From poverty to PhD
Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer
Harcourt Fuller, the eighth of nine children born to Ashley Fuller (a painter) and Jennifer Johnson (a homemaker), of Crescent Road, in lower St Andrew, did not attend any of the much-venerated preparatory and traditional high schools here in Jamaica. Greenwich Primary, off Spanish Town Road, and Trench Town Comprehensive High schools are the institutions that laid the foundation for him. Now, he has recently earned a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in international history from the London School of Economics (LSE), England.
"My parents instilled in their children, from an early age, the importance of a sound education as a necessary tool to overcome the hardship and adversity of growing up in the vibrant, but volatile Kingston 13 community. This wisdom has guided me over the years," said Fuller, who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. He also credits Trench Town Comprehensive for reinforcing the importance of strong academic values as well as practical life skills.
Fuller obviously had listened to his parents and teachers, for his academic achievements are far superior than many who had attended 'brand-name' schools and should serve as an inspiration to Grade Six Achievement Test students who are placed at non-traditional high schools. The lesson here is: It is not where you attend school, but what you have made of your opportunities. And, it seems he had milked every ounce out of what was presented to him, despite periods of great hardship.
For, in addition to his PhD, Fuller has a certificate in Latin American studies from The City College of New York (CCNY)/City University of New York (CUNY); an associate degree in liberal arts and sciences from LaGuardia Community College/CUNY; a Bachelor of Arts in international studies, CCNY; a Master of Arts in history, with a concentration on Latin America, CCNY, in Harlem; and a Master of Science in the history of international relations from LSE.
His preoccupation with international history, however, is a far departure from what he wanted to pursue as a career. At Trench Town, the youngster who dreamed of becoming a chemical engineer, studied the sciences, eventually getting good grades in chemistry, agricultural science and geography, which, along with Spanish, were his favourite subjects. It was when he was participating in a study-abroad programme in the Dominican Republic during his final year at LaGuardia, and visiting the capital Santo Domingo, that he rekindled his love for travelling and the study of different cultures and histories.
While at CCNY, Fuller also went on semester-abroad programmes to Ecuador and Peru, to conduct research for his bachelor's and master's theses. In Quito and Lima, the capitals of Ecuador and Peru, respectively, he found out that there were people of African descent living there, which led him to write about the history and contemporary conditions of people of African ancestry in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia.
Since then, Fuller has been studying international history, history of international relations, comparative government, colonialism, nationalism, the Cold War, African history, Gold Coast/Ghana, Latin American history, and the African diaspora in Latin America. He wrote his PhD dissertation on nationalism in Ghana during the era of its first president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah. Currently, he is working on publishing his dissertation as a book.
While in Ghana, Fuller also researched his African roots, visiting the Asante/Ashanti capital of Kumasi as well as the slave forts of Cape Coast and Elmina. It was while conducting research in the former Gold Coast that he met his future wife, Christina, an African-American student who was also in Ghana conducting research for her doctorate at Harvard School of Public Health. They got married in Ocho Rios last year, and have a two-year-old daughter named Kenya.
Fuller, whose father is originally from the Rio Grande Valley, in Portland, has also conducted research on the Jamaican Maroons of Accompong Town and Moore Town. In addition to writing his autobiography, Fuller has been interviewing his father, to document his life as a Maroon and his experiences in the wider Jamaican society. He has also been involved in recording, preserving and publishing oral histories from the Rio Grande Valley.
Scholarships and grants
His hard work and commitment to his studies have earned him several study and research grants, fellowships and scholarships, including the Maurice Pinto PhD Scholarship, at LSE; the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Research Grant and the LSE Student Support/University of London Central Research Grants to London/Ghana. He has presented papers at lectures and conferences, published articles in journals, periodicals, magazines, newspapers and book chapters, and has co-edited the book, Money in Africa, with Catherine Eagleton and John Perkins (trustees of the British Museum, 2009).
Over the years, Harcourt Fuller has held many positions of great responsibility at several prestigious organisations and institutions of higher learning. They include, but not limited to, visiting instructor of History, Connecticut College; graduate teaching assistant, International History Department, LSE; programme officer, Fulbright Programme, Institute of International Education, NYC; administrative assistant, Office of International Students & Scholars, CCNY; coordinator, Rosenberg/Humphrey Programme in Public Policy, NYC and research assistant at the British Museum. He's currently an external fellow at the International History Institute and a visiting scholar in the African-American Studies programme at Boston University.
These are great accomplishments for one who knows what poverty is, and who, upon migrating to join his mother in New York in 1992, did not allow the negative dynamics in the big city to pull him under.
"For me, living in the Bronx was no walk in the park. In order to pay for college, I had to work long hours as a waiter and as a mover - packing up and delivering furniture, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures during cold New York winters," recalled the man who is now enjoying life in the academia realms.
But, he has not forgot where he has come from, and is very much aware of what is happening in the land of his birth, noting that he has had his fair share of tragedies.
"Over the years, most of my childhood friends have been killed in the violence, including my two best friends," he said, "Just last year, the only true childhood friend that I had left in Jamaica was shot to death in Montego Bay, so that others could steal his goats."
He also said the passing of these honest, hardworking family men has left a bittersweet flavour in his life - happiness for the great memories he has of them and sadness for their senseless killings, "so sadly symbolic of the trajectory of Jamaican society, for far too long".
"My vision for Jamaica is to see more honest, young people and wise elders working together in a non-partisan way to bring corruption, crime and lack of opportunity in Jamaica to an end. This will allow Jamaicans and visitors, alike, to feel safe and inspired enough to want to stay in Jamaica and help build up the nation, an di place wi nice again," Fuller said.
'Over the years, most of my childhood friends have been killed in the violence, including my two best friends ... Just last year, the only true childhood friend that I had left in Jamaica was shot to death in Montego Bay, so that others could steal his goats.'