Second-class citizen, first-class woman

  • Scholarly and uncompromising: Eva Hodgson exposed racial injustice against black Bermudians wherever she found it

    Scholarly and uncompromising: Eva Hodgson exposed racial injustice against black Bermudians wherever she found it

  • Rolfe Commissiong is a government backbencher and the MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21)

    Rolfe Commissiong is a government backbencher and the MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21)

What could I or anyone write about Eva Hodgson that would truly do her justice? I never played marbles with her, as we say in Bermuda. After all, she could give me at least three decades. But we had developed a relationship from the Nineties onward to the point that I ceased many years ago calling her by her formal title of Dr Hodgson. I had earned the right to call her simply “Eva”.

In the annals of our history, there are few persons who we can truly say have defined us and left an indelible mark upon us as a society over the past two centuries. One of those persons is Eva Hodgson.

She was the quintessential racial-justice warrior before the term became fashionable. An icon who shaped an era. Uncompromising in her quest for racial equality for black Bermudians, she sacrificed her career and reputation — except among us — on the altar of her commitment to those principles that still resonate today in the minds and actions of an emerging generation throughout our diaspora.

The recent events in the United States amply demonstrate this in the aftermath of the wanton murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. Note the number of educated and bright young black women at the forefront of the movement to seek justice for Floyd and, more broadly, racial justice throughout America.

They, too, are Eva’s children. She embodied black Bermudian resistance to racial oppression throughout this era.

But let us be under no illusion here: with the news of her passing, there will be hundreds of white Bermudians who will take comfort.

Many of them persons of her generation and a little younger, including Anglo migrants from the 1950s and 1960s, along with white Bermudians of an older vintage who benefited tremendously from a social hierarchy here that was predicated on white privilege and its chief by-product — black disadvantage.

Dr Hodgson’s original sin? Using every opportunity she had to expose it. But also to prescribe the necessary medicine to them and us that was needed to remedy it, such as compensatory, affirmative-action policies.

Public policies still vitally required today.

She grew up in an era that still existed during her early adult life in the 1950s, when Bermudians were inculcated with the notion that slavery was benign here.

From whites, the notion represented validation of an unjust social hierarchy and reinforced the idea of what is called the white man’s burden, which fostered a paternalistic view of their relationship with Bermudians of African descent, some of whom they were related to. And for the black Bermudian, it reinforced psychological, emotional and economic dependency. They were the great father and we but his (bastard) children.

Dr Hodgson, along with Kenneth Robinson and Cyril Packwood — a good friend of hers — would go on to dismantle that insidious, pernicious and damaging notion brick by brick and page by page, and consign it to the dustbin of history.

With their seminal scholarship as historians of the Bermuda experience, Dr Robinson’s Heritage, Dr Packwood’s Chained on the Rock and her groundbreaking debut work, Second Class Citizens First Class Men, forever changed how black and white Bermudians would view each other and our shared history. Others would follow their lead in the succeeding generations, such as the late, great Ira Philip.

There are some who would say that Dr Hodgson was a one-hit wonder with that book, but oh what a hit it was. A classic by any definition.

However, she would go on to have other works published, including the very important Storm in a Teacup about the Theatre Boycott and hundreds of Letters to the Editor and opinion-editorials.

It was an honour to have known her and to have spent hundreds of hours over close to three decades talking to her, debating with her and arguing with her as I explored the contours of her mind, and as she did mine.

What a mind it was. Her fierce intelligence never failed her. We would go on to become friends, plain and simple. No matter how heated our conversations were, we both knew we could return to each other with recent intellectual and ideological battles forgotten. We intrinsically knew that the larger war against racial injustice is what at heart united us.

The two most precious memories of her were in 2001 and 2020.

In 2001, I had the greatest honour of my life in accompanying her and Roosevelt Brown, or Pauulu Kamarakafego as he would come to be known, to Durban, South Africa, to attend the World Conference Against Racism.

That was my first trip to the motherland. All three of us went and proudly participated as delegates of the Pan African Movement with hundreds of other delegates from around the world.

To be in the company of those two icons of our movement was a distinct honour — Roosevelt, through family ties on my mother’s side, who had known me from the time I was a baby, and Dr Hodgson. It was an absolute pleasure to be in their company and especially at that event with members of the African diaspora from around the world. It remains a highlight of my life.

Second, which was the last time I would see Eva, was at the funeral of her dear friend and mine, Veronica Ross, another former educator and lesser-known icon of our movement who passed away last November.

I was not sure that Dr Hodgson would be able to make it, as she was ailing during that period. I was chosen to share some reflections about Ms Ross and our relationship during the funeral service and I took the opportunity on that occasion to inform the assembled gathering that Dr Hodgson because of her ailment would not likely make the funeral of her good friend. But like a miracle, as I was saying this, Dr Hodgson, ever the soldier and looking as radiant and beautiful as ever, could be seen from my vantage point at the podium in a wheelchair being wheeled down the walkway of St James’s Church in Somerset to its entryway by her beloved brother, Arthur.

It was probably the last public event she attended. With awestruck enthusiasm, I then breathlessly, like some ten-year-old boy, announced the (second) coming of our hero.

Dr Hodgson, a grateful community thanks you for all that you did for us. May your valuable legacy live on in our hearts, our minds and our actions. God’s speed, Eva.

Rolfe Commissiong is a government backbencher and the MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21)

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Published Jun 1, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Jun 1, 2020 at 7:39 am)

Second-class citizen, first-class woman

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