The following is an edited version of remarks delivered by Michelle Bernard before the Kiwanis Club of New Kingston on the occasion of their 25th anniversary last month at the Jamaica Pegasus:
I want to thank the Kiwanis Club of New Kingston Jamaica not only for this extraordinary opportunity to speak to you today as we celebrate the club’s 25th anniversary, but also, for bringing me back home to Jamaica. It’s been nine, almost 10 very long years since I was last here. As my flight landed at in Montego Bay, all I could think was, “Thank you, God, thank you, Kiwanis Club of New Kingston, and thank you to my beautiful, loving Jamaican family.”
So it with great love in my heart for this land of milk and honey that I say that this journey is remarkable, because I am humbled and honoured to speak to you as the daughter of Dr Milton Bernard of Kingston and Mrs Nesta Bernard of Lucea. My parents are native-born Jamaicans; my father is the first to tell the world that he is an extremely proud graduate of Calabar; my mother, who is not nearly as brazen, is a proud graduate of Rusea’s High School. Both graduates of Howard University in Washington, DC, I believe that if they were with us at the Pegasus today, they would say that one of the greatest blessings of their life has been able to raise their four children with a love for all that Jamaica is today and will become in the future.
I have told many people, and have said this in many speeches, and I especially proud to stand before you this morning/evening and once again proclaim: I would not be standing here at this podium today, were it not for the beliefs instilled by my parents and every member of our family, many of whom are here today. On my mother’s side of the family, my aunt Cynthia McCleod and great-aunt Ivey Henry are here today. From my father’s side of the family, my uncle Dr Wesley Bernard, my aunt and his better half, Nancy, and my cousin and Kiwanis Club member, Christine Bernard-Taylor. And I would be remiss if I didn’t introduce you, as well, to my God-father and baby-sitter extraordinaire, Dr Cleo Taylor. It is my Uncle Cleo who was once charged with responsibility for baby-sitting me in Washington. Being the kind uncle he has always been, he watched with great amusement as I set my parents’ couch on fire. I have never thought to ask whether he was ever asked to baby-sit me again.
My aunts and uncles will tell you that my parents faced many hardships and obstacles as they navigated their way from their home country of Jamaica to the United States at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s. But my aunts and uncles will also tell you that my parents were not as young and naïve as most would perceive. They left the comfort and serenity of Jamaica and placed themselves directly in the path of dangers faced by those advocating for civil rights. They knew exactly what they were getting into. They knew what their families not only wanted for them, but what was expected of them. They knew the importance of their Jamaican heritage and were determined to hold on to it as they pursued their American dream.
Raising a family during this turbulent time was anything but easy. Discrimination was rampant. Upon hearing their accents, many doors were slammed in their faces. From housing to employment to childcare facilities.
As a dental student at Howard University, my father took on self-employment as a cab driver to support our family. Both my parents refused to enter a workplace through the back door, nor did they assent to being employed by someone who thought of them “as less than” because of the colour of their skin, their gender, or their Jamaican accents.
My parents were inspired deeply on the day of August 28, 1963, the march on Washington in DC. My father shuttled people back and forth across town to the march, listening to their stories and listening to the speeches on the radio. My mother sat at home nursing me — then only a month-old — and listened intently, to Dr King’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ on the radio.
They heard Dr King loud and clear. Their dreams for our family were not the pie-in-the-sky dreams automatically handed to white families in the United States at that time. They wanted the dream that Dr King spoke of; where they would be judged by the content of their character.
My father taught us the art of what I now called “smart dissidence”. My mother taught us the beauty of feminism and the importance of using your God-given talents, education, and social activism for service to all children and the black community. She taught us the beauty of self-love and that black is beautiful. Now that I am a mother myself to two young children, I talk to my mother and the women in my family here in Jamaica about many of the things I took for granted as a child.
Yes, most of our talks are about normal everyday things, but we also discuss something that communities of other cultures are fortunate to not have to address. We talk about the wave of violence plaguing our black children both here in Jamaica, and in the United States. There are atrocities in the US that mirror some of the atrocities here in Jamaica. They are heart-rending, cowardly attacks on our black children. The very ones who we believed were protecting them are killing children in the US. The systemic racism and oppression of unarmed black boys and men enacted by police officers in some communities in the US is staggering.
In Detroit, Michigan, seven-year-old Aiyana Jones was killed while sleeping on the couch in her grandmother’s home when police raided, searching for a murder suspect.
In Sanford, Florida, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed while walking home in his own gated community by a neighbour viewing him as a threat simply because of his skin colour and hooded sweatshirt.
In Ferguson, Missouri, unarmed 17-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson.
In Cleveland, Ohio, 12-year-old Tamir Rice wielded a toy gun in a park and was shot dead by bloodthirsty police officers.
I have heard the stories of Jamaica’s children and the more than 30 children who have been killed since the beginning of the year. I have read many newspaper articles. I have winced. I have cried. You know their stories well: Stories like that of McKenzie Elliot, who newspaper reports state was gunned down by a gang member as she played on her front porch.
I read a news report where a police commissioner suggested that mothers in Jamaica could do a better job at shielding their children from sexual violence by not allowing male companions and stepfathers to sleep in the same room of their homes. Naturally, that is a valid observation. But why was it not mentioned that male companion and stepfathers shouldn’t rape or sexually violate young children? Why no mention of their responsibility in the matter?
In another article, I read that several child advocates believed women could be the key to stopping the senseless murder of young children, because they were too silent on the whereabouts of killers, sometimes even harbouring killings right under their noses. But why was there no plea to the men? The men who could also be harbouring killers within their homes? The men who could also be passive about the violent activity around them?
I read yet another news report in which a young schoolgirl was killed and, as her mother and grandmother grieved, a mob of neighbours physically attacked them. They believed the mother and grandmother neglected the girl, because authorities discovered she was pregnant when they found her body. There are parallels issues of how we got to this devastating place where children are dying — both here and in the US.
Issues such as racism, economic insecurity, poverty, lack of educational opportunities, inter-personal violence, gang warfare, the drug trade, as well as undiagnosed and untreated mental illness plague both countries. But I would argue that no one should ever suggest that it is Jamaican women who are at fault when these innocent children of this country suffer at the hands of criminals.
As a global community, in seeking solutions to the senseless murders of our children, we must remember that centuries ago, it was black women who had children ripped from their bodies and sold into slavery; her husband sold away from her or who many times faced dehumanising abuse right in front of her. In the US, children worked side by side in the cotton and tobacco fields next to their mothers, subjected to the same physical and sexual abuse. In Jamaica, it was on the sugar plantations, where women were beaten, raped, whipped, amputated, and forced into the most degrading of atrocities under the institution of slavery. And it was the black woman who also led slaves to escape and to rebel. In the US, it was Harriet Tubman. In Jamaica, Nanny of the Maroons. After generations of endured psychological and physical abuse, the black woman held up the black family, many times with the black man, and many times without.
Shirley Chisholm, another sister of the Caribbean diaspora, was a courageous and prolific woman. She was deeply admired by my parents and me. She quoted legendary feminist Francis Beal in her famous speech in 1974, ‘The Black Women in Contemporary America’:
“By reducing the black man in America to such abject oppression, the black woman had no protector and she was used — and is still being used in some cases — as the scapegoat for the evils that this horrendous system has perpetrated on black men. Her physical image has been maliciously maligned. She has been sexually molested and abused by the white coloniser. She has suffered the worst kind of economic exploitation, having been forced to serve as the white woman’s maid and wet-nurse for white offspring, while her own children were more often starving and neglected. It is the depth of degradation to be socially manipulated, physically raped, and used to undermine your own household, and then to be powerless to reverse this syndrome.”
Chisholm’s speech, aptly quoting legendary feminist Francis Beal, is chilling. It was delivered 41 years ago. But it is just as fresh, relevant, and needed today.
I have always loved the Jamaican motto: “Out of Many-One People.” These five words say so much. Since I was a young girl I have heard many interpretations of this motto. But today, I want to put this phrase into the context of the women of the Kiwanis Club of New Kingston; women who are committed to serving our children and working to eradicate this senseless violence. The Kiwanis Club of New Kingston shows us that, in the context of our children, the motto means that out of the many inhumane, systemic acts of colonial domination, the fearlessness of one people emerged.
There is a fight in the eyes of the Jamaican women who are fearless against anyone who tries to tear this nation apart. I believe this fight comes in the form of the women and men who stand to counter these attacks. The women and men working around the clock to provide safety, education, and resources for our children. The men and women who work to uphold the basic human rights of every child as spelled out in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child in Jamaica.
There is fight in the eyes of warrior leaders, these amazing women of the Kiwanis Club of New Kingston who are mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, caregivers, friends of children on this island. Women who love this island, and love the work and service they do on behalf of children and families. There is fight in the eyes of the protesters, marching from city to city in the United States, letting everyone within earshot and sight know that black lives matter.
The Kiwanis Club of New Kingston shows us that “out of many, one people” means that women and men can work as one to combat the injustices facing Jamaican people, such as domestic violence and mistreatment of women. It means that Jamaican women are not forced to haul the oppressive weight of racism alone. It means that Jamaican men stand shoulder to shoulder with us; equal partners in the fight. Together, we reject the stereotypical image of the Jamaican woman and girl-many times even perpetuated by both white mainstream and black American media as working as being “force ripe”, or striving to publicly display the smallest bikini on the largest bosom and bottom known to man.
Our reputations are now well known in the areas of technology, science, medicine, law, education, entrepreneurship, executive leadership and, of course, government. We are a sisterhood. We are groundbreakers and visionaries, from Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to scientists like Dr Deborah Maxine Gossell-Williams and science fiction writers like Nalo Hopkinson.
The Kiwanis Club of New Kingston shows us that “out of many one people” means that our place in the African diaspora is one of a people who work together to stand up against the forces that seek to tear us down, to tear our families apart. Violence places all of us, especially women, who are already faced with so many burdens and challenges, in such a position of vulnerability and insecurity.
Two years ago, I was asked by the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to write a book highlighting their accomplishments and dedication to civil rights and social justice on their 50th anniversary. It was an honour to speak with some of the 244 lawyers requested to be a part of a special committee created by then President John F Kennedy in 1963. The work done by much of the lawyers was pro bono publico: for the good of the people. Many of these lawyers worked courageously alongside civil rights activists, advocates, community leaders, and clergy to insure to eliminate racial discrimination wherever it existed.
It was here that I learned a big lesson, one that I will never forget: I learned the many people active in the US Civil Rights Movement understood emphatically that unless the deeply rooted social ills plaguing our communities were not addressed, the balance of the entire family was subject to destruction. They knew that their children were going to be subjected to vicious, violent racist attacks. Through their own non-violent means, they literally took the blows, the beatings, the whippings, the dog bites, the water from the fire hoses, and the brutal assaults all so their children and children’s children wouldn’t have to. That is why it was so important to push for the Civil Rights Act, which was eventually signed into law in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson. These were brilliant, visionary people in the movement. They knew that the sense of connection as human beings with rights would be lost without that landmark legislation.
When violence happens to our children, there is a disconnection; somewhere, somehow, there is a disconnection. So how do we get back to the place where we feel our connectedness again, as Jamaicans?
We must work together to address and call out the factors within institutions that are hurting our children. We must work tirelessly to enact legislation forcing these oppressive systems that impress upon black children that they are inferior. We must enact laws that give the power back to those that love them and want them protected and safe. We must implore upon our children that they have rights. We must tell them what those rights are. We must not be afraid to address and deal with the cuts and bruises that we don’t see on our children; we have to address the root of the abuse happening in families and deal with the mental illness and psychosis.
I also believe this disconnection comes from a very dark place where violence and hatred is born: In the core of the mind, with the negative self-talk that says: I hate myself, therefore I want to hurt all of those around me.
In 2013, Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist began looking at gun violence in the United States and noted that its spread followed the patterned of infectious diseases. Today, I would ask that, as a community, we ask the question that Dr Slutkin has asked: Is it possible that our culture has misdiagnosed violence and, if so, shouldn’t we approach violence as a contagious disease, looking at science, public health strategies, and our communities to stop it?
We have to remember our connection to this land, to each other. We are required to draw from our shared history to remember our strength and power. And we must look back in history to know where we are going. We must not forget the children who are left to pick up the pieces of their fragile lives when their parents have lost a job, when they are forced to live in poverty while their parents try to keep their family together. We must not forget the children who have been killed through acts of violence. We must not forget the women who are trying to shield their own families from the destruction of physical and sexual violence and feel powerless and shame.
The stakes are high, but we know that we can no longer afford inaction. As my mother would say, if we don’t act, “Dog ago nyam yuh supper.”
Michelle Bernard is president of the Bernard Center for Public Policy, a media commentator, author and attorney.