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Dead Woman Pickney

A Memoir of Childhood in Jamaica


Excerpt from the Prologue, Dead Woman Pickney: A Memoir of Childhood in Jamaica by Yvonne Shorter Brown

My body signifies many stories. My female body, which is to say my brain, my heart, my soul, my flesh, my physiognomy, and my spirit, all are marked by events of the past into which I was born. It is the past of the colony of Jamaica, New World slavery, plantation economy, and English missionary education, set within the culture of the British Empire as it flourished and faded. A long past, yet my body remembers. This was the realization I came to when I was brought, at last, to question how I came to be born in Jamaica and how, in particular, I came to have this body that, by no will or permission of mine, caused so many moments of disruption and discomfort in multicultural classrooms and workplaces.

Multicultural discourse—how calm and irreproachable the expression—was for me an inviting door, one through which I believed I might easily pass in the search for understanding. And so my inquiry began, on my own behalf first, and then on behalf of African and “black” students. It was a simple quest for knowledge with which to make informed curricular and pedagogical interventions. During the course of my reading and reflection, I discovered the racial, economic, and sexual collision of Africa, Europe, and the Americas that—incredibly—had made me one among millions of coloured, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon children, the fruit of “black” virgins, Ewe, Ashanti, Twi, Guinea, Yoruba, Hausa, and Ibo, deflowered by white men. The “deflorescence” I speak of was no ordinary sexual act of biological maturation. It was the deliberate racialized sexual assault whose purpose was domination. White men from Portugal, Holland, Spain, France, Denmark, and England ravished the African women as they, simultaneously, plundered the African landscape for its gold, diamonds, iron, salt, gums, cloves, coffee, copper, leopard skins, rhinoceros horns, and, especially, for its ivory—the white and the black (the harvesting of black bodies became known as black ivory in the slave trade).

The harvesting of black ivory depopulated the continent, destroying clans, tribes, kingdoms, and nation-states. The rape of the healthiest and most beautiful women was relentless. It started at the point of capture and sale; it continued in the barracoons that were spread along what became known as the Slave Coast of Africa as well as within the officers' quarters in the slave castles. 1 We can imagine the sexual assaults, by white men and black, within the confines of the slave ships that plied the triangular trade, especially along the Middle Passage, and, thereafter, in the great houses of the plantations. Sexual assaults continued as an integral part of the violence that controlled and enforced labour in the tobacco fields of Virginia and Kentucky; in the cane fields of Barbados, Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Haiti; and in the rice fields of the Carolinas. White rape of black took place over a period of more than 350 years. For 250 of those years, it accompanied the legal trade in African bodies, and then it continued for another century of legal African chattel slavery, in what the Europeans conceived of as the New World.

My physiognomy is the living record of this terrible lineage. My mother is the descendant line of Africa enslaved: taken from the Slave Coast, a place unknown in origin, but probably somewhere that would have been known to my paternal descent—English and Scottish colonizers— as the Guineas or Ghana. I cannot be sure because too much of this lineage is lost or hidden. This, at least, I have direct experience of because my father's family hid my maternal lineage from me. In the same way, the knowledge regimes of schooling have, for the most part, hidden the facts and truth of the history of brutality against Africans from those who, like myself, have good reason to learn them. I struggle daily to heal the scars of wilful ignorance and epistemic violence that silence the history of enslavement in this, the so-called, New World.

I was born as a by-product of those in the service of empire in the colony of Jamaica. I grew up hearing that Africa has no history; Africa has no culture; “black” people were made to serve the white man. I continue to hear derogatory assertions about Africa. Africa is the Dark Continent. Africa is the basket case of the world. Africa is the land of savages and backwardness.

But what did that mean to me? Jamaicans were, and fundamentally still are, categorized as black, white, and—my own kind—coloured. If I was not “white,” I was certainly not “black. ” I did not believe that assertions about “black” Africa described me, even partially. Only when I moved to Canada did I “become” black—that is, I had “blackness,” in the North American sense, bestowed upon me. Only through living and working in British Columbia, and observing and experiencing First Nations and Aboriginal peoples' struggle to reclaim their land, language, and culture from English and French colonial domination, was I compelled to acknowledge, explicitly, the parallel struggles of “black” people, whose very name, written in lowercase, reduced them to their skin colour. How more diminished can a people be? While the struggles of Africans on the continent are similar to those of the indigenous peoples of Canada, the African-descended peoples in the Americas—Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, and South America—have had to fight against the stigma of “blackness” brought about by 450 years of trans-Atlantic European trade in their enslaved bodies and some 500 years of chattel slavery and domestic bondage. The legacy of this historical, legal, psychological, social, and economic dehumanization is carried over into contemporary official documents. For instance, in reading Canadian census reports up to the 1990s I discovered that all immigrants were identified with a country of origin except for people of African descent, whose category was “black. ” How disconcerting to encounter in documents on Canadian multiculturalism a string of descriptors such as Chinese, Asian, Scottish, Irish, First Nations, Aboriginal, and black? All of these descriptors are properly related to place except black, which is placeless. As if to add insult to symbolic injury, when one uses black as a noun and capitalized, one is corrected, which reinforces the historically imposed inferior status. For me, living among people who claimed rights and entitlements based on their place-based identities, these realizations were both painful and shameful to live and work with. These people constantly reminded me that as a group African-descended peoples are regarded as marginal citizens, locally and globally. Although the relatively recent appellation African-Canadian was meant to replace black, black remains, for complicated political reasons, the adjective and the noun for peoples of the African continent and its diaspora.

Table of contents

Foreword by Sonja Boon

Preface to the updated edition

Chapter 1 Early childhood memories

Chapter 2 Louisiana Blues, circa 1950-54

Chapter 3 Life and schooling in May Pen, circa 1955-62

Chapter 4 Clarendon College, Chapelton, January 1960-July 1961

Chapter 5 Becoming a Teacher, Mico College, 1962-65


Coda Finding Mother 1990-2020


Archival References


10th anniversary edition of this popular book about a Jamaica childhood.


Dead Woman Pickney chronicles Yvonne Shorter Brown’s life growing up in Jamaica between 1943 and 1965 and teaching in Canada from 1969. Told with stridency and humour, the stories include both personal experience and history.

Taking up the haunting memories of childhood, along with persistent racial marginalization of Black people, both globally and in Canada, the author sets out to construct a narrative that at once explains her own origins in the former slave society of Jamaica and traces the outsider status of Africa and its peoples. The author’s quest to understand the absence of her mother and her mother’s people from her life is at the heart of the narrative. The author struggles through life to discover the identity of her mother in the face of silence from her father’s brutal family. In this updated edition she adds a coda, “finding mother”, constructed from archives, genealogy, letters, and journals.

Initially published in 2010, this second edition includes expanded text and a foreword by Sonja Boon, author of What the Oceans Remember.


``Yvonne Shorter Brown's Dead Woman Pickney: A Memoir of Childhood in Jamaica is not just an ordinary autobiography of a young rural ‘brown’ Jamaican girl who unendingly mourns the loss of her biological mother—the absence of whom opened her to physical, emotional and psychological abuse by her near-white father's family members, who despised her colour as much as they did her black mother, in a society with a history which depersonalised blacks, ostracised ‘browns’ and revered whites. Neither is it just an inspiring story of sorrow, resilience and success, as it is, at the same time, a lamentation of profound loss and an ode to life. Dead Woman Pickney is a masterpiece which cannot be dismissed as just another story of child abuse which is the lot of so many children in Jamaica and abroad. Nor can such a memoir be stereotyped and shelved to be used only as a simple point of reference. Truth is, one simply cannot ignore Shorter Brown's brilliantly crafted piece and outstanding achievement in the same way that one cannot disregard the plaintive cries of a ‘dead woman pickney’, deprived of both her biological and social history, both of which are dead to her.''

- Judith Soares, The Afro News, May 2011

``Yvonne Brown's memoir is more than a coming-of-age story of a Black girl in colonial and post-colonial Jamaica. It reveals the painful histories of Black, brown, and white in a society rife with the legacies of slavery, while at the same time articulating a veritable mother loss. Brown mourns the death of her biological mother and the loss of Mother Africa, whose children became human fertilizers for the sugar cane fields of Jamaica, and she articulates a collective pain and rage at the rejection by mother-country England of its bastard colony-child. This is first a story of sorrow and loss. But ultimately it is a story of resilience, of resistance, and, most of all, of love. Dead Woman Pickney is brilliant!''

- Afua Cooper, author of The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Slavery in Canada and the Burning of Old Montreal

``Shorter Brown lucidly reconstructs the history of life in colonial Jamaica from the perspective of the subaltern. She tells the everyday life stories of the ordinary black, white, brown-skinned, and Chinese Jamaicans living under British Crown Colony administration. Shorter Brown pulls the reader into her childhood and adolescent worlds, where she yearns for her dead mother; there are many unanswered questions about whom her mother was and why she knew so little about her. This is the hallmark of Dead Woman Pickney: it fuses the memory of the author's childhood with the wider cultural and institutional trauma associated with imperialism. Students of British colonial history, social theorists, readers of Caribbean literature, and scholars of the Atlantic and Jamaica will find much value in Shorter Brown's book. It is written with passion, humour, and an intensity that readers will find both intriguing and entertaining.... The author blends literary production with scholarship on sugar, slavery, and racial and ethnic relations under colonialism. Dead Woman Pickney fundamentally explores British Caribbean history from below.... An important addition to the literature on Jamaica's political transition from British colonialism to independence.''

- Damian Blake, H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews, May 2011

``Brown has a sharp sense of what some sociologists might identify as the ability to link individual troubles to public issues. Her recording of the intersections of race, gender, class, and colour provides an easy entry into discussions of how colonialism comes to shape our everyday relations so that we consistently reproduce dominant relations through our everyday interactions.''

- Jennifer Kelly, Cultural and Pedagogical Inquiry, 3 (1), 2011

``Yvonne Shorter Brown's Dead Woman Pickney is a poignant memoir of girlhood and young adulthood in Jamaica's transitioning years from a British colony to an independent Caribbean nation. Combining storytelling with social analysis, Brown provides a personal account of how race, `colour,' class, and nation shape differential experiences of Jamaican identities during the two decades immediately following the Second World War.''

- Carol B. Duncan, H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews, May 2011