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I. A Note on Historical Methodology:
The conventional method of studying history consists of a chronological process. For example, the history of the ‘New World,’ or in particular the history of the Caribbean seems to originate in 1492, the year Columbus mistakenly landed upon Hispanola. Not long after the discovery of the New World, the age of European colonialism in the Americas emerges. This condensed version of the first several decades of European influence in the New World are the common historical accounts rendered about early Caribbean history. How effective and accurate is this seemingly Eurocentric rendition of Caribbean History?
There may not be one specific right or wrong answer to this inquiry. However, there are alternative methods of unveiling or unmasking a history lesson by simply starting in media res (in the middle of things) or even in the present times. This methodology of studying history is indeed a retracting and unmasking process in which society and culture convey the history of a particular country or region as the Caribbean. In order to fully grasp the intricacies and complexities of Caribbean one must scrutinize and in a sense deconstruct the social and cultural fibers of the Caribbean.
The remnants of colonialism in the Caribbean have created a history manifested in the imagery of society and culture. History in the Caribbean can be unveiled in skin tones and rumbas. The history of the Caribbean lives in architecture as well as behind church doors. Thus, in order to learn about the Caribbean, one must ‘unlearn’ or deviate from the Eurocentric rendition of history in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, the present (culture and society) tells many truths about the past.
II. Methodology in Practice:
Michelle Cliff’s novel Abeng and her essay "If I Could Write this in Fire" personify the historical process in the Caribbean. Cliff’s works portray the images of the political, social, cultural, and economic issues discussed by Sidney Mintz and Antonio Benitez-Rojo. Cliff’s literary works depict the contemporary social and cultural constructs of Jamaican society. In this process of interpretation and devolution of Michelle Cliff’s portraits of Jamaican society the remnants of colonialism truly become apparent. Consequently, Cliff’s desire to make sense of the current deplorable conditions of racial inequality has prompted her to ‘look back’ and as she states in her essay:
To try and locate the vanishing point: where lines of perspective converge and disappear. Lines of color and class.
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This quote conveys Cliff’s distress and unease with what she coins a "hierarchy of shades." This "hierarchy of shades" suggests that the lighter one’s skin the more power one has. Or the corollary, which maintains the darker one’s skin tone the less human one is. In her essay, Cliff writes about how her light skin color enabled her to gain some privileges over the darker Jamaicans such as her friend Zoe. The advantages of having a lighter skin tone than most Jamaicans truly disturbed Cliff, thus as a revisionist writer and historian Cliff attempts to discover why this is so. In a sense Cliff attempts to unearth the reasons why "many of us became light skinned very fast… and traced ourselves through bastard lines to reach the duke of Devonshire, the earl of Cornwall." Thus, in a disheartening tone, Cliff discusses the advantages of having light skin by stating:
Those of us who were light skinned, straight haired, etc., were given to believe that we could attain whiteness, or at least the qualities of the colonizer which made him superior. We were convinced of white supremacy… under this system of colorism, the system which prevailed in my childhood in Jamaica- and which has carried over to the present, rarely will dark and white people co-mingle. (Pg. 368)
How can we make sense of this prevailing racial inequality discussed by Cliff? What phenomenon has created this "system of colorism" and this "hierarchy of shade?" By unmasking these social conditions and considering the impact of colonialism answers begin to emerge. A simple and quite general answer to the dilemma of racial inequality and instability in the Caribbean in general, and Jamaica in particular is the existence of the Plantation. Antonio Benitez-Rojo asserts the notion that plantations distorted, indefinitely, the social-cultural content of the Caribbean nations. Benitez-Rojo claims that the "Caribbean, in substantial measure, was shaped by Europe for the plantation, and the generalized historical convergence shown by the different territories in the region are always related to that purpose" (Pg. 39). The plantation life and its economic purpose created grim and defaming relationships between white masters (overseers) and African slaves. The impact that the plantation has had in Caribbean culture and society is undeniable.
Sidney Mintz, in his essay entitled "The Caribbean as a Socio-Cultural Area," discusses the common trends of a socio-cultural development in the Caribbean. A common trend in the Caribbean as Mintz proposes, is:
The successive introduction of massive new "foreign" populations into the lower sectors of insular social structures, under conditions of extremely restricted opportunities for upward economic, social, or political mobility.
This phenomenon is not only common throughout the Caribbean; it is still evident today. In fact, Mintz elaborates on this particular issue as he asserts that:
These migrants were moving into long-established societies still divided
For the most part into two major socio-cultural segments: a small class of owners, managers, and professionals, mainly European in ancestry, and a very numerous class of landless people, mainly non-European in ancestry. (Pg. 32)
The bi-polar structure of Caribbean societies presented by Mintz above is a direct result, as Benitez-Rojo would agree, of the European’s economic interest in the Caribbean manifested in the Plantation. This picture of a divided society still exists today and festers within the Caribbean.
Michelle Cliff conveys this image of a divided society in Abeng through her characters Clare and Zoe. Clare portrays the image of a creole with European ancestry who is a member of the Bourgeoisie. Zoe, however, who is significantly darker in skin tone and bears no European ancestry is a member of the larger poorer class. The juxtaposition of these two characters in Abeng clearly conveys historical accuracy.
The persistence of colonialism and "of the colonial ambiance," as Mintz dubs it has indeed affected the communal atmosphere in the Caribbean. The bi-polar societies in the Caribbean seem to undermine any attempt of creating a national identity. The factions are split by individuals who embrace European influence and strive for European (and American) capitalist endeavors and those of the poorer classes who wish to embrace their own identity and culture for empowerment. The weakness of communal autonomous institutions is very evident in Michelle Cliff’s literature. In her novel, Cliff describes how color and economic lines divide churches. Cliff asserts that even the great unifying force of the church cannot console the socio-economic disparity in Jamaica.
Michelle Cliff, in a subtle yet poignant manner, offer a remedy to this problem of "the prevailing absence of and ideology of national identity that could serve as goal for mass acculturation" (Mintz, 20). The fact is that due to the lack of an accurate portrayal of historical accounts and a blurring of identity (English? / African? / Indian?) Jamaicans, especially those in the lower rungs of society, lack an identity altogether. Thus, in order to achieve a sense of political and social autonomy Jamaicans must uncover the truthful accounts of their inception and heartrending existence in the New World. Cultural identity is indeed a metaphor for empowerment.