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Identity and Caribbean Literature

A lecture delivered to the Japanese Black Studies Association at Nara Women's College, Nara, Japan

By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: June 24, 2001

In a wondrous introduction to Party Politics in the West Indies, C. L. R. James, one of the most distinguished thinkers of the modern Caribbean, made the following statement about the people of the Anglophone Caribbean: "People of the West Indies, you do not know your own power. No one dares to tell you. You are a strange, a unique combination of the greatest driving force in the world today, the underdeveloped formerly colonial coloured peoples; and more than any of them, by education, way of life and language, you are completely part of Western civilization. Alone of all people in the world you began your historical existence in a highly developed modern society-the sugar plantation.

All those who would say or imply that you are in any way backward and therefore cannot in a few years become a modern advanced people are your enemies, satisfied with the positions that they hold and ready to keep you where you are forever." James made this statement in 1961. It is part of the explanation of why he left the People's National Movement.

Some years, David Lichenstein reminded us of the contention of Britannica Online that the Caribbean possessed "no indigenous tradition" in writing . . . . The civilization that was to replace the Indians, made up of several different West African peoples brought to the West Indies as slaves, did not possess a written tradition of it own-nor was it allowed to develop one while it suffered in bondage. But the Africans did in some measure pass on a culture of orality, of storytelling and song-a culture that writers like Kamau Brathwaite point to as evidence of and African heritage in the Caribbean."

He goes on to argue that the first literary breakthrough in literature came in the French and Spanish islands in the works of Aime Cesaire of Martinique, Luis Pales Matos of Puerto Rico, Jacques Roumain of Haiti, Nicolas Guillen of Cuba and Leon Damas of French Guyana, "the first to carve out a distinctive Caribbean literary identity. This identity was based not on European ideals but on links between black communities in the Caribbean. The British West Indies did not really pick up this challenge until after World War 11. With the growth of newly independent states like Barbados, Trinidad, and Jamaica, Anglophone writers finally began to develop a tradition that focused on a distinctly Caribbean consciousness." Pioneers in this movement, he argued, include Vic Reid (New Day), George Lamming (In the Castle of My Skin) and Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas.

If we follow these two contradictory tendencies (that of James and Britannica Online) we identify two approaches to the literature: one that asserts the uniqueness of the Caribbean story and another that suggests that nothing indigenous came out of the Caribbean until the 1930s. More importantly, the latter interpretation makes a great distinction between the oral and written traditions and places little value on the oral tradition. Such a dramatic distinction is not especially meaningful since many aspects of the oral dimensions of the tradition turns up in the written work and possess much more meaning to the masses than they do to the literati. More importantly, in the Caribbean, one must define what one means by literature and how it manifests itself in our context.

In "Making Love Across the Atlantic: Nineteenth Century Trinidad Narratives in their International Contexts," I have suggested that a tradition of Anglophone writing that began much earlier than the 1930s and one that involves a much more complex imbrications of the oral and the written. Suffice it to say that the tradition is much deeper and much more complex than most critics suggest. Necessarily, any new criticism within the field must revolve around an understanding what constitutes literature especially as we try to understand our position in the global economy. Indeed, if literature mirrors or signifies for the emotional consciousness of a people, then an examination of the literature raises the question: how have we depicted our situatedness in our new world through our literature?

In speaking of identity and the Anglophone Caribbean literary experience, it is necessary to emphasize that all such discussions/analyses should include the experiences of all of the groups and the unique ways in which they experienced the Caribbean. Needless to say, each group did not experience the Caribbean in the same way nor, for that matter, did they respond in exactly the same way. So while one can and may speak of a Caribbean experience or a Caribbean identity, it is necessary to be aware of the nuances of experience of each specific experience and how it played out in the region. Such an understanding of our experiences has implications even for today and how these groups express their Caribbeanness. Any analysis of Caribbean literature should produce a new reading of our condition. It should tell us how those varied groups negotiated their Caribbeanness, how it prepared them to occupy their contemporary space, and how the Caribbean crucible of experience modified their experiences. Much of this essay would be concerned with identifying moments in this continuing drama of identity in the Caribbean.

Anglophone Caribbean literature is an offshoot of African oral literature (most island inhabitants came from West Africa). Its Amerindian provenance, together with its Asian and European roots also contributed to its ultimate contours. Thus, the earliest literature of Anglophone Caribbean can be traced to the proverbs, riddle, kheesas (tales) of African and Indian literature respectively. Although there are poems written in the later part of the eighteenth century (such as "The Sorrows of Yamba; Or, The Negro Woman's Lamentation") and the work of the Latinist and schoolmaster, Francis Williams, we can begin to locate an identifiable, indigenous tradition as beginning in Jean Baptiste Philippe's Free Mulatto (1824), one of the earliest works in Anglophone Caribbean literature that speaks to specificity of our place in the society and the unjust manner in which we are treated in this new environment.

This narrative revolved around a plea to the colonial government in which a Caribbean man sough to define the place of the mulatto (or the colored person) within the context of his Trinidadian reality. The contradiction inherent in his lived condition (that of a free colored man owning slaves yet pleading for the freedom of his coloured brethren) did not seem to take away much from his urgent demand that his people be treated fairly on the basis of their capacity for reason, virtue, and good breeding.

Needless to say, this was part of the Enlightenment ideal. In a way, the slave narratives (The History of Mary Prince [1831]), the Narrative of Ashton Warner [1831], the History of Abu Bekr [1834] the Narrative of James Williams [1838), The Interesting Narrative of Maria Jones [1848] and the Narrative of John Monteith [1853]) spoke of the inhuman conditions in which Africans in the Caribbean lived. Although the conditions described in the island of Jamaica were not always identical to those of the other Caribbean island (Trinidad, for example, had a milder form of slavery), a reading of these narratives gives one a sense of the hardship Africans endured as they strove to acclimatize themselves to the unfortunate circumstances under which they found themselves.

The next major narrative that examined the African condition in a critical manner was Maxwell Philip's Emmanuel Appadocca: A Tale of the Boucaneers (1854), even though Kamau Brathwaite, the Barbadian poet and critic, suggests that the anonymous narrative, Hamel the Obeah Man (1827), offers the first complex portrayal of the African in Anglophone Caribbean Literature. Emmanuel Appadocca, the first known novel written by a Caribbean person in the Anglophone Caribbean, makes the moral claim against a person (his father) and two systems (slavery and colonialism) that make him an orphan. Importantly enough, the novel examined the implications of the lex talionis in this new Caribbean environment. In an illuminating introduction to a recent edition of Emmanuel Appadocca, William Cain argues that Emmanuel Appadocca should be seen as a companion piece to such manifestly antislavery texts as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Douglass's The Heroic Slave." Moreover, Emmanuel Appadocca inaugurated a tradition in fiction of creative resistance and defiance of the combined forces of slavery, colonialism, and dispossession that I examined in Resistance and Caribbean Literature.

The Wondrous Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands (1857), another pivotal work in this tradition of critical self-examination, recounts Seacole's development as she traveled and worked in many lands where she practiced medicine and engage in business. Comfortable in her womanhood (she averred that she did not re-marry because of choice) she struck out independently in the colonial and colonizer's world, secure in the conviction that women could navigate life on their own. This conviction and enormous bravery alert us to the independent existence that many of our women were forced to lead in the islands and abroad.

This tradition of resistance and courage was demonstrated once more in the works of the poets and dramatists in the second half of the nineteenth century. The two outstanding works of the period were Horatio Nelson Huggins Hiroona, an epic poem that recounted the Black Carib War against the English in St. Vincent at the end of the 19th century. Although the work was not published in 1937, evidence suggests that it was composed around 1885. Literary critic, Paula Burnett calls Hiroona "the Caribbean's first epic poem." Of equal interest and demonstrating the heterogeneous nature of the Caribbean experience was Jean Ch de Saint Avir's

The First Two Martyrs of Trinidad (1885) that was serialized in a Trinidadian newspaper and eventually published as a book. Like Hiroona, this tragedy of the faith of two Roman Catholics fathers who came to serve among the Amerindians in the early part of the 16th century suggest the complexity of the regions history and the varied experiences that shaped its cultural and intellectual presence. Not to be outdone were the various forms of Hindu and Islamic dramatic forms (seen in the performance of the remleelas and the hosay) that were being performed in the outdoors and which gave expression to the oral literary forms that our Indian ancestors brought with them to the islands.

If the written literature of the 19th century were imbricated with the pressure of the oral literary forms, the early twentieth century saw a more sustained attempt to examine the peasant life of those inhabitants who had to make the Caribbean home. Thus, the first thirty years of the century saw the publication several interesting literary works. The Jamaican poet and novelist Thomas MacDermot (better known as Tom Redcan) published Beeka's Buckra Baby (1903) and One Brown Girl and (1909). Within this period, three other significant novels appeared: Rupert Gray: A Tale of Black and White (1907) by Stephen Nathaniel Cobham, who became a fervent follower of Marcus Garvey.

In 1913, Herbert de Lisser published Jane's Career, the life of a peasant woman of Jamaica while A. R. F. Webber published Those That Be in Bondage: A Tale of Indian Indenture and Sunlit Western Waters that contrasted the opposing ideological visions vis--vis the European world that the Asians brought to the Caribbean. Significantly, both de Lisser and Webber were intensely involved in the politics and press freedom. They worked together to form the first West Indian Press Association in which de Lisser was named president. T. A. Marryshow from Grenada and Webber were named as members of the Management Committee Not contradictorily, these works of the authors of this period paved the way for a Caribbean renaissance of the thirties in which one saw the flowering of the islands' arts and culture and more self-assertive Caribbean presence. Necessarily, this movement was tied to the growing self-assertiveness of the Caribbean nationalist parties, the decolonization process, and the increased agitation of the labour unions.

Coming on the heels of the Great Depression in the United States in 1929 and a rise in the social and political consciousness of Caribbean people, the Caribbean Renaissance offered a deeper and more penetrating exploration of our history. During this moment, Caribbean people felt a greater sense of being at home and the necessity to examine what this sense of home implied. Relying on a mixture of naturalist and realist tendencies-depicting social conditions rather than psychological issues-these novels played an important role of delineating the issues that confronted the society. Beginning with Alfred Mendes's Black Fauns (1935) and James's Minty Alley (1936), this period culminated in the achievement of political independence and a formal conclusion to colonialism. It certainly was a period in which the people played a more active role in their affairs.

Nadi Edwards observes: "Trinidad popular culture was appropriated by the writers of the 1930s in order to initiate a decolonized literary and cultural practice. The barrack-yard culture of Port of Spain, with its expressive vehicles of picong, calypso and Carnival, provided local aesthetic models that enabled C. L. R. James, Alfred Mendes and others to produce a self-consciously local literature." Necessarily, this period of more intense political activity (the societies achieved adult suffrage in the 1940s) ushered in a writing that bore all the marks of the political aspirations of the people.

Not only were they prepared to examine issues of personhood, they were examined the impact the colonialism had on their lives. In is within this period that the literary names such as Edgar Mittleholzer, Seepersad and V. S. Naipaul, Vic Reid, Roger Mais Sam Selvon Martin Carter, George Lamming, Wilson Harris and Derek Walcott began to appear. Many of these writers received the first start in several new magazines (Trinidad, The Beacon, Bim, Focus and Kyk-Over-Al) that was published in this period. These writers also explored areas of experience that were not subjected to writerly expression. Seepersad Naipaul and Samuel Selvon examined the Asian aspect of our identity; Mittleholzer, the mixed nature of our identity; while Harris looked within the heart of the South American landscape to understand how that aspect had shaped our present condition. After the 1960s, literary production proceeded apace. Apart from the writers above, most of the writers with whom Anglophone Caribbean has become associated began to take their place in the literary firmament. To be sure, the publication of V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas was a significant achievement.

I argue in another context that it sought to retell the Ramayana, the Hindu epic, in a Caribbean context. As a statement of identity, it chronicled how the Indians adopted to the rigors of their New World. Wilson Harris's History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas was also of especial importance. Published in 1970, it seeks to explore what can be called "the subconscious reality" of the Caribbean experience. In the process, he argues that "a philosophy of history may well lie buried in the arts of the imagination" and notes "that whether the emphasis falls on limbo or vodun, on Carib bush-baby omens, on Arawak zemi, on Latin, English inheritances-in fact within and beyond these emphases-my concern is with epic stratagems available to Caribbean man in the dilemmas of history which surround him."

In Season of Adventure (1963), George Lamming also sought to push deeper into our unconscious level of reality drew upon Haitian vodun and the Ceremony of the Souls to ground his novel. It would seem that he used this religio-cultural practice to warn the society that as a people we could not be free unless we came to terms with a past that we scorned and neglected. Written precisely at the moment when most Caribbean countries were assuming formal independence (Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica in 1962, Guyana and Barbados in 1965), the contempt of Powell, the major protagonist, seem to capture the angst that many Caribbean persons felt about their new condition but could was not bold enough to articulate:

"Change, my arse," he shouted, "is Independence what it is? Is one day in July you say you want to be that there thing, an' one day in a next July the law says all right, from now you's want you askin' for. What change can that be? Might as well call a dog a cat and hope to hear him mew. Is only words an' name what don' signify nothing.
Although literary historian Lloyd Brown placed the birth of modern Anglophone Caribbean poetry in the 1940-1960 period, the seventies also saw the emergence of Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite, two of our strongest poetic voices. Yet, voices could not be so different. While the former honed the poetic language of the master and made it his own, the latter was concerned to hanker after the rhythm and cadences of African ancestors. One critic notes that Brathwaite's "poetry, prose fiction, historiographical essays, and literary criticism, all reflect a scheme of thought wherein language is seen as a means of communication, a vehicle of cultural identity [and] a principal instrument for liberation from the vestiges of the colonial master." Walcott, on the other hand, aware of a much more complex heritage used language in his poetry and his plays to tease out the varied nuances of Caribbean life. His excursion into folk culture and his adaptation of the colonizer's culture to serve his own ends (as in Omeros, his epic poem that drew its inspiration from Homer, made him a voice that much of the English-speaking world can relate to. Both Walcott and Brathwaite, in their own right, plunged the depth of the Caribbean experience and its ancestral past to come to terms with the challenging of the present.

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