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Upcoming conference shines light on growing movement for Caribbean studies at Princeton

An ivy-covered building with brightly lit benches and a bike rack in front
The exterior of Morrison Hall, which houses the Office of Admissions. 
Jean Shin / The Daily Princetonian.

“Just because you’re from this ‘small place’ doesn't mean that you can't have a ‘big future,’” said Princeton Caribbean Connection (PCC) co-president Isabel Matthews ’26 in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “There are opportunities for [Caribbean students] to pursue what they want to pursue in whichever field that they're in. It's possible to do that within the Caribbean, but also for the Caribbean.”

PCC is set to host its first academic conference since 2006 on Saturday, Nov. 11 as part of PCC’s ongoing advocacy to grow Caribbean studies at Princeton. 

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The conference is called “Small Places, Big Futures,” in reference to Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid’s book “A Small Place,” which was featured on the reading list for a course last spring, LAO 265: Caribbean Diasporas. It will take place from 10 a.m. to 5:00 p.m in Robertson Hall.

Filling the gap in Caribbean Studies at Princeton

Founded in 2003, PCC seeks to “[foster] a vibrant community that recognizes and appreciates the academic potential of the Caribbean’s future.” 

Co-President Kimberly Cross ’25 said the conference aims to fill a gap in Princeton’s academic curriculum, which students say predominantly focuses on the region in relation to Hispanic Latin America or the United States, thereby limiting resources for interests in Anglophone, Francophone, and Dutch-speaking Caribbean nations. 

“[PCC’s members] are really doing this not because they’re going to graduate with a Caribbean Studies certificate, but instead because they are so serious about what the field means, both academically and personally to them. They’re willing to do this work and hope that students [in the future] will have that Caribbean studies certificate,” said Reena Goldthree, an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies who focuses on the history of Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Goldthree added that she is “amazed that this group of students have really been at the forefront of pushing the conversation forward for Caribbean Studies and organized the conference that will happen [this] weekend.”

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The conference’s four panels will bring in speakers from professionals within and outside the University to discuss STEM, economic development, politics and law, and the creative arts in the Caribbean. Cross noted that a majority of the conference will occur in Robertson Hall's Arthur Lewis Auditorium, named for the University’s first Black full professor — a man of St. Lucian heritage. 

“Overall, these panels are just trying to touch on different parts of the Caribbean that really aren’t explored here,” Cross said. “A lot of the things that are explored at Princeton are from a historical lens of slavery or US occupation, but there isn't any exploration of what's happening now. What about STEM in the Caribbean? What about the businesses in the Caribbean? What about the politicians and new leaders in the Caribbean? What about the artists and the creators in the Caribbean?” 

Goldthree noted that most students will go through their entire high school and college careers without taking a course focused on the Caribbean, but will instead learn about the Caribbean through either a “tourist gaze” of beaches and enjoyment, or a “disaster framework” in the wake of events like Hurricane Maria or catastrophic earthquakes. 

“And neither one of those are particularly useful for actually understanding Caribbean societies,” she said. “The Caribbean provides a remarkably rich space for us to think about all of the major processes that have shaped the Western Hemisphere since 1492. We can learn so much by really seriously engaging with the Caribbean as a site of knowledge production beyond those really limiting frameworks.

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Matthews, of Jamaican heritage, recognizes that the tourism industry is Jamaica’s livelihood, and “[sells] the Caribbean to be this beautiful tourist destination, because it’s what we thrive off of.”

“But academia is like a space where we don't have to worry about [advertising] anything,” she said. Instead, she hopes that the PCC conference is a chance to “realize that there are people [in the Caribbean] with lives and real world problems.”

“We should be worth the trouble of talking about,” Matthews said. “Just like how we talk about the problems of every other country, Caribbean countries and people deserve the same respect for talking about it outside of [a tourist] advertisement perspective.”

The fifth panel — “What is the Future of Caribbean Studies at Princeton?” — features Cross, Annabelle Haynes GS, Avanequé Pennant ’24, and Ariel Sylvain ’26 to discuss limitations and possibilities for Caribbean studies at the University.

“Right now, you have to search in the [African American Studies] or Latin American or History departments, and it’s like a scavenger hunt to find courses and professors,” Cross said. “Why do Caribbean students or people interested in the Caribbean have to do this scavenger hunt to just find a course? Why is there not a concentrated area where we can just find everything that we're looking for?”

Challenges in exploring the Caribbean region 

Goldthree considers Caribbean studies at Princeton to be a “small but growing area,” with most courses offered through interdisciplinary departments such as African American Studies, Latin American Studies, Spanish and Portuguese (SPO), and French and Italian.

Caribbean studies offerings are more sparse “in some of the larger departments like SPIA, politics, history, philosophy, [and] religion,” she said. “I think students who are pursuing concentrations in that kind of traditional discipline, but have an interest in the Caribbean, often find themselves in a precarious position.”

Cross initially considered majoring in Politics, but found that African American Studies offered more flexibility and exposure to Caribbean scholars.   

Last year, PCC created an anonymous survey to “assess the opinions of Caribbean students and those with an interest in Caribbean studies regarding how the Caribbean is currently integrated into Princeton's curriculum,” according to the survey. 

Based on the results, Cross said that all of the 22 respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “Princeton Caribbean course offerings are limited, lacking and needs improvement,” and 21 respondents reported that they would pursue a Caribbean studies certificate if offered at Princeton. However, respondents had mixed feelings on how the African American Department and Latin American Studies Program “capture” their study of the Caribbean.

“Another concern that I’ve heard from students is that in terms of the courses that are offered in the field of Caribbean Studies, most tend to focus on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, in particular, Cuba,” Goldthree said. She said this is, in part, because Cuba is the largest Caribbean nation and the Cuban Revolution is of particular interests to scholars. 

Rachel Price, an Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, has a particular focus on Cuban literature and has taught SPA 316: Caribbean Currents for the past two academic years. 

“Though my own research focuses on the Caribbean, we tend to teach pretty widely in [SPO]. But I realized I wanted to do something closer to home,” she said. “As I put the course together, I also thought there wasn't that much, surprisingly, being offered in Caribbean stuff. I thought [Caribbean Currents] would fill a need in the department.”

Matthews is currently enrolled in Goldthree’s seminar AAS 322: Afro-Diasporic Dialogues: Black Activism in Latin America and the United States, which she describes as an “all-encompassing” view of the Caribbean. 

“One of the things that I tried to do in my own teaching, is to teach across the linguistic divide in the Caribbean,” Goldthree said. “All of my courses include content on the English-speaking, French-speaking, and Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and I encourage students to think comparatively across those linguistic boundaries, about the shared historical processes. Perhaps the most neglected is the Dutch Caribbean. I don't know if there's a single course on campus that's dealing with the Dutch Caribbean.” 

The future of Caribbean studies at Princeton

New courses listed for this spring that reference Caribbean content or countries in their course descriptions include: AAS 354: Black Latinidad — from Frederick Douglass to Cardi B and LAO 359: Tropical Fantasies — The Hispanic Caribbean and Haiti in the Global Imaginary.

Returning courses include FRE 376: Haiti — History, Literature, and Arts of the First Black Republic and HIS 539: Afro-Atlantic Lives: Slavery in Latin America.

Goldthree said that “the University still has a ways to go in terms of developing Caribbean Studies,” but that recent hires, including Lorgia García Peña and Yarimar Bonilla, speak to the field’s growth at Princeton. She added that gathering the infrastructure for a minor program would involve the “standard bureaucratic thinking” of what department would house the minor, core courses, and questions about how to garner institutional resources. 

“I think those are all the next steps on the horizon,” she said. “But again, I’m just so proud and inspired by [PCC students] for all the work that they’ve done. And it's exciting, because I do feel Caribbean Studies is growing here at Princeton.”

Elisabeth Stewart is a contributing News writer for the 'Prince.'

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.