Sun | Nov 17, 2019

Life within the humanities

Published:Sunday | October 27, 2019 | 12:24 AMSteffon Campbell - Contributor

Life within the humanities has taught me how to speak and how to listen, and as I write this, I realise that those lessons have both denotative and connotative meanings. As a Caribbean School of Media and Communication graduate, I have been blessed to receive tutelage from Fae Ellington and Alma Mock Yen, who helped me with my speech, especially those terrible ‘THs’ and the often ignored ‘INGs’. But connotatively, and perhaps more importantly, the humanities have given me the tools and avenues to create, contextualise, and analyse my experiences; it has given me my voice.

I grew up in Tobago – the smaller sister isle to Trinidad – where we were all equally bound by tradition and religion but freed by lymes (gatherings of individuals) and fêtes. Even at a young age, I questioned them all. One of my first philosophical dilemmas took shape in the form of a question to my mother:

“Mammy, if God made everything, then who made God?”

“When yuh meet Him, ask Him,” she brilliantly responded.

People in authority in other areas of my life were not as clever or understanding. I spent countless lunch periods in church saying Hail Marys because I asked questions about the divinity of Mary or the colour of Christ at the Roman Catholic primary school I attended. I spent even more time in the high-school principal’s office than I did in that church because I questioned the deeper rationale of the rules to which we were expected to abide, like wearing white socks when the rule book said black, or your hair having to be a certain length, or carrying so many books every day when we never used all of them. I never received answers to these questions only punishments – punishments that silenced my mouth but disquieted my mind. I participated less in class and started to read more so that by the time I was ready to sit my Caribbean Examination Council exams, my in-class grades did not match my level of education. I graduated high school with 11 O’Levels – five 1s, four 2s and two 3s – and six CAPE subjects, inclusive of communication and Caribbean studies.

Dared to be different

Regardless, I’ve never forgotten the last day of high school before our graduation ceremony, when they conducted mock interviews to prepare us for life after high school. I went to school in casual clothes and chose not to go. The principal saw me and told me that I would never amount to anything: “You will end up like all the other boys from your village.” I am paraphrasing, but what matters is the effect. It cut deeply, but it was also necessary. Ironically, up until that point, I had wanted to become a surgeon. Instead, I applied to study media and communication in a country that I had never been to before, with no family or friends – Jamaica. This represented the first step in breaking down the boundaries for people like me who dared to be questioned, who dared to be different.

My quest for questioning was bolstered by various philosophy courses and classes that forced me to reflect on the beliefs and values of others, as well as my own. My history and cultural studies classes gave me insight into the spaces (physical and intellectual) from which I came. My media specialisations taught me how to contribute to history and culture through the creation of content, and that is what I have been doing ever since. It is easy to get lost in the abstractions of religion, culture, politics, the economy, and society and forget the most important element of them all – ourselves.

our stories are our identities

We. Us. Humans. And as human beings, we all have stories to tell – stories that slice through, impact, or capture the intersections of those aforementioned abstractions. Stories about Caribbean men like me who have attempted suicide, or the person who was kicked out of a Christian school for the deaf because he wasn’t sure if he believed in God. Our stories comprise our history and represent our identity. When we fail to tell our stories then we fail ourselves – past, present and future.

Now I teach in the Faculty of Humanities and Education at The University of the West Indies, Mona – Western Jamaica Campus with the continuous aim of showing my students how to understand and accept our differences, how to tell our stories – the essential condition of what it means to be human. I never want another student to question their value simply because they think or act differently. I also hope to meet my past high-school principal one day to show her the documentaries, articles, and programmes I have created, which represent the broad spectrum of us as a people. I would also like to tell her that she was wrong about me and possibly thank her for the journey I am on. My questioning spirit, from childhood until now, was simply one of the manifestations of the humanness allowed within the humanities.

- Steffon Campbell is a lecturer/coordinator in the Caribbean School of Media and Communication, the Faculty of Humanities and Education, UWI, Mona –Western Jamaica Campus. This article is one in a series that seeks to promote and highlight the impact of the arts and humanities on the individual’s personal development and career path. Please send feedback to fhe@uwimona.edu.jm.