Hilary Robertson-Hickling, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in Human Resource Management in the Department of Management Studies at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. Her research in the UK and in Jamaica focuses on the need to foster resilience in Caribbean populations at home and abroad, and the significance to the region of economic development and prosperity. She has lived and studied abroad in Birmingham, England, and Palmerston, North New Zealand. She sat down with Baldhead Empress right before the start of the North American tour for her first book, White Squall on the Land: Narratives of Resilient Caribbean People. She is a frequent contributor to the Jamaica Gleaner on topics of self-sufficiency, and is at work on her second book, A Capacity for Reinvention: Organizational and National Resilience in Jamaica @50.
Birthplace: Montego Bay, Jamaica
Home Town: Kingston, Jamaica
Occupation: Lecturer, the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus, Kingston, Jamaica
Favorite Music Album: Black Gold by Nina Simone. I love Nina Simone because of her singing and her story. And we have the same birthday.
When I am not working I am … thinking and reflecting—and sometimes laughing.
Baldhead Empress: What is the most transformative book you’ve read?
Hilary Robertson-Hickling: Pig Tails ‘N Breadfruit: A Culinary Memoir by Barbadian author Austin Clarke. There is a line in the book that describes the uncertainty that plagues Black people’s lives. Enslaved people were always hungry. They didn’t know if the boats would come from abroad with provisions, and they could not be sure of the supply of food on the plantation. Hunger was a driving force; there was always a fear they would not have enough to eat.
BE: What are some of the best lessons your parents taught you?
HRH: My father taught me never to be beholden to people. My mother liked to quote the Jamaican saying “ ‘fraid fi eye cyan eat head.” (If you are afraid of the eye you can’t eat the head, a reference to consuming the more nutritious parts of a fish.) When you lack the courage to tackle a challenge, address your fear or you will lose out on bigger opportunities down the line. And this saying must be from an African proverb: “In the noise of the market, be sure to collect your correct change.” My parents between them had so many sayings that at some point I will have to record them.
BE: What would you like women around the world to know about Jamaican women?
HRH: We are made of flesh and blood. We care for others, but we also need care.
BE: What was your impetus for writing of White Squall on the Land?
HRH: I was encouraged by my husband, Fred Hickling, M.D., and my colleague at UWI, Dr. Lou Anne Barclay, who published her thesis. Typically the knowledge we unearth in a dissertation goes before a small committee and stays there. As academics we must seek knowledge not just for our own sake; we must apply that knowledge to our community. As a Black woman and a Pan Africanist I wanted to share White Squall on the Land with the people who were sources for the book, and also to encourage young Black people to overcome adversity.
BE: If there is just one central lesson that you hope readers will take away from White Squall on the Land, what is it?
HRH: We have to continue our history of making things happen, no matter what the odds are. We have a past, a present and a future of victory over adversity. The next generation will have to do their bit. As we can see from the Trayvon Martin case, and a multitude of other issues, adversity is not in short supply.
BE: What can non-academics do with the issues raised in your book?
HRH: Find the knowledge that empowers you to get things done. Don’t fall into despair and allow “the system” to beat you, because that is what it will do. Reach deeply into our history. But you have to first know it. The excavation of our history—the mistakes, triumphs, and tragedies—helps us to stand tall. The late journalist Gil Noble, whom I met en route to Cuba many years ago, and again in Trelawny, Jamaica, some years later, was deeply committed to this excavation.
BE: In light of the fact that 80 percent of Caribbean tertiary students will migrate, should there be some kind of regional movement to retain these individuals?
HRH: We need to cooperate across the Caribbean Diaspora; there needs to be a regional response. We have to identify what is beneficial and strategic, and also what does not work. We have to practice managed migration. For example, all Caribbean nurses cannot be recruited overseas. Right now some Caribbean nurses work in emergency rooms in Florida on the weekend, and then return home [to full-time jobs].
Lowell Hawthorne, who runs Golden Krust bakery, is actively involved in providing opportunities for students through his family’s foundation. In 1949 his father established a bakery in Jamaica using a family recipe. Three generations of Hawthornes have managed what is today Golden Krust, one of the largest restaurant franchises dedicated to Caribbean fare in North America.
We have to work together for the common good. Irish and Jewish people are among the groups who have worked strategically within their respective diasporas. In many cases Caribbean people, like Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey, have had to travel abroad to see the conditions there, and then return to Jamaica recommitted to development at home.
BE: With migration being an increasing part of Caribbean life, what can we do to maintain emotionally healthy families?
HRH: We have to treat our relationships with one another as if we have taken [marriage] vows: In sickness and in health. We have to visit with one another, to celebrate graduations and birthdays, and other important moments in our families.
In addition to all her accolades, Hilary is my senior cousin. Her mother is my beloved eldest paternal Aunt, Amy McCourtie Robertson. Tall and striking, Hilary has been painted by the legendary Jamaican fine artist Albert Huie—very establishment. Conversely, as a child in the 1970s I remember her wrapping herself in one long piece of African fabric and promptly trotting off to her prom. Her entire pre-event preparation took about 15 minutes, and I am sure that she turned every head in the room. I also remember Hilary in the 1980s zipping around town in her Lada car, which was about the size of a medium refrigerator. Always on the move, she is the go-to person for poetry readings, book signings, plays and myriad other cultural happenings when I am in Jamaica. Hilary’s friends come from all walks of life and she keeps them for a lifetime. She is a committed member and former elder of Scots Kirk Presbyterian Church in Kingston, a true family person, a true people person, and someone who is never at a loss for words. Hilary Robertson-Hickling is someone who has always marched to her own beat, and for that reason, it is my honor to feature her as Baldhead Empress’s first Global Woman.