Swan Street, Visual Memory and the Archive
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Swan Street, Visual Memory and the Archive

As a scholar of diaspora and postcolonial literature, I am interested in how contemporary writers creatively engage with, critique and supplement the archive, including the photographic archive. This photograph of Swan Street in Bridgetown, Barbados is intriguing to me as an example of the status of the photograph as a vehicle of cultural memory—in this case Jewish Caribbean memory. Looking at the image, I would want to consider why photography is such a rich medium for reflections on diaspora. As Stanley Cavell remarks, the photograph circulates as a partial trace of an absent presence, dispersed from its original referent.1 In this way, it echoes the scattering of diaspora that is captured in the name of the Bridgetown synagogue, Nidhe Israel (The Scattered of Israel).

The paradox of photography as a medium is that it makes the past simultaneously visible and invisible, present and absent, retrievable and irretrievable. In the prologue to her memoir Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Saidiya Hartman inserts a captionless photograph of two black women who are not her ancestors, her own family photographs having been lost. The Swan Street photograph exhibits a similarly paradoxical quality. The two figures in the foreground of the image face away from us, as do most of the more distant figures, retreating from the viewer and withholding their identities. The subjects' anonymity preserved, the viewer is left to contemplate the backs of their hats as well as the wide, empty expanse of the street. In the background of the photograph, on the left-hand side, a policeman in colonial uniform complete with sun helmet recalls the island's history as "Little England."

I ask a Bajan student about Swan Street, also known as "Jew Street" because of the historical settlement of Jewish merchants there. Puzzled, she suggests that perhaps I have the wrong street? Perhaps I mean Tudor Street? She associates Swan Street with Syrians, Chinese, but not Jews. Her response brings to mind a line from St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott's Nobel speech about "that Sephardic Jewish synagogue that was once on Something Street."2 Indeed, the Swan Street photograph refuses to offer up easily accessible details of the Jewish Caribbean past, instead [End Page 237] suggesting how photographs can obscure as much as they reveal. Teasing us with the possibility of retrieving the past, the photograph also marks the inaccessibility of that past and of what lies beyond its frame.

To reflect further on the photograph's enigmatic and spectral quality, I would place it in dialogue with other sites of Jewish memory in Bridgetown. The original building of the nearby synagogue, accessible from Swan Street, was destroyed along with its historical records in an 1831 hurricane. Rebuilt several years later, the synagogue was nearly demolished in 1980 to make way for a new Supreme Court. It would be interesting to consider the role that photography played in the synagogue's preservation, for according to the Nidhe Israel Museum guide, photographs of the synagogue's interior found in the Barbados Museum archives helped to convince Prime Minister Tom Adams that a restoration project was feasible. More broadly, I would want to explore how the Bridgetown synagogue and Jewish museum function as sites of heritage tourism and what kinds of narratives of the past they make available or obscure. Why, for example, does the museum emphasize the Sephardic Jewish past over the more recent story of Central European Ashkenazi emigration that re-established a Jewish presence in Barbados in the early twentieth century after the Sephardic community died out?

As a literary scholar, my particular interest would be in how contemporary writers reactivate sites of memory such as Swan Street and the Nidhe Israel synagogue as well as the mediating role of technologies such as photography in that process. While visiting the Jewish cemetery adjacent to the Bridgetown synagogue several years ago, I was excited to discover a tombstone bearing the name of the Jewish protagonist of Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé's 1986 novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Benjamin Cohen d'Azevedo.3 The novel centers on the historical...