by Samantha Campbell
Since the opening of our CONFRONTATIONS exhibition, a popular feature has been the mini-placards that we encourage visitors to leave on our Feedback Wall. Recently, I took stock of the more than 150 placards so far left by youths & elders; UWI and non-UWI people. Setting out to shuffle them into categories, I realised that many – perhaps the majority – sought to be inspirational, including quite a few quotes about self-love and perseverance. The other largest group were ‘territory markers’: “x or y was here!”. And then there were the Activist/Subversive group, whether the context was political or religious; some of these specifically referencing the work and words of Walter Rodney. Also, there is a group that specifically speaks out on issues relating to the UWI, especially the role of the Guild of Students.
What exercised my mind was the question of the extent to which activism of today can be compared to activism fifty years ago: Are the issues that affected the society fifty years ago the same issues affecting the society today? And what about the ability of people nowadays to empathise with the topics we cover.
I realized that a significant number of the comments were based on persons marking their visit to the museum and not so much how they have been affected by the exhibition. The high school students were more focused on leaving their mark in the format of “… was here!”, and this forces one to consider the notion of individualism which is often used to define today’s generation. Is this response a result of being unable to relate or is it a case where they just see student demonstrations in the earlier years as events of the past period?
Based on observation, it appears that the older individuals visiting the museum were more likely to write within the category of Walter Rodney or Unity/Activism/Blackness; while other groups, particularly, high school students wrote in the two major categories. Those writing inspirational words appeared to be seeking to cross the divide – acknowledging the themes of black power and black consciousness and most often addressing these through comments on beauty, self-esteem and self-confidence. Thus, where we have quotes such as “So what if U bleach?”, there are responses such as “Dear Black sunkissed child you are enough”, “Be yourself”, “Love yourself…” and “…Black is beauty”.
While young people are not restricted from entering certain spaces or jobs because of skin colour, they are constantly being reminded – especially through the ever-present social and other media – that beauty is defined by Eurocentric values. This lack of value in ‘blackness’ becomes an obstacle to achieving personal and professional growth, and as a result we find that there are constant discussions about self-love and self-growth. On that note, it is fair to say that activism and protests take different shapes.
Individualism threatens unity and limits the extent to which a people are willing to join together in fighting against oppression, but activism today cannot be judged against activism of yesterday.