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
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 circumstances of life in America to make compromises, which in some cases lead to disillusionment. After Silla buys her precious brownstone, she finds that her troubles are far from over. She had borrowed money for the transaction from loan sharks, and in order to service the exorbitant loan she has to keep two jobs, as well as sublet the building for extra income. At the end of the novel, Silla has won a pyrrhic victory. She does not enjoy the additional space which a new home should provide because tenants have taken over her space. She is estranged from her children and husband. It is because Silla has the brownstone that she is overworked and stressed. Silla’s American Dream has become a major burden. Deighton, Silla’s husband, does not fare much better. Deighton discovers to his surprise that studying through correspondence courses to become a motor mechanic or an accountant in America is not as easy as he had thought on leaving the Caribbean. Anticipating failure in these courses, and failure to secure employment due to what he believes to be racist employment practices in America, Deighton refuses to commit himself to a dream as aggressively as Silla. Eventually he becomes a full-time member of a religious cult and drops out of the work force completely.
In Lucy, the protagonist does not become a nurse as her parents had planned, and she fails to concentrate on her college work. Instead, she is employed as a photographer’s assistant, a job that is more of a hobby than a profession. Lucy, Kincaid’s protagonist, loses the power to dream after witnessing the disintegration of her employers’ family. Lucy subconsciously rationalizes that if this white couple, who symbolize, to her, the realization of the American Dream, can fail, she should not try too hard for such a dream if she is to avoid disappointment. Far from becoming a doctor, Sophie, the main character in Breath, Eyes, Memory, does not even go to college. At eighteen, she marries Joseph, her American lover, and settles for the life of a housewife, moving to her new home in the suburbs of Providence. Sophie has a devoted husband and an adorable child, so it can be said she is successful. Her failure to acquire a college education and a profession nevertheless leaves her vulnerable in the education-driven American economy, especially as her husband is a freelance musician with an unstable income. Personally, Sophie is undaunted by these financial circumstances, and her failure to become a doctor is a greater disappointment for her mother and for the extended family in Haiti who hoped to enjoy the American Dream through the success of their Caribbean American relative. Unlike Danticat’s heroine, Clare in Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven completes her college education. Like Danticat’s heroine, however, Clare becomes a disappointment to her European Caribbean father. Contrary to her father’s expectation, Clare is frustrated with life in America. She is frustrated with its rigid race classifications, its preoccupation with material success, and its race-inspired violence. After college, Clare leaves for England to explore that country, feeling no real connectedness to America.
The Caribbean Reality
Despite depiction of the limitations of America and the difficulties which their characters experience in succeeding within the American system, many Caribbean American writers show that life in the Caribbean is worse. It is in order to escape the harsher realities of life in the Caribbean that these characters have come to take their chances with America.
Proponents of a return to the Caribbean, such as Deighton in Brown Girl, Brownstones, eventually find that their island is not a blissful alternative to America. Deighton enjoys a pampered life in Barbados, but as a young man there, success eludes him. He cannot fulfill the wish of his family to become a doctor or a teacher, and he is unemployed for most of his time there. America provides him another chance. Although he blames the racism of whites for his failure, Deighton’s perception that he has failed in the land of opportunity, where anyone is expected to succeed, contributes to his suicide. As for Silla, Deighton’s wife, a return to the Caribbean is not even a consideration. She remembers only bad things about her past. From the age of eight she is forced to work from dawn to dusk in the sugarcane fields of Barbados. Any complaint against this backbreaking slave labor is met with savage whippings. Silla has no recollections of love or tenderness, only that she was robbed of the innocence of childhood.
Occasionally, Lucy in Kincaid’s novel is nostalgic for her Caribbean home, but most of the time Lucy feels that her past is “filled with confusion and dread.” Behind this tension is Lucy’s ambivalent feeling toward a mother whom she loves, and who she believes loves her, but who nevertheless named her Lucy, shortened from Lucifer, because she cursed the day she gave birth to her unwanted child. Lucy realizes that her mother was the victim of male-dominated Caribbean culture, which allows the woman no authority over her pregnancy. Ironically, the mother-and-daughter relationship is further complicated by the preferential treatment that Lucy sees her younger siblings receive from her parents simply because these siblings are male. This theme of a male-dominated Caribbean society as a motivating factor in the decision to come to America in search of freedom is explored more extensively in Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory.
Danticat’s description of the Haitian landscape and flora attest to the natural beauty of the country. The uncompromising love and solidarity of the Caco family shows that there are things about Haiti to be cherished. Overwhelmingly, however, the sentiment expressed in the novel about Haiti is that it is a place “where in one instant, you can lose your father and all your other dreams.” It is not a place where one makes a wish when stars fall because there, “each time a star fell out of the sky, it meant that somebody would die.” Those responsible for this threat to life and property are men of the Tontons Macoutes, a law enforcement group whose propensity for brutality makes it more of a terrorist organization than a police force. It is a member of the Tontons Macoutes that the Caco family believes raped Sophie’s mother, Martine, at the age of sixteen.
Danticat makes two issues of sexual violation: rape and the habit of testing the virginity of unmarried women by poking “fingers in their private part.” Martine never recovers from her encounter with the rapist. It is in order to help her forget this traumatic experience in Haiti that she is sent to the United States. In New York, Martine is haunted by the memory and has constant violent nightmares. She is damaged emotionally and psychologically to the point that when she finds herself pregnant in New York, this time by a man she loves, she is unable to separate the new pregnancy from the old one which was the result of her rape. Traumatized by a feeling of being invaded by evil, Martine rips open her womb, killing herself and her unborn child. Like her mother, Sophie suffers from nightmares occasioned by thoughts of a mysterious and evil father. Additionally, the testing of her virginity, a Haitian practice done to please Haitian men, who insist on the virginity of newly wed women, reduces her to a sexual misfit whose notion of sex, even with a loving husband, is that it is a dirty, guilty, and evil act. For both women the life-denying problems they have to grapple with originate in Haiti, while the potential to solve the problems can be found in the United States. Through Sophie’s successful marriage and her access to therapy, Danticat suggests that the cycle of abuse endured by the Caco family will be broken in America.
In Ana Lydia Vega’s short story “Cloud Cover Caribbean,” characters from the Dominican Republic and from Cuba all decide to take their chances on the dangerous sea using any means necessary to escape to Miami. What they are running away from is pain, poverty, deprivation, and exploitation. For them America represents opportunity, a new beginning, and a chance to succeed in life. Their first contact with America suggests that their dream will come true. As they are allowed on a rescue vessel by a white American, offered survival tips by a Hispanic American, and given dry clothes by an African American, the author suggests that these Caribbean characters have arrived at the refuge of immigrants. In their expectation of the Caribbean, other characters, such as Clare in No Telephone to Heaven, who are more disillusioned with America, do not differ much from those who embrace America. When Clare decides to leave the United States, she does not return to the Caribbean. Instead she heads for England. The implication is that after her youthful exploration, she will come back home to America. Another hint that Cliff provides to suggest that her character is not oblivious to problems in the Caribbean is that although Clare regards living in America as being raised in captivity, she does not equate her sister’s experience in the Caribbean with freedom, but rather with being raised in the wild.
How other Americans view the Caribbean American characters, the manner in which the characters handle their individual past, and the evolving history of their island of origin, as well as the characters’ aspirations in their adopted country, all feature in the portrayal of the West Indian American in literature. Language serves almost invariably as an identification factor. Whether Jamaican, Haitian, Dominican Republican, or Cuban, their English, French or Spanish patois is used to establish their country of origin and culture. Many authors insist that often this form of identification leads to misleading generalizations on the part of the non-Caribbean American because no patois is the monopoly of any particular island. This failure of others to see the uniqueness of the islands becomes a source of annoyance to Lucy in Kincaid’s novel Lucy. Similarly, the larger American society’s determination to impose a black racial classification on Clare’s European Caribbean father, and on Clare, who is of mixed parentage, is troubling to Clare in No Telephone to Heaven.
Implicit in the generalizations about the Caribbean is the notion of the islands’ inferiority. It is such prejudice that generates the negative stereotypes such as those described in Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. Haitians are accused of carrying the AIDS virus and of having an especially offensive body odor. Bombarded by these types of negative images, Danticat’s protagonist, Sophie, grows up feeling insecure in America. When she first meets her American husband-to-be, she is anxious to hide her identity. She “wanted to sound completely American.”
Some authors use a visit to the islands as an effective therapy in the process of a character’s search for self-awareness and self-acceptance. For example, Sophie’s return to Haiti in Breath, Eyes, Memory helps her in the effort to exorcise her legacy of torment. In Brown Girl, Brownstones, even the new generation of the Caribbean Americans, represented by Selina, need a visit to the Caribbean to build up the cultural grounding necessary to withstand the prejudices of those who would treat them as oddities.
Collectively, Caribbean Americans in literature are portrayed as successful in meeting the challenge of balancing the pursuit of the American Dream and the maintenance of their cultural roots. They establish their own communities and form ethnic organizations. Through these agencies, Caribbean Americans are able to reinforce a sense of pride in their own language, food, music, history, and values, while networking for mutual survival within the larger American society. Contrary to the one-dimensional character portrait of the Caribbean in mainstream American literature (such as the Caribbean character Tituba in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, 1953), Caribbean American writers draw a more rounded portrayal of characters whose humanity is unquestionable. Some of the writers believe that the challenges that Caribbean Americans have overcome, coupled with their rich cultural background, make them stronger than either the purely Caribbean, or purely American, personality. It is within this mode of thinking that Condé’s novel, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1992) is set. In this, her fictional reconstruction of the life of a Caribbean woman burnt as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts, in the eighteenth century, Tituba is no longer the blubbering victim portrayed in Miller’s play. Instead, Tituba is portrayed as an assertive woman who uses her spiritual powers to control her environment. For Caribbean American writers, the ideal Caribbean American personality is one who refuses to be defined by stereotypes. Such a character is at peace with indigenous Caribbean culture but understands the benefits of life in America without becoming obsessed with its materialism.
Baugh, Edward, ed. Critics on Caribbean Literature. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. Excellent variety of critical commentary on diverse aspects of Caribbean literature.
Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. London: Allison and Busby, 1984. An analysis of the experience of being an immigrant by one of the most accomplished writers from the Caribbean.
Philip, Marlene Nourbese. Harriet’s Daughter. London: Heinemann, 1988. Set in Canada, this novel provides a broader dimension to the identity question of Caribbeans living on the North American mainland.
Phillips, Caryl. Higher Ground: A Novel in Three Parts. New York: Viking Press, 1989. Attempts to establish that the common experience of people of African descent globally is one of alienation.
Ramchand, Kenneth. The West Indian Novel and Its Background. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1972. One of the earliest commentaries on Caribbean writing. A valuable starting place in the study of the Caribbean experience in literature.
Sutton, C. R., and E. M. Chaney, eds. Caribbean Life in New York City: Socio-Cultural Dimensions. New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1987. Presents readers with factual information that reinforces the messages of many Caribbean fiction writers.