contribution you wrote, “She was a rebel who knew how to make the best of available resources in the search for strategic advances.” As far as I understand it, you embraced Barrow’s ability to see that changes needed to be made for the improvement and betterment of her society and her willingness to be counted as actively enlisted in making those changes.
Another one of what I think are your seminal and significant writings on women is Perfect Property: Enslaved Black Women in the Caribbean. The article can be read as a summary of your earlier book, Centering Woman: Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slave Society in which you provide insightful information about the reasons why slavery was more exploitative and traumatic for the black woman. The black woman bore the brunt of sexual violence, were defeminized and out of the social construct of her blackness and ugliness, tenderness, care and support were removed from her reality.
You do make some note of the changes which occurred based on the specific periods of history. In the early years of slavery, for instance, you note that male slaves were preferred for their muscle and strength, but, in what you termed the developed years, females became premium as slaves because they were the perfect property – they not only worked shoulder to shoulder with the men in the fields, but the slave master also benefited from their skills of organization, cooking and cleaning. Above all other benefits though, you noted that the slave master’s unfettered access to the bodies of his female slaves was a prime part of his power, masculinity and dominance.
Although there have been several intervening years between the abolition of slavery and our current society, we accept that we still basically have a plantation economy and a significant overlay of several remnants of the plantation system. Prof., there are several implications for the type of historical gender analysis that you engaged in in the article that you wrote and the reason you gave as to why women must be free to challenge and protest the persistent, and in many cases unchanged views, about the black, ugly bodies that have been discursively given to Caribbean women. In fact, if a woman can be portrayed as black, ugly AND mad, she is an even better target for exploitation and abuse.
After the abolition of slavery the plight of the black woman in the Caribbean changed slowly. For large sections of black Caribbean women though, what never really changed was the psychological perception of the black woman and her status as the perfect property for the men who hold power and position and who replaced Massa in our plantation system. Although some women who live in black bodies have been able to use business or educational opportunities to move beyond commodifying their bodies and using sex as a transition in exchange for food, housing and other basic necessities, the reality is that several more women are still caught at this point.
In the same way that Nita recognized that she could use her training to assist women in the area of health care, Kristina Hinds has used her training to highlight the fact that loose structures of power intertwined with toxic masculinities that remain unchallenged in some demographic groupings continue to make women’s bodies the sites of severe emotional, sexual and psychological abuse.
Prof., let us remove the actors in any recent scenarios and deal only with principles. Do you respect women who are able to exhibit their agency and utilize their talents to improve the lot of Caribbean women in particular and Caribbean people by extension, or is the matter of agency not one of principle, but one of form? Can a principle change based on who the actors are? Certainly it should not be so!
If we recognize that the treatment of black female bodies by their white masters was problematic and traumatic because black women had no legal protection of, or agency over, their sexual decisions, then it must be just as problematic for men to use governmental or any other type of power to enslave black females in the same way. The completion of the psychological change that is needed in the black female in the Caribbean is just not with demutualization or the payment of a reparation bonus.
Healing for the black female must also include the recognition of her black men that the system of sexual abuse and exploitation has followed the black women up to today. Her blackness and ugliness still exclude her from the protection and validation by the men in Caribbean society.
In many ways Prof., the black woman is still perfect property and rather than setting down hurdles in the way of women wishing to highlight this, it would be better to devise a protocol of minimum ethics and conduct for any guest wishing to speak on the campuses of the University of the West Indies.