Afua Cooper on the men talking politics outside the corner store, and how they changed her forever
Afua Cooper's childhood in Kingston, Jamaica, was idyllic. She lived deep in the midst of an oral culture, surrounded by storytellers and music. Life was a mix of school, running races in the streets with neighbourhood children and watching films at the Institute of Jamaica.
Children had their own world, separate from the adults around them, but kids weren't oblivious to the world of grown-ups. Despite the distractions of the nearby beach and music lessons at the institute down the street, young Afua was consumed by a curiosity about politics and history.
Her political education began at about age 10, hanging around her uncle's corner store. The shop sat on a side road that lead to the town's main street. People would stop in all day long to buy cans of soda and sweets. The old men would gather at the tables and chairs along the sidewalk to play dominoes, gossip, and discuss world events.
They talked about South Africa under apartheid and the executions of black activists, about the injustices visited on black people by a regime that was upholding white supremacy. Afua says it was in that moment, exposed to the brutality faced by black South Africans, she realized she was connected to a broader global history.
Now a professor of sociology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Afua Cooper (PhD), has written about the day Jamaicans rioted in Kingston, when the historian Walter Rodney was banned from entering the country. Walter Rodney, a Guyanese historian, would come to Jamaica and teach ordinary people about their past – in public squares, in libraries, even sitting under a tree. It was a history that pushed back against the conventional colonial narrative and when the government kept him out, people took to the streets. She remembers walking through the town, observing the burnt-out husks of buildings and the still smoldering debris.
Afua Cooper – scholar, historian, poet – says that popular uprising, in defence of Rodney, taught her the importance of knowing history. And learning about the realities of apartheid from the old men at the corner store helped her understand how history connects people.