What is the Caribbean?

What is the Caribbean?

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What is the Caribbean?

Many ask themselves, What is the Caribbean? What makes up the Caribbean? and How has each island created their identity due to their history? Sidney Mintz in the article, "The Caribbean as a Social-cultural Area" approaches a more social interpretation, Antonio Benítez-Rojo in the article "From the plantation to the Plantation" approaches a more humanistic interpretation while Michelle Cliff in her novel Abeng and her article "If I could write this in fire" takes on a more personal view. While both Mintz and Benitez try to interpret for the whole Caribbean, Cliff uses her homeland of Jamaica to help point out or disagree with some of the important issue of the Caribbean. Benitez discusses the Caribbean according to the role of the plantations. Mintz follows a guideline of nine major features and Cliff's use of personal struggle to better understand her identity and use of Jamaica's history help to better understand Jamaica as part of the Caribbean.

The first similarity of the Caribbean which Mintz points out is how the historical conditions are well known. He writes, "They consist in the expansion of Europe to the New World, the common historical patterns of conquest. colonization, peonage or slavery, and the development of multi-racial and multi-cultural societies throughout this area" (19). Benitez-Rojo goes on to be more precise, he writes, "So if it's clear that there are certain regular and common features, held in place by experiences more or less shared- European conquest, the native people's disappearance or retreat, African slavery, plantation economies, Asian immigration, rigid and prolonged colonial domination..." (34). Even though both Benitez and Mintz can make these claims because it is proven in history, Cliff writes on behalf of Jamaica's history due to Spain's discovery and conquest. Cliff challenges the readers to think more about the identity of Columbus, she mentions that Columbus may have been a Jew, "He came from Genoa- perhaps entering Spain as a Marano, that group of Sephardic Jews forced to hide their religion and their identity behind a pretense of Christian worship... was he in search of a safe place for Jews, a place out of the Diaspora" (67). Cliff has made readers think twice on the purposes of why these sailors discovered new colonies. She writes, "For what purposes did these men find themselves on their expedition. So many intertwining to be unraveled" (67). She implies that the history is not as straightforward as Mintz and Benitez mentioned.

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They believed that everyone including the sailors had the same purpose as those who made the orders but as Cliff has pointed out, sailor may have had their own intentions.

Other than the conquest of the islands, a big influence on the islands was that of the plantation system. All three scholars write on how the plantation system created social, political, race, "Africanization" and a creole culture. As sugar became a great demand in Europe, the new colonies became the source for such demand. "Between 1501... and 1886... the Caribbean islands depended almost exclusively on slavery as a source of plantation labor" (Mintz, 25). Mintz writes, "But because this system possessed an inner dynamic, in those Caribbean islands where it flourished, it also led to the creation of social and political relationships, of a distinctive and very rigid sort. Since the populations of the "plantation islands" were substantially or predominately composed of African slaves whose destinies and activities were powerfully controlled by numerically insignificant minorities of European freeman, a fundamentally similar type of social and political system gradually took shape, in one island society after another... This design involved the perpetuation of societies sharply divided at the outset into two segments, one large and unfree, the other small and free, with a monopoly of power in the hand of the latter" (26-7). While Mintz makes a generalization, Benitez points out the difference between the Hispanic plantation system and Non-Hispanic. He points out that in the Hispanic colonies there is a less impact on "Africanization" except for Cuba. He writes, "The fact that Spain was not to undertake to build a politics of the plantation in its Antillean colonies until the end of the eighteenth century had consequences of such importance as to differentiate historically the Hispanic from the non-Hispanic islands" (62). The difference between race and political power is evident in Abeng. Cliff writes about one of the white plantation owners, "The definition of what a Savage was like was fixed by color, class, and religion, and over the years a carefully contrived mythology was constructed, which they used to protect their identities" (29). It is evident that your color and race gives you more power over another culture. She continues to describe how the plantation system helped create a social structure that kept blacks at the bottom. She writes, "All the forces which worked to keep these slaves now worked to keep them poor. And poor most of them remained" (28). In the article "If I could write this in fire" Cliff writes, "Many of us became light-skinned very fast. Traced ourselves through bastard lines to reach the duke of Devonshire" (362). Those who were mixed with white and some black and were light skinned were able to better off than those who were darker. In order to escape cruelty, those light skinned were able to pass of as white. Cliff makes the readers think twice when she writes, "To try and locate the vanishing point: where the lines of perspective converge and disappear. Lines of color and class. Line of history and social context.
Lines of denial and rejection. When did we (the light-skinned middle-class Jamaicans) take over for them as oppressors? (359). Due to the economic structure, these light skinned middle class Jamaicans are allow to reject their own African heritage in order to better their lives. Mintz mentions how the plantation system created two division but Cliff mentions three. She writes, "The population of the island was primarily Black... with gradations of shading reaching into the top strata of the society, Africans were mixed with Sephardic Jews, Chinese, Syrians, Lebanese, East Indians- but the large working class, and class of poor people, was Black"(5). In Jamaica the middle class had the power after the plantation system collapsed after they freed all the slaves. There are many different versions on how and what specifically the plantation system created but it is clear that the system did create a division between class, race and religion.

An interesting issue which Mintz brings up is how he believes that one of the nine major factors is the "Westernization" and individualization of the Caribbean. Mintz defines Westernization as "...a term with very imprecise meanings. As it is used here, it refers primarily to the effects of lengthy contact, of the principal mode of economic organization, and of the elimination of the "primitive" from the cultures of Caribbean peoples" (37). He continues that "The lack of a developed community life or community spirit, however, is but one aspect of the individualization of Caribbean people" (39). Mintz idea of "Westernization" is clearly shown in Cliff's work. In Abeng it is through the education that the children received which showed the power of Britain over Jamaica. She writes, "Mr. Powell's teaching manuals were forwarded to him by the governor's office, which in turn had received them from a department of the colonial office in London- that department in charge of organizing the state education of the children in the crown colonies. These manuals, for the most part, stressed reading and writing and simple arithmetic. The history, of course, of the English monarchs. The history of Jamaica as it pertained to England..." (84). It is obvious that the real history and the real culture is not taught in school instead the children are learning a biased history writing by England. On the other hand, both Benitez and Cliff disagree to some extent that their is not a lack of community development and spirit. Benitez writes how there is a common community spirit through music and dance. He writes, "One element: rhythm. It is rhythm that, in his words, puts all the Caribbean peoples in 'the same boat,' over and above separations imposed on them by 'nationality and race', it is rhythm- not a specific cultural expression- that confers Caribbeaness" (75). There is a commonness which allows the people to be united no matter how far they are separated. For Abeng it depends on what race and color Mintz referring to because there is a difference. Cliff writes, "Ahead of them now, winding down the road, was a procession of people dressed in white, their presence lit by the torches they all carried... 'They are singing in an old language; it is ancient song, which the slaves carried with them from Africa"(50). The blacks have kept a community spirit by keeping their old language and traditions alive. On the other hand the white churches are cold and does lack a sense of community. She writes, "The minister of the church was a red-faced Englishman, who preached plainly and briefly..."(6). There is no warmth and unity in the minister's preaches which shows that there is no community spirit.

All three scholars present interesting issues on the Caribbean. Some of the issues are similar and can be seen throughout the Caribbean but other issues are different. While Mintz uses more broader issues of the major features of the Caribbean, Benitez-Rojo uses a more economic view. Benitez-Rojo uses the plantation system in order to better explain the Caribbean. Cliff uses her own personal culture to present some of the values of the Caribbean. All three of the writers make the readers question the history, the culture, traditions, language and the people of the Caribbean. The only way to better understand the language, culture, the people, and traditions of the islands is to experience it for yourself. Books will not always show you the true culture or society.
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