‘One of a Handful Still Alive’

Special thanks to Dr. Carolyn Cooper for this article on the ‘strains of resistance in the writings of Jamaica Kincaid’ – the Antiguan and Barbudan born writer of such critically acclaimed books as Annie John, Lucy, and  My Brother.

Dr. Cooper is a Jamaican author and literary scholar who has written extensively on cultural politics in Caribbean literature and popular culture -particularly reggae and dancehall music. She is the author of Sound Clash:Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large, 2004; and Noises in theBlood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture,1993. She is the editor of Global Reggae, a collection ofessays on Jamaican popular music a yard and abroad, which willbe published in September 2012. Dr. Cooper currently writes a weekly column for the SundayGleaner which she irregularly translates into the Jamaican language for her blog, Jamaican Woman Tongue:  http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com

Here it is:

‘One of a Handful Still Alive’:  Strains of Resistance in the Fiction of Jamaica Kincaid

by Dr. Carolyn Cooper

Popular narratives of European ‘conquest’ in the Creole-Anglophone Caribbean routinely write the history of indigenous peoples as a genocidal discourse of near-total erasure. Tropes of bacterial warfare are deployed to account for the seemingly inevitable extermination of vulnerable populations.   Infected by the strange maladies of Europe, the First Peoples of the region succumbed in epidemic proportions to the diseases of invasion. Conversely, Jamaica Kincaid’s dissenting fictions articulate a politics of resistance to the master-narrative of extinction, affirming a durable oral family history in which the recurring figure of the iconic Carib grandmother embodies the strains of survival of the original peoples of the archipelago. 

            I frame my reading of the representation of Carib identity in Jamaica Kincaid’s oeuvre with an aetiological tale:

A legend among the Kiowas of the American Great Plains tells about an encounter between Saynday, the mythic hero of the tribe, and a stranger named Smallpox, dressed in a black suit and high hat. Smallpox speaks first:

‘‘Who are you?’’ the stranger asked.

‘‘I’m Saynday. I’m the Kiowas’ Old Uncle Saynday. I’m the one who’s always coming along.’’

‘‘I never heard of you,’’ the stranger said, ‘‘and I never heard of the Kiowas. Who are they?’’

‘‘The Kiowas are my people,’’ Saynday said, and even in that hard time he stood up proudly, like a man. ‘‘Who are you?’’

‘‘I’m Smallpox,’’ the man answered.

‘‘And I never heard of you,’’ said Saynday. ‘‘Where do you come from and what do you do and why are you here?’’

‘‘I come from far away, across the Eastern Ocean,’’ Smallpox answered. ‘‘I am one with the white men—they are my people as the Kiowas are yours. Sometimes I travel ahead of them, and sometimes I lurk behind. But I am always their companion and you will find me in their camps and in their houses.’’

‘‘What do you do?’’ Saynday repeated.

‘‘I bring death,’’ Smallpox replied. ‘‘My breath causes children to wither like young plants in the spring snow. I bring destruction. No matter how beautiful a woman is, once she has looked at me she becomes as ugly as death. And to men I bring not death alone, but the destruction of their children and the blighting of their wives. The strongest warriors go down before me. No people who have looked on me will ever be the same.’’[i]

            “Where do you come from and what do you do and why are you here?”  These three primal questions, resonating across the broad geographical sweep of the so-called ‘Americas’ with the mythic authority of riddling fable, constitute a fundamental interrogation of colonialist narratives of ‘discovery’ (and mutual misunderstanding) that are inscribed in the historiography of the region. From the Great Plains to the small islands of the Caribbean, these recurring questions demand answers not only of personified “Smallpox,” but, more acutely, of the “white men” for whom he is precursor, companion and rear-guardian.

            Indeed, the disease smallpox can be conceived as a synecdoche for whiteness itself and for all of the ravagings of body, mind, soul and spirit of the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere that its unwelcome presence perpetrated. Smallpox’s presumptuous question, “Who are you?”, is not one that he is entitled to ask.  After all, it is he is who is the stranger.  He ought to know his place as outsider.  It is Saynday who should rightly claim the privilege of initiating interrogation.  But with the congenital arrogance spawned by his identification with the all-conquering white men, Smallpox immediately usurps Saynday’s authority.  It is he who first dismissively declares, “I never heard of you,” as if his ignorance justifies his contempt.  

            In this archetypal tale of contestation of the ideology of passive submission to extinction, Saynday the mythic hero of the Kiowas, demands to know Smallpox’s mission. The genocidal job description that Smallpox so casually delineates reduces to banality the horrors of the imperial enterprise. The decimation of countless millions of the indigenous people of this region is all in a day’s work.  Bedecked in the classic morning dress of the British undertaker – top hat and black suit – Smallpox wears his weeds of death with complete self-satisfaction.

            In the novel Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid constructs an alternative narrative of discovery that does not require conquest and genocide.  Instead, it enables “a proper interest” in, if not complete identification with, the other: “I was sure that if our ancestors had gone from Africa to Europe and come upon the people living there, they would have taken a proper interest in the Europeans on first seeing them, and said, ‘how nice,’ and then gone home to tell their friends about it.”[ii]   Annie John’s parable fails to take into account the Moorish conquest of Spain.  All the same, it proposes a model of egalitarian cross-cultural engagement that ought not to be derided for its childish optimism.

            The legend of Smallpox and the mythic hero of the Kiowas ends without further response from Saynday.  The subaltern speaks and is silenced by the audacity of Smallpox’s toxic revelation: “No people who have looked on me will ever be the same.’’ Saynday appears to concede defeat.  But the tale itself, transmitted from generation to generation of the Kiowas, confirms the regenerative authority of narratives of resistance.  This story of Saynday’s fearless confrontation with Smallpox and, by implication, his constant companions, “the white men,” affirms the durability of the “handful still alive”, whose ancestors did, indeed, survive the plague of discovery.

            It is in the novel Lucy that Jamaica Kincaid deploys the familiar metaphor of the ‘handful’ to signify the small number of Carib people who remain in the archipelago bearing their name.  Lucy’s meditation on what it now means to be Indian is precipitated by the ludicrous claim of her white employer Mariah to have been blessed with special, race-specific endowments:  “the reason I’m so good at catching fish and hunting birds and roasting corn and doing all sorts of things is that I have Indian blood.”[iii]  

            With typically brutal wit, Lucy derisively critiques Mariah’s essentialist proposition: “To look at her, there was nothing remotely like an Indian about her.  Why claim a thing like that?  I myself had Indian blood in me.  My grandmother is a Carib Indian.  That makes me one-quarter Carib Indian.  But I don’t go around saying that I have some Indian blood in me” (40).  Detaching herself from of Mariah’s all-encompassing embrace, Lucy claims the specificity of particular ties of kinship:  “To me my grandmother is my grandmother, not an Indian” (40).

            In a deft manoeuvre, Lucy distinguishes between her own grandmother and the somewhat abstract category “Indian.”  She then locates the politics of naming and, thus, appropriating Indianness within the context of both the actual genocide of Indians and, simultaneously, the artificial preservation of Indianness within the confines of the acquisitive practice of museology:  “My grandmother is alive; the Indians she came from are all dead.  If someone could get away with it, I am sure they would put my grandmother in a museum, as an example of something now extinct in nature, one of a handful still alive” (40).

            The museum becomes a kind of reservation on which the past is preserved, largely for the pleasure of visitors.  In some bewildering instances, as in the case of Mariah, the visitor asserts rights of residency. Thus, Lucy reads the totalising fiction of Mariah’s identification with Indianness as a sign of her perverse desire to sublimate the guilty pleasures of social privilege:  “Mariah says, ‘I have Indian blood in me,’ and underneath everything I could swear she says it as if she were announcing her possession of a trophy.  How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also? (p. 40-41).

            Mariah incomprehensibly longs to be both Smallpox and Saynday. Her avaricious First World/victimised First People’s positionality is analogous to the contorted patriarchal postures assumed by Annie John’s playmate, Mineu:  “if we played discovering Africa, he discovered Africa; he was also the leader of the savage tribes that tried to get in the way of discovery, and I played his servant, and not a very bright servant at that” (96).  Mineu almost strangles himself in an excess of theatrical zeal when, “as usual,” he plays “all the big parts” in their acting out of the melodrama of the man who “killed his girlfriend and a man who was his best friend when he found them drinking together in a bar” (96).

            The sexual politics of the ‘real life’ court case replicate the imperial discourse of discovering and staking an illegitimate claim to ‘virgin’ territory.  Annie John cunningly describes her seemingly inexplicable paralysis as she thoroughly enjoys the transformation of patriarchal high tragedy into feminist farce:

[Mineu] played the murdered man and the murderer, going back and forth; the girlfriend we left silent.  When the case got to court, Mineu played judge, jury, prosecutor, and condemned man, sitting in the condemned man’s box.  Nothing was funnier than seeing him, using some old rags as a wig for his part of the judge, pass sentence on himself; nothing was funnier than seeing him, as the drunken hangman, hang himself.  And after he was hanged, I, as his mother, came and wept over the body as it lay on the ground (97).    

            Like Annie, Lucy savours the pleasure of weeping over the dead patriarch.  She refuses to entertain Mariah’s imperious/servile posturing.  Lucy knows all too well that Mariah can flirt with the idea of possessing Indian blood precisely because it is an inheritance that leaves no visible marks on her body.  Conversely, Lucy is dressed in the inescapable skin of servitude.  Confessing her own infatuation with the romance of Paul Gauguin’s flight from the mundane to the exotic, Lucy, nevertheless, acknowledges her alienation from the world of white, male privilege:  “I was not a man; I was a young woman from the fringes of the world, and when I left my home I had wrapped around my shoulders the mantle of a servant” (95).

            Lucy eventually does discover that, like Gauguin, she can, in fact, reinvent herself.  She is free to discard the vestments of marginalisation. With the sensibility of an artist, Lucy fashions out of her complex emotional life an identity that transcends the constraints of servitude:  “I did not have position, I did not have money at my disposal.  I had memory, I had anger, I had despair” (134).  These states of feeling become the accessible raw materials of the creative writer. As the author of her autobiography, Lucy crafts the language to transmute inarticulate anger and despair into scripted text.  Her own, carefully reconstructed life story becomes the enriching cultural capital that ensures escape from the stereotype of victim.            

            In The Autobiography of My Mother, Jamaica Kincaid again addresses the meaning of Indianness in the Caribbean.  Despite the sleight of hand of the novel’s title, the narrator, Xuela, is the daughter who simultaneously writes her autobiography and her mother’s biography.  She defines her racial identity in this way: 

I was of the African people, but not exclusively.  My mother was a Carib woman, and when they looked at me this is what they saw:  The Carib people had been defeated and then exterminated, thrown away like the weeds in garden; the African people had been defeated but had survived.  When they looked at me, they saw only the Carib people.   They were wrong but I did not tell them so.[iv]

            Xuela chooses to represent Indianness not through her own eyes but from the limited perspective of Africans.  They deploy an understated horticultural trope, which, like Smallpox’s amoral job description, turns genocide into an everyday act of uncomplicated rationality:  weeding a garden. Dehumanised, the native peoples of the region are conceived by Africans as unwanted plants, subject to the colonising imperative of selective cultivation.

            The use of the passive voice, “The Carib people had been defeated,” does not allow for the assignation of blame for the deracination.  Smallpox and his people are not named.  The grammar of defeat makes the death sentence the consequence of environmental disaster as in Smallpox’s metaphor of young plants withering in unseasonal spring snow.  Genocide thus becomes an act of natural selection; an ontological tautology:  The weak are destroyed because they are weak.

            In The Autobiography of My Mother, the primal narrative of Smallpox’s gratuitous massacre of the estranged native is repeated in the case of the Warner brothers who, ironically, are no stranger to each other.  Like Mariah’s multiple selves, they are conjoined with the contaminated blood of Smallpox’s people:  “It was at Massacre that Indian Warner, the illegitimate son of a Carib woman and a European man, was murdered by his half brother, an Englishman named Philip Warner, because Philip Warner did not like having such a close relative whose mother was a Carib woman” (87). 

            Paradoxically, the image of uprooting, like the letting of ‘bad’ blood, connotes both the presumed undesirability of a weed and the perennial hardiness of indigenous plants that stubbornly resist the aesthetic strictures of the garden.  Weeding is a continuous process of dislocation, constantly subverted by the springing up again of errant plant life. The Africans are themselves uprooted like weeds.  And it is their transplantation that ensures, in part, the survival of the indigenous peoples.  It is through the African, as well as the European, bloodline that resistant hybrid strains of indigeneity emerge.

            Like Lucy, Xuela deploys the trope of the museum to describe the fate of her mother’s people:  “They were like living fossils, they belonged in a museum, on a shelf, enclosed in a glass case” (197-198).  Xuela intuitively comprehends the all-consuming politics of the museum which turns the commodified native into a perpetually discoverable object, preserved in the confines of the glass case for the pleasure of the visitor.  Xuela similarly conceives the circumscribed land on which the ‘full-blooded’ Caribs of Dominica put down roots in this way: “somewhere between Marigot and Castle Bruce lived my mother’s people, on a reserve, as if in commemoration of something no one could bring herself to mention” (88)

            Jamaica Kincaid’s recurring preoccupation is not just ‘to mention’ but in fact to fulsomely commemorate the genocide of generic “Indians.” Disdaining the discourse of the reserve as entombing museum – or, even worse, tourist site, Jamaica Kincaid honours the living legacy of her artfully fictionalised grandmother whose survival is the enduring victory of hardy strains of resilient weed. Thus I invert the syntax of Lucy’s triumphant rage: “the Indians she came from are all dead.  My grandmother is alive.”


[i] Alice Marriott and Carol Rachlin, American Indian Mythology. New York: New American Library, 1968, 144-45.  Cited in Bewell, Alan, Romanticism and Colonial Disease.   Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, 1-2.

[ii] Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John, New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990, p. 39-40.  Subsequent references cites in text.

[iii] Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy, New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990, p. 39-40.  Subsequent references cites in text.

[iv] Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, New York:  Plume Penguin, 1997, p. 15-16.

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