Author speaks at Laurier
In light of the United Nations declaring 2011 the year of people of African descent, author Yvonne Shorter Brown, a retired public school teacher, university lecturer and social justice advocate, was invited by the department of religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University to do a public lecture and reading on her autobiographical book Dead Woman Pickney.
The author’s quest to understand the absence of her mother and her mother’s people is at the core of her narrative, a coming-of-age story that takes place in Jamaica from 1943-1965.
Brown grew up in a time when Jamaica was transitioning from the richest Crown colony of Great Britain to an independent nation of the Commonwealth. During the era of the slave trade, hundreds of African slaves were sexually assaulted by white enslavers, and “Pickney” is a term for slave children on the sugar plantation. In the post-Emancipation era the term was used for the descendants of enslaved Africans and the children of black women fathered by white enslavers.
Brown described the trafficking and sexual assault of African women as the “deliberate racialized sexual assault which purpose was domination.”
“[Europeans]plundered the African landscape for ivory both the “white” and the “black”, and the harvesting of bodies became known as “black” ivory,” she added.
Growing up as a young girl in Jamaica, Brown describes that she was raised to believe that black people were made to service white people and that, “Africa was a dark culture; the basket-case of the world.”
To speak to the horrific era that was the slave trade, Brown said it was a “historical, psychological, cultural, and economic dehumanization that is carried over into historical contemporary documents.”
Brown explained that there has been a strong presence of people of African descent in Canada since the 1600s and though some people of African descent have attained high positions in society, such as the last Governor General Michaëlle Jean, Africans living in Canada still struggle against “discrimination in jobs, education, law enforcement, and housing.”
Brown said that when you read the title of the book, you think it has nothing to do with Canada, “but it has everything to do with Canada.”
When asked what inspired Brown to write this book, she said, “it was no longer her story, but the stories of other peoples that trigger the larger conversations that happen.”
Brown stated that it took her a lifetime to write this book and when she entered into the writing process she had to confront haunting memories of profound sadness due to her experiences growing up in Jamaica.
Brown did not have a mother growing up and said that in Jamaica “this was the worst fate that could happen to you.”
Brown also spoke of in her lecture about academic writing and explains that the use of memory as a methodology is viewed with suspicion in the academic community and Brown said she has always found this to be curious because “as human beings who are we without memory?”
The academic community is suspicious of memory writing because there are always accusations that someone is lying or making something up. However, Brown said that without the ability to remember, we can’t think, we can’t imagine, and we can’t invent.