Erna Brodber, intellectual fighter at 79

By Lincoln DePradine

Erna Brodber experienced prejudice as a Black person growing up in Jamaica. She decided to do something about it, using her academic training to become a sociologist, social activist, an intellectual worker and award-winning author, whose work addresses the history, memory and identity of the African Diaspora.

Erna Brodber with Jamaican-born visual artist, Ato Seitu

Dr Brodber, whose PhD. is in history, is still focused on her mission, at age 79. Last week, she visited Canada to deliver a speech on the topic, “After the Looking Glass: Blackspace and Emancipation’’.

“I don’t give up. I can’t give up,’’ Brodber told the audience in her address at the University of Toronto.

Brodber recalled the racial prejudice of her childhood, saying that she “could not help but make comparisons and to notice that the skin colour and hair type of those going to my school were darker and kinkier than those going to some of the other schools’’.

As well, said Brodber, while her school’s “Cambridge examination results were good or better than those of the other schools’’, she and her peers were “noticeably absent’’ from civic events that involved visiting dignitaries such as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.

“These civic public relations tasks seem to belong to schools with brown skin girls,’’ she said. “I knew then that there was an anti-Black culture in the upper reaches of Jamaican society.’’

With her childhood experiences, Brodber said she thought it her “duty to go to the university’’ to help “free’’ her people and determined that her work, as a professional, “was to entail the building of a looking glass in which the society can see itself’’.

Brodber, whose academic training includes psychiatric anthropology, also has described herself as an “Africanist’’, and says one of her difficulties has been to get some people “to think of themselves as African-descended without shame and hurt and embarrassment’’.

She has studied at the University College of the West Indies, University of Washington and the University of Sussex.

In addition, Brodber has taught at the University of the West Indies and at colleges in the United States. She has written several books and articles including “Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home’’; “The Rainmaker’s Mistake’’; “The Second Generation of Freemen in Jamaica, 1907–1944’’; “The Continent of Black Consciousness: On the History of the African Diaspora from Slavery to the Present Day’’; “Yards in the City of Kingston’’; “Reggae and Cultural Identity in Jamaica’’; and “Perceptions of Caribbean Women: Toward a Documentation of Stereotypes’’.

Brodber recounted receiving a scholarship to study for her first degree in honours’ history. She said she “thoroughly enjoyed’’ the program of study.

However, at the end of the program and on receiving her history degree, Brodber said she discovered that she had “no tools to help my people’’.

According to her, “the little bit of Caribbean history that I got in my honours’ history program was really European foreign policy’’.

Community activist Louis March, who attended Brodber’s lecture, “enlightening’’ and “refreshing’’.

“It was delivered in such a way that, no matter who you were in the audience, you could understand it and I think that was important,’’ said March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement.

“It was not academic jargon. It was real experience from a real person,’’ he added. “She doesn’t get caught up in governmental stuff. She focuses on what she wants to do and she does a good job of it.’’

Brodber was born in Woodside, a farming village in Saint Mary Parish, Jamaica.

She has returned to Woodside to live and work. Among the many village events are annual activities commemorating the 1838 proclamation by the Britain ending the enslavement of Africans in Jamaica and the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean.

Jamaican-born visual artist, Ato Seitu, said he was “glad’’ to attend the University of Toronto event.

He soon plans on visiting Jamaica as part of a research on African words. Seitu presented Brodber with a document describing a project and told her he would like to meet with her during his upcoming Jamaica visit.