- Race, Creole, and National Identities in Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Phillips’s Cambridge
As postmodern historical novels dramatizing slavery and its legacy in the anglophone Caribbean islands, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge (1993) problematize Englishness as a national and cultural identity that may or may not be dependent upon race and also reject the Creole as an identity subordinate in status to that of European.1 By questioning the prevailing nineteenth century assumption of an inherent relationship linking the observable geographical boundaries of a state and the essential character of its national culture, Cambridge destabilizes Englishness as a homogeneous racial signifier for whiteness in its depiction of London as a bustling metropolis with a small but visible population of Black Britons, while Wide Sargasso Sea portrays Creole Jamaican society, black and white, at a moment of crisis, on the eve of the arrival of the first wave of indentured servants from India.2 Both novels suggest that social demarcations between English and Creole cultural identities are artificial because they ultimately depend on chance—on the geographical accident of a given person’s or character’s place of birth. However, neither text denies the historical racial and social hierarchies enforced by English planters and civil servants in the West Indian colonies [End Page 87] as rhetorical tools to carry out the work of empire building. Rhys’s and Phillips’s anachronistic portrayals of four characters facing cultural identity crises—Antoinette and Mannie in Wide Sargasso Sea and Emily Cartwright and the slave who calls himself David Henderson in Cambridge—are postmodern in their insistence on both the status of the individual as a more important social agent than the community, and also on the very impossibility of the individual’s existence as a unified subject. Through the performative utterances of racial others, by name calling or insults, these four characters are transformed from plantation owners and slaves, to “white niggers” and “black Englishmen,” respectively.
Through these four temporary transformations, Wide Sargasso Sea and Cambridge suggest that the myth of an identifiable, unified national character evident in terms such as English-man and Creole is based as much on socially codified patterns of behavior as it is upon a person’s inherent physical and/or racial attributes. Although both Wide Sargasso Sea and Cambridge criticize the racial essentialism and nativism that marked England’s actual involvement in the slave trade and plantation economies in the West Indian colonies after emancipation, the depictions in the novels of these four failed performances of transcultural identity acknowledge the historically insurmountable power of European whiteness as a hegemonic ideal of racial purity. Wide Sargasso Sea and Cambridge depict instances in which specific characters use insults or name calling to cross socioeconomic boundaries and occupy the social role typically associated with a specific racially homogenous group to which they do not belong—poor blacks or wealthy whites or both. As insults, the terms “white nigger” and “black Englishman” rely on their apparent status as oxymorons, or juxtaposition of opposites, for their particular sting. The double nature of the insults highlights the tension created by the coexistence of two diametrically opposed values (whiteness—niggerness, blackness—Englishness) as much as the semantic and ideological gulf separating one from the other. However, if these were not plausible categories to contemplate within the respective Caribbean societies of Cambridge and Wide Sargasso Sea, the shame associated with them would be lost. Precisely because the novels themselves imagine “black Englishmen” and “white niggers” as viable though admittedly marginal cultural identities in nineteenth century England and the Caribbean, Phillips’s and Rhys’s texts can be read as postmodern, postcolonial critiques of the exclusionary rhetoric of contemporary English nationalism and Caribbean Creoleness.
Wide Sargasso Sea and Cambridge both describe sociocultural transformation with respect to the same two categories, “white niggers” and “black Englishmen”; however, Rhys’s novel portrays this crossing as a rhetorical exercise in reconfiguring black-white relations in the wake of emancipation and the pending arrival of yet another group of exploited laborers from outside the Caribbean, while Phillips considers the matter strictly one of individual choice. In Wide...