Story posted July 15, 2013
with Krista Van Vleet
What role has the Caribbean played in your time at Bowdoin?
My first semester at Bowdoin I enrolled in a course called Writers of the Caribbean. This first-year seminar, taught by Dr. Jarrett Brown, featured books like Banjo by Claude McKay and Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker. This course was the foundation for what has since become an intense interest and appreciation of all things Caribbean.
Set off by my first-year seminar, I have since seized any opportunity to include the Caribbean in my studies. Through various research projects I have looked at Jamaican dancehall music, the presence of soccer in Cuba, and the effect of departmentalization in the French Antilles. As an anthropology major I have found that the Caribbean offers incredibly diverse opportunities to explore and attempt to understand the human condition.
Another key moment in my Caribbean education was a symposium at Bowdoin on the topic of Caribbean Interorality. Hearing such a wide range of outstanding academic perspectives on the region furthered my curiosity and understanding of the complexity of the Caribbean experience.
What experience do you have in the Caribbean? Have you traveled there? What did you learn from your time there?
My first real Caribbean experience wasn’t on an island but rather in Brooklyn, New York during a field trip with Professor Brown and my first-year seminar. After a weekend spent exploring the Flatbush neighborhood, talking with local radio djs and sampling bits and pieces of New York’s transplanted Caribbean culture, I couldn’t get enough and wound up in New York whenever I had the chance.
My most significant experience in the Caribbean was a two-week trip to Cuba during spring break of this year. Due to the technicalities involved with Americans traveling to Cuba, I went through Jamaica and spent several days exploring Kingston on the tail end of my visit. While it is difficult to draw any sweeping generalizations about such a diverse region, I think there are certain themes that are relevant across the Caribbean. As my experiences in Kingston and Havana reflect, strikingly different contexts can reveal certain similarities that are reflective of equally turbulent and dynamic histories. One of my biggest takeaways from the time I spent with people in both cities was their shared survivalist mentality, which extends throughout their respective cultures. The Habañeros and Kingstonians I had the pleasure of interacting with seemed to share a certain creativity and will to innovate and make meaning out of very little in the material sense.
I believe it is this disposition upon which the Caribbean was founded and has since developed. This is really what drew me to the Caribbean in the first place and has captivated my attention ever since. In many ways the Caribbean is situated at the center of the modern world, where possibilities abound as a result of its greatest resource, the people.
How did you incorporate your experiences abroad into your academic work at Bowdoin?
My visit to Cuba coincided perfectly with an open-ended research project for my Anthropology senior seminar. The idea originally stemmed from a New York Times article, which prompted me to get in touch with an official from the Cuban Football Association; I ended up staying with him in Havana. I was able to gain valuable first-hand experience in the country and a genuine idea of the role soccer plays there. From an academic perspective, the project demanded a multifaceted approach to the issue in question. With little to no academic material on soccer in Cuba, I geared my investigation towards the centrality of sports such as baseball within the Cuban socialist program and role soccer has played in other Latin American contexts. With this background I was able to formulate a case for the possibility and implications of a “footballing future” in Cuba.
Other than Cuba, what Caribbean issues are particularly captivating to you?
One topic that I have returned to several times while at Bowdoin is French departmentalization of the Antillean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. This issue has been a great way to combine my minor in French with my Anthropology major. The intellectual tradition born out of these islands poses and addresses questions that are relevant across the world as far as postcolonial relationships and paternalism are concerned. The example of departmentalization provides an interesting perspective with which to consider these relationships, their historical contexts, and the implications they carry in people’s lives today. Throughout my research I came to realize just how complex the question of Antillean identity is and how many different, and often opposing, factors contribute to its creation in a variety of social contexts.
Any dreams or plans for your future?
The Caribbean is always on my mind and I look forward to a future there. Through my study of and experience in the region, I have become aware of the unbounded potential that comes from a uniquely Caribbean combination of people, history, geography, and resources. In the meantime, though, I will be focusing my efforts in pursuing a business that I started while studying abroad in Dakar, Senegal making neckties with traditional West African fabric.
Call Nichols is a senior Anthropology major and French minor from Mill Valley, California. During his time at Bowdoin he has served as a captain of the Men’s Soccer team and has been a member of the Bowdoin Outing Club. He has also volunteered locally with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program.