Once, I was among the youth voices in Caribbean feminist inter-generational conversations. Now, I’m bringing together young graduate students and activists with an older generation. Those I’ve been reading and learning from for two decades, and who I want to continue to thread, like matrilineal lines, through emerging thinking and politics.
That’s not as easy as it sounds, for intergenerational gatherings are cross-stitched by multiple tensions.
For one, older feminists need to trust that a younger generation has read what they have written or heard their words, and understand the commitments, especially across race, sexuality and class, which they have woven into their legacy. Like many mothers, they may need to reflectively work through which times to grow a new generation and which times to step back and listen. Also, how to advise in ways that don’t make daughters feel judged, disciplined or dictated to, and when to let go, recognizing that things may not look to those of a younger age and era as elders’ eyes see.
I thought about this while observing an absolutely historic first gathering, of three generations of Indo-Caribbean feminist scholars, almost immediately dissemble into a past generation’s disagreements. I suppose it was good for graduate students to see that those whose writings have defined their own seams of thought are also just people; fallible, passionate, likable, disagreeable, anxious, generous and, even, unkind. Path-breaking women who don’t necessarily share analyses, and who trace different and competing hurts, ambitions and lives to their stories.
That was when I also realized that time had shifted, and that there was value in nurturing a collective confidence that didn’t need matriarchal approval for newer interpretations and choices. We had the wisdom of their works, yet our own path to forge. We could and had come of age.
Such moments of renegotiation and redefinition occur in all social movements, but there isn’t much documented about generational leadership change in Caribbean history, whether in unions, NGOs, political parties or even mas-making families. Yet, generation was key to the Black Power challenge to an older order just as much as cyber-feminism is creating new forms of solidarity-building which some second wave feminists still don’t take seriously.
It’s important for the young to learn how ideas were formed, strategies conceptualized and past struggles waged. Our responsibility is to know our histories by asking those who came before. Their task is to give space to how a new generation gives those histories meaning, acknowledging that they might not have the last word, for the young may have stopped listening or, once the sync has gone, already moved on. Then, it only alienates them to emphasize how much they are failing or how much is being lost, those perspectives also likely failing to accurately assess the times they are navigating.
In the face of early rebuke and skepticism from some who established the intellectual tradition we were exploring, I instead saw the value of more careful consideration of those forty years younger. What were they offering to us about what it means to be Indian or Dougla, to become an immigrant, confront historical violence, imagine same sex desire, read books that connect the Caribbean to Mauritius or poetry to politics, manifest goddess possession, be a man or challenge men, and explore how education expands one’s identities and responsibilities to the region?
Caribbean societies are so hierarchical that there’s small chance of a younger generation, particularly of young women, really saying what they think and feel to those they respect and feel they owe loyalty. Yet, amongst themselves, they know when what was said made them uncomfortable and when they disagree. Distrust that they will be reprimanded rather than heard means they choose silence instead of dialogue, fear instead of engagement, and disappointment rather than connection.
How does that impact possibilities for true inter-generational collaboration? How, then, should those with older power wield their authority? What do the young learn about asserting themselves? For, sometimes we have to challenge even Indian elders, even feminist foremothers, lovingly and publicly. Social movements don’t just live on, but are continuously made. It’s important to record how we do this, and the gifts and risks sewn in at every stage.