Beverley Manley – History on Her Terms

Carol Boyce Davies

About Carol Boyce Davies

About a year ago, I did a review of Tony Martin’s Amy Ashwood Garvey, Pan-Africanist, Feminist and Mrs. Garvey No. 1 or a Tale of Two Amies (Majority Press, 2007) in which I made the bold claim that given the kind of work that the two Garvey wives did, Garveyism had to be seen not just as the “philosophy and opinions of Marcus Garvey”: but indeed the entire package of activities engaged by Garvey plus the contending ideas of his wives. Wife No. 1, Amy Ashwood Garvey is identified as a co-founder and co-builder of the UNIA; wife no. 2, Amy Jacques Garvey was the major source of the documentation of his philosophy and ideas.

I was gratified in this conclusion by being presented with the opportunity to review this memoir of Beverly Anderson Manley, for she indeed calls it The Manley Memoirs and by these means writes a personal history that is at the same time, the history of a time, the history of a political era, movement, a man who provided leadership for Jamaica in a critical period of its grappling with full independence – beyond flag independence that is.

Interestingly in this case, the women of the earlier generation of Caribbean women had relatively few autobiographies. There is no autobiography for example of Amy Ashwood Garvey. So she remains constructed by those who like Tony Martin choose to enter and describe her life, often from the point of view of the husband. But here we have Beverly Anderson Manley challenging that entire paradigm by writing her own story and boldly calling it The Manley Memoirs.

In other words, the contribution of this work and its importance has to be seen in relation to this earlier and ongoing work in developing a library of Caribbean women’s writings in various genres. But it also adds to our studies of our Caribbean countries as we grapple with what Monica Jardine and I have called the border between dying European colonialism and U.S. imperialism. Thus all the interactions are there including the migrations from Jamaica to England, from Jamaica to the U.S. and all the various journeys in between.

Importantly, this book has also to be seen in the context of a woman writing herself into history. Essentially there are three tendencies in women’s writing autobiography which I have developed in my own work on African women’s autobiographies published as Private Selves and Public Spaces in which the private self finds a way to make itself public. These autobiographical modes (and the memoir like the life story is but one genre of autobiography – often more personal, and note as well, the word ‘memoir’ has the same root as ‘memory’) are:

  1. The self defined as synonymous with political struggle
  2. The self identified in dialogue with family and/or social cultural history
  3. The self identified in resistance to colonial/patriarchal order.

Autobiography then depends on three elements the self – the auto – the life – bio – the graphy – the writing.

The female autobiographical self then is a self in process, constantly expanding, defining, inventing and re-inventing itself. The extent to which the story of the autobiographical self is seen as a story worth being told is the extent to which the woman enters herself into history based on a series of socio-cultural and political configurations and actions.

In the first version though, The self defined as synonymous with political struggle”,” only a small bit of time and space is accorded the self as the political life becomes synonymous with the self in politics. This interestingly is the version more common in male autobiography as in Nkrumah’s Ghana my Story or Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya. Winnie Mandela’s Part of My Soul Went With Him is in many ways is a bridge in this tradition as the life of Winnie is inextricable connected to that of Nelson’s but also shows her trying to find a place for herself.

In the second version, the self is constituted within family history and then secondly within the larger socio-cultural history itself and in the final version, the self is expressed as an expanding consciousness as the writer as an adult in resistance to societal domination.

In my reading of The Manley Memoirs, all of these modes appear in various ways but it is the third, “the self identified in resistance to colonial/patriarchal order” which seems most dominant.

One of the limitations to full analysis as raised in my recent book on Claudia Jones is that there was no autobiography of Claudia available. Indeed, one of the laments from most people who knew Claudia is that she was working on an autobiography but this was not completed and has never surfaced. We are fortunate then that Mrs. Manley did the work and saw the importance of documenting her life from her point of view. And for this we are grateful.

Experts in the writing of autobiography say that women who do not write their stories are consigned to silence in the scripts of others. Women who write their life stories then challenge erasure, silencing and the constructions of others as they deliberately practice the art of self revelation. This Beverly Anderson Manley’s memoirs does and more. It provides us important understandings of her childhood, and difficulties of Caribbean girlhood in her time, the issues of colonial schooling, work, menstruation dramas, color discrimination, travel, sexuality, affairs, all finely culminating in an ongoing and intense political activity as the wife of one of the most significant Caribbean leaders in the 20th century.

So how does she do it? The book is organized into ten chapters, a preface and an afterword. Its opening lines already provide the necessary tension that will run through the book, and one which Jamaica Kincaid had captured magnificently in a series of books, the mother/daughter entanglement.

“I woke up every morning of my childhood to the sound of Mama’s complaining voice.” p.1

This unfolding cantankerousness for the mother is presented honestly by Beverly as she grapples with the logic of color prejudice within a working class Caribbean family which moved often and through it all sent its girls to school determined as most of our mothers were that we would get educated enough not to suffer the lack of fulfillment of desires that they had but above all that we would never have to depend on men for our livelihood. She says: “I grew up in a lower middle class home with limited resources. My mother, educated, yet living a life that made her unhappy, was determined that her children would receive an education… Education, she taught was the only way out. My relationship with my mother was always intense and often traumatic, and I see now that it — along with my experience of the power struggle between men and women as observed first in my parents’ troubled union … was largely responsible for who I was to become. For who I am.” (ix)

Beverly says in her preface though that it is a story about survival in a way particularly because she had dared to leave ‘the Great Man’ And indeed she cites Manley as saying to her: “You will never make it without me,” (p. 225), motivating words for strong women all over the world

Leaving (or staying with) the ‘Great Man’ as other women who were married to world leaders reveal, is always fraught with drama as the activities are always carried out in full public view. Witness the life of Winnie Mandela and the end of that relationship however. The difference was that Mrs. Mandela waited 27 years, but through it all created a movement in her husband’s name which in many ways almost destroyed her given the activist choices that were made in the face of the world’s last and most horrendous system of oppression – apartheid.

Feminist theorists who study these issues of women and leadership point out that given that women have a harder time getting to political power, one of the ways that women have accessed power is through marriage to these great men. The meeting between Beverly and Michael interestingly is identified as a completely professional relationship in which she spends time working with him on communication skills. But also sensual as described in the dashiki scene. The particular skills that she brings to the relationship then are very specific and technical ones which in today’s political world would be identified as a political media consultant and be highly remunerated. Beverly identifies that she works with Michael after watching him do a horrendous interview and therefore helped him cultivate more style and presence in his presentations. And these skills would follow through in the campaigns and in her love of politics honed as a child. It seems clear then that these political skills would be sustained throughout.

In all the professional-political marriages, and the Clintons is perhaps one of the worst played out examples, the wife has a particular skill set that allows the man to take his leadership to the next generation. And it demands a woman who is able to make the journey in various ways. Clearly Beverly Manley had all those qualities and she describes these well but also was positioned historically well. So meeting the Manley family is described in Chapters 4 & 5, especially the friendship with Edna Manley and the simple wedding ceremony. Moving into Jamaica House which provides some of the intimate details of reordering a colonial house for more practical contemporary style (chapter 6); the breakup and its aftermath (Chapter 8-10) . Here one is struck though by the obvious fact that women sometimes get used in men’s power struggles between each other, and in this case, within the same political party with its various political factions, a historic left wing faction which was maintained into the present.

The Manley MemoirsI am fascinated about the inside reading about Manley’s engagement with the IMF, the troubled relationship with the United States, even with the more cordial presidents like Jimmy Carter. After a state visit to Washington, D.C. the Manleys leave sure that there is always the drama of using the repudiation of Fidel test as an assessment yardstick, which was again on the table then. And to our credit, Caribbean leaders are always on record that Cuba is in the Caribbean and that Fidel has done tremendous service to Caribbean countries in so many fields. But of course there is no convincing the US ever of this.

The question of color is also a fascinating feature of the story. For many in that period, it was quite striking to see this beautiful Afroed black woman as desirable wife of the head of state (p. 119). I would imagine that it would have been something akin to how people see Barack and Michelle Obama. For clearly Barack gets mega props for demonstrating that he knows how to love and desire a black woman.

In Trinbagonian poet, Marlene Philip’s words:

If not in yours
In whose
If not in yours
In whose
Language am I beautiful”?

One of the issues black women face is the question of representation and mis-representation from a dominant Eurocentric aesthetic in which we are rarely desirable or beautiful. In many ways, Beverly Manley won that battle for us by having a member of the Jamaican mulatto class identify publicly that its object of desire was a black woman. Timeliness yes, as a first lady in the middle of the Black Power period. Still, it is always to their benefit.

The beautiful pictures in the book tell another story for we see glimpses of a life – wedding photos, a lover, babies, children, but above all an elegance of a beautiful partner who is able to stand tall and equal in encounters with Fidel, Nyerere, Jimmy Carter, Samora Machel. This is a woman then who was in the middle of history in the Caribbean during some of its most momentous movements.

So Jamaica has to claim its many firsts, from its first black woman prime minister in the person of Portia Simpson Miller who on the international stage became for too brief a moment, a figure writ large on the world stage. In Brazil in a hall which seated thousands, and after many mediocre male leaders had spoken, Portia Simpson Miller’s talk was the only one greeted with a standing ovation.

But before Portia there was another black woman at the center of political power, with its ups and down, its wins and losses, but seen consistently as making a contribution always, deciding to go back to school and acquire further education as she describes going back to UWI as an adult and prime minister’s wife. Beverly Anderson Manley, the commitment to women’s rights such as equal pay and the love of children and going back to graduate school in the U.S.

Again, as our theorists of autobiography insist; “Since the ideology of gender makes of woman’s life scripts a non-story, a silent space, a gap in patriarchal culture, the ideal woman is self erasing rather than self-promoting…from that point of view, woman has no autobiographical self.” But here is a woman then who reverses this paradigm and tells her story.

A woman writing an autobiography challenges all of that as she asserts that her life has meaning. What is striking to me in this memoir is the courage in the telling of the story, the details provided, the selection determined not to camouflage truth with pretentiousness but to write herself as we have said into history on her terms.

An author is after all one who has claimed authority over a discourse – the first part of the word authority is author. Beverly Anderson Manley in these pages is the author of her life, and for this we applaud her.

Dr. Carol Boyce Davies is a dynamic scholar of African Diaspora Studies, author, editor and professor, who  begins her new appointment as Professor of Africana Studies, English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University in July, 2008.

Top caption: Beverley Anderson-Manley signs a book at the Florida launch. (Damion Woolock photos)