Just eleven days ago, I posted the second part of Professor Bernard Headley’s article about family and migration – written against the background of the “Windrush scandal” in the UK. He was very happy to see both pieces published; we had been communicating via email over the last few weeks about it.
Then, on Friday afternoon, I learned (via Twitter) that Professor Headley had passed away in his hometown of Mandeville (where he attended high school and junior college at West Indies College, now Northern Caribbean University).
My heart jumped and then sank. Could this really be true? I knew that he had been ailing for some time; but I also knew he did not want to talk about it. He was just very focused on the things he cared deeply about and needed to think and write about. Family history was clearly on his mind, of late; and, as always, the struggle for identity and dignity of the Jamaican people. In particular, Professor Headley concerned himself with the plight of deportees – mostly Jamaican men, who get off the plane at Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport, trying to keep their heads held high.
I first met Professor Headley when I was working at the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Office. He was a Fulbright Professor. He would sit and chat, always providing insights from his research and from his personal experience working with deportees. He was the kind of person you always enjoyed talking to. The Professor Emeritus of Criminology at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona campus (he retired in 2012) had a wealth of knowledge. He was a graduate advisor at UWI. He was a tenured Professor of Sociology and Justice Studies at Northeastern Illinois University from 1983 to 2002, having obtained his Masters and Doctorate in Sociology at Howard University in 1977 and 1979.
When I posted news of Professor Headley’s passing on my Facebook page, there were many sad comments from people who knew him. “One of the most genuine lecturers I had…very brilliant & humble man,” said one. “He really cared for the well being of his students.” A member of the security forces commented: “I am saddened by this news, Professor Headley was a gentle giant who had so much more to offer to mankind. RIP Prof.” He was described as “such a beautiful person,” and human rights activist Carolyn Gomes described him as “a real gentleman.”
In the past few years, Professor Headley had contributed a number of articles to the Jamaica Gleaner, on topics ranging from the 2010 incursion in Tivoli Gardens to the British Government’s offer to build a prison. In April, he echoed my feelings about this obsession with a “crime plan” thus:
My hope is that Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his Government are taking their time to systematically, comprehensively and compassionately understand and dissect the complexity of our crime problem, and not hastily come up with some simplistic and tedious ‘crime plan’. I truly hope that they are bringing the weight of their collective wisdom to see that our crime problem stems from the structural deficits of our society, the one that Great Britain in 1962 gave us full charge to create.
Last year, I also posted his article decrying the security forces’ regular practice of blaming current crime waves on deportees, in which he points to the fact that the group he co-founded and chaired, the National Organisation of Deported Migrants (NODM) was inspired by another much-loved and respected deportee, National Hero Marcus Mosiah Garvey.
According to the Gleaner, Professor Headley was 72 years old. He died from a neurological disease called ALS. My heart is heavy, and I am remembering his gentle, wry smile and his deep voice. He was a kind man.
I am sending my deepest and most sincere condolences to his family. He will be deeply missed by many.