Caribbean American Identity in Literature Analysis

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...

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The Caribbean Reality

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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,...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

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.