On Tuesday, January 11, 2011 I was very pleased and honoured to have the opportunity to speak with Dr. Verene Shepherd on a radio program (Tuesday Word of Mouth 7:00 to 7:30 p.m) I host at CKLN 88.1 FM. Dr Shepherd is one of those people who it is a delight to interview. She is extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic. It is not surprising that she is knowledgeable, of course, she is a scholar and a historian. However, her enthusiasm and her willingness to do an interview after a busy few days of traveling was very well appreciated.
Dr. Shepherd was one of five members of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. The Working Group was established in 2002 with a mandate to collaborate with respective countries to devise policies aimed at eradicating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. As an activist scholar Dr. Shepherd was well suited to being a member of the Working Group and had much to contribute to its work. She was the representative for Latin America and the Caribbean on the Working Group.
She shared with me and my listeners that African descendants from South America were very involved with the Working Group and had urged a decade for people of African descent be recognized. It is indeed unfortunate that the UN has only designated one year (2011.)
Dr. Shepherd is the author of several books about the culture and history of Africans and we discussed some of her work. I am re-reading (third time) her 2007 published I Want to Disturb My Neighbour: Lectures on Slavery, Emancipation and Postcolonial Jamaica. Part of the title of the book comes from Bob Marley’s Bad Card released in 1980 on the album Uprising. One of many reasons for reading this book three times is the accessibility of the language of the book. Dr. Shepherd is an academic but the language she uses is not out of reach for non-academics even though the lectures in the book are for academics since they were mostly given at universities. I have shared parts of this book with children as young as junior high school age and they have been encouraged to read the book.
History becomes fascinating when historians like Dr. Shepherd write. Her letter to Mary Seacole in chapter 13 “Dear Mrs Seacole: Groundings with Mary Seacole on Slavery, Gender and Citizenship” is a delight to read. The letter was read as part the lecture delivered at the Institute of Jamaica's function to honour Mary Seacole on November 21, 2005, to mark the bicentenary of Seacole's birth. In her letter to Mary Seacole Dr. Shepherd writes: "I was surprised that you had only your little maid for a traveling companion; but admired you for defying the gender conventions of the time. Still you were lucky it was then: now, a single black woman roaming all over the world like Digicel and Cable and Wireless, and carrying herbs would certainly have attracted attention including a body scan! As an attractive Jamaican woman, brown or not, you would perhaps, have been mistaken for a drug mule, sniffed by colour-prejudice dogs and have your ample body 'feel-feel' up by strange men and women."
Mary Seacole was a woman born in Jamaica who as an adult left to live and work in several countries including Britain where she worked as a nurse during the Crimean War. Part of the advertisement for the 2005 released movie Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea reads: Mary Seacole was a black contemporary of Florence Nightingale in the front line of the Crimea war. Her medical and mercantile endeavours made her a national hero in Victorian England but she was all but forgotten after her death.
Dr Shepherd makes an appearance in the movie.
In I Want to Disturb My Neighbour: Lectures on Slavery, Emancipation and Postcolonial Jamaica Dr. Shepherd addresses the struggle of enslaved African women and recognizes that she has benefited from their fight for freedom. In chapter 8 entitled “Petticoat Rebellion” Dr. Shepherd names several of those freedom fighting enslaved African women including Congo Sally, Minnetta, Whaunica and Phibba.
During the interview we spoke about Thomas Thistlewood’s diary where he documented his systematic sexual abuse of every female (women and children) on his Jamaica based plantation. Thistlewood’s diary is valuable as documented proof of the sexual abuse to which enslaved African women were subjected by white slave holders in addition to the back breaking physical work they were forced to perform to enrich their abusers.
A woman who believes in and lives up to the saying "putting your money where your mouth is," Dr. Shepherd has written: The primary responsibilities of the university academic are to teach and advise graduate and undergraduate students, attend to examination duties, conduct research and publish the findings of such research. However few confine themselves to their core mandate. Many assume leadership positions and administrative responsibilities (including sitting on committees, sub-committees and the inevitable task forces) engage in public and professional service and outreach activities and form links with the international academy through the delivery of conference papers and public lectures. Historians at the University of the West Indies (UWI) are among those who refuse to imprison themselves within the walls of academia, becoming heavily involved in public service, schools and community outreach; and delivering public lectures locally, regionally and internationally. Dr Shepherd has certainly done that as evidenced by the 21 public lectures contained in I Want to Disturb My Neighbour: Lectures on Slavery, Emancipation and Postcolonial Jamaica.
With her busy schedule and great responsibilities as professor of social history and Director of the Institute for Gender & Development Studies (IGDS) at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) with oversight responsibility for the Mona, Cave Hill and St. Augustine Units of the IGDS Dr. Shepherd is organizing a conference in Colombia, South America in March 2011 to commemorate IYPAD. Dr. Shepherd is the author of several other books about the history of Africans and other racialized people in the Caribbean including: Slavery without sugar: Diversity in Caribbean economy and society since the 17th century, Emancipation and immigration: A pan-Caribbean overview, Women in Caribbean history, The ranking game: Discourses of belonging in Jamaican history, Working slavery, pricing freedom: Perspectives from the Caribbean and Africa and the African Diaspora.
It was an amazing, delightful and enlightening experience speaking with Dr. Shepherd and I hope to speak with her again this year as we observe the United Nations International Year for People of African Descent (IYPAD).