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  • Histories of Childhood in the CaribbeanNew Perspectives and Methodologies
  • Shani Roper (bio)

"Children are to be seen but not heard" is a popular refrain that reflects socio-cultural attitudes and beliefs that silence the voices of children in the present, in the traditional archive and in the past. In the Caribbean, existing socio-cultural attitudes towards children, child-welfare policies and institutions owe their existence to late nineteenth and early twentieth-century imperial concerns about creating civilized colonial states. Children were and continue to be at the centre of this discourse, especially as it relates to harnessing their potential labour and to creating good "citizens". Given the centrality of children to debates on national development, gender justice and public health, how do we uncover their historical lives and experiences? What methodologies do we use to centre children's experiences and perspectives and what are the tensions within age categories that delineate the boundaries between infancy, childhood, youth and adulthood?

Childhood is a pliable social construct that varies based on time, geography, class, race, gender, economics, religion and cultural belief systems. Today, childhood is defined as a period of dependency and submission, necessitating adult guidance. This definition obscures the ways in which children express their ideas and challenge the landscapes they occupy. Limited archival data as well as changing age categories after Emancipation make it difficult to access children's historical perspectives. As scholars of Caribbean slave and post-slave societies, we recognize the inherent biases of the archives with which we work–archives constructed from the perspective of imperial and colonial agents which undermine, demean and dismiss the agency of oppressed [End Page 187] groups. Constructed as "othered" within these discourses, Afro-Caribbean are hyper-visible meanwhile more privileged children, considered normal, are rendered invisible. Colonial administrators singled out children of African descent as delinquents and victims of unstable families.1 It was the perpetual need to control the movement of black labour that brought Afro-Caribbean children to the forefront. Scholars are, therefore, forced to "read along biased grain of the archive" to reveal a more nuanced understanding of Caribbean societies and uncover the lives of children.2

Centring children within the histories of colonial and post-colonial Caribbean societies ultimately changes our understanding of significant historical events as children are never powerbrokers or decision makers. Attitudes towards children and their role in society changed in response to decolonization and political independence. These events had a direct impact on the quality of life of the average child. Studies of childhood in the early twentieth century must consider the impact of global and colonial child-saving movements in the colonies and their impact on local efforts to improve child nutrition, child welfare, and maternal and public health. How did attitudes towards children change over the course of the twentieth century? Did political independence change attitudes towards children or how did definitions of childhood and youth change in response to socio-political, religious and cultural discourse within colonial spaces?

Very few historical studies on Africa and the Caribbean explore childhood or produce colonial histories from children's perspectives. Rather, children's experiences are linked to or explored within the context of women's experiences, Afro-Caribbean families and the education system. While histories of education and educational institutions position children as receptacles shaped by societal values, in the scholarship children and youth are rarely conceptualized as individuals who challenged, negotiated and reconceptualized colonial subject-hood. Saheed Aderinto's 2015 edited collection Children and Childhood in Colonial Nigerian Histories argues that the history of children is "submerged in a larger history of state and empire formation, colonialism, modernity and socio-political transformation".3 It is this submersion that silences children's roles as subjects challenging and shaping race, class and gender discourse within colonial societies. Beverley Grier, in her study of children's labour in Colonial Zimbabwe, posits that "children and adolescents are the 'invisible hands' whose labor [sic] was involved in substantial ways in the capitalist [End Page 188] transformation of Zimbabwe".4 For these scholars, childhood is a site of contention and negotiation. Studies of childhood in Africa, therefore, explore the conflict between colonial perspectives on childhood and local...


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pp. 187-191
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