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Living Dr King's dream

Published:Monday | January 16, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Dr Shondel Nero

The following is a reflection on Dr Martin Luther King's visit to Jamaica in 1965 by an American Fulbright scholar in Jamaica. The United States is celebrating Martin Luther King Day today.

Shondel Nero, Contributor

On June 20, 1965, Dr Martin Luther King Jr set foot on Jamaican soil to address the graduating class of some 400 students at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.

It was a moment of great honour and joy, not only for UWI, but for Jamaica. A man whose life work was about freedom and civil rights for all people, but especially for those of African descent, had come to a young, newly independent nation, for the first time led by citizens of African descent, to share in the graduation celebrations of students who were about to enter the work world as full-fledged Jamaican citizens, not British subjects.

Dr King's speech to the graduating class was titled 'Facing the Challenge of a New Age'. He addressed the passing of the colonial order, and the need for nations to work together and fight for justice, as the world was increasingly becoming interdependent.

I was a mere toddler at the time of Dr King's speech, growing up in British Guiana (now Guyana) - a former British colony like Jamaica - which, like so many colonies at the time, yearning for independence. So, I'm a product of the colonial order that Dr King spoke so eloquently about. I came of age in post-independent Guyana. And while I may have been too young to understand Dr King's graduation address, I, like many Jamaicans and former colonials, have lived through the identity struggles, joys, and growth pains of a post-colonial nation.

Dr King is quoted as saying during his visit to Jamaica, "In Jamaica, I feel like a human being." He was proud to be "among his brothers and sisters" on this wonderful island.

He was speaking from the heart. In some of the more painful times in US history, African-Americans were not always treated like human beings. During the era of slavery and colonialism, Jamaicans weren't either. But the pride in being in a country of mainly Africans, led by Africans, made him proud and restored his sense of our common humanity.

Jamaica should be proud

This year, Jamaica celebrates its fiftieth anniversary of independence. Dr King's words at that 1965 speech are, in retrospect, eerily prescient as Jamaica continues to grow as a relatively young nation in a world that is more interconnected than ever.

Jamaica should be rightly proud of its accomplishments so far, despite continued economic challenges. It is fitting that the country should be celebrating its golden jubilee with a newly elected female prime minister.

Dr King would be proud to see that the civil rights struggles that he and others so tirelessly championed have resulted in women earning their rightful place in every echelon of society in the US and around the world.

I, too, am a beneficiary of Dr King's vision. As a woman of colour, and an American citizen of West Indian heritage, I'm privileged to be in Jamaica at UWI as a Fulbright scholar. I would have never imagined that in the year that I'll be celebrating my own fiftieth birthday, I would be doing so teaching, learning, and researching in a country that in so many ways mirrors my own country of birth.

The Fulbright scholarship has given me a great opportunity to not only learn about the challenges of language education policy and practice in Jamaica (which I came here to do), but also to come back 'home' in a sense, to reflect on my own history, on my identity as an American citizen of West Indian heritage, and to celebrate a milestone in Jamaica's history that of which Dr King would be extremely proud.

It's been some 47 years since Dr King visited Jamaica. The country has come a long way since then, and still has a long way to go.

Dr King understood well, though, that civil rights and freedom struggles are lifelong. So, I'm fortunate to be here to both witness and participate in that ongoing project. The Fulbright experience, premised as it is on learning, sharing, and building intercultural understanding, has helped me to do my part in realising Dr King's dream.

Happy MLK Day to all!

Dr Shondel Nero is an associate professor, New York University, and Fulbright scholar, University of the West Indies, Jamaica (2011-2012).