The people of Woodside march and sing freedom songs as they reenact Jamaica's emancipation from slavery in 1834. Erna Brodber helped make Emancipation Day a regular celebration in the village.
Crossing borders
An interview with writer, scholar, and activist Erna Brodber

published May 7, 2001
written by Nadia Ellis Russell / Woodside, Jamaica
photographed by Stephen Ellis Russell

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The celebration begins when we march in from two ends of Woodside, Jamaica, singing to beating drums, "Ah come we jus a come/A come we jus a come/An we nuh want nuh boderation ooohh/…/We get we freedom now/…/An we nuh want nuh boderation oooohhh."

Then comes the recreation, which starts with a reading of Queen Victoria’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1834. Various villagers step forward, portraying the responses of their ancestors. At one point, a light-skinned village woman is the subject of mistrust, as another villager worries whether she will be entitled to greater freedoms because of her planter heritage. In steps the narrator: "We all suffer. It no matter the skin, we all suffer."

A key figure in making Emancipation Day a regular celebration in Woodside, Erna Brodber has had a profound impact on her hometown, as well as on the larger Jamaican community. I first encountered Brodber's writing when I studied Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home in a literature class at the University of the West Indies, so she was, in my imagination anyway, the dignified and distant "Brodber" of literary essays. To her students at the University of the West Indies, however, she is the engaging (and more accessible) "Dr. Brodber." To the people of Woodside, she is the even friendlier "Miss Brodba," who is building the Centre for the Study of Africa and the Diaspora literally in her backyard.

Brodber’s multiple names point to the variety of conversations in which the writer, scholar, and activist is involved. Her work inhabits the gaps between fiction, historical, and sociological scholarship, literary criticism, and activism. Brodber is accustomed to crossing the borders separating the worlds inhabited by her academic colleagues, literati friends, and fellow villagers. Her familiarity with negotiating boundaries may explain not only why her work reveals fissures in Caribbean culture and history that official government rhetoric so earnestly attempts to hide, but also why her work has become so significant to so many people.

In the interview excerpted below, Brodber spoke candidly with me about race, publishing, and the need that black people in the Caribbean have for "space"--a discrete cultural and spiritual environment in which the fullness of African life in the West can first be acknowledged and then shared and exchanged. In an era that increasingly venerates the "creole" and the "hybrid," Brodber’s insistence on the importance of recognizing black culture as distinct is provocative and academically counter-cultural.

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