Caribbean American Identity in Literature Historical Background

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.