I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that for most Americans, the Caribbean means, primarily or perhaps even solely, cruises and beach vacations and daiquiris with little umbrellas in them and making sure not to drink the water and etc. There’s also that whole unfortunateness about the Communist country with the (apparently) great cigars that we can’t legally smoke and the bearded dictator and the near-Nuclear War back in the day, but since Cuba isn’t an option for those cruises and beach vacations, I think it’s pretty distinct from the public consciousness of “the Caribbean” in any case. Yet the complex reality is that the Caribbean, or more exactly the many different distinct islands and nations it comprises, has been a hugely significant influence on American life (and vice versa) from literally the first 15th-century moments of European arrival (which took place on Hispaniola, present home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where Columbus first came ashore). There are, for example, the complex ways in which the Haitian Revolution followed the American one, scared the hell out of Southern slaveowners, and contributed to France selling the Louisiana Purchase to the US. Or there’s everything that Puerto Rico and Cuba meant to America’s imperialistic visions and wars at the end of the 19th century. Or our somewhat unofficial but very real and troubling relationships with dictators like the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo in the mid-20th century. And the list goes on.
It stands to reason, then, that one of the scholars and writers who can provide the most insight into our national identity and experience—but whose voice and ideas, like the historical meanings of the Caribbean itself, are vastly underappreciated or even unknown in America (at least outside of the academy, and I would argue even inside it to a degree)—hails from the Caribbean island of Martinique. That writer is Edouard Glissant, a hugely unique and impressive literary and cultural scholar and creative writer whose life has very directly included links not only to his Caribbean home but also to France (where for example he was asked by President Chirac in 2006 to serve as the inaugural president of a cultural centre focused on the history of the slave trade) and to America (where for example he has served as a visiting professor at the City University of New York for the last couple of decades). Glissant has published eight novels, at least as many books of poetry, and critical and theoretical works in a variety of disciplines, and has also worked actively on behalf of counter-culture political and activist movements in both France and Martinique. He has been short-listed for the Nobel Prize (in the same year that St. Lucian Derek Walcott won it—guess that was the year for Caribbean writers to be nominated) and is still, at over 80 years old, producing meaningful and compelling work in all his many genres.
But for an American audience, and more specifically for our understanding of our own history and identity, I think Glissant can be boiled down to one crucial text: his recent essay “Creolization in the Making of the Americas” (full text, or at least the opening for sure, at the link below). Finding this piece was one of the most significant moments for me in the research for my second book, a clear and striking affirmation that my main idea is in conversation with some of those scholars who have thought and are thinking about what defines the New World. But even if you never read my book—for shame!—you have to check out Glissant’s essay, which lays out succinctly and beautifully one of his most central ongoing arguments: that from their very origins (at least in the post-contact era), the Americas have been defined by cultural mixture, and even more importantly by the new and hybrid results of such mixtures. As Glissant puts it early in that essay, “When we speak about creolization, we do not only mean metissage: crossbreeding, because creolization adds something new to the components that participate in it.” And that’s the most crucial part of his ideas (and a big part of what I see as the stakes of defining our history and identity in this way, as both he and I would): that such creolizations are foundational and transformative for all who participate in them, making Americans, from the outset, unified across any cultural or ethnic or racial boundaries by this shared set of experiences.
It’s hard to overstate how radical such ideas were in the 1970s and 80s when Glissant was first beginning to fully articulate them. That was the era of identity politics and the rise of multiculturalism and ethnic studies departments, an era when celebrating diversity—meaning recognizing and embracing many distinct identities and histories and cultures—was becoming a national emphasis. Glissant didn’t dismiss such emphases or their political and cultural value, but he did argue, with force and conviction and precision and great power, that the diversity of the Americas has not only always been present but also has produced continual and crucial interconnections and new identities. Maybe not beach reading, but damn important stuff. More tomorrow, on one of the most compelling and complex episodes of one of our best TV shows.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) Great short interview with Glissant on the theme of creolization (among other things): http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/article_imprim.php3?id_article=6589
2) The full text (I think, but at least one full page is here and free) of “Creolization in the Making of the Americas”: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_7495/is_200803/ai_n32280290/
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