Barbara Blake-Hannah, the UK’s first on-screen female black TV news reporter, talks to the culture minister of Jamaica – Olivia Grange – about an issue close to her heart: reparations to the former colony from the UK. Entries to the British Journalism Awards are open and the event is free to enter for journalists from minority ethnic backgrounds who do not have a publisher willing to sponsor them. The best of these entries will be considered for the Barbara Blake Hannah Award.
She answers to the name “Babsy” by which she is known by a public that considers her one of Jamaica’s most popular politicians of either Party. Impeccably dressed, neatly coifed and with a strong speaking voice, the Honourable Olivia Grange, Commander of Distinction, is Member of Parliament for one of Jamaica’s poorest and most volatile constituencies, Central St. Catherine.
She comes from the Entertainment industry, trained by former Prime Minister Edward Seaga who saw talent and a capacity for hard work, when she was still a young schoolgirl in the inner-city community of Tivoli Gardens. He took her under his wing while he studied and she became an expert on all aspects of Jamaica’s culture. She has now served Government and Parliament in various posts since her first appointment as Senator in 1984.
Babsy Grange grew up in one of Kingston’s poorest, but musically rich neighbourhoods with numerous members of Jamaica’s famous reggae industry, several of whom she has assisted as business manager and producer when out of Government. She holds her political seat consistently, while managing four of the most important Government portfolios,– the first, Entertainment, covers Jamaica’s famous reggae industry, for which she is well qualified to lead by her early life experiences.
As mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she enjoys her portfolio of Minister of Gender, tackling gender relations, gender violence, sexual harassment, and teenage pregnancy with equal zest, that serves both women and men.
As Minister of Sport, she has given consistent support to the country’s athletes, attending Olympics and World Games as Jamaica’s Minister of Sport and has seen Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and other athletic stars stun the world with their gold medal-winning achievements.
As Minister of Culture which covers Jamaica’s rich history and national heritage preserved in libraries, museums, buildings, as well as all of Jamaica’s citizens of African, Indian, Chinese and European descent, she supervises the expression of the cultural activities which underlie our National Motto “Out of Many, One People”.
I serve her as Cultural Liaison, giving a special bridge to the Rastafari and Maroon communities, and in so doing I have a close-up view of the care and efficiency with which this powerhouse woman handles all the many aspects of her multi-sectioned Ministry, with the skill of an experienced juggler.
I know, as do all her staff, that her work days never end before midnight, and cover the entire week. We know we are on call at any hour that an emergency arises, and we work happily together to fulfill the demands of a meticulous leader, who tries to ensure that no mistakes cast a shadow on her work, or her Government.
She has just finished successfully leading the Parliamentary approval of a Bill to end Sexual Harassment, emphasising in closing the Debate, that the Bill covers harassment of both genders in the workplace, on the street, and at home.
Her work as Gender Minister to reduce Domestic Violence has led to the setting up of homes where victims can seek shelter and find comfort. She is glad to be a woman with this responsibility. At the time of writing, our Minister of Sport spent an hour at a health centre, where athletes heading to the Tokyo Olympics are receiving their Covid 19 vaccinations.
Reparations for Jamaica from the UK
Her focus at the moment, is reparations as leader of a Zoom seminar on “Dissecting Race: Defamation, Discrimination and Development” organised by the National Council for Reparation, one of the many divisions of the Culture section of her Ministry.
It’s in this capacity that she reported at last month’s Sectoral Debate that “Jamaica has moved closer to seeking reparations for slavery from Britain …”
A petition is being made by Member of Parliament Mike Henry, with the backing of the National Council on Reparation. MP Mike Henry is a determined advocate for reparations, with a lifelong commitment to have Britain pay money as compensation for slavery and colonialism.
Minister Grange has been careful to note that the Attorney General’s Chambers will provide legal advice to the Government of Jamaica on the matter of its involvement in the Petition.
While therefore the Minister of Culture will be guided by the Chambers and ultimately the Cabinet in this matter, Grange is already considering what proper compensation could be.
“We are demanding reparatory justice,” she says, “in all forms that one would expect, if we are to really ensure that we get justice to repair the damage that our ancestors experienced. There are many ways in which this can be achieved, not just by handing over cash,” the Minister says.
Minister Grange speaks of the example of the State of Israel, for whom reparations from Germany and the United States have taken the form of funds for extensive infrastructure development of community housing and improved provisions for health and education, that give all citizens an acceptable standard of living.
Asked therefore, whether a committee has been set up to determine the best forms of compensation that would satisfy the longstanding requests for reparations, Minister Grange replies that this is the work being undertaken by the National Council on Reparation.
“A Policy which will serve as a Roadmap for pursuing Reparatory Justice and securing for our people, recognition, justice and development, is being formulated through a process of extensive consultation locally and engagement globally”.
The Minister’s own reflection on the matter had her recall the original call for Repatriation to Africa made by the Rastafari community for those descendants who desire it, that has been a foundation principle from the birth of Jamaica’s unique cultural and religious movement.
Their request for resettlement – “Facilitating the welcomed return and resettlement of African descendants who so desire” – was one of the 19 Forms of Reparations included in the Final Document of the historic United Nations World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.
The recent establishment of direct air travel between Jamaica and Africa that would exclude the necessity for the usually inaccessible US and UK visas, as well as the opening of invitations for resettlement from African nations such as Ghana and Nigeria, make this a viable option not previously available.
There has also been immigration by Jamaicans to Ethiopia, especially to the Shashemane lands given to Diaspora Africans by the late Emperor Haile Selassie. “I think any distribution of reparations should include some way to fulfil this call by the Rastafari community,” says Minister Grange.
Other than that, the Culture Minister emphasises that in charting the way forward with respect to the forms reparations from Britain should take for the admitted wrongs of chattel slavery, the perspectives of our citizens must be heard and calibrated.
“Some voices say it will be impossible to name a fair price – whether in cash or development – that could erase the unparalleled and heinous crime against humanity, the forced migration, torture, and enslavement of millions of Africans in Jamaica for four centuries represents,” Grange admits.
“Others say, Jamaica should just move on. Like me, many can’t see how we can. The matter will never be forgotten as long as the consequences remain, staring people of African Descent in the face – poverty, inequitable access to education, housing, nutrition, justice and health care. Jamaican Governments – this one and those before us since Independence – have done what we can to make a change, but the continuing effects of slavery and colonialism are still not broken. We can’t stop trying in as many ways as we can,” says Minister Grange.
So ends our meeting, as the journey and demand for justice continues. Off she goes to Parliament, where she is the Deputy Leader of the House. Her phone on vibrate demands her attention for a decision on that night’s staging of the popular annual Jamaica Festival Song Competition, being broadcast live on national television. In her Entertainment Minister mode, she types an answer with elegantly manicured fingernails, then shuffles through the pile of documents being packed into her briefcase, before bidding me a smiling farewell.
It’s been a typical day for ‘Babsy’, and there’s more to be done.