With a Jamaican-Italian heritage and a childhood spent in London and the United States, Carolina’s academic journey has been shaped by a profound interest in history, identity, and race. Her passion lies in unearthing hidden stories, amplifying marginalized voices, and critically examining the power dynamics within historical narratives as well in international affairs today. Carolina is an active member of our Global Fellowship Program(1).
Missions Publiques. You grew up in London with an Italian mother and Jamaican father, and you developed an early interest in history, identity, and race. Could you tell us more about what sparked this interest and how it has shaped your academic journey?
Carolina Earle. Growing up in London with a Jamaican-Italian heritage, questions of identity, race, and history have always intrigued me. When I lived in the United States for four years during my childhood, I became acutely interested in African American history in particular, and how this past could explain so much of the present I was experiencing. This, in turn, fed into a long-standing desire to explore the different histories, historical narratives, and perspectives that exist. Upon returning to the UK, I decided to study History and English at university, believing that – beyond explicit narratives – it was crucial to investigate what is often left unsaid in historical accounts. Looking at archives for the silences, the absences, I enjoyed opposing different sources with completely different narratives about a historical moment in time and trying to uncover what the implications were in the telling. For me, history was not only about uncovering the “truth” but more about investigating whose truths are spoken, why, and what was not being said.
One area of historical interest for me was the Windrush era, a moment of important migration post-WWII where many immigrants from Jamaica arrived in the UK in the 1950s. My own grandparents were part of that call to the so-called “Motherland,” and, for my thesis, I had wanted to explore the dreams people had when they migrated, whether those dreams were shattered or fulfilled, and why some chose to return to Jamaica despite their initial aspirations.
“Such encounters, though disheartening, reinforced my conviction in amplifying marginalized voices to gain a deeper understanding of the history that is told, and the history that is left untold.
Missions Publiques. Yet, you encountered some resistance when you expressed your desire to investigate your research and pursue a thesis. Why?
Carolina Earle. While discussing my research interests with my personal tutor at the time, I expressed my desire to focus on this moment of migration and the Jamaican community in Wales. Whilst thinking through this idea, I was reminded not to write the ‘classic’ story of immigrants moving from “sunny Jamaica” to “sad cold rainy England.” This encounter has stuck with me and the stereotyped and narrow vision within academia by top historians, illustrated to me why it is crucial to continue critically approaching history and texts. The stories we tell are not neutral, are plural, and it is clear that history is far more complex than a simple narrative of moving from one place to another. By disregarding the trauma and difficulties that many people experienced and went through, we risk perpetuating an incomplete and inaccurate understanding of the past. Such encounters, though disheartening, reinforced my conviction in amplifying marginalized voices to gain a deeper understanding of the history that is told, and the history that is left untold.
I was lucky that my History degree was joint with one in English Language and Literature. Literature has been a valuable tool for me to access and understand something of the lived experiences of people through time. And furthermore, through fiction, authors have the power to imagine different realities and offer poignant and creative explorations of feeling and character which enables readers to dream and empathise, and critically appraise the world around them. I have been particularly interested in the relationship between writing, language, and colonialism. What does it mean to write in English? Should you write in English? How did culture advance the colonial project, and to what extent do colonial residues shape the culture around us? How does the language that I was taught influence the way I think?
Writing in English, especially within the context of colonialism, raises questions about the power dynamics of oppression and the influence of language on our ability to act. Language is not neutral; it carries the weight of historical oppressions. By critically examining the language we are taught and the language we choose to use, we can challenge and subvert these dynamics.
After my B.A., my pursuit of a master’s degree in international affairs stemmed from a deep desire to make a positive difference looking forward to the future. And as much as I could muster, not in a paternalistic way, but by actively listening and using my privileges to empower others. Understanding how different histories and traumas have shaped societies is crucial for dismantling oppressive systems and promoting a future filled with a little more love and joy.
I believe that language, stories and history — and clearly, the power intertwined in these — have a profound impact on our future. They shape the narratives and beliefs that influence our actions and policies. By critically examining the past, we can better understand the present and shape a more inclusive and equitable future.
Missions Publiques. Today you are studying ongoing traumas and the pressing need to break cycles through monuments. Tell us about this research.
Carolina Earle. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot eloquently articulated in “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History,” the official end of slavery in the United States does not negate its existence in various complex forms, including institutionalized racism and cultural denigration of blackness. Slavery becomes a ghost, simultaneously the past and a living presence, making its representation particularly burdensome. Therefore, it is essential to engage in dialogue, actively memorialize history through art and monuments, and uplift the voices and narratives that challenge oppressive systems.”
Monuments play a significant and complicated role in this process. They are subject to interpretation, appropriation, and reinterpretation by individuals and communities over time. While tearing down statues has importantly gained attention in recent years, it is also important to consider – moving forward – who has a hold over the funding, artistic processes, et al. in building new monuments. What are the and broader implications that emerge? Monuments can be seen as icons, expressions of political power, and their presence can perpetuate violence as they act as markers of a past that has not been adequately investigated. However, alternative types of monuments might just operate differently, providing a space for catharsis, honor, and public acknowledgment.
One poignant example, for me at least, is “The Ark of Return” at the UN headquarters in NYC, designed by Rodney Leon. This memorial serves as a sacred space, facilitating psychological and spiritual transport for visitors to a place of acknowledgement, education, reflection, and healing from the massacres and vestiges of three transatlantic slave trade. Evaluating people’s reactions and interactions with monuments like this one can yield valuable insights. Does it provide strength and catharsis? Does it help individuals feel seen and validated? If so, can we encourage the creation of new statues and monuments, fostering more spaces for reflection and healing?
When asking such questions on the “Ark of Return” it was interesting that access to this monument was hindered by physical barriers. To access the monument, you need to pass stringent security gates, erected after the 9/11 attacks. Such restrictions alert us to the meaning of public and private space, and how the material world structures our psychosocial existences. From the written text to the material to the silent passages in between paragraphs and buildings, our word is ripe for a deeper look and for an ever-more beautiful and inclusive rewriting.