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Holger Henke

Holger HenkeQuestions for CSA Past Presidents

Responses by Holger Henke
CSA President 2010-2011

How did you come to specialize in Caribbean Studies?

My interest in the Caribbean and Caribbean Studies developed gradually and from several sources.  At a personal (and probably most profound) level I became interested in the Caribbean through the music of Bob Marley and other Jamaican reggae – during the late 1970s and early 1980s.  This was not a linear or straightforward development for me.  In fact, for me, getting to like the music was a process and somewhat an “acquired taste.”   Once, however, I started to appreciate reggae music, it was a love affair that really sparked my interest in its origin.  In particular, I was very curious about the contrast (particularly in Marley’s music) between the uplifting beat and intricate rhythms, easily accessible melodies, and the socially conscious lyrics that often told stories of hardship, discrimination, resistance and survival.  At the time, I also heard stories of friends of mine who had already visited Jamaica.

Then, in summer of 1983, I decided to travel on my own to visit the island, stayed for seven weeks, and simply fell in love with the land and its people.  At the time, I was lucky to have a connection through one of my friends to a family living in Portland parish, and immediately after landing in Kingston I (and a new friend I met along the way in Luxemburg at the airport) took a minibus to Portland and met my friend’s friend.  Thus, I was fortunate to spend a wonderful seven weeks in the Jamaican country-side, and got to know the island from the inside out.  My realization that Jamaica gets the better the longer you stay impelled me to return two years later to spend another vacation there.

At the time, I had begun studies at the University of Munich, and developed an academic interest for International Relations, and in what was then still called “Third World” politics.  Thus, during my second trip to Jamaica, I also engaged in field-work at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, with the aim to collect materials for my planned Master’s thesis which would come to focus on the topic of the Caribbean as a sphere of influence of the United States, choosing Jamaica as a case study.

In 1987 when my course of study came to its conclusion I had to make plans for my immediate future.  Two issues weighed on me at the time.  One, my intention to pursue a doctoral degree, and secondly my looming military service.  In the late 1980s, the German army still had a mandatory conscription for all men reaching their eighteenth birthday and deemed physically fit to serve.  Although I had chosen the constitutionally available path of becoming a conscientious objector, I had been unable to “convince” in two military hearings that I would be qualified for this path.  My civil appeal, which actually was a lawsuit against the Federal Republic of Germany, also ended in a denial.  However, my service had been postponed until I concluded my studies at the university.  Upon the completion of my Master’s degree the very real prospect of getting drafted into the army was not a perspective I found entirely endearing.  I also still held the notion that being in Jamaica gets only better over time, and so I had asked the University of the West Indies what it would take to pursue doctoral studies in Kingston.  When the response came via mail (in those days) it included an application form;  my decision to leave Germany and continue studies in Jamaica was made.

I arrived in Jamaica days before Peter Tosh was slain, and after a few days in a guesthouse (right across from the National Arena where is body lay in state) I was fortunate enough to get a room in the beautiful and brand-new, EU-sponsored, Post Graduate Flats on the August Town side of the campus, where I spent the next several years to study and write until I exhausted my time and had to move off-campus.

The time I spent in Jamaica (I usually refer to it as the seven good years) allowed me to get to know Jamaican and – by extension – Caribbean culture, history, politics, economics, and quotidian life, to an extent and depth that only few people from another part of the world have the privilege to learn.  I am especially happy now to be connected to Jamaica also through the family of my wife’s whom I married in 1993.  When, in August 2010, the Jamaican Honorary Citizenship was conferred to me by the Consulate in New York, it was an especially proud moment in my life.

How did your interest in and commitment to Caribbean Studies evolve?

This is an interesting question that points to my firm belief in the fundamentally inter-disciplinary nature of this field of study.  Clearly, I started out as a political scientist and someone searching to understand international relations through the foreign polices of Jamaica.  However, very early into my doctoral studies it became clear to me that in the context of a developing country foreign policies are conducted differently and have a different – more immediate, if you will – status in the life of the nation, than they have in countries with a more integrated, resource-endowed, complex, and mature economy like Canada, Germany, Switzerland or Norway, for example.  In other words, foreign policy in nations of the South cannot be understood outside of the context of national development and political economy, as well as – often – their political sociology.  Towards the middle and end of my dissertation I began reading not only more deeply into Jamaica’s history, but also into questions of (international) political economy and political culture, as well as meta-theoretical literature dealing with social ontology (Lukács) and epistemology.

Subsequently, there was room for further development after I migrated from Jamaica to the United States.  Arriving and settling in New York/New Jersey I discovered the Caribbean Diaspora as another field of Caribbean Studies, and migration in a wider sense as an important sub-field of International Relations and, in fact, as an avenue to understand the rising importance of globalization in the late 20th and early 21st century.

When did you first join CSA and what did it mean to you then?

My first opportunity to join CSA was the conference in Kingston/Ocho Rios (Jamaica) in 1993.  Reflecting back on it, I recognize it as a catalyst that helped me understand that I was becoming part of a community of scholars, which was a new insights and great motivation.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend conferences in the following years, as I did not have the means to afford this.

My next opportunity was after a six year hiatus the conference in Panama City (1999).  By that time I had somewhat managed to gain a toehold in U.S. academia, working as an assistant editor for Wadabagei: A Journal of the Caribbean and its Diaspora, which I am currently still the editor of.  I remember well carrying a big heavy bag of the journal through the steamy streets of the city to the conference hotel.  More significantly, I met fellow Caribbeanists who had studied with me at Mona, and were now colleagues and friends.  CSA had emerged to become my professional home and a family affair where once a year I would meet friends and make new friends, who shared the same interest and passion for the field of my choice.

Since 1999, I elected to not attend only a very small number of CSA conferences (i.e., 2001 and 2004).

What were your goals for CSA in the year of your presidency?

I had several clear goals for my year, not all of which were reached:  Most importantly, like every president, I was eager to have a successful conference.  Success for the CSA conference is measured by two indicators:  a) a meaningful conference, rich with academic exchanges, and a variety of events appealing across all membership and disciplines;  b) as the conference is (still) our major attraction and source of income, it is important not to run a financial deficit during the conference.

It is easy for a president to become caught up in the planning efforts for the conference.  I had two additional major goals.  One was to give the organization a new, interactive, website with new tools that would allow us as a membership-driven organization to better interface with our membership.  To this end, I charged a Presidential Taskforce to explore available software and internet hosting options, and issue a report which could become the basis for the Executive Council to make a decision.  The second goal was to open up the organization to members of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

The new website has since then been implemented, although it is clearly still a challenging work in progress.  With regard to the second goal, before and during my presidency I traveled – at my own expense  – to several Spanish-speaking locations (e.g., Cartagena, Havana, Santiago de Cuba, San Andres) to show presence during conferences and cultural festivals and establish contacts with academic leaders and organizations in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.  I also issued – already during my year as vice-president – an open letter to Spanish-speaking scholars and institutions of higher education.

During my year in office we also made significant progress towards getting non-profit status for CSA in the United States and in Trinidad.

Finally, an unfinished project that had lingered during several presidencies was the finalization of a new Constitution and set of bylaws.  I take pride in the fact that the new Constitution was passed into effect in June 2011.

What did you recognize to be the greatest obstacles facing CSA and Caribbean Studies during your presidency?

A great challenge was to decide on a conference site and raise sufficient funds to support the conference.  Most presidents decide on the conference site based on their personal relationship with a particular country in the region.  Since I have no ancestral roots in the Caribbean, my only home base would have been Jamaica;  however, we had just had a conference in Kingston two years prior.

As well, I sensed and still see a looming disenchantment among wide sections of our Spanish-speaking membership, who don’t recognize CSA as an intellectual home, to be a (perhaps the) major challenge for CSA.  This is a consequence of our membership being to a large extent from English-speaking countries and more often than not without second or third language capabilities.  The Anglo-dominance in CSA, and a relatively widespread lack of interest among our English-speaking membership in issues of the non-English speaking countries has contributed to the fact that many see themselves insufficiently included.

Another, ongoing, challenge is the fact that we thrive on the volunteerism of a small minority of dedicated and hard-working individuals, many of whom come back year after year to do the yeoman’s work required to organize the conference.  Many others come, participate actively during the conference, give – not always constructive – criticism, but remain unprepared to join the volunteer efforts that carry CSA.  Also, not all who help with organizing the conference and other aspects, have the necessary organizational experience, commitment and leadership skills required at the executive level.  Thus, it also is and remains a significant challenge from year to year to identify an experienced, viable, and willing set of candidates for the position of the president.  This has unfortunately – despite the best efforts of the Executive Council – led to a number of elections in which the position for president only presented one option.  It is clearly an undesirable and sub-optimal situation for CSA.

What did you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of CSA that year?

The Curaçao conference in 2011 brought us to an intensely multi-lingual location in the Dutch-speaking Caribbean that had not hosted the conference in many (i.e., 16) years.  It was good to get back to this corner – at the very doorstep of South America – of the region.  The location was new for many of our members and reintroduced many of our “veterans” to it.

The fact that the conference was planned and executed with the help of a dynamic local committee under the leadership of Dr. Mark Hawkins, that it offered a variety of plenaries, workshops, film presentations and other events appealing to a broad cross-section of our membership, and that – importantly – we emerged from it with a good surplus revenue was a great satisfaction.  That there were no accidents or a major controversy that would upset the individual or collective experience is always a great relief in conferences.  Every president is relieved when it is over without having experienced major “issues.”

As already indicated above, I am also proud that – apart from a successful conference – several other goals were achieved:  a new constitution was ratified, a new internet platform adopted, and our commitment to multi-linguality was significantly reinvigorated.  Members from Spanish-speaking countries (in particular, Colombia, Cuba, and Puerto Rico) re-committed themselves to CSA.  I was particularly happy that when our initial keynote speaker, Prof. Alfonso Munera (Universidad de Cartagena), took ill shortly before the conference and was unable to attend, I was able to find an excellent “second choice” in Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant (Syracuse University), whose heritage and research also straddles the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and who gave an impressive address during our opening ceremony.

Why did you choose the location you did for the CSA annual conference that year?

My initial intention was to go to a Spanish-speaking country in the region, specifically Cuba, which CSA had not had an opportunity to visit since 1991.  However, after discussions with officials in Cuba, as well as with the U.S. State Department, it became clear that 2011 would not be the year that we could return to Cuba.

Since it was clear that Cuba would require an extraordinary effort to be pulled off, I had of course a Plan B (and also a Plan C and, in fact, a Plan D).  The best Plan B option had emerged during the Kingston conference in 2009, when Dr. Hawkins had approached me and indicated Curaçao’s preparedness and interest in hosting the 2011 conference.  After being presented with the available options, and in light of the obvious positive energy coming from Curaçao, I considered it as a very strong Plan B and as soon as a decision was made regarding Cuba was able to implement this option.

The collaboration with the local planning committee in Curaçao was entirely positive and free of unnecessary stress.  We were happy to be able to use a fully equipped, modern conference facility which allowed us to plan well, have sufficient room for all activities and take into account logistical eventualities, and enabled us to have full control over the conference access points.  Also, with several hotels within close vicinity, every conference participant had multiple boarding options.

Where do you hope to see CSA in the next ten years?

Apart from some obvious solutions to issues I mentioned above, I would like in particular to see us become a more engaged, diversified, pro-active, and inclusive organization.  I am convinced that – by far – we have not reached our growth potential as an organization.  Important infrastructural changes were made in recent years (new Constitution, new website, a successful commitment by the past five presidents to run no income-deficit conference/year) which need to be built on.

A new commitment to hold our members to the needs of a multi-lingual conference and organization, with initiatives to facilitate greater linguistic diversity, and a commitment to tangibly support participants from underrepresented countries (in particular, Cuba, Colombia, Haiti, and Guyana), are evidence of our intentionality to improve our inclusiveness.  This, however, is an effort that requires annual renewal and pro-active commitment from new incoming presidents and members of the Executive Council!  Without such commitment these efforts are bound to fade and fail.  At the level of individual membership we need to hold our conference presenters to the established requirement to present parts of their paper in at least one “other” language (either through a parallel Power Point presentation, or by providing a second language synopsis of the presentation).

Secondly, the new website allows for more, and more direct communication with our membership.  It also accommodates the development of interest sections that could organize within CSA.  This opportunity needs to be pursued and shepherded by dedicated members and/or Executive Committee Members.

Thirdly, with our non-profit status in the United States and in Trinidad, it becomes more important for us to become more intentional and deliberate about fundraising outside of our conference.  It is a challenge that the Executive Council and future presidents need to tackle head-on.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film and performing arts track that was developed by President Mohammed (2008-09) is a growth opportunity for us that is in danger of being not recognized as such.  Film (both commercial and documentary) in the region has experienced exponential growth in recent years.  There is no major forum (apart from the annual film festival in Havana) yet in the region where documentaries and relevant film find an annual platform to be presented and discussed by a critical and informed audience, such as our CSA membership.  It would be a tragedy if as an organization we do not take this opportunity and try to make the most of it.  No doubt, it is labor-intensive, and needs a planning committee that is dedicated from year to year to have CSA outfitted with a viable film track that would open the conference to local audiences in an entirely new and unprecedented way.  Apart from opening the conference to new audiences, the film track might also have the potential to become a grant pipeline to the conference and the association.

What is one of your fondest CSA memories?

I don’t feel like there is one singular memory I can point to, but certainly the conference itself is a recurring experience that I greatly cherish.  To have, once a year, the opportunity for intensive intellectual engagement and renewal in my chosen field of studies, and the opportunity to often visit (or visit again) a Caribbean country is an important source of personal fulfillment and professional inspiration.  The conference has also become (for me personally, as for many other members I know) a space where once a year I meet people who I consider good friends, in addition to colleagues in my field.  Finally, the CSA conference is a wonderful opportunity to build your own network and meet new colleagues.

What are you doing now in terms of the Caribbean?

Currently my work in administration has somewhat hampered my research activities and publication agenda.  I have in recent years worked as a consultant for Freedom House, published in non-refereed journals, and continued to serve as editor of Wadabagei.  In 2009, I co-organized together with CSA, the Wilson Center and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung an international symposium “Engaging Cuba: Policy Options for the United States, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere” which was held in Washington (D.C.) on November 16 (http://www.boell.org/ downloads/Henke_CSA_teaming_up.pdf).

For the future, I hope at some point to collate and revisit a number of articles I have published over the years exploring ontology of Caribbean existence and everyday life, and publish it as a book project.

I also am holding on to an article on the deceased German author Hubert Fichte, who – as an openly gay writer-journalist – in the 1970s and 1980s traveled several Caribbean countries (as well as Europe, Africa and Latin America) and insightfully wrote about his travels and experiences (specifically on aspects of culture and everyday life, as well as Caribbean religions).  The paper has been reviewed and revised and I am searching – unsuccessfully so far – for an appropriate opportunity to have it placed in a journal or book.

 Where do you see the future of Caribbean Studies?

It does not really matter where I see the future of Caribbean Studies.  This is for our new membership to determine.  However, I have with great interest observed a growing interest, presence and relevance in Caribbean Studies of gender studies and LGBT issues.

I do hope that the “literary turn” in Caribbean Studies, which is in part a consequence of the marginalization of area studies in the post-Cold War era, as well as of Caribbean Studies getting subsumed in Foreign Language programs or literature departments, will not erase the persistent importance for the region of social sciences (e.g., economics, political science, sociology, demographics, history etc.) and the natural sciences.

As well, it is important that new generations of Caribbeanists actively seek to be interdisciplinary and multi-lingual.  Anything less of that intellectual horizon will be a disservice to the discipline and a perpetuation of the division of the region engendered by the colonial experience.

As the premier professional organization promoting Caribbean Studies it behooves us – both collectively and individually as members – to be multilingual.  As an organization we should partner with language programs throughout the region to offer summer immersion courses for our membership (e.g., in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, etc.).  I had begun conversations along those lines in Colombia and Cuba, but these efforts need to be built upon.  As individual members we should pro-actively pursue second language acquisition and promote it among our students and home institutions.

Finally, as an organization CSA must be continuously open to new trends and directions in the field.

What would you recommend to a young scholar starting in Caribbean Studies?

Young scholars in Caribbean Studies will likely find that they are urged to be visible and present in their disciplinary organizations.  Their home institutions will require that they present papers in annual conferences such as the MLA, APSA, ASA etc., and publish papers in the respective premier journals representing their discipline, in order to achieve reappointment and promotions.  Still, young scholars need to recognize that it will be difficult for them to find another professional organization that will be able to provide an intellectual home and space for annual renewal and fellowship as the CSA is offering through its annual conference.

Recognition, networking opportunities and intellectual discourse in Caribbean Studies is offered nowhere to a greater and deeper extent than in the CSA.  With its annual one-week conference in a Caribbean location, young scholars have an opportunity to meet (other) graduate students, (other) young and active scholars, as well as many established names in the field.

I would advise, however, not only to attend CSA as a consumer (of the conference), but also with an active participation frame of mind.  In a professional association such as ours that thrives on volunteerism there are many valuable opportunities to participate in planning and execution, gain experience and provide service to the discipline, and to become closely networked with many many colleagues in the field.

For me personally, the CSA has become such an intellectual home and space of fellowship that helps me – more than any other conference or professional organization – to connect and reconnect.  As well, I can say that in terms of helping my career in academia CSA has been a space absolutely unrivalled by any other professional organization.  In fact, at this very moment I am no longer a member of, for example, the American Political Science Association, which for many years I thought I needed to be a member of.  I have to stress again, however, that it only became that space for me because I engaged myself in it, rather than just attended it as a passive consumer of what it has to offer.