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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 200-201

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Book Review

Charcoal and Cinnamon: The Politics of Color in Spanish Caribbean Literature

Charcoal and Cinnamon: The Politics of Color in Spanish Caribbean Literature, by Claudette M. Williams. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2000. xii + 174 pp. ISBN 0-8130-1736-X cloth.

Claudette M. Williams has undertaken a most needed critical work on the politics of color in Spanish Caribbean literature. The preface delineates the strategy: "to explore the complex and dynamic interaction between ideological contexts, on the one hand, and cultural projects, on the other" (x). The literature of Cuba (the most prevalent), Puerto Rico, and, to a lesser extent, the Dominican Republic, provide the examples. Most come from the lyrical tradition and a few from the narrative. The time period comprises the beginning of the nineteenth century to the 1970s. Her analysis incorporates canonical authors (e.g., Nicolás Guillén, [End Page 200] Luis Palés, Nancy Morejón, and Rosario Ferré) alongside lesser-known figures. This juxtaposition provides a more complex vision of the intricacies that race contributes to Caribbean societies.

Williams carefully untangles the ideological constructs of race throughout the two centuries and explains the differentiating factors between the negrismo and mulatez projects. In order to understand these politically charged literary movements, she traces the development of the figure of the discernible but invisible "black" woman as opposed to the "beautiful" mulata. Williams divides their representations into four categories that often overlap. In the first, she examines physical and racial characteristics. In the second, the emphasis is on sexuality, followed by a third category in which the mulata becomes the unifying icon of the Caribbean because she embodies the synthesis of the European and the African. The last category, and one mostly undertaken by women writers, moves away from the notion of the woman of color as the object representing the unity of the Caribbean. They are now subjects with their own voices and a place outside the fields, the closet, the kitchen, or the dance floor--spaces to which they had been relegated by male ideology, regardless of the authors' race.

Given the evolving nature of literature, an author, such as Nicolás Guillén, will illustrate multiple categories. Williams's interpretations are very incisive close readings that deconstruct the subtle imposition of stereotypes. The discourse often pretends to be undoing a perception but unwittingly falls into the trap of placing the black woman as a deviation from white aesthetic norm. Her analysis poses the following dilemma: Can a Caribbean author achieve a positive view of women of African descent while using European rhetorical models? Literature echoes the political debates pretending to project a unified society through the mulata as representative of the plurality of races while guarding against the "perceived danger of overemphasis on the African element [. . .] which would lead to the exclusion of whites" (90).

Williams has done most of the translations, but given the nuances in the language used to depict color, it would have been worthwhile to include the originals in Spanish. Her critical contribution to the scholarship of the r egion, especially the oft-neglected Spanish component is mostly welcomed. A salient and remarkable aspect of her study is that she places it within the larger Caribbean context by providing parallel and contrasting examples from the anglophones as well as the francophone neighbors.


Mary Ann Gosser Esquilín

Mary Ann Gosser Esquilín is an associate professor in the Honors College of Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter.



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pp. 200-201
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