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  • “You need to Press On”Lillie Johnson as a Pragmatic Public Intellectual
  • Karen Flynn (bio)


caribbean women in canada have a history of challenging gender, racial, sexual, and other forms of oppression.1 The occlusion of Black women from a range of institutional sites where power is located and knowledge is produced and validated is hardly surprising given the general omission, or “absented presence”2 of the Black3 experience from Canada’s historical and mainstream narrative. Consequently, Caribbean women have had to carve out other spaces in civil society such as churches and community organizations to creatively respond to discrimination and exclusion from the larger Canadian society. Together with their Black Canadian sisters, Caribbean women have participated in, and established organizations that included, but were not limited to, the West Indian Federation (WIF), Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Canadian Negro Women’s Association (CANEWA), and the Congress of Black women of Canada (CBWC).4 Indeed, the lack of economic, social, and political currency coupled with gender discrimination has not deterred Caribbean women from individually and collectively engaging in a range of activities specific to their communities, activities that are integrally connected to Canada’s nation-building project.

As critical participants in public sphere politics, Caribbean women continue to recognize the significance of a social uplift mission and its relevance to the broader Black Canadian community. The activism of Jamaican-born Lillie Johnson, founder of the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario (SCAO), is exemplary. For more than three decades, Johnson has provided counseling [End Page 148] and support to individuals with sickle cell disease (SCD) and their families. She has engaged in advocacy efforts with the Ontario government, health administration officials, medical personnel, and educational institutions.

Using the life history approach,5 primary sources, and heeding the directives of scholars such as Joy James, Erica Lawson, and Edward Said in particular, I maintain that if we reconfigure and expand the definition of the public intellectual to include ordinary people, then Johnson’s untiring and endless intervention and advocacy efforts with the SCAO mark her as a public intellectual. While I utilize Said’s criteria of the intellectual throughout this paper, I am mindful of the examples of intellectuals he references, which suggests that a ninety-two-year-old Jamaican Canadian might not be whom he had in mind. Taking this into consideration, coupled with the various modes of Johnson’s activism, I surmise that she is a pragmatic public intellectual based on her uncanny ability to engage with a broad constituency while demonstrating an investment in the disenfranchised. Johnson does not work in isolation, but is a visible, action-oriented individual diligently striving to advance a social justice mandate while remaining true to certain principles. I insist, however, that appreciating Johnson’s role as a pragmatic public intellectual requires paying attention to her middle-class Jamaican upbringing, training as a teacher, migrant nurse, and midwife, and the concomitant experiences that inform and shape her outlook. The aforementioned dynamics have positioned Johnson uniquely to articulate and create awareness around SCD mostly within Black communities and in Ontario, despite her age, gender, and race.

Defining the Public Intellectual?

Do public intellectuals exist presently, or are they relics of another time?6 An equally significant question, for the purposes of this paper, is what roles do pubic intellectuals who are nonacademics play in our society? Trying to delineate who constitutes an intellectual—whether public, traditional, popular, organic, or otherwise—remains a contested endeavor for several reasons. First, the problem rests with the definition of the term intellectual; whether influenced by Antonio Gramsci or Karl Marx, Edward Said maintains that an intellectual is perceived as someone who ought to be listened to, or is the leader of a faction.7 They are bequeathed, Said notes, “with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public.”8 But, even as scholars such as bell hooks and Cornell West acknowledge that public intellectuals can be nonacademics, the tendency is to focus on academics or politically conscious celebrities.9 It appears that not only are academics the ones who...


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