On small minds contemplating small places

March 15, 2010

Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is a Caribbean Everyman. In the sense that it represents the anguish of a discarded people. In the way that it demonizes the tourist class of whites who yearly inundates the jeweled islands of the Antilles. The accusation and indemnity leveled at mopey Moby Dicks and jowled Jane Fondas is Kincaid’s. It also belongs to slave descendants who sing commercialized welcomes to cruise patrons whom they curse under their breath. It is hardly surprising that a country whose success in inextricably tied to ours is resentful, while we have disdainful regard for a people barely flourishing on our excess wealth. Our ideal of paradise is incompatible with the possibility of suffering. Escape cannot reconcile with the effort of involvement. The romanticism of the virgin islands is rather spoilt by the recollection of their rape. A harsh analogy: some cultures with backward notion of women’s right force women into marrying their rapists in an effort to rid the family of damaged goods. So are the tropical maiden islands wed to rapacious and sinful world powers who exploited the beauty and naivety to launder bloody monies and escape the pollution and clamor of first world civilization.

The children of this union must decide between the lure of prosperity in the first world, or commitment to (and likely impoverishment in) the mother country. Hybrids are possible, but at the cost of integrity. Kincaid speaks for her home, but is an ex-patriot. Her neighbors know her and her love of Antigua. We know her only for her enmity to her neighbors. I wonder how her neighbors feel when they read her barrage against vacationing Americans. I am not shocked. The same language enters the world across white tongues as it does by black tongues. How often do we hear demands that tourists in American learn english, and not bother us in broken imitations of our gilded language? How often do Americans laugh at gawking foreigners, their raised cameras, or their willingness to pay exorbitant prices for local foods or activities which may or may not have any root in our history or culture.

The Antiguan who has never left the island and yet condemns visitors is another matter, for how can she possibly know the modern inconveniences we contend with every day? Surely slaving away continually to provide food and shelter pales in comparison to the injustice of paying bank fees. Knowing a suburban marijuana dealer is certainly as scandalous as knowing someone who was killed by a cigarette boat drug smuggler from Central America. The financial burden of state imposed health care must be worse than not having health care because you can’t afford it, and in any case have no hospital worth sending your loved ones to. Any money we spend in Antigua is a luxury. Milk and gasoline at twice the continental price is a novelty, not a curse.

American education denounces generalization. This is problematic, because of course it espouses equality equally. We long ago decided that enslavement is immoral, our ancestors even fought and died over this. Christians, and anyone vaguely familiar with Christ, know that one must forgive and forget. How absurd that missionaries concerned (possibly) with the souls of savages, paved the way for colonialism through indoctrination, and left them with core values of forgiveness and righteous suffering. Caribbean cultural resentment is experienced through the cumulative opacity of these lenses. This is why any reaction to A Small Place includes anger, likely casual dismissal: one spasm of concern for human rights excuses hundreds of years of subjugation. We defend ourselves against the criticism. We point out that American dollars improve the economy. In our blissful escapism we tip more, smile more, share more of ourselves with these delightfully backward blacks. We notice this; we feel guilty, we might not. Either way, we lock our valuables and passports in safes provided in every room.

Antigua is representative of all Caribbean nations, as seen in the application of the opening narrative to a documentary on economic imperialism on Jamaica. Antigua is pan-colonial also in that it is indicative of the failure-to-launch of Caribbean nations. We might say: in the last fifty years why have you not improved your situation? Why have you not made progress, expelled your corrupt leaders? Why is your country so poor, so dependent on the patronage of wealthy foreigners? How is that you cannot climb out of the sulfurous pit of tropical hell we dug together? Why did the revolution on Haiti flounder, when its role models resulted in such exalted and liberal lands of hope and glory? True, an island does not have hundreds of thousands of diverse square miles of land to supply nearly every imaginable resource. Also true, Antigua has only had fifty years to develop toward self-sufficiency: something we have been perfecting for hundreds (and only through trade: not very self-sufficient). Meanwhile, Antigua and Jamaica sit along a thoroughfare of Atlantic trade like Estragon and Vladimir Waiting for Godot. They (the physical islands) occupy themselves, engage in the recurring and reversing drama of master and slave, but ultimately seem to be awaiting deliverance (fruitlessly).

As I write I pass a highway billboard advertising Jamaica. More correctly, an airline sign exclaiming “More Jamaica! More stops…“. There is no picture. There is no mention of socioeconomic difficulty. There is no character exposition, just the invocation of the island as a destination. New Englanders will flock there soon, migrating to warmer climes. They will drink, with no thought that the rum that quiets private demons is an industry made successful in the triangle trade by the cane-slashed arms of slaves. The spring breaker will likely have the closest encounter with the shadows of empire. Some will be scared and excited by the sojourn into realer Jamaica to find drugs that so ubiquitously defines the country after the popularization of suburban Rastafarianism. Dollars in the illegal drug trade are of as much use to the local community as those buying daiquiris. The economic stimulus of tourism funnels into the manufacture of rum, the construction and renovation of hotels, the erection of beach-sequestering fences.

It is our imposed Capitalism and Democracy (big C big D like G-d) that keep them adrift. Easy money is much preferable to hard-earned pittances. So yes, every entrepreneur in the Caribbean could leave the tourism trade. Or close an international bank, casino, bar, dock, boxite mine, oil refinery. All the laborers in these semi-lucrative ventures (lucrative for investors) should go and, well… farm? Fish? There’s no money in that, and anyway aren’t we instructing them on how to regulate the fishing industry for sustainability? In the name of environmental stewardship we transfer our system of reserves and limits and licenses that further limit job availability. That’s not such a problem, since the countries are too poor to police their waters. The licensors are too poor (or greedy, tomato tomato) to not take bribes. Anything produced from the fertile volcanic soil is inherently more expensive than its counterpart grown on tracts of field as large as some of these island nations, and harvested by an unimaginable fleet of machines. Any mineral exhumed from the volcanic soil will have a pronounced environmental impact on these oases, and we will probably tell them to stop lest our vacationing beaches are near dead reefs instead of live ones. There is not the infrastructure to cheaply manufacture goods, and the nearness to western markets doesn’t compensate for this in a world supplied by containers ships and jet liners. There is no god but Profit, and his prophet is Capitalism. In his service the Antilles have no impetus to harvest food by the bounty of the earth, given by that second-tier god. In his service there is no better option than corruption, need rationalizes crime. At this utilitarian (sensu John Stuart Mill) level the distribution of happiness (resources, etc.) has no real meaning, since there is much too little to go around. So maybe people get jobs elsewhere? We don’t want them to take good American jobs from good Americans. We don’t really want them to take bad jobs that most Americans don’t want. But they are here and those jobs are available and maybe there’s subconscious satisfaction for some that the those once forced into unsavory work now choose it.

We can be proud of successful Antiguans, because they are Antiguan-Americans. Their success is a product of American education, and American hope and prosperity. The money they send home is lost to the GDP, but we get their banks fees and international phone bills (assuming there is a phone to call to, maybe that is an early purchase with the remittances). We can be proud of Kincaid, because she is an American who champions international causes. We can discount her should we feel like it, because she is an American who champions international causes with the voice of Antiguan bemoaning local issues. Ex-patriotism is successful on our terms.

And we are back to where we were before: Kincaid, ex-patriotism, white condescension, exploitation ad nauseam. Any argument of Caribbean history and politics and culture is necessarily cyclical. Or tidally recurring? Or more likely, things just never changed. Haiti had a violent revolution, which could have been productive (in terms of culture building and nationalism; in terms of economy) had they not razed all their infrastructure. Most other island nations were discarded as no longer profitable to the white master. Imagine not claiming our own independence! Imagine being “forgotten, then remembered, then not important enough to go back for” (Kincaid 16)! Imagine (because we have the luxury of acknowledging that things could be worse) dependence on patronizing visitors, for whom the nicest buildings are built, and the smoothest roads paved, and the most pristine of nature preserved. Imagine being robbed of wallet, and cultural dignity, and the choicest real estate. Imagine owning a fishing boat and motoring in the shade of cruise boat because that’s where the large grouper gather (the reef is already overfished, or maybe dynamited for a shipping channel). Imagine all this, and say without doubt in your voice that Kincaid (or the narrator) is whiny, possibly deranged and quite stupid. She offers no solution, but what solution could there be for a problem so developed in a place so small and undeveloped.

Diatribe is a fitting literary device for the tribes of the African diaspora. Swiftian satire (A Modest Proposal) is a western phenomena, not well-suited to the humorless situation of Antigua: an insolated and isolated island struggling in the shadow of the West (of which it is, geographically though not socially, a part). A Small Place is a commentary, arguably a plea for cease fire. Antigua doesn’t hate us for who we are, about which someone who has never left the island only knows through global commerce. A common reaction to Kincaid’s attack is withdrawal, I am not who you think I am, I am who I think I am. How Cartesian. We think we are our truest in our homes, surrounded by people we actively try to please in our actions. We behave in places where we know the laws and consequences, and have duties to fulfill which require us to show respect and diligence and reserve. Americans in America certainly rude, but most often in contexts where there is no long term consequence or discomfort. English in England are tolerable too. But give a people a playground on jeweled shores where their trash and manners have no meaning beyond seven days hence and see what happens. Like animals, we avoid shitting where we eat. We are actually more ourselves, base selves, in this playground. The Antilles hate us because in “unwinding” we cast off human decency and any measure of selflessness to indulge the senses at a cost to them. We remove ourselves entirely from the small place theatrics of an island, and expect the lack of regard (good, bad, neutral) to go unnoticed. The people talk. Because they work in the tourist industry, they talk about the obnoxious avatars of America. Because of the smallness of the place, they talk much and to many people. Like resonating waves, the implications of our intrusion build and build. In a way A Small Place is humorous, or at least the polarized pageant of “discussion” surrounding it. It is humorous because the reactions are so violent (for every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction). It is also humorous because those who take greatest exception to it are the contrarians most likely to escalate their own very small problems born of very small communities into catastrophe and gusto. Kincaid doesn’t suggest a socioeconomic solution for Antigua because there isn’t one which will work in the current system. She suggests, catalyzes, a thought catharsis. A reaction to A Small Place says much more about the reader’s self-involvement and power of denial (conversely: their ability to stomach criticism) than the text says about the author.

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