It was as a young graduate student that I first met Connie Sutton. It was at the closing conference of the Women in the Caribbean Research Project (WICP) at Sam Lord’s Castle, Barbados in 1982. I remember meeting this beautiful, smartly-dressed professor with a warm smile. Apparently, she had been on the advisory board of this project, the first regional research project on women coordinated by Joycelin Massiah, then head of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados. That would be the beginning of a long and warm friendship and intellectual engagement.
Over the years, 800 Riverside would be my home away from home in New York City as it would be for many in Connie’s network. I would learn so much about Barbados, Malinowski, NYU, Barbados, David, Paule Marshall, Louise Merriwether, … I would also meet and get to know her New York family, most importantly David her beloved son and Tunji her adopted son who was a student at City College when I first met him. I met Antonio even before they were formally together and was impressed with Tony’s wit, intellect and commitment to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. It was not altogether surprising when they came together.
If I were to find one word to describe Connie’s life and work it would be anthropology. Her contemporary life embodied the principles and ideals of many communal pre-modern communities. As in the Caribbean, her kin group extended beyond her consanguine and conjugal relations to include many; making her own contribution to the de-legitimisation of the colonial and imperial concept of ‘fictive kin.’ We were all real kin, this was also probably the reason why she was able to bring me – a lowly sociologist – into her fold. Her real kin would always have a special place in her heart and we would know that.
She was also an engaged and empathetic scholar, developing great admiration for the African market women of Nigeria and people of her community in Barbados. How much did I benefit from the intellectual arguments, discussions and debates that took place around that historic kitchen table? If that table and those chairs could only speak. If like archeologists we could patiently dig between the layers of wood: what a treasure throve of intellectual knowledge we could unearth from the many who have shared - or as Dean, my partner would say – broke bread together around that table. As a news junkie, it was also at that table that I would read her copies of Mother Jones, The Nation, The Amsterdam News, The New Yorker and listen to public radio, some of my simple pleasures in New York.
But as an anthropologist she also influenced her students who are today flag-bearers for the discipline and a virtual Who’s Who of scholars and professionals. Connie was not just their supervisor and intellectual guide and a brilliant one at that, she was also their friend and, in the end, they became most certainly family. As an engaged scholar Connie was not only interested in the scholarship, although quality scholarship was most certainly her concern (especially policing the boundaries of anthropology, when others she felt were blurring and extending them so much that the core of the discipline could be lost). She was also more than just an activist, although I know of her participation in demonstrations and financial support to numerous causes. She actually loved and cared about people as individuals, in a very real way. People in her family, in the field, in her classes, in her building. We were not simply to be known but importantly to be cared about. She had a knack of sharing herself with others yet not losing her essential core or personal integrity.
There are of course many stories which will be shared at this time of how she impacted each of our lives. Eudine Barriteau, current Principal of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus in response to my informing her of Connies’ passing noted that “Because of a discussion I had with her in 1993/94 I started the project Caribbean Women Catalysts for Change.” This project documented the life of important Caribbean women through research, analysis, collection of their papers. This collection is hosted at the UWI Cave Hill Library. The first women to be so documented was Dame Nita Barrow, someone for whom Connie had great respect and love and who became the first female Governor General of Barbados. I have my own story of how she and Antonio invited me to successfully apply for the Rockefeller Residency Fellowship to the Women’s Studies Program, Hunter College of CUNY, in 1991-1992. It was during that year that after ten years, I was finally able to complete the book out of my dissertation. That book Women, Labour and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago: A History published in 1994, went on to be named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book for 1996 and is now in over 350 libraries worldwide.
In a way Connie’s passing marks the start of a new Post-Connie phase of my life and I am still processing this. I am eternally grateful for the years of friendship, guidance, mentorship and love that she shared with me and with Dean. I thank David for sharing her with all of us and Tunji for being such support. Thanks to Antonio for the love and support that he provided to her and to all of us. We are all so much better, having been touched by her awesome life.
Trinidad and Tobago
25, August 2018