Sometime in 1980, I attended a seminar held in one of the rooms in the social sciences block at the University of the West Indies, Mona, where Erna Brodber presented parts of her oral history research on early-twentieth-century Jamaica. It was a most unsettled time in the country politically; the atmosphere was overcast with foreboding. I am not sure whether the first of Brodber’s novels, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, had already been published, or whether it would appear later that year. Certainly, though, her social-psychological studies Abandonment of Children in Jamaica and Yards in the City of Kingston were well known to all of us.1 So there was a general sense of expectation in the seminar room that Brodber was in search of something not quite available in the existing repertoire of social-cultural-literary inquiry, not merely a not-yet-excavated underbelly of Jamaican life but one palpably there before our eyes, within our reach. My memory is that George Beckford chaired the meeting and introduced Brodber to the small but attentive audience, all of us anxious to learn from her the sources and techniques of oral history. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t remember the exact content of the presentation itself, but I vividly recall the sense not only of epistemic novelty but also of moral urgency that characterized what Brodber was doing in bringing to life this dimension of Jamaica’s past. And it is to this that I want to direct our attention here: at the center of Brodber’s historiographic imagination, I believe, is not only a method but also an ethics of memory, and it is the latter that motivates and animates the former in her work. The search for a novel methodology for excavating the past is not an end in itself; it is driven by a moral imperative, a sense of the duty to remember, an obligation to activate and sustain an embodied dialogue with the past of the community of selves we hold in common.

In his book The Ethics of Memory, the philosopher Avishai Margalit offers a suggestive orientation to what I am getting at here. The book’s argument as a whole, sensitive and engaging though it is, will not detain me. For my purposes here, I am only interested in the framing preoccupation he sets in motion. For Margalit, the issue of ethics and memory is a question to be explored rather than a foregone conclusion: “Are we obligated to remember people and events from the past?” he asks. “If we are, what is the nature of this obligation? Are remembering and forgetting proper subjects of moral praise or blame? Who are the ‘we’ who may be obligated to remember: the collective ‘we,’ or some distributive sense of ‘we’ that puts the obligation to remember on each and every member of the collective?”2 Now, on Margalit’s account, there is an “ethics” of memory but not really a “morality” of memory. The distinction between ethics and morality here (not one I always endorse) rests suggestively on a distinction between two kinds of human relations, “thick” and “thin” ones (a distinction drawn partly from the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz). Thick relations, he argues, are grounded in concrete, almost tangible, attributes such as parent, friend, lover, and countryman, where there may reasonably be a presumption of a shared past and shared memories. Thin relations, by contrast, are grounded in more abstract attributes, such as being human. If morality concerns topics such as respect and humiliation, ethics is more focused on belonging and betrayal, injury and common cause. Therefore, Margalit insists, humanity cannot be a community of memory; communities of memory are nourished on nearer, dearer, sorts of sentiments.


Brodber, as I understand her, is talking about an ethics of memory, about thick sorts of relation anchored in a shared sense of belonging and injury. A few years after the seminar presentation, in 1983 (another fatal year in Caribbean political history), Brodber published a methodological statement of her project, “Oral Sources and the Creation of a Social History of the Caribbean.” The essay is framed by a poignant photograph, taken around the turn of the twentieth century, showing three men of varying ages enjoying what looks like a moment of respite with drink and food. The caption, presumably supplied by Brodber, reads, “The emotions, feelings, thoughts of the ‘underclass’—such as these three men (c. 1903) are not recorded in books. But their history lives on in the memories of their grandchildren. It is through them that the oral historian ‘enters the minds and hearts of the ancestors.’”3Here, in a nutshell, is Brodber’s moral challenge. Caribbean thinkers, Brodber suggests, have been shaped by a conception of scholarship overly dependent on book learning. This conception of scholarship, however, distorts our understanding of the past, precluding any insight into the modes of thinking and feeling and being of the underclass sons and daughters of slavery and indenture. The dilemma, of course, was not unknown; it had already been richly engaged by Caribbean novelists and poets of varying orientations. One of the writers to whom Brodber pays particularly close attention is V. S. Reid, whose 1949 novel, New Day, was a bold, experimental attempt to render the Jamaican past in such a way as to connect it palpably to the present. But Reid’s achievement, Brodber suggests, was not just to link the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 to the inaugural Adult Suffrage constitution of 1944 but to do so by creating a vivid character, John Campbell, through whose eyes and sensibility and memory the embodied experience of that past was generationally borne into the present. “The novelist,” she writes of Reid, “moving from some authenticated facts—the drought, the Queen’s letter and the identity of the major characters and institutions in the Morant Bay rebellion—uses his imagination to produce an account of the feelings of the people and how their sentiments eventuated into riot.”4

But fiction is not history. The historian relies on a fidelity to evidence not required by the novelist. A question arises, then, which Brodber poses: “Can historical writing portray the emotional reality of the African and Asian past in the Caribbean or must this crucial aspect of the ancestral experience be confined to fiction?” This, she argues, is the challenge of social history, and one way of meeting it methodologically is through oral history. The conceit of book learning as the authorized basis of scholarship in the Caribbean has meant that a “vigorous oral tradition in which [a] group’s history [is] handed down” has not developed.5 This, though, is exactly what needs to be stimulated. Brodber concludes by urging that “the oral sources can satisfy the needs filled by fiction without doing violence to the norms for historical writing.”6

The full scope of this historiographical vision is realized in Brodber’s doctoral dissertation submitted to the Department of History, University of the West Indies, Mona, in 1985, and published in revised form in 2004 as The Second Generation of Freemen in Jamaica, 1907–1944.7 I have long thought this work to be an historiographical intervention of unparalleled significance, demanding much more critical engagement than it has so far received. In the early 1970s, when Brodber was carrying out her research—a time when Jamaica was wrestling with new ideas about social change and social, cultural, and political identity, new ideas about the meaning of the past (crucially the colonial pasts of slavery and indenture) in the present, and new ideas about possible futures (more free, more just, more participatory, more equitable)—the oldest living Jamaicans would have been in their seventies, eighties, even nineties. These were men and women born between the very end of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. Significantly, Brodber calls them the “second generation of freemen.” She means by this that they are the second generation born after “full free” in 1838, the year of final emancipation of enslaved peoples in the British Empire. According to Brodber, Jamaicans figure a generation as “three score and ten” years. I am sure she knows better than me, but this seems more like the span of a life than the span of a generation. Granted that these are never precise boundaries, I take a generation (more conventionally) to be more like thirty or forty years than seventy. For what you want the idea of a generation to capture is not so much the punctual seriality of lives as the successive overlapping of biological-biographical life cycles. On my rough-and-ready calculations, the first generation of free people were born in the years immediately preceding and following 1838. They are likely to have begun to have children from the 1860s through the 1880s. This to my mind is the second generation of free people (Reid’s Campbell in New Day is at the earlier end of this spectrum, being eight years old in 1865). In turn this generation would likely have been having children in and around 1900, when Brodber’s informants were born, the third generation of free people.

There is much more that could be said about this, but I do not wish to quibble here about the arithmetic of generations. Clearly, for Brodber there is a deeper and more complex conceptual and moral point at stake, one that turns around the profound importance of thinking Jamaican history through the memorial institution of generational temporality. This is an idea I deeply share. Brodber’s informants were ordinary men and women, Black and poor, who by the 1970s had lived across a long swath of time and through a number of pivotal events that had contributed to shaping the story of modern Jamaica. But their perspectives on this time and these events, she suggests, may not have become the canonical ones, the ones written about in books and learned in school. Their stories about the meanings of 1938, for example, the centennial of “full free,” are not likely to comport exactly with the authoritative narrative of middle-class nationalism that has appropriated this moment as part of an autobiography of color-class apotheosis. Brodber, I believe, is insisting that there are other voices—living ones, too—that if listened to attentively might disclose to us other headings under which to consider the implications of that watershed year. In Brodber, the retrospective subaltern imaginary of the 1970s seemed to open the prospect of this kind of oral inquiry, to prompt us to try to more materially connect those lives of the past to our present selves.


I have been saying that what is at stake in Brodber’s work is not only an epistemological claim about access to the past. There is that, obviously. But more than that there is also an obligation to learn—and to learn how to learn—from the living voices from our past still with us in the present. Brodber would likely not say this herself, but I believe that what is at work here is a social ethics of Black memory. Brodber teaches us the special value of thinking through communities of memory, embodied generations of a cultural memory of pasts that are not really past. The men and women of her oral history project, born in the first years of the twentieth century and now all gone from us, are real people who are parts of us. They looked back through their parents and their parents’ parents to an atrocity committed against them for generations without repair. And they looked forward to as-yet-unknown possibilities of personhood, of cultivating and expanding the arena of self- determination. These men and women, Brodber teaches us, are an inheritance we have a duty to claim.

New York—Kingston

March 2022


Erna Brodber, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (London: New Beacon, 1980), Abandonment of Children in Jamaica (Kingston: ISER, 1974), and Yards in the City of Kingston (Kingston: ISER, 1975).


Avishai Margalit, introduction to The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 7.


Erna Brodber, “Oral Sources and the Creation of a Social History of the Caribbean,” Jamaica Journal 16, no. 4 (1983): 2–11. The photograph and caption (which quotes from page 7) are found on page 2; see dloc.com/uf00090030/00041/images/3.


Brodber, “Oral Sources,” 3; V. S. Reid, New Day (London: Knopf, 1949).


Brodber, “Oral Sources,” 7.


Ibid., 10.


Erna Brodber, The Second Generation of Freemen in Jamaica, 1907–1944 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004).