Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. Slavery and scars.

Yesterday we looked at the definition of the colonised people by the colonisers thanks to the work of professor Edward Said. Today, I would like to explore another important issue related to the identity issue. First of all, be beware: there is not a real and ultimately valid truth in what we are discussing. Literature, like any other kind of art, cannot be as clearly defined as maths so, if you don’t agree, please take some time to share your views with us!

Slavery. The unspeakable, peculiar institution.

Take for example the Caribbean colonies: when Christopher Columbus arrived, native people were exterminated and when labourers (or, to put it plainly, slaves) were needed, they decided to kidnap African people. This is the beginning of the slave trade known as Atlantic Slave Trade or The Middle Passage, a sad landmark in European, African and American history. It must be highlighted that this kind of slavery differs a lot from the classical practices: this is an economic-motivated slavery where slaves are objectified and a whole discourse on their inferiority tries to justify the situation. As a consequence, slavery is a scar in these societies. Could you forget your great grandparents were slaves because the colour of their skin?

Should the colonisation affect the colonised people’s identity, even in 2011?

For this question, there two opposite answers: either they accept the colonisation as part of their identity or they do not. On the one hand, many experts propose to forget about the colonisation and go back to a previous stage but, the problem is that too many times, that previous stage is idealised. Also, in many cases, it is almost impossible to go back to that stage: how can people from the Caribbean, descendant of removed African peoples go back to their African roots? I’ve chosen this particular case because I have already mentioned Mutabaruka, a rastafarian poet from Jamaica who has changed the Caribbean artistic production. His poems are very rythmical thanks to repetitions (see Prison) and, although simple, they denounce a situation he has never lived: slavery. He still takes it into account and he is still hurt.

Another artists who is still trying to heal her scars is Jamaica Kincaid. I loved her novel Annie John and, it is part of today’s literary recommendations. But, in A Small Place, he criticizes tourists in her homeland, Antigua and how they are perceived by American tourists, or worse, European ones. She tries, angrily, to fight against the stereotype of the charming, destroyed, uncivilized but always sunny and always cheerful place many people consider the Caribbean to be. Please, take some time to see this Malibu add:

Amazingly, this is the image too many educated Western people have from the Caribbean. Do you think it is true? Do you think that their always sunny place is Heaven for them? Have you ever considered if they would like to escape that island and be tourists themselves in exotic places?

This is a quotation from A Small Place that I would like you to read, because it will make you think:

[A]nd so you needn’t let that slightly funny feeling you have from time to time about exploitation, oppression, domination develop into full-fledged unease, discomfort; you could ruin your holiday.

So, after all these examples, I think I’ve made myself clear. Personally, I don’t think those people should forget about their past when defining themselves in the present. Also, because it is impossible and not practical at all, trying to go back in time to an era that is no longer possible in modern times. As a consequence, literature emerges as a new source of healing (remember slaves were not educated) that allows them to fill a historical gap but also, to express themselves.

Do you think slavery should be taken into account in the present identities of slave-descendants?

Suggested readings:

  1. Mutabaruka Life and Debt (Sang poem)
  2. Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John (Book Depository, 7$) – A short novel that explores the life of young Annie John, living in Antigua, as she grows up into a young woman. She has to face some difficulties like any other woman in the world, but they are all tinted by the Caribbean culture. Please, pay special attention to the treatment of a depression she suffers and how it is perceived by her family as a normal stage. No drugs, no nothing. Time heals everything.

I would like to take some time to thanks to the 72 visitors who came yesterday and to those who took time to post a comment.



  • Mel u

    “It must be highlighted that this kind of slavery differs a lot from the classical practices: this is an economic-motivated slavery where slaves are objectified and a whole discourse on their inferiority tries to justify the situation. As a consequence, slavery is a scar in these societies”-this is a very interesting and important point-if you go back far enough, we are nearly all descended from slaves or near slaves but only in the new world (not just USA or the Islands but very much in Brazil if not more so in fact) were masses of people uprooted and transported across the oceans as part of a commerce, not as result of war-

    • Elena

      I did not say anything about a war, because commercial slavery has nothing to do with wars. And we may be all descendants from slaves, but some nations’ slavery is still too far in time. My ancestors may have been slaves, but I cannot compare my situation to those whose grandparents were made inferior or even animalized. From my point of view, that is not fair.

      If you haven’t read “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, you may like it. It deals with the life of two black women and a white one in Jackson, MI, in the 1960’s and it was inspired by the author’s real life nanny. It makes light reading, but it was one of my 2010 best books.

      Here is my review:

  • amanda

    Your comments on our perceptions of the Caribbean islands remind me of conversations I’ve heard in the past with my parents. Both of them had the opportunity while they were in college to participate in a class study trip to Jamaica. This was not the sunny, touristy Jamaica. They saw the poverty, the real need–away from the deceptive wealth of the resorts.

    • Elena

      You don’t know how happy that comment has made me!! Your parents’ views are amazingly forwards for their time and I’m sure they have influeced you and your insterest. Isn’t that great when we get so amazing parents? It makes me feel the luckiest girl in the world.

      Thanks for returning amanda.

  • Rebecca Reid

    I need to read Jamaica Kincaid, sounds like a necessary and powerful author.

    You ask “Should the colonisation affect the colonised people’s identity, even in 2011?” I’m completely unfamiliar with postcolonial lit so I can’t really comment on that, but in terms of African-American literature, I think slavery absolutely affects the identity and the literature: Beloved is my favorite novel and I love how in that novel Morrison, 100 years later, is addressing the ghosts of the past. It didn’t end after slavery was made illegal.

    I know I’m not telling you anything new. I am enjoying these posts of yours, even though I don’t have anything really to add to the conversation.

    • Elena

      My readers’ opinions are always new and needed! I want to exchange ideas so your post just fits perfectly.

      If you’d like to read Kincaid, “Annie John” makes light, easy and unbeliavaly deep reading. If you decide to do so, let me know. I want to know if people’s mind change after they read my series.

      Thanks for all your comments. I hope I have answered them all 🙂 And let me know any doubts you may have.

  • Eva

    I’m new to your blog (via Rebecca Reads), and I’ve loving this series! As someone who’s deeply committed to reading marginalised (canon-wise) authors, it’s just wonderful to see someone with a lit background laying it out (my own background in postcolonialism comes from the international politics side of things). And A Small Place was a wonderful book; her rage is palpable but it never gets in the way of her writing style. I actually have Lucy out from the library right now, but I’m tempted to also request A Small Place now so I can reread it! There was a documentary on Jamaica that I watched for a college class (can’t remember the title) that used excerpts from A Small Place for narration.

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