Wide Sargasso Sea is one of my favorite books. There is so much in the book that feels familiar, especially in the landscape of “ginger lilies,” “leaning coconut palms,” “pink and red hibiscus,” “frangipani,” and “orchids.” The colors, and the “razor grass” that I have cut my own arms and fingers on before. The lush textures and the richness of the landscape that Rochester complains is “an extreme green” with too much; “too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near” (59). This landscape along with Antoinette’s Catholic all-girls education and Rhys’s rendering of those nuns who populated my formative educational years as well. There is a haunting, Gothic feel of Rhys’s prose that draws me into its beautiful sadness. Perhaps because I know it is all about a descent into madness in the end.
If I tell the truth about this book the first time, I will say that when I read it — I mainly noticed the black people, first and foremost. The whiteness lay inside of the text itself, just outside of my periphery. I saw it but did not see it at the same time. I could not acknowledge what that was, did not want to, and felt no need to. In some ways, considering and writing about white creole identity forces me to peel away the landscape, the black people, the river -– all of the things that immediately struck me as places and people I knew well inside of this book. It is about interrogating the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, and some of the many things I’d missed before. It feels like extra work, partly because honestly, parts of me are resistant. I am resistant to this process of using the lens of white creole identity –- first acknowledging there is one -– then using that lens to crack open new considerations of this text. It also means disengagement from myself as center -– the black West Indian –- center here, only to a certain extent; yet liminal and liminal yet, within the larger structural constructs of race, color, class and identity. Whatever privileged self there is for a black West Indian is contained inside a relative, fixed, small space. And only there. Whenever I attempt to crawl into the deeper annals of race, identity and personal history. I am a little afraid of what else I may find.
There are white people there?
In my first semester of my freshman year at university in the states, I remembered my roommate, a mixed-raced Canadian born, now American citizen to West Indian parents, asking about photos tacked up on the dorm wall that we shared. Who was this person? And who was he? She inquired about their personal stories and connections to me. And where was she from? And her? pointing to two of my white looking friends in a birthday picture with me and other girlfriends, all of us smiling, out to dinner for my nineteenth birthday. Trinidad, I say, confused that she would ask. There are white people in Trinidad? she asked me incredulously? Yes, yes, I told her, flabbergasted, how do you think “we” got there?
On the excellent Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago Facebook page, a fascinating thread was prompted by an irreverent, poignant and humorous observation that ” Living in Trinidad is real entertainment oui. Now its well known that white Trinidadians are an endangered species confined to the northwestern peninsula with stray populations sighted occasionally south of the Caroni River, particularly in Bel Air and Gulf View near Sando and another fledgling clutch thought to exist in Palmiste near a large park. You will practically NEVER find a white Trini living say, in Barrackpore or Palo Seco for instance and truth be told the odd one or two white folk in these wildernesses are foreigners who have married locals and are setting up for their own ‘dreadlock holiday’ lifestyles until the burgeoning crime rate exterminates them or forces retreat to the aforementioned Northwest or back on a plane. You will possible NEVER see a white civil servant these days although no laws prohibit their employment in the public service and as recently as the 1950s, they were the dominant upper echelons of government administration. Its also a common fact that all local whites know each other and are related in some way.
So long story short, your average country bookie has never really had any interaction with local whites , social or otherwise and thus still possess a pliant conviction that
a) All whites are the boss
b) Dey have money
c) May be aliens from Mars for all they know.
This in itself leads to some amusing encounters when my white friends make the long and dangerous trek into the badlands of south to visit me or else we go traipsing to some historic site, beach or forest. . .”
I commented noting, “the inherent contradictions that in a small place (relatively speaking), having the luxury to ‘not be seen’ by and large–say, waiting in line for a new birth certificate or ever catching a maxi, or other kinds of seemingly mundane, everyday life interactions one could list (something i’ve mused about myself on and off with regards to race, class & visibility) in and of itself contributes to the notion of not being visible and not recognized as part of a particular cultural landscape. people can then become a kind of phantasm in their own land of birth. there are of course, other factors at play as well. it also makes me wonder about how people remain tucked away inside exclusive enclaves and are happy to do so, selectively participate in sociocultural endeavours, then have to confront some kind of existential crisis when people don’t know that they exist! how would they?” I was glad to see this kind of conversation because I have been thinking for a while about (though, admittedly not vigorously explored publicly til now) how space and visibility become connected to cultural and racial narratives and their impact on the racial consciousness of the people inside of those spaces. Like inside small island societies like ours.
Part of the discomfort for the white West Indian is the supposed insider-outsider feeling that posits them both inside, yet distinctly outside of the larger Afro-, Indo- West Indian cultural narrative in some ways. It is not a nice feeling, to feel this way. I have felt this feeling before. I know some people who feel a similar discomfort crawling around their skin as they wander around The Falls at West Mall, a shopping center in Trinidad. Too many white people, they bristle. Or, whey de ass all these white people come out from? they’ll wonder out loud in certain other instances. All the while, they remain tucked away inside upscale communities on the western part of the island. You will never see too many, if you do not venture west, or select other places in Trinidad very often.
One of the problems with these select visibility instances I think, is that it highlights the obviousness that otherwise, it seems as though they are in hiding. Hiding and secluded from the rest of us. This (in)visibility is further complicated by Trinidad’s classism and social segregation and the fact that you can encounter many people (white and otherwise) who are actually proud to claim that they don’t go pass de lighthouse — that they don’t interact with certain places in the country and certainly not the people who live there.
Bridget Brereton’s anthologized essay in Engendering History, a collection about women’s roles in Caribbean history, sheds further light on these some of these issues. It is a fascinating examination of women’s writings from the 1770s to the 1920s, including several white women residing in the Caribbean at this time, who highlight similar sentiments about their superiority over West Indian born whites. Inside of this anthology, a range of essays by various authors examine where gender intersects with history through an “African feminist theoretical” lens.
This collection of writing covers the range of the English-speaking Caribbean, as well as a part of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. In Brereton’s chapter, texts by several women: Maria Nugent (an American white woman), Mrs. Carmichael (A British white woman living in and overseeing households in St. Vincent and Trinidad), Janet Shaw “an aristocratic and cultured Scottish lady”, (64) and Elizabeth Fenwick, “a well educated Englishwoman” (64) are among some of the voices lending testimony to the cultural division between creole born white women and the foreign born white women.
Both Nugent and Carmichael write in personal letters and journals complaining about “the narrow interests and lack of refinement among the white Jamaicans” (79). For Nugent in Jamaica, it was the “meagreness of conversation, which arise from an uninformed mind” (80), and this was not very different from Carmichael’s poor estimation of Antiguan white women. They both agreed that “white creole women were often undereducated and lacking in refinement” (80) for varying reasons during the 1800s in the West Indies.
Nugent also thought the vast majority of white Jamaican women she met were “generally idle, ignorant, and horrible to their domestics” (Brereton 79). She described a one “Mrs C” as a “a perfect creole, says little, and drawls out that little, and has not an idea beyond her own penn” (Brereton 79). In addition to all of this, “both Nugent and Fenwick thought that ‘immorality’ was rife even among men of the elite in Jamaica and Barbados” (Brereton 73). As a result, these white creole women were extremely consumed with the scourge of black and colored women leading their men and boys astray. (Brereton 73-74).
Of special interest to them were any newly landed whites who then had to be warned about “the free colored women” who aimed “to allure young men who are newly come to the country, or entice the inexperienced, may be said to be their principal object” (Brereton 73). At the same time all of this race, color and class segregation is being forced and regulated, the creole whites themselves were often regarded with a critical eye. This is evidenced too inside of Jean Rhys’s text, as Mr. Mason notes ominously of Antoinette, “creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either” (Rhys 56).
The implicit “madness” of the Cosways in Wide Sargasso Sea is implicated by the conundrums of race, purity and nationality and how Bertha will signify Bronte’s mad white creole woman in the attic. I frequently think of this alongside the whispered ‘madness’ and alleged questionable genetic material of people of certain select, white monied families in Trinidad. They try to breed in ways to keep others out, some folks say. Island societies were rife with stories like this. And even still, black and mixed blood might have flowed in and out in some instances.
In Bridget Brereton’s chapter “The White Elite of Trinidad,” she illuminates how some of these innuendos and stereotypes were in fact historically rooted in “fear of the taint of ‘Negro blood’” (54) and as a result “inbreeding was the safest way to avoid undesirable connections” (54). In a small-island space, such as ours, this fueled a kind of blood-line paranoia ensuring that “creole whites had an extremely strong sense of the absolute need for ‘racial purity’. Much more than the resident Europeans, they were open to the suspicion of having (the dreaded) ‘negro blood’” (53). Thus, for the white “French creoles” of Trinidad, “inter marriage, inbreeding, social and familial incest were both a virtue and a necessity” (Brereton 54).
Across the Sargasso Sea
“I never looked at any strange negro. They hated us. They called us white cockroaches.” Antoinette “Bertha” Mason (née Cosway, Wide Sargasso Sea).
Like Jean Rhys’s protagonist Antoinette who muses, “between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong” (85), white creoles, in pre-emancipation times and even after, saw themselves as falling outside of the larger category of West Indianness, and inextricably, unfortunately for them, conflated with blackness. They sometimes saw themselves as floundering, particularly if they had no money to speak of. On the other hand, the white creole, was often left posited in contrast to the British born and bred, pure authentic white.
In Rhys’s text, Antoinette and her mother are not only “white niggers” because they are poor but also because they fall outside of the monied British class of white people. This is who Tia, in taunting Antoinette’s inferior status, refers to as “real white people” (21) unlike the Cosways. Outside of the clear racist motivation of division, the white creoles themselves, especially during and even after slavery, were in a tussle for an authentic identity of self in some ways. In the introduction to an edition of Rhys’s text, Francis Wyndham describes white creoles as “products of an inbred, decadent, expatriate society” (11) which aptly sums up some of major stereotypes of the time.
White people in Trinidad -– depending where you are, are really rare. Like a strange pebble that you want to pick up and show-off. In a truly fucked-up kind of way, this is very true. Cruise ships used to never dock in Port-of-Spain -– they’d go as far south as Barbados or maybe reach to touch Tobago but hardly ever stopped in Trinidad because we’re not a long-standing tourist port. And when they did, never in the kind of droves as you would see in other islands. For many years, the geographical position of Trinidad as last in the archipelago, just off the coast of Venezuela plus the absence of prime white sandy beaches that are found in abundance in Tobago and elsewhere, prompted this cruise ship inactivity. Later, the first discovery of oil in the 1960s allowed the government to focus elsewhere and pay no mind to wasting time wooing and courting foreigners to come tan and spend their money here. So much so, that it became part of the fabric of nationalistic narrative, we doh need tourism, we have we oil.
Eventually they started coming more often in the late nineties, and it was funny that you would always know when a ship docked in the port because of the reams of white-white people wandering through the city in a daze. With their pink skin, in their loud tropical shirts and panama hats that no one else even wears, living on the island. Because I am middle class, I actually know some white (and “pass-white” and off-white) people. Since my class and social privilege gave me access to them, being seen with them said something about my class privilege, that I am aware that I liked. There are people in Trinidad who see more white people on TV, with the steady influx of American and British pop-cultural images, than they ever do or ever have in real life. Some will see more “white tourists” than actual Trinidadian white (or local whites). For some, white then, equals tourist. On a popular Trinidad social message board that I used to frequent a few years ago, I recall a Trinidadian poster asked something to effect of: “do you know you how many times a day I get told to go back where I come from? Or called touris’? Or something like that? Just because I am white?”
Well, no, I never have. And you know, I never once stopped to think about it before. Because I exist in the larger cultural narrative that is subsequently in perpetual struggle with the larger dominant discourses of history, race, slavery, colony and empire. I am inside that space and I really hadn’t taken the time to stop to seek out the white people on the outskirts.
And honestly, they don’t look like they need my help, half the time, anyway.
At the same time, I know someone who makes it his business to constantly make his life one that is engaged with movement around his island and participating in many aspects of the cultural, social and outdoor spaces that you will almost never see faces like his in. He is also acutely aware of how his whiteness, his Trini whiteness, becomes a site for dismantling certain notions just by him being present, being Trini, being actively and lovingly engaged with the community around him and in plain sight.
Elsewhere, inside the cultural landscape, the calypso in Trinidadian society becomes important for its expression of a kind of articulated whiteness in song themes, through the African descendant men who primarily sing it. Soca, emerging as an off-shoot of calypso, tackles similar themes. The importance of this music and its messages, stemming from the historical ‘chantwell,’ who as Dr. Hollis Liverpool explains, “‘the chantwell of pre Emancipation times, analyzed the happenings of the day and informed the masses present of the environmental changes and pressures” (9). It is no surprise then, that the conflation of whiteness with “tourists” is a frequent topical issue and theme found in soca and calypso throughout the years. In this way, these songs reinforce widely held ideas about the white people who are seen yet not seen by the masses who do not have access to, or do not frequent those spaces where they are located.
When they are, they are frequently assumed to be foreigners. Hit soca songs like The Mighty Shadow’s (Winston Bailey) “Stranger” (2001) about a white Australian woman who comes to Trinidad carnival for the first time and learns how to dance and participate in the culture, falls inside of this theme. Similarly Lord Kitchener’s (Aldwyn Roberts) classic “Miss Tourist” (1968) reflects a similar theme. Likewise, Colin Lucas’s ubiquitous “Dollar Wine”(1991) shows Lucas teaching a racially unidentified tourist and foreign woman, how to do the dollar wine in detail. In the West Indian cultural imagination, tourist often becomes code for foreign white or unspecified white.
Then I saw Pieces2peace from Add Fyah and Stir noting that there was an interesting sounding upcoming workshop in the Bahamas on “re-storying whiteness” focused on white Bahamian writers and concerned with transforming “the Columbus” of whiteness or, at least, of white Bahamian writers who are underrepresented in Bahamian writing by the workshop leader’s estimation. The workshop’s proponent seems really concerned with reframing and reclaiming whiteness (from what I don’t know. Whiteness hasn’t been systematically thrown off track, unfairly excluded or marginalised, not in the Caribbean even) which reminded me of Elaine Savory’s quote about Kamau Brathwaite’s “contention with many readings of Rhys’s text” which was “rooted in the significant notion that a white colonizer cannot move to being [a] white victim in one straight line without some recognition of the place of white power in history” (Savory 207).
Growing up, I had a dear friend who was the same age as me, born in Britain and outwardly white-looking with dark hair. Her Indian mother went to the same university in Canada with my Dad, they were from the same area in Trinidad and she also knew my mother in school in Canada as well. When I got older, I realized that my friend was not full white, but rather white and East-Indian mixed. We were close play friends from the ages of seven through twelve, then remained cool but nowhere as close as we grew older.
I have pictures of us in trippy dresses, holding hands in dress shoes and fond memories of her endless collection of the latest dolls that her father would send from England for her. Sleep overs and the baths that we would take together. The creak of the floorboards in her mother’s big, old Victorian-styled jalousied house that no longer stands. The scary shouts of their short-lived, pet monkey near the garage, whooping and banging her long metal linked-chain at me while I peered down from upstairs, inside the house.
I especially remembered that I liked doing things in public with her because of her whiteness. I was very conscious of it–again, that rarity in a black majority place and that our pairing -– accompanying my mother to a dance show in Queen’s Hall –- signaled something about who I was that my skin color alone didn’t. Because I was dark-skinned, certain kinds of people could easily default me to a certain social class even if other factors betrayed otherwise, but a white friend wouldn’t. A white friend was an undeniable symbol of class.
And did I fear some menacing dark, black underclass? I don’t think I did then and I don’t now, but I didn’t want to be automatically categorized as one I suppose. Secretly. Fearfully. Truthfully. Classism, racism. All isms are harmful. All need work to dismantle and they are frequently intertwined. I am complicit in some of them too. And so in Trinidad, like many parts of the world, to be white is to be presumed to automatically “have money.” To be brown, red, or anywhere near white is to have money –- relatively speaking. To be dark is to not have money, or “class,” unless your trappings speak otherwise. And you surely need them, to make sure that the right signals are being sent wherever you may go or else you stay inside your safe social circles, where everyone knows your background and you will never be read incorrectly.
Still, by sheer numbers, the visibility (or invisibility) of white people is evidenced in the average Trinidadian’s perhaps shocking perusal of West Mall on any given day, if they even venture to go there. This, plus recent ethnicity statistics: 1.2 percent “other” and 20.5 percent “mixed”, where some of those mixed people pass for “white” people locally and some of those “other” include a few remaining “pure” ethnic whites; this seeing and not seeing business becomes complicated in some ways. So what happens to these white people inside of this space? And why do I care?
Some days, it is also because I am on the outside of their group and I just want to know. I want to know if they tell their stories, what things will be said. What will I glean about myself, my own story. I want to know and most of all, I want to belong. I want to belong because I feel safe reminding myself that I have a home somewhere and there is tremendous comfort in that notion for me. Some days, it is this thought alone that keeps me adrift from revisiting the fear of social ostracism because of my looks and societal Eurocentric constructs of beauty, or the rootlessness of life in America. Between these places, my claim to a cultural space becomes paramount. No one can ever point at me and say I do not belong culturally. Part of my belonging is connected to knowing and understanding.
I know I am fiercely possessive of this. I have all of these things to claim culturally inside this island place and yet, I can still be jealous. And yet there is still much work to be done. I am jealous too of the streets that bear their names in Woodbrook and elsewhere, De Verteuil, Cipriani, Borde and others. Jealous of the exquisite properties, landmarks like Stollmeyer’s Castle and Lapeyrouse Cemetery, generational wealth, connections and access. Somewhere between understanding, a ripple of anger bubbles to the surface, swells, bursts, simmers and wanes. There are no widespread lasting historical monuments for anything African, Indian — wonderful cultural expression — yes, but nothing else embodying the blood, sweat and tears of those ancestors. Nothing for the Mary Princes. Esteemed leading Afro West Indians (largely black males), even the black nationalist ones, will have to become esteemed gentlemen, well versed in the classics and such, having to offset their blackness. They will, some of them, have to know more about Europe than the interior of Africa.
There is some anger and shame. I worry that I am selfish, that I want “it” all to myself. This thought embarrasses me. I, who easily becomes consumed with trying to make other people feel good and welcomed (however symbolically or not), I worry about my possessiveness over my cultural identity because I have felt the sting of exclusion myself, and I know what it feels like. Denying feels too close to what I have been denied. I have felt as though I am out of place socially but it is not the same, I try to tell myself some days. It is not. Is not.
I am protective of this space -– this island history that is mine historically and otherwise. I want to keep safe this tangible space where I can see parts of history forged by people who look like me, as well as the majority of the culture and music. The inclination is to curl it, this ownership, into my chest, close to my beating heart and keep it there. Perhaps, slavery entitles me to do so. By our sweat and labor, we made this place. We cut cane, our backs bled and we led the “cannes brulee” riots. We did; our ancestors did. Sometimes I get angry and this is what I think. Sometimes, it blots out everything else and I just think, white people -— white people, the bloody world over, just do not understand anything. As a black West Indian currently residing in the US, navigating the terrain with African-descendant peoples from all over that have ended up here, including black Americans, well, this makes me feel as though my cultural heritage is all the more precious.
I see Afro-descendant people from all over scrambling to hold on to legacies of their communities, collecting fragments and trying to voice and build their narratives in various ways, while fighting back (and succumbing to) violence, indoctrination, annihilation and white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values that work to maintain its power structure at all costs. For black Americans, an ethnic minority here, it has always been a struggle. I see the black West Indian connected to a similar milieu of oppression, for people that look like me, here, there and everywhere.
The result, this nationalistic island-space identity is something that is mine and I do not want to lose that feeling or security of having that. In that sense, I am never ambivalent about Trinidad in that respect, for fear of that loss. The superficiality of some of the people there, the role of colonization in all of this mess and its role in helping to mould these post-colonial island societies — Jamaica is the same — obsessed with class, color, skin-shade, social standing, hair texture, money, looks, does not go unnoticed by me. I siphon off bits and compartmentalize it in some places, when I think about my cultural ownership of this space. And sometimes, I could hardly have sympathy for the flailing white West Indian in the midst of all of this. Drowning in their supposed confusion of no one seeing and accepting them for who they are when they step outside of their comfort zone.
This is part of the crux of Wide Sargasso Sea for me, because it forces me to contextualize white creole identity and do some work in that arena, like I never have before. In regard to my particular identity with this place and with its people, some have been very bad, some have been very good. Either way, it has helped make me who I am. Until fairly recently, I hadn’t ever seriously examined what some of those experiences meant for me or attempted to bridge any connections between experience and my relationship to my national, cultural identity.
Still, I love this cultural identity in spite of it all. Or, despite it all. Perhaps I understand the subjective position of some white West Indians (sans color privilege), more than they know. Maybe, more than I know. I want to know about and examine these things deeper: identity and text and lived experience because I believe it is valuable in doing so. I also have a vested interest in understanding the whole process of how we come to “be so.” It is part of the work of helping me understand me and my cultural heritage better.
Notes: This is part of a much, much longer essay. If anyone happens to be interested in an extensive reference list–just holla. This particular excerpt references Kaiso and Society by Dr. Hollis Liverpool, Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective eds. Verene Shepherd and Bridget Brereton, The White Minority in the Caribbean eds. Howard Johnson and Carl S. Watson, Jean Rhys by Elaine Savory and of course Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.