1. From Writing to Righting
Say what you will of Dr Carolyn Gomes, even her worst critics must give her this: she is not yet another white Jamaican content to sit on her verandah and moan with her band of uptown friends and family about how bad things are on the island. We know that such conversations take place every Sunday in Jacks Hill, or Irish Town, or other similar Upper Snaaandrew locations. And always over brunch. ‘My dear, I just don’t know what is happening to this country! My gaawwwwdd! It’s just awful. Just last night I said to Harold – I said, listen honey, when we go to Frawwwnce this summer for holidays, I have a good mind not coming back. Just pay off Mavis and lock up the house, yu hear me! I mean really – things are just getting out of control! The hooligans are running rampant over the whole damn island! To backside!’
Gomes is not that woman. Stepping away from a lucrative medical career, she has devoted the last decade and a half to advocating for people who did not have the means or the know-how to advocate for themselves. At the very least, we must give her that.
I know Carolyn Gomes enough to say, ‘Hi there, how’ve you been?’. We were students together at the University of the West Indies. No – I didn’t go to med school. It was Gomes who came over to the Humanities as an already established and well-respected paediatrician. Many imagine the medical profession as perhaps the most fulfilling. What is more noble or more selfless than healing the sick? But I gather Gomes felt a bit dissatisfied with it all – felt that there was something even more important for her to do. Perhaps, without even having the words to say it, she wanted to be involved in a kind of healing that wasn’t merely individual, patient by patient, but societal. She wanted to offer diagnoses much more complex than the kinds she usually gave. So Gomes re-entered the University as a mature student to pursue a course of study very different than the profession she was already in. She registered for a degree in Literatures in English.
Specifically, I met Gomes in a Poetry Workshop run by Professor Mervyn Morris. Gomes was an excellent student of the humanities. I am told she got top marks in her courses. She knew how to think through issues with clarity, complexity and empathy. She was a fine writer as well. In the Poetry Workshop she got an A – a better grade than I achieved. While Gomes was flourishing, I was floundering and on my way to flunking out completely.
Our paths diverged after that course. I went on to dropping out. From there, I became a writer and in its own circuitous way it was writing that took me back to academia. I was surprised years later to find out that Gomes, like me, hadn’t finished her literature degree. She had instead found something she was truly interested in and passionate about. She had found Human Rights.
2. The Arc of the Moral Universe
It has now been announced that Flo O’Connor will receive the Order of Jamaica. This is wonderful news. O’Connor’s work in Human Rights is pioneering.
Still, I remember as a child when O’Connor was often dismissed as just another screaming banshee. With much rolling of the eyes people would sigh. There she goes again! On and on and on about one cause or another. In her retirement, it is apparently safe to celebrate her now.
To a large extent, Carolyn Gomes stepped into the important space of advocacy that Flo O’Connor left behind. But Gomes, compared to O’Connor, has a disadvantage in a country like Jamaica. Flo O’Connor is black and visually afrocentric. Gomes is visually white. If O’Connor was occasionally dismissed as a screaming banshee – how much easier it is for Jamaicans to dismiss a WHITE screaming banshee.
Human Rights is thankless work at the best of times. I do not know how advocates stick so doggedly to their causes. Societies do not shift willingly or happily. They are not in the habit of looking at themselves squarely in the mirror and saying ‘Oh my! Oh my! I see that fault. Do you see it too? There it is! I should do something about it.’ No. Societies get their heels or their hooves stuck in. They bray like mules. They complain. They pout. They throw tantrums. They contort logic in the most elaborate ways so that they wouldn’t have to bother facing their wrongs and doing the difficult business of justice that almost always requires us to give up some privilege we had grown used to.
And almost always it is the combination of time and assassination (virtual and literal) that makes heroes out of Human Rights advocates – that makes us say, oh, but they were right all along. They were voices in the wildnerness. They were our conscience that we did not listen to.
Martin Luther King once said something that was as tragic as it was hopeful: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
The arc of Jamaica’s moral universe is long, long, long! But maybe people like Carolyn Gomes continue to do their thankless work because they believe in time it will all bend towards justice.
3. Jamaicans For Justice
Carolyn Gomes founded the group, Jamaicans for Justice.
In the early days JFJ faced the unrelenting criticism that they were too narrowly focused – that they were anti-police and never had anything good to say about Jamaica. In my own family, discussions often raged about the group, and these discussions were splintered. Some were in favour, others were less impressed. Those who were less impressed argued that JFJ was comprised of people whose historic privilege was the single worst injustice to be meted out on the island and that they should therefore advocate against themselves and their history before advocating for or against any other cause. Ouch! My family can take out their claws when they want to.
Still, such criticism always struck me as unfair. It struck me as an elaborate and pseudo-intellectual strategy of avoidance, a way to not look on the actual urgency of what was being advocated for, and perhaps a way to not accept our moral obligation to support and be a part of such advocacy. When JFJ began, extra-judicial killings by police were common. Yet, not a single police officer had ever – not in the entire history of Jamaica – been ever held accountable for one of these murders. It was a matter that desperately needed addressing. The death of Mario Deane on Jamaica’s Independence Day, while in police custody for having a spliff in his possession, is a stark reminder of why we simply cannot afford to silence or sideline people like Carolyn Gomes.
The criticism that JFJ never had anything good to say about Jamaica misses the point of advocacy entirely, but over time it seems the criticism that JFJ and Carolyn Gomes have accepted and acted on is that their focus was too narrow — that there were indeed other kinds of citizens in Jamaica who were constantly being denied justice, who were being brutalized not only by police, but by tradition, by the church, and broader society – people who deserved advocates brave enough to come down from their verandahs and give voice to their needs.
But I’ll say it again: Human Rights is difficult and thankless work at the best of times. We do not advocate for popular causes. Popular causes do not need advocacy. Human Rights work is often unpopular and advocates are often up against it – against a society that constantly throws the worst vitriol at them. That is the nature of the work. Still, JFJ’s decision to make its voice heard in the highly contested area of sexual rights has made the group and its founder face the biggest and bitterest backlash they have ever faced. The decision to introduce into children’s home course material that would equip vulnerable children with knowledge that might better protect them against the kind of sexual abuse which is rampant in care homes has unleashed a flurry of criticism that threatens to dismantle the whole enterprise. I have read through the material. It is obvious that the loudest and most passionate critics haven’t bothered to do this. The material is pretty tame and matter-of-fact. It doesn’t sensationalize or promote sex, but tells children what is what. By international standards it’s common, appropriate and healthy information for young people to know. But in Jamaica, ‘international standards’ can be problematic. Is it colonial to accept such standards? There is a fear that what is good for the rest of the world will corrupt parochial and unworldly Jamaican children. Now studies actually show that Jamaican children start engaging in sex from age 9. In Children’s homes it’s probably much lower. But we don’t want to acknowledge this. Ironically then, information meant to protect little girls from being molested, and little boys from being buggered has been twisted as PROMOTING some kind of gay agenda.
It is a kind of tragedy that would almost make you cry – that information meant to protect our kids is being withheld from them. We would rather them raped and abused just a little bit more, and when such abuse happens we would rather them not have the language to talk about or report it. Oh the arc of such an immoral universe desperately, desperately needs to bend!
Some people with very short memories are even saying: JFJ should return to the good old days when they advocated for worthy causes such as an end of police brutality!
Well look at that! Time has suddenly made Carolyn Gomes a hero in her first cause even while the contemporary moment tries to discredit her over her expanded areas of advocacy.
4. A question of Morality.
I’ll say it a last time: Human Rights work is difficult work at the best of times. It is especially difficult in an island like Jamaica where, because of our history, we have developed elaborate and morally compelling reasons to resist Human Rights. Jamaicans like to see their/our resistance to human rights agendas as part of a healthy postcolonial condition – part of an ongoing resistance to condescending colonial values. Frankly, we find it hard – even repulsive – to take lessons in Human Rights from people and countries that we perceive as having infringed our own Human Rights for centuries – who didn’t even see us as humans at all. It is for this reason that the very image of Carolyn Gomes provides a particularly potent kind of arsenal to her detractors. It is easy to ignore a white woman lecturing black people about Human Rights. It is easy to imagine her as representing outside interests rather than our own. It is easy to feel moral and righteous in ignoring what she is calling us to.
Sometimes it’s bizarre, the Human Rights we choose to resist. Only recently, Jamaican cricketer, Chris Gayle, suggested through less-than-subtle sexual innuendo in an interview with a female journalist that having not felt her vagina he couldn’t tell her about its texture. He then complimented the journalist on her smile. She giggled. A regional advocacy group Women Against Rape publicly decried Gayle’s sexist remark and demanded an apology. All across the Caribbean, men and women rose up not to condemn Gayle but to defend him. Instead, their anger was directed towards what they saw as the arrogance of the advocacy group. If the journalist wasn’t offended, why should they be offended? In letter after letter, social media comment after social media comment, Women Against Rape was portrayed as having a kind of morality that simply didn’t belong to the Caribbean – an imported morality, an overly-educated, condescending, first-world morality. One woman even wrote that it was man’s ‘prerogative to look woman’ and to not allow him to joke like this in an interview was ‘to stifle his humanity’! For her, that was the real Human Rights issue.
This is what our advocates are up against. And often times the fight comes down to this question – who has the right to be moral? And whose morality is more urgent than whose? Whose morality leads to dignity and whose morality leads to shame? Whose morality leads to development and whose to underdevelopment?
Though I only know Carolyn Gomes to say hi to, I write this blog-essay in praise of her, and in her defence. For say what you will about her – even her worst critics must give her this. She has not been yet another white woman content to complain from the safe luxurious shade of her Jamaican verandah. She stepped off that verandah over a decade ago. She has done it at the cost of a lucrative career; she has done it at the cost of painful criticism; she has done it at the cost of being occasionally hated by the very society she tries every day to heal like the doctor she is. And still, she hasn’t bothered to return to that safe verandah. She continues to work in the trenches. She continues to argue for the rights of every human being whether we feel the moral obligation to join her, or not.