Caribbean American Identity in Literature

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Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Caribbean emigration to North America, out of which experience the literature of Caribbean Americans evolved, did not begin in earnest until the 1920’s. The earliest Caribbean writers spoke with a Caribbean, rather than a Caribbean American, voice. Although these writers, such as Claude McKay, Nicholás Guillén, and Leon Damas, participated actively in the Harlem Renaissance, the most vibrant black consciousness movement of the era, they saw themselves as Caribbean visitors to mainland America. For the most part, therefore, their writing depicted life in the Caribbean and portrayed Caribbean characters.

The succeeding generation of writers (Paule Marshall, Michelle Cliff, Rosa Guy, Maryse Condé, Jamaica Kincaid, Carl Phillips, and Edwidge Danticat) either came to America as children or developed their adult careers in America. These writers tackle the issue of the Caribbean American experience directly. Also, while they are unequivocal about their African ancestry, and although they often empathize with African American concerns, they see the Caribbean American experience as distinct from that of Africans or of African Americans. The writings of many of these authors have a biographical undertone, and therefore focus on the experience of people from the island with which they are most familiar, depicting their culture, their expectations, and their own peculiar ways of navigating the challenges posed by their adopted country.

Life in America

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Some of the characters in Caribbean American literature come to America desperate to escape an unbearable life in their island place. Others come to America reluctantly, and yet another group of characters are portrayed as not having much to say about the decision to travel abroad. In all cases, however, the common denominator is the American Dream. Whether characters are self-motivated in pursuing this dream or have the dream imposed upon them by a well-meaning relative, it is the potential of America to provide a better quality of life that leads the characters to undertake their journey to the mainland.

In Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), the great American Dream for Silla Boyce is the possession of a brownstone. This ownership of her own house becomes for Silla the singular pursuit of her life. Home ownership symbolizes fulfillment in America, and she is prepared to do anything to attain it. Marshall portrays Silla as a character whose obsession with American materialist values reduces her to a callous, egocentric, and evil person. This obsession renders Silla unable to express tenderness toward her children and her husband. Such is this character’s obsession that whenever she identifies an obstacle or arrival to her goal, she becomes paranoid, and sets about destroying that obstacle, even if the barrier is a human being: family, friend, or foe.

A life-or-death pursuit of success in America as dramatized by Silla is unusual in Caribbean literature. The more common attitude is a routine pursuit: the acquisition of education or profession which will then lead to the attainment of a better life than that lived in the Caribbean. Such is the case with Clare Savage, who, in Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven (1987), comes to America to complete high school. In Kincaid’s novel Lucy (1990), the main character, Lucy, is a nineteen-year-old au pair whose family has sent her away from the West Indies to work her way through college to become a nurse in America. Similarly, Sophie Caco, Danticat’s Haitian heroine in Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), is expected by her mother to become a doctor after her education in New York City. The American Dream of Deighton Boyce, Silla’s husband in Brown Girl, Brownstones, is to become an accountant, or acquire any such professional skill that will enable him to set up a lucrative self-employed business upon his return to Barbados.

For the characters portrayed in these texts, the fulfillment of the dream does not come easily. In fact, they are compelled by...

(The entire section is 2,963 words.)