What I Have Been Doing Lately by Jamaica Kincaid

Start Your Free Trial

Download What I Have Been Doing Lately Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ does not allude to a specific time period, nor does it indicate in which nation it takes place; however, because it references ‘‘black and shiny’’ people in a coastal setting, it is not unlikely that this story, like most of Kincaid’s work, is set in the West Indies. Moira Ferguson, in Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body, narrows this estimation much further by stating that At the Bottom of the River, in which ‘‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’’ appears, takes place ‘‘in Antigua during the 1950s.’’ Kincaid lived as a British colonial subject until 1966, and as the majority of her work is autobiographical, it is perhaps appropriate to contextualize her writing within the historical and cultural framework of the colonial and postcolonial world of the West Indies.

According to Islands of the Commonwealth Caribbean: A Regional Study (Sandra W. Meditz and Dennis M. Hanratty, editors) Christopher Columbus sighted Antigua in 1493 during his second voyage; however, the island was not formally colonized until 1632 when it was claimed by the English. Except for a short period in 1966-67, when the French held Antigua, it remained a British possession until its independence in 1981. From the time of Kincaid’s birth until she left Antigua, the island was consistently challenging colonial authority. During the years 1935-1960, there were political campaigns aimed at curtailing the colonial subjugation of the Antiguans. In her article about Kincaid in the New York Times Magazine, Leslie Garis notes that Kincaid became increasingly angry about the subservient role that Antiguans were forced to play with the British. In 1966, the year Kincaid left Antigua for the United States, Vere Cornwall Bird, Sr. went to London to discuss Antigua’s desire for independence. A year later, Antigua became an associated state of Britain, meaning that, although it was internally autonomous, the island was still dependent upon Britain to handle its foreign affairs and defense matters. After a constitutional conference in December of 1980, the island was finally granted complete independence from the British crown and officially became the nation of Antigua.

In 1674, Sir Christopher Codrington established what was to have a lasting effect on Antigua’s society and culture—the island’s first sugar plantation. By 1679, half of the island population was composed of slaves imported from Africa’s west coast. During colonial times, the descendants of these slaves made up the lower strata of Antigua’s racially-determined social structure. On the other end of the spectrum were the plantation owners and political elites, who were all of European descent. According to Paget Henry in Peripheral Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Antigua, the years 1960- 68 brought an ‘‘emergence of the formal dominance of the Afro-Caribbean cultural system’’ during which many Antiguans began to assert their own cultural identity, independent of colonial influence. Antigua’s push for independence was greatly reflected in the literature, painting, sculpture, drama, and dance of these times. Notable here is that during these years Kincaid was a young woman who was also in the process of defining her identity. Leslie Garis’s article for the New York Times Magazine notes that during these formative years Kincaid began to ‘‘detest everything British.’’ Years later, her work would likewise reflect a concern for identity and a distaste for colonial rule.

Another way of understanding the cultural context of Kincaid’s work is to look at the other literature by women Caribbean authors writing in the postcolonial era. According to Laurence A. Breiner in West Indian Literature , the decade of the eighties ushered in an increasing number of works that were written by women and that addressed issues regarding women. The many points in common that Kincaid shares with these other writers locate her within this...

(The entire section is 3,922 words.)