Posts Tagged ‘wide sargasso sea’

To Look Inside: West Indian whiteness & identity

August 9, 2012


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.


wide open spaces—

May 22, 2009

are these big patches of _________.  [literal or not]. they are those open spaces waiting to be filled while you develop a consciousness about some thing.

so these past few days, i have been re-reading their eyes were watching god and wide sargasso sea concurrently [which have nothing to do with school but anyhoo…] both bring me to a kind of consciouness, where there was a void, in different ways and for seemingly different things but i am starting to see threads, barely connecting the two in some places. there’s janie: self identifying black no-longer-tragic-mulatto-my-ass protagonist and there’s antoinette, a white creole west indian. 

i am often struck at the ways in which the voice of the “white creole” in “wide sargasso sea” brings me to a kind of  “seeing” each time that i read it.  i cannot escape that voice, that distinctly white west-indian voice even as i submerge myself in the text as a black west-indian. it’s personal too. in a weird way. perhaps this is all a result of what kamau brathwaite, [in relation to a reading of this very text] describes as a realization that in engaging the text, “one’s sympathies became engaged, one’s cultural orientations were involved.”  which ultimately affects one’s reading of it.

this post is a kind of rambling, i know. it’s what i do. [some days in a more structurally fashioned way than others.]

so basically, if there has been a reckoning between me and the notion of white creole identity, in any way—it happens inside this text each time that i delve into it. significant because there are so few times for me that i locate white trinis/other west indians inside our cultural landscape in a tangible way. sure, they are there. i know that. i can look at some of my friends and see that but inside this book—-i feel and see their cultural narrative in a way that i don’t see it [or hear it] often anywhere else. 

in my first caribbean literature class in my undergrad, i remember my professor having us read kamau brathwaite’s often quoted passage, “white creoles in the english and french west indies have separated themselves by too wide a gulf and have contributed too little culturally, as a group, to give credence to the notion that they can, given the present structure, meaningfully identify, or be identified, with the spiritual world on this side of the sargasso sea.” [from contradictory omens]. so then, in regards to this whole notion of identity, nationhood, race and class and culture; to quote an equally apt michele cliff, “it is a complicated business.” [my emphasis not hers.]


still i feel a reckoning in me. anyhoo,

so, the other day, i was on a friend’s fb page and there was a link to alicia milne’s page and i peeped it randomly and immediately thought it wasn’t a coincidence that i did so and this happened this way. while i’m reading sargasso sea and coming to these open places where i am left considering, why is there nothing there?  why now to ponder these things? recently, i have come across several blogs/online postings about black feminist thought, activism, community and inclusivity. i’ve been pondering what inclusivity means for the way in which i [a black west indian female] imagines a community of west indian writers and by extension: west indian culture and west indian-ness through literature, poetry and other kinds of art. who is included? who do i usually, tend to omit? and why?

alicia’s art and musings, located within a white trini identity, while trying to define and decipher what that means, claim it, engage in it, make art about it—really made an impression on me. her narrative “de whitie talks” asks and notes, “The story of my nation does not include me. Where do I fit in, I often wonder? Are my narratives unpopular or inconvenient? I think so. How then do I make my narrative part of the national narrative?” and i wondered about it myself.  how do we make spaces—the rest of us, for her and others like her, to become engaged. in a post-colonial black majority place, the dynamics of that are fascinating to contemplate.  might mean some serious permutations for some of us. even me. 

furthermore, her realization that “I feel that many, myself included, have a deep sense of non-belonging, an unwelcome-ness emanating from this space”–there a literal trinidad, reminded me of my own spaces that i actively wanted to engage and fill. not to mention, my own discomfort elsewhere. HERspace was MYspace—but in different trajectories. why white west indian creole indentity? because of the ways in which it is interwined with black west indian identity, historically and otherwise. and it makes me uncomfortable in a lot of ways. i have this article from a class, that i cannot find to cite. it’s about feminist standpoint, community and discomfort and how sometimes discomfort is sometimes a necessary point for self-transformation and/or actualization.

so what does that mean for my concept of west indian community? and what the heck does that even mean? at first, when i think about it, community—i know, that they are not there.  but they are. i cannot be concerned with inclusivity and claim to be a product and beneficiary of  feminist thought and not at least think about this.


i think i will.

quietly and with words.

i think i will continue to try and build connections and fill empty spaces with new considerations, new imaginations and expand the limitation of how i choose to define my people, my identity, our art and our culture. inclusively. with or without anyone’s permission. go into those places that make me uncomfortable: like when i want to steups to myself and think, why i fighting to include anybody? but there was once a time—somewhere else perhaps [and even there], when people looking like me, were not included. collective memories about exclusion should remind people that to be inclusive with true understanding, compassion and love is never really a bad thing to aim for. 

plus i think i might have found a potential thesis project! or at least the beginnings of an option. since it has to do with the genre of poetry, maybe something converging the white creole west indian voice in poetry, my self, my reading of that voice, as well as my culture—or something along those lines. we’ll see.

related references: kamau brathwaite, contradictory omens: cultural diversity and integration in the caribbean.

michelle cliff, essay, “a journey into speech” from the land of look behind.

alicia milne, “de whitie talks.”

alicia milne, her art and blog,

learn more about alicia’s art, vision and more, in this interview on sexypink here

[on a clarifying side-note: not implying that brathwaite is advocating anti-inclusivity (which is not his agenda, nor his concern i think, in the least) but rather i am saying that people can and do read their own prejudices into anything. i know because i have and do.]