COMPARE THE IDEAS OF THREE CULTURAL/THEORETICAL COMMENTATORS FROM FRANCOPHONE, ANGLOPHONE AND HISPANOPHONE STATES AS THEY RELATE TO NOTIONS OF ‘CARIBBEANNESS’.
A Research Paper
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Caribbean Studies: Literatures
CARI 6000: Contemporary Caribbean Literatures.
The University of the West Indies
Department of Literatures, Languages and History
Faculty of Humanities
Cave Hill Campus
Critical to the quest for identity is the ability to be autonomous in designing one’s narrative and definition; therefore a cultural theory that propagates freedom/freeing of form, process and demarcation is thus rendered mature. When analysed comparatively with Kamau Brathwaite’s theory of creolisation and Cesaire’s Negritude, this argument can be made of Anonio Benetiz-Rojo postmodernism theory (borne out of chaos theory) as it relates to Caribbean Identity. A critical analysis of these theories will identify and present the subsequent similarities and divergences to be found and an attempt will be made to illustrate representations of these theories in a selection of texts from the Caribbean literary canon: Cambridge, Kingdom of This World and Masters of the Dew. To achieve these objectives, first an attempt will be made to contextualize the time in which the quest for identity began in the Caribbean which will then lead to an examination of the importance of identity to a people/nation/region; thereby justifying (all) these theories as relevant to the postcolonial discourse but not (Brathwaite and Cesaire) as idealistic.
Since the pan-Independence era in the Caribbean, a new social consciousness was awakened in Caribbean people that inspired a desire to (re) create an alternative epistemology that was self-narrated i.e. an identity. This quest for an identity at the end of colonialism came as a ‘radical’ impulse (Tiffin) to emotionally, psychologically and spiritually disassociate from the European Center’s ideological influence. This radical impulse can be better understood within the social conscious framework of postcolonialism that is ironically, an antithesis: resistance.
John Mcleod’s definition of postcolonialism (intentionally not hyphenated) presents an alternative, but appreciatively welcomed, concept to the idea that challenges its normative concept as a temporal signifier to the end of European colonial rule. Indeed, Mcleod differentiates between post-colonialism and postcolonialism in an effort to explain that the latter is an ongoing act of social consciousness that has characterized all colonial territories: an ongoing act of resisting the assimilated European ideologies that were used to construct its hegemony. Mcleod asserts:
“There is a particular reason for this choice of spelling and it concerns the different meanings of ‘post-colonial’ and ‘postcolonial’. The hyphenated term post-colonial seems more appropriate to denote a particular historical period or epoch, like those suggested by phrases such as ‘after colonialism’, ‘after independence’ or ‘after the end of the Empire’. However, for much of this book we will be thinking about postcolonialism not just in terms of strict historical periodization, but as referring to disparate forms of representations, reading practices and values.”( Mcleod, 5)
It is within this framework that the quest for a Caribbean identity was awakened and conceptualized. Furthermore, this author will continue to adhere to the Mcleod idea of postcolonialism throughout the discussion and advises the reader to remain cognizant of this alternative reading.
The pluralistic and cosmopolitan composition of the Caribbean almost naturally demands or at least encourages a need for an (re) identification with alternative and submerged heritages that are in contrast to the European Centers. And here lies the crux of the dilemma in the quest for a Caribbean identity, for a desire to define oneself (even within a postcoloniality) is not problematic; rather it is when an understanding of a Caribbean identity is seen as one and not one of many.
Indeed Hall’s description of the Caribbean as “the first, the original and the purest diaspora… where everybody there comes from somewhere else”, is suggestive of this conclusion.
This difficulty to define oneself is further compounded and made more urgent, when you accept Hall’s supporting thesis that identity is just as much an external conversation as it is an internal dialogue. Indeed he argues that “identities actually come from outside, they are the way in which we are recognized and then come to step into the place of the recognitions which others give us. Without the others there is no self, there is no self-recognition.” ()
Therefore, if defining oneself as an act of resistance to the imperial hegemony, is just as much about how we are perceived by the ‘Other’, then it is implicit as a case of good strategic maneouvering that a homologous identity is created in an effort to be, simply put, taken seriously. And that obligation to present a united definition of self to the world and colonisers, has created a frustration and a consequential fragmentation in Caribbean cultural theory that has deemed it ‘problematic’.
Within a colonial framework where one epistemology or ideology should be acknowledged, credited or established, this dilemma in Caribbean identity can be viewed ultimately as a triumph. The dilemma itself challenges the Imperial idea that a singular epistemology of one’s existence suggests maturity and with it, a default credibility. The anxiety that exists within Caribbean theorists towards the proposal of several epistemologies is a response indicative of the colonial experience: a privileging and valorization of one perspective. As the process of postcolonialism (resistance) continues, it is hoped that this idea of epistemology is submerged and ultimately the panic gives way to an acceptance of truth(s).
These issues of plurality and allegiance to the European system of epistemology only highlights the problems that exist in Caribbean identity discourse; they do not however, explore the importance of identity to a people, whether in a postcolonial paradigm or not. With this understanding, the foci, obsessions and passions of Cultural theorists can be legitimized and not mistaken as futile exercises in national/regional narcissism.
Indeed, this author suggests that identity is so critical to the sensibility of people (postcolonial) because it ignites a fundamental human right that has been denied during the system of colonialism: autonomy.
The exercise of this autonomy is essential to the postcolonial effort (Tiffin) and Caribbean cultural and literary theorists have been ardent in the use of their autonomy to explain their sense of Caribbeanness that could attribute to, in addition to the plural epistemologies, a substantial bounty of cultural identity theories.
Influenced by one of the first seminal works on Caribbean identity, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins White Masks; Aime Cesaire’s ‘Discourse on Colonialism’ is considered equally groundbreaking. Cesaire’s argues his thesis with a passion and a veracity that has made it difficult to ignore throughout the postcolonial world.
The seemingly defensible act of one group of people settling in a new location, which defines colonialism according to Mcleod, Cesaire argues was really the deceitful “campaign [of Europeans] to civilize barbarism, from which there may emerge at any moment the negation of civilization”. Indeed he argues that the “negation of civilization” is inevitable because “They [Europeans] prove that colonization, I repeat, dehumanizes even the most civilized man; the colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it…” (cesaire )
Indeed, Caryl Phillips Cambridge supports Cesaire’s claim.
“These men violated the principles of sound commercial policy, and imposed upon their own nation a heavy burden, both moral and financial, for the maintenance of their addiction to slavery. Worse still, they involved the good people of their country to the sorrowful guilt of upholding such a system, thus fusing prejudice into their souls and hardening their hearts. (Cambridge, )
This argument is essential to Cesaire’s work: he thought and believed that despite Europe’s grandeur as the idealized epitome of civility and piety, its acts of Colonialism with the atrocities, plunders, deaths, rapes and indoctrination of inferiority on a people’s psychology, that it had essentially become unhuman- the very characteristic to which Europe had attributed to the colonized subjects and with which they had justified their colonial exploits.
“I was to understand, by virtue of the reasoning of John Williams, that white men were often savage.” (Cambridge, __).
Perhaps what is even more essential to Cesaire’s argument about the vainness of Europe’s efforts to claim their superior status in the world, is his methodology for making and proving the argument. Using the words, thoughts and ideas as disseminated by European intellectuals themselves, Cesaire builds the un-penetrable argument that, again is, difficult to inauthenticate: Colonisation was never an act of innocence (p_). It was, indeed, a strategic act whereby the aftermath effects were intended and prescribed.
He quotes French Philosoher:
“The regeneration of the inferior or degenerate races by the superior races by the superior races as a part of the providential order of things for humanity.” (Cesaire, 4)
Christian Rev. Muller:
“Humanity must not, cannot allow the incompetence, negligence, and laziness of the uncivilized peoples to leave idle indefinitely the wealth which God has confided to them, charging them to make it serve the good of all.”
And even when the absurdity of these statements could no longer be ignored or denied, European intellectuals still yet continued to justify and mitigate the enormity of their destruction with the valorization of the apparent ‘progress’ that had been made in civilization. However, Cesaire vehemently argues the validity of these claims, first casting doubt on the significance of Europe’s role as instigator of world progress. Indeed he argues, “…since no one knows at what stage of material development these same countries would have been if Europe had not intervened…” the incongruity with which European intellectuals like M. Caillois deny the very own intellectual advancements of the “uncivilizedancient world” to which Europe’s own intellectualshould be credited, is overwhelming. Europe, as part of their colonial exercise, will never acknowledge, whether imagined or real, any positive attributes of the ‘colonised world’ to which they esteem as an ideal i.e. intelligence, beauty, religion, structure and form.
“That the West alone knows how to think; that at the borders of the Western world there begins the shadowy realm of primitive thinking, which, dominated by the notion of participation, incapable of logic, is the very model of faulty thinking.” Cesaire, 19.
The methodology of using the thoughts of European intellectuals to build his argument is essential not only as a measure of validity, but more importantly, within this postcolonial context, as a measure of the subversive method of disseminating and inculcating a pejorative sense of self in colonized subjects. Indeed, education and religion, two powerful systems in colonialism and media of European values, from which the aforementioned European intellectuals are drawn, were the primary spaces in which colonial and post-colonial people were taught self-hatred. It is these same very philosophies to which colonized and post-colonised people, would have been exposed and would have internalized. Indeed, the character of Cambridge, during his second renaming act, for which he would become David Henderson, is convinced by teachings of the Bible that he, like all blacks, are a cursed race by God; therefore strict adherence to Christian values espoused only by Europeans was to be showed.
“My uncivilized African demeanour began to fall from my person, as I resolved to conduct myself along lines that would be agreeable to my God. Miss Spencer informed me that good persons, into whose company she would introduce me, minded the Bible…. It remained for her powerfully to encourage me to drive old Africa, clear from my new mind for, as she related, black men were descended from Noah’s son Cham, who was damned by God for his disobedience and shamelessness in having relations with his chosen wife aboard the Ark. This wicked act produced the devilish dark Chus, the father of the black and cursed African. Miss Spencer convinced me that supplication to God’s will would allow me to gain access to the heavenly thereafter.” (Cambridge, )
Again, it is these same very philosophies to which colonized and post-colonised people, would have been exposed and would have internalized. Thus continuing the tradition of colonization long after Independence was gained.
This continuation of colonization on a subliminal level along with the effects and intent of colonialism, informs Cesaire idea of ‘Caribbeaness’… and it is unapologetically harsh. Despite the strong European fibers that have been woven into the tapestry of the Caribbean, evident in the language, aesthetics, religion and traditions, Cesaire would call for the immediate ex-communication of everything European if Negritude was a religion. Perhaps ex-communication is too polite; a reprimand, where an exorcism would be deemed more appropriate. While this demonizing of European colonialism speaks to the painful (understatement) realities of that experience for colonized subjects, it presents a problem that only inspires more self-loathing and psychosis.
While, European colonization may have had Machiavellian intent, the Caribbean nonetheless went through a successful period of assimilation and acculturation of European ideologies and traditions that are still existent today. Indeed, Hall competently extrapolates the dilemma hidden in Cesaire’s idea of ‘Caribbeaness’.
“But let us not forget that retention characterized the colonizing cultures as well as the colonized. For if you look at the Little Englands, the Little Spains and the Little Frances that were created by the colonisers, if you consider this kind of fossilized replica, with the usual colonial cultural lag- people are always more Victorian when they’re taken tea in the Himalayas than when they’re taking tea in Leamington- they are keeping alive the memory of their own homes and homelands and traditions and customs. This very important double aspect of retention has marked Caribbean culture.” (Hall, 5).
Therefore, Cesaire’s idea of ‘Caribbeaness’, or at least an idealized idea of ‘Caribbeaness’, is not practical. To deny the European heritage on the grounds of their unfounded superiority and Machiavellian intent would be to deny the very part of our existence that we, thanks to the soothing relief of time, have come to acquire a comfort and acceptance.
How can we negotiate the hegemonic ideologies of the European Center used to inculcate a deep psychological hatred of (and in) colonized people, from the very seemingly insignificant and non-threatening act of drinking tea, which is the very European symbol of the aesthetic of civility?
Perhaps, this polemic battle of will that Cesaire champions is not meant to be so divisive. Cesaire’s Negritude is really an attempt to make the docile and ‘ignorant’ colonized man (and woman) aware of the subversive intent of colonization and with that a balanced epistemology that privileges and valorizes the heritage of Africa just as much, if not more, based on the advanced humanism propagated there as suggested by Cesaire. Cesaire’s intent is no more applicable or relevant than in the case of the character of Cambridge, who asserts: “It was God’s wish that I should return to my old country with the character of a man in upper rank, and a superior English mind, inferior only to the Christian goodnesss in my heart." (Cambridge, __). Sadly, Cambridge suggests that returning to Africa, with all the European sensibilities and civilities would make him a better man than when he left. It is this unbalanced understanding that dominates the colonized psyche, which Cesaire attempts to balance. Ultimately it is Cesaire’s divisive tone that undermines the nobleness of this attempt. Nonetheless, the contempt for which Cesaire speaks of the Caribbean’s European heritage in his discourse cannot be denied.
Thus, while a balanced sense of self is offered by Cesaire’s Negritude, ironically, the perpetuation of a fractured and fragmented identity continues for the colonized. This dichotomous sense of identity where one half of the Caribbean heritage is pit against ‘the other’, paralyses the potential of Caribbean people to create a truly wholesome identity, that though cognizant of their coloniser’s sins, they can, with a mature aloofness, find value in their colonial heritages. As a result, the writer would like to posit the view that while Negritude and Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism surely advances the colonized understanding of the ideological imperialism of the Center, it nonetheless is an immediate and unhindered emotional response to colonialism.
The thesis of this work’s argument was predicated on an understanding of the importance of identity to a people, to a nation or region. Indeed, it was posited that autonomy; the ability to craft one’s own narrative is one of the most important liberties of human existence. Further, especially in a paradigm of resistance, the ability to craft one’s own definition of self for the ‘Other’ to acknowledge, made the issue of identity even more critical. Why then would Cesaire with such a platform carve a stereotype that, still today, undermines the strength and tenacity of the Caribbean people: the angry and bitter black man (woman)? Indeed, Cesaire and the other proponents of Negritude prolonged a despair that has been present since colonialism in the Caribbean.
Mindful of the counterproductive forces present in an epistemology that demonized the very composition of the Caribbean heritage, Brathwaite’s mitigated Cesaire’s accusatory and bitter tone with an Adamic perspective. Referring to his epistemology as Creolisation, indicative of a process, Brathwaite did not bastardise the European traditions, or valorize them. He simply acknowledged its contribution in the Caribbean’s conception. Indeed the process of Creolisation can be placed within a metaphor of conception; the ‘African egg’ penetrated by the ‘European sperm’ for the Caribbean embryo to be implanted and grow in the rich womb of plantation society.
Indeed, Brathwaite explains that
“The process of creolisation [ a stimulus/response of individuals within the society to their environment and- as white/black, culturally discrete groups- to each other p:202] is a way of seeing the society not in terms of white and black, master and slave in separate nuclear units but as contributory parts of a whole”.
“Cambridge, offers an adequate, but albeit pejorative illustration of this dynamic of stimulus and response for black people:
It is desirable that a predominance of the former should rapidly be altered to a majority of creole slaves…. Yet with the passage of time, and inter-breeding among the tribes, the single distinguishable creole black emerges, who, having been in contact with whites from his birth, and having the great advantage of familiarity with only the English language, is less intractable….” (Cambridge _)
Indeed, the dynamic, itself is indicative of a metamorphosis. Instead, Cesaire (and with good reason) has chosen to focus on the friction created by the confrontation in contrast to Brathwaite’s view that as hostile as the interaction was, “it was also creative.” (p__)
What was created was a new world culture, aesthetic and traditions, albeit a hybridized amalgamation of the heritages that came to the Caribbean. However, Brathwaite, explains that the process of creolisation could never be fully realized or completed because of the very system of imperial hegemony that created it and that Cesaire despised. The new emerging culture was denied the autonomy to show its identity, and in so doing, grow to maturity because of the indoctrinated idea of European superiority that ensured its preservation in the Caribbean.
He posits the view that the “mimicry” of affluent coloureds, perpetuating European ideals and aesthetics, in addition to the hesitancy of European creoles to acculturate to the emerging culture, ultimately prevented its solidification. While Cambridge again shows evidence of Brathwaite’s claim it also slightly challenges the latter idea of European creole interference in the development of Brathwaite’s Adamic World.
“Pardon the liberty I take in unburdening myself, with these hasty lines, but thanks be to God for granting me powers of self-expression in the English Language.” (Cambridge 133_).
“Was I doomed to become an exotic for the rest of my days? This, it now seemed to me, would be no bad thing, for I discovered much at this dinner that warmed my heart towards one class of these creole people.” (Cambridge, 114)
Indeed, the latter excerpt to which can be attributed the character of Emily, a white daughter of an English plantation owner, infers that the creole people that have warmed her heart, are those of the black slaves. Hence, she ‘challenges’ Brathwaite’s claim that white creoles were unwilling to and did not assimilate or love black creole culture and life; thus hindering creolisation. This illustration while informative should, nonetheless, be suggested as an anomaly to the colonial time from which it is taken given the aggressive ideologies that pervaded that time. Ultimately it can be argued that Emily’s view is only aromanticisation of black creole life that should never be equated to autonomous acculturation of this ‘inferior and submerged’ colonial group.
While both theorists in their arguments indicate the negative influence of the European hegemony, it is Brathwaite that acknowledges it as a restrictor to an inevitable process- conception, while Cesaire privileges a pejorative interpretation: death of “humanism” in the Caribbean. Indeed one epistemology is of death and the other is of birth. Cesaire prefers to abort the fertilized embryo that is the Caribbean, in favour of the barren pure womb of Africa.
Meanwhile, Brathwaite’s idea of Caribbeaness is that even though the Caribbean identity has been dominated by an inferiority/superiority dynamic between Africa and Europe, it has produced a unique aesthetic that cannot be cloned anywhere. Hence it is with a pride and a reverence (not a naiveté or loathing) for the colonial system under which this new life was born, that Brathwaite understands Caribbeaness.
But like Cesaire’s epistemology of Caribbean identity presented a problem, so too does Brathwaite’s. Indeed, Brathwaite’s Adamic perspective is predicated on a very complex, though natural process of creolisation/conception. Furthermore, he even asserts that it is the incomplete process of creolisation that kept the creative expressions (to be discussed below) of this New World submerged. And there lies the dilemma. The birth of this new world, could only have occurred (according to Brathwaite) within a system, a structure, a form that in and of itself is, in concept, European. This writer posits the view that the creation/conception of a Caribbean identity does not have to be centered on a system or process that is inevitably restrictive in what can be produced and how. So while, Creolisation as a concept of Caribbean identity has evolved from the emotionally reactive concept of Negritude, by acknowledging and privileging all heritages that defined the colonial experience, it nonetheless falls prey to a limiting force that negates its potential as the second Adamic World and affirms the European ideology of one system, one idea, one way.
Ironically, it is in this restrictive schema that Brathwaite declares that “we had the arrival in our area of a new language structure” as evidence that conception and birth did take place. This new language structure, Brathwaite defines as nation language.
“It consisted of many languages but, basically they had a common semantic and stylistic form. What these languages had to do, however, was to submerge themselves, because officially the conquering peoples- the Spaniards, the English, the French and the Dutch- insisted that the language of public discourse and conversation, of obedience, command and conception should be English, French, Spanish and Dutch. (Brathwaite, 309)
“Native conversation was forbidden and punishable by the lash. Day and night our ears were forced to admit their English talk which, at this stage, resembled nothing more civilized than the manic chatter of baboons.” (Cambridge 135).
However, the Nation Language(s) still emerged and much to the liking of Cesaire privileged its potency and dynamism to the African languages that survived/adapted to the colonial subversion of “inferior” aesthetics.
“Nation Language is the language which is influenced very strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our New World/Caribbean heritage. English it may be in terms of some of its lexical features. But in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English even though the words, as you hear them might be English to a greater or lesser degree. (Brathwaite, 311).
Further to the triumph of a new language heavily influenced by African languages, is that these languages, or dialects (a term that pergoratively insinuates its inferior status as a semantic) bled into the daily lives of the European colonials to be ‘assimilated’: A testament to its potency… but sadly denied their valorization and consequently, a legitimacy.
However, other compelling evidence of creolisation/conception is the syncretic nature of religion in the Caribbean that Jacques Roumain speaks to in Masters of the Dew. The following excerpts depicts a creative religion epistemology that informs Caribbean life. The established orthodox religion of the West, creolized with the African religions that though submerged during colonialism, still survived to be adapted and creolized too.
But perhaps the most compelling evidence of all, is the most literal. Despite the segregation that characterized colonial life, justified by the need to preserve the purity and superiority of Europe, there still emerged new life… and with it structures from the inevitable copulation of these two racial groups.
The offspring of a white man and a black woman is a mulatto; the mulatto and the black produce a sambo; from the mulatto and white comes the quadroon; from the quadroon and the white the mustee; the child of a mustee by a white man is called a musteefino; while the children of a musteefino are free by law, and rank as white persons to all intents and purposes.” (Cambridge 53).
Like the social structures that limited this dynamic between Europeans and Africans, another structure was to emerge to ensure a separatist approach to life influenced once again by hierarchal ideas of superiority according to colour and class. Nonetheless, it is the best and most literal example of Brathwaite’s concept of Caribbean identity even though threads of Cesaire’s Negritude still resonate.
If Cesaire’s idea of Caribbeaness is about roots and the systematic annihilation of a peoples’ esteem of these roots, and Brathwaite’s idea, the emergence of, from these roots, a tree of ‘new’ life, then Benetiz-Rojo’s is a series of cross pollinations between each ‘new’ life form that emerged from the fertile soil of colonialism that through a process of metamorphosis has become a distinct form, bearing no semblance to or evidence of the original root and its environmental influences. Therefore, a ‘deconstruction’ of what is, takes place that according to Benetiz-Rojo informs the aesthetic of Caribbean literature and identiy.
Benetiz-Rojo’s thesis is surmised in the term postmodernism and polyrhythm, but is derived from Chaos Theory. Describing the process of colonization and assimilation of cultural influences by those living in the Caribbean as seemingly haphazard (hence the term chaos), Benetiz-Rojo argues that a “basic pattern” (web source) can, nonetheless, be found over a period of time. So, therefore in response to each other’s culture, over a period of 400 + years, as Brathwaite suggests, an amalgamation of plural cultures takes place (albeit within a controlled hegemony). However, Benetiz-Rojo goes one step further (ignoring the restriction of colonial society) to posit the view that it is not merely a synthesis of only two (African and European) binary elements forced together, but a new form that organically emerges, which one would be hard-pressed to find evidence of predecessor(s).
Fundamental to Benetiz-Rojo’s theory is that a pluralistic society (polyrhythm) must exist for there to be an improvisation (freedom of choice) of cultural aesthetics that when assembled makes it impossible to discern the roots of origin. So Caribbean people, according to Benetiz-Rojo, possess an autonomy to create, at will, expressions (a way of life) that are not of the same form as the ingredients from which it is created. Therefore, how can we contextualize Brathwaite’s nation language within this particular schema?
Given the obvious dichotomous nature of nation language (indeed languages of the center and Africa comprise nation language) it can be surmised that Brathwaite’s claim of an Adamic World in the Caribbean is, premature. The recognizable form of both lingua francas makes it not applicable to the polyrhythm schema. Perhaps what would make it so, would be that out of each island’s nation language, there emerged a pan-Caribbean nation language that was amorphous; not distinguishable to any one of its creative influences.
However, it would be remiss, if in the comparison with Benetiz-Rojo, mention was not made of one of Brathwaite’s signature traits as an artist that indicates Benetiz-Rojo’s polyhythm: improvisation. As Bridget Jones explains:
We know that from his school days Brathwaite was a very knowledgeable jazz fan, so even when he encountered Damas’ poetry (via Black Orpheus translations perhaps, or conceivably later when Merle Hodge lectured to CAM), the techniques of poetic syncopation, the interest in improvisational word-play, the poised laments modeled on blues moods, were already in his repertoire. (Jones, p_)
So while Brathwaite’s notion of nation language is not quite evidenced in Benetiz-Rojo’s, idea of postmodernism in the Caribbean, his well-established jazz style of improvisation certainly alludes to it. Indeed, execution of this style informs much of Brathwaite’s later work, which by then had also assimilated a point of view that heavily privileged the African religion of vodoun to reveal “a quasi-mystical experience” (Jones, __). Despite this privileging of folk religions in the Caribbean, Brathwaite nonetheless accomplishes what Benetiz-Rojo understood about Caribbeaness. Privy to a choice selection of aesthetics, affinities and ideas, a distinct way of life/art could be created by way of the exercise of autonomy.
And as for Cesaire; how does Negritude relate to this postmodernism representation? Quite frankly, it does not exist. Negritude perpetuates the idea that there was only one culture/ideology and aesthetic that was allowed to thrive during and after colonization. Therefore, within this schema, a plural society was not present. Indeed this idea is problematic as,
Although Alexis admits that the negritude movement generally had a positive Haitian [Caribbean] culture, he warns against its excessive populist and Africanist orientation, which he felt obscured the cultural autonomy of the Haitian [Caribbean] people. (pg 16)
What then continues today within the paradigm of the Negritude schema is merely a perpetuation of the colonial hegemony and aesthetics if a conscious effort is not made to revert the damage of the European center- Negritude, and deconstruct the informing cultural influences of Caribbean indentity- postmodernism.
While Cesaire’s overly pessimistic view of Caribbeaness perpetuates a sense of self-loathing, it does however, offer a balanced and critical view of Benetiz-Rojo’s concept. Indeed, it is naïve to the socio-historical influences that witnessed a crippling and devastating impact on cultures that were not from the European center. But as idealistic as it is, it is nonetheless intentional. Benetiz-Rojo meant to ignite a discontinuation of the counter-productive, violent and masochistic racial and social dialectic that characterized the colonial Caribbean, for there to emerge an autonomy to create without boundaries or processes an amorphous aesthetic that in whatever way chosen or designed, honoured all (or some) of their cultural histories. And it is this distinguishing characteristic of a non-politicized perspective that ultimately and primarily separates Benetiz-Rojo’s perspective from Cesaire and Brathwaite.
As a result, Benetiz-Rojo’s commencement of Caribbean history is not linked to the colonial dogma that so much characterized Cesaire’s and Brathwaite’s ideology. Indeed, Benetiz-Rojo asserts inclusiveness and an all-encompassing understanding of the Caribbean, its identity and its history.
“Its [hispanophone identity] coalescent emphasis on mestizage as both a syncretic and unique cultural fact and as a creative mediculously historic force indeed came to be generally accepted as normative and ideologically became necessarily dominant.” (Marquez)
A willingness to acknowledge the societies (mestizage/mestizo) that existed before colonialism is another distinguishing mark of maturity that further alienates Benetiz-Rojo from Cesaire and Brathwaite. Their sense of Caribbean history is limited to the time of the colonial ‘arrivants’ and perhaps their dismissal of the original inhabitants of the Caribbean could be attributed to their apparent annihilation. To this end, Cesaire and Brathwaite may have doubted their contribution to the Caribbean’s aesthetic and ideology. However, with an un-politicized notion of the Caribbean, Benetiz-Rojo has refused to ignore every ‘characteristic’, both past and present that comprises the Caribbean and its history.
While he [Jacques Alexis] supports solidarity with Africa and recognizes the dominant contribution of Africa to Hatian culture, Alexis emphasizes Haiti’s New World cultural identity as the synthesis of Taino, African and European roots cultural roots (modernity, carpentier page 16).
Consequently, Benetiz-Rojo’s idea of Caribbeaness is not only mature but more importantly, fluid and futuristic. The ideologies of Cesaire and Brathwaite are static and obsolete; only considering a time and space of two groups of people, and using that time and space to define a present day reality of the Caribbean that no longer presides. While the influence of that epoch is still undeniable today, it cannot continue to inform the evolutionary process of identification that always makes an allowance for contemporary stimulus. Therefore, with postmodernism, the emerging domination of the new imperial power of America can be acknowledged and considered in the changing idea of Caribbeaness. Postmodernism is an epistemology that is enduring because it does not attempt to politicize its reality but only acknowledge what is. Therefore, it is the epistemology that can be permanently applied to Caribbean identity: An identity that is summed up in the idea of a privileged creative autonomy and economy.
Benetiz-Rojo’s idea of postmodernism is represented in Caribbean literature through Alejo Carpentier’s ‘The marvelous Real’, which in addition to being an illustration of creative and cultural autonomy is also an excellent representation of the continuous evolution of form even within a postmodern paradigm.
What Carpentier does in his formulation of lo real maravilloso is achieve an apparent inversion of surrealist marvielleux, which was based on the juxtaposition of disparate realities derived from the subconscious. (page 19)
Therefore the literary process that defines the postcolonial resistance to form, deconstruction, is constant and fluid; challenging its own very creative representations. Indeed, Donald Shaw argues that The Marvelous Real, was a serious attempt to “turn away from old style surrealism” (p.) formally innovating it based on a conscious literary technique that ultimately afforded a superior reality to those who believed and had faith in it (p.). The Marvelous Real is then an evolution, of surrealism that further metamorphises this cultural aesthetic.
The Marvelous Real is best illustrated in one of the most influential books in Caribbean literature, The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier. And it is serves not merely as a literary technique, but as evidence of the collective faith of Haiti that was able to successfully challenge the hegemony of France to achieve the unlikely (marvelous real) reign of Christophe. Therefore for Carpentier, The Marvelous Real in The Kingdom of This World is just as much a testament to the potency of alternative religious epistemologies as it is a legitimate argument for deconstruction of and resistance to centrist ideologies and aesthetics. Indeed Voodoo, an African religion, was and still is characteristic of Haitian life and it informs the resistance that defined the Haitian Revolution. A resistance that is ultimately symptomatic of postcolonialism.
As a result, I want to posit the view that The Kingdom of This World is the ultimate representation of a postcolonial text. Indeed, it not only tells of a Caribbean story that challenged a hegemonic power and triumphed using its own system of understanding (voodoo) but also advances a new literary construct of surrealism that in the act of doing so, also resisted an established construct of surrealism that once served as a deconstruction of realism. The following excerpts of The Kingdom of This World illustrate The Marvelous Real technique.
They all knew that the green lizard, the night moth, the strange dog, the incredible gannet, were nothing but disguises. As he had the power to take the shape of hoofed animal, bird, fish or insect, Macandal continually visited the plantations of the Plaine to watch over his faithful and find out if they still had faith in his return. In one metamorphosis or another, the one-armed was everywhere, having recovered his corporeal integrity in animal guise. (34-35)
The bonds fell off and the body of the Negro rose in the air, flying overhead, until it plunged into the black waves of the sea of the slaves. A single cry filled the square:
“Macandal saved!” (45-46)
Once he had come to this decision, Ti Noel was astonished at how easy it is to turn into an animal when one has the necessary powers. In proof of this he climbed a tree, willed himself to become a bird and instantly was a bird. (172).
Three notions of Caribbeaness have been explored in the ideas of Cesaire, Brathwaite and Benetiz-Rojo. In each of these ideas when compared, there are ideological divergences that are distinguishable; however there are similarities as well that can facilitate an understanding of Caribbeaness. While both Cesaire and Brathwaite are politicized responses to the painful colonial experience, Cesaire’s epistemology of Negritude critically negates any legitimacy or value of the European cultural influences and ideas that, were despite his insistence on its un-human characteristics, accepted as the ideal in the Caribbean. While Brathwaite does not attempt to valorize the European cultural influence, he does nonetheless suggest that the Caribbean owes its paternity to the Center; Africa being the maternal influence. Ultimately, Brathwaite argues that the Caribbean is a place of a new birth, new beginnings and consequently new aesthetics that can be attributed to the consequent abrogation and appropriation of European and African culture. No other cultural aesthetic is indicative of this new world, than nation language. But it is the discernible nature of nation language, one part European and one part African that contests Benetiz-Rojo’s idea of Caribbeaness. Seeing the Caribbean, like Brathwaite, as a creative force, he however argues for an inclusive understanding of the Caribbean’s cultural influences that is not partisanor static. In other words, pre-colonial influences are considered as well as colonial and post-colonialinfluencesthat with the autonomy to create (even exercisable in a colonial construct) can create a new aesthetic and ideology that bears no semblance to the original influencers’ form. Cesaire’s Negritude completely negates Benetiz-Rojo’s argument suggesting that plurality, a vital component of Benetiz-Rojo’s schema, was not present during and after colonialism. Despite these divergences, one continuing thread is evident in the quilt of Caribbean identity. The similarity that runs throughout each of these ideologies, which can ultimately suggest a ‘definitive’ meaning of Caribbeaness is resistance. All of these ideologies challenge an established construct in order for the submerged to be recognized and perpetuated until that too becomes the norm, to be challenged until the new emerges again (Benetiz-Rojo).
Write a paper outlining and discussing the contribution of any two thinkers studied in this course to the development of a Caribbean Intellectual Tradition: CLRJames and Kamau Brathwaite.
May 17, 2013
“I’m a Marxist, but I am not a communist.”
“You’re not a Communist but you are a Marxist? What is the damned difference?”
A heated exchange during a televised interview between Lee Harvey Oswald and a TV host, months leading to the assassination of President JFK as shown on the movie JFK.
It is in this exchange that we find evidence of the age old dilemma and quest for…identity: Who am I? Who are you and can that declaration of self be easily defined?
This quest and these questions made even more problematic when the (self) perceived identity is a schizophrenic fracture so thin that its potential to go undiagnosed, probable; but, even though subtle in existence, the fracture’s ability to undermine the construct of self with its own potentiality that can be deemed no less than threatening.
At the time of this interview, Oswald’s definition of self was a personal declaration that clearly alluded to a careful and personal process of self-interrogation. In the hours after the assassination of JFK, this definition of self would not be nearly enough to feed the insatiable hunger of the public who wanted to know, “Who are you, Oswald?”
I find this watershed historical and intimate moment in America’s and in Oswald’s definition of self a fitting contextual framework to begin my interrogation of the Caribbean intellectual tradition. For if the assassination of JFK were to serve as a metaphorical synonym for the start of Caribbean decolonization (a phenomenon that informs this tradition) then so too could the public’s insatiable appetite for a definition of Oswald, serve as an adequate synonym for the Caribbean people’s hunger to say definitively, “I am…”; an irrefutable audacity to deny the fracture its potentiality.
Caribbean intellectual thought is then therefore a platform or examination table of sorts on which the Caribbean identity is subjected to much scrutiny. Its examiners, though many, for the purpose of this exercise, restricted to CLR James and Kamau Brathwaite.
This is not a linear review of Caribbean intellectual thought that would naturally see a review of James first, then followed by one of his heirs Brathwaite. Rather, it is an interrogation into the process of decolonization; the process of getting to know oneself with the intent of defining oneself, which ultimately demands a journey that follows the trajectory of the mundane to the esoteric, the simple to the complex, the definable to the ubiquitous, the whole to the schizophrenic fracture.
This gaze can be found in the rhetoric of Brathwaite and James respectively. While I do not attempt to categorize Brathwaite’s contribution to Caribbean Intellectual thought as simple or definitive, it is when compared to James’ deeply personal and individualistic quest for identity and self-understanding that this is, indeed, consequential.
Brathwaite’s approach to the examination of identity in the context of decolonization is holistic, skimming the surface of what really should be a deeply subversive exercise of the personal; an approach that has garnered much criticism for its myopic stance on Caribbean identity and decolonization, at least when compared to James’ examination of the Caribbean individual.
As Gikandi asserts,
If decolonization as a category was to fall out of favour with the post-colonial school of literary criticism and theory, it was precisely because it had always been pegged on the idea of the nation….(183).
Despite the different approaches, both examinations are as equally relevant as they were groundbreaking. Decolonization was an ‘undoing’ of a process that had matured over a period of 400 years. And during that time of fermentation the colonial way of life and thinking had gained an undisputed potency, first through brute force, and then ultimately through the marinating of the colonial epistemology on to the minds of colonial subjects that would lead to an osmosis; psychological brainwashing masquerading as truth.
These two Caribbean intellectuals inform the discourse on decolonisation albeit as mentioned using different approaches: one macro, the other micro to collaboratively offer a comprehensive perspective on a process that though stymied by an allegiance to the status quo, could not be denied. Therefore, a careful reflection of their perspectives on decolonization in an effort to claim a Caribbean identity will be the main focal point of this essay.
Furthermore, to support the notion of a tradition, two other Caribbean intellectuals will be used when necessary to show how these two differing perspectives have either established or continued an understanding of decolonization. The two supporting theorists are Benetiz-Rojo for Brathwaite and Walcott for CLR James.
Brathwaite begins his process of decolonization with an interrogation of the very circumstances that this process seeks to undo: colonialism. Furthermore, in so doing he offers a careful reflection of the fractious, yet creative dynamic between the slave and the master, which he refers to as creolisation.
He argues that creolisation was a cultural process that took place within a creole society- that is, within a tropical colonial plantation polity based on slavery (203). As a result of the colonial hegemony that informed and developed creole societies, where there was a natural order of legitimacy and worthiness, African slaves were not delineated such status. Therefore, in an effort to gain some sense of humanity/belongingness, African slaves acculturated the European standard.
However, my interpretation of Brathwaite’s thesis is problematic if not blasphemous, for the process of acculturation is an organic action that certainly belies the forced nature of “mimicry” (Brathwaite, 203), which Brathwaite portends was the true case in creole societies. Maybe not. Indeed, whatever the circumstances that influenced the slaves mimicry of the master, a process of African deculturation still had to take place for there to be a consequential outcome of European acculturation by slaves.
Ironically, Brathwaite would continue to argue that their mimicry of the colonial master was futile as it was an imitation of an imitation- not the original metropole, but a “bastard metropolitanism” (204).
But it was because of the presence of an imitation (not only restricted to the European) that if the cultural autonomy could be exercised by both blacks and whites in an environment though grotesquely cruel, there could have emerged a distinct culture… A New World.
Instead, the ideology that fed the fractious dynamic between slave and master, colonialism, would ensure that the European epistemology be maintained and adhered to by all and at all costs. Furthermore, with the African and other cultural epistemologies ignored and categorized as inferior or not worthwhile, an alienation of those who subscribed to these counter approaches would be a brutal and unwelcomed reality – a denied sense of belonging and surely survival.
And it is this consequence- the European epistemology becoming the bog-standard by which colonial subjects and their masters lived to the detriment of a secure sense of self and worth- that inspired decolonization and,
…inaugurated a new relationship to history as a means to critique the ideological basis of colonialism and imagine an alternative society. The rediscovery of history [African] in the era of decolonization was a necessary precondition and consequence of the arrival of a mass-based anti-colonialism. (Gikandi, 185).
So, it is this reference to a missing African influence that largely informs Brathwaite’s entire Caribbean ethos. While he is not dismissive of European influences or their legitimacy as cultural references, he is vehement in his acknowledgement of the ‘other’ perceived counter cultural influence that, despite the presence and authority of the colonial hegemony, were able to influence all Caribbean cultural expressions to the point of rich saturation.
One such expression for which Brathwaite is noted, is of course, nation language. His valorization and use of nation language in literary discourse as the normative and not the perceived counter style was a ground breaking effort at decolonization. No longer was the unnatural pose of colonial subjects as ‘mimic-men’, lip-synching to the vernacular of the colonial master (void of any heart-felt meaning) to express oneself and more importantly define oneself, necessary or even attractive.
What these languages had to do, however, was to submerge themselves, because officially the conquering peoples- the Spaniards, the English, the French, and the Dutch- insisted that the language of public discourse and conversation, of obedience, command and conception should be English, French, Spanish or Dutch. (309).
However, despite the obvious restrictions, a truly organic expression that was distinctly Afro-Caribbean emerged in the form of Nation Language.
It is in nation language in the Caribbean that, in fact, largely ignores the pentameter. Nation Language is the language which is influenced very strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our New World/Caribbean heritage. (311).
But despite the triumph of the seemingly impossible birth and development of nation language in the Caribbean, the notion of identity, though reflected in language, still had to be definitively negotiated, especially since nation language suffered a stigma of inferiority, of which Brathwaite vehemently denied. Could a Caribbean identity be claimed?
In the height of colonial 30’s came the advent of Rastafarianism and with it the defiant shout of identity: “Jah Rastafari!” As a result, the process of decolonization, as Brathwaite understood it, had seemingly begun and firmly taken root. Indeed, the autonomy to choose an ‘irrelevant’ and nearly invisible cultural reference to Africa in an environment where “the black elite… failed, or refused, to make conscious use of their own rich folk culture (their own indisputable possession)”…, (Brathwaite 204) was now fully exercised by blacks.
However, it must be noted that while the above quote does speak to a folk culture, which almost certainly pertains to an indigenous expression, Rastafarianism is certainly not an indigenous expression of the West African slaves that colonized the West Indies and Jamaica; however, the quote is still applicable if the phrase ‘their own rich folk culture’ is transposed with ‘their own rich African history’- a revision that I am sure Brathwaite would deem redundant given his strong emphasis on the contribution of ‘Africa’ to Caribbean life.
And there lies the dilemma in Brathwaite’s contribution to Caribbean intellectual thought that Benetiz-Rojo, his counterpart, tries to mitigate. Even though the emergence of this radically counter epistemology had taken hold in Jamaica and the Caribbean, it was still at its foundation, a borrowed, albeit altered subverted idea of one half of the fractured self that was African, which was not organic to the Caribbean. Indeed, and rightly so some will argue that Brathwaite’s perspective on decolonization and with it his contribution of nation language is ‘organic’ as he agrees “creolisation… provided the conditions for and possibility of local residence,” (204). But this argument is easily refutable in the face of a clearly political bias to embrace only one half of the fractured whole- the African.
And yes, for those who will say that the process of decolonizing the mind could not be made possible without reclaiming the lost sense of humanity which was denied to African slaves and their descendants as a result of the colonial hegemony, this approach is still not indicative of the tremendous creative potential of all colonial influences that converged on the plantation site, which even Brathwaite admits. Or at least alludes to by referencing Sylvia Wynter.
All of the great cultural advances of man have come from cross-fertilisation of cultures. The high standards achieved by a Greek play, a Chinese poem, in an Indian song, the Japenese theatre, an African Benin head are all relevant to our present experience.
To deny any of these is to maim a part of ourselves. To reject any one is to reject a part of ourselves. Yet to insist as we have hitherto done on any one part- i.e., the European- to the exclusion of any or all of the others is to humiliate and exile a part of ourselves.
And is paradoxically, to betray through distortion, even that part which we accept- i.e., European- since we presume to pass off a part of mankind’s experience…. To understand West Indian history we must turn to the history of Africa, Asia, of the indigenous peoples of the American Continent, Europe. (Brathwaite 1:25).
However, even with his cavalier reference to Europe in Caribbean nation language, his obsession with Africa remains undeniable and painstakingly obvious especially evidenced in his description of nation language:
English it may be in terms of some of its lexical features. But in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English, even though the words, as you hear them, might be English to a greater or lesser degree. (311).
Despite the bias, one must remain cognizant of the contribution that Brathwaite made to Caribbean thought, its potency undeniable through the plethora of spoken word artists and authors choosing and using nation language as their mode of, not even counter discourse, but rather discourse. Nation language is no longer categorized as sub-human or sub-intelligent form of saying “I am”.
Even though he continues Brathwaite’s reference of counter references, Benitez-Rojo, strengthened Brathwaite’s argument by referencing all. Benetiz-Rojo continuation of Brathwaite’s perspective is not exactly mimetic though. Indeed Benetiz-Rojo is counter discursive in approach too, but while it is Brathwaite who established a counter discursive style through Nation language, it is Rojo whose apolitical position on cultural influences, not valorizing one over the other whereby no colonial grandparent could be in danger of being called the favourite by their offspring that adds a much needed balanced dimension to decolonization. Indeed, Brathwaite alludes to this Rojoian point of view.
My own idea of creolisation is based on the notion of an historically affected socio-cultural continuum, within which (in the case of Jamaica) there were four inter-related and sometimes overlapping orientations. From their several cultural bases people in the West Indies tend towards certain directions, positions, assumptions and ideals. But nothing is really fixed and monolithic. Although there is white/brown/black, there are infinite possibilities within their distinctions and many ways of asserting identity. (205).
How Rojo advances Brathwaite’s idea is by suggesting that the autonomy to concoct a definition of self from all cultural influences is a right as much as it is a privilege. However, to do so with the freedom that it offers, a divorce from the propensity to position these influences on some kind of moral and creative scale is absolutely necessary.
While Brathwaite was content to restrict his examination of the Caribbean self to the whole; the broad vista of the national and the regional, CLR James in “Beyond A Boundary” bravely took on the agonizing ordeal of negotiating a Caribbean identity at the psychological level of the individual. Think if you will, Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane sweating blood.
Colonialism was a macro phenomenon, but its effects deeply felt by every individual that came under its influence. James’ approach was then sincerely expressive, using the lived experiences of the colonial subject to capture the soul felt and emotional effects of colonialism and finally, the almost audacious and futile idea of decolonization. With an established hegemony, how were colonial subjects and masters to (re) negotiate the ‘prescribed’ notion of identity, which when administered fastidiously ensured that the colonial epistemology was not just heard, or known, but lived?
James’ effort, or rather his account of people’s attempt, to (re) negotiate identity was not, again, in an effort to answer willy nilly who am I, but to state definitively I am… so I belong … here?
Therefore, James advanced the debate on Caribbean identity further than Brathwaite and Benetiz-Rojo (who, in paying homage to ancestral influences, wanted to make a claim of a distinct New World Identity) to address the social dynamics present in colonialism that resulted in a sense or denial of humanity- shared belongingness. The psychological impact a saddening reality as he illustrates in “Beyond a Boundary”.
Furthermore, while Brathwaite chose to situate his discourse on the very unfamiliar site and time of the plantation, though a part of the collective unconscious of Caribbean peoples, James chose a base with which not only the colonial subjects but also the colonial master was acquainted- the cricket pitch. Placing his efforts on the pitch was significant as it was intentional as James explained himself.
It [cricket] is so organized that at all times it is compelled to reproduce the central action which characterizes all good drama from the days of the Greeks to our own: two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal but no less strictly representative of a social group. (259).
He continued to argue:
Thus the cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance. I propose now to place on record some of the characters and as much as I can reproduce (I remember everything) of the social conflict.
And for his choice in colonial subjects, he asserts:
I have been warned that some of these characters are unknown and therefore unlikely to interest non-West Indian readers. I cannot think so. Theirs is the history of cricket and of the West Indies, a history so far unrecorded as so much village cricket in England and of cricketers unknown to headlines have been recorded, and read with delight even in the West Indies. (88).
Therefore, James uses the Greats and unknowns of West Indies history and cricket to illustrate the defeats and the victories between the colonial master and subject as they vie to affirm or win their place, their self and their sense of humanity in a space that had almost certainly delineated the final score.
It is James’ account of the unknowns, who in the case of Piggott, Telemaque and St. Hill, are perhaps the most potent colonial experiences he speaks of in “Beyond a Boundary”. Through these ‘characters’ one becomes intimately aware of the colonial hegemony and its imposed restrictions on the Caribbean self and on decolonization. While Piggott and Telemaque clearly illustrate, through their defeats, the insurmountable odds faced when fighting colonialism, I think that it is St. Hill that obliterates the idea that decolonization was not possible at the time.
However, it must be highlighted before I begin my examination of these men, that while suffering ‘defeats’ that would render decolonization an exercise in futility, it would be remiss of me not to argue, and vehemently so at this juncture, that by the very effort of taking up the bat, the ball, the wicket and mastering the favourite game of the master with such excellence, it meant that decolonization had a firm genesis. These efforts by the Greats and the unknowns made it possible for the Caribbean man and woman to believe that they could gain a sense of humanity and through their own sheer willpower and discipline.
With that said, it makes the defeats of these men even more painful- the colonial hegemony the final determiner of who belonged and who did not.
Piggott and Telemaque both failed to make it on to the West Indies team. Even though they exuded impeccable attention to their sportsmanship, it was their inability to meet the social criteria, as determined by the hegemony that sadly saw them not being able to realize their dream and their deserved destiny.
In the case of Piggott, James says it best in a matter of fact, no holds barred delivery:
Yet, to the astonishment of all Trinidadians, when the 1923 team was selected he was left out and Dewhurst taken instead. The only excuse current at the time was the following: ‘You can’t depend on a man like that. Who knows, when you are looking for him some important match you will find him somewhere boozing.’ It was untrue . It was also stupid.
….Poor Piggott was a nobody. I felt the injustice deeply. So did others. He was a man you couldn’t miss in a crowd and one day at the Queen’s Park Oval during a big match I stood and talked with him
….But as ordinary people came and went an astonishing number of them came up to tell Piggott, ‘You should be out there, Piggie.’ ‘If you had his skin, Piggie, you would be behind today.’
….what was most curious is that to this day I don’t know whether this superb cricketer was a tailor, a casual labourer or a messenger. Socially he did not register. (91-92).
Indeed, the evident racial and class discrimination suffered by Piggott lost him a place on the West Indies team despite possessing much natural and honed talent. The colonial authority in an effort to maintain the status quo had to dismiss Piggott even for the benefit of the team. The team’s success could be compromised- not the colonial hegemony and its social construct.
The primary cause was the consciousness of a small minority being pressed by an ever-growing number of players from among the black masses. The immediate cause as almost always the captaincy. The authorities needed always to have one white player as captain, and one or two others in reserve in case of accidents and as future candidates. They believed… that cricket would fall into chaos and anarchy if a black man were appointed captain. (94).
While Telemaque was also excluded from the team (separate incidents) it was not merely racial or class discrimination that denied a coveted place on the West Indies team. In fact, what Piggott lacked in colour and social status, Telemaque had and more. What painfully denied him a place, was the exercise of his autonomy to challenge the authority of the colonial hegemony and to the betterment of poor blacks.
A place on the team was only commensurate with having met the criteria of the right skin tone, the aspired to social class that albeit only saw the world from a glass ceiling, and of course, the well behaved black boy of an Uncle Tom attitude that upheld the most valued colonial values and precepts.
So when Telemaque seemingly showed dissidence, in the form of affirming the rights of the poor black working labourer, he was swiftly punished with the same nonchalance of an overseer dispending discipline to wayward slaves on the plantation that Brathwaite privileges as a cruel but creative site.
The case of Telemaque was very different from that of Piggott. (93).
Telemaque was not a plebian. He was a genuine proletarian, a shipwright or waterfront worker of some kind. He made good money, and was a member of a very independent workers’ organization, one of the few in the island at the time. In 1919 the waterfront workers had upset the island for days with a strike which they tried hard to turn into a general strike, and Telemaque may well have been one of them. (91-92).
These accounts of Piggott and Telemaque were really just the context to the social dynamics that persisted at the time. The process of decolonization which was the main purpose of Brathwaite and James, I think was adequately displayed in St. Hill.
Initially suffering the same fate as his two compatriots, St. Hill had been overlooked for a place on the West Indies team. The reason(s) already alluded to in the stories of Telemaque and Piggott.
We became convinced that in our minds St. Hill was the greatest of all West Indian batsmen and on English wickets this coloured man would infallibly put all white rivals in the shade. And they too were afraid of precisely the same thing, and therefore were glad to keep him out. (126).
According to James this was, as expected, a difficult blow to St. Hill. However, psychologically he would recover to gain a place on to the team, but with disastrous consequences- at least perceived so.
I say perceived because St. Hill’s failure, even though James puts it down to his refusal to adapt his style, was a subversive attempt at decolonization and a successful one too. Anticipating a brilliant performance from St. Hill, he did not live up to the expectation; exercising a defiant will not to conform to the colonial authority’s expectations and standards.
Surely St. Hill had seen many of his compatriots suffer the painful reality of discrimination as he did. But in his disastrous innings in England what he demonstrated that these men did not have the privilege or the awareness to do was a subversive dismantling of the colonial power to determine who could be deemed good.
St. Hill, as you would hear James declare, was already considered the Greatest at home in the West Indies. I think therefore that his dismal performance was a way of defending the ‘authority’ of the black masses to determine their own standard and be comfortable with their own approval. Performing on the stage of the colonial master, no longer was he inclined to please him with a display of technically sound and artistic cricket only because his approval was no longer necessary.
James’ account of these personal stories is enigmatic of the colonial experience for many and of course indicative of its potency. Furthermore, through his portrayal of these injustices, we can justify the need for a decolonization of the colonial mind. Necessary, so that, one, the harsh social realities that inform this system could be appropriately contextualized within an ideological framework of chosen values rather than a belief that is sadly mistaken for fact that ultimately denies so many a right to their own dignity and pride. And secondly, with that contextualization, a removal of the psychological barriers that limit a dignified experience for colonial subjects with the result being a well-endowed identity.
It is possible, or rather it was possible as evidenced through the man of Constantine. Even within the system both peripheral and metropole, he was able to seemingly ‘rise’ above the limitations to have some measure of personal and social success... and identity
In time the vacancy in the Education Office was filled, not by Constantine. This was not the first time an acting appointment in the Government has ended in failure. Another one in the Registrar’s Office had ended in nothing. Constantine, as many young athletes who were black, found refuge in the oilfields. Constantine’s new employer was generous, as generous as he could be. But the oilfields administrative staffs were divided into two: white and very light-skinned, and dark. Beyond a certain limit dark could not aspire. Each section was provided with its own sports club and clubhouse. (141).
Constantine, the heir-apparent, the happy warrior, the darling of the crowd, prize pupil of the captain of the West Indies, had revolted against the revolting contrast between his first-class status as a cricketer and his third-class status as a man. Contrary to all other West Indian cricketers his development was slow. An occasion presented itself and he added a cubit of stature. That is the cricketer. That is his character as man. The restraints imposed upon him by social conditions in the West Indies had become intolerable and he decided to stand them no longer. (139-140).
So great was his success that his triumphs were able to seal the divisive lines of his fractured self: ‘colonial nobody, not good enough’ and ‘capable honourable man with dignity’ to become,
The differences between the ‘they’ who in 1923 were no better than ‘we’ seemed to concern him not at all, or very little. ‘They’ had been narrowed to the sources of power and those who exercised it. I doubt if he was aware of the change. (166).
But even with the impactful stories of Telemaque, Piggott, St. Hill and Constantine, there is still a much needed dimension to this argument. I began this discussion by suggesting that James’ contribution to the intellectual thought tradition was that of identity and that his approach was deeply subversive and personal. Indeed, these stories do corroborate this thesis; however, what of James himself?
“Beyond a Boundary” provides the reader with an unplugged insight to the colonial mind of James. Thoughts and perspectives such as the following certainly suggest that despite the dis-ease with colonial authority and its ideological hegemony there was still an affinity to it.
The British intellectual was going to Britain. (146).
Constantine, as I say, had ancestry. He came from a good family. His father was an overseer on an estate, often though not always, a white man’s preserve. (134).
The British tradition soaked deep into me….(88).
Whether this reflects the success of the colonial agenda which used as its modus operandi manipulation of the psychological kind that skewed the perspective to only see value in the European or its best imitation, is not clear. It could suggest, as so does his counterpart, Derek Walcott, that while the colonial experience was painful, it was nonetheless a system that brought with it, its own cultural and aesthetic expressions, which on their own merit were just as deserving of valorization as the African and other counter influences.
New World poets who see the ‘classic style’ as stasis must see it also as historical degradation, rejecting it as the language of the master. This self-torture arises when the poor also sees history as language, when he limits his memory to the suffering of the victim. Their admirable wish to honor the degraded ancestor limits their language to phonetic pain, the groan of the suffering, the curse of revenge. The tone of the past becomes an unbearable burden, for they must abuse the master or hero in his own language, and this implies self-deceit. Their view of Caliban is of the enraged pupil. They cannot separate the rage of Caliban from the beauty of his speech when the speeches of Caliban are equal in their elemental power to those of his tutor. The language of the torturer mastered by the victim. This is viewed as servitude, not as victory. (371).
Therefore, the thesis of decolonization could be that true autonomy in self-definition, an act that was circumvented through the colonial experience, is the exercise of choice in light of all that is true of the experience. In other words, armed with the stark and harsh reality of colonialism and its effects, an ability to choose a perspective that renders value to and appreciation of the European and the African and the other myriad of influences is the ultimate act of decolonization, which then inspires an honest self-definition.
But, that is only possible, indeed, with a genuine self-awareness that the other half of the fractured whole is valuable too. I think that the objectivity with which James tells his and the personal stories of these men certainly reflects this.
The conversation broke up, leaving me somewhat bewildered. ‘They are no better than we.’ I knew that we were man for man as good as anybody. I had known that since my schooldays. (148).
It was only long years after that I understood the limitation on spirit, vision and self-respect which was imposed on us by the fact that our masters, our curriculum, our code of morals, everything began from the basis that Britain was the source of all light and leading, and our business was to admire, wonder, imitate, learn;… (39).
Therefore, James demonstrates the maturity that can only make true decolonization and self-definition possible.
CLR James has taken us through the process of decolonization. Through which we have gained an awareness that is fundamental to the design of an identity in an environment that has been imbalanced and discriminating. This awareness comes in two stages. The first is an awareness of the impotency of the colonial hegemony- at least on a moral and spiritual paradigm. A pivotal awareness because that is precisely where identity is borne. By creating the environment in which the identity can have a sense of moral, spiritual and psychological worth and dignity, the process of decolonization can continue with the other important level of awareness: A truce with one’s own hostility and incrimination for the colonial and one’s obsession with the line of ancestry that renders you bound by its painful past.
With these awareness(es), an identity, a sense of self, can thereby be determined; an act not impinged or tinted by guilt, fear, anger or awe. So while Brathwaite and his counterparts initiated an awareness for the collective that inculcated a long overdue sense of pride and dignity in the African, and by their own summation, the Caribbean, CLR James and his, were able to continue this process of decolonization to achieve a balanced and cathartic perspective on the Caribbean self.
Ultimately both contributions to Caribbean intellectual thought are seminal. Indeed, one cannot be forsaken for the other: An awareness that there was first a Caribbean self, then that that Caribbean self was not just an imperial site, then (and hopefully not finally) that the definition, growth and survival of this self is impossible without limitations of fear and anger.
Brathwaite, Kamau Edward. “Creolization in Jamaica”. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. 202-205. Print.
Brathwaite, Kamau Edward. LX The Love Axe(l): Developing a CaribbeanAesthetic 1962-1974. Volume 1.
Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2011. Print.
Gikandi, Simon. “Back to the Future: Lamming and Decolonisation”. The Location of George Lamming.
Ed. Bill Schwarz. Oxford: McMillan Caribbean, 2007. 180-220. Print.
James, CLR. Beyond A Boundary. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2005. Print.
JFK. Dir. Oliver Stone. Perf. Kevin Costner. Warner Bros, 1991. Film
Walcott, Derek. “The Muse of History”. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth
Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. 370-374. Print.
Through a close engagement with two or more films show how Caribbean film makers have challenged prevailing modes of historical and/or artistic discourse at a specific period.
April 30, 2013
Value is rendered through the process of aestheticism and legitimated through its continuous representation that is often evidenced as truth- though not provable or necessary owing to the mass acceptance of its legitimacy.
Art then becomes the agent of institutionalizing ‘value’- a symbolizer of the ideological stances of epochs, philosophies and places. Simply put, Art is propaganda and the manual through which its spectators assign worth, legitimacy and truth to their lives. And in a reality where power is sought, to be maintained and solidified, art introduces and emphasizes a hegemonic order that makes it possible for the powerful and the powerless, the beautiful and the ugly, the worthy and the worthless to engage in a dynamic, true to their prescribed ideological roles.
One can therefore conclude that there has always been a propagandistic approach to art as there has always been a quest for power, beauty and worth; the eternal hubris of mankind. And in a post colonial Caribbean where the ideology of this epoch has been to subvert the colonial hegemonic order that constructed an epistemology, which denied Caribbean people (creole, blacks and whites) an un-politicised notion of self, this approach to art- propaganda, has been absolutely necessary.
Wynter in Rethinking Aesthetics argues that this approach employed by Caribbean artists, which attempts to offer colonized peoples an alternative to the pejorative notion of self that was first inculcated during colonialism (and still continues today) is as essential as oxygen is to the human body. Human life, she argues, does not pre-exist aesthetics (242), an expression of what offers a sense of social belongingness, but rather emerges simultaneously with aesthetics to be continuously represented symbolically in all human forms of life. Therefore if that sense of belongingness, critical to the experience of human life, has been denied to colonized peoples, then they have operated in a state of stasis or coma as a result of the colonial hegemonic order determining aesthetic expressions to reinforce its legitimacy, which ultimately limited colonial peoples’ human experience of belonging.
While all organic modes of life are genetically “speciated” and regulated in their behaviors of human “forms of life” are instead induced and regulated by the orders of discourse instituting of each culture. Human life cannot, therefore, pre-exist, as it is now believed to do, the phenomenon of culture. Rather it comes into being simultaneously with it.
Consequently, if all purely organic species are bonded and co-speciated on the basis of their degrees of altruism-inducing genetic kin-relatedness(AGKR), then all human population groups are bonded and co-aggregated on the basis of their discursively instituted degrees of altruism-inducing symbolic kin-relatedness(ASKR).
The transcultural phenomenon of aesthetic is, therefore, I propose, the expression, at the level of human forms of life, of the AGKR that operates at the level of purely organic forms of life. (Wynter, 242).
The pervasiveness of the colonial hegemonic order and its aesthetic expressions were real for Caribbean people. Aesthetic expressions of the colonial hegemony were symbolised in every form of life- fashion, language, family dynamics etc., albeit in abrogated or subverted forms; but was standardised through art. As everyone has their own idiolect that offers subversions of the English Language, while still maintaining the language’s fundamental tenets, each unique style of speaking is still not the established standard English Language. Art therefore, acts in as much as the same way as the English dictionary: It illustrates and references the absolute ideal and its representation against a variety of (mis) representations. In eras that preceded the modern digital phenomenon, paintings where the main mode/medium of referencing the symbolic representation of the ideal.
Colonialism was an era that was pre-digital and as a result, symbols that decided a sense of belongingness and value were established through the medium of paintings. However, as Wynter argues, for there to be a hegemonic order, there had to be rules (243)- a system that governed what aesthetics made it on to the canvas.
Religion then became the governing system that determined aesthetics in every form of colonial life for all and the way that you were told to understand the world and your place in it. Colonial epistemology was made more potent by the coloniser’s agency of religion: As the Word of God is not to be questioned, so too is the coloniser’s idea of the world as, thought to be supported by religion, not to be questioned either. It is the colonizer who, being made in the image of Christ Himself, is the creator and guardian of all that is right. Paintings that then perpetuated the symbolic representation of ordained aesthetics couched within a religious framework were, indeed incredibly potent. It is this type of visual text, religious art, which can be further subcategorized as iconography and impressionism that perpetuates an unequivocal allegiance to the European way of thinking that continues to influence contemporary Caribbean life today and is the point of reference for counter discourse.
Caribbean Film, the ‘new’ medium of art, has relied on its predecessor, religious visual texts, to situate its counter discourse. These texts introduced and perpetuated the aestheticism that has signified the warped psychological positioning of the colonizer and the colonized. Furthermore, they corroborate a European epistemology that has established a, or perhaps, the standard of beauty, sexuality, religious doctrine, race, class, and gender power for all. As a result, the very meta-narrative of these colonial visual texts that have been presented subliminally though potently, is presented, unpacked, deciphered and simultaneously contested in Caribbean film, thus exposing a post-colonial epistemology of counter discourse… and the incredible potency of film for propaganda.
Indeed, the consumption of art was politicized- meant only for the wealthy, the privileged, the intellectual. With the advent of film there was not only a mass production and dissemination of counter aesthetics, but also a mass influence that was undeniably potent. For the first time, the colonial hegemony could be challenged before and for a mass audience.
Two Caribbean films that contest colonial ideology are Ava and Gabriel and The Last Supper. The visual texts used as a point of reference in these films to begin their counter discourse are the iconographic image of the Virgin Mary and Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, respectively. As mentioned, these are religious visual texts, the most potent of all the colonisers’ artistic texts because of its perceived and maintained legitimacy and authenticity. In other words, the ideological stances that help to portray gender, race, class, religious doctrine, sexuality and beauty are soundly legitimated within a seemingly unchallengeable framework of religion.
In my analysis of these films, I will therefore, not only highlight these ideological stances and how Caribbean filmmakers have treated them to subvert their meaning and power, but also challenge the suitability of these texts in a counter discursive exercise. Do these texts really purport a hegemonic epistemology? While they seemingly valorize an established way of thinking, I will argue that these texts are indeed perfect reference points for the counter discursive agenda of Caribbean Filmmakers, because they too are counter discursive themselves, for as they seemingly perpetuate a colonial standard, they, too, even if subversively so, challenge what we are told to accept as the truth.
Set in post-world war Curacao, Ava and Gabriel examines and challenges the following tenets as established within a colonial framework: beauty, sexuality, gender, race, religion and truth- what is it? Idealism or realism.
Director de Rooy, situates his attempt at counter discourse in the epicenter of the colonial hegemony- religion. This approach reinforces the potency and the sheer audacity of Ava and Gabriel that borders on blasphemy. Audacious because the religion of the colonizer, though appropriated, was not like so many other cultural expressions of the colonial powers, subject to the process of abrogation i.e. creolisation/re/mis/interpretation by colonial subjects. Instead religion remained the one expression that was and still is recognized as sacred; its tenets upheld at all costs. These tenets are felt in every ‘form of life’ and inform the actions and decisions, or, at least, should be the basis by which decisions and actions of all ‘good people’ are made. Therefore to situate his effort at counter discourse around religion is not coincidental, but rather for a decent attempt at hegemonic subversion, necessary.
Through the iconography of Biblical characters, always represented as white and epitomizing the Germanic ideal of beauty, religion inculcated a sense of acceptance in those who resembled the ideal and a sense of self-loathing in those who did not. However, it should be noted that this dialectic isexperienced as a spectrum that pushes one closer to or farther away from the ideal; so that colonial subjects of ‘high colour’ could, despite not being the ideal, still have a sense of social and spiritual acceptance unlike their ‘dark’ counterparts. This standard of beauty was not generalized. Indeed the representation of the divine form of the feminine had its own, albeit continued form of aesthetic ideals.
No other Biblical character and her iconography encompasses the prescribed ideal of beauty and the divine form of the feminine than that of The Virgin Mary. Indeed, her iconography is crucial to establishing an ideal feminine sensibility that goes further than just aesthetic values of the superficial. It is applicable to sexuality and gender roles as chastity, modesty, subservience, sanctification and suffering are the feminine characteristics exemplified in the iconography of The Virgin Mary. This is where de Rooy begins his challenge of hegemonic ideals.
Gabriel, the artist, chooses an unlikely subject, Ava, refusing to rely on the established iconography of the Virgin Mary for the Church mural. With his choice, Gabriel blatantly challenges the very concept that denied colonized peoples a sense of humanity. A concept that was substantiated through the portrayals of Holy Figures, like the Virgin Mary as white and the subsequent correlation of their images to morality, purity, honour and goodness. As the faces of the colonized could not be recognized in these images, their identification with morality, piety and goodness was not possible. Again, a sense of humanity i.e. belongingness, denied.
So, de Rooy attempts to reconstruct the idea of morality and its symbolic references through the portrayal of Ava- a black woman, as the seemingly untouchable Virgin Mary.
The reverence for the established iconography of the Virgin Mary is still maintained in Ava and Gabriel as evidenced by the Bishop’s objection to Gabriel’s choice, which is swift and absolute. But the Bishop’s reprehension is ironic as suggested before, the iconography of the Virgin Mary was an exercise in counter discourse by the Church as well.
Of course, The Virgin Mary is an important religious figure; but not only for the role that she played in the Biblical story of Jesus, but rather as a figure who challenged the misogynistic idea of the attribution of sin. Through the patriarchy of the Church, Eve was constructed as the first woman who brought sin into the world. Human suffering and evil were as a result of Eve, and her heiresses, the line through which more evil and sin continued to exist.
The Virgin Mary, unlike her damned biblical counterpart brought life, hope, and love into the world, and is ultimately worshipped for it. So contrasting the original idea of femininity as represented by Eve, the Virgin Mary and her iconography act as a counter discourse to the misogynistic Creation Story and the established idea of femininity.
As the Church patriarchy went about creating a new epistemology of the feminine, they assigned the Virgin Mary certain attributes that were to become the standard for which women, who wanted to be accepted by the patriarchy (an act of survival) should follow. But for which women?
Within a colonial and post colonial world, de Rooy must attempt to subvert the validity and authority of the Virgin Mary image as the ideal because even though She, The Virgin Mary reconstructed the idea of femininity , She only did so for one race of women- White women. Therefore, by portraying The Virgin as a black colonial female, de Rooy successfully realigns the idea of morality, piety, goodness and beauty- in their ideal representations to offer colonized peoples, particularly black women, an overdue sense of belongingness and with that, worth.
With Ava representing The Madonna, the subversion of women as the fallen gender is complete. Eve, the first woman, is restored her dignity through the Virgin and is further venerated through the first black woman, Ava, to be painted as The Madonna. The evolution of the Church’s counter discourse is finally final as Eve and all of her daughters now have a sense of a shared dignified humanity.
But even as Ava is counter to the religious idea of the divine feminine as a black woman, the iconography of the Virgin Mary is offered yet again as another counter discourse to the divine feminine form of the time- 1940’s Hollywood. So even though he challenges the idea of beauty and the divine feminine form as has been always represented by the Church, de Rooy does not end his interrogation of hegemonic ideals there. Instead, he continues his counter discourse by also examining the time’s idea of beauty too, that also, ironically, stands as a subversion to the Church’s idea of femininity to produce a dialectic between the organic, Virgin Mary and the engineered feminine form, Rita Hayworth. This interrogation suggests that even though the Church is the prescriber of the ideal, that the man-made institution of Hollywood, synonymous with glamour and sexuality as represented by film stars, has been a powerful counter discourse to the religious epistemology of the feminine. And further suggests that even established hegemonic orders can be threatened and undermined when a new aesthetic order emerges.
This dynamic between these two institutions is clearly illustrated in the scene between Ava and her best friend Frida, when she, Ava, visits her to tell her of the news that she has been chosen to represent The Virgin Mary- the ultimate muse of the divine feminine form. To show the increasing power and legitimacy of Hollywood over the Church, de Rooy allows Frida to dismiss the compliment of being chosen to represent The Virgin Mary and thereby maintaining the ideal of the Rita Hayworth beauty and seductive confidence. Indeed, Ava represents the organic ideal of beauty, even though abrogated, and so too does her best friend for the Hollywood ideal of beauty. Even though they are both abrogated representations of the ideal, it seems that by Gabriel choosing Ava as his muse, he is trying to establish an alternative idea to the established beauty and the feminine form, while Frida seeks to continue or participate in the idea of Hollywood beauty that she seeks to have a sense of belongingness to and identification with.
Furthermore, the need for women of the ‘40’s to have a sense of belongingness to and identification with Hollywood goes way beyond human aesthetics as well. The assertiveness with which Hollywood beauties carried and defined themselves; a defiant will to act on behalf of their own agency in order to exercise their own autonomy despite the infringing patriarchal infrastructure, was indicative of the agency exercised by the female characters in this film.
However, star glamour was understood not only in terms of appearance, but also as signifying confidence, sophistication and self-assurance, which were perceived by female spectators as desirable and inspirational. (Jackey 154)
While it is not evidenced overtly, De Rooy does demonstrate that the ideals of femininity as encapsulated in the idea of the Madonna, have changed with the times: no longer is it desirable to be a woman in the Madonna’s image: submissive, sanctified, suffering, modest and pure. Thus the dynamic between men and women have also changed to reveal a subversion of traditional gender roles in Ava and Gabriel.
De Rooy challenges the hegemony of the male in gender roles as the one with the power to decide and to influence, subtly throughout the film. Firstly, Ava cannot be painted without the permission of her mother, thus, the hegemony of the male authority is clearly subverted and challenged.
Scenes that also illustrate the subversion of the patriarchy include the woman walking across the street without looking for the permission of the male driver as well as the owner of the fabric store ordering the Law out of her store.
But nowhere is this most apparent, than during the family dinner at Ava’s fiance’s house when his mother bursts into tears expressing her disappointment at her white son choosing a black bride. Without her potential mother’s in law acceptance, Ava cannot follow through on the engagement despite her finance’s blatant love and eagerness to marry her. This illustration of feminine power is a direct challenge to the idea of patriarchy.
But even as de Rooy presents several counter discourses to this hegemonic ideal, it seems that through the character of Ava’s fiancé, Carlos, and his valorization of the subservient, submissive, pure, chaste woman, which he believes he has found in Ava, that the fundamental idea of the ideal feminine is still preserved. In other words, even though the ultimately superficial ideals of feminine beauty may be subjected to the change in times and cultures, these truly espoused ideals of the feminine cannot be replaced or dismissed by the patriarchy.
But even as a counter idea of femininity is offered in 40’s film, despite patriarchal preferences, the paradigm in which it is offered must be questioned. Is this counter representation, an attempt at idealism or is it borne out of a real lived phenomenon? Using a mimetic approach, Wynter would posit the view that these portrayals are indeed borne from a realism that was lived at the time. Wynter suggests that in the age old debate of whether life imitates art or art imitates life, that the latter interpretation is indeed applicable (242). Art emerges to capture the nuances of life. And so, with that argument, one would have to assume that the feminine assertiveness portrayed in the film were a lived reality of the 40’s, which were ultimately idealized in Hollywood film.
However, while Wynter’s mimetic approach is valid, I believe that an expressive approach is also warranted through which will ultimately substantiate and correlate the portrayals of feminine assertiveness in Ava and Gabriel to the time in which the movie was made- the 90’s.
The 90’s was a time of the rise of the working/career woman. Furthermore, for black women there was a substantial rise in assertive, powerful, successful women in film and music that constantly challenged the legitimacy of male patriarchy. Singers like Toni Braxton and block buster movies like Boomerang and Waiting to Exhale ignited a plethora of images that valorized assertiveness in females- black females especially.
If we subscribe to Wynter’s argument and apply it to this time, we would believe that the idealized portrayals of the 90’s woman were indeed taken from the real and lived lives of black women at that time.
Indeed, Ava and Gabriel was made in the 90’s. And so, this reality of the assertive female, I believe made it on to the screen in a film representing the 1940’s, but not to the same degree. Yes, the 1940’s did witness the advent of the working woman due to the absence of men fighting in World Wars. However, this circumstance could not be enough to completely change the gender dynamics to suggest a shift from patriarchal authority to matriarchal. Therefore, the embryonic stages of the subversion of the male hegemony were indeed, indicative of the 1940’s, but ultimately came into full bloom in the 90’s. So, the displays of matriarchal power in Ava and Gabriel certainly speaks to the very initial stages of changing gender dynamics, but definitely alludes to the idealized portrayals of feminine assertiveness that had fully emerged in the 90’s.
This argument and dilemma about idealism and realism/ art vs. life can also be used to understand one important female character that takes us back briefly to the idea of established beauty. Through the character of Louise; the antithesis to Ava and The Virgin, as the symbol of the ultimate woman of the world, the contest between realism and idealism is brought to life in Ava and Gabriel. Ultimately, de Rooy seeks to challenge European epistemology and its characteristic and valorization of idealism.
As she lives in a world where the ideal is valued, she negotiates her scar by cleverly hiding her shame. With the device of charade, she too can believe that she is beautiful and, indeed, a living representation of the ideal. It is Louise who first sees the beauty of Gabriel’s work, arguing for its legitimacy as she is fascinated by his counter approach because she, too, is a counter representation of the ideal feminine. However, Gabriel’s subsequent and surprising portrayal of her scar quite publicly, not only forces Louise to deal with her truth/reality, but more importantly suggests, that when compared to the idealism of Ava, The Virgin Mary and Rita Hayworth, the realism of Louise is just as worthy of being viewed for the truth that it represents. The visual text representing Louise is then a counter text to the aforementioned texts that espouse idealism.
The agent of counter discourse in the film, Gabriel continues his interrogation of colonial epistemology by looking at the often perceived black or white notion of sexuality.
de Rooy’s treatment of sexuality, particularly homosexuality challenges this very concept, not within a religious framework surprisingly, given that it is the ‘ultimate’ sin, but within a social paradigm. He never challenges the morality of homo or bi sexuality and it is not surprising that it is the character Gabriel, the challenger of the established truth that assumes this challenging role too.
In keeping with his approach to counter discourse de Rooy introduces the social idea or prevailing mode of homosexuals in a very exaggerated comical form through the characters of the queers. This representation of homosexuality is anticipated and offers the audience a level of comfort and confidence in being able to identify a sexual orientation. de Rooy, however goes on to challenge this idea of how homosexuality is lived/evidenced/portrayed during Gabriel’s intimate moments with Maurice. Clearly, Gabriel chooses to respond in the moment to his sexual impulse, however it may be categorized; but Gabriel’s rejection to Maurice advances earlier presents some ambiguity. Is he gay or not? I don’t think that it is de Rooy’s objective to answer this question. Instead he is occupied with subverting the social idea of homosexuality as something out of the ordinary as opposed to a lived choice- an exercise of one’s autonomy to respond to whatever is sexually appealing in the moment. In other words sexuality is not determined or prescribed, rather it is a lived response to one’s sexual impulses.
With such great attempts at subverting colonial and established ideas, the final scenes are as anti-climactic as they are self-defeating. With Ava’s public shaming, Gabriel’s death and the brutal beating of Maurice, the characters through which de Rooy challenged the hegemony could not survive the forces of the established order. Ultimately these forces, which de Rooy tries to undermine were still at play and even when challenged by counter discourses, their legitimacy and authority still stood firm.
However, despite de Rooy’s surprising maintenance of the hegemonic power in the final scenes of Ava and Gabriel, it would be myopic not to reassess these scenes for the potential hope that lie in the crucifixion of Gabriel’s counter discourse…- its resurrection.
As the final scenes mimic the death of Jesus Christ, the perceived counter of Rome and of Judaic prophecy, Gabriel, the colonial hegemonic counter, is publicly tried and murdered for asserting his dissent to the establishment. Whereas his death may seem final, if we hold to the parallel between Gabriel and Christ, then we cannot dismiss the idea that a triumphant resurrection and proliferation of Gabriel’s message is not imminent.
Therefore, de Rooy’s maintenance of the hegemonic order in the final scenes suggests that the counter ideas, though not accepted then, will have prominence and influence in time to come. However, one cannot help that without this interrogation of the final scenes that de Rooy sabotages his counter agenda.
The Semantic closure of The Last Supper is where I begin my interrogation of Alea’s subversion of the colonial hegemony. And this embarkation is intentional even though the visual text that informs the film centers it. I believe that the semantic closure of this film warrants a discussion first as Alea’s treatment somewhat contradicts de Rooy’s. Ultimately both directors challenge the same establishment using religious visual texts in their respective films, and as a result similar major tenets of the establishment are subverted; but it is in their treatment of semantic closures that signals a slight departure from execution.
Alea’s treatment of semantic closure whets and certainly satisfies the appetites of those hungry for freedom from the dictatorial influence of colonial hegemonic orders. While de Rooy’s film was concerned with offering colonized people a chance at their missed sense of humanity through a subversion of beauty and idealism, Alea is occupied with, as evidenced by his treatment of semantic closure, the breaking of the mold of colonial religious authority in such a way that does not just merely allude to a resurrection of an African/alternative epistemology, but rather shows it definitively in the escape of Sebastian.
In the final scenes we see the decapitated heads of the slaves of the last supper on stakes…save one, Sebastian’s. In this scene, the Count cements his colonial authority and with it his moral authority on Easter Sunday. Through religion he legitimizes the execution of the slaves who betrayed their master and with that his way of looking at the world, which he tries so hard to inculcate in them during the last supper. Hence, surprisingly the semantic closure in a post colonial counter discursive film reinforces the colonial hegemony. Indeed, if it were not for the following scene that shows Sebastian in keeping with African folklore escaping through a variety of media, one would think that like de Roo,y his efforts at subversion were defeated.
Why then, if we stop our investigation into The Last Supper at the scene of the decapitated heads, do both directors seemingly try to uphold an allegiance to the hegemonic order during their respective semantic closures? I think that this is just but one of the strategies in the arsenal of Caribbean filmmakers who intend to subvert the colonial hegemony.
Indeed, Wynter argues again that in an effort to rethink the aesthetics and the epistemology of the colonized order that informs them, a concerted effort should be made not to totally dismiss allowing them a platform in our counter discourse.
At this third level then, all correlations between the dominant /subordinate,
positively/negatively marked roles with respect to the signifying practices of
representation and those with respect to the social text’s empirically verified
distributional ratios of power and wealth, privilege and social strata in effect of the
“goods” and “bads” of the order, will provide the data from which to deduce what the signifying practices, at the level of representation and their performative acts of meaning, are intended to do- that is, what collective behaviors they are intended to induce and how precisely their practices of signification are enabled to function as, in Rorty’s terms, “our present metaphysico-epistemological ways of firming up our habits.” (Wynter 267).
Therefore, when the Count stands on Easter Sunday seemingly triumphant after the slave revolt, and Gabriel murdered, seemingly defeated by the colonial hegemonic orders, both directors offer a peek into the arsenal of the colonial hegemony. In so doing, the audience when having experienced the all too familiar feeling of being denied a sense of humanity after watching the ‘semantic closure’ of the hegemony, they can now identify exactly how the hegemony goes about their process of indoctrinating; their strategies for inculcating a sense of self- loathing, so that with that knowledge potent attempts at subverting the hegemony is possible in post colonial counter discourse and thinking. As Wynter posits, “These modes now, because humanly knowable, are potentially, consciously, and consensually, alterable.” (273).
While de Rooy alludes to an imminent time when this counter discourse will flourish and dominate, Alea in the very final scene through the escape of Sebastian, not only shows the authenticity and power of African epistemology, but also that freedom from the colonial shackles, its iron forged by the fire of religious fanaticism, is indeed possible; the colonial hegemony subverted… but, ironically and simultaneously supported?
Easter, in keeping with European religious doctrine defines a time of release and triumph over burdens both real and imagined. As Jesus was able to triumph over the oppressions of the world and death, so too was Sebastian, the absence of his head on the line of stakes evidence of his ‘resurrection’ and triumph as Jesus’ body was also absent from the tomb.
Therefore, unlike De Rooy who throughout the film clearly shows demarcations between colonial and counter ideas, Alea plays with a synthesis of the two suggesting that harmony, peace and ironically commonalities are present. Thereby suggesting a possible shared humanity i.e. belongingness. What obstructs this desired outcome is, as suggested before, the eternal hubris of mankind- the quest for power and authority which can only be recognized and thrive in a dynamic. A dynamic that colonial powers perpetuated to ensure a place of power and authority.
The visual text that informs Alea’s attempt at colonial subversion is Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The Last Supper is a recount of what is purported to be, the most intimate moment between Jesus and His disciples before his crucifixion. Seated at a table to partake in a ‘feast’, the disciples and Jesus are drawn together in fellowship- a shared sense of belonging based on shared understandings and agendas.
The Count in an act of narcissism seeks to reenact this scene and its desired showcase of fellowship, taking on the role of Jesus with his twelve handpicked slaves posing as disciples. Replicating with much accuracy the visual imagery of Da Vinci’s text, Alea uses the undisputed interpretation of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper to reinforce the colonial religious epistemology and its justification of slavery and morality as argued by The Count to the slaves during dinner.
However, evidence of an attempt at subversion is also obvious through imagery. Firstly, the dinner feast is an opulent display of meats including pork- a meat that would never had been served at a Jewish dinner. Further to that the opulence with which the Feast is served is in stark contrast to the paltry meal that would have been shared between Jesus and his twelve disciples. These subversions of the original text clearly suggest that the influence of a colonial epistemology is evident and more importantly that this epistemology may not be in keeping with the epistemology of early Christianity, which was void of colonial interference.
However, to insinuate that early Christianity had undergone ‘changes’ akin to the natural and evolutionary process of appropriation and abrogation is to suggest that the falsity with which early Christianity is now represented by colonial powers was not propagandistic.
While the message of Christianity had certainly evolved from its early days, it was further subverted as a means to justify slavery and denounce the epistemologies of Africa. By exploring the dialectic between these two contrasting epistemologies, Alea is capable of evidencing the hypocrisies and invalid arguments that characterize Colonial epistemology based on its agency of religion. Furthermore, by offering African epistemology a platform on The Last Supper table, it is a clear suggestion that this Epistemology is just as valuable and worthy of an audience.
Indeed, both epistemologies are illustrated and examined through The Count and the parable telling slave. The Count definitively and quite dictatorially states the European claim of superiority and power- only whites are predisposed to power and superiority and with his effort to replicate the role of Jesus Christ- morality. The slaves sit and listen to his tirade, as they should and are expected to.
In an effort to offer a very subtle, yet effective attempt at subversion of The Count’s monologue, Alea contrasts this epistemology with that of the seemingly impotent story of the parables encapsulating an African epistemology. Parables are valorized for their universal truths and morality. Furthermore, the subversive manner in which they are told, renders their meaning subjective. In contrast, the unconcealed delivery of the Count’s message that definitively condones only one understanding- the colonial does not allow for the exercise of one’s own personal autonomy to understand what is being taught.
These two different deliveries of message are clearly alluding to the Colonial epistemology and its way of teaching it and the African epistemology and its pedagogy too. This display of both approaches to life showcases the dictatorial method of assuming and teaching one epistemology- the colonial, and the African’s democratic approach to seeing the world that allows everyone the opportunity to exercise their autonomy in deciding what is true.
As the slave tells the parable, the Count falls asleep alluding to either the power of the parable and or, the dismissive attitude of the colonial hegemony to African epistemologies. Despite this, the audacity, though quite subtle, to challenge the Order at the table where fellowship and subservience to one way of thinking is expected is quite profound and may suggest a counter meta narrative in Da Vinci’s text too.
Subtle signs of dissent between the disciples in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper that indicate a jostling for power as a result of what they believe is the imminent death of Jesus is apparent in the text. Who will take over? Who will rule? The aggressive stance of Peter with his hands placed at the neck of another disciple who sits in the favoured right hand position in an act of decapitation; the divide between Jesus and the other disciples almost as if there are two opposing and warring factions. Furthermore, when read from the right, the scene starts with the cluster of three disciples in contentious debate trying to prove something to each other. The next bunch of disciples is being held back in an act by the mitigating disciple to stave off any aggressive or passionate exchange. Hardly the warm intimate scene that European or colonial epistemology would have you believe. And on the other side of Jesus, sits who many popular critics argue is not Judas but Mary Magdalene, hence Peter’s misogynistic stance of cutting off her head; her authority as the preferred and favourited disciple challenged.
Of course this interpretation of Da Vinci’s text would not have been foregrounded in the time of colonialism that informs the film or neither the time in which it was made- the 1970’s. Hence we cannot make the claim as in Ava and Gabriel that the displays of counter ideas by the slaves came as a result of the marinating process of pop culture. Even though such an argument is not valid, we can still conclude that Da Vinci’s text is a display of fractured egos- not the collective of one shared understanding. Therefore as a result, the Da Vinci text is the perfect text for Alea’s counter discourse because it is just that too- a counter discourse to the idea that Christianity began with only one opposing enemy- Rome, when in fact there were many… and within the new movement.
Attempts were made by directors De Rooy and Alea to subvert the aesthetic order of the colonial hegemony that inculcated a denied sense of humanity for colonized peoples. While both directors situate their attempts in religious visual texts, they negotiate their exercises in subversion within different epochs: slavery, Alea and colonial, De Rooy thus showcasing the influence of the colonial hegemony and their use of aesthetics in different time periods throughout colonialism.
In their attempts, Alea and De Rooy were able to deconstruct and subvert colonial epistemology in relation to the symbolic representations of beauty, gender, race, class, religious doctrine, sexuality, power, realism and idealism and epistemology. Thus prevailing modes of historical and artistic discourse in slavery and colonial 40’s were challenged using religious visual texts as these forms of life (symbolic representations) and their ideal images were legitimated through such art.
Furthermore, in their attempt to subvert, they also, almost self-sabotangingly so, offer semantic closures that reinforce the hegemony in an effort to cleverly make their audiences painfully aware of the strategies of the hegemony in inculcating a sense of defeat and self-loathing for not being able to experience a sense of shard belonging.
While these outcomes are anticipated and viewed as necessary in an exercise of counter discourse as argued by Wynter , it is the suggestion that the religious visual texts through which De Rooy and Alea situate their subversion, are indeed counter discursive too, is not. Both texts seem to challenge the legitimated colonial and European epistemology that has orchestrated the way that all people understand the world. The Virgin Mary and the Last Supper both have meta-narratives of counter that would seems to support a post colonial counter exercise. Therefore challenging prevailing modes of discourse within a colonial hegemonic paradigm was made easier with the counter meta-narrative embedded in each of these texts, while ironically simultaneously upholding colonial epistemology.
Ava and Gabriel: A Love Story. Dir. Felix de Rooy. Perf. Nashaira Desbaida and Cliff San-A-Jong.
ArtMattan Prodcuctions, 1990. Film.
Boomerang. Dir. Reginald Hudlin. Perf. Eddie Murphy, Robin Givens and Halle Berry. Paramount
Pictures, 1992. Film.
Stacey, Jackie. Star Gazing: Hollywood cinema and female spectatorship. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
The Last Supper. Dir. Tomas Guitierrez Alea. Perf. Nelson Villagra, Silvano Rey and Luis Alberto Garcia.
Instituto Cubano del Arte Industrias, 1976. Film.
Waiting to Exhale. Dir. Forrest Whitaker. Perf. Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett and Loretta Devine.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1995. Film.
Wynter, Slyvia. “Rethinking “Aesthetics”: Notes Towards, a Deciphering Practice”. Ex-iles: Essays on
Caribbean Cinema. Ed. Mbye B. Cham. New Jersey: Africa World Press Inc. 1992. 237-279. Print.