1!c ibbean WoV ,,
Volume 3 2000
The Journal of Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars
ACWWS Founded in 1995, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Editor: JACQUELINE BRICE-FINCH
Managing Editor: JENNIFER L. GLASSCOCK
Book Review Editor: BRENDA BERRIAN
Creative Works Editor: OPAL PALMER ADISA
Copy Editor: JOAN FREDERICK
Contributing and Associate Editors:
MYRIAM J. A. CHANCY
DARYL CUMBER DANCE
CAROLE BOYCE DAVIES
TANYA R. SAUNDERS
RENEE H. SHEA
HELEN PYNE TIMOTHY
On-Line Editor: JEREMY CALEB JOHNSON
Special Thanks: DAVID BERNSTEIN, LINDA CARRIER, SHARON
COTE, ROSE N. GRAY, SHARON PITTAND KARYN Z. SPROLES
Published in part by James Madison University
Copyright C2000 by Jacqueline Brice-Finch
All rights reserved.
Submission Criteria for MaComnre
MaComire is a refereed journal which is devoted to the scholarly studies and creative works by and
about Caribbean Women in the Americas, Europe, and the Caribbean diaspora. It is the journal of the
Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars, an international organization founded in 1995.
All writers and scholars who are members of ACWWS are invited to submit scholarly papers,
interviews, creative works or book reviews to the journal in Dutch, English, French, and Spanish. The
webpage for MaComare is www.macomere.com, and the e-mail address is macomere(.imu.edu.
All submissions should include the following:
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Send all material to Jacqueline Brice-Finch, Publications Editor, MaComere, Department of English,
MSC 1804, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA 22807 USA. Phone: 540-568-6202. Fax:
540-568-2983. E-mail: macomere(imu.edu.
Members interested in writing book reviews for MaComere should contact Brenda F. Berrian, Book
Review Editor, MaComnre, Department of Africana Studies, 3T01 Forbes Quadrangle, University of
Pittsburgh, 230 S. Bouquet Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15260 USA. Phone: 412-648-7542. Fax: 412-648-
7214. Email: bberrianipitt.edu.
Subscriptions to MaComere are available. All orders should be directed to the Treasurer at the above
address., payable to Ithaca College-MaComare. Single issue current price: $25 for institutions, $15 for
individuals. Members of ACWWS receive a single issue of MaComere with their yearly subscription.
For more information about ACWWS, contact Opal Palmer Adisa, President, P. O. Box 10625,
Oakland, CA 94610 USA. Phone/Fax 510-268-0704. E-mail: opalpro(alaol.com.
Cover logo by Marcia L. Spidell
Table of Contents
Vol. 3 2000
Helen Pyne Timothy
About Our Name ............................... i
Tribute to Barbara Christian
Cora L. E. Christian, M.D., MPH.
A Tribute to My Sister ........................ 1
Opal Palmer Adisa
Life Outsmarting Death ....................... 5
Carole Boyce Davies
Saying Farewell in Grenada:
Barbara Christian, Caribbean Woman Scholar ....... 8
Rende H. Shea
The New Voice of a "Graceful Lady":
An Interview with Donna Hemans ................ 12
Leaf of Life ................................. 19
Joanne C. Hillhouse
Philly Ramblings 8 ............................ 26
Sapodilla Tears ............................... 27
When the Moon Flows Full ..................... 27
Womanish Tongue .......................... 29
Glen(h)er et cetera ............... ........... 30
Hom eless ................................... 31
New room/Her room ........................ 34
Single M other ................................ 35
Unrepentant Hetero ........................... 36
Eunice Heath Tate
The House .................................. 37
Three Years After............................. 38
When God Wasn't Looking, Chapter 3 ............. 39
An On-Going Conversation ..................... 42
Growing Up ................................. 43
Caught Between Homes: Mary Seacole
and the Question of Cultural Identity .............. 45
Pascale De Souza
When Anancy Meets the Desaragnes:
An Arachnean Reading of The Bridge of
Beyond .................................... 57
Edna Manley's (R)Evolutionary Imagination
of Jamaican Space ............................ 69
Newtona (Tina) Johnson
Gender and Diasporic Connections in
Marlene Nourbese Philip's Harriet's Daughter ..... 84
The Figure of the Critic in Cond6's Novels:
Irony or Dialogism? ......................... 94
At the Cross-Roads of Gender and Ethnicity ....... 107
Rewriting Folklore: Traditional Beliefs and Popular
Culture in Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory
andKrik? Krak! ............................. 123
Thelma B. Thompson-Deloatch
Conflicting Concepts of Time and Space:
Narrative Technique in Selected Short Fiction
of Olive Senior ............................ 141
Loma McDaniel's The Big Drum Ritual of
Carriacou: Praisesongs in Rememory of Flight .... 153
Brenda F. Berrian's Awakening Spaces: French
Caribbean Popular Songs, Music and Culture ..... 159
Oonya Kempadoo's Buxton Spice ............... 161
Jeremy Caleb Johnson
Margaret Cezair-Thompson's The True History
ofParadise ................................. 163
Simonne Henry-Valmore's. L'Autre bord ......... 165
Miriam De Costa-Willis's Singular Like a Bird:
The Art of Nancy Morej6n ..................... 167
Michelle Cliff: The Store of a Million Items ....... 170
Cherise A. Pollard
Glasceta Honeyghan's Unexpectedly...
a Freshness ................................ 173
Tanya R. Saunders
Esmeralda Santiago's Almost a Woman ........... 176
Maryse Cond6's Le cceur a rire et apleurer:
contest vrais de mon enfance ................... 178
Isabel Alvarez-Borland's Cuban-American
Literature of Exile: From Person to Persona ...... 181
Recent Publications ................................. 183
Notes on Contributors ............................. 188
About the Name
Helen Pyne Timothy
About the Name
The word MaComere is widely used by women in the Caribbean to mean "my
child's godmother"; "my best friend and close female confidante"; "my bridesmaid, or
another female member of a wedding party of which I was a bridesmaid"; "the
godmother of the child to whom I am also godmother"; "the woman who, by virtue of
the depth of her friendship, has rights and privileges over my child and whom I see as a
This name seemed appropriate because it so clearly expresses the intimate
relations which women in the Caribbean share, is so firmly gendered and honors the
importance of friendship in relation to the important rituals of marriage, birth and
Moreover, MaComere is a French Creole word which, though related to the
French language, has taken on a structure and a meaning which is indigenous to the
Caribbean. The word is spelled in this way, instead of in the clearly Creole manner
(macumd, or makumeh, or macoomd, macomeh or any other variant), so that the female
connotations of the word are highlighted and those meanings which apply to males ("a
womanish or gossipy man"; "a homosexual") are less obvious. In those islands where
Kreol (linguistic term for the French patois) is the first language, the same term is used
for both females and males with meaning determined by context. In islands like
Trinidad, however, where English has overlain Kr6ol, the Creole (linguistic term for the
English patois) has incorporated the redundant: "my macomd," "macome man," thus
reinforcing both the perceptions of intimacy and the female quality of the term.
Interestingly enough, Richard Allsopp, in The Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage
(OUP 1996), has indicated the possibility that maku in Belize with the meaning
"midwife" is also derived from this word. Hence, the word forces us to recall the
continuities and correspondences in Caribbean language and culture, as well as the
dynamic, creative and transforming power of Creoles.
In the purely English-speaking islands, the only comparable term is godmother
(usually the mother's best friend). In the Hispanophone Caribbean, there is the similar
comadre, although, as we would expect, some of the connotations are different.
Join me in continuing to interrogate all the connotations of meaning inherent
in this cultural rich lexical item from the Caribbean Creoles.
A Tribute to My Sister, Barbara T. Christian
Cora L. E. Christian
A Tribute to My Sister, Barbara T. Christian
On Sunday, June 25, I lost a sister, a friend, a colleague and a confidante-
Dr. Barbara T. Christian. My mother and my father lost a daughter. My brothers,
Alphonso and Delano, lost a sister. My sisters, Reubina Gomez and Alicia Wells lost a
sister, and my niece Najuma lost a mother. The academic community lost a friend,
scholar and someone who was known as a premier scholar in the areas of black
feminist criticism and black women novelists.
My sister was born on December 12, 1943. My parents told me that, when
Barbara was a few days old, my aunt Josie-now ninety-three and mother to Dr. Alfred
Heath-exulted over her arrival with the words: "What a beautiful child!" But
Barbara's beauty was not limited to her physical appearance. Her beauty was the gift
of her mind. She was always at the top of her class, graduating from Sts. Peter and
Paul at age fifteen as the valedictorian. The year before, she had won the Virgin
Islands-wide High School Oratorical Contest and was invited to skip twelfth grade and
enter Howard University at age fourteen. She declined the offer, preferring to graduate
with her high school classmates.
My sister was a giant to me. I remember her from our days growing up in St.
Thomas when we were first at Nye Gade (or Garden Street as it was known by all) and
later when we moved up to Solberg. I remembered when she went off to Marquette.
She graduated with honors and was selected as the keynote speaker for the student
body of the entire university which included all doctors of philosophy. Note: she was
only in undergraduate school at the time! Subsequently, she continued her studies at
Columbia University, earning her masters and a doctorate, with distinction, where she
was the first woman in the contemporary British and American literature program.
Following brief stints as a teacher at the College of the Virgin Islands in its
first year of operation and at Hunter College in Manhattan, Barbara joined the faculty
of the City College of the City University of New York as a member of the English
Department in the fall of 1965. She was also appointed as an instructor in the
pioneering SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) which
offered opportunities to promising but underprivileged students to attend college. In
September 1971, after six years at City College, Barbara headed west to join the
Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley.
We have always been in contact over the years. Time never was a distance
between us. For me, whenever I got an opportunity to travel to the west coast of the U.
S., I made it a point of sororal duty to visit with Barbara, Babsie, as I affectionately
called her. My sister, Reubina, used every opportunity to travel to visit her and to take
my children along to know better their famous aunt. *
At the University of California, Berkeley, faculty and friends will remember
my sister Barbara as the first African American woman to receive tenure at the
University in 1978. She was the first Black to be promoted to full professor in 1986.
Between 1978 and 1983, she served as chairperson for the Department of African
American Studies there. In addition, between 1986 and 1989, she was chair of the
recently formed Ethnic Studies doctoral program at the university. From 1971 to 1976
she also served as a founding member and teacher with the University Without Walls, a
community-based alternative college committed to providing education to people of
color. Throughout her years as a professor, she was probably UC, Berkeley's most
important leader as well as its most accomplished member.
Respected as an administrator, Barbara was nevertheless much better known
throughout the university, among undergraduates and graduate students alike, as a
teacher of extraordinary knowledge, warmth, generosity, and effectiveness. Her
courses, especially those in women's writing and African American literature in
general, attracted a large number of students of virtually all ethnic backgrounds, who
typically responded with superlatives in their formal evaluations of their professor.
Accordingly, in 1991, Barbara won the university's Distinguished Teaching Award,
becoming the first African-American to do so. In 1995, she was honored with the Phi
Beta Kappa Award for Distinguished Teaching from the northern California chapter of
the society. And earlier this year the university chancellor awarded her the Berkeley
Citation, "for distinguished achievement and for notable service to the university," the
highest honor one can receive from the University. In letters supporting her
nomination for the citation, Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University wrote
that Professor Christian "has emerged as the senior figure among African-American
feminists"; Professor Arnold Rampersad of Stanford University stated unequivocally
that Professor Christian was "a major shaper and guide in the general area where the
subjects of literature, race, and feminism meet."
The author or editor of several books and almost a hundred published articles
and reviews, Dr. Christian was perhaps best known for her landmark study Black
Women Novelists, The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 (Greenwood Press).
Appearing in 1980, this book led to the general rediscovery of the work of important
women writers from the past, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larson, and
contributed to the rise to prominence of several younger authors, notably Alice Walker
and Toni Morrison. Black Women Novelists stimulated as never before the embryonic
field of African American feminist literary criticism. The book offered virtually the
first comprehensive analysis of its subject, as well as a source of inspiration to younger
scholars in approaching what eventually became a major area of American literary
Barbara was also the editor of a case book on the story "Everyday Use" by
Alice Walker in 1964. Her other works include Teaching Guide to Black Foremothers
in 1980 and Black Feminist Criticism, Perspectives on Black Women Writers, 1985. In
1996 Barbara was one of the significant editors of the massive Norton Anthology of
African-American Literature under the general editorship of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,
and Nellie Y. McKay. Several of her essays, because of their astuteness and their
A Tribute to My Sister, Barbara T. Christian
timely intervention in the growing debates over the relationship between race, class,
and gender, continue to be widely cited by other scholars and critics. Among the most
noteworthy of these is Dr. Christian's "The Race for Theory," which challenged the
increasing domination of African American literary study by critics mainly interested in
theory, especially poststructuralism. Reprinted several times in the United States, this
article was also published in an anthology in England and, in translation, in Italy.
A generous host (and having never learned to drive a car), Dr. Christian kept
what often seemed like open house at her residence on Bienvenue Avenue in Berkeley.
A wide array of visiting colleagues, admirers, and friends, many of whom shared a
commitment to progressive politics, found her a patient and sympathetic listener. She
received them in a comfortable home casually decorated with paintings, lithographs,
sculptures, and woodcarvings, usually of African or African American origin. Music
of all kinds was also an important part of her life. And on display in every room was a
variety of healthy houseplants, many of them exotic, that reflected Barbara's love of
My sister was a scholar, as has been acclaimed to me so many times by the
numerous persons who meet and greet me in the academic and social world. I think of
my Caribbean Studies Association colleagues and Barbara's friends-Percy Hintzen,
Opal Palmer Adisa, Gilbert Sprauve, and my husband Simon who first encountered
Barbara when she taught in the summer of 1965 at the then College of the Virgin
Islands, and when they all acted in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, alongside
another Virgin Islander Jimmy deJongh.
My sister was an engaging person. When you talked with her she would wax
in depth on some of the most profound issues that you could imagine. She was brilliant
to a fault. When she read, as she notes in her own words, she was visceral. She got
excited. She made notes and she engaged the readers. She understood world politics
equally as she understood all of the nuances of literature and literary criticism. But
above all Barbara, my sister, was a person's person, a people person, a friend. Barbara
received her accolades because of her depth of scholarship, her drive, her hard work
and her dedication to the upliftment of black women novelists.
However, Barbara was more than just a renowned scholar. She was a devoted
mother to her only child, Najuma, who chose the profession of her grandfather and
uncle, law. Barbara was a mother to many a person in her extended family. She was
involved extensively in programs that sought to level the playing field for
disadvantaged and so-called uneducable black and Puerto Rican students. Her goal at
Columbia and subsequently at Berkeley was to put a human face on those persons
whom society wanted to discard because they were not of the so-called dominant race.
Yet it must be remembered that Barbara was not a person who was concerned only with
Barbara Christian is survived by her daughter Najuma, a graduate of the
University of California at Santa Cruz and Georgetown University Law Center; by her
parents, Judge Alphonso A. Christian and Ruth Christian of St. Thomas; her sisters,
Reubina Gomez of St. Thomas, Alicia Wells of Philadelphia and me; her brothers
Alphonso Christian II of Washington D.C. and Delano Christian of San Francisco; a
stepchild, Imetai Malik Henderson of New York; many graduate students; and a family
of dear friends.
I have lost a sister; the academic world has lost a scholar. My parents have
lost a daughter. My brothers and sisters have lost a sister. Najuma has lost a mother.
We grieve, for death is finite. Nevertheless, we know that passing does not have the
power to remove or to eliminate what we shared because our bodies are just coverings
that we wear. By the same token, we celebrate her life for the contribution she made
while she was here. We celebrate her for touching our lives in ways too numerous to
mention. On behalf of my parents, my brothers and sisters, I want to say thank those of
you who have expressed your well wishes in this our time of grief. Thank you all.
Life Outsmarting Death
Opal Palmer Adisa
Life Outsmarting Death
barbara be a talking
reading us like
Poetry is sitting at the death-bed of a sister-friend, Barbara Christian, holding
her hand, telling her I love you and watching her dying the way she lived, fighting,
arguing with death, screaming at this rapist, serial killer who has taken her sisters
earlier-Lorraine, Audre, Toni Cade, Sherley Anne, and now her. Barbara. Babs.
Professor Christian. Poetry are the words that even now with pain gnawing at her body
she tries to speak, an eloquent rambling that quilts our lives into a tapestry so large that
no one can ignore us. Poetry is the hardest working, poetic loving, kicking ass,
trailblazing feminist who never gives up on her people, who sees around the corner to
the good side.
Barbara Christian, who opened the door of the university wide and let many in
and trained scholars and critics and teachers and women how to fight for their own
lives and speak their truths without apology. Professor Christian, the first African
American woman to win tenure at the University of California, Berkeley, 1978; the first
to be promoted to full professor, 1986; and the fist African American ever to'receive
the prestigious Distinguished Teaching Award, 1991. This year she was awarded the
university's highest honor, The Berkeley Citation. Barbara, whose house was always
open to everyone, who responded to every phone call, every e-mail, all requests for
help and support. A literary critic, a mother, a mentor, a confidant. Scholar. Writing
letters of recommendations for graduate students, colleagues for tenure, curriculum for
teaching Black Women's literature, writing.
barbara be a good time
into a circle of knowing
and dancing and singing along
to bob marley
Poetry is Barbara writing, refusing to be silenced, her "Race for Theory"
challenging the theorists that would attempt to displace and subordinate African
American women writers. Barbara be the kind of poetry we need to hear and read. She
makes the revolution happen, not the armed-with-guns, calling-folks-out-their-names
revolution that burns off quickly and very little changes. She was always there for me
and countless others, opening her home, my first book party, shower for first child,
marriage ceremony, fortieth birthday. Supporting, there to chair my dissertation, to
hood me. There for talks and talks and laughter and gardening and strategizing.
Barbara. Advisor, friend, big sister. She was always there for me and sisters whose
name she didn't know. Women from Germany, Italy, Africa, Japan and India came all
the way to California to work and study with her. Giving of her time and self. I met
her in the midst of making final revisions on Black Women Novelists, The Development
of a Tradition, 1892-1976, 1980. She made me/us know the tradition, that African
American women were writers and poets and playwrights. She set the standard and
paved the way for canonizing African American women writers.
barbara be a generous
dancing us into new spaces
always down to earth
the caribbean mocking
Poetry is Barbara Christian, champion of black women writers, community
activist, protesting the invasion of Grenada, fighting to get the university to divest in
South Africa, working with women on welfare, bridging the gap between the academy
and the community, integrating intellect and grassroots, creating more dialogue, Black
Feminist Criticism, Perspectives on Black Women Writers, 1985, continuing to push
the literature into the mainstream as one of the senior editors of the Norton Anthology
ofAfrican American Literature, 1997. Championing the works of Paule Marshall,
Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, et al. Advocating increased funds for students,
protesting the university's position on Affirmative Action, never backing down, being
eloquent and articulate, working long after everyone else had gone home. Traveling
down new paths, working to establish a paradigm for feminist diaspora studies,
Caribbean and African women writers. Barbara, you be what poetry is.
one of us
Life Outsmarting Death
one of you
keeping us on the path
free and safe
our ancestor now.
Dr. Barbara Christian died from cancer at her home in Berkeley, California,
Sunday, June 25, 2000.
Carole Boyce Davies
Saying Farewell in Grenada:
Barbara Christian, Caribbean Woman Scholar
Of course I had met Barbara Christian long before we finally saw each other
face to face. Her pathbreaking work, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a
Tradition (1980), was one of the most important places to go to for the kind of
background information that supported serious study of Black women's writing in the
early 1980s. And, of course, I had on countless occasions listened to her impassioned
discussions of black women's images in the famous Marlon Riggs film, Ethnic Notions
which was (and still is) a common staple in the teaching of African American literature
and culture to undergraduates. Barbara's interpretations on film put a visible voice
behind her distant presence (for those of us on the East Coast). It was somehow
reassuring to know that such a sister was out there, providing theoretical ballast to the
creative energies of Alice Walker and the politics of Angela Davis, as well as aiding in
the development of new minds, new communities of scholar/activists. Her Black
Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers (1985) maintained her
tradition of critical excellence, a collection which, from her point of view, showed a
black feminist critic in process, practicing her craft.
I am sure, though, that it was "The Race For Theory" (1987) that solidified
Barbara for me. This essay, still the most important intervention in the overwhelming
theoretical morass of the 1980s, perhaps singlehandedly provided the argumentative
basis for challenging the theoretical hegemony which had begun to disempower many
black women scholars in the academy and thereby allowed the work of Black Women
Writers to continue its breakthrough. "The Race for Theory" certainly influenced my
work and in a way has provided the space for the creative/theoretical which many of
my own students have begun to develop in their own work. My chapter "Negotiating
Theories or 'Going a Piece of the Way with Them'" in Migrations of the Subject
(1994) could not have been written with confidence had Barbara's intervention not
been already there. And there are so many other important essays in Barbara's
repertoire that have set the standard for excellence in the practice of good
I first met Barbara in person, significantly in Trinidad when, with Paula
Morgan, I went to meet her at the airport at the start of her two-week lecture tour
sponsored by the University of the West Indies. Somehow, we were both surprised at
how tiny she was, for her work and film presence had made her seem of much larger
stature. Before we walked up to her, Paula and I exchanged queries about whether the
person we identified was who we were there to meet, but then that unmistakable face
and smile. We went for dinner directly, had light discussions and then took Barbara to
the home where she would stay. It was here that I concretized my invitation to her to
be part of the plenary session on Paule Marshall at our ACWWS Grenada conference
Saying Farewell in Grenada: Barbara Christian, Caribbean Woman Scholar
in May 1998, and she accepted. I met Barbara next at the conference site, a hotel
directly on Grand Anse Beach, and we often shared too brief conversations and
In February of 1999, I spent some time at UC, Berkeley and Mills College. At
Berkeley, I lectured on Caribbean literature to Barbara's class and gave another general
presentation on diaspora theory later. And the next day, we appeared jointly at a
lecture at Mills which was videotaped. I remember Barbara telling me then that she
was tired, had been on her feet all day and wanted to stay in the background. As we
walked around Berkeley's campus the next day, she shared with me how devastating
the anti-affirmative action legislation in California had been to the university in terms
of the campus population, particularly the changing demographics of the students and
therefore the future of African American Studies. The person I left at what would be
our last meeting was someone who had struggled for years to create something positive
only to see it eroded by racist state policy.
It may be helpful, though, to study Barbara's location, as a Caribbean-
American woman scholar in the field of African-American literatures. Born in the U.S.
Virgin Islands, Barbara clearly belongs to that group of Caribbean woman scholars,
like Nellie McKay, who studied well and therefore became major exponents in the field
of African American letters. African American cultural politics was one of the sites of
intense literary activity throughout the sixties and seventies and Barbara describes
herself as "an active member of the Black Arts Movement of the sixties" even as she
critiqued some of its excesses ("The Race for Theory," in Making Face,Making
Soul/Hacienda Caras, 340-43). Caribbean literary studies would remain peripheral at
that time, and these scholars did not necessarily challenge the U.S. centric nature of the
enterprise, of the black literary canon, though they clearly challenged its masculinist
basis. Caribbean literary studies and subsequently Caribbean women writers would
only gain in recognition in the U.S. academy in the wake of African-American
women's writing and to some degree postcolonial studies and cultural studies. Still for
Caribbean scholars like Barbara, an African diaspora orientation aided in clarifying
some of the often unseen angles.
Barbara's work on Paule Marshall is perhaps the most instructive in this area.
Because of her knowledge of the Caribbean cultural elements in the Marshall corpus,
Barbara, as she herself admits in "The Race for Theory," was able to explore Paule's
contribution fully and with authority. But she was equally adept in her study of
Walker, Morrison, and a range of U.S. African-American writers. Yet, as an African
Americanist, she was leery of African diaspora scholarship as being the new "sexy"
field which might displace a lot of the work that had taken place in African American
Studies. Barbara's work, therefore, is of that body of scholarship that set the ground
and provided the conditions which would facilitate the great outpouring of scholarship
and literature by/on Caribbean women.
My own conversations with Barbara reveal that she was clearly respectful of
and pleased with the growing field of Caribbean women writers. Unlike some who
read one writer and become an expert in the field, she did not assume that she could
automatically become an authority without doing extensive reading and study in the
whole field of Caribbean literature first. She suggested once that we should put
together a collection at some point in the future, but she wanted to immerse herself
more in all of the writing. So, even coming from a Caribbean background, she did not
see this Caribbean origin by itself as giving her any essential authority. Rather, she
maintained a healthy respect for true scholarship and supported the work of those,
particularly her students and junior colleagues who could were pursuing studies in this
It was for me, then, a very personal pleasure and for the conference a coup to
have Barbara as one of the featured plenary speakers on a conference program we
organized for the Association conference in Grenada. That session on Paule
Marshall's Praisesong and the Grenada-Carriacou-U.S. connection, along with another
plenary session on Audre Lorde, were for me two of the most important events of that
conference. It was important for some of us that Barbara also take her place as a
senior Caribbean woman scholar at that event which turns out now to be the last public
presentation of hers that I witnessed.
Barbara's presence at the conference-her lively conversations, her spirited
responses, her quiet yet vibrant personality-was exciting to many who spent time with
her. I remember seeing her surrounded by groups of scholars on some evenings,
laughing and talking. We had one conversation over breakfast when I remember telling
her that I was beginning to feel the first visible "power surges", with their parallel
sense of discomfort. She offered wonderful and knowing advice about diet, style and
pace, which she obviously did not heed herself.
Barbara was a sister, friend, colleague and mentor to many. I have met and
continue to meet often through her students. My first meeting with Opal Palmer Adisa
began with her saying that Barbara had told her to be sure to meet me. I have had many
a call from students who said they were doing research on Caribbean women writers
and were recommended to me by Barbara Christian. And some of my own students
have ended up working in different ways with Barbara. And always, I have understood
Barbara best from listening to the students she has mentored, and friends and
colleagues she had developed. Donna Weir-Soley told me about the bottle tree she
made for Barbara before leaving California and why she had done it, and I knew that
Maude Dikobe was fine once she had Barbara's guidance. Percy Hintzen, I know
agonized over her illness and the looming loss of a dear friend and colleague, and Jean
Rahier had interesting stories of long nights socializing with Barbara at her home in
Berkeley, and during her visit to Louisiana. Rhoda Reddock exulted in how significant
Barbara's meetings and presentations had been in Trinidad and about the fun she had in
Tobago And we were all surprised to learn from Anthony Mutambira in Florida that he
had also met Barbara in Zimbabwe.
But there is a story representative of the type of sister-scholar Barbara was that
must be told: One evening during the time I was up for tenure, I had some students over
to my house in Binghamton for a party of some sort. A call came through. Thinking it
was someone seeking directions, I jocularly grabbed the phone in the midst of-I am
Saying Farewell in Grenada: Barbara Christian, Caribbean Woman Scholar
sure-background conversations and noises. The person on the other end said that she
was Barbara Christian and had been reading my work and wanted to talk with me.
Taken by surprise, I was, of course, immediately sobered by the call from someone
whom I respected and thought that she must be wondering what kind of serious scholar
I was. It was only later I realized that she had been one of the outside readers for my
tenure review and was trying to put a person together with the file she was reading as
she began to write her evaluation. Later I would learn that this social scenario would
have counted favorably for her as Barbara often had similar gatherings of students and
friends and loved a good lime.
Barbara's passing has made me reflect on our mortality, the way we interact
with each other, sometimes unnecessarily negatively. I reflect on my own mother's
vulnerability as she comes to the end of her days. I reflect on myself at this pivotal
point in my life, as I see my daughters off to college and realize that everything counts:
every chance meeting, every phone call we take or make, every kind word, every smile,
every theoretical intervention, everything we write and publish, every bit of support we
In Mayaguez, at the 7h International Conference of Caribbean Women Writers
and Scholars, 2000, we lamented Barbara's absence for some of us had hoped that,
after Grenada, we would see more of her in Caribbean women's literature conferences.
To honor her as one of us, we formed a circle, sent her energy and good words.
In July this year, in Grenada again, on Grand Anse Beach one evening during
a Teachers Institute we organized there, I sat with Linda Spears-Bunton, another
colleague. I had left the U.S. a few days before with an e-mail update from Opal that
Barbara was still struggling and on her last leg. But that evening, in the quiet, when I
looked up at the stars, I knew inside that this phase of her existence was over and, in
Grenada, Barbara dropped by to say that she was leaving.
...what I write and how I write is done in order to
save my life. And I mean that literally. For me
literature is a way of knowing that I am not
hallucinating, that whatever Ifeel/know is. It is an
affirmation that sensuality is intelligence, that
sensual language is language that makes sense.
(Barbara Christian, 1990)
Rene6 H. Shea
The New Voice of a Graceful Lady: An Interview with Donna Hemans
Only a year and a half after she received her M.F.A. from American
University in Washington, D.C., Donna Hemans will see her novel River Woman
published by Pocket Books of Simon and Schuster (expected publication January
2002). This debut novel takes place in her native Jamaica in the town of Standfast and
revolves around three generations of women. The drowning of young Kelithe's three-
year-old son starts the plot and sets the tone for this story of loss and transformation.
Accused of deliberately allowing the child to drown in order to free herself to
immigrate to the United States, Kelithe becomes the center of accusations and bitter
feuds that began long before her child's birth and that precipitate the return of Kelithe's
mother, who had left Jamaica when her daughter was young. The community's reaction
to Kelithe, the grandmother who raised her, and her mother are the center of this novel
in its exploration of the impact of immigration on those who leave as well as the ones
who stay and the nature of motherhood.
RS: You are currently working as a writer and editor for the Dow Jones
Newswires, and you've worked for several other financial organizations, such as
Institutional Investor. How did you get into that area?
DH: When I finished my undergraduate degree, I started looking for a job like
everybody else. I had no idea what to do. I knew I wanted to write, and I didn't want
to work for a newspaper and spend days and days and hours and hours interviewing
people about very traumatic events, then meeting deadlines. So I started looking for
something else, and I got an internship in Institutional Investor. They have a magazine
that goes out primarily to investment bankers, but there's also a newsletter division, one
talking about 401Ks, the bond market, a number of different money management
That's how I got my start. It was difficult to get anything else not related to
finance, so I kept on doing it. It's been pretty interesting, and I've learned a lot about
managing money, understanding basic principles of mutual funds, and I've been able to
explain to my sisters and other people, "This is what a mutual fund is, this is what you
could or should be doing,"and it's been helpful. So I have no regrets at all. In some
ways, it's pretty dry. But that's okay because I write fiction.
RS: How do you manage to write when you're holding down a full-time
The New Voice of a Graceful Lady: An Interview with Donna Hemans
DH: I try to do it every day-I say "try!" I don't start working [in the office]
until 10:00 in the morning, so I've been getting up at 6:00 and writing for at least an
hour and a half. It's difficult, and I would much rather have a part-time schedule, but I
RS: Is the finance writing an exercise for your fiction writing, or is it
DH: It's totally unrelated. People have asked me how at the end of the day I
can get out of that financial mindset, but it's pretty easy for me. As long as I keep my
fiction in my head, I'll think about it while I'm doing something totally unrelated. So
when I'm ready to get back to it, it just comes. I don't have to go through any special
moves. The fiction is constant enough.
RS: Do you write easily? Quickly?
DH: Not very quickly. I'm happy if I get through a page a day, even half a
page a day, partly because I tend to move around a lot when I'm writing. If I start
writing something and I don't fully understand it or I'm not sure where I should go, I'll
leave the computer. I walk around and do something else in the house and come back to
it. I'll probably write another sentence, then get up again and do something else. I am
happy if I have a sentence or a paragraph, as long as I'm moving forward and
understand where the story or character is going; then I can come back to it with
something else to add.
RS: When did you start writing?
DH: At Fordham University, I majored in English and Journalism, Media
Studies, and I did creative writing and worked on the literary magazine. But I think the
first story I remember writing was when I was in the ninth grade in Jamaica. There was
a national short story competition, and the story I entered won for one of the fourteen
parishes; mine was the winner for the Parish of St. Ann. I don't remember what the
story was about, but it was meaningful [to win]. I did not think of myself as a writer at
that point, but, now that I look back on it, I can see where my interest was.
RS: Why did you submit the story-a teacher's idea?
DH: I think it was my own idea. I don't remember how I knew about the
contest, but I remember that, after I found out the story had won, the woman who was
then vice principal in my school wondered why I did not submit it as a student because
then I would have won for a different parish-for the school. I don't remember why I
did it, but I sat up one night and typed on this old typewriter. I really don't remember
what the story was about.
RS: You're from the younger generation in the Caribbean who studied
writers from the area as part of your education. Which ones most influenced
DH: Most of the influence actually came much later on, probably in my
undergraduate years and certainly now. I remember hearing Louise Bennett's program
on television where she told her stories and read her poems. In high school, though,
one of the books I loved reading then and still love reading now is Wide Sargasso Sea.
I love simply every single thing about that book. I haven't been able to read anything
else by Jean Rhys because I love that one so much. Antoinette's is a very sad, tragic
story. I didn't see any way out for her, partly because of what happened to her mother.
In a way, a lot of things that happen in your childhood define who you are, and it was
simply so obvious in her case. I also love the language and the way she [Rhys] set the
novel up, giving us the perspective of Antoinette and her husband. I've read it three or
four times and will read it again-and again.
Another person is Zora Neale Hurston. I read pretty much everything she
wrote while I was an undergraduate, and I liked what she did with language, how she
used the dialect. The other person whose work I really love is Toni Morrison. What I
like is how she involves political stories or politics in her novels without sacrificing art.
That is something very difficult to do.
RS: After you graduated from Fordham University, you went to the
MFA program at American University [in Washington, D.C.]. Was that a good
experience for you?
DH: Yes, it was an interesting program, and it was a good time for me. I had
been doing this financial work, but all along I had known I wanted to do an M.F.A. or
whatever graduate degree I could in fiction, yet I wanted to give myself some time to
see if there was something else that would pull me. I was tired of New York [City] and
simply had to get out of there. One of the best ways of doing that was going back to
school. Also, just before I started the [M.F.A.] program, I started writing River
Woman. I didn't think I would be able to finish it on my own without being in a
community of writers. I was working with people interested in finance and journalism,
but they knew little about literature, people who would not be able to read a story and
say you need to do this or think about that. I needed that type of community. The story
was there, and for some reason, I had to write it. That was the main reason I went into
The New Voice of a Graceful Lady: An Interview with Donna Hemans
RS: Was it your thesis?
DH: Yes, and I was pretty much done when I finished the program. I spent
the summer [of 1999] revising it based on comments from the thesis committee, and
then I felt it was ready to be submitted.
RS: Where did this novel come from?
DH: I think one of the things that has always struck me was the lengths to
which people will go to get out of situations that they are in, especially when you look
at places like Jamaica and Haiti. Immigrants will get on just about any boat to get
somewhere. At the time I began writing the novel, I remember a friend of mine telling
me about a couple of people I had known in high school [in Jamaica], and I remember
one person getting married to someone she otherwise would never have married
because then she would be able to stay here [in the U. S.]. At the same time I was
looking at that and thinking about what I should be doing with my own life: should I be
going back to Jamaica to do something there or stay here? I was really thinking about
the opportunities I had. If I had stayed in Jamaica, I know my parents would have done
everything to make sure I had gotten an education as opposed to other people who had
no choice-whose parents did not have the money or means to make their lives there
better. So, for them, the only choice to have something better was coming here.
While I was thinking about that, I was also feeling guilty about the fact that I
left. Here I was making my way in a completely different country and not going back
to my own country. I think a lot of the novel came out of my own guilt of leaving and
looking at what other people were doing to get the opportunities I had. Because of that
guilt, I initially wanted Kelithe to really do something to show how desperate she was,
and I wanted her at the outset to have actually watched her son drown, to be really
guilty of that because it was her only way out. But as I continued going through the
novel, it changed in so many different ways. I didn't think I could make her that harsh
of an individual.
RS: The novel is also about the mother, who is a wonderful character.
Where did she come from?
DH: I added the mother primarily because I had to give some perspective to
Kelithe's desire to leave, simply to show how strong that was, but also to show what it
meant to her to be a young mother, not having grown up with her own
mother-exactly what it was she wanted to be able to give her own child. I think this is
very evident throughout the Caribbean because so many mothers leave and leave their
children behind because it's the only way they can make it. These are the sacrifices
people have to make.
RS: The grandmother in River Woman is also a fascinating character and
continues that tradition of matriarchy so prominent in novels by Caribbean
women. Did you grow up with several generations of women?
DH: No. My mother did not grow up with her mother. Her mother had three
sons, but for some reason when she had my mother, she gave her to my grandfather:
she kept the boys and gave away the girl. That must have something to do with it. I
haven't worked it out for myself, but I keep wondering if that has any bearing on my
life and these stories. I think a part of it may be that my mother had a series of helpers
when we were growing up, and that has some bearing on the novel I'm working on
now. A lot of those helpers were women who were in the house when I was growing
up and had a lot of influence on me. I guess that's the matriarchy. But in terms of
grandmothers, they were not that present. I only saw my mother's mother a few times,
and my father's mother died when I was sixteen; at that point she was probably
ninety-she must have been about forty when she had my father. So I missed a lot of
that contact with the grandmother.
RS: So much of the politics in this novel, particularly the people's need to
punish Kelithe, doesn't add up to a very flattering portrait of the community. Is
that a fair reading?
DH: It's not a flattering portrait. I'm not sure I can say it is really reflective of
what is in Jamaica. The only thing I can think of in terms of my own experience is
when I got ready to come here when I was sixteen. My parents had been in the U.S. for
college in the 1960s, and my older sister was born while they were here, but my
younger sister and I were born in Jamaica. My older sister knew when she turned
eighteen that she would have to make some decision about her citizenship. At the same
time, my parents went through the whole process to get visas for everyone so that my
younger sister and I could come here. Two days before I left, the preacher in our
church actually got on the pulpit and preached about all the people who were leaving.
He was very very upset about the fact that my sister, who was actually an American
citizen, had left the year before, and now I was leaving.
It was very disturbing because, for one, I was going primarily to get an
education, moving forward, doing something positive, and he turned it into a sermon.
When you think about it and look at what happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a
lot of the more educated or well-off people left because of the problems of socialism
with Michael Manley. I guess it has remained in some people's mind as a
problem-that people who are young and educated and can make a difference are
RS: How do you think the novel will be received in Jamaica?
The New Voice of a Graceful Lady: An Interview with Donna Hemans
DH: That's an interesting question. I'm wondering about that. One reason is
that where I set the story-Standfast-is an actual place in Jamaica, but it has no river,
and it is not as desolate as it is in the novel. The actual history of Standfast is accurate,
but I've been wondering exactly how people will look at it that I changed the place to
suit the story. It was originally set in a different place that has a river, but I liked the
RS: Have your parents read it?
DH: They've read the first fifty pages, but I'm holding off on the rest! Before
they got those pages, they had heard a reading I did when I read at American
University. I sent a copy of the tape, and I've been told they're listening over and over
[to the tape] and have passed it on to other people.
RS: River Woman is a story about going home, finding a place where you
belong. Do you think about returning to Jamaica to live?
DH: I've thought about it. And I continue to think about it. When I think
about what I could be doing if I actually went back, I would probably end up teaching.
Or, if I worked as a journalist, I would be living in Kingston, and I wouldn't want to do
that. If I went back, I wouldn't want that much contact with a city.
RS: What if you could return as a writer?
DH: If I could do that, I would. It's something I would have to think about in
another three or four years or so when River Woman has been out, and I've finished
another novel. Then I would think seriously about it.
RS: You mentioned the novel you're working on now. What is it about?
DH: I haven't got very far, only about 50 pages. Basically, it's about another
young woman, fifteen or sixteen years old. Her mother dies while giving birth to one
of many sons she is trying to have. The grandmother sends the girl away to become a
helper for another family. So, much of it is about the absence of the mother. I have set
it in the early 1980s at a time when Jamaica was going through its major political
upheaval. I don't know exactly how politics will tie into the story, but I know it does
involve a number of children who were sent away from Kingston to live with their
grandmothers because their parents were afraid they would get caught up in the
violence. I didn't have that experience myself because I was raised in Brown's Town,
St. Ann, close to Ochos Rios and far enough away from Kingston so that I was away
from the violence.
RS: Would you talk a little bit about your short story "Leaf of Life"?
DH: I wrote that about a year and a half ago. I've always liked languages. I
studied Spanish in school, partly because it was a requirement and partly because my
grandfather and grandmother lived in Cuba for a while. I cannot speak it well, but I
have an interest. I also have had an interest in names, where they came from, what they
mean, and how they shape people's lives. I think that's mostly where the idea of the
story came from.
My full name is Donna Anne, and I found out, maybe when I was in high
school, about ninth grade, what my name meant: Donna is "lady," and Anne is
"graceful"-and it just changed my whole perspective of myself. I thought that I
should live up to this name-I should be "lady graceful" or "graceful lady," however
you look at it!
Renee H. Shea conducted this interview with Donna Hemans in March 2000 in
Leaf of Life
Hazel loved the name game. She thought of Azul for her friend, Clive. A. Z
with a soft S. U. L. Azul, blue, because he said he didn't want to be black or white or
yellow or red, but blue like the sky so he could fly away with the birds and no one
would know where he went or see a body that was the same color as the sky. Blue so
he could look down on the world like a camera recording everything.
"Saltamontes-grasshopper?" Hazel asked. "Saltamontes verde? Why not
"No. Grasshoppers are slow," Azul said. "Jumping in the grass. Crushed
under feet. So blue. I want to be blue like the sky."
"Lagarto. Lizard. Green lizard. You can change colors when you want. Why
Hazel-who answered to Hazel at home but outside called herself Roja
because red, not orange, was the color of fire-thought she was the perfect person to
make up names. Her father had said once that names should be perfect the first time
around because they are so permanent. Hers wasn't perfect. Her mother had named
her Hazel because that was her mother's name. Hazel was a plant Roja-Hazel didn't
know. Hazel eyes she didn't have. Her father had wanted something different, a made-
up name, an African name, but her mother had said she didn't want her daughter to
carry around such a heavy burden. Her own father called himself Black Lion and
named his business "Black Lion Flowers and Gardens."
"Strength," he had explained to her. "You have to be strong to survive."
Hazel chose red because she thought of fire when she listened to herself, the
self that wasn't always heard. The voice she heard and the self she wanted to be said
"yes" with conviction and not with a pleading or with a question mark on the end. She
heard a voice that answered questions with authority. She heard that voice and
practiced it at night because she desperately wanted to be anything other than a woman
like her mother who ripped food stamps from a book and gave them to her to pay for
part of the groceries because she felt it was easier for a child who perhaps wasn't
completely aware of the difference between cash and stamps. She practiced, too,
because she thought of the difficulties her mother recited, now that her father was lying
in bed with a broken leg and back pain and numerous other complications and receiving
government benefits and talking continuously about the system, the system that made it
difficult for him to get the benefits he deserved.
They-Roja, Azul, and Claudia, who hadn't yet found her perfect
name-chose Spanish words because they were learning a new language with prettier
words. Even though the three were foreigners, they still wanted to be different, to craft
an identity outside of what others expected them to be. They chose Spanish even
though those around them who spoke the language were themselves reaching up and
out of the Coney Island neighborhood, the place that was not quite an island, but a
piece of land that seemed to be slowly sinking from the push and pull of the water all
Roja Hazel, who always had the dictionary, translated game songs to Spanish.
And even though the three were much too old for ring games, they played the games
anyway because they could sing the songs in Spanish. She translated the calypso songs
her mother played at home into Spanish, and in her room she sang the words to a
Spanish beat. She was working on Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry," which her
father sang over and over when he wasn't telling himself or others stories, changing the
words to "no man no cry" to suit his pain.
Hazel loved the name-game, wanted to prolong it for as long as possible
because as long as she could remain like a child fascinated with the magic of names she
could hold off that other blackness that her father's name, Black Lion, was powerless
"Now we need a color for you." Roja said, turning her attention to Claudia.
"Amarillo. No. Violet...."
"Why not just black?" Claudia asked.
"Black isn't a color," Roja said. "It isn't in the rainbow," she added, though
she was thinking of the way her father used to worship black. Wanted, too, to think of
something other than the color that represented death.
She turned again to the dictionary for a word to reshape her friend's life, the
way the name Black Lion had reshaped her father's adult life.
Hazel's father always had a story to tell her when she brought him his food.
He talked through the pain, pushing the words out of his mouth as if something in his
body was forcing them up from his feet. He talked when he was alone, and sometimes
Hazel's mother sent her into his room to ease his loneliness. Hazel wondered if he
talked because he wanted to be absolutely certain of the moments he was getting
weaker or dying because then he probably wouldn't have much energy to open his
mouth and push the words out of his body.
"Just listen to him," her mother said. "Talk to him and listen."
But her mother wouldn't go herself.
"You young still," she told Hazel once. "You have years and years to ease
your pain. I'm nearly fifty years ahead of you. Getting ready to go into old age with
my own pain."
But she cried at night in the darkness of the living room. Her sobs and moans
were audible in the night free of her husband's pain-filled voice.
Leaf of Life
"Back home everything is green," Hazel's father said. "Even in the dry
season, everything is green. Bury me in green. Not black. Green."
He pointed to the green in the Jamaican flag, hanging on the wall, framed like
a picture of a loved one. "Green like that. Not callaloo dark green that will look like
black. If I could see outside, I would show you. Green like leaves. Like cane fields,
corn fields, rice fields."
Hazel thought he wanted to live forever. Green means growth. The green in
the black, green and gold flag represents the vegetation that Christopher Columbus and
his men found when they came across the island. That's what her before-America
teachers had said about the island Columbus and his men called the land of wood and
He settled on green because the doctor told him that the cancer had spread too
far. He hadn't hurt his back when he fell. That wasn't why he was having the pain.
Cancer. Diseased cells everywhere. No hope.
He had been happy with black before. "Black is a misunderstood color," he
used to say. "Black people, misunderstood. Black magic, misunderstood. Black
sheep. Even blackjack." He said the last with a laugh, thinking of the money lost to
Days after the doctor gave his word, her mother brought home a leaf of life
plant and left it in a bottle on the dresser, in the direct path of the sun coming through
the window. Old people used it at home to cure almost any illness--colds,
sores-boiled to make a tea or crushed for its juice, Hazel's father said. Neither Hazel
nor her father asked how she had got the plant.
"You know, Hazel, that a whole new plant can grow from a piece of this
leaf?" her father asked. "A whole new plant. Leaf of life."
"Show me, Daddy."
He accepted her challenge and spent the days planting leaves in empty jars and
plastic containers she brought from the kitchen. Hazel brought the dirt in from outside
and labeled the containers after each day of the week, with the month and the date in
brackets. On the days when her father felt a lot of pain he planted pieces of leaves
rather than a whole leaf. But he didn't say why. Hazel didn't ask but she thought that
each of the growing plants, especially the ones that sprouted from a tiny bit of leaf,
meant her father would live longer than the doctor had said. And those were the plants
that Hazel watered and watched.
"You know how to make bush tea?" her father asked.
"No, Daddy. Who going to teach me?"
"You growing up like you don't have any history behind you, girl. Too far
away from home. Yes, too far away from home." That was it. All that he said about
history and people, the things he had talked about most often throughout his life.
He caught his breath, turned his eyes to the flag hanging on the wall.
"Get a piece o' paper. No. A notebook, a fresh clean notebook." He kept his
eyes on the flag.
Hazel didn't ask why, but she went to get the notebook because she thought
each morning that that day would be her father's last and wanted to do everything she
could for him. On each of those mornings when she woke, she prayed to "Our Father
Up Above" to lead her family from the blackness her father's illness had brought, to
take her father out of the shadow of darkness to green hills. The first time she said that
prayer, she thought of the green hills with lambs and happy children running around
that were pictured in the books the Jehovah's Witnesses sold. Their pictures of
paradise. Not those green hills, she wanted to add, but God knew her thoughts and
would know exactly what she had meant.
The book she brought was green. On the cover she wrote "Daddy's Hope."
"Write 'Leaf of Life Tea' at the top," he said when she returned. "When I
finish, you going to make some for me."
The recipe he told her was simple, the list of ailments it could cure long.
Hazel boiled the leaves the way he said and sweetened the juice with sugar.
She didn't like the taste and dropped a touch of lemon juice, which her mother said was
enough to change the taste of anything. When she was finished, she scratched out the
word 'Hope' from the cover of the book and wrote "Daddy's Leaf of Life" instead.
"Green is the perfect color for you, Claudia," Roja said to Claudia days later.
"Life. Green represents life."
She thought, too, that green was the color of hope. But she didn't tell her
friends that she had taken green as the color of hope because her father, who she knew
didn't want to die, had taken green as his color of hope.
"But green isn't like blue," Claudia said. "It isn't like Lionel's azul and the
blue, blue sky. The only way I can get lost in green is in a forest. No freedom."
"Green is best," Roja said. "Look around you. You see that everything green
is alive. Right?"
They looked around at the fading fall trees, the orange and red leaves waiting
to fall to the ground, the brown leaves covering the concrete pavement.
Green is the leaf of life, Roja thought. She should have chosen green for
Hazel's father remembered mainly the small things and colors associated with
them. Hazel wrote them down in her book called "Daddy's Leaf of Life." He
remembered the sun was bright orange-almost red-the evening she was born and the
Leaf of Life
blue-blue clothes the doctor wore. But he didn't talk at all of the unbearable pain her
mother said she had felt and which settled once and for all that her daughter would be
an only child.
For days he talked about green lizards and croaking lizards, the slow-moving
fat ones with almost-white skin. They slithered against the walls of his childhood home
and during the day hid in the wooden box surrounding the stereo or behind the curtains,
hiding from the sun. He liked to say they squinted against the sun like albinos.
Her dad talked about the sun and wondered out loud if God preferred the dark
people of Africa and so gave them sun, or if HE preferred the light people of the
Antartica and so gave them darkness nine months out of the year. That was her father's
only mention of race and color. Although his statement didn't have the conviction that
all his stories used to have, Hazel wanted to think her old father was coming back. But
she knew that lying in bed all day, his world was light and dark, now sprinkled with
The number of containers of leaf of life plants stood still at thirty. Some were
on the window sill, straining for the weak winter sun. There were three empty
containers that her father said he would fill when he found the strength to move. On
those days that Hazel's father didn't plant any leaves, Hazel didn't write any words.
She hadn't brought any new containers, afraid to see the empty ones and think about
what they really meant.
He had always loved to grow things and had grown exotic plants back home.
He had even gone to Sierra Leone once and brought back hundreds of a flowering
pineapple-looking plant. Pineapple flowers, Hazel called them. She helped him water
the flowers in the green house, sometimes traveled with him to hotels and funeral
parlors, churches, homes of brides. He had been on the verge of doing the same here,
importing and selling the exotic plants still flowering back home when he fell and hurt
his back and found out too late that cancer had weakened his body.
"Daddy, you want me to call the doctor for something for the pain? Or
Mommy at work?"
He kept his eyes on the ceiling as if he hadn't heard her words. He didn't talk
about his pain, and Hazel had come to know that when he stared at the whiteness of the
ceiling without talking that the pain was bad. She didn't ask again but went to call her
mother at work.
"Mommy, I think the pain real bad now," Hazel said to her mother on the
phone. "He hasn't said anything. Nothing all afternoon."
"I going call the doctor."
While Hazel waited for her mother and the doctor, she wrote out the things
she remembered about her father's life, constructed a picture of the man she wanted to
remember. She drew a picture of a lion and below that wrote the story of her father
lifting her mother from the ground where she had fallen in the snow and carrying her
up the stairs to their bedroom. He had filled the bath with warm water and taken her
into the bathroom. Through the closed doors Hazel heard the water splashing in the
tub. Next she wrote a story her father told her about helping some men lift a tractor off
a boy. He said he felt good about what he had done to help, but he never forgot the one
time he saw the boy afterward, crippled forever, and wondered if the boy thought the
men's deed had really been good.
Hazel's mother and the doctor came at the same time, letting cold air through
"How many days you going give me now, Doc?" Hazel's father said, his voice
a low whisper.
"I'll give you something for the pain," the doctor said. "You know, the
hospital may be better now. You'd be more comfortable."
He turned his head to the ceiling again, closing his mouth until the doctor left.
Hazel sat at the foot of the bed, waiting for words to write. Nothing came.
"Sunshine," her father said when Hazel went to give him his medicine in the
morning. "Sunshine. I need sunshine."
She pushed the curtains aside, raised the blinds for some of the weak, early
"No, real sunshine. Call your mother."
He said the same thing when she came.
"It cold outside now," Hazel's mother said.
"Take me home," he said. "I want to go back home. I not dead yet. I need
sunshine to live."
Tears formed in Hazel's eyes because she knew what that meant. She had
always tried not to cry because water, tears, could squelch the secret fire that blazed
within. She removed the three empty containers and planted the leaves herself. She
wrote the dates in brackets in green, separating the three containers she had planted
from those of her father's. Those three were the only plants she watched and watered.
Later in the afternoon when Hazel got home from school, her father was
sitting in a chair by the window, an empty suitcase on the bed. He hadn't touched the
Leaf of Life tea that she made him and didn't say anything besides good afternoon.
She sat in the room with him, the book open on her lap. At the top she wrote
"Day Six: Sunshine" but couldn't think of any words that matched the promise of the
Leaf of Life
"Don't call me Roja anymore," she said to Azul and Claudia on the way to
school the following day. "Hazel, just call me Hazel from now on."
"Why?" Azul and Claudia asked together.
"Nothing. Just Hazel. Or Hope if you want to."
"I still don't like Claudia. I want something different."
"I'll find something for you. What you want the name to mean?" Azul said.
Hazel didn't say anything at all but thought of the sunshine her father wanted,
the full cup of leaf of life tea that was still sitting on the window sill when she went to
say goodbye to her father before school. The names Azul and Claudia traded back and
forth hung in the air like something she could reach out and grab when she wanted but
not like something that grew in the heart.
She thought of her name as a basket on her head, balanced, full. But like a
Joanne C. Hillhouse
Philly Ramblings 8
In square circle
with my girls
who I trust
in spite of
and the fact that we
only offer each other
Poetry by Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming
Scent of sapodilla sweetness
weaves its way
like sapodilla flesh
yielding ripe tenderness
shielding seeds silky
shiny black teardrops
more rock like
but not as bitter
as tears hidden
in sapodilla sweet
When the Moon Flows Full
the colour of ripe cerise,
sweet pulp that I swallow
to coat this sour regret
rising in my throat.
shades of ackee
waiting to burst,
to spread out,
to show off
yellow flesh like fertilized yolks.
like zaboca skin
when the fruit full
and it taste of
butter and milk-cream,
rich and yielding.
while I beg
to show me how to stop
these colours from spilling.
while I plead
to teach me how to catch
my embryos in my womb.
while I cry out
for the secret
of how to push back this blood,
of how to ripen
pregnant and luxuriant.
But they do not answer,
not cerise, not ackee, not zaboca.
And the blood still flows
to remind me
that I cannot plant
as strong as ackee,
to grow full like zaboca
birth red black like cerise.
Poetry by Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming
is a woman who live
by words she suck
by night from the ones
who suck her blood
from we who drink words
like blood we drink
and we grow trees
and children with our blood
that come spilling
from mouths red with blood
mouths that want to shout
like a banshee
in the night wailing
at the full moon
Like her voice
like a zandolie burrowing
but emerging next day in light
mouthing/tongueing words hot
like tropical sunshine
Glean(h)er et cetera
from Ruthless at noon... or his gender
The smell of Sunday too-early morning. Before the Anglicans arise to go sing lustily in
the old camp hut. She puts the Gleaner near the door; Sunday Gleaner prepaid. But the
door opens and quick as a flash a strong hand on her unsuspecting arm. Someone is
grabbing her. Too shocked to scream. Eventually she tries. But not a sound comes. In
any case the towel stuffs itself in past her teeth. His own teeth grins "oi like you.
You going to like it."
A slim girl looking no more than sixteen years old in a washed-out cotton frock,
looking like a moder-day Mary McGuire walks with her head down and a bundle of
newspapers under one arm. Past the Anglicans going to early morning church in their
red gowns, past the few Catholics returning from Mass. Clutching in the other hand a
five-shilling note and trying to think what that young man thinks she can do with that.
It hurt bad. This must be what her grandmother had warned her about. But is the same
grandmother send her to deliver the already paid for newspaper.
Grandmother she sure to say is a lie for those nice young men at UC who going to turn
doctor could never NEVER do such a thing.
"Madge, I never know you would so lie. Tell me the name of the little dry eye gutter
rat that breed you. I sure cant pay for the shirt on him back."
She had put the five shilling bill in an ovaltine bin behind the safe. But it didn't have
anybody's name on it. She didn't know the name of the man. She was not even sure if
she saw him again she would know him. She hadnt delivered the paper again. Granny
really used to go herself. It was only that that Sunday she hadnt been feeling well.
"Jesus lover of my soul.... it hot"
"You didn't think it was hot when you were doing it?"
"Nurse, you don't know the half."
"Well tell me noh. And the whole. You little force-ripe girls are all the same."
"Oh Gawd ...."
Keep your breath. Stop screaming. Save the breath and push..... Now!!!"
Wonder why women so hard on each other. Every story about midwives at lying-in is
Poetry and Creative Writing by Velma Pollard
the same. And you would think that after all the talk about rape and child-abuse and
senseless sex they would put two and two together and get some answers.
It is easier this way though. Blame somebody. The young girl. Then you don't have to
think about it. Dont have to worry about society. In fact the man behind the abuse may
be your own. Well not exactly the abuse; that female child; but some other one. You
think after the fifties it stop? The only difference now is that you can seem to care.
Just wear the pin that says "I make a difference."
Look at little Valdine. The little twelve year old from Spanish Town. Never know
what hit. As the press report it both the uncle and the boarder in the house had been
having their way with her for months if not years and when she try to tell her Aunt she
see the uncle behind the Aunt head moving his finger across his throat meaning he
would kill her if she ever talk so she just say "Nothing mam."
But what really kill me in that case is that they out on bail waiting for the case to come
up and she out there with nobody responsible, getting bigger and bigger and walking
like she have hot orange between her legs.
After the newspaper call the public's attention to it some place of safety take her.
When I was young I used to hear that men with venereal disease believed that if they
slept with a virgin they would get cured (that is in addition of course, to passing it on to
her). Now I hear they also use them to test whether they are still fertile. A nurse told
me about this eleven year old who had a miscarriage, crying in the hospital saying "The
man going vex say im seed no good."
Tell me about ignorance.
Found in high places sometimes you know.
I heard with my own ears (whose else?) a venerable judge (male of course) saying rape
not so bad because is only a question of introducing the girl to something she will have
to do later anyway. You hear me? I don't know if he has a daughter. And I don't know
if he feels the same way about sodomy. That time all I said was "Excuse me let me go
outside and be sick." But I was living in a society that has its own rules (or lack of
them) and they were already asking me (between guffaws) if I wanted to change things.
I led him to the place
and other people's
cast off curtains
Rolling up his sleeves
he set the blocks in order
raised the bed
(a cast off sofa really)
hoisted the string
that held the curtain
pulled it to the end
that let eyes in
sealed each space that let in
rain and sky
straightened the window
heaped odd remains
in one pile
finding a coconut broom
he swept the littered
hardened earth of floor
I smoothed the sofa
stuck two yellow cushions on
he stretched his full height
touched the roof
then bending from the waist
smiling he said
"your flat madam"
and led me to the bed
Poetry and Creative Writing by Velma Pollard
(after Saunders' "Statehood Sacrifice")
I couldn't find her
hidden in that
three where only one should be
The little bed spring creaked
the coir peeked
in fits and starts
and she had turned her face the other way
only her fat plaits
showed me it was she
(her foster mother dead)
here to share
three where only one should be
symbol of something/nothing
no childhood here
I could not leave her so
dazed by such a change
this one I must spare
the new found daily
worry what to eat
the terror in the mother's eyes
at my hand-stretch
New room/Her room
the door shuts close
the bedspring cracks
the body's rearranging
through the crack
she sees the light
and thinks him gold-
rimmed fingering line on line
growing his words
she turns to darkness
calm and eloquent
and fills it with her
moonbeams with her trees
loud through the cracks
beyond the mossy rocks
again the harsh metallic clink
pressed in on metal beams
good night relaxes
limb on tired limb
the harsh light glows
Poetry and Creative Writing by Velma Pollard
she hears her thank
I might have missed
the calm of loneliness and dark
I might have lived
light shared for night on end-
end to end to light a lifetime after dark
harsh light that mocked my dreams
of quiet waters after dark...
she's toiling up
five flights of stairs
bags in her hands
lead in her heart
The little faces peering at the top
(careful to keep the chain on)
shout with glee
But they are four
last Summer they were three
What did he tell you
a tale so sweet
that you would calmly lie
and tell him
What words have you prepared
what actions then
or will you
let him in
till there are ten?
(Leeds, July 97)
here amid these sisters
pleasures of passion
"that leaves no traces"
wish I could
that you too
leave no traces
leaving no traces
marks don't show
where deep stirring grow
Poetry and Creative Writing by Eunice Heath Tate
Eunice Heath Tate
She lives there still, the last time I went back. A tiny
thing now, not the giant she was when she seduced
me. Tucked away at the end of the quiet dirt road,
nestled between the river and the narrow dirt path.
The bushes now grow as tall as light poles.
Ripe mangos and June plums cover the roadside
like yellow green blooms attracting flies.
The fruit trees more fragrant than the memory.
The river down the steep hillside, now drifting
between sad gray stones. It is Saturday, Mama's
voice catches up with me down the fruit-lined road,
bare feet skipping to the sultry music
inside my head. "Walk good and micase come back!"
I have gone for years thinking about those days
of innocence, when I came fresh from the city,
and she breathed new life into me and made me
feel things in a way I didn't believe possible.
Those days were good days, when I would lay
inside of her thinking about what I was to become.
She now belongs to a petty merchant who breezes
through the countryside with obvious disdain.
Stripped of her glory by decades of neglect
and the hostility of relatives fighting
to have her. I have seen her bend to the east
catching the sun in blunt slits of old wounds.
Her white body a dirty bleached-blond, bleeding
from lack of care. The big oak tree I used to play
under now arched like an eyebrow,
casting more shadows
with each season. I have searched her face
for years in this one, old photograph
I have of her, trying to taste
the bliss of being blameless.
To romp on the long white veranda,
where the sun strikes first every morning,
To hear Mama's voice call out to me, "Be careful,
nuh stain yuh church dress." And from the room
where my parents loved with ease, my father's voice
came, not unlike the random noise in a radio receiver,
"Listen to yuh Mudda, Sophie."
The family are all scattered now. Four sisters
that came to us in transit
one summer when their parents migrated
to England. Three sisters living in America.
Mama in another part of the world.
Papa living like a tourist
between the Caribbean and America.
But what I wouldn't give
to have her again. If only for a summer.
A long beautiful summer
with the merciless Caribbean sun
on our backs. And the river playing our song
down the long quiet dirt road.
Three Years After
I have known spilled blood
offered up as shrine
and to this end I have arrived
at some startling and humbling conclusions
I have worn the mask of sorrow
visited the graves of wholesale destruction
I alone have lived in a house of blues
and gorged on that beast
that collects from the weak
Yes. I have known hate
much like the exactness of a blade
three years after
I have harvested the laughs
gathered the skeletons into the light
wrapped them in the hem of my skirt
looking over the distance of childhood
to heal a mother's lesions
Poetry and Creative Writing by Eunice Heath Tate
three years after
I feel him leaving me like tears
but I have grown new skin and
and like crust I fit him to me
I know now that death is redemptive
cause God never takes a flower
without first sending a sprout
three years after
this I know
he is still my son
I am still his mother
my sons are still his brothers
my daughter still his sister
and he has gone home
Chapter 3 from When God Wasn't Looking
What happened, happened a long time ago.
Happened when she was a child.
Happened when God went and took a nap.
But it's not so long ago that she couldn't remember every little detail. The
calm before the storm. How hungry the river was back then. The feel of the wet grass
under her feet. The black mud seeping between her toes. The thick gray/black smoke
that used to spiral out of the valley like a gigantic screw. The sound of rain on the zinc
roof of the house and the penny-sized hail that would fall on the verandah. It was said
that, when it rained, that it was the devil and his wife fighting over an herring bone.
But it sounded more like all hell had broken loose. Sydney remembered the thick
darkness that always caused panic to rise in her chest like a boulder whenever night fell
upon the district of Fresh Spring-that God-forsaken village at the end of the world.
As she planted her head in the vee of Alvin's arms, she was eight years-old
again. She closed her eyes and committed herself to the memory that came rushing to
her like the water licking the rocks of Dunn's River Falls.
The first night she lived in that darkness, she was swallowed by the intensity,
and she knew instinctively that it would somehow manage to take over her life, no
matter how hard she fought it. But what she remembered most about those dark times
is the sound of children's idle chatter and their careless laughter coming from far away.
Always far away. Close enough to hear, but never close enough for her to be a part of.
To touch. To feel. No matter how hard she tried... and she tried for years... she
could not feel that euphoria. Even now she could hear the echo. The din was like the
rhythm of the insane.
Her life began in a community of mamas, papas, aunts, uncles, cousins and
whoever didn't quite make the relative list were Mister and Missus Somebody. All that
good manners stuff didn't really confuse her because children learned early that this
was all done out of respect for grownups. And everyone old enough to tie a nappy on a
child's butt was given respect. If they were caught misbehaving, neighbors had the
right to whip their little backsides and send them hollering to their parents.
She didn't remember very much of her life before her mother gave her away.
Her family came from Montego Bay. A small district called Mount Salem on the edge
of the city. There were three real churches, a couple "clap-hand" houses and a post
office that did more harm than good because the postmistress kept stealing folks' letters
with their foreign money. Then in the early 60's came the one housing scheme that
brought prominence to folks who could afford to live there. Two large grocery
shops-both owned by Chinese and a string of small mom-and-pop shops.
The Chinese always seemed to do better business than the folks who lived in
Mount Salem all their lives. She never understood that. She guessed it was because
their shelves were always stocked and they were more willing to sell folks what they
could afford. If folks wanted a quarter pound of codfish, a half pound of sugar, or
flour mixed with a little cornmeal, they would sell it without making folks feel bad
because they couldn't afford to buy a pound. While some shopkeepers would
downright refuse to sell a quarter pound of anything. Or if they did, they'd complain as
if folks needed to be reminded that they were living in poverty.
Her mother had six mouths to feed-five plus herself. Four boys and two
girls. She couldn't remember their faces, but she carried their names wherever she go:
Livingston, Marcus, Danny, Errol, Jackie and herself. They were so close in age it was
hard to tell who was older than who. But they had the same daddy and that was
something to be proud of. At least that's what her mother always told them. She didn't
feel the sort of pride she was expected to feel since she didn't see the sense in having a
daddy who was never around much and who kept having children with two other
women while he was living with her mother.
Alvin stirred and rubbed his hand over her bare backside.
What was there to be proud of when her mama was working herself to death.
Sometimes her daddy would have two children born in the same year-one right after
the other. She would be walking up or down the street, going to the shop or coming
from school and a neighbor would point to some girl saying, "Girl dat's yuh sister dere,
you nuh see how de two ah you fava," or "Gal, see you bredda de. Oonoo a dead stamp
Poetry and Creative Writing by Eunice Heath Tate
a one anedda." And their eyes would clash in quiet challenge. But her mother never
said a bad word about their father.
She also remembered being sold like an old car for the parts.
She was helpless when it happened. When her mother gave her away to that
man and his wife, to live with them in their house of darkness. That house was mighty
thirsty. So thirsty it would have drunk the breath, eyes and memory of any child that so
much as put a foot over its threshold. It sure did absorb her like a sponge.
From the time she was eight years old to the time she was almost fifteen, that
house, the man and his wife, fed offer. Her flesh, her tears and whatever joy she
found in her surroundings, they took away. Fed off her spirit like a duppy until one day
she just picked up her heels and ran like all hell had broken loose and was after her.
From that day she started running, it's as though she'd never stopped.
You see, there are some demons in this life that never find a resting place, and
so they just never leave you alone to catch your breath or to take a cool drink of water
and feel it go down smoothly. They never give you a chance to feel your own hands on
your body as you wash yourself, much less someone else's hands desperately trying to
give you pleasure.
She turned her back on Alvin. He slid his hand over her and tucked it in her
wetness. Why is it that he never seemed to get enough of her? Damn badderation, she
She was familiar with demons. She lived with them. Fought against them.
From that day she found the courage and the strength to run, she'd never looked back
and she didn't regret not looking back. However, something back there got its teeth
deep in her. It keeps pulling her back. Twenty five years and that spirit keeps coming
at her something worst than evil. Sucking the life out of her. Demanding something
that she didn't have to give.
So why is she going back now?
She's going back to confront her demons.
She's going back to face the persistent ghost.
She's going back for peace of mind.
Back then they called her Godsend.
Her name is Sydney Price. Doctor Sydney Price.
An On-Going Conversation
(For Barbara, with love and nuffpositive light)
And daily we must fight
for the same crumbs
knowing neither rest nor respite
breaking the same stones
to build the same road
over which we must travel continually
lugging the same burdens
avoiding the same cracks
(that broke our mothers' backs).
And yes ...
even in sleep
we must keep
that third eye open
listen for the approach
of the white-bellied rat
that blows first
to numb the spot
before it bites bites and blows
bites and blows
numbing us further into sleep ...
till we awake to bleeding heels
a gnawed-off knuckle
a frayed spine
that cannot support
our own familiar weight.
We must keep a steady vigil
have our grigris prepared
to ward off creeping evil
we must grow ears
in the soles of our feet
(the better to hear the earth's counsel)
eyes in the back of our throats
so we do not swallow and regurgitate
from smiling, well-meaning lips.
Poetry by Donna Weir-Soley
Too often it will be necessary
to wade shoulder-deep in the muck
in the very act of cleaning it up
think of it as necessary filth
for our own sakes
and for our children's
and for those who went before
to ensure that we had something
however fragile ...
to fight for/to hold on to
a self worth living to preserve.
And sometimes we will have to lie still
in a dark, quiet place
and listen to our inside voices
and the voices of our ancestors
warning us of impending danger
teaching us how to proceed
reminding us that although we might
and will emerge/battle-scarred
and tired, and often sick
and tired of always
being sick and tired
we cannot, must not
give in/only pass the baton
when we have to
and sometimes we will need to
because more than any other right
we must claim the right to defend the selves
we fight daily to preserve.
Remebah when we did young
An' use to run up de hill fah watah?
Wi use to drink till wi belly favor
two roun' inflated balloon
And run back dung de hill
Listening to de chug-a-chug-a-lug
Of watah, mekkin' music inna we belly.
And Mamma use to sey,
One a dese fine days, unnu belly gwine bus wid all dat watah
Wha unnu drink su' much fah?
Now me running up de hill without yuh
An' some days de watah bittah
Still mijus cahn get ennuf
And mamma nuh de yah fi warn mi
An' more time, mi belly jus buss!
Caught between Homes: Mary Seacole and the Question of Cultural Identity
Caught between Homes:
Mary Seacole and the Question of Cultural Identity
Recent attention paid to Caribbean literary works has highlighted the complex
relationship between home and identity for the Caribbean subject. Researchers in
(post)colonial and cultural studies find many of these texts especially appealing
because they refuse any simple equation between cultural identification and national
homeland. Antonio Benitez-Rojo's postmodern critique The Repeating Island
examines the Caribbean subject's multiple racial, ethnic and national affiliations,
demonstrating how productive a field Caribbean literature is for exploring the current
themes of cultural heterogeneity, subjective fragmentation, and transnational identity.'
One finds in many Caribbean works a negotiation ofintercultural identities, as the
narratives relate experiences of displacement from rural to urban spaces, from one
island to another, or from island to the "main lands" of United States, Europe, or
Africa. In addition to illustrating spatial displacements, such narratives demonstrate
historical discontinuities as well, tracing multiple lineages that cross racial, cultural and
This paper examines the relationship between home and cultural identity for
Mary Seacole, the nineteenth-century, free-born, Jamaican Creole, who recounts her
life as a hotel keeper and doctresss" in her autobiographical travel narrative Wonderful
Adventures ofMrs. Seacole in Many Lands. I have pointed out some of the common
themes within recent Caribbean works to explore how Seacole, one of the first black
female voices to be published in England, prefigures these later Caribbean writers as
she struggles to locate a space of authority in the face of racism, sexism, and cultural
prejudice. There are, indeed, clear differences between Seacole's story and later
Caribbean voices. Unlike Jean Rhys, Maryse Condd, Michelle Cliff or Edwidge
Danticat, all women writers who foreground both cultural hybridity and the abuses of
the colonial presence in the West Indies, Seacole's narrative delineates a clear sense of
cultural and national alliance with the colonial power, even demonstrating an
enthusiastic loyalty toward England and its imperialist enterprises beyond its borders.
Though Jamaican-born, and "yellow" in the eyes of the English, Seacole rarely
discusses her Jamaican heritage and refuses to address the abuses Jamaica suffered
under British rule. Her narrative is very much in the same vein as the Victorian travel
narratives that report heroic adventures of the most-often male traveler. Seacole too
relates her adventures as she lives and works in such liminal spaces as New Granada
and the Crimea, outside the borders of the British Empire, and even celebrates the
British war efforts in the Crimea with patriotic fervor.3 Despite her expressions of
anger and contempt for racial prejudice (particularly against white North Americans),
and an open sympathy and admiration for the struggling black populations of New
Granada, she nonetheless strives to live according to the English values of the white
"industrious" bourgeoisie, a value attributed to her "good Scotch blood" (1). Her
mission as a hospital nurse and her running of the British Hotel, where she provides all
the English comforts for soldiers away from home, indicate both a faithfulness to the
colonialist spirit and a thorough consumption of the Victorian "Englishness" she claims
as part of her own cultural inheritance.
My analysis, however, challenges any absolute positioning of Seacole as
subordinate to the colonial power. Despite her seeming conformity to Victorian
bourgeois ideology, she still demonstrates an autonomous agency as she forges a
discursive space for herself. Sandra Pouchet Paquet points out how Seacole's
experience is clearly not that of Mary Prince's suffering as a slave under British rule
described in the 1831 autobiography The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave.
Because of Seacole's more privileged status, freedom for her does not require a
resistance to the imperialistic policies of the Empire. Unlike many of the former slaves
who continued as field workers and servants, Seacole enjoyed a relatively privileged
position as a Creole. As a free-born Jamaican, raised by her mother who also kept a
boarding-house and was also "an admirable doctress; in high repute with the officers ..
S," Seacole hardly had reason to challenge the authority of British rule (2). Historians,
in fact, point out a loyalty toward England even before Emancipation, as the Jamaican
slaves understood that England had already set them free in 1772, and believed that
since that time the planter class was keeping them illegally enslaved. Many argue that
this misunderstanding of legislature allowed England to maintain their authority.4
Paquet highlights moments in Seacole's narrative where she challenges the
boundaries of race, gender, and privilege. I would add, however, that these instances of
prejudice are more often repressed than not. She refuses, for instance, to elaborate
much about her first visit to London, when her skin color made her the target of some
young boys' jokes. Seacole writes:
I shall never forget my first impression of London. Of course, I am
not going to bore the reader with them.... ; Strangely enough, some
of the most vivid of my recollections are the efforts of the London
street-boys to poke fun at my and my companion's complexion. I am
only a little brown-a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom
you all admire so much; but my companion was very dark, and a fair.
.. subject for their rude wit. She was hot-tempered, poor thing! and
as there were no policemen to awe the boys and turn our servants'
heads in those days, our progress through the London streets was
sometimes a rather chequered one. (4)
Here, the narrative reveals a cautious articulation of her color and of the rac al
prejudices she experienced during her first visit to the colonial metropole. claiming
she will not "bore the reader" with these details, and indicating it strange th t her "most
vivid recollections" should involve this confrontation, suggest her fear of in ulting her
Caught between Homes: Mary Seacole and the Question of Cultural Identity
readers. Her text reveals a desire to conform to the reading tastes of her (white)
English audience, and this desire goes beyond merely wanting to avoid
"uncomfortable" subjects like racial discrimination. Her self-description as one who
comes close to resembling "the brunettes whom you all admire so much" suggests an
economy of desire between herself and a chiefly white male imagination from whom
she seeks recognition. Rather than elaborate any on the "rude wit" of the boys, she
uses this instance to introduce the reader to her own complexion, as if to reassure them
that she is, as Homi Bhabha describes the colonized subject in another context, almost,
but not quite, "like them."5
It is therefore not always easy to decipher where resistance and conformity
begin and end. The discourse of Seacole is so entwined within a colonialist vision and
her own will so often concerned with the collective will of the Empire that the
dimensions of her freedom and the degree of her autonomy are rather dubious.6
Seacole occupies a peculiar space in the history of the Jamaican subject, whose cultural
identity during the years immediately following the 1833 abolition of slaves in the
colonies often required a negotiation between the consciousness of the colonizer and
the colonized. Her status as a female mulatto and a professional, combined with her
emulation of British values, reveals the complex alliances for some nineteenth century
subjects living on the borders of the Empire and challenges the spatial, cultural, racial
and sexual boundaries which would exclude them. In claiming to be both Jamaican and
British, Seacole ultimately displaces conventional significations of both home and
Seacole makes clear from the beginning that her autobiographical narrative
does not pretend to be a comprehensive account of her whole life. The substance of
her omission, however, should not be overlooked, as it signifies the stakes involved in
her discourse. Amy Robinson convincingly argues that, in order be heard, Seacole
centers her discourse within conventions familiar to her English audience: In order to
construct herself according to the conventions of the travel narrative, whose hero
normally ventures beyond the safe and secure atmosphere of home to the distant lands
of the "dark unknown," Seacole must first displace her origins from the "dark
unknown" Jamaica and realign herself as closely as possible to a thoroughly English-
bred traveler. After divulging her birthplace (but not her age) in "the town of Kingston,
in the island of Jamaica, some time in the present century," Seacole attempts to salvage
the trust of her readers by immediately launching into a description of her Scottish
I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My
father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family; and to him I often trace
my affection for a camp-life, and my sympathy with what I have
heard my friends call "the pomp, pride, and circumstance of glorious
war." Many people have also traced to my Scotch blood that energy
and activity which are not always found in the Creole race, and which
have carried me to so many varied scenes: and perhaps they are right.
I have often heard the term "lazy Creole" applied to my country
people; but I am sure I do not know what it is to be indolent. ...
That these qualities have led me into many countries, and brought me
into some strange and amusing adventures, the reader, if he or she has
the patience to get through this book, will see. (1-2)
Since the writing of this book was chiefly a monied venture, an attempt to recover from
her bankruptcy after the war, Seacole is understandably quick to gain credibility and to
establish familiarity with her readers by dispensing with any potential prejudices
against her. Rather than attack the validity of the "lazy Creole" stereotype, she casts
herself as an exception to the rule. Her emphasis on her militant nationalism and
industrious energy position her as a loyal English subject, suggesting a self-less,
patriotic motivation behind the travels she will relate. Not only does she have "good
Scotch blood" but also comes from the "coursing" blood of a soldier, the ultimate proof
of her citizenry.
When it comes to the "other side" of her ancestry, Seacole strategically evades
any elaboration, claiming "It is not my intention to dwell at any length upon the
recollections of my childhood" (2). And when any occasion arises in her experiences
to complain against the abuses she or any other Jamaicans might have suffered at the
hands of the British, she maintains an optimistic, forgiving, and forgetful demeanor,
stating, "Indeed, my experience of the world ... leads me to the conclusion that it is by
no means the hard bad world which some selfish people would have us believe it" (7).
Seacole transforms any feelings of resentment toward the colonizer as selfishness.
Indeed, any expressed resentment coming from a Jamaican mulatto at the time could
easily have posed a threat to the respect and authority England continued to enjoy over
its territories. Seacole could have complained for many reasons: While the mulattos,
legally termed "mixed race" populations, were better off than the designated
"coloured" class, they still were not allowed to vote, hold public office, practice in
most professions, or gain any sizable fortunes for themselves. For Seacole to address
these continued injustices, however, would have reduced, if not eliminated, her chances
of gaining the admiration (and financial support) she so desired. Ziggy Alexander and
Audrey Dewjee explain:
the mulatto community was regarded as a threat by the white
population. As the numbers of mulattos increased, so did the fear of
possible alliance between the African slaves and these free "people
of colour." Whites were all too conscious of the part played by
mulattos in the struggles for Haitian independence, which was finally
achieved in 1803. The Jamaican authorities therefore did everything
Caught between Homes: Mary Seacole and the Question of Cultural Identity
in their power to prevent the political, economic and social
advancement of the free descendants of slaves. (11)
Considered within the historical context of its publication, Seacole's narrative walks a
fine line between expressing her loyalty as a British subject and revealing her own
autonomy as an educated, economically independent woman. Her migratory existence
could easily be read as a threat to the stability of the Empire, whose economic interests
would have best been served by maintaining a relative containment of its cheap labor
forces abroad. But Seacole strategically directs the reader's attention away from her
Jamaican origins, her marriage, and her subsequent widowhood toward her adventures
in other lands, displacing her Jamaican "otherness" in order to cast herself as a loyal
Seacole's colonialist spirit is as convincing an example of her status as a
British subject as her claim to Scottish lineage. Far from expressing any contempt for
modern technology which often laid waste lands in the interests of American or
European economic gain, she celebrates the "civilizing" effects of technology's
introduction into what she sees as "primitive" and "lawless" borderlands. She
describes her arduous trip to New Granada with a true English appreciation for modern
industry as it attempts to get the upper-hand over Mother Nature. Reflecting on the
historical significance of the Panama Canal's construction, she writes:
It seemed as if nature had determined to throw every conceivable
obstacle in the way of those who should seek to join the two great
oceans of the world. I have read and heard many accounts of old
endeauvors to effect this important and gigantic work, and how
miserably they failed. It was reserved for the men of our age to
accomplish what so many had died in attempting, and iron and steam,
twin giants, subdued to man's will, have put a girdle over rocks and
rivers, so that travellers can glide as smoothly, if not as
inexpensively, over the once terrible Isthmus of Darien, as they can
from London to Brighton. (10)
Seacole's description offers profound insight into the neo-imperialistic practices of the
United States during the mid-century.7 Indeed, one cannot help noticing the irony in
introducing New Granada as her first "adventure" as the Panama Canal would become
one of the most politicized success stories of American industrial expansion.8 Rather
than travel to some "untouched" tropical territory, she travels from one space of
capitalist exploitation to another. Seacole shares the enthusiasm of an American or
European capitalist as she ponders the future conveniences and new wealth to be
gained by having easier and faster access to the world via the opening up of such trade
routes. Her reference to the "twin giants" of iron and steam, and the masculine rhetoric
she employs to describe the goals of taming nature through industrial strength,
epitomize the imperialist discourse of the time.
And she is more than an observer of capitalist, industrial expansion. Seacole
wastes no time in making money off the many travelers and gold prospectors who pass
through this transit location. She makes quick profit in her hotel trade in both Cruces
and Gorgona, providing the travelers with everything from food and lodging to a clean
shave. More significantly, it is here where Seacole puts her own ingenuity to practice
and gains the reputation as "the yellow woman from Jamaica with the cholera
medicine" (27). She relates how upon her arrival she was put to work treating patients,
since few of the doctors in the area had any knowledge of the disease. As a doctresss,"
she combines the knowledge she gained from her mother's medical training with her
own modem sensibility, going even so far as to perform a post-mortem examination on
a young child. She explains:
Then it was that I began to think ... if it were possible to take this
little child and examine it, I should learn more of the terrible disease
which was sparing neither young nor old, and should know better
how to do battle with it. I was not afraid to use my baby patient thus.
I knew its fled spirit would not reproach me, for I had done all I
could for it in life, had shed tears over it, and prayed for it....
It seems a strange deed to accomplish, and I am sure I could
not wield the scalpel or the substitute I then used now, but at that
time the excitement, had strung my mind up to a high pitch of
courage and determination; and perhaps the daily, almost hourly,
scenes of death had made me somewhat callous. I need not linger on
this scene, nor give the readers the results of my operation; although
novel to me, and decidedly useful, they were what every medical man
well knows. (30)
Here, Seacole's contemplation of the ethics of her actions recalls the questionable
ethics of various other applications of nineteenth-century modem science and
technology. Wavering between a concern for the spiritual welfare of the child and a
desire for the practical knowledge to be gained through the examination, her narrative
confronts English readers with some of their own modem dilemmas. Seacole's
inability to articulate the stimuli that enabled her to perform the examination also
makes such actions suspicious. Camouflaged beneath what she finally justifies as
ultimately a humane, selfless action, which she insists produced "decidedly useful"
results, is Seacole's own excitement which ultimately allowed her to carry out the act.
Ironically, she confesses she could not repeat the act in her present circumstances in her
modem, English surroundings. Like so many other imperialist enterprises, the dirty
work is carried out on someone else's territory, while later the "medical men" in the
imperial world's metropolitan centers reap the benefits.
Caught between Homes: Mary Seacole and the Question of Cultural Identity
While Seacole performs like a true British colonialist, she must also exert her
authority as a female mulatto to legitimate the reputation she desires. In New Granada,
she contends with the racist attitudes of the Americans, who cannot reconcile the color
of her skin with her professional expertise. Though she shows herself capable of
running a hotel and nursing back to health those who suffered under the cholera
epidemic, her actions are considered by many to be the exception to the rules governing
her race and gender. She recalls one of her many episodes of confrontation with the
Americans sparked by a farewell dinner speech in her honor. Remembering the speech
given during a Fourth of July party, Seacole humorously recounts the clumsy oration of
one odd-looking American. She prefaces his speech by offering the following
The spokesman was a thin, sallow-looking American, with a
pompous and yet rapid delivery, and a habit of turning over his words
with his quid before delivering them, and clearing his mouth after
each sentence, perhaps to make the blanks express the time expended
on this operation. He dashed into his work at once, rolling up and
getting rid of his sentences as he went on.... (47)
While offering only praise and admiration for her fellow British subjects, she proves
herself capable of ridicule in her description of the Americans. Characterizing him as
arrogant and inarticulate, she recalls the following speech:
God bless the best yaller woman He ever made-, from Jamaica,
gentlemen-, from the isle of Springs-Well, gentlemen, I expect
there are only tu things we're vexed for-; and the first is, that she
ain't one of us-, a citizen of the great United States-; and the other
thing is, gentlemen-that Providence make her a yaller woman. I
calculate, gentlemen, you're all as vexed as I am that she's not wholly
white-, but I du reckon on your rejoicing with me that she's so
many shades removed from being entirely black-; and I guess, if we
could bleach her by any means we would-, and thus make her as
acceptable in any company as she deserves to be-. Gentlemen, I
give you Aunty Seacole! (47)
This scene captures Seacole's aversion to Americans in general. Most often, she refers
to them as crude, undereducated, and racist. She also indicates their constant threat to
women, describing how women had to disguise themselves as men in order to protect
themselves against harassment or rape. Following the man's expressed desire to bleach
her skin, Seacole is quick to retaliate:
But I must say, that I don't altogether appreciate your friend's kind
wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any
nigger's, I should have been just as happy and as useful, and as much
respected by those whose respect I value; and as to his offer of
bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without
any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me
admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I
have met with here and elsewhere, I don't think that I shall lose much
by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the
general reformation of American manners. (48)
Seacole demonstrates a consciousness which is not wholly inclined to accept a national
alliance which casts her as inferior, revealing not only the limits of her diplomatic
manner but also suggesting the limits of her national loyalty. While her reproach is
directed toward Americans, it helps to define a larger capacity of her alliances, which, I
would argue, incorporates a racial as well as national subjectivity. Whatever resistance
her British readers might have in allowing her the authority to speak as a "yellow"
British subject is indirectly condemned here. Her call for a "general reformation of
American manners" presumes that her own British homeland is racially inclusive, or at
least signals that it should be.
To argue that Seacole is without her own prejudices would ignore the many
instances in which she makes clear racial, cultural, and class distinctions regarding the
many "others" from whom she distances herself. Indeed, in the course of the narrative
she contemptuously refers to the dirty Indians, "good-for-nothing black cooks," "lazy
Maltese," "cunning-eyed Greeks," and "indolent Turks." Her prejudices become ever
more apparent in her descriptions of her time in the Crimea. As Paquet has pointed
out, New Granada provided her a place "to establish who she is on her own terms,"
where she could learn to negotiate her English standards outside the borders of the
Empire (652). Her time spent in the Crimea, which occupies the majority of her text,
will require an even stronger alliance to Britain, since she enters a war zone where
national alliances become more crucial to one's survival. Here, the differences
between one national identity and another obviously involve much higher stakes.
Securing herself a position among her British compatriots is as much a personal desire
as it is a necessity for survival against the Russian forces.
As in New Granada, one of the ways she achieves recognition as a British
subject is through her industry. By setting up the British Hotel, she becomes
synonymous with all the other English commodities she offers. Taking on the new
title, "Mother Seacole" she transforms herself into the substitute English mother to the
soldiers. Reflecting on the care she provides the injured soldiers, she explains the
importance of her representative status:
Caught between Homes: Mary Seacole and the Question of Cultural Identity
I tell you, reader, I have seen many a bold fellow's eyes moisten at
such a season, when a woman's voice and a woman's care have
brought to their minds recollections of those happy English homes
which some of them never saw again; but many did, who will
remember their woman-comrade upon the bleak and barren heights
Then their calling me "mother" was not, I think, altogether
unmeaning. I used to fancy that there was something homely in the
word; and, reader, you cannot think how dear to them was the
smallest thing that reminded them of home. (126-27)
Addressing the reader twice in this passage, Seacole offers as directly as possible a
description of the British soldiers' recognition of her own British "homely" status.
Indeed, as one of the few women in the warring region, "Mother Seacole" becomes the
epitome of "Mother England" herself. And, the motherly familiarity she represents
goes beyond her gender. She is the resource for all the commodities of home. Proud of
the many comforts she provides at her hotel, she catalogues them with a "native's"
appreciation, listing turtle, venison, linen and hosiery, saddlery, boots and shoes, meat
and soups, salmon, lobster, oysters, fritters, and numerous other commodities. Seacole
ultimately proves herself an enthusiastic entrepreneur, establishing businesses in the
most unlikely places. Absent from their mothers and homes, the British soldiers find
Seacole and her hotel a welcome substitute. And Seacole is sure to capitalize on both
the demand for such commodities, as well as on the many expressions of appreciation
she receives. In the narrative, she inserts copies of letters signed by her admirers,
authenticating her reputation as a devoted hostess, nurse and patriot.
In the Crimea, Seacole positions herself within a British consciousness with
all its own prejudices, being sure to distinguish herself not only from the Russian
enemies, but from all other nationalities (French, Turkish, Maltese, and Greek) to
whom she attributes all the racial stereotypes of the Victorian age. As Edwards and
Dabydeen have noted, her descriptions of these people "would have appealed to the
xenophobia of the Victorian reading public," placing her sympathies with those she
strives to align herself (169).
Seacole's narrative, however, more often reveals the instabilities of insisting
on any exclusive form of cultural identity than it does convince us of the purity of her
own. Her self-authorization as a British subject challenges the boundaries of cultural
identification. There are many contradictions in her personality, as her patriotism and
racism often conflict with her own status as a non-white woman. It is these very
contradictions which pose the ultimate challenge to nationalistic rhetoric which
surrounds claims to homelands. Seacole's narrative provides two important insights
into the question of cultural identity: First, it offers historical insights into the
conditions of colonial and post-colonial subjects whose loyalties are often divided
between various homelands. Seacole's narrative confronts this dilemma by identifying
herself with the colonial power, claiming a cultural heritage exceeding spatial
categorization. Secondly, her narrative exposes the tensions between the imperialist
ideologies of expansion and the nationalist ideologies of exclusion, which, ironically
enough, came as a direct result of imperial domination.9 Her story reveals the
unforeseen outcome of years of imperialism, as its power during the nineteenth century
revealed itself to be as much a centripetal as a centrifugal force. Indeed, Seacole does
not only bring "England" to New Granada and the Crimea, but she brings "Jamaica" to
England. She recalls how, after visiting London for the first time, she found a ready
market for her Jamaican commodities: "Before long I again started for London,
bringing with me this time a large stock of West Indian preserves and pickles for sale"
(4). And it is England, not Jamaica, in which she makes her home in the end and where
she manages to publish and sell her book.
This claim to England as home by one the colonizer had considered an
outsider to his territory reveals the instability of claims of national homogeneity in the
context of imperial expansion. In her narrative, Seacole constructs a self that simulates
the English subject to such an extent that she threatens the boundaries used to maintain
her "otherness." It is this potential for mimicry that reveals the permeability of such
constructions. An episode near the end of her narrative demonstrates perfectly how
transitory the claims to national affiliation can be. After the allied forces finally ousted
the Russians from Sebastopol, Seacole lingers about the burnt buildings of the city,
watching the French and Americans plunder the remains. Despite the confidence she
has in her English appearance, she is nonetheless mistaken for a Russian spy and
arrested. Seacole is quick to correct their mistake, "using the bell for a weapon" as she
reasserts her Englishness (175-76). But such agency on her part offers her only
temporary security, since the conditions of cultural identity, especially for a non-white
colonial subject, never rests on firm foundations. Despite her efforts to stage herself as
the pure British subject, Seacole finally reveals in the end of her narrative how England
was never quite the home for her that it was for the other soldiers. After the war has
ended and the time has come for everyone to return home, she confesses:
And yet all this going home seemed strange and somewhat sad, and
sometimes I felt that I could not sympathise with the glad faces and
happy hearts of those who were looking forward to the delights of
home, and the joy of seeing once more the old familiar faces
remembered so fondly in the fearful trenches and the hard-fought
battlefields. Now and then we would see a lounger with a blank face,
taking no interest in the bustle of departure, and with him I
acknowledged to have more fellow-feeling than with the others, for
he, as well as I, clearly had no home to go to. (192)
In the end, Seacole depicts herself as a homeless wanderer, having no "fellow-feeling"
with anyone except the many other migratory colonial subjects left with divided
Caught between Homes: Mary Seacole and the Question of Cultural Identity
loyalties. Her narrative illustrates the contradictions involved in claiming an allegiance
to a national homeland for one whose cultural and racial heritage cannot be
circumscribed within a strictly nationalist discourse. If home does exist for Seacole, it
is imagined outside its conventional geographical boundaries, located in a space of
constant negotiation between the intersections of racial, sexual, cultural, and
1. With his "postmodern perspective," Benitez-Rojo notes that "the main obstacles to any
global study of the Caribbean's societies, insular or continental, are . its fragmentation; its
instability; its reciprocal isolation; its uprootedness; its cultural heterogeneity; its lack of
historiography and historical continuity; its contingency and impermanence; its syncretism"
2. Some of the female Caribbean writers offer interesting variations of these themes of cultural
identity. Works by Jean Rhys, Maryse Cond6, Michelle Cliff, and Edwidge Danticat all deal
with characters who negotiate between the cultures they inhabit.
3. Paul Edwards and David Dabydeen point out her "narrowly patriotic and romantic
glorification of war" as she frequently aestheticizes the violent battlegrounds with
descriptions of the beautiful colors and the excitement she felt when viewing the clashing
4. See Amy Robinson's "Authority and the Public Display of Identity" for reference to this
historical background, 538-39.
5. In his essay, "Of Mimicry and Man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse," Homi Bhabha
details the consequences of such mimicry. The desire for the colonized subject to be "almost
the same, but not quite" the same as the colonizer results in a threat to that very difference
the colonizer seeks to maintain. See Bhabha, 85-92.
6. Louis Althusser's articulation of the strategies of ideological interpellation might apply to
Seacole's position as a subject within both the spatial and ideological dimensions of the
Empire. He describes in "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" an economy of power
relations operating ultimately as a repressive apparatus which succeeds only through the
duplication and homogenization of its subjects. As Sandra Pouchet Paquet points out,
however, Seacole demonstrates certain strategies of resistance as a subject within the
Empire, as she does not allow the stigma attached to her race and gender to restrict her from
achieving her desires to work and travel.
7. Amy Kaplan discusses America's hypocrisy during this period as condemned European
imperialistic forms of territorial domination while it employed its own version of colonial
rule through its cultural and market domination. The Panama Canal's construction was one
among many examples of the United States' own neo-imperialistic tactics. While this
project did not involve any overt conquering of territory, it still allowed American control of
a crucial trade route. See Kaplan 3-21.
8. Bill Brown describes the propagandizing of the United States' technological advances in
world fair expositions and museums and points to the publicity which surrounded the
construction of the Panama Canal as an example of America's desire to be seen as a leader
in the expanding global market. See Kaplan 129-63.
9. Benedict Anderson traces, in his chapter entitled "Creole Pioneers," the origins of the
nation-state in the many revolutions in the Americas that erupted against colonial powers
during the late eighteenth century.
Alexander, Ziggi and Audrey Denjee. "Editor's Introduction." The Wonderful Adventures of
Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. By Mary Seacole. Bristol: Falling Wall, 1984. 9-45.
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an
Investigation." Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New
York: Monthly, 1971. 127-86.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Relections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1993.
Benitez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective.
Trans. James E. Maraniss. Durham: Duke UP, 1992.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1996.
Condd, Maryse. I, Tituba, Black Witch ofSalem. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Ballantine,
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Soho, 1994.
Edwards, Paul and David Dabydeen. Black Writers in Britain: 1760-1890. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh UP, 1991.
Kaplan, Amy and Donald E. Pease, eds. The Cultures of United States Imperialism. Durham:
Duke UP, 1993.
Paquet, Sandra Pouchet. "The Enigma of Arrival: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in
Many Lands." African American Review 26 (Winter 1992): 651-63.
Robinson, Amy. "Authority and the Public Display of Identity: Wonderful Adventures ofMrs.
Seacole in Many Lands." Feminist Studies 20.3 (Fall 1994): 537-57.
Rhys, Jean. Wild Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton, 1982.
Seacole, Mary. Wonderful Adventures ofMrs. Seacole in Many Lands. New York: Oxford UP,
When Anancy Meets the Desaragnes
Pascale De Souza
When Anancy Meets the Desaragnes:
An Arachnean Reading of The Bridge of Bevond
A web is a place and space of hybridity that creates, by its very presence in the
world (which is often invisible, unseen, a gossamer of the margins) new
combinations and juxtapositions.
(Houston A. Baker, Jr., foreword to Anancy in the Great House, vii)
From Nova Scotia to Brazil, from the Carolinas to the Caribbean, Anancy the
spider, the quintessential hero of traditional folklore, weaves a Calibanesque web and
spins a Signifyin(g) discourse. Anancy's ability to provide "a tolerated margin of
mess" (Babcock 147) stems from a liminality which manifests itself in the geographical
location and functions he occupies, as well as in the appearance and language he adopts
to achieve his ends. Anancy is a dweller of the crossroad, an inhabitant of nooks and
crannies. This hero-scamp, as Roger Abrahams calls him, may be all and at once hero,
villain and dupe. He is sometimes portrayed as a human being endowed with a
spinning gift, sometimes as a spider with human features. Lastly, Anancy is aware of
the fluctuant nature of language and is forever punning to trick other characters,
whether through downright lies or more refined ways of using what Henry Louis Gates,
Jr. has characterized as Signifyin(g)' powers. Signifyin(g) is an African heritage
shared by peoples of the African diaspora. The Jamaican writer Dennis Forsythe
recalls that, the "Anancy art of'Mouthing,' of throwing words (or 'mammy-guy-ing' in
Trinidad), and Anancy body-language techniques, hissing or sucking the teeth and of
making 'monkey faces"' (225) were all part of his Caribbean childhood. My purpose
here will be to outline the four most salient features of the Signifyin(g) Spider and
illustrate how it can provide a theoretical grid to read The Bridge ofBeyond, a novel by
the Guadaloupean writer Simone Schwarz-Bart.
Anancy always chooses dwelling-places which are close enough to give him
an insider view of society and easy access to his victims, yet far enough to see through
the social web and safely poke holes into it. Several African and West Indian tales
such as "Anancy and Brother Tiger" (Jamaica), "Fire Test" (Jamaica) or "Bone for a
Stump" (Jamaica) thus tell how Anancy came to live in a liminal space, be it the dry
grass outside the village, the rafters of a house, an outbuilding, a fence or a tree.
Liminality also manifests itself in the various roles Anancy assumes in African
and Afrricarr American folktale. Unlike characters in European tales who are ascribed
a particular role and fulfill a set function, Anancy will be hero, villain and/or dupe.
When he assumes the role of hero, his heroic deeds are always performed by trickery as
in "How Spider read the sky god's thoughts" (Ghana) or "Tiger in well" (San Andr6s
Island, Colombia). Not only is his role as hero questionable on account of the
deviousness of his means, but, when he does bring good to people, he often does so
inadvertedly or, even worse, by failing to reach his original selfish goal as in "Spider
and the Calabash of Knowledge" (Ghana) and "Anancy and Common Sense"
(Jamaica). In both tales, his attempt to keep knowledge to himself by preserving it in a
calabash is foiled when be breaks it, and knowledge spreads throughout the world.
Perceived as a villain by those whose taboo he has broken, whose property he
has infringed upon, Anancy remains a hero for the downtrodden, those who need to
develop strategies of coping. As Leonard Barret argues, "Regardless of his treachery
and cunning, Ananci has those components which make him a folk-hero par excellence,
for elusive and nimble of spirit and witty of tongue, he is representative of techniques
of survival at their best" (35).2 Anancy's appeal among slaves, among Caribbean
peoples whose fate is vulnerable to the vagaries of international trade, lies in his being
the epitome of survival which holds out the hope that anyone can transcend the
limitations of his conditions.
In several tales, however, such as "Anancy and the Riding-Horse" (Africa, the
Southern U. S. States, Barbados, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad, Jamaica, Martinique,
Guadeloupe, Antigua and St Croix) or "Bird Cherry Island" (Southern U. S. states, the
West Indies), Anancy fails to reach his goal and is duped by another character. His
failing reminds listeners that Anancy does not enjoy divine powers and immunity but
remains a creature with human frailties. John Roberts argues that this particular aspect
of the trickster tales played an essential social role as it served to "remind enslaved
Africans not only of the value of behaviors that they associated with the trickster, but
also of the consequences of acting like the dupe" (38). Nevertheless, Anancy remains
unchastened and continues to spin his web of trickery, a powerful message for any
listener faced with daunting obstacles.
Anancy's hybrid appearance as well as his ability to change shapes and don
various disguises attest to his liminality. In several New World tales, he is either
human or spider, or both. In one Uncle Remus' story, Anancy is a half-woman, half-
spider creature called Aunt Nancy. In the Bahamas, Banansi is a trickster and hero,
either boy, man or monkey (Crowley 29). Anancy does not content himself with a
hybrid identity, but adopts various temporary disguises to reach his objectives. In "Pig
an Long-Mout" (Jamaica), he dresses up as a poor ragged old man, a blind man, a poor
tear-up old lady, a sore-footed boy and a half-starving child, all in order to get food
from a rich gentleman. In "Anancy and Crab" (Jamaica) he pretends to be a girl to gain
employment from an older woman. In several other tales ["How Anancy Went to Fish
Country" (Jamaica),"Nancy Gives a Bath" (Nevis), "The Bone Sweet" (Jamaica)], he is
a doctor while in "Bird Cherry Island" (Jamaica, Grenada and Cape Verde Islands) he
becomes a bird and in "Bone for a Stump" (Antigua), an ant.
However important they may be, geographical liminality, various roles and
multiple appearances are but superficial manifestations of a liminality which is
grounded in language. Anancy is aware of the fluctuant nature of language. In The
Signifying Monkey, Gates draws both on the standard definition of signifying-
carrying meaning to the surface-and on the African-American usage of the term
When Anancy Meets the Desaragnes
Signifyin(g)-testing the ability of a word to bear the conventional meanings--to posit
a discourse of trickery. Through his constant use of Signifyin(g), Anancy dupes other
animals to ridicule them or provoke their demise. In several tales, he coaxes animals
into performing tasks through lying or turning the least deceptive words into deadly
weapons. In "Anancy and the Yam Hills" (Jamaica), he thus makes animals count to
five and devours them as they fall dead for having broken a taboo, "Five" being the
Queen's name that no one may utter under penalty of death.
Anancy yet escapes unscathed from most attempts to stop its Signifyin(g) and
spins "the thread of his personality into the warp and woof' (Cronise and Ward 15) of
literatures of the African diaspora. In The Bridge of Beyond, Simone Schwarz-Bart
draws upon her Caribbean heritage to portray two sets of arachnid characters. Though
both planters and descendants of slaves spin literal and discursive webs in her novel,
only some of the latter display the four Anancyan characteristics I have outlined:
dwelling on the margin, fulfilling various roles, adopting literal or metaphorical
disguises and spinning a Signifyin(g) discourse. Let's consider first how Schwarz-Bart
presents the planters as arachnid predators in her novel.
The Bridge of Beyond is the story of T6lumee, a poor black woman who
succeeds in preserving her identity from various alienating influences.3 Faced with the
threat of starvation, as Anancy is in several tales, Telumde seeks employment on a
plantation as a domestic with a white family: the Desaragnes. The Desaragnes spin
literal and verbal webs in The Bridge ofBeyond. Their literal web is firmly anchored
onto the gate and ornamental bushes which enclose their property. It is centered on the
Great House and meant to endure unchanged like the "solid mahogany furniture
anchored heavily, immutably to the floor" (86). In Anancy in the Great House, Joyce
Jonas argues that the Great House represents a colonial world view of binary
opposition, that it "brings with it fixed notions of inside and outside, above and below.
It names a polarized landscape of exploiter/exploited, enlightened and benighted,
Prospero and Caliban" (2). The web spun by the families residing in the Great Houses
thus become the immutable signifier of this polarized landscape, the master's trope.
Several critics have pointed out the arachnid connotation of the Desaragnes'
last name. Ernest Pdpin thus underlines the historical preying of master upon servant
as he traces the name "Desaragne" back to the old French for spider "aragne" (92).
Telum6e is indeed at the mercy of various spider figures ("des aragnes") who ogle her
with cold, piercing eyes (85). Of all the white men who wish to seduce her, none
comes closer to succeeding than Mr. Desaragne. This opportunity may be due to his
enjoying some Anancyan powers such as the ability to change appearances, at least
metaphorically. Schwarz-Bart alludes to his bird-like appearance as he spies on
Telumde (103) and recedes from her room with ruffled white feathers (105). Unlike
Anancy's, however, his bird-like disguise is not one of choice. T6lumde is able to
resist Mr. Desaragne because, among other things, he is unable to prevent his own
metaphorical metamorphosis into a bird, and as such, falls into her arachnean web.
The Desaragnes spin their web mostly through discourse. Along with his
white guests, Mr. Desaragne attempts to lure Telum6e through alluding to her beauty
and seductiveness while Mrs. Desaragne constantly reminds her that the Middle
Passage saved Africans from a barbaric life of "running in the bush, dancing naked and
eating men in a stew" (93). According to Mrs. Desaragne, slaves and their descendants
yet never availed themselves of the opportunities offered in the New World and still
lead lives steeped in mud, vice and lewd festivities.
The web spun by the characters belonging to the African diaspora, especially
the women, stands in sharp contrast to the Desaragnes'. It does not occupy a fixed
place nor does it suggest impermanence but rather points to complexity, ambiguity, and
limitless dialogue. All the members of the community contribute their thread to its
creation either by constant movement to and fro (suggestive of the spinner's shuttle) or
through language. Various characters indeed discover the importance of this network
when they stop spinning their own thread. T6lumee's grandmother (Toussine) and her
husband Jeremie cut themselves off from the communal web when they isolate
themselves on the periphery of a village called L'Abandonnde. It is only when local
people start coming and going between the couple's home on the hill and the
neighboring village that Jeremie and Toussine are finally rewoven into the community.
Likewise, T6lumde is able to survive various threats to her existence and sanity because
she remains within reach of the web. When she loses her grip on reality as a result of
her companion's betrayal, her shack appears to become detached from the rest of the
village: "I saw there was no longer any thread linking my cabin to the others" (148).
Being aware that T6lum6e has fallen too far to be able to reintegrate the social web
without their help, the villagers of Fond-Zombi, as did those of L'Abandonnee, start
spinning towards her: "A few days before the holiday people began to go up and down
in front of my cabin without saying anything, just to prove that there couldn't be any
gap in the weft ..." (156). However, to spin a strong enough yam, language must be
... from time to time, a woman would break away from a group, lift
imploring arms heavenwards and cry in a high-pitched voice, "Be
born, come down to change our fates." And hearing her, I'd have the
strange feeling that she was throwing me a thread in the air, throwing
me a light, light thread toward my cabin, and then I'd be visited by a
smile. (156-57; emphasis mine)
Several women will eventually gather in front of her home and continue loud-
talking, exchanging stories about her to remind her that her thread has not been
permanently severed. As T6lumee's grandmother tells her: "You see, the houses are
nothing without the threads that join them together. And what you feel in the afternoon
under your tree is nothing but a thread that the village weaves and throws to you and to
your cabin" (122). The whole village is naught but a web which owes its existence to
When Anancy Meets the Desaragnes
all the inhabitants spinning yars, literally as they go to and fro and metaphorically as
they talk. Patrice Proulx argues that "The choice of the spider's web as a privileged
form of representation to indicate the number and diversity of the ties within the
community can be interpreted as a subversive act. The image of the web deliberately
calls forth her creator, called Ananse the Spider in the folk legends" (138).4 Indeed, the
community's web is an Anancyan creation which Signifies the Desaragne's. Anancy's
interwoven strands are not the immutable signifier suggestive of a polarized landscape
but rather a Signifyin(g) web "suspended between, and drawing together, separate
worlds" (Jonas 2).
The Bridge of Beyond has often been interpreted as a celebration of the
resilient Antillean woman.5 Such a hopeful interpretation however fails to consider that
a web is first and foremost a trap. The web which binds the black inhabitants together
recalls the Desaragnes' in that it is also aimed at imprisoning them and exposing them
to a predatory community. As Schwarz-Bart notes, "Life at Fond-Zombi was lived
with doors and windows open; night had eyes, and the wind long ears, and no one
could ever have enough of other people" (46). Toussine and Tl6um6e are both made
aware of this when they try to escape from a community marred into its own fateful
defeatism. When Toussine and J6remie announce their intention to marry, the spider
refuses to let them escape its deadly embrace:
All through the preparations for the wedding, L'Abandonnee
remained full of the same surliness, the same typical human desire to
bring the level of the world down a peg, the same heavy malice
weighing down on the chambers of the heart. The breeze blowing
through Minerva's cottage embittered the women, made them more
unaccountable than ever, fierce, always ready with some new
T6lumee shares Toussine's fate insofar as her attempt to find happiness with Elie
likewise elicits jealousy and ends in despair. As Caroline Oudin-Bastide argues,
Toussine and T1lumde must accept poverty and sorrow as their fate to remain within
the community. The novel draws to a close on the image of Tl6umde contentedly
tending to her garden. The apparent happy ending however needs Signifyin(g) as such
contentment enacts a terrible price: one's right to search for and find ways to escape the
To escape the webs spun both by the Desaragnes' and the inhabitants of Fond-
Zombi, to become a miracle woman, T61um6e must resort to her Anancyan powers.
These manifest themselves in her geographical marginality, her fulfillment of various
roles, her ability to change appearances, if only metaphorically and to spin a
Most of the Lougandor women display a tendency to live on the edge of
society. Toussine, Tl6um6e's grandmother, first settles in a shack outside the village of
L'Abandonn6e, then moves into an abandoned Great House away from the villagers'
gaze and finally rests in the last shack abutting the mountain in Fond Zombi. Victoire,
Telumee's mother, raises her daughters just off the limits of the village. When she
goes to work for the Desaragnes, T6lumde is relegated to an outside shed next to the
stables. She will spend the rest of her life living in various locations-a shack in the
woods, an isolated settlement called La Folie, villages called Bel navire, Bois rouge, la
Roncinre and even Pointe-A-Pitre-before settling in La Ramde, a village whose name
evokes the tree branches where spiders often anchor their webs. As the title of the
novel suggests, Telumee is a dweller of the in-between places, an inhabitant of the
"bridge of beyond."
Like Anancy, T6lumee can both escape most attempts to stop her Signifyin(g)
but also fall into a trap another character has set for her. Elie had forewarned her that
she is but a young goat (78) tethered to his whim, and as such, can not avoid being
roped. Yet, T6lumee chooses to follow her heart and take him as her companion. When
the latter can no longer make a living as a carpenter, he turns to violent outbursts of
anger against her. Having been duped by her love for him, Tdlumee is unable to
retaliate and endures silently until she is made to leave their home. T6lumee, the
heroine who succeeds in resisting the Desaragnes' influence, turns into a dupe in Elie's
hands. In spite of her trials, however, she can still draw upon her Anancy powers to
weave this particularly traumatic episode into the fabric of her life and emerge as a
Both her grand-mother Toussine and Man Cia the obeah woman teach
Tdlumde that she lives in a world where limits between the human and the animal
kingdoms are permeable and where, as a true Anancy, she can survive being dupped
and trapped through the adoption of various disguises. Through metaphors and similes,
Schwarz-Bart weaves animal imagery into her writing. To help T6lumde understand
slavery, Toussine compares slaves to "poultry in the cages, tied up" (54); Man Cia
compares slave owners to "ants that bite" (54). The latter comparison prompts
Toussine to wonder: "Who can blame a dog for being tied up? And if he is tied up,
how can you prevent him being whipped?" (54). The animal imagery enables Telumde
to understand why the men and women of Fond-Zombi have become "big whales left
high and dry" (43), "headless, homeless crab(s), that walk backwards" (83), "lost
sheep" (97) or "little fleecy princes of the dark" (97).6 Within such a magical world
where humans take on animal characteristics, actual metamorphosis does not strike one
In The Bridge ofBeyond, Man Cia uses her Anancyan powers to turn herself
into a black watchdog for T6lumee. Though this mentor offers to teach her, T6lumde
never summons enough courage to learn the art of actual metamorphosis but becomes
deft instead at practicing it metaphorically. In her dreams, in her thoughts, she turns
into various animals.7 Toussine tells T6lumee the story of the bird who could only rely
on his song to escape the hunter (68) and warns her that "if the little fish listen to [the
whales], why, they'll lose their fins" (43). Telumee conjures up both images to protect
When Anancy Meets the Desaragnes
herself while in the Great House: "I too set off dreaming, flew away, took myself for
the bird who couldn't be hit by any bullet because it invoked life with its song" (68).
Later she says, "I glided in and out between the words as if I were swimming in the
clearest water (88). These various animal images enable T6lumde to maintain her link
to her teachers, Man Cia and Toussine, and through them to her African diasporan
heritage, thus preventing her from becoming a beached whale, brainless crab or bound
Two objects play a similar role in the novel: the stone and the drum. Tl6um6e
compares herself to a little stone (87) and to a drum (88) which both preserve their
underside from life's turmoil. The two-sidedness of both stone and drum alerts the
reader to Telumde's dual nature as the side kept whole enables her to Signify her way
through life. The choice of the drum is particularly pertinent on two other accounts.
First, as Abena Busia recalls, the drum binds T6lumee to her African Caribbean
heritage as it was "the sacred and primary instrument of within-group social
communication in African heritage communities" (296). Secondly, it was used to
convey messages Signifyin(g) the masters' attempt to subdue slaves in the New World
in the forms of calls for uprisings.
Like the web spun by the Desaragnes, the ones spun by the black and white
communities owe their existence in (a large) part to discourse. Mr. and Mrs. Desaragne
and their white guests attempt to lure Tl6umde into their web or simply to negate her
existence. The inhabitants of L'Abandonnme and Fond-Zombi retain Toussine and
T6lumee within their own web. Man Cia, Toussine and T6lumde are all aware that
language can shape, deshape and reshape the world around them. From the time
Telum6e crosses the bridge of beyond, she enters into a magical realm where women
Signify the discourse of the Other. Their Signifyin(g) takes on various forms: singing,
gesturing, repeating, and silencing. Toussine teaches T6lum6e not to fall prey to the
hunter by telling her the story of the singing bird, not to listen to the perfidious whale-
song of the washer women by humming "some beguine from the old days to which she
would give a special inflection, a sort of veiled irony, the object of which was to
convey to me that certain words were null and void, all very well to listen to but better
forgotten" (43). Thanks to Toussine, T6lumne learns to drum and sing her way out of
the planters' web at the Great House: "slipping in and out among the guests, I beat a
special drum in my heart, I danced, sang every part, every cry" (91). Songs mix with
drums to create a protective mesh around T6lumee.
T6lumde's two encounters with Mr. Desaragne offer her other opportunities to
display Signifyin(g) powers. M. Desaragne first indicates his interest in Telumee by
spying upon her. Telumde however reveals that, like the spider hiding from its prey,
she too is a furtive observer. Reversing the apparent order of things, T6lumde is able to
stand her ground and make Mr. Desaragne leave, crestfallen and speechless: "At last,
he sighed, turned away slowly, and reluctantly withdrew, while I thought in my heart:
'So, now, my girl, you are finding out the white men's weaknesses'" (103; emphasis
mine). Their second encounter provides Tl6umde with an opportunity to confirm her
victory. Using what Kathleen Gyssels calls "feigned words, zero-words and gnomic
words" (155), T6lum6e meets the violence of the attempted rape with subdued speech
and half-formed gestures. She threatens him with castration, making her purpose plain
by using Mr. Desaragne's own discourse against him. Mr. Desaragne is used to
"thingifying," that is to say reducing his human preys to mere objects like the silk dress
he offers Tl6um6e in exchange for her favors. Tl6um6e counters this process through
"Signifyin(g)" as she threatens to emasculate him and erases the very word to which
she has reduced him: "You won't have the wherewithal" (104), she says,
T61um6e's two conversations with Mrs Desaragne further illustrate her
mastery of verbal trickery. On a superficial level, Mrs Desaragne seems to be in full
control of the verbal exchanges. A Signifyin(g) reading however reveals otherwise.
Let us consider part of the first dialogue.
You're looking for a situation?
I want to hire myself out.
What can you do?
Can you cook?
I mean cook, not just drop a bit of breadfruit into a pan of hot water.
Yes, I know.
Good, but who taught you?
My grandmother's mother once worked for the Labardines.
Good, Can you iron?
I mean iron, not just thump old rags into shape.
I know. Putting a gloss on poplin shirts with wing collars. (84)
Several Signifyin(g) processes are at play here.8 Telumde first limits herself to laconic
answers, compelling Mrs Desaragne to abandon her French in favor of a creolised
language (which comes through more clearly in the original French version). This
conversation marks T6lumde's first victory as she has successfully drawn the spider
into her own linguistic web.9 T6lumee then shares some personal information, a move
aimed at asserting her place within a female continuum before finally turning the tables
completely or rather more appropriately breaking the Desaragnes' collared necks by
showing her mastery of the Other's tongue and usage. She is the one who tells Mrs
Desaragne how ironing is done, thereby asserting her ability to function in the world of
the other, if and when she so wishes. Gyssels argues that "If one considers the
structure of the conversation, it is immediately obvious that Mrs Desaragne leads it
from one end to the other" (149). The key word here is "immediately." A first reading
can indeed lead one to conclude that Mrs. Desaragne wins the spinning contest, though,
in fact, Tl6umde prevails.10
When Anancy Meets the Desaragnes
Telumee's second conversation with Mrs. Desaragne barely qualifies as one. It
should more appropriately be called a monologue given by Mrs. Desaragne,
interspersed with Telumee's thoughts. Tdlum6e's ability to ignore Mrs. Desaragne's
discourse is illustrated both by her constant drifts into stories from her past and her
repeated reminders to the reader that she is weaving her way out of the Desaragnes'
web. She is so swift at turning a deaf ear that her mistress eventually loses her
countenance: "Look at yourself-I talk to you and you don't even answer, you haven't
got anything to say for yourself. Tell me now, honestly, do you think that's any way to
behave? Good Lord, what's one to do with such people-might as well talk to a brick
wall" (88)". Carol Tennessen argues that "the defining feature of silence, in fact, is
this lack of response which gives the person who does not answer a certain advantage.
That person gains control, in a sense, by his or her silence" (111). Mrs. Desaragne
does not lead the conversation but rather is led and eventually rendered as speechless as
T6lumee finally reveals the full extent of her mastery over language, when she
uses her talents as a spying spider to weave a story out of her life at Galba. The
Desaragnes have fallen prey to Telum6e who has successfully inverted the alienation
process. Spinning animal metaphors, singing, silencing, reversing the Master's trope,
she constantly reiterates her belonging to the world beyond the bridge, the world of the
Anancy women who Signify the Other's discourse.2
Schwarz-Bart partakes of the Anancyan powers which she has given some of
her female characters. As Marie-Denise Shelton notes, she uses a language which "is
exteriorized in laughter, verbal tricks, and plurality of meanings stemming precisely
from the rumble of the Creole language" (171). In so doing, the author seeks to
discover the sense of an Antillean civilisation, a civilisation of discourse which speaks
another truth. Nathalie Rogers notes that the threads of the cobweb indeed characterize
here a level of pre-writing within the oral tradition which "comes to superpose itself
over the level of writing per say which characterizes the writer's approach as she ...
writes the book we are reading" (445). In The Bridge ofBeyond, Schwarz-Bart has
drawn upon her creole heritage to become an edgeperson, a trickster working between
worlds, between languages, using one to Signify the other. Like Anancy, she escapes
the disastrous prospect of nonbeing by weaving a (fictive/narrative) thread which turns
her/story into an infinite play of signifiers.
1. In The Signifying Monkey, Gates chooses to underline the difference between signifying: the
standard use of the English word (45) and Signifyin(g): the black usage. He places the 'g'
between parentheses to respect the Afro-American pronunciation of the word. I retain this
spelling here for the same reasons.
2. Several Jamaicans however argue to the contrary. According to Darryl Dance, "Anancy's
rascality and deceit are bad for the national character" (Dance Stories in Jamaica 12) while
in a study of Rastafarian beliefs, Dennis Forsythe argues that Anancy "symbolizes the
'devilish' youth power of Eros which will do anything to find physical expression and
outlet" (80) and sees "Anancism" as the root of many (if not all) evils in Jamaican society.
Anancism explains why governments are corrupt (222-23), why people resort to racketeering
in times of economic hardship, why blacks don't do well in business as they remain small-
scale hustlers, "Anansi capitalists" (227), why Jamaica is living in the age of Babylon, an
age out of which Rastafari must graduate to the age of Lionism (the lion replacing the
spider as a totemic figure). Such an approach to the legacy of Anancy however fails to take
into account that "The characters' traits of the trickster were not meant to become a life
style" (Dram6 250).
3. Schwarz-Bart has been both lauded and criticized for her focus upon a matrilinear dynasty
and her alleged unfavorable representation of men in this particular novel. It might be
argued that, whereas Anancy is a male figure in West African tales, Schwarz-Bart indeed
feminizes the Signifyin(g) process by granting Anancyan powers only to female characters,
in keeping with the etymology and gender of the French word for spider.
4. All translations are mine.
5. See in particular the article written by Kitzie McKinney listed in the bibliography.
6. Specific characters likewise take on animal characteristics. Toussine becomes a horse (19),
Tavie a mongoose (61) and Laetitia a goose (61). Though horse, goose and pig may suggest
domestication, it must be noted that Toussine is pig-headed" (19). The image of the
mongoose can also point to the slaves' ability to resist through subversive acts as it is here
used to suggest a sly animal forever on the look-out.
7. Though Telum6e is never taught how to turn into a horse, Toussine is compared to a horse
herself and tells Telumee the importance of riding her own horse (78; 79). Elie never learnt
that lesson and let the horse carry him away from the village and from sanity. Equestrian,
ichtyan and aryan imagery thus combine to teach Telum6e to lead her own life, to ride her
8. It must be noted that T6lumee's spins a Signifyin(g) discourse in that her answers are not
aimed at imparting information. Toussine's prior visit to the Desaragnes would have
provided them with all the information they needed regarding T6lumde's qualifications.
9. Kochman argues that when someone is taunted through Signifyin(g), "there is also the
implication that if the listener fails to do anything... his status will be seriously
compromised" (257). Whether she chooses to keep silent or opts for Creole, Mrs. Desaragne
would thus have lost the verbal contest.
10. Gates Jr. interprets a well-known tale where the monkey verbally tricks the lion into
ridicule the following way: "The Monkey speaks figuratively in a symbolic code; the Lion
interprets or 'reads' literally and suffers the consequences of his folly, which is a reversal
of his status as King of the jungle" (289). This particular passage is written in a similar
11. Mrs. Desaragne fails to see that "singing" (translated in the English version as "talking to a
brick-wall") may indeed have been a way to break through the code of silence, to reach
12. It would be inaccurate to conclude that Telumde offers a discourse of resistance, pitting
herself against the Desaragnes. Signifyin(g) is merely a way for her to preserve the second
side of the drum, to endure. As Pepin argues, T6lumee "does not go against her masters
because she does not expect any legitimation nor excommunication from them. She is, and
thereby, resists them" (96).
When Anancy Meets the Desaragnes
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Edna Manley's (R)Evolutionary Imagination of Jamaican Space
Edna Manley 's (R)Evolutionary Imagination of Jamaican Space
When considering the history of art in Jamaica, one must first acknowledge
that European imperialism not only colonized a people but displaced aboriginal Taino
(or Arawak) art, for instance, by substituting European art forms for the Arawak cave
drawings which were comparable to prehistoric African art and reminiscent of ancient
Hawaiian petroglyphs. Another important consideration is that, because the fine arts
were the exclusive domain of the privileged white leisure class, the African slaves did
not develop a fine arts culture, per se, and their successors were denied access to same.
During the colonial era, thus, the most renowned fine artists were European settlers,
such as Isaac Mendez Belisario, an Italian Jew born in England who arrived in Jamaica
in 1830 and set up a downtown studio where he produced portraits. Among these were
the famous twelve sketches of the slave custom, Junkanoo (or John Canoe).' Joseph
Bartholomew Kidd, a Scottish painter, also defined Jamaican colonial art standards
with and through his portraits, figures, and landscapes, particularly his series of
sensitive sketches of Jamaican estates and the city of Kingston.
Working in isolation with little encouragement or support of any kind until the
early twentieth century, the relatively few Jamaican-born artists were viewed as
oddities, since the main industry of the island was agricultural commodity production
for the colonizer, not creativity or the expressive pursuit of the imagination. Likewise,
the prevailing attitude toward space was its (ab)use and exploitation not expressive
tributes to its beauty and grandeur. The political activities of the 1930s, however, were
accompanied by an indigenous art movement which stemmed from the grass roots and
was led by self-taught trailblazers: John Dunkley (1884-1947), an untutored barber who
was using housepaint and cardboard to create genuine surrealist paintings and whose
work was displayed and awarded bronze medals at the 1939 New York World's Fair;
Henry Daley, a plumber who painted twisting trees and other haunting landscape
scenes before he died of pneumonia and malnutrition in 1948; and Albert Huie (b.
1920), whose painting, "The Counting Lesson," appeared in The New York Times.
Along with others, these working and middle-class artists probed the Jamaican psyche,
utilizing indigenous subjects and themes, though European styles continued to
influence their approach to brush and chisel.
The Jamaicans' awakening national pride, which reached a summit after the
1938 political riots, recognized the land's beauty and the people's nobility. This trend
was given momentum under H. D. Molesworth's directorship of the Institute of
Jamaica, founded in 1879 by Frank Cundall to support "literature, science, and art," by
providing technical training, mounting exhibits, and purchasing Jamaican art. The time
was ripe for the arrival of the central figure propelling the movement, Edna Manley:
painter, sculptor, editor, and wife of Norman Manley, head of the nationalist self-
government movement. Though trained in Britain, the country of her birth in 1900,
Manley's sculpture radically transformed upon her 1922 migration to her mother's
homeland of Jamaica, reflecting and fueling Jamaican aspirations for self-
determination. Of the interartistic circle of personalities she helped to
organize-which, along with her aforesaid contemporaries, included poet George
Campbell, photographer Dennis Gick, interior designer Burnett Webster, and novelist
Roger Mais, to whose collection of novels her husband wrote the Introduction-Edna
Manley stated in an interview before her death:
The great thing was to be able to see ourselves as Jamaicans in
Jamaica and try to free ourselves from the domination of English
aesthetics. It came out in the poetry. You had the poets in those days
writing about the daffodils, snow and bitter winds they had never
experienced. I told them, "Why don't you describe the drought,
when the sun gets up in the morning and its king of the world all day,
and everything is parched? You can smell the seymour grass, and the
sun goes down in a blaze of glory only to come up again tomorrow."
(qtd. in Jamaica Insight Guides 260)
Edna Manley refers here to the subtle but joyful shift in perspective toward space:
insiders were imagining, depicting, and evoking it in their various arts. Differences in
attitudes concerning the art peaked in 1939 when 40 liberals crashed the annual
convention of the Institute of Jamaica, protesting the Board of Directors which had
sanctioned a colonial definition of arts and culture. Edna Manley reported that the
protest leader, lawyer Robert Braithwaite, "pointed to the portraits of the English
governors on the wall and said, 'Gentlemen! We have come to tell you to tear down
these pictures and let the Jamaican paintings take their place.' There was
pandemonium. But we knew they could not ignore us anymore" (260-61).
Exceeding even the wealth of her own artistic contributions, thus, is Edna
Manley's impact upon the younger generation of painters, sculptors, and literary and
performing artists she inspired and motivated. She helped to foster the lucrative careers
and growing appreciation of painters Henry Daley, Carol Abrahams, and Albert Huie,
potter Cecil Baugh, art-deco carver Alvin Marriott, and newly emerging artists David
Pottinger, Ralph Campbell, and Van Pitterson. Art galleries opened in Kingston to
showcase their works which embodied the richness and diversity of the national culture
and its people's individuality and unique perceptions regarding the space they
Edna Manley was instrumental, as well, in the pivotal founding in 1950 of the
Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts, which grew out of her and her cohorts' efforts to
teach classes. With the assistance of several of the aforesaid artists, Jerry Isaacs, and
entrepreneur Eustace Myers, it flourished at its initial Kingston Gardens location,
renamed later the Jamaican School of Art. More recently dubbed the Edna Manley
School for the Visual Arts in honor and recognition of her tremendous influence, it has
Edna Manley's (R)Evolutionary Imagination of Jamaican Space
facilitated hundreds of artists and craftspersons now appreciated nationally and
Coinciding with the nation's independence, a new generation of artists who
had trained at great metropolitan centers returned to professionalize the movement.
Among them were Barrington Watson, who brought with him a romantic yet realistic
view of the Jamaican people; Karl Parboosingh, whose stark, plain images of Jamaican
life evolved into later experiments in vivid abstraction; Eugene Hyde, who produced
Jamaica's first modern abstract art and who founded in 1963 the Jamaican Artists'
Association; Osmond Watson, known for his angular, stark depictions of the human
face; David Boxer with his surrealistic depiction of subjective themes; and Hope
Brooks with a series of textured environmental abstracts in pale colors, among others.
Succeeding governments offered further impetus with the establishment in the
1960s of Things Jamaican, followed in the 70s by the National Gallery. Sculptor
Christopher Gonzalez, whom the Jamaican government commissioned for a statue of
the reggae legend, Bob Marley-now housed at the National Gallery-trained at the
Jamaica School of Art and continues to explore the themes set forward by Edna Manley
and her circle. He states, "The younger artists have a lot of potential and promise that
they can create something unique and unusual .... In Jamaica we still deal with people
as human beings ... the human element is much stronger" (261) than in the less
people-oriented art in America, where he has also taught at the California College of
Arts and Crafts in Oakland.
Edna Manley's impressive oeuvre is a glowing testament to this human
quality, her wood carvings, other sculptures, and paintings representing simultaneously
the native Jamaican physique and spirit and earning her an international following.
Upon her return to Jamaica the year after she and Norman married, Edna eagerly
sought and found beauty, color, and strength in those she met in the markets, on the
streets, and amid their suffering. She consciously defied the ethnocentric, anglocentric
"daffodil syndrome" whereby artist's impose a myopic, imperalistic, albeit ridiculous
world view: ". .. neatly but firmly imposed images of snowy Christmas cards in a land
without winter, blond Christs in a country of black congregations, daffodils and tulips
in a land of ram-goat roses and poinciana trees" (Drumblair 35). In opposition and as
an antidote to this colonialist impulse, Edna thought Jamaican artists should strive to
create representations of space which more aptly reflected the realities they knew and
... goats instead of the basic British lion; buxom bodies and
Caribbean life with pain and rum and laughter, the local revivalist
cult ofpocomania; women expatriates neatly patronized, because
while they worked their bodies were happy dancing to some
imaginary music that kept them besotted and unsuspicious of the
ravages taking place. (Drumblair 36)
She drew, painted, and carved their images in the wood of the land, resulting in strong,
virile forms, mystically cultivated in powerful visions of upliftment. Negro Aroused
(1935) beautifully emanates her rich philosophy about the power of the land's wood as
an artistic and expressive medium:
Wood was always old; people didn't understand that. You had to
challenge it, for it already had its habits. You asked a piece of wood
to go back through the journey of its growth, to reclaim the flexibility
of its youth when it was facetious and nubile. Then you asked it to
interpret itself, and accept another face. It was a story in the telling, a
mound of clay in the rough. If you could only free it, fight your way
through to its independence, its origin, then it could begin.
Edna Manley was cognizant and appreciative of the inscription of space and history in
the elements of her art. To be sure, wood was the medium par excellence to literally
and figuratively embody the dawn of this figure's own independence, the telling of his
own story. Featured in Edna Manley's and Jamaica's first one-woman exhibit in 1937,
this mahogany carving caused the colonialist press to respond with a mixture of
hostility and condescension, for no one had ever carved a Negro, let alone a Negro
Forty years later, however, Workers Week printed 100,000 copies of a
pamphlet with this piece on its cover, for it had become a poignant symbol of sorts.
Arnold Bertram, then Minister of Youth and Culture in the People's National Party,
invited Edna to sculpt a 5' (three times the original size) version of this awesome work
on a 7/2' base at the spot where her husband had negotiated the release from prison of
Alexander Bustamente, their cousin who had founded the great trade union and won
unprecedented gains for industrial workers in the sugar belt and on the water front. In
a May 2, 1977, diary entry, Edna wrote:
It was a great morning-I'll never forget it, and it was so strange to
be reliving it-all that passion and pain, and Norman hovering over
everything. So strange that this young Bertram should be recognizing
Negro Aroused I remembered the flash of vision I had when it first
came to me, and how never for one moment had I doubted it myself.
With this strange new half-abstracted, half-distorted form that had
come to me, and now after all these years-recognized-and the
chance to do it in its right proportions. (D 167-68)
Two months later, on July 7, 1977, she revelled in the possibilities inherent in "a
chance to do it large"; she was now "free to let loose some sweeping curves and to
dramatize the figure for monumental purposes" (D 169). As Rachel recalls in her
Edna Manley's (R)Evolutionary Imagination of Jamaican Space
memoir regarding her grandmother's art: "She found that the bigger tools seemed to
release the wood more quickly to its nature, chasing away the orderly epidermis, the
years and years of stratification, each knot knowing its place more deeply after each
season" (Drumblair 148). Upon its completion, she reflected that the two months
she'd spent working on it constituted "some of the best" of her life. She was,
understandably, devastated to learn in July of the following year that an arsonist had
set fire to the building near its storage facility and it had been "completely burnt out."
Four years later, David Boxer-the National Gallery's recent curator, noted artist in his
own right, as well as Cornell University and Johns Hopkins University educated art
historian-commissioned her to produce a smaller version with two casts to provide a
bronze to travel with the Smithsonian show. She would later reflect in her September
11, 1982 diary, at the age of 82:
I looked at the plaster cast of Negro Aroused and all of the past came
back-the deep surging excitement I had felt in 1936 when I realized
that something of importance was being born ... proud, defiant. I
felt an irresistible urge not to give the face an emphasis-it's often
been criticized for that-but the straining form was what came to me.
... It gave me trouble at first, because I never work from what I see
but from what I feel. (D 245-46)
Her visual evocations of her own emotional landscape, thus, come to fruition in her
meta-narrative as a literary guide to the tour of her art. We learn a good deal about her
thoughtful composition process from the remembered exchange about this boundless
work she had with the one of her two sons who became Prime Minister:
At first I made the head angry and threatening-it still is, if, as
Michael says, you climb up and look down at it: "Oh, Mother, how
many times have I met that man in the Union, in politics.
Demanding-oh my God I know that man-you better not try to fool
him-he'll fold his arms and watch your every step at the bargaining
table-no-treat him, treat him honest-or look out for
yourself-but why haven't you made that the dominating theme?" I
said, "Yes, but there is something more timeless for the Negro to
arouse, not in anger, not in fear, not in weakness or bitterness-but
just to be there-aroused-resolute." (D 246)
To be sure, the Jamaican people, upon seeing themselves from a certain unaccustomed
distance, began to think of themselves as capable of transcending the horrors of an
exploitative past. In a sense, she inspired them to reclaim their own space, both
literally and figuratively.
Also at this early one-person show were such celebrated works as The
Prophet, The Diggers, Beulah, and Rachel, named for her grand-daughter whom she
and Norman helped to raise and who has since compiled Edna's diaries, published
three books of poetry, and written the memoir, Drumblair, about her Jamaican
childhood. Each of these sculptures captures the hidden inner spirit of the Jamaican
people and issues forth in vivid appropriate artistic forms the rapidly rising resentment
toward the stagnant colonial order. It should not surprise us, then, that Edna Manley
would create the larger-than-life-size Paul Bogle, a deacon from Stoney Gut who
headed the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, during which this legendary hero attacked
the Custos with a machete. This resulted in the killing of a number of whites.
Governor Eyre shamefully suppressed this uprising, executing over 430, flogging
hundreds more, and destroying 1,000 dwellings. Bogle, whose statue adorns the
Morant Bay Courthouse lawn and whose bust is enshrined in the Avenue of National
Heroes, was hanged and, a century later, declared a Jamaican hero. Edna's primary
research for this piece led her to an elderly woman from his hometown who knew his
son; this elder suggested "bold" as Bogle's quintessential quality, to which Edna
Bold. That's what I want to capture. I wasn't thinking, there are
times when history cries out for a statement. Something irrevocable..
.. this was just one brave moment, the sudden slamming down of a
fist or a foot, saying, Enough! Stop! This was not conscious, but it
expressed the will of the people. The blood of a dam that burst.....
One can say the act is just a bloody murder. I daresay a lot of people
will feel that way. People say he's overrated; he was a simple hero.
But the world is mostly made of the simplest people. The workers,
the uneducated or the poor. And they may have the hardest time
finding their voice, expressing their feelings, but when they do there
are an awful lot of them, and you'd better listen to what they have to
say! ... this was his great sacrifice to fight a terrible system.
She instructed Rachel that Bogle was a fighter not a martyr. His face exhibits, in her
words, "confrontation" and "bloody determination" which lie at "the heart of human
outrage" (Drumblair 323). The power of Edna Manley's conception of ideological and
revolutionary space presents itself in the following incident. When Edna went to see
the site for the full figure in July, 1965, she had a rather telling encounter with a
disgruntled man who demanded that she bring back Bogle alive. According to her
diary at that time, she replied:
Edna Manley's (R)Evolutionary Imagination of Jamaican Space
Well I can't do that, and I don't think it would be a good thing either.
You see I think the things he fought for are alive-and I think that his
spirit is alive-what he died for, freedom and independence, these
things have been won; the effect of them hasn't spread everywhere
yet and you may not have felt it yet... but it is only a matter of time
now and it will come. (D 70)
The reactions to this work's unveiling were ambivalent, at best. Many who failed to
understand that she was paying tribute to the African sculptural emphasis on the head,
the mind and visage as the most important aspect, claimed that the statue lacked
proportion. Others went so far as to label it gross distortion. The dedication upon its
completion in 1965 was also tainted, as Edna, understandably, indignantly defied
Edward Seaga's slight in neglecting to invite Norman to sit with her on the platform.
Metaphorically and ironically, in a fashion sadly akin to Marie Curie's eventually fatal
reaction to her purification of radium which thereby incurred her own radiation
sickness, Edna's severe bronchial asthma attacks began shortly after casting the
fiberglass mold in tribute to this figure who, in his "moment of truth ... staked
everything" (323). This allergic reaction became increasingly debilitating and
exhausting; Edna, too, clearly staked everything in the cause of and for her art.
Nevertheless, Edna Manley's ability to reach the people deeply seems
unsurpassed. In her book, Problems ofArt, Susanne Langer describes art as "both a
product and an instrument of human insight" (69). According to her, works of art are
objectifications of human feeling. When they are internalized by an audience, they
help to form the emotive life of that audience. In any given period, art forms shape
the style of human feeling which will prevail, which explains in part why a blossoming
of the arts is likely to lead to cultural awakening and advance integral to which is a
visceral and kindred understanding of creative, intellectual, and political space.
Significantly, this awakening was informed by a feminist sensibility. In a
retrospective diary of October 22, 1982, wherein she "[caught] up on [her] thinking,"
she acknowledged: "I know it's the Jamaica woman-the woman who bears the
loads-nuff said" (D 248). This sensitivity is pervasive and emanates from such
sculptures as Ghetto Mother (1982), the original drawings for which included a gun-
man towering over the mother with cowering children and a man, according to her
February 25, 1981 diary, motivated by a cocaine habit: "It's been a strange experience
... a shrinking away from the subject, a fear that it was negative, and then finally I felt
it is the truth. I didn't mean to do it-I didn't want to do it, and those drawings that
just came out of me-in one horrible burst-the cocaine in the man's eyes-MY
GOD" (D 222). Six months earlier, her diary suggests an ironically soothing effect of
this project, perhaps because she was trying to make sense of where the world was
going, to paraphrase a July 24, 1980, entry mourning the gratuitous violence against
children at play: "Anyway I am starting my woman and the frightened children. God
help me-because it will be a tremendous effort-but it will keep me calm" (D 218).
In November of the same year, her diary suggests how overwhelmed she was by the
challenge this work and the harsh realities underlying it presented for her: "I started
working on the woman with the petrified children: 'And Would Not Be Comforted.'
But it's too big a subject for me and I feel too deeply over it-gunmen in cold blood
killing little children at play just for the hell of it" (D 220). It seems fitting that she
would at one point title this sobering work Weeping for her Children (D 222), as Edna
herself felt the loss of these, Jamaica's children, keenly. Edna lamented a couple years
later that this work did not sell, especially given the tremendous expense of its
sculpture: "it cost the earth to produce, certainly over $2000" (April 18, 1983). It
nevertheless attracted a great deal of attention at the opening show, "Jamaican Art:
1922-1982," for the National Gallery's new location in downtown Kingston.
Edna spent months contemplating the implications and discoveries inherent in
this voluminous creation. In an October 22, 1982, diary, she reckoned with the
epiphanies dwelling in this demanding emotional space of fierce and loyal motherhood:
One has to just get rid of the feeling that survival doesn't bring peace
and solutions-survival is just the capacity to go on-through all the
storms and maddening mistakes. It will always be like this-and as I
think of survival, I think of my Jamaican woman. I called my woman
and children in the end, 'Ghetto Mother'-the agony of the ghetto
mother. (D 249)
Edna Manley also captures with genuine warmth and admiration various
aspects of Jamaican women's lives, their daily and often mundane realities assuming
greater significance in such pieces as The Gossips (1983), Mountain Girl, Market
Women, The Beadseller (1922), Young Girl (1966), and Woman (1970), a stunning
panorama of females in several roles, assuming stances of defiance, surrender, ecstacy,
resignation, pleasure and solace in each other's company, and commitment to the
endless labor of their lives. Perhaps Eve, at 79" (1929), is Edna's quintessential
encapsulation of all these facets of womanhood, suggesting as it does in its fisted hands
a solid and confident resistance accompanied by the integrity inscribed in her face and
the dignity espoused in her bodily posture. Likewise with Mountain Women, an
intergenerational piece about which she wrote in September 3, 1971: "Mountain
Women difficult technically-they have to be remote and yet each a person-
Grandmother, Mother, Daughter-I so love it" (D 99). This, along with Woman, was
among the works featured in a one-woman exhibition at the Bolivar Gallery
showcasing her mourning carvings (296, 31. 8. 71). In spite of the technical difficulty,
though, her delight in Mountain Women surfaces again in a September 12 diary entry
the same year (1971): "Finished Mountain Women-Ha!" (D 102). Here, one syllable
expresses her gleeful sense of completion which helped to sustain her during the years
after Norman's death in 1969, at which point he, too, was declared a National Hero.
Edna Manley's (R)Evolutionary Imagination of Jamaican Space
The very title and theme of this work and others eloquently merge the landscape and
topography with more abstract, often gendered, spaces.
Edna's reverent speculation about multiple generations takes on a more
cosmic shape in The Generations (1943), about which she felt confident enough to
send off in April, 1953, to London to "see if [it could] make any impact in the big
outside world, amongst all the abstractions" (45). Here, female and male faces in a sea
of time cup with rounded hands, capable of shaping and creating, both the ancestry and
the progeny. In a similar transformation, Edna posits a breathtaking madonna and child
image to represent the rolling Hills ofPapine (1950), fittingly created in the lovely
setting Edna devotedly commemorates. As her granddaughter Rachel's memoir
suggests in relation to this work-a memory which bespeaks the mutually informative
aspect of the physical space in which Edna prolifically worked:
Mardi spent her mornings submerged in her studio, Mini, wearing
pants, chewing her tongue and smelling of turpentine. The rat-tat-tat
of her tools echoed all over the valley. It must have confused the
woodpeckers tapping away at their trees, to hear these echoes that
didn't tally-as though someone was poking fun at them.
Its massive structure Rachel credits with saving by keeping grounded Nomdmi during
Hurricane Charlie in 1951. As Edna's May 29, 1949, diary posits:
Today the first chips came out of the carving of Papine-it was quite
early up there, cool and sweet. The golden light on the grass and
trees. All the world was young and fair. A grand old, tough old,
piece of wood that I love-to make the mother of all men, and the
child of all women. (D 28)
As she tried to explain to a confused onlooker, as this was one of the few works she
created in public,
You see, the man is responsible for so much ... his woman, his child,
even the things he grows on the land. But Mother Earth has even
more to be responsible for. So she has to keep calm. For everything
ultimately depends on her, and she can't lose her head, not even in
the bad times. (Drumblair 316)
Truly, this archetypal figure of mother Earth cradling her child is reminiscent of Edna's
other bodily emanations of the landscape or the surrounding universe. These include
Jamaica (1976), significantly in the shape of a Jamaican woman's wizened and weary
face, originally entitled Old Woman and later purchased by Jamaica Mutual. Edna
would later count it among the few current works-most, it's worth noting, involving
women in some fashion-which were, as she designated, "right." Her December 7,
1977, diary is especially enlightening, the titles of the works she's describing I've
added to her own words:
Only the old woman is right-no that isn't correct. The weary old
woman [Old Woman Seated on a Rock] comes first, and then the
sleeping figure [Sleeping Hills], and then rising, waking woman
[Morning] and then the little figure working [Washer Woman], and
then the two little archetypal figures sitting very still [The
Mountains]. (D 187-88)
In the latter work, Edna combined male and female terracotta forms in the
configuration of interlocking mountain ranges later cast in bronze, understandably
among those she ranks as her finest. Perhaps she was even more contented with Land
(1947), wherein a woman's graceful physique embodies the contours of Earth's
Unfortunately, Moon (1943) had the opposite effect on her. In a June 14,
1944 diary, she concedes that it left her speechless (a response with which I can
identify), though her qualifier offers a very different reason from my own dumbstruck
awe. She writes, have no answer to the sense of failure when I look at it. So I won't
look at it anymore" (D 21-22). While I "fail" to see this beautiful carving's flaws, her
comment is instructive regarding the grave demands she placed on herself as one of the
foremost artists of the day. Her effort at patience and openness reveals itself in her
July 29, 1948, diary concerning a variant of Morning, alternately known as The Rising
Sun, the final and more heroic carving in the cosmic series:
I am working on my 'Sun' carving and waiting and waiting, trying to
catch the ebb and flow of an authentic direction. It's a strange
discipline. Anytime I take the bit between my teeth and try to
dominate it or to know more about it than is to be known, I end up in
a crash and the doors close against me. So I wait and work at other
things-for what seems wrong is often some unknown truth
presenting itself. (D 24)
Other revelations of the truth took shape in her cosmic series, demonstrating in turn her
Oh but I want to carve my two gods-dark and light. I'd like to carve
them where the echoes of the mountains would take up the song,
where the mists and the rain breathe round, where there's freedom
Edna Manley's (R)Evolutionary Imagination of Jamaican Space
and light and no desire. And the laughter of the faun falls like jewels
on the past. Where there's a beginning and an end, detached bodiless
creation. I want an icy silence and an icy stillness and an icy
loneliness. (D 10)
This July 11, 1941diary alludes to two figures in her "Dying God" series, which her
biographer, David Boxer, describes in terms of elemental dualities and systemic
opposition. Clearly, some facet of space propels every product of Edna's craft, in a
few cases capturing her surreal imagination: to wit, the following.
Relentlessly high standards and a deliberateness of intention also accompanied
her narrative about one of her most famous works, Horse of the Morning (1943),
wherein a rearing horse accedes to its awakening and rising potency; Rachel vividly
describes the vision which precipitated this landmark sculpture:
There, incredibly, as if in slow motion, she saw the ascension of a
single, golden, majestic horse, its mane coming up first behind the
mountains, flooding the sky with light; then the forelock beneath
which the lidless wide-open orbs charged the world to life; and then a
single lifted foreleg. She recognized it. It was the Horse of the
Morning. (Drumblair 37)
Understandably, this is now deemed her most popular carving. Nevertheless, on
January 8, 1944, she complains:
The horse is a bit of a flop-but it taught me many things, so no
grousing. 1. The way and other than the way. 2. Planning can ensure
a safe proportion, but it is death to discovery. Care must come after
spontaneity or things will be still-born. I learnt a good deal too about
concentration and handling oneself in the hours when one can't work.
In spite of this baffling assessment, she concedes quite happily that it "created a
sensation!" in Puerto Rico (August 7, 1952; D 43), which may contribute to its being
among her best-loved carvings according to Rachel (Drumblair 305). No doubt, this
relative contentment gave her the courage to send it to London along with The
Generations and Tomorrow (1939), the latter of which not surprisingly graces the dust
jacket of her collected diaries, this figure's eyes and hands reaching upward in
supplication. It seems most aptly to echo her own philosophy about the future,
movingly articulated in her July 7, 1979, entry, eight years before her death: ". .. when
one searches for a pattern for the future, the only thing that brings me peace is a mood
of tenderness. It's the only solution to the memories that hurt-being gentle with and
about people and being a little gentle with oneself' (D 204).
In yet another cosmic image, the sun, Edna perceived a cross-gender entity.
The Sun Goes Down (1942) configures the sunset as a man's wide-eyed face, while her
drawing, Sun God (1938) suggests the prominent female facial features, bone structure,
and determination which anticipates the Old Woman, Jamaica. In Sun andEarth
(1937), the female enfolds the male figure in a protective embrace. The Sea God, also
known as Rio Bueno (1975), assumes a masculine reclining shape, sculpted in
fiberglass, though her allergy to this medium depleted her physically. Again Edna
weds male and female forms in her 1976 drawing, The Wind and the Rain, which
illustrates these fluid forces in sleek, paradoxically harmonious reign over the
mountainous, forested landscape and the sea which envelops them. In Growth, six
times the former work's height at 100", Edna's figures grow symbolically in search of
ultimate integration and selfhood. Rachel's description of this wooden totem pole is
quite telling in terms of the evolving process of Edna's art:
... figures were now moving up the totem pole like flames in a fire:
two men leading the way, leaning towards the left and reaching up to
follow their gaze, and a woman following and looking back. Above
this, as though travelling onward, the same three figures leaned
towards the right and bowed their heads in their crooked arms, the
first man as though the bent limb might part the wind, the second and
third figures still following but now looking down, their arms
shielding their faces. (Drumblair 165)
The logics of transformation and border-crossing suggested in this remarkable work
underlie much of Edna's oeuvre, which in some respects envelops familial space, as
well. Indeed, part of Edna's artistic process included tender conferrals with Norman
regarding his perceptions of the work and his offers to oil it for her, which Rachel also
lovingly recounts. This consultation is akin to Edna's request that friends and family
pat her wood for good luck; she referred to this as a "laying on of hands" (Drumblair
294). In response, for example, to Norman's gentle question, "Where are they going,
my love ... these two many horses?" Edna replies: "I don't think they are journeying
so much as evolving" (166-67). Though Norman later marvelled at what became, to his
mind's eye, a "single horse ... reared up defiantly ... insular and isolationist" (185)
and though he willingly accommodated Edna's request to oil it, he naively used the
wrong tin and with Rachel as unwitting accomplice, stained the sculpture "impossibly
dark," a devastating mistake which had long-term repercussions, as Rachel's
In her own unique way she never forgave us. The more indignant she
became, the more she forgot that she had asked Pardi; the more
Edna Manley's (R)Evolutionary Imagination of Jamaican Space
firmly forgotten the request, the more outrageous our crime appeared
to be. Perhaps to make amends, we let her tell the story the way she
pleased, and she did, unburdening herself until it became apocrypha.
In spite of such a fraught history, this cascade of aspiring male, female, and animal
figures-the nurturing sunrise at their feet-bespeaks the illumination and ascent
which genuine growth both entails and enables.
As the wife of the country's former Premier Norman Manley and the mother
of its future Prime Minister, Edna Manley was ideally poised to foster such growth
through the arts she facilitated. Married to a brilliant Jamaican nationalist, patriot, and
visionary, she could not help but be a part of his dreams and ideas. Together they
travelled the country and shared all the strains, rigors, and uncertainties, as well as the
hopes and aspirations of the sociopolitical flames. Living in almost constant contact
with a cross section of the Jamaican peoples, she became part of the vital core of
Jamaican life and a spark to ignite the formerly slumbering peoples and untapped
potential, which she continued to preserve in her art well into her 80s. Here again,
Rachel's insights are illuminating:
She didn't know why, but the things she wanted to do, the things she
felt she was meant to do, were much easier with her youth out of the
way. Youth was like a too-tight skin which had encumbered her, and
imposed expectations on her that always felt unnatural to fulfill. For
the first time she felt peaceful... not like a motionless lake, but like
a high tide swollen and brimming and secure in the moon's gravity;
the creatures of the sea had lived and died in her, and she held
beautiful formations of coral, and crabs would feel safe to come to
her .... When she woke in the mornings she was happy. (Drumblair
Miraculously, thus, space inhabits Edna, making theirs a truly mutual relationship and
trust. No wonder, then, that her July 7, 1979, bespeaks a renaissance which was to see
her through the next seven years:
Some drawings I did in 1940, which were never completed, have
been stirring in me again. Why shouldn't I go back and give birth to
them. I find my work is breaking through into wild, free movements
and shapes. All the things I avoided when I was young-except for
the period around 1940-45? when I became terribly near to an almost
cosmic consciousness-with the 'Dying God' series etc. (D 204)
Because her position put her in close contact with the political theorists, social
reformers, and stimulating intellectuals of the time, Edna was an ideal liaison between
these arenas and the budding art forms. She also founded the nation's first literary
journal, Focus, editing its three successive volumes in 1943, 1948, and 1960, each of
which brought all the arts together and served as an outlet for the works of young
artists, writers, and other intellectuals who flocked around her for instruction and
encouragement. According to Rachel's memoir, "The issues had been a great success,
lifting national spirits with vibrant, authentic Jamaican voices" (Drumblair 125).
Indeed, few Jamaican artists of stature today did not find the earliest source of their
inspiration in her example. As Rachel fondly recollects:
At times [Edna] felt in love. Not with anyone, but just the "in love"
she had felt in her younger life, when all around her poets were
writing poetry and there were artists in love with wood or paint or
clay and Jamaicans had fallen in love with Jamaica. And now she
saw it all come full circle: a genuine Jamaican art movement.
Largely thanks to Edna Manley's tireless efforts, today in excess of forty
galleries exhibit every school: symbolist, surrealist, impressionist, expressionist, realist;
and every genre and style by both classical and self-taught artists. In them and the
indefatigable spirit of the Jamaican people; resonating in the incomparable sculptures
which adorn the University of the West Indies library journal covers and grounds, such
as the famous Rainbow Serpent-the fiberglass of which made her seriously ill with
emphysema; or enlightening readers in the diaries her granddaughter Rachel has
compiled, Edna Manley's rich and awe-inspiring legacy in the unsurpassed imagining
of Caribbean space continues. We can not help but agree with Rachel: "If I believed it
was [my grandfather] who wrote the script of [Jamaica's] story, then I believed equally
that [my grandmother] somehow illustrated the text" (Drumblair 28).
1. Junkanoo is a lively musical parade with lavish costumes-not unlike Mardi Gras-still
celebrated during Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Boxer, David. Edna Manley: Selected Sculpture and Drawings, 1922-1976 (exhibition
catalogue, National Gallery of Jamaica), Kingston, 1977.
Langer, Susanne. Problems ofArt. New York: Scribners, 1956.
Manley, Rachel, ed. Edna Manley: The Diaries. Kingston: Heinemann Publishers (Caribbean)
Limited, 1989. (Noted in the text parenthetically by D followed by page number.)
Edna Manley's (R)Evolutionary Imagination of Jamaican Space
-. Drumblair: Memories ofa Jamaican Childhood. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, Ltd.,
Marriott, Louis, ed. Who's Who and What's What in Jamaican Art and Entertainment.
Kingston: Smith's Printing Services, 1995.
Newtona (Tina) Johnson
Gender and Diasporic Connections in Marlene Nourbese Philip's
This essay stems from my attempt to unravel and understand the intricate web
of power relations that define the existence of black peoples of contemporary diasporas
in Western nations.' My focus in this work is the dynamics of gender power relations,
particularly as they relate to Caribbean diasporic subjects' connections with the
homeland. Marlene Nourbese Philip's novel, Harriet's Daughter, has been
tremendously helpful to my effort to understand the nature of this relationship. This
award-winning novel provides some very useful insights into the gendered nature of
diasporic connections and the impact these connections have on relationships within
the diasporic family.2 These insights include Caribbean diasporic males' use of
patriarchal features of the homeland culture as mechanisms of control of diasporic
women within their households. They also include the ambivalence that can
characterize Caribbean diasporic women's sense of connectedness with the homeland,
an ambivalence that results from these women's sense of the homeland as a site of
cultural heritage on the one hand, and of patriarchal oppression on the other. In
addition, Philip shows that traditional patriarchal gender relations can be destabilized in
diasporic space, which means that living in diaspora can offer women emancipatory
Harriet's Daughter is a first-person narrative of the experiences and
developing cultural identity of a black Canadian adolescent female of Caribbean
heritage. The protagonist Margaret Cruickshank, a.k.a. Harriet, is a fourteen-year-old,
second-generation diasporic subject. Margaret, born in Canada, is the youngest of
three children in her middle-class suburban Toronto family. Her father, a Barbadian,
is well educated and holds a white-collar government job. Margaret's Jamaican mother
is a full-time homemaker. The narrative centers on Margaret's effort to help her friend
Zulma return to her native Tobago. However, it is in Philip's depiction of the social
interactions within Margaret's Caribbean diasporic sphere of family and friends that we
see gender-specific ways in which Caribbean diasporic subjects make connections with
the homeland, and how such connections shape gender power relations within the
Cynthia Enloe provides a useful way of thinking about practices of
marginalized peoples that may seem gender-neutral but are not. In Bananas, Beaches
and Bases, Enloe suggests that the inability of males in marginalized social locations to
access fully masculine privileges that they see their non-marginalized counterparts
enjoy emasculates the former and generates in them a sense of "injured masculinity"
(1). She contends that this masculinized sense of powerlessness may be the source of
nationalist identification of males in colonized conditions. Nationalism, she states,
Gender and Diasporic Connections in Marlene Nourbese Philip's Harriet's Daughter
"typically has sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and
masculinized hope"4 (44).
Drawing on Enloe's view, I want to suggest that just as a sense of
emasculation may propel colonized men to assume a nationalist stance, it also can be a
source of diasporic males' identification with the homeland, as Philip's novel shows.
My claim here is borne out in the gendered ways in which Philip's principal male
characters-Cuthbert Cruickshank, Margaret's father, and Lloyd Clarke, Zulma's
stepfather-use their homeland culture to empower themselves in diasporic space.
Mr. Clarke, for instance, blames contemporary Western culture for
compromising traditional gender hierarchy. This sentiment is quite evident in his
comments to Mr. Cruickshank regarding their wives' decision to send Zulma back to
Tobago accompanied by Margaret: "'Is this country [Canada] I tell you, sir, it full up
they head with all this feminist talk and make them feel woman is boss. Every day you
turn on the T.V. is somebody else talking about how women have to have they rights;
they want to wear pants and run man life, and time and time again I have to tell my wife
that two man-rat can't live in one hole'" (134; emphasis added). From Mr. Clarke's
perspective, the temerity of his wife to move outside the sphere of his control
demonstrates the erosion of masculine power and authority. In his view, this erosion is
a consequence of living outside the homeland. To help curb this erosion of patriarchal
power in the Clarke household, indeed, to maintain traditional (read patriarchal) gender
relations, Mr. Clarke evokes the traditional Caribbean adage "two man-rat can't live in
one hole." The lesson this adage teaches is that there is room enough for only one
figure of authority in the home and that figure is male. Mr. Clarke constantly reminds
his wife of this adage to impress on her that, notwithstanding the fact that they live in
Canada, their relationship is still governed by norms and values from the homeland.
And these norms and values are patriarchal.
Mr. Cruickshank, Margaret's father, also uses his homeland connections in a
similar way. The ties to Barbados, and the Caribbean in general, that Mr. Cruickshank
values and maintains are those that reinforce his exercise of power and authority within
his household in Canada. In bringing up his children, for example, Mr. Cruickshank's
criteria for determining appropriate gender roles and modes of behavior for his children
in suburban Toronto are transported from the Caribbean, Barbados to be specific.
Margaret tells us that "[h]e always mentioned that life was so much better in Barbados
where children were children and taught to be polite, punctual and respectful of adults"
The extent to which Mr. Cruickshank uses his Caribbean connection to
maintain control over his family in Canada is clear when he tells Mrs. Billingslea, a
family friend and Margaret's mentor, that "I am West Indian, my daughter [Margaret]
is West Indian, and she does as I say in my house. She goes where Itell her, and I'll
have none of her womanish behaviour in my house" (113; emphasis added). The
subtext of this statement is this: Cuthbert Cruickshank's children are culturally West
Indians and as such they must be brought up with the same cultural mores as are
children brought up in the West Indies. However, the statement also reveals the very
gendered way in which Mr. Cruickshank calls up West Indian identity. His repeated
use of the first person singular personal and possessive pronouns suggests that Mr.
Cruickshank considers himself the sole repository of power in the household, a position
which obviously excludes his wife. In this connection also, his daughter occupies a
subordinate position based on her being both a female and a child. This position
demands, among other things, total submission to the authority of the father. Not
surprisingly, there is much tension and conflict in the relationship between father and
daughter as Margaret resists her father's attempt to enforce Caribbean cultural norms
that she thinks are oppressive. Both father and daughter perceive each other's
recalcitrance more in terms of gender than age difference. Margaret sees her father as
"a male chauvinist pig" (14). Mr. Cruickshank views his daughter's defiant attitude
and behavior as "womanish." The term "womanish" suggests that a girl-child is
precocious. But more significantly, it insinuates that she has adopted a behavioral
pattern that positions her as a transgressor of her society's norms of femininity: She is
defiant, self-assured, and determined to create new paths rather than follow those
established for women by men.5
That Mr. Cruickshank references Margaret's behavior to patriarchal notions of
acceptable female behavior can also be seen in his use of "young woman" to register
his most intense disapproval of her behavior, and "young lady" when he is less upset
with her (41). "Lady," as Miller and Swift point out, suggests compliance with
society's standards of propriety whereas "woman" connotes independence (84, 92).
Indeed, it is on the basis of such definitions that Margaret, herself, rejects the label
"lady" and embraces the term "woman." She makes her preference clear to her mother
when, upon hearing that Margaret has started menstruating, Mrs. Cruickshank in a
congratulatory manner tells Margaret that she is now a "young lady." Margaret's
response is: "I'm not a lady Mum-I'm a woman. Ladies don't swear, remember?"
(118). Margaret's rejection here again demonstrates her resistance to patriarchally-
defined notions of femininity, which she associates with her father and the Caribbean
culture he embraces.
Mr. Cruickshank's constant threat to send her to his mother in Barbados for
some GWID-Good West Indian Discipline (39) reinforces Margaret's association of
patriarchal oppressiveness and Caribbean culture. Mrs. Billingslea helps Margaret
understand that Mr. Cruickshank's consistent appeals to his West Indian heritage are a
strategy to exercise power over his family. She tells Margaret:
Cuthbert Cruickshank-hah, there's a man that wants control, of
everything. He rules Tina, he has a son who does his every bidding,
and Jo-Ann, well I've seen her in church enough times to know she
hasn't got a serious thought in that pretty head of hers. You bother
him, Margaret-he as much as said that to me-because he doesn't
Gender and Diasporic Connections in Marlene Nourbese Philip's Harriet's Daughter
understand you, can't quite control your mind like the others; and he
has to have control, so he'll control your body, your movements.
Later she adds: "contrary to what Cuthbert thinks, this is not the West
Indies-it's Canada..." (123). Mr. Cruickshank's failure to understand Margaret
stems from her resistance to be positioned within the frame of femininity of her father's
middle-class Bajan culture. Mr. Cruickshank finds it difficult to control her because
she locates herself outside his frame of reference. By sending Margaret to be brought
up in Barbados under the tutelage of his mother, Mr. Cruickshank believes that
Margaret will be socialized to accept the norms, values and practices with which he is
familiar. And this may make it easier for her to acquiesce to his power and authority.
Bajan culture is clearly being used by Mr. Cruickshank as a means of empowering
himself in diasporic space.
In addition to presenting such strategic uses of homeland connections by
Caribbean diasporic males, Philip also suggests that such uses affect not only the
material conditions of diasporic women but also their sense of connectedness with the
homeland. For diasporic women who must endure patriarchal oppression grounded in
the homeland culture, ties to the homeland become sites of dialectical tension and
ambivalence. The ambivalence and attendant tension emerge from these women's
painful awareness that the homeland, which provides them a cultural heritage and sense
of belonging, of having roots, can also be mined for strategies to oppress them abroad.
Philip maps out this aspect of Caribbean diasporic women's connection with
the homeland through Margaret's relationship with Caribbean culture and through Mrs.
Cruickshank's transformation from passivity to self-actualization. Margaret's
relationship with Caribbean culture shows that the aforementioned ambivalence and
tension are not limited to first-generation diasporic females such as her mother. Having
never been to the Caribbean, Margaret's sense of connectedness with the homeland is
constructed through a variety of other sources: These are primarily her interactions with
her parents; Caribbean family friends; her Tobagonian friend, Zulma; Zulma's parents;
and through Margaret's exposure to Caribbean music and other aspects of Caribbean
culture that penetrate the popular culture of Toronto, Canada.
Her father's views and practices, as well as Mr. Clarke's abusive treatment of
his wife and stepdaughter, lead Margaret to perceive the Caribbean as a bastion of
patriarchally-endowed masculine power and privilege. This perception engenders in
Margaret a deep aversion to those aspects of her Caribbean connections that she
believes propagate male privilege and female oppression. A prime example of this
reaction is Margaret's dislike of her paternal grandmother whom she has never met.
Margaret's dislike is solely the result of her father's constant threat to send her to his
mother for some "Good West Indian Discipline" (25). On the other hand, Margaret
thinks very favorably of Zulma's grandmother in Tobago, whom she also has never
met. The difference in Margaret's response to these two Caribbean grandmothers is
based on the way these women are defined in relation to patriarchy. Margaret's
grandmother complies with the system. Zulma's Gran does not. Zulma defines her
Gran as a woman keenly aware of and opposed to both gender and racial systems of
oppression. Zulma tells Margaret that, unlike their mothers, her Gran "live she life
according to she own rules, and she not bending she life to fit into anybody else
life-specially a man" (143).
Margaret exhibits similar opposing sentiments to aspects of Caribbean culture.
She detests her parents' child-rearing practices, which, in her view, are steeped in
patriarchal values of Caribbean culture. She could not understand and accept, for
example, why, unlike herself and her sister, her brother, Jonathon, does not have to do
housework. The following is an exchange between Margaret and her mother in which
Margaret questions this practice:
When I finished eating, my mum told me and my sister she
wanted us to help her wash up the dishes and tidy up the kitchen.
"How come HE," I asked, pointing to my brother, "never
gets to do any work around here? I don't see my name on these
dishes or on this floor. His hands don't seem broken to me."
My mother told me to shut up, that he was a boy, and that he
had better things to do.
"Like what?" I said. "How come he doesn't have better
things to do than eat? I've got homework to do just like he does-so
why can't he do housework? My teacher says men can do jobs
women do, and women can do jobs like welding and construction.
So, why can't he do the dishes, Mum?" (34)6
Margaret is also fully aware that her parents have a more comfortable
relationship with her sister, Jo-Ann, than they do with her, ostensibly because Jo-Ann
fits the traditional mold of femininity. Margaret tells us that, although her "father is
always going on about HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO DO WELL AT SCHOOL, and
get good grades.. ." (15), Jo-Ann is his favorite daughter, notwithstanding the fact that
she (Margaret) makes good grades and Jo-Ann is "lucky if she scrapes a fifty average"
(16). Mr. Cruickshank prefers Jo-Ann because she is passive, malleable and does not
challenge his authority. Mrs. Cruickshank also prefers Jo-Ann's "feminine ways" to
Margaret's "womanish ways." Margaret perceives that her mother is ". .. not really
happy with me. I'm just not what she wants me to be-like Jo-Ann. Her face is all
smiles when Jo-Ann goes to show her a new dress, or new make-up. With me she's
kind of uncomfortable (59). Margaret's parents' discomfort with their daughter is a
response to Margaret's resisting their effort to construct her as a feminine subject using
the mold of middle-class, Eurocentric Caribbean patriarchal culture.
But Margaret does not reject all of her cultural ties to the Caribbean. She
embraces and draws on those aspects of her Caribbean heritage that help her to challenge the
Gender and Diasporic Connections in Marlene Nourbese Philip's Harriet's Daughter
ways she feels subordinated and to define her cultural identity as she sees fit. For example,
she identifies with reggae music and Rastafarianism precisely for this reason. Her parents
think negatively of both. Whereas Mr. Cruickshank views Rastas as dope-smoking
"criminals" who give "decent, hard-working Coloured People ... a bad name" and create
"primitive" music (40), Margaret sees them as teachers of self-empowerment through
assertiveness, a lesson she believes her mother will do well to learn. Margaret says:
A lot of the time I feel sorry for my mum; she lets my father push her
around too much. She fights back sometimes, but not often enough.
There are times when I want to take her and shake her and say: "Stand up
for yourself." Like the Bob Marley song: Get up, stand up, stand up for
your rights. I'm sure she would pretend she had never heard of Bob
Marley; my father, of course, would say he was a disgrace to black
people. No. He would never say black but Coloured People, Capital C,
capital P. (13-14)
Margaret uses other features of Caribbean culture as resources in fashioning a
cultural identity that is in contradistinction to that of her parents. For instance, hairstyles
become an important site of articulating her self-defined identity. Margaret loves
Afrocentric hairstyles and chooses to wear either an Afro or braids. Her mother dislikes
Afrocentric hairstyles; she believes that these hairstyles are expressions of lower-class
Caribbean aesthetics. Margaret reveals her mother's bias on this matter as follows: "Only
poor people, she says, would corn row their hair, and no matter how many Essence
magazines I show her, with these super-cool, black women wearing braids, she just sucks
her teeth and says it's all foolishness, that 'straightened hair is so much better' (15). Mrs.
Cruickshank's espousal of middle-class Eurocentric Caribbean values are regarded by
Margaret as part of her mother's submission to her father's way of thinking, and also as an
unwillingness to challenge the status quo. Consequently, she looks beyond her mother for a
role model as she tries to define her own identity.
The women Margaret chooses as her role models-historical figures such as
Harriet Tubman and Angela Davis, and family friends such as Mrs. Blewchamp and Mrs.
Billingslea--are not Caribbean women. These women appeal to Margaret because, in one
way or another, they have challenged rather than succumbed to their subjugation. Harriet
Blewchamp, for instance, was a Jewish Holocaust survivor for whom Margaret's mother
worked when she first relocated to Canada. Margaret admires Mrs. Blewchamp's tenacity
and strength to resist her subjugation by escaping from a concentration camp. Similarly,
Harriet Tubman's strong leadership in steering the "underground railway" of slaves from the
U.S. South all the way to Canada appeals to Margaret's sense of empowerment. The acts of
both of these women named "Harriet" spur Margaret to reject her given name, which she
associates with masculine control, and adopt "Harriet." Margaret acknowledges the
contribution of these two women to her desire to change her name: "Mrs. Blewchamp had
really lived, she was in the war, in a concentration camp, and had escaped and she wanted
me to have her name. I mean, like who was Margaret? My father's mother, whom I didn't
really know, and didn't like, because HE was always threatening me to send me to her for
some Good West Indian Discipline" (25).
After learning about the famous Underground Railroad Conductor, Margaret
Harriet Tubman.... She had to take care of people: babies, children,
men and women-she had to bring them all the way up to Canada, and
not get caught.... Harriet, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Blewchamp, again I
thought of changing my name to one that meant something-like Harriet.
Harriet Tubman was brave and strong and she was black like me. .. I
wanted to be Harriet. (37)
Margaret also draws strength from Mrs. Billingslea, her mentor. Mrs. Billingslea is an
African American originally from Mississippi who married a black Canadian and moved to
Toronto. She is a foil for Margaret's mother as her strong sense of self contrasts sharply
with the passivity of Mrs. Cruickshank.
I noted earlier that Mrs. Cruickshank's struggle towards self-actualization also
highlights the contradictory sentiments that may characterize diasporic women's
relationship with the homeland. For this first-generation diasporic female, the struggle
toward self-articulation is a struggle between holding on to the familiar for a sense of
security and stability, on the one hand, and forging new ties that facilitate the exercise of
agency, on the other. The familiar, as it pertains to gender power relations within the
family, is to defer to the authority of the "man-of-the-house." Mrs. Cruickshank stopped
working outside the home because, as Margaret puts it, ". .. HE won't let her, says she
should be home for us children. HE means HIMSELF of course" (26). Mrs. Cruickshank's
deference to her husband's authority and the inner turmoil created by her inability to stand
up to him are quite evident in an exchange that erupts when Mr. Cruichshank retracts his
promise to send Margaret to camp in the summer and instead threatens to send her to
"Mum, you said I could go to camp again this year, you said so." My
mum was useless; she was crying and crying, and she wasn't even the
one being sent away. "You both said so," I said. "Mum, please, help
"Your father knows what's best for you, Margaret."
"He doesn't, he doesn't, he doesn't!" (91)
After admonishing Margaret for being rude, Mr. Cuickshank tells his daughter that
she must let her mother know where she is at all times. He then turns to Mrs. Cruickshank
and says: "'Tina do you understand that? You really haven't been doing your job you
know.' My mum nodded" (91). Mrs. Cruickshank's statement "Your father knows what's