- Claiming an Identity We Thought They Despised: Contemporary White West Indian Writers and Their Negotiation of Race
It is not a question of relinquishing privilege. It is a question of grasping more of myself.—Michelle Cliff, The Land of Look Behind
Going Home to Teach, Anthony Winkler’s autobiographical account of a year spent in Jamaica, expresses the dilemma of a white Jamaican marginalized by the black majority because of skin color. Winkler’s account is set in the mid-seventies, a time of heightened black consciousness and racial antagonism in Jamaica. However, Winkler’s book makes it clear that his fight to prove his Jamaicanness has been lifelong.
Twenty-five years after Winkler completed his teaching stint in Moneague, the legitimacy of the white Jamaican’s claim to Jamaicanness still seems very much unresolved. At election time in late 1997, as the press recorded, the question of whether one’s leader should be able to merge with the crowd in terms of color became a key [End Page 93] issue.1 Some months later Professor Don Robotham, in his Grace, Kennedy Lecture, bemoaned the fact that while in the seventies the class struggle divided the tribes, in contemporary Jamaica another division is being drawn in terms of color:
Many people, especially light-skinned Jamaicans, perceive that there is a not particularly subtle move afoot to sideline them, to make them feel that they are not “true” Jamaicans and to promote a chauvinistic Black Nationalism as the ideology of Jamaica today. Many people perceive this with great bitterness in private but fail to denounce it publicly for fear of being labelled racists or because they think serious public discussion of the issue of race is taboo and not possible in Jamaica….
On the other hand, the majority of Black Jamaicans in the inner cities feel that they are stigmatized as violent, criminal and worthless…. There is also the very strong sentiment in the Black middle classes and Black sections of the business community that they have been discriminated against all their lives in the establishment and expansion of business activities of their own…. For many of them, the whole point of having a Black Prime Minister is for the power of the State to be used to right … historic wrongs.2
Since then, white newspaper columnists such as Morris Cargill (recently deceased), Christine Nunes and Diana McCaulay have been accused of distancing themselves from the masses by their choice of subject matter,3 but on the other hand they have indicated discomfort with (or in Cargill’s case, drawn attention to) their marginalized positions as white Jamaicans—in a number of instances referring to Going Home to Teach in support of their views.4 [End Page 94]
“Look! I am one of you,” Winkler longs to say to the public in Going Home to Teach.5 The complaints of marginalization by white columnists bring to mind not only Winkler’s cry but similar cries heard over and over again in white West Indian literature. We recall the defiant proclamation of Brian Antoni’s protagonist in Paradise Overdose: “I fucking belong here!”6
Meanwhile, the discussions persist about the white West Indian’s location within the West Indian literary canon. Such academic positions as Kenneth Ramchand’s seemingly grudging inclusion of white West Indians in his 1970 study of the West Indian novel,7 or Kamau Brathwaite’s controversial 1974 statement that “White Creoles” cannot “meaningfully identify or be identified with the spiritual world on this side of the Sargasso Sea”8 have since been modified but not, it would seem, significantly; hence such more recent dialogic crossfire as Brathwaite versus Hulme in Wasafiri,9 followed by Evelyn O’Callaghan’s outraged response in her 1996 conference paper10—all in the continuing debate of “Where do we locate Jean Rhys” and, by extension, other white West Indian writers.
If there is such a thing as a white West Indian identity, as expressed in white West Indian literature, its characteristics might include not only a sense of unbelonging and anger at marginalization but also guilt over the colonial past, guilt at one’s own racism and at the...