Despite their differing social and national contexts, black youth in Jamaica, and Toronto share similar strategies in response to violence, a York University study has found. In both countries, experiences of social alienation lead youth to adapt particular understandings of Jamaica and Jamaicanness that are initially empowering, but also have troubling effects.
“In the Jamaican context, where constructions of masculinity are often mediated by youth’s experiences of fatherlessness and community gang violence, male youth struggle with the need to locate themselves in relation to a normative hyper-masculinity that might earn them respect in the short term, but is deeply problematic in the longer term,” says the study’s lead researcher, humanities Professor Andrea Davis.
Similarly, in Toronto, black youth (across their cultural and class differences) employ performances of Jamaicanness to establish their legitimacy as black subjects in an alienating national environment where they routinely experience institutional and individual racism.
“The most revealing of the study’s findings for Jamaican youth was the extent of the emotional impact of violence on their lives, particularly on male youth residing in rural villages. This challenges the popular belief that violence is less pervasive in rural communities and that youth are more protected there,” says Davis.
The study also assessed the extent to which black youth in Toronto rely on problematic constructions of Jamaican hyper-masculinity – consumed through the media and popular culture – to define an oppositional youth identity. The project sought to help both Jamaican and Canadian youth rearticulate their social identities and produce the critical discourse needed to (re)insert themselves as active agents in their communities.
Over the past three years, the Youth and Community Development: A Transnational Approach to Youth Violence project brought together researchers from five Canadian universities and the University of the West Indies (Mona campus), as well as youth organizations in Canada and Jamaica, to examine questions related to youth violence. The research partnership relied on youth forums and focus groups, and collaborative artistic productions to engage Canadian and Jamaican youth within their sociopolitical and geographical contexts and across their national borders.
Professor Honor Ford-Smith of the Faculty of Environmental Studies, who is also the program coordinator of the Community Arts Practice program at York, tackled urban violence in Jamaica through her project Memory, Urban Violence and Performance in Jamaican Communities, which explores questions of violence within a Jamaican context through the medium of participatory theatre. It examines strategies of memorialization in urban communities affected by violence, including community vigils and murals, to reveal how these strategies of mourning and protest might complicate national responses to violence.
Davis and Ford-Smith, both research fellows of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) at York University, recently collaborated on two research events in Kingston, Jamaica, exploring alternative strategies to addressing violence in transnational contexts.
Capitalizing on the geographic, thematic and artistic similarities in their projects, Davis and Ford-Smith jointly hosted a symposium on the experiences of youth violence at the University of the West Indies and organized the first-ever public staging in Jamaica of the one-woman play A Vigil for Roxie at the iconic Marcus Garvey headquarters, Liberty Hall. The play was collaboratively created by Amber Chevannes, Ford-Smith, Carol Lawes and Eugene Williams. The Social Science & Humanities Research Council of Canada funded both projects.
The symposium was a culmination of the larger transnational study led by Davis and highlighted the complexity of issues surrounding the experiences of violence by youth within a Jamaican context across boundaries of class, education and geographic locations.
The finding that Jamaican rural youth were equally, and in some instances more, impacted by violence than those in urban settings was a surprise. The rural youth not only recounted detailed experiences with violence, but they also expressed a greater degree of fear of violence than urban youth did and relied on a wider range of coping strategies. These included strategies of avoidance, such as running away and skipping school.
“Their fear,” adds Professor Carl James, director of the York Centre for Education and Community, “feeds a sense of pessimism and hopelessness among all youth who believe that their families and the government have failed them.”
The Jamaican youth most able to articulate a potential pathway to success were urban youth who had some post-secondary education. These youth saw themselves overwhelmingly as role models and agents of change with the ability to challenge existing hierarchies of power and create new spheres of influence, says Davis. This confidence in their capacity to exercise agency was related to their belief in the value of education in building self-esteem and promoting new social networks that could form the foundation of a more promising future for all youth and Jamaican society as a whole. “At the end of the day these youth simply want to live in a society that is responsive to their needs,” she says.
James and Davis will return to Jamaica this summer to conduct research workshops with teachers from a local high school to help them understand the concerns raised by youth in the study and how these concerns may inform pedagogy. The workshops are being supported by York’s Faculty of Education in partnership with the York Centre for Education and Community.
The Youth and Community Development project also found the tendency for black male youth in Toronto to adopt a hyper-masculine Jamaican persona crossed class, education and cultural boundaries. It included Caribbean immigrants, continental Africans, first- and second-generation Toronto blacks, Muslims and Christians.
“Youth largely assume this construction of Jamaica and Jamaicanness, as a resistive stance, to create an alternative cultural space within an alienating social environment,” says Davis. “In this sense it might be empowering. But because they are taking on these constructions outside of their historical and political contexts, they almost always end up reproducing troubling and problematic stereotypes that reinforce their marginal status in Canadian society.”
In A Vigil for Roxie, leading Jamaican actor Lawes played the main role of Miss Iris, as well as the roles of nine other characters. Miss Iris stages an annual vigil for her son, Roxie, who was both a respected local leader and gang leader, violently murdered by the police. The intricate plot illustrates the complex responses to his death while simultaneously revealing the intersecting layers of a deeply class-based Jamaican society and its entrenched relationship to violence.
Prior to the performance of the play, community members from the Hannah Town Cultural Group and members of the audience participated in a shared outdoor grieving space highlighted by memorials (letters, photographs etc.) to slain Jamaican and Canadian youth.
“This production was like nothing I had ever worked on before,” says Anique Jordan, a graduate student assistant working on the project. “The rift between real life and theatre was blurred . . . [and this] furthered the political content for me. The themes were no longer embedded in the lines of a script. They were being played out right before me, as a reminder of their urgency.”
The reviews of the play were equally outstanding. Joan French from UNICEF lauded Lawes’ performance as superb. “She clearly was spiritually in her element,” she says. “This was too brilliant to be left to only one performance – a historically significant event.”
Ford-Smith agrees: “It is powerful, layered and reveals much of the complicated geologies of regional violence. That many in the audience thought it was ‘real’ is testimony to Carol Lawes’ brilliance.”
Discussions are currently underway to restage the play in Jamaica as a series of productions at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston. There is also the hope that the play can be brought to Toronto in the near future.