Nikoli Attai celebrated in MENtions – Stories About Us

Nikoli Attai had a choice when he earned three CXC passes. He could either be demotivated or encouraged to do better. He found a renewed desire to succeed. After earning some more passes, things started to look up and he earned a spot in an A level class. He is now Dr. Nikoli Attai and holds the prestigious Provost’s Black Postdoctoral Fellow position at the University of Toronto, Canada where he is writing his first book about sexual politics in the Caribbean. He’s also working on several community projects. This is what he told MENtions about his journey and his current passions.

Growing up, I had the best of multiple worlds. I spent most of my childhood between Arima, La Pastora and Cumana. My fondest childhood memories were made in those communities. I had so much fun straddling the fast-paced town life and fun country days by the sea, river and in the bush.

My childhood was pretty typical and similar to that of the other people around me. I was not the brightest student in my class nor was I as sharp as my siblings. I remember a few weeks before the Common Entrance Exam in 1996, my Standard five teacher, Mr. Ramcharan called my mother frantically because he was concerned that I would be his first student in years to fail the exam. However, I shocked everyone, even myself, when I passed for Northeastern College in Sangre Grande.

“I was content to accept my fate”

I had a great time at Northeastern College but due to many circumstances, including lack of proper mentorship and little desire to succeed, I failed miserably and only obtained three CXC passes: in History, Geography and English Language. I was content to accept my fate, but my mother ensured that I didn’t slip through the cracks. She enrolled me in a private school where I gained two other passes: in Social Studies and Mathematics. From there, things began to look up. I went St Augustine Senior Comprehensive to pursue A Levels and then on to university.

During my undergraduate days at The UWI, Mona, Jamaica, I believe I peaked academically. I was surrounded by great teachers, mentors and students and I was able to explore my interests and talents. I even became the President of the Trinidad and Tobago Students’ Association and coordinated a mentorship programme between the residents of the Rex Nettleford Hall and Mona High School.

Doing that programme was important to me because I saw myself in many of these students who were hungry for mentorship and guidance as they navigated high school and the stresses of their teenage experience. In 2008, I returned to Trinidad and completed a Master of Philosophy degree in Cultural Studies at The UWI St Augustine in 2013. That same year, I moved to Toronto to begin a Ph.D. in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto. I completed that programme in 2019.

If you asked me as a teenager what I wanted to be I would have said a Veterinarian because of my love for animals. However, one encounter with a Science teacher in Form three, changed my mind. I recall sitting in a classroom where Black students were called “worthless”, “dunce” and “a waste of time”. I decided then that the teacher would never teach me again. That affected my ability to receive any knowledge that was being imparted.

“Not all mentors fit one narrow mold”

There are many mentors and role models at our disposal, but we need to understand that they do not always fit one narrow mold. Not all mentors wear suits or have big, fancy jobs. One of my biggest mentors was my neighbour, Uncle Nello, who was a garbage collector and taxi driver. He taught me how to value family and the importance of living a simple life. As Black men, we also need to accept that. We need to realise that even if we don’t want to acknowledge it, we are role models to others. This is a responsibility that we must take seriously to ensure that we help to nurture new generations of Black men who understand themselves and those around them. There are many ways to channel productive masculinity.

“We are all affected by structures of control”

Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I’d be a teacher and researcher; studying and writing about the ways that queer people create community and a sense of belonging in the Caribbean despite homophobia, transphobia and discrimination. However, some unexpected opportunities while working on a local sexual culture project with Professor Rhoda Reddock, then Deputy Principal at The UWI St Augustine, really encouraged me to pursue this field. I realised that we are all affected by structures of control in this place regardless of who we are attracted to, how we identify, where we are from and what people think of us.

“We cannot allow it to define us”

I am very fortunate to have been afforded the opportunities that I have received thus far. In addition to my academic endeavours, I am exploring other exciting ways to share my knowledge and talents by working with various community groups in Arima, in Trinidad and around the Caribbean. This is important because I believe that our current political, cultural and social systems work against Black people, especially Black people from under-served communities. This, I believe is the case even in T&T. The recent protests after the killing of the three black men in Morvant, said a lot.

Morvant and Laventille continue to be criminalized as spaces of unproductivity and danger when in fact what we see is the ongoing denigration of Black people who are victims of a racist system. This system continues to determine our opportunities, or lack thereof, based on all the negative stereotypes we can think of. The lead up to and aftermath of the recently-concluded 2020 General Election has also shown just how Afro-Trinbagonians are perceived by others. The anti-Black racism we are experiencing right now is so disheartening because it reminds me that although we live in a so-called “callaloo nation” where Afro-Trinbagonian culture is celebrated, other ethnic groups seem empowered to spew anti-Black hatred. But we must understand that we cannot allow these acts to define us. We have to change it because until the racist mindset is changed, Black people, and especially Black men will continue to swim against the current.

“Claim your victories along the way”

To that young man who may be confused, I want to encourage you to find your passion and devise a plan to achieve your goals. Seek out mentors and role models who will guide you properly and never be afraid to ask for advice or help. As is my experience, where you want to go, may not be where you will end up but trust the process and claim your victories along the way.

Dr. Nikoli Attai holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media and Communication, a Master of Philosophy in Cultural Studies and a Doctor of Philosophy in Women and Gender Studies. Two nuggets of wisdom that are close to his heart are “study every day of your life; don’t cram!” and “live life and live life, good.” He believes that “no man is an island and we must foster productive relationships with those around us so that we can truly enjoy this life we’ve been given.” Nikoli is forever grateful for his mentors, those named and those unnamed.

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