For Brian Meeks, the decision to focus much of his academic research on Caribbean politics was a personal one. The son of parents of Caribbean descent, Meeks was born in Montreal, but spent the majority of his life in Jamaica. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, he witnessed firsthand the difficulties many countries in the region faced in the post-independence era and became politically active in social movements while a student at the University of West Indies. But when several protestors, as well as the prime minister, were killed during the 1983 revolution on the island of Grenada, Meeks’ interest shifted almost immediately from activism to the academy.
“I wanted to understand what had happened. How was it that something that had started with the best of intentions had ended up in a tragic situation?” he asks.
Meeks wrote his dissertation at the University of West Indies on the topic, earning his Ph.D. in government. It was one of the first academic papers focused on the events in Grenada.
Since then, much of Meeks’ work has focused on questions of social and political change and the political and social theories used to interpret change, from liberalism to Marxism to post-structuralism. Meeks doesn’t define himself squarely as either a political economist or theorist, instead choosing to operate in several areas of research at once.
“In fact, I get published more in sociological and anthropological journals than I do in political science journals,” he says with a laugh. “I’m less empirically driven than many of the colleagues in my field.”
A prolific writer and occasional poet, Meeks has authored and edited 11 books and numerous articles. He’s a scholar of Stuart Hall, a fellow Jamaican and scholar of cultural studies in the United Kingdom, and the editor of a collection of Hall’s work.
Meeks is also the co-editor of a series of books exploring the work of influential thinkers from his native region called “Caribbean Reasonings.”
“I have a special role, because of where I come from, to focus on the scholars from that region who have made an international impact, but they are also tremendously important wherever they come from in terms of defining contemporary social and political thought.”
Another of Meeks’ recently published works, a book titled Critical Interventions in Caribbean Politics and Theory, is a 15-year retrospective of his own work. It’s a collection of theoretical articles in which Meeks argues for his own approach to interpreting historical events in the region.
“I’m quite proud of the collection because even though the articles were written for specific purposes, they come together as a body of work that captures my evolution and hopefully gives a useful interpretation of how to look at the Caribbean.”
Meeks is at work on a capstone article for a book on the unique Westminster political systems of the Anglophone Caribbean.
“They’ve led to a very contestational, very aggressive, what we call tribal politics,” Meeks says. “If you belong to a particular party, you defend it for better or worse, which kind of sounds like American politics today.”
Meeks comes to Brown from the University of the West Indies where he was the director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies.
At Brown, he’ll swap that role for new administrative responsibilities as chair of the Department of Africana Studies, a new setting that he’s eager to use in pursuing his work.
“Africana studies at Brown is a unique institution. There is not another comparable institution like it that I know of in the United States and perhaps in the world that has both a strong footing in the hardcore social sciences but also a theatre with all of the potential for the production of plays and the interaction between teaching and drama.”
He’ll settle into his new chair position before beginning to teach in the spring.
His first class at Brown will be a comparative course on the political and social movements in the Caribbean and United States in the ’70s and ’80s.
“There was an entire movement for change which dovetailed with things that were happening in the rest of the world with the Black Power and Peace movements in the United States. The English-speaking Caribbean as a whole was connected to these issues by virtue of people, language, history, and culture.”
Meeks also hopes to find time to visit the John Carter Brown Library, where he can explore its broad range of materials focused on the 17th- and 18th-century Caribbean.
“I look forward to finding some time in between all of this to just sit and browse.”