WORKING GIRL: The building of the Panama Canal drew scores of women to provide services, Putnam (below) points out.
For her presentation of the 32nd Elsa Goveia Memorial Lecture at the Philip Sherlock Centre, UWI Mona, on Tuesday, distinguished University of Pittsburgh history professor Lara Putnam addressed the topic “Cities of Women: Gender Divides in Circum-Caribbean Migration 1880-1930”. What Putnam gave was an insightful, deeply stimulating presentation that showed depth of research and how an intellectual discourse can enlighten and entertain with its fascinating arguments and articulate use of language.
Analyzing the patterns of women making the move to places like New York City (before it became the Big Apple) and Panama (at the height of the Canal construction) during the period in question, Putnam noted, “These patterns were clearly good for families but bad for couples because families were able to take advantage of opportunities.”
Taking her observations one step further, the professor made it clear that the data uncovered is ideally suited to understanding women’s sense of their place in the world, the ageless fight for economic independence and the possibilities that existed for Caribbean women overseas back then: providing reproductive labour, building on the domestic skills that were handed down to them through generations (from culinary to dressmaking) and acquiring new skills along the way. “Maybe in looking back on this part of the Caribbean’s past we can better understand aspects of the modern world,” Putnam argued.
The lecturer, who holds degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan and is an unabashed devotee of Caribbean and Latin American history, further anchored her presentation by making a direct and fascinating link between our literature and history. She drew on five novels with strong female protagonists and migration-themed narrative arcs to better illustrate her argument that for a lot of Caribbean women of that era who desired to make a life in greener pastures, their economic and kinship choices were interrelated.
Putnam chose two popular works by H.G. DeLisser (Jane’s Career and Susan Proudleigh), the contemporary stories of Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones and Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and the CLR James classic Minty Alley.
She stressed that while such works as Claude McKay’s Banjo and Home to Harlem and Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners also make worthwhile contributions to the migration discourse, her five selections are singularly important in thinking of the Caribbean woman as migrant.
Putnam, who no longer feels like “an outsider” writing about Caribbean history (and has paid a few visits to UWI’s Cave Hill campus in Barbados), says she relishes opportunities to escape into the past and make startling discoveries. “I love finding stories that help me understand people of years gone by and their own complexities,” she tells TALLAWAH.
The author of three books (including the acclaimed debut The Company They Kept), Putnam says she is looking forward to focusing her next work on migration to Venezuela, a largely unexplored subject. “For me, it’s about looking at the past and trying to make sense of a world that was as complicated to them as it was to us,” she says. “I like stories that give you glimpses of life-changing experiences in history because those opportunities can be very rare.”