Near the beginning of Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race, Robert J.C. Young notes that until recently the study of culture has paid “comparatively little attention . . . to the mechanics of the intricate processes of cultural contact, intrusion, fusion and disjunction” that characterize the development of culture wherever different social systems intermix (5). While “heterogeneity, cultural interchange and diversity have now become the self-conscious identity of modern society,” he writes, “it is striking . . . how few models have been developed to analyze it” (4). 1 What the study of culture needs, he insists, are more ways to “develop accounts of the commerce between cultures that map and shadow the complexities of its generative and destructive processes” (5, my emphasis). 2 Paul Gilroy makes a similar point at the outset of The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) when he complains that “modern black political culture has always been more interested in the relationship of identity to roots and rootedness than in seeing identity as a process of movement and mediation that is more appropriately approached via the homonym routes” (19). Gilroy’s focus on “routes” rather than “roots” turns out to denote the kind of focus on “commerce” Young has in mind, for one of Gilroy’s central purposes is to foreground the role of commercial institutions like the slave trade and the plantation in the project of modernity, and to stress the extent to which those institutions facilitated a relatively uncontrollable commerce between cultures as well as economies. 3 Tracing identities through “roots,” in Gilroy’s view, leads to a narrow (and often unhistorical) kind of ethnic absolutism that attention to the “routes” out of which identities and cultures develop can avoid.
Like Young, Gilroy focuses on the vexing phenomenon of hybridity as a metaphor for subjectivity, culture, and nation. Attention to roots, for Gilroy, leads to an “idea of cultural nationalism” based on “the overintegrated conceptions of culture which present immutable, ethnic differences as an absolute break in the histories and experiences of ‘black’ and ‘white’ people,” while, on the other hand, attention to the routes of cultural commerce leads to “another, more difficult option: the theorization of creolization, metissage, mestizaje, and hybridity” (2). For Gilroy, modernity and [End Page 176] double consciousness are linked because they are shot-through with what he and Young call hybridity. “Striving to be both European and black,” for example, “requires some specific forms of double consciousness . . . where racist, nationalist, or ethnically absolutist discourses orchestrate political relationships so that these identities appear to be mutually exclusive, occupying the space between them or trying to demonstrate their continuity has been viewed as a provocative and even oppositional act of political subordination” (1).
In this essay I want to use the kind of focus on cultural commerce developed by critics like Young and Gilroy to direct my analysis of Claude McKay’s quintessentially black Atlantic novel, Banana Bottom (1933). One of my aims is to show how McKay’s loosely autobiographical novel 4 offers a critique of absolutist discourses grounded in race, nationalism and ethnicity, but often in terms that reinforce the ideology it seeks to displace. Indeed, the novel is less interesting for the critique of absolutist discourse it offers up than for the way in which it dramatizes how dominant ideologies infect the very language that seeks to undo them. The “cultural commerce” in Banana Bottom is a commerce in ideologies and discursive strategies, one in which the values of a dominant, colonialist ideology continually reappear in subtly disruptive ways in the liberal language of a counter-ideology. The novel takes place in turn-of-the-century Jamaica, where the black protagonist, Bita Plant, has just returned from seven years abroad studying in England. Her English education has been financed by a British missionary couple, the Craigs, who take her in after she has sex with an older island man, Crazy Bow. 5 They conceive of their attempt to educate her as an experiment, and plan to arrange her marriage to a young black minister, Harold Newton Day, who they hope will take over their mission. The novel unfolds around Bita’s growing ambivalence about...