- Dreaming in Color:Race and the Spectacular in The Agüero Sisters and Praisesong for the Widow
I cannot go to a film without seeing myself. I wait for me. In the interval, just before the film starts, I wait for me. The people in the theater are watching me, examining me, waiting for me.Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks1
What Frantz Fanon articulates here is a kind of spectacular anxiety, a phenomenon that flourishes in an exhibitory environment: not so much the emblematic theater, but rather the color-bound society in which the theater operates. Fanon is a black man, a Martinican, and he sits quietly in the movie theater anticipating the coming spectacle of the screen. Those around him, white faces presumably, do the same, and yet a far more urgent, violent drama unfolds, one in which black skin slips uncomfortably into the role of spectacle (supplanting even the screen) by virtue of its distinction from and subordination to white skin. Even Fanon cannot help but position himself as the object of his own surveillance. He envisions himself waiting there in the theater, waiting to see himself yet again in the film at hand. The self-reflexive waiting and watching, and the awareness of those examining eyes around him also waiting and watching, produces a kind of nausea. Fanon wonders how the screen will represent him: no matter that he himself will not appear in the movie (he is no actor); the reductive fact of his darkness is sufficient to bind him inextricably to whatever representation of black men the film may offer. Will he be "battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave ships, and above all else, above all: 'sho' good eatin'"?2
Spectacle and "difference" go often together, frequently as cell mates. Fanon feels himself shift into his position as the object of the spectacle simply (and yet not so simply) because he is Afro-Caribbean, and he comes into the role with a profound conscious unwillingness, yet so entrenched are the ideas situating [End Page 141] him there that he can offer little resistance to the power of the spectacle. Indeed this is the real business of social spectacle: power. While Fanon's experience implies that spectacle derives from the subject's exoticism—from the subject's difference from an accepted standard and rarity within a given context (perhaps he is the only black man in a theater where most patrons are white)—there is more to social spectacle than the exploitation of difference. The relationship between spectacle and spectator is indeed a hegemonic one, defined by both power and powerlessness. It is in this sense that Fanon's individual and representative experience, concepts of social spectacle and what Guy Debord calls the "spectacular economy," begin to mobilize questions and ideas about exoticism as a white lens for viewing the nonwhite Caribbean.3 For here, too, within the mythology of exoticism, the relationship between object and spectator might seem to reveal the lure of difference, the seductive powers of the exotic, and indeed it does to a certain extent. Yet one must ask why the Caribbean makes for such fascinating spectacle? What is it that suits it so perfectly to this role? Is not the Caribbean also a kind of dark figure sitting in the dim theater of white Western tourism? Even now? "The spectacle is not a collection of images," says Debord, "rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."4 That this "social relationship" abides by rules regarding race, gender, and class goes practically without saying, but I will say it anyway.5
Broadly defined, this project is concerned with the manner in which two contemporary Caribbean American authors contend with the complex function of spectacle in their respective Caribbeans. While Paule Marshall critiques and subverts the mythology of the exotic spectacle in the Caribbean, Cristina García seems to yield to it, and the gulf between the two authors reveals the scope and complexity of the Caribbean literary dialogue. Ultimately I look to fiction emerging from or written about the Caribbean to treat that region's...