Wilson Harris was born in 1921 in New Amsterdam, in what was then British Guiana, on 24 March, 1921, and died March 8, 2018. He is considered one of the most original writers of the twentieth century, for his fiction, essays, and poems that explore human history, metaphysics, and the natural world. According to the obituary in The London Guardian "his was an inimitable style, dense with metaphor, symbolism, and mythological reference". He received a Knighthood in June 2017 from the Queen for his services to literature.
The Genesis of a Magical Writer
After Harris' marriage to Cecily Carew in 1945 ended in divorce, he emigrated to England in 1959, met and married Scottish writer Margaret Burns who died in 2010. He became a full-time writer, involved in lecturing and teaching creative writing classes at various universities in the United States and other countries. The Ramson Center in Texas which houses the vast collection of works has this to say: “Harris’s personal experiences with the complex Guyanese landscape and multi-racial culture influenced his writing. His novels, known for their abstract and experimental nature, are full of metaphors and complex symbolism, with an intermingling of time, reality, imagination, memory, and dreams; they have been called “psychical expeditions”.
Culling from a series of articles on this renowned writer, it is important to note the extent to which his earlier profession as a land surveyor before leaving Guyana for England influenced his thinking and writing. His exploration of the dense forests, rivers and vast savannahs of the Guyanese hinterland for example, features prominently in the settings of his fiction. According to a recent article by Faber and Faber, the English publishers of many of his works, "Harris' novels are complex, alluding to diverse mythologies from different cultures, and eschew conventional narration in favour of shifting interwoven voices".
Establishing a Class by Himself
Among the wide range of his works is the novel, Palace of the Peacock (1960), the first of The Guyana Quartet, which includes The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962) and The Secret Ladder (1963). They formed the basis of a magnificent series of lectures he gave to overflowing audiences at the Sir Phillip Sherlock Cultural Center, UWI Mona in 1984. But many others followed: including, The Carnival Trilogy (Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987) and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990), Jonestown (1996), which tells of the mass-suicide of a thousand followers of cult leader Jim Jones, The Dark Jester (2001), a semi-autobiographical novel, The Mask of the Beggar (2003), and one of his most accessible novels (for me easier to read and amusing), The Ghost of Memory (2006). But there were many more of which the best resources on his life and work from across the web can be found on: https://www.bocaslitfest.com/wilson-harris-at-100/
Wilson Harris also wrote non-fiction and critical essays and has been awarded honorary doctorates by several universities, including the University of the West Indies (1984) and the University of Liège (2001). He has twice been winner of the Guyana Prize for Literature. Harris won the Guyana National Prize for Literature in 1987 and 2002. On his 95th birthday, a year before he died he gave an interview to the BBC, erudite and incisive which truly establishes his pedigree with the description, “writer as magician”.
Keeping his Pedigree Alive
Moray House Trust with support from the NGC Bocas Lit Fest will premiere “The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination”. It is an excerpt from a dramatic work in progress that compares two approaches to social change in the Caribbean: Wilson Harris’s dreamworld of the creative imagination and Walter Rodney’s more grounded approach on Saturday March 27, 2021 at 6.00 p.m. Guyana time. This excerpt explores the radical imagining championed by Wilson Harris. See video production at youtube.com/bocaslitfest, facebook.com/bocaslitfest, or here on our Wilson Harris at 100 webpage, They aptlyexplore "the groundbreaking, mind-expanding work of Harris through videos, texts, images, and sound recordings, including an excerpt from his novel, Heartland, courtesy Peepal Tree Press".
Two decades after the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action from the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2001, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21 March each year, is a reminder of the persistence of systemic racial discrimination that continues to strangle the rights of people of African descent to equal services, quality education, decent work and meaningful participation. This Year the theme is appropriately Youth Standing up against Racism.
Recognizing the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration, sparks a reflection on a period of my career when I had recently joined the staff of the CARICOM Secretariat (in 2000) and thrust into a coordinating role in the preparatory consultations for the Region's participation in the September 2001 Durban Conference in South Africa. The CARICOM Delegation was led by Hon Mia Mottley, then Minister of Education, Youth and Culture of Barbados. It included representatives from several governments and NGOs across the Caribbean region, UWI, and significantly, the recently formed CARICOM Youth Ambassadors (CYAs). Having to coordinate and present the CARICOM Secretariat's paper at a joint CARICOM-UWI Forum at UWI St Augustine in March 2000, created a deep awareness of the entrenched harms inflicted by racism over generations.
The 2000 CARICOM paper called upon States to honour the memory of victims of the historical injustices of slavery, the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and apartheid. It recognized that the contemporary genesis for the world’s commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21 March, is because on that day in 1960, the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed Youth leader Steve Bikko among 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid "pass laws".
The South Africa atrocity converged with and amplified the advocacy for the Black Power movement in the USA inspired by Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael of the Student Coordinating Committee and Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party. The Black Power Movement took root in the Caribbean in Trinidad and Tobago (1968-1969), coinciding with my first year on the staff of UWI St Augustine. It provides a vivid reminder of the power of youth leadership of Geddes Granger (later, Makakndal Daaga) and Khafra Khambon of the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) which was aligned to the UWI St Augustine Guild of Undergraduates that sparked major social reforms introduced by the PNM government led by Dr Eric Williams. The historical events, their socio-economic and political results are aptly analyzed in Selwyn Ryan memoirs, Ryan Recalls reviews in GOFAD by Compton Bourne (11/11/2019). It helps us to understand the ripple effects of Apartheid through the Sharpeville protests, the Black Power movement in the USA and its contagious effects in the Caribbean. Important fragments are the Rodney riots led by UWI Students following his deportation from Jamaica and the emergence of Rosie Douglas who led the students protest at Sir George William University (now Concordia University) See Micheal O West History vs. Historical Memory: Rosie Douglas, Black Power on Campus, and the Canadian Color Conceit (2017)
The tenor of the international Black Power movement and its militancy differed from the earlier nonviolent protests in the USA. Among them were the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King in the winter of 1959, resulting in the arrest of Rosa Parks and the March to over the Edmund Pettus Bridge that crossed the Alabama River out of Selma led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams on “Bloody Sunday” March 7, 1965 . The latter event is recorded in detail in Chapter 5 Bloody Sunday in John Lewis, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Civil Rights Movement 1998.
The case of the US is the starkest evidence of the long history of humanity's struggle to end racism and racial discrimination. Events over the past year signal a critical moment afflicting the entire world and have heightened the urgency of action to end the scourge of racism, which in words of the Antonio Gutterres Secretary-General, "violates the UN Charter and debases us all as human beings”. He is of course referring to the escalation of deep rage at the violence, injustice, abuse and unfairness faced by millions as protests rock cities around the world.
This feature is compounded by the spread of the Coronavirus in early 2020, as a parallel pandemic was unleashed to that of hatred, violence and fear against certain ethnicities and nationalities. It quickly became clear that stark inequities, sometimes rooted in racism, had subjected minorities to a significantly higher risk of infection and death.
Young people again massively showed their support at the 2020 Black Lives Matter marches, which drew millions of demonstrators worldwide. On the streets, groundswells of youth - mostly teens and twenty-somethings - came together to protest against racial injustice. On social media, they mobilized participation, calling on their peers to speak out, and to stand up for the equal rights and justice for all.
The socio economic impact of COVID-19 points to very stark racial disparities. In the USA for example, infection, hospitalization and death rates amongst people of African descent are respectively triple, five times and double the rates seen amongst white Americans. American life expectancy dropped a full year due to the pandemic – but the life expectancy of Black Americans declined by 2.7 years. In the United Kingdom, women and men of African descent were four times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. The pandemic's impact on the livelihoods and income of people from minority communities has been massively disproportionate, in every region.
Pulitzer Prize Winner Isabel Wilkerson in her recent book, Caste:The Origins of Our Discontent, explains that the pervasiveness of the caste is not limited to India but also applicable to racism in the USA. She states that: “long before the the American Revolution, a human hierarchy had evolved on the contested soil of what would become the United States, a concept of birthright, the temptation of entitled expansion that would set the world’s first democracy and with it then ranking of human value and usages”. But most important is her drawing on the comprehensive work of Swedish social economist, Gunner Myrdal. He concluded that America created a caste system to maintain a color line that to the ordinary white man functions to uphold the caste system for keeping the negro in his place. In other words for Myrdal the most accurate term to describe the workings of American society is not race but caste.
Wilkerson's brilliant book provides the answers to questions asked in previous GOFAD blogs such as: How did Donald Trump receive so many votes? What is the link between cultism and racism? Why is white supremacy so pervasive? It also explains the vulgar display of white nationalism and white insurrectionism on January 6, 2021 inspired by Donald Trump and for which with complicity, Republicans in both the House of Representatives and Senate conspired against convicting him.
Youth Leadership Taking a Stand
It is against this general background that youth leadership is required to find the formula for taking action. Among the broad range of activities on which to pivot the following are put forward for consideration:
I vividly recall the tragedy in the 1962 film of "To Kill a Mockingbird,” with Gregory Peck based on Lee Harper’s book which no doubt represents thousands of true-life stories just like it, that could only come in a racist society. The black man in the story clearly could not have committed the crimes of which he was accused, but the all-white jury simply would not acquit him, instead sending him to prison, where he would be shot "trying to escape." These types of stories are part of the hateful legacy of racism that have persisted to day in George Floyd, Breana Taylor and others, who, except for racism, did not have to die.
In her heart-wrenching debut memoir, Why the Caged Birds Sing, Maya Angelou shares her experience with racism and bigotry and how she turned to literature and her own inner strength to help her survive. For those who need their lessons couched in story, you can't go wrong with Maya Angelou.
A Year After Declaring COVID-19 an Epidemic: It's Time to Take the World from the Brink of a Catastrophic Moral FailureRead Now
March 11, 2021 is a landmark in the history of COVID-19. It marks one year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak, a pandemic. It is also a defining moment in the USA when President Biden signed the US$1.9B American Rescue Plan (Relief Bill) giving hope for the economic and social redemption to many citizens and small businesses. This anniversary also coincides with a period when due to the collective scientific response, there is a better understanding of the crisis and the rollout of vaccines. Yet there remains cynicism in some quarters of whether the world is better prepared for the next pandemic and the lessons learned from the failures of detection, preparation, and cooperation; political repercussions; and missteps that have resulted in 2.6 million deaths worldwide and 528,000 in the USA.
Preparing for the next Pandemic
According to an article "How the Pandemic Changed the World" (Foreign Affairs, March 10, 2021), time is running out in “Preparing for the Next Pandemic.” This preparation, it advocates, requires governments, businesses and public health leaders acting now with decisiveness and purpose to avoid another global catastrophe. “Terrible as it is, COVID-19 should serve as a warning of how much worse a pandemic could be—and spur the necessary action to contain an outbreak before it is again too late”. The article refers to a 2017 book (which I haven’t read) Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs by MICHAEL T. OSTERHOLM and MARK OLSHAKER, two notable scientists. The Book accordingly illustrates the epidemiology of SARS, MERS, and a number of other recent outbreaks—the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic that started in Mexico, the 2014–16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the 2015–16 spread of the Zika flavivirus from the Pacific Islands to North and South America. It states that although the diseases differed from one another in different ways including their clinical presentations and, degree of severity and clinical presentation, they all came as surprises when they shouldn’t have.
Politics and Security Fears Crippling the Collective Response
Politics and security fears have been characterized by Yanzhong Huang in Foreign Affairs (January 28, 2021) as crippling the collective global response. Within months of COVID-19’s initial discovery in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, Trump, took to calling COVID-19 the “China virus,” blaming Beijing for having “instigated a global pandemic.” Chinese state media fired back, insisting that “though COVID-19 was first discovered in China, it does not mean that it originated from China". Now Biden’s pledge to hold a summit of democracies to tackle COVID-19 aimed at asserting US diplomatic leadership of the free world, risks reinforcing this divisive narrative, carving the globe into two political camps in the face of a common global challenge. Amid the current pandemic, governments have repeatedly forsaken opportunities for consultation, joint planning, and collaboration, opting instead to adopt nationalist stances that have put them at odds with one another and with the WHO. The result has been a near-total lack of global policy coherence.
The Dismal Multilateral Response to the Pandemic
This reflects, in part, the decisions of specific leaders, especially Chinese President Xi Jinping and former U.S. President Donald Trump. Their behavior helps explain why the WHO struggled in the initial stages of the outbreak and why forums for multilateral coordination, such as the G-7, the G-20, and the UN Security Council, failed to rise to the occasion. This is contrasted with an era when the multilateral ecosystem of global public health arrangements blossomed alongside the WHO and its International Health Regulations, including the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (now called GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance), the Global Health Security Agenda, the World Bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The uncoordinated, chaotic, and state-centric international response to COVID-19 sharply contrasted with the international response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. In 2009, health authorities from major powers, including China and the United States, exchanged technology and information about the spread of the swine flu virus and accelerated the development of a vaccine—a collaboration that helped combat that virus and a later one, the H7N9 avian influenza, which easily could have become a pandemic in 2013 but did not. Then in 2014, major powers responded to calls from the United Nations and the WHO to send health aid to West Africa to help fight the Ebola virus. China and the United States in particular forged a close partnership—working together to construct treatment centers and direct medical supplies—that played an important role in turning the tide against Ebola.
Vaccine Nationalism will Delay Winning the Fight vs COVID-19
A year after the declaration of the pandemic, the development and approval of safe and effective vaccines is a stunning scientific achievement. At the same time WHO ACT Accelerator and the COVAX vaccines pillar have been laying the groundwork for the equitable distribution and deployment of vaccines. Referring to the gap and inequity in access to vaccines, WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, identified the vaccine access gap. He is clear that the recent emergence of rapidly-spreading variants makes the rapid and equitable rollout of vaccines all the more important. He pointed out that more than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. “Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest-income country. Not 25 million; not 25 thousand; just 25." He said, " I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries".
Conclusions COVID -19 and the Moral Imagination
Writing in The Lancet, (January 22, 2021) Said Patel and Christine Phillips implore us to respond with purpose to the challenges outlined:
In their view it is within the purview of our moral imagination to turn this crisis into an opportunity of hope. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00151-3/fulltext
"The COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to break with the past and imagine the world anew. It also offers a “cosmopolitan moment”, when the existing order is destabilized to open up a new arena of moral and political responsibility. In this cosmopolitan moment, the global community could come together to create new institutions or mechanisms to address the structural causes of global inequity and promote the wellbeing of people and the planet.”
This year, the theme for International Women’s Day (8 March, 2021) is, “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” It celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has compounded challenges to gender equality. The UN Secretary-General’s recent report reveals that in several countries where women have been in leadership positions, the response to the pandemic has been particularly effective. For instance, Heads of Government in Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Slovakia [and I add Barbados] have been widely recognized for the rapidity, decisiveness and effectiveness of their national response to COVID-19, as well as the compassionate communication of fact-based public health information. Yet the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, highlights the gender gaps that remain. The UN SG's Report recognizes that while women’s full and effective participation and leadership in all areas of life drive progress for everyone, they are still underrepresented in public life and decision-making. Women for example are Heads of State or Government in 22 countries, and only 24.9 per cent of the membership of national parliamentarians are women.
The Caribbean has an opportunity to make its collective voice resonate at the 65th Session of Commission on the Status of Women, March 15-26, 2021. The Session is aligned to the theme of the 2021 World Women’s Day with a focus on SDG #5, “Women's full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. It also relates to the flagship Generation Equality campaign, which calls for women’s right to decision-making in all areas of life, equal pay, equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work, and ending all forms of violence against women and girls, and health-care services that respond to their needs.
Pioneers of Caribbean Women Leadership
In its Blog, celebrating World Women's Day 2020, GOFAD highlighted as essential reading the seminal study, The UWI Gender Journey: Recollections and Reflections coedited by three of the Caribbean's foremost scholar-advocates, Professors Jocelyn Massiah, Elsa Leo Rhynie and Barbara Bailey. https://www.globalonefrontier.org/blog/2020-world-womens-day-prompts-reflections-and-recollections-on-women-and-development-in-the-caribbean. The study emphasized the role of Caribbean pioneers under the banner, Woman and Development (WAND). They included Peggy Antrobus, Dame Neita Barrow, Lucille Mair, Kathleen Drayton, Nesta Patrick, Magna Pollard and the succeeding generation of Caribbean women leaders. Among them, Rhoda Reddock, Eudine Barriteau, Patricia Mohamed, Verene Sheppard, Lieth Dunn and Rosina Wiltshire. It is important to note the prominent roles of the pioneers and their successors in fashioning the landmark Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 and how they contributed to its consolidation 1996-2010. These women leaders initiated the roll out of undergraduate and graduate women studies programmes, accelerated capacity building in research, the establishment of a robust data base to sustain analysis and policy making, piloted the emergence of new programme areas such as gender and sexuality, construction of masculinities, the making of feminisms, and the blossoming of outreach activities within and beyond the academy. Such outreaches include national-level initiatives on gender policies, gender awareness and training women in leadership. Their active participation in the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination (CEDAW) and in the creation of Development Alternatives with Women in the New Era (DAWN] also coincided with increasing numbers of movements at country level advocating for women's rights and gender equality.
COVID-19 and its Challenges to Gender Equality
The challenges confronting women leaders are compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The IMF 2020 Report shows that in the COVID-19 era economic conditions are worsening, and women are hit hardest. With a predicted 3-4% increase in unemployment, the crisis could push an additional 25% more people into poverty.
Therese Turner Jones, IDB Caribbean Regional Representative in an article, "The hard facts about Gender Equality in the Caribbean" in Caribbean Development Trends (March 13, 2020), shows that in many countries of the Anglophone Caribbean, the life of a woman holds a singular paradox. Women have years of secondary school education and enroll in tertiary education institutes more than men. "Yet once outside the gilded doors of academia women are confronted by challenges such as lower pay, lack of parental support, insufficient protection from violence and harassment, and other obstacles to career progression". In addition, female students at UWI make up more than 65% of the 2016-2019 graduating classes, but Caribbean women make 60 to 70 cents for every dollar made by men. Only in Barbados, Belize and Guyana does government pay 100% of maternal leave. The lack of this essential benefit in most Caribbean countries is disadvantageous to women since it negatively effects their career path, decrease their income, and may lower their pensions upon retiring.
These inequities are further compounded by the digital transformation ushered in by the COVID-19 era that drives unequal outcomes in education, access to healthcare and financial services. Empirical studies by UNECLAC, the IMF and the World Bank all illustrate how the social and economic inequalities that affected women prior to COVID 19 are further amplified.
According to the World Bank Women, Business and the Law 2020 report, the Caribbean rankings on the gender equality index are variable. Guyana is the exception, with a score of 100, with a legal framework that establishes equal pay for women and men and no constraints on a woman’s decision to work where jobs are available. The report shows that the average labor force participation rate amongst women aged 15-64 is 73.5%. This compares favorably to the global average of 52.3%. However the workplace indicator based on levels of integration of women in the workplace and pay indicator in relation to men, result in a range of comparative rankings for Caribbean Countries as follows:
Meeting the Challenges with the March to Equal Participation
In a fascinating virtual discussion coordinated by the Caribbean Women in Leadership (CIWiL) and chaired by Dylis McDonald (March 1, 2021), the panelist reinforced the major reasons why women leadership matters and the rationale for the march to equal participation. Among their proposals include:
CIWiL has launched a project for a children's book aimed at celebrating the contribution of Caribbean women leaders to the development of the region. https://qrco.de/bbv7q8. Herein lies the opportunity for increasing awareness and building partnerships that will ensure the legacy of pioneer women leaders and their successors, expand beyond recognition given in the CARICOM Triannual Awards for Women (See the 12 recipients since the inauguration of the awards in 1990 https://caricom.org/awards__recognition/triennial-awards/ ). It will also help to escalate the endeavor toward building a bridge of hope for the sustainability of gender equity which includes partnerships with men and boys.
Conclusion: Opportunity to Build a Bridge of Hope for Women Leadership
The foundation exists for Caribbean Women in leadership to surge. Challenges for gender equality are well defined. Success rests on backward and forward linkages, ensuring that strong institutions and leadership potential exist to catalyze the surge.
For example, the Spouses of CARICOM Leaders Action Network (SCLAN), since its inauguration in 2016 was led by First Lady Simplis Barrow of Belize as Chair and First Lady Sandra Granger of Guyana as Vice-Chair. SCLAN commands international platforms, collaborates with the Organization of African First Ladies for Development (OAFLAD) and attracts resources for programmes to reduce gender equality, violence against women and girls, and improve the health of women and girls including access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. In a recent handover of leadership, First Lady Patricia Minnis of The Bahamas has assumed the Chair of SCLAN supported by First Lady Sharon Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago, and First Lady Eloise Gonsalves, St Vincent and the Grenadines. SCLAN's advocacy especially in these COVID times, will be vital in asserting the role of the Caribbean in global arenas such as the UN General Assembly and the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women.
But for advocacy to be most effective, it needs to be anchored in a series of prerequisites that apply to SCLAN and other organizations that promote Women Leadership matters. These include:
These are the pillars on which the Caribbean can revive the vibrancy of wome1n and development toward a robust gender agenda, the drive toward women in leadership and achieving gender equality. In the words of First Lady Sharon Rowley, "this is the time to Build that Bridge of Hope".
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.