Tuesday, 31 July 2018


By Julia Siccardi

Gina Athena Ulysse was at the back of the room when her name was announced, and she started her lecture with an unexpected chant, slipping in the first lines of The Fugees’ “Ready or Not“, as she slowly walked to the lectern on bare feet.

So began the “Caribbean Women (Post) Diaspora: African/Caribbean Interconnections“ conference, held earlier this month at London South Bank University.  It brought together scholars from around the world to reflect on issues facing black women in contemporary societies and to offer views on activism for the future, including on women’s mental and physical health.

Gina Athena Ulysse
Organized by Dr. Suzanne Scafe and Dr. Beverley Goring of LSBU, the two-day event included research presentations, an art exhibition and literary readings, in an attractive venue near the river Thames.
After an introduction by Scafe on the first day, all eyes were on anthropologist and first keynote speaker Ulysse, a professor at Wesleyan University in the United States.
She kicked off her shoes and sang in a clear voice, at the start of her “lyrical meditation on the politics and poetics of movement and suspense”. The aim was to “make sense of why we carry what we do against the weight of exile”.
In her performance, Ulysse emphasized the necessity to “dare to know oneself”, saying that “if we don’t define ourselves for ourselves”, then we are controlled by others’ limitations.
“We exist as we are and that is enough,” she declared. “Subjectivity allows me to claim who I am and not who you want me to be … your objectivity suffocates me.”
At one point, she cried as she shared her experiences, and during the question-and-answer session that followed, another participant, of about the same age, also broke down in tears, as the discussion turned to how often women of colour are “not heard” and vulnerable people “not seen”.
Ulysse reminded participants that people cannot do away with history, as the past affects contemporary situations. She expressed her worry that “forgetting is happening too much in this world” and wondered how it was possible to create spaces so that history won’t be forgotten.
“The need to create spaces for remembrance could not be more crucial,” she said. (For an article in New African magazine about the measures to create sites of memory, see: https://newafricanmagazine.com/news-analysis/arts-culture/fighting-right-remember/)
“The problem is that people prefer simple narratives,” said Ulysse. “However, the past makes the narrative more complicated.”
Guyana-born British artist Desrie Thomson-George
with her work.
Detailing every-day struggles, she told listeners: “I’m forced to believe that we must survive … we are each other’s business.”
The conference also comprised an exhibition by Guyana-born British artist Desrie Thomson-George, whose sculptures told the story of “Jilo, the Survivor”. Her work referenced the “Windrush” generation in Britain and gave insight into how immigrants have coped with being in a hostile setting.
Thompson-George said she was 6 years old when she arrived in Britain, and the sole trace of her existence was the simple mention, on her grandmother’s passport of: “…and child”. She told conference participants about her experience of being a black child in a racist, white environment.
She said that white kids would laugh at her until she started genuinely finding herself ugly. When she was 10, she tried to modify her features on a picture of herself, making her lips thinner. She understood the concept of “invisibility” when her teacher one day asked a mathematical question and her hand shot up in the air but the teacher ignored her until, after calling on every other pupil, she finally had to turn to Thomson-George, who gave the correct answer.
The teacher’s reaction, instead of praise, was to ask: “How did you know that, did you cheat?” Thomson-George responded that her uncle gave her math lessons and made her work very hard, which was why she knew the answer to the question.
Fighting against being invisible, being silenced:
artwork by Desrie Thomson-George.
She recounted how she returned home that day with a letter in an envelope for her uncle, which she dutifully handed over. In it, the teacher asked the uncle to stop teaching Thomson-George because it was “disrupting the class” and made the other pupils feel less good.
Her uncle ignored the “request” and stressed that it was the teacher who had a problem, Thomson-George said. But the experience stayed with her, and her work as an artist refers to this attempt to make some people invisible as it takes viewers on the immigrant’s journey to survive.
A range of other presentations at the conference focused on topics such as: the gender dynamics of migration, queer diaspora human rights activism, new frontiers in black women’s writing, Cuba-Jamaica migration, and black feminist archiving in the digital age.
A second keynote speaker, Jan Etienne of the University of London, discussed and acknowledged the “sacrifices made by the Windrush sisters (first-generation African Caribbean women) whose womanist voices were for far too long suppressed as they prioritised support for the family and wider community”.
British-based health experts Jenny Douglas and Dawn Edge meanwhile focused on the need for women to pay attention to their health and called for increased awareness of the particular issues and challenges that women of Caribbean descent face in Britain.
Citing the increasing incidence of dementia among this population, Edge said that many people with depression end up with dementia. Douglas said greater activism was necessary on behalf of women’s health.
The cover of Diana Evans' latest novel.
The conference ended with readings by authors Alecia McKenzie and Diana Evans. McKenzie first shared a poem before inviting another conference participant (Aisha Spencer, from the University of the West Indies) to join her in the reading of “Full Stop”, one of the first short stories she wrote.
Written in an epistolary style, “Full Stop” takes the reader into the intimacy of letters exchanged between a Jamaican grandmother and her granddaughter who lives in New York. As the letters follow one another, we slowly discover that, maybe, the grandmother is a manipulative woman, but the doubt always remains as to whether this is so or not. The oral performance was fascinating as well as funny and made one want to read more.
For Evans’ reading, she chose an extract from her latest novel, Ordinary People. This was a very intense passage that sparked reflection, and Evans’ smooth writing made listeners want to discover all her books. Both writers evoked the question of belonging. Evans explained that although she is from Britain, she doesn’t quite belong, and writing is a way of exploring what it means to be Black and British, of thinking about “how we wear our history”, because, she said, echoing Ulysse without knowing it, “we will never lose our history.” McKenzie, a Jamaican living in Paris, said she had grown used to not belonging.
Julia Siccardi is a doctoral candidate at the Ecole Normal Supérieure de Lyon, France. At the conference, she presented a paper on “women looking for homes in Zadie Smith’s novels”. Follow her on Twitter @literaryjulia.