The street performance in Jamaica was supported by Sistren (Sisters) Theatre Collective, the Peace Management Initiative and others active in the Jamaican peace movement. This is a video of the street event in Jamaica. Women brought images of their loved ones and wrote them letters. They paraded a coffin through the streets of Kingston. The march ended the children’s memorial.
Before the performance we shared ideas and then held workshops in communities affected by fighting. Folks explored memories of the years of violence, creating community letters to the dead. They wrote expressing their grief and lost hopes to their loved ones. Later, they discussed the issues that emerged. One woman who had lost all of her children to violence spoke of her complete isolation, of shutting herself in her house, of leaving her yard and being completely disoriented on a street where she had lived for years. Her story shows how violence can lead to alienation from neighborhood and community, how it multiplies, turning those we love into enemies, turning familiar spaces into containers of terror. For some, forgetting is an attempt to cope with the pain of loss, but it is also a way to avoid the desire for revenge triggered by remembering the injury and death of loved ones.
The discussions of everyday violence raised the troubled question of who and what should be remembered and reminded us of the deeply contested narratives of events leading to the present. Cycles of revenge and reprisal that claim the lives of children in targeted community are the least complicated to memorialize. But should we remember only the dead who are “innocent” and ignore those who may be “guilty” of wrongdoings? Is grief and recognition of the dead who have been criminalized something to be ashamed of? What can we learn from this?
For the middle class, Jamaica like Canada is a liberal democracy, but for those in the inner city liberal freedoms enshrined in the UN Charter of Human Rights are repeatedly violated by state forces as well as by so called gangs. Police do not have to report nor are they publicly accountable for those they kill. For the urban poor, this is tantamount to an endorsement of extra judicial execution and is linked to the manipulation of state forces by political and economic elites. In other words both the state and the so-called gangs are to be feared. As Horace Levy, Jamaican peace activist, argues, the word “gang “ is completely inadequate to convey the difference between corner crews of unemployed youths and highly organized illegal transnational networks.
Memory is also heavily gendered. One woman pointed out that the young men remembered in memorial street murals in urban communities are rarely selected by community consensus. Area leaders immortalize their crew members as heroic street soldiers and mark their turf with their murals. She proposed that we remember those who contribute to the life of the community and that communities decide this collectively. The caring work of women could therefore be remembered and memorialized, not just the lives of the men who are crew members or fallen street soldiers.
These issues raise the question of what we use memory for. We remember the thousands of wasted lives so as to re-imagine a human community in which all lives can have value in the present. Letters puts the losses of the living into dialogue with the dreams of the dead. It enacts how violence transforms community by eroding the reciprocal relationships that sustain life. Mbala, a Jamaican artist working on the performance, commented: “What’s important to remember is what the act of remembering means. You remember how valuable life is. It is part of a process of realizing that we the living, we have value as well. Our lives mean something.” His words remind us that the violent events that brought the Americas into modernity occurred because the lives of Africans and Aboriginal people were categorized by European invaders as “less than human.” This past has never been laid to rest because its cruel legacies persist in spite of efforts to change this. It haunts the present in the persistent repetition of racialized/gendered and other acts of disrespect and systemic exclusion that reproduce racialized/class trauma. As Fanon first showed, lack of recognition across social/racial difference leads to identity formation based on alienation. This explodes into violence toward those who from whom the injured subject struggles to differentiate himself or herself but who stubbornly remains a mirror of the subject’s injured self. Reflecting on the deep layers of social memory demonstrates how ideas of justice and injustice are deeply intertwined with histories of power that give rise to contradictory ideas about innocence/guilt and power. Mapping the temporal routes of memory allows us to peel back the complex historical geology that shapes the present. Put more hopefully perhaps, these acts reveal the sites where psychic, personal social, political and economic reparations need to take place if ancient injuries are to heal.
In preparatory workshops some found it hard to share their experiences publicly because they did not want their individual suffering to become a spectacle. Nevertheless, they wanted the society at large to pay attention to the enormous social waste that marks everyday life. As a result, participants chose not to read their personal stories. Rather than sensationalizing their pain for voyeuristic others they cut and mixed different stories, writing collectively created letters that mixed moments of hope and caring alongside anger and loss. Then they gave them to others to read.
The Commemorative walk and performance at the Monument for the Children
The performance in Kingston on 3 June 2009 vividly dramatized the enormous collective losses. Women, men and children gathered in a churchyard in Hannah Town. Wearing black, heads tied with red cloth, each person bore witness to the devastating effects of violence on their community. Working with Kara Springer, they had selected images of those who they had lost, enlarged them and pasted them onto cardboard.
The Starbroek Times in Guyana carried a report of the afternoon:
As we prepared to take to the streets for the march that afternoon, we were surrounded by faces of the dead mounted on placards, buttons with pictures family members were pinned to Tshirts and pictures of loved ones hung on a cords around the neck. On a poster held up by one elderly woman, an infant who died in urban violence stared out solemnly at those gathered in the churchyard.
As the procession began its trek through downtown Kingston, participants formed a long line, bearing 35 yards of red cloth that rippled as they walked, symbolizing the blood of the thousands killed in community wars over the last decades. Two young women dressed in white —cultural workers from Toronto—performed as ghosts, urging the marchers on. Women sang spirituals punctuated by clapping. Some carried a copy of the Toronto coffin, linking violence in Canada to Kingston through use of repeating images of the black youth murdered in Toronto. Onlookers—many of whom asked questions or greeted familiar faces—were urged to join us and some did.
The ‘walk’ culminated at the site of the Secret Garden or Monument to the Children, dedicated to those killed under violent and tragic circumstances since 2000. The bronze sculpture depicts the face of a weeping child, with names of the dead inscribed around its perimeter; almost three sides of the monument had been filled with hundreds of names, children ranging in age from a few months to seventeen years.
As a young woman sang a tribute to the dead children, the red cloth was laid out on the pavement and placards and mementos laid along…(its)… length. Sistren member Afolashade invited performers to the microphones to share the letters they had written to their dead. Audience members read letters aloud. Music by reggae musicians accompanied and witnesses were invited to walk round the cloth. People pointed out faces they knew. There was silence as people circled the monument to read the names of children. One woman who had been leading us in song along the march collapsed on the sidewalk in grief, surrounded by other women trying to comfort her.
It was by no means a perfect affair; for some the triggering of the memories was deeply unsettling. In one community, youth were too terrified of the consequences of crossing community borderlines to participate. For the organizations that supported the walk the work must go on, for it is in these every day, difficult and less spectacular ways that real change is made possible. But that afternoon, Letters from the Dead was a moment that deliberately moved across hard lines of political, ideological and group affiliation, echoing other such efforts in the past and urging passersby to consider the more recent violence—and in particular the increasing numbers of women and children among the dead and wounded in the last four or five years—against the backdrop of the neglect and destruction of social safety nets. The Monument to the Children is a stark reminder of the destruction of the future, and of a society’s collective responsibility as guardians of its young, custodians of hope. In a growing climate of individualization amidst deepening social and economic exclusion, people took to the streets for a few hours in June to show that collective strategies and responses were not only necessary but still possible, knitting together the city space in public mourning, commemorating those whose lives have been shattered by violence as belonging to all and as deserving of support across all hardened and deadly divisions.”