publisher colophon
  • “Bullers” and “Battymen”Contesting Homophobia in Black Popular Culture and Contemporary Caribbean Literature

The recent controversy surrounding Buju Banton, the Jamaican dancehall “don”—which, like so many contemporary debates about race, gender, and sexuality, has been played out in the theater of popular culture—demonstrates the high ideological stakes as well as the discursive limits that determine current discussions of gay and lesbian sexuality and Caribbean culture. Occasioned by the circulation over North American airwaves of Banton’s popular dancehall tune “Boom Bye Bye,” the controversy provides a prime example of the cross-cultural conflicts and contradictions that are often generated by the increasingly globalized markets of the culture industry. The debate, as it was staged in the pages of the popular press (The New York Post, The Village Voice) and periodicals associated with the music industry (VIBE, Billboard), concerned the alleged homophobia displayed in the lyrics of Banton’s song. 1 According to an article that appeared in The Village Voice, two groups—GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and GMAD (Gay Men of African Descent)—joined forces in 1992 to “decode Buju Banton’s bullet-riddled patois” and “embarked on a media campaign to have ‘Boom Bye Bye’ removed from the playlists of radio stations WBLS and WRKS.” Peter Noel and Robert Marriot, the co-authors of the Village Voice article, applauded GLAAD for boldly defining the meaning of “diversity” and “tolerance” for Banton (35). Insisting on a literal reading of Banton’s lyrics, Noel and Marriot state that the song “advocates the execution of gay men” and, consequently, reflects the especially virulent forms of homophobia that are rampant in Caribbean culture generally and Jamaican culture specifically (31).

Interestingly enough, the critics who have—to varying degrees—defended Banton also tend to rely primarily on culturally based arguments. However, these critics typically assert that Banton’s lyrics should be understood metaphorically and that metropolitan critics have therefore misread both Banton’s song and the “indigenous” culture from which it springs. For example, in a piece written for VIBE, Joan Morgan criticizes certain North American reviewers for their “ignorance of Jamaican street culture” and their inability or unwillingness to “grasp the metaphoric richness of Jamaican patois” (76). In addition, Morgan contends that Buju Banton’s refusal to apologize for “Boom Bye Bye” “makes the most sense” given his first and ultimate commitment to the “hardcore dancehall audience” to whom Banton owes his success. According to Morgan, Banton’s loyalty to this (cultural) constituency has been [End Page 127] rewarded—unlike what is conversely seen as Shabba Ranks’ capitulation to the powers that be—with an even greater adulation from his “true” fans (82).

Carolyn Cooper, a well-known Jamaican literary and cultural critic, has likewise insisted that Buju’s gun is essentially a “lyrical” one that is meant to illustrate “the function of metaphor and role play in contemporary Jamaican dancehall culture.” 2 Consequently, Cooper argues that critics who are unfamiliar with the metaphorical qualities of the Jamaican vernacular have misread Buju’s song by taking his words all too literally: “Thus, taken out of context, the popular Jamaican Creole declaration, ‘aal bati-man fi ded,’ may be misunderstood as an unequivocal, literal death-sentence: ‘all homosexuals must die.’” In contrast, Cooper suggests that Buju’s “lyrical gun” should be understood primarily as a “symbolic penis” and, therefore, “[i]n the final analysis, the song can be seen as a symbolic celebration of the vaunted potency of heterosexual men who know how to use their lyrical gun to satisfy their women” (438).

Although critics like Cooper and Morgan have rightfully exposed the ethnocentrism that typically informs dominant accounts of the controversy—which often suggest, for example, that North American culture is more advanced and therefore less homophobic than its Caribbean counterpart—their arguments, nevertheless, tend to reinforce a notion of culture that relies on certain fixed oppositions between native and foreign, indigenous and metropolitan, us and them, etc. Even if we concede that their arguments do not seek “to legitimate homophobia on so-called cultural grounds,” 3 as one response to Morgan’s VIBE piece alleges, these critics have nevertheless missed a crucial opportunity to challenge the deeply rooted homophobia that is unmistakably reflected in Banton’s lyrics and that, more importantly, pervades Caribbean societies, as it does most Third and First World cultures. In contrast to the reactive and/or defensive postures implied by such arguments, it is necessary—especially given the complex ideological issues currently surrounding the question of black cultural production—to formulate modes of cultural criticism that can account for the differences within as well as between cultures. In addition, our contemporary situation calls for a cultural politics that can critique as well as affirm—a politics that recognizes, in other words, the heterogeneous and contradictory (as opposed to homogeneous and monolithic) nature of all cultural formations. In the words of Jamaican anthropologist, Charles V. Carnegie, “Even as we seek to restore ‘indigenous knowledge’ systems, we must simultaneously seek to sharpen an ‘indigenous’ criticism.” 4

Despite the limitations that currently define the terms in which the debate has been carried out, the Banton controversy—as Cooper ironically notes—nevertheless opens a critical space for talking about questions of gay and lesbian sexuality and homophobia as they pertain to Caribbean culture. 5 Using this critical space as a point of departure, I would like to continue and extend this dialogue by exploring the representation of gay and lesbian sexuality in contemporary Anglophone Caribbean narratives. Such an exploration implicitly assumes that the texts in question inevitably reflect and, indeed, participate in (by reinforcing or contesting) the sexual ideologies that pervade the wider culture.

If the Buju Banton controversy represents a manifestation of how such questions have recently erupted in the realm of the popular, Caribbean literary production has [End Page 128] traditionally maintained a conspicuous silence around issues of gay and lesbian sexuality. In this case, the absence of representation is perhaps the most telling factor, especially when we consider the earlier decades of literary activity. Nevertheless, there are writers—like Claude McKay and Paule Marshall, for instance—for whom gay and lesbian sexuality or “homosexuality” remains an important subtextual issue and one that is intimately and inextricably intertwined with other, more explicit narrative preoccupations. In addition, there are more recent writers—emerging particularly within the last two decades—who have broken the taboo that has previously surrounded the question of gay and lesbian sexuality and homophobia in Caribbean culture. These writers have vigorously challenged the patriarchal and heterosexual ideologies that have resulted in the marginalization of women and gay men at the same time that they have continued to expose the social and political structures that serve to perpetuate the region’s colonial legacy. Consequently, these writers have made the critique of homophobic and sexist ideologies an integral component of what we might call a decolonized Caribbean discourse.

Claude McKay and the Construction of Un/Natural Sexualities

A pioneering Jamaican writer who migrated to the U.S. in 1912, Claude McKay was, needless to say, a product of his time. In his biography of McKay, Wayne Cooper notes that although there is ample evidence to confirm his homosexuality, McKay never publicly identified himself as a homosexual and “like many homosexual writers of his day, did not seriously challenge the rule that such subjects were not to be discussed openly in creative literature.” 6 Therefore, it is not surprising that McKay’s most successful narratives—Home To Harlem, Banjo, and Banana Bottom—do not deal, at least in any explicit way, with the subject of homosexuality or contain any overt homosexual characters. On the contrary, Home To Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929) both feature swaggering, good-natured, hypermasculine protagonists who are emphatically and unequivocally heterosexual. Passionate, sensual, and instinctive, Jake and Banjo, respectively, embody the African-American folk spirit that the narratives celebrate, representing what Bernard Bell calls “romantic prototypes of the rootlessness, creativity, and spiritual resilience of the common people of the race.” 7

Nevertheless, Home To Harlem and Banjo construct what is, in effect, a “homosocial” world of men interacting predominantly with other men. 8 This exclusively male domain is defined by the gamblers, musicians, hustlers, sailors, soldiers, pullman porters, cooks, and waiters who typically populate McKay’s novels. Although women are frequently objects of the protagonist’s sexual desire—Jake’s “tantalizing brown” in Home To Harlem, for example—the values and codes of this masculine domain are the ones that Jake and Banjo must strive to uphold and that the novel ultimately reinscribes and celebrates. However, despite the vitality and passion with which McKay’s protagonists are typically imbued, the forms of masculinity that the narratives inscribe do not ultimately depart from traditional notions of maleness and masculine behavior. Indeed, McKay’s folk heroes reflect and even reinforce dominant sexual ideologies by asserting a masculinity that is predicated on both sexism and [End Page 129] homophobia. For example, during one of his stints as a cook working in a railroad dining car, Jake encounters a waiter reading a “French” (clearly a code for homosexual) novel. While questioning the waiter about the book—a story by Alphonse Daudet entitled Sappho—he begins to hum a tune that makes explicit the link between the novel’s particular figuration of masculine identity and the sexist and homophobic values on which it depends:

And it is ashes to ashes and dust to dust, Can you show me a woman a man can trust? And there is two things in Harlem I don’t understan’ It is a bulldycking woman and a faggotty man. 9

In addition, McKay’s participation in a discourse of primitivism that prevailed in both black and white literary circles of the era resulted in the replication of certain essentialist notions about blackness and black sexuality in particular. Reflecting tendencies that were more or less prevalent in the major literary and cultural movements that distinguished the period—the Harlem Renaissance in the U.S. and Negritude in Africa and the Caribbean, for example—McKay’s texts constructed a notion of blackness that reinscribed a racial binary in which blacks were once again associated—albeit in a positive sense—with the realm of the instincts, emotions, and passions, with sensuality, sexuality, and all that was considered “natural.”

McKay’s depictions of black urban life undoubtedly worked to disrupt class-bound notions of appropriateness and respectability—a fact that the negative response of certain black intellectuals to his work only serves to confirm. 10 In addition, his novels broke new ground in the sense that they challenged the taboo surrounding the representation of black sexuality. At the same time, however, his reinscription of a racial binary—especially one that depends so crucially on a category of the “natural”—implicitly articulates the very terms that have historically been used not only to devalue black cultures but also to marginalize gay and lesbian sexualities. The Caribbean feminist scholar, Jacqui Alexander, has demonstrated, for example, how the “naturalization” of heterosexuality as state law has traditionally depended on the designation of gay and lesbian sex as “unnatural.” Furthermore, Alexander points out that “there is no absolute set of commonly understood or accepted principles called the ‘natural’ which can be invoked definitionally except as they relate to what is labelled ‘unnatural’.” 11

The reinscription of this category of the “natural” and its implicit corollary the “unnatural” is implicated even more explicitly in McKay’s third novel, Banana Bottom, which is set in his native Caribbean. McKay’s narrative is structured around a series of oppositions that include the native vs. the European, Obeah vs. Christianity, the primitive vs. the civilized, instinct vs. intellect, folk culture vs. high culture, spontaneous warmth vs. cultivated refinement, natural growth vs. artificial growth, and so on. Within this schema, the female protagonist, Bita Plant—a name which is clearly meant to suggest the character’s rootedness in the “native” soil of Jamaican folk culture—represents the triumph of “indigenous” cultural values over the metropolitan ones that have been imposed upon her. Consequently, Bita—despite her Europe [End Page 130] an education and the “seven years of polite upbringing” that the Craigs have provided—maintains an inherent and “instinctive” connection to the language, culture, and folk ways of the rural peasantry from which she springs.

Moreover, McKay’s valorization of “indigenous” culture also entails the affirmation of a “native” sexuality, specifically coded as “natural” and therefore necessarily counterposed to the possibility of an “unnatural” or “aberrant” sexuality. Bita’s marriage to Jubban the drayman—instead of Herald Newton Day, the Craigs’ choice for Bita—at the end of the novel signals the triumph of this “natural” sexuality as much as it represents the affirmation of an indigenous Jamaican folk culture. Like Jordan Plant, Bita’s father—over whose (literal) dead body Bita and Jubban consummate their love—Jubban “possessed a deep feeling for the land” and he was “a lucky-born cultivator.” 12 Jubban’s sexual desires for Bita—and hers for him—are thus associated with the “natural” cycles of birth and death, growth and decay that determine the rhythms of peasant life. Furthermore, the sexuality that their union affirms is consequently linked to the reproductive laws that supposedly govern nature as well as humankind.

In contrast to Jubban’s “natural” sexuality, Herald Newton Day, the promising young deacon who tragically “defiled himself with a nanny goat,” represents the epitome of an “unnatural” sexuality. Whether explained as an “aberration” within nature as Teacher Fearon suggests or “the result of too much exclusive concentration on sacred textbooks and holy communion” as Squire Gensir conjectures (176–77), Herald’s behavior constitutes a deviation from the (reproductive and heterosexual) norm that defines the “instinctive” sexuality of the black peasantry. In addition to reinforcing notions about racial atavism that circulate throughout the text, Herald Newton Day’s “aberrant” behavior also serves to confirm the novel’s premise about the potentially degenerating effects of an overcivilized, sexually repressed, Western (European) civilization that privileges intellect over instinct, reason over emotions.

McKay’s construction of a dichotomy between “natural” and “unnatural” sexualities consequently fixes “native” sexuality within certain narrow terms—restricting it to an exclusively reproductive function, for example—at the same time that it seems to link “aberrant” or “unnatural” sexual behavior (bestiality, rape, and presumably, other forms of non-procreative sex) to the effects of either miscegenation or foreign “decadence and degeneracy.” 13 Indeed, McKay’s depiction of Squire Gensir—the eccentric Englishman who befriends Bita—prefigures, to a certain extent, the representation (in Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, for example) of homosexuality and the homosexual as products of foreign “contamination.”

As Cooper points out in his biography, Squire Gensir represents the “fictional prototype” for Walter Jekyll—the eccentric Englishman who served as one of McKay’s literary patrons. Although Cooper acknowledges Jekyll’s homosexuality, he cautiously asserts that in all probability “Jekyll’s admiration and love . . . expressed itself wholly in his role as mentor and friend” (32). Given the unspoken taboo that in McKay’s time precluded the explicit representation of homosexual characters, it is certainly not surprising that Jekyll’s homosexuality is sublimated in the portrayal of Squire Gensir. Nevertheless, the traces of this repressed homosexuality are discernible in Gensir’s so-called “eccentricity,” his life-long bachelorhood, and his admission [End Page 131] that he was “not a marrying man” (126). Indeed, the complete desexualization of Gensir within the novel underscores—by way of its conspicuous absence—what the narrative is unable to name. According to the text, Gensir “lived aloof from sexual contact” and was, as Mrs. Craig often remarked, “a happy old bachelor with . . . not the slightest blemish upon his character—a character about which nothing was whispered either naturally or otherwise” [emphasis mine] (92). To the extent that Gensir remains an outsider whose appreciation of Jamaican folk culture is ultimately “merely cerebral” (85), the homosexuality (however latent) implied in his characterization is likewise encoded as non-native and therefore “foreign.”

(Neo)colonialism and (Homo)sexuality in Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People

In an exchange that in many ways echoes the cultural politics of the Buju Banton controversy, Hortense Spillers takes issue with Judith Fetterley’s claim that Paule Marshall’s novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People is “homophobic.” Fetterley’s allegation is presumably based on her reading of the brief lesbian affair that takes place between Merle, the novel’s protagonist, and a wealthy white woman who serves as her “London patroness.” In an attempt to account for the divergence between her interpretation and that of Fetterley, Spillers suggests that the disagreement represents “an illustration of the sorts of conflicts that arise among discontinuous reading and interpretive communities.” In addition, Spillers argues that Merle’s lesbian encounter is not “a major thematic issue in the novel” and suggests instead that Marshall is more concerned in the episode with “the particular dynamics of colonial politics and its involvement on the intimate ground of feeling.” 14

Although Spillers’ reading of the ways in which the relationship between Merle and her London patroness reflects the inequities of the colonial relation is certainly astute, the question of the novel’s “homophobia” is not (or should not be) so easily dismissed. Rather than choosing between readings that emphasize either colonial or sexual politics, I would argue that the two are inextricably linked in Marshall’s text and that Merle’s encounter with the white lesbian functions as a trenchant critique of colonialism at the same time that it reinscribes certain dominant sexual ideologies. In fact, I would argue that this particular conjunction of the sexual and the colonial in Marshall’s 1969 novel reflects the terms within which anti-colonial arguments were often constructed in certain “Afrocentric” or black nationalist discourses that characterized the period. Consequently, Marshall’s formulation demonstrates how such discourses—especially insofar as they rely on notions of family or “race” as family—are always already gendered, always already, in Stuart Hall’s words, “underpinned by a particular sexual economy, a particular figured masculinity [or femininity], a particular class identity,” and so on. 15

Although the “lesbian episode” may not appear to occupy a central place in the thematic scheme of the novel—Spillers points out, for example, that the encounter is only retrospectively recalled by Merle—it can (and should) be read alongside other [End Page 132] episodes where the question of homosexuality is either implicitly or explicitly raised. A pattern of representation might, thus, be established in terms of the recirculation of certain ideologies of gender and sexuality within the narrative. These ideologies have to do not only with positioning gay and lesbian sexuality as “foreign” and/or “unnatural” but also with prescribing normative boundaries for male and female gender identity in general.

The affair between Merle and her London patroness is clearly meant to signify as a metaphor for the asymmetries of the colonial relationship itself. This link between sexual and imperial motives is made explicit when Merle recalls her patroness’ preference for “foreigners”: “During the time I lived there I met people from every corner of the globe: India, Asia, Africa . . . all over the place. The sun, you might say, never set on the little empire she had going in her drawing room.” 16 In addition, Merle’s account of the indebtedness and dependency that the wealthy white woman would deliberately and strategically encourage exposes one of the primary mechanisms by which post-independence Caribbean states—like the fictitious Bourne Island—are kept under the crush of the neo-colonial heel. However, at the same time that the portrayal of Merle’s encounter with the English woman enacts an insightful critique of (neo)colonial politics, it simultaneously reinscribes a rhetoric that positions gay and lesbian sexuality as “unnatural” and “foreign.” Describing the “wild crowd” she fell in with, Merle states that they [the English] were “experts at making anything they do seem perfectly natural, and getting you to think so, too.” In addition, she describes her patroness as “one of those upper-class types you hear of over there who don’t seem to mind having produced a degenerate or two” [emphases added] (327–28).

This association of gay/lesbian sexuality with the “unnatural” also informs Marshall’s characterization of the gay tourists who frequent Sugar’s, the local nightclub. Like Merle’s patroness, the gay men are portrayed as predators; their exploitation of “native” sexuality serves as an emblem of the economic exploitation that defines the neo-colonial regime. Pointing out this group of affluent gay white men to Saul, Merle exclaims: “As for that bunch out on the balcony . . . Not a boy child over the age of three is safe since they arrived on the island” (87). Nevertheless, at the same time that it reflects an acute and subtle understanding of the way that the colonial dynamic permeates all levels of “indigenous” life—including what Spillers calls “the intimate ground of feeling”—this characterization also reinforces certain stereotypical notions about the “unnaturalness” of gay sexuality. The narrator states that these men “had the overstated gestures of their kind, as well as the unnaturally high voices that called attention to themselves and the laugh that was as shrill and sexless as a eunuch’s, and which never ceased” [emphasis mine] (88).

As Jacqui Alexander points out, these narrative figurations that position gay and lesbian sexuality as “unnatural” also serve to “naturalize” heterosexuality as an implicit norm (5–6). In addition to ensnaring her in a cycle of debt and dependency, Merle’s liaison with the English lesbian has the effect of destabilizing her identity as a woman. Merle admits that the “business between her and myself . . . had me so I didn’t know who or what I was.” And she confesses to Saul that when she finally decided to sever the ties with her patroness it was because “most of all . . . I was curious [End Page 133] to see if a man would maybe look at me twice” (329). In other words, Merle’s recuperation of a stable black female identity seems to hinge on her ability to attract the sexual attentions of a (heterosexual) male. In fact, Merle is eventually “saved” from the corrupting influence of the white lesbian not only by a man, but also through marriage and motherhood—in other words, the type of sexual relationship that epitomizes the heterosexual norm, what Alexander calls “conjugal heterosexuality” (10). Recalling her brief marriage to Ketu—the committed Ugandan nationalist she met in London—Merle states that “most of all, he made me know I was a woman . . . After years of not being sure what I was, whether fish or fowl or what, I knew with him I was a woman and no one would ever again be able to make me believe otherwise. I still love him for that” (332). In the novel, Merle’s lesbian affair represents a betrayal not only of her “true womanhood”—the “great wrong” that Ketu finds it impossible to forgive—but also of her anti-colonial politics, her family, and ultimately her “race.” Afraid that Merle’s touch might somehow “contaminate” their child, Ketu eventually abandons Merle and returns to Africa, taking their daughter with him. Demonstrating the degree to which she has internalized the supposed “naturalness” of the heterosexual norm, Merle herself is convinced that Ketu’s actions are entirely justified. From another perspective, one might convincingly argue that Ketu leaves primarily because the knowledge of Merle’s lesbian affair threatens his own sense of masculinity.

Similarly, Marshall’s portrait of Allen Fuso, Saul Amron’s young assistant, implicitly assumes the universality or “naturalness” of a normative heterosexual masculinity. Although Allen’s (latent) homosexuality is more complexly delineated than that of Merle’s London patroness or the gay men at Sugar’s, the resolution (or the lack thereof) of his “identity crisis” ultimately reveals the narrative’s refusal to imagine anything other than a heterosexual solution to his “problem.” Allen’s crisis is precipitated by the homosexual feelings that are occasioned by his growing friendship with Vere, the “native son” who has returned home to Bourne Island after a brief stint on a labor scheme in the U.S. Moreover, Allen’s homosexuality is represented in the narrative as a kind of arrested development—i.e. the consequence of an unresolved castration anxiety. Allen is unable to perform (hetero)sexually with Elvita—the date that Vere arranges for him during Carnival—not only because he finds women’s bodies which “lacked purity of line with the up-jutting breasts and buttocks” distasteful, but also because of “his fear, borne of a recurrent phantasy of his as a boy, that once he entered that dark place hidden away at the base of their bodies, he would not be able to extricate himself” (309).

Alone on the settee, with Vere and Milly making love on the other side of the screen, Allen performs a solitary sexual act that signifies in the text not only as a substitute for intercourse but also as a parody of the (heterosexual) sex act itself. As Allen masturbates to the sounds of the unseen lovers, the image of Vere looms large in his imagination:

The girl was faceless, unimportant, but he saw Vere clearly: his dark body rising and falling, advancing and retreating, like one of the powerful Bournehills waves they sometimes rode together in the early evening.

(312)

[End Page 134]

Allen, in effect, erases Milly from the scene and puts himself in her place, thus becoming what he has subconsciously longed to be—namely, Vere’s lover:

His cry at the end, which he tried to stifle but could not, broke at the same moment the girl uttered her final cry, and the two sounds rose together, blending one into the other, becoming a single complex note of the most profound pleasure and release.

(312)

Given the ambiguity of the text—especially where issues of gay/lesbian sexuality are concerned—it is difficult to determine the extent to which Allen is aware (consciously, at least) of his own homosexuality. Nevertheless, he admits to Merle—in an attempt to explain the deep depression that had overtaken him since the events of Carnival and the subsequent death of Vere—that he longs for “something that wasn’t so safe and sure all the time” or even “something people didn’t approve of so they no longer thought of me as such a nice, respectable type.” The obvious inadequacy of Merle’s response—she recommends “a nice girl and some children”—is not surprising, given the guilt she has internalized as a result of her own lesbian affair (378–81). However, her response also reflects the novel’s investment in and recirculation of an ideology that naturalizes heterosexuality while it positions gay/lesbian sexuality as deviant or “unnatural.” Furthermore, as Merle’s inability to imagine anything other than a conventional heterosexual (and reproductive) solution to Allen’s “problem” not only defines the limits of the novel’s discourse on questions of homosexuality, it also exposes one of the consequences—inherent in certain black nationalist discourses, for example—of uncritically conflating “race” with notions (especially “naturalized” ones) of family.

Michelle Cliff, H. Nigel Thomas and the Contradictions of Representing the “Indigenous” Gay/Lesbian Subject

We are always in negotiation, not with a single set of oppositions that place us always in the same relation to others, but with a series of different positionalities. Each has for us its point of profound subjective identification. And that is the most difficult thing about this proliferation of the field of identities and antagonisms: they are often dislocating in relation to one another.

(Hall 31)

In an essay in which he attempts to map the critical challenges presented by the current historical conjuncture, Stuart Hall suggests that “it is to the diversity, not the homogeneity, of black experience that we must now give our undivided creative [End Page 135] attention.” Hall argues that, given the emergence of what he refers to as “a new kind of cultural politics,” it is necessary now more than ever to “recognize the other kinds of difference [those of gender, sexuality, and class, for example] that place, position, and locate black people” (30). Two recent Caribbean writers—Michelle Cliff (Jamaica) and H. Nigel Thomas (St. Vincent)—have produced texts which reflect the way anti-colonial/imperial discourses need to be conceptualized in the context of the present historical and cultural situation. Attending to the differences that operate within as well as between cultures, these texts simultaneously critique the sexist/homophobic and colonial/neo-colonial structures that continue to pervade contemporary Caribbean societies. By posing an implicit challenge to the binary oppositions that often define discussions of “native” sexuality, writers like Cliff and Thomas have cleared a discursive space for the articulation of an “indigenous” gay/lesbian subjectivity.

In contrast to these binary structures—which often imply the mutually exclusive choice of an either/or—these writers frequently deploy narrative strategies that privilege ambiguity and the ability to negotiate contradictions. For example, in an essay entitled “If I Could Write This In Fire, I Would Write This In Fire,” Michelle Cliff relates an incident that underscores the contradictions generated by a Caribbean lesbian identity—contradictions that illustrate, in Hall’s terms, how the multiple “positionalities” that inevitably constitute such an identity “are often dislocating in relation to one another.” Cliff becomes justifiably enraged when she and a distant cousin who is “recognizably black and speaks with an accent” are refused service in a London bar. Although she is light-skinned enough to “pass” for white, Cliff states that she has “chosen sides.” However, the lines suddenly become blurred—and allegiances begin to shift—when the cousin joins his white colleagues in a “sustained mockery” of the waiters in a gay-owned restaurant. 17 The conflicting feelings of anger (at his homophobia/sexism) and solidarity (because he is also a victim of racism and colonial oppression) that exemplify Cliff’s response to Henry mirrors the profound ambivalence she feels towards Jamaica itself—the “killing ambivalence” (103) that comes with the realization that home (especially for the “lesbian of color”) is often a site of alienation as well as identification.

This ambivalence is also reflected in the dual strategy that informs Cliff’s first novel, Abeng. On one hand, the narrative affirms the value of an “indigenous” Jamaican culture—especially the oral traditions and folk practices that embody the island’s long history of anti-colonial resistance. On the other, the novel elaborates an incisive critique of the oppressive ideological structures that continue to pervade the postcolonial state—a deeply entrenched color-caste system, homophobia, and sexism, for example. Exemplifying the formal and stylistic innovations that are characteristic of her work, Cliff deliberately disrupts the narrative continuity of Abeng by intercutting the story of Clare Savage—the novel’s young female protagonist—with fragments of history, myth, and legend. In her attempt to reconstruct what the critic Simon Gikandi calls a “repressed Afro-Caribbean history,” 18 Cliff inscribes a revisionary account that challenges not only the Eurocentric premises of conventional historiography but also its phallocentric and heterosexist assumptions as well. In other words, in addition to representing a female-centered tradition of resistance, Abeng [End Page 136] also attempts to posit an historical or “genealogical” precedent for an “indigenous” lesbian/gay subjectivity.

Although it would perhaps be a historical misnomer to label Mma Alli—the mythical figure who plays a part in the novel’s reconstruction of Caribbean slave resistance—a lesbian character per se, she clearly represents the possibility of an “indigenous” or even “Afrocentric” precedent for a non-heterosexual orientation:

Mma Alli had never lain with a man. The other slaves said she loved only women in that way, but that she was a true sister to the men—the Black men: her brothers. They said that by being with her in bed, women learned all manner of the magic of passion. How to become wet again and again all through the night. How to soothe and excite at the same time. How to touch a woman in her deep-inside and make her womb move within her. 19

Descended from a line of “one-breasted warrior women,” Mma Alli is spiritually if not biologically related to Maroon Nanny—the slave leader who, according to local legend, “could catch a bullet between her buttocks and render the bullet harmless” (14)—and all the other female figures who function as historical precursors in a tradition from which Clare (“colonized child” that she is) has become tragically disconnected.

In addition to inscribing a “proto-lesbian” figure within the reconstructed mythology of an Afro-Caribbean past, Cliff exposes the homophobia that results in the marginalization and persecution of lesbians and gay men within contemporary Jamaican culture. These deeply-ingrained homophobic attitudes—which reflect a fear of “difference”—represent one of the primary means by which a normative heterosexuality is consolidated and, indeed, enforced. For example, the story of Clinton, the son of “Mad Hannah,” demonstrates what can happen if one is even suspected of being homosexual. When Clinton is “taken with a cramp while . . . swimming in the river,” he is left to drown while “shouts of ‘battyman, battyman’ echoed off the rocks and across the water of the swimming hole” (63). Likewise, the fate of an uncle who was rumoured to be “funny” serves as an implicit warning to Clare against the dangers of transgressing the boundaries of what is culturally sanctioned as acceptable or “normal” sexual behavior. Although Clare was “not sure what ‘funny’ meant,” she “knew that Robert had caused some disturbance when he brought a dark man home from Montego Bay and introduced him to his mother as ‘my dearest friend.’” Stigmatized and ostracized by his family, Robert finally “did what Clare understood many ‘funny’ ‘queer’ ‘off’ people did: He swam too far out into Kingston Harbor and could not swim back. He drowned just as Clinton—about whom there had been similar whispers—had drowned” (125–26).

In Cliff’s second novel, No Telephone To Heaven, the ambivalence of the Caribbean gay/lesbian subject is literally embodied by the character Harry/Harriet—the “boy-girl” who serves as the friend, confidant, and alter-ego of an older Clare Savage. In the very indeterminacy of his/her name, Harry/Harriet reflects the unresolved (and [End Page 137] perhaps unresolvable) contradictions that are inevitably generated by an “indigenous” gay and/or lesbian identity. Constantly transgressing the boundaries that supposedly separate male from female, upper from lower classes, insider from outsider, self from “other,” “natural” from “unnatural” sexuality, Harry/Harriet inhabits an “interstitial” space—designated by the conjunction “both/and” rather than “either/or”—that, as he/she asserts, is “not just sun, but sun and moon.” 20 In addition, Cliff clearly disrupts the discursive positioning of homosexuality as a “foreign contamination” by de-allegorizing the rape of Harry/Harriet when he was a child by a British officer. Although Harry/Harriet admits to Clare that he/she is often tempted to think “that what he [the officer] did to me is but a symbol for what they did to all of us,” he/she asserts that the experience was not the “cause” of his ambiguous sexuality. Instead, Harry/Harriet insists on the concrete and literal brutality of the rape: “Not symbol, not allegory . . . merely a person who felt the overgrown cock of a big whiteman pierce the asshole of a lickle Black bwai” (129–30).

In his first novel, Spirits In The Dark, H. Nigel Thomas deploys a narrative construct that functions—especially in its utopian gestures—much like the band of “revolutionaries” that Clare joins in No Telephone To Heaven. Jerome Quashee, the protagonist of Thomas’ narrative, is initiated into an obscure and vaguely “Afrocentric” religious sect known as the Spiritualists. As a consequence, Jerome undergoes a ritual experience during the course of the novel that ultimately transforms and redeems him. Moreover, this redemptive experience becomes a way for Thomas to imagine and represent what might be called a decolonized Caribbean reality. In his attempt to articulate the ideological conditions of this decolonized Caribbean reality, Thomas insists on the need to dismantle not only oppressive political structures but restrictive sexual ones as well. Demonstrating an implicit understanding of how, as Stuart Hall puts it, “a transgressive politics in one domain is constantly sutured and stabilized by reactionary or unexamined politics in another” (31), Thomas simultaneously confronts the patriarchal, heterosexist, and Eurocentric ideologies that constitute the particular legacy of the Caribbean colonial experience. Jerome’s descent into “madness”—he suffers a series of “breakdowns” prior to his initiation—consequently reflects his unstable status as both a colonial subject and a homosexual.

Jerome’s initiation entails a period of self-imposed isolation and sensory deprivation that enables him to reflect on and thereby come to terms with his experiences within a deeply flawed colonial school system, the expectations and disappointments of his parents, and his sexual feelings for other men. Assisted by Pointer Francis, who serves as his spiritual guide, Jerome emerges with a newfound understanding of his “African heritage” as well as an acceptance of his homosexuality. Jerome finally realizes that he had “put the sex part of [his] life ‘pon a trash heap just fo’ please society” and that “madness” was the price he paid for “hiding and sacrificing [his] life like that.” 21

However, if Jerome’s spiritual rebirth constitutes a utopian gesture that reflects Thomas’ desire to inscribe a decolonized “indigenous” gay subject within his text, that gesture is necessarily tempered by the pervasive homophobia that the novel also exposes. Although Pointer Francis tells Jerome that there is “[n]othing sinful ‘bout sex” even if Jerome is “a case of a pestle needing a pestle” (as opposed to a pestle [End Page 138] needing a mortar or vice versa), he nevertheless reminds Jerome that he is “going back to live in the real world, with real people” and that “most o’ the brethren ain’t grown enough fo’ understand why you is how yo’ is and fo’ accept yo’ as yo’ is” (198, 212–13). In the course of his spiritual journey, Jerome recalls various incidents that were decisive in terms of his subconscious decision to repress his homosexuality. Chief among these are his memories of Boy Boy, the gay cousin who “was a constant point of reference for what the society would not accept” (94). The ridicule and humiliation that Boy Boy was forced to endure confirmed the unacceptability of Jerome’s homosexual feelings. In addition, the fate that Boy Boy suffered when he “arranged with a young man to meet him in one of the canefields” demonstrated how physical violence was often used by the community in order to enforce a normative heterosexuality:

When he [Boy Boy] got there, there were ten of them. They took turns buggering him; one even used a beer bottle; then they beat him into unconsciousness and left him there. He’d refused to name the young men. But everyone knew who they were because they’d bragged about what they’d done—everything but the buggering.

(199)

Jerome also recalls a more recent incident that illustrates how the community often acted in complicity with such violence by condoning or at least refusing to challenge these virulent displays of homophobic behavior. Jerome remembers that when Albert Brown, a cashier in the post office where he worked, was slapped by a co-worker because he dared to offer a strikingly effective riposte to the mail sorter’s crude homophobic insult, “no one, not even Jerome, reprimanded Brill.” Moreover, when Jerome is called as a witness, the postmaster seems almost unwilling to believe his account which leads Jerome to wonder if “perhaps the postmaster would have preferred that he lie and save him from having to take action against Brill” (200). Despite the postmaster’s apparent reluctance, Brill is eventually dismissed—it seems he was on probation at the time for “telling a female clerk that he didn’t have to ‘take orders from a cunt.’” Nevertheless, many of Jerome’s co-workers were “angry with Albert, saying that he did not know how to take a joke as a man, that he had caused Brill to lose his job, and didn’t he know that Brill had a wife and two children to feed?” Jerome is likewise criticized for not knowing “how to see and not see and hear and not hear” (200). The obvious implication is, of course, that homophobia and sexism are not considered serious offenses—since they uphold an apparently “natural” order—and therefore hardly warrant such severe censure. From this perspective, it is unimaginable that Brill would lose his job simply because “he slap a buller.”

However, at the same time that it exposes the complicity of the community, Thomas’ text, like Cliff’s, demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the ambiguous and sometimes contradictory spaces that inevitably exist in any culture. These sites of ambiguity and contradiction—which often reflect how “differences” are actually lived and negotiated—are, paradoxically perhaps, the ones that can potentially enable new forms of social and cultural relations. For example, at one point in his meditations, Jerome finds himself contemplating an episode that reveals the surprising [End Page 139] capacity for tolerance that also exists alongside the homophobia pervading all levels of Caribbean society. Jerome recalls that among the female food vendors who plied their trade in the open-air market, there was also “a man whom the buyers and non-buyers said was the biggest woman of the lot. They called him Sprat.” Because he “got more customers than the women,” Sprat often became the target of homophobic insults in the quarrels that frequently broke out as a result of the fierce competition among the vendors. However, despite the caustic nature of these exchanges, Jerome observes that Sprat nevertheless “loaned Melia [a vendor with whom he had previously argued] ten dollars to buy some ground provisions somebody was selling at a bargain.” Noting Sprat’s absence on another occasion, Jerome learns that he had the flu and that “three of the women had been to see him. One said he would be out the next week and she was buying supplies for him that day” (21–22). What Jerome comes to understand, then, is that there are relations of professional and personal reciprocity binding Sprat and the other vendors together—existing social relations which pose a contradiction to the homophobic ideologies that serve to position him as “other.”

Indeed, Thomas’ novel seems to suggest that the willingness to accept the indeterminacy associated with such contradictions—the opposite of rigid binary thinking, in other words—is often the first step in undoing the homophobia that continues to marginalize lesbians and gay men in contemporary Caribbean cultures. For example, Pointer Francis reminds Jerome that it “is only when most people have a son or a daughter that is like that [that] they stop ridiculing and start thinking” (213). Once again, it is particularly within the context of concrete affiliative social relations that the potential for negotiating these contradictions can exist. Consequently, Jerome singles out his brother, Wesi, as the one “he would tell . . . everything about himself” mainly because Wesi “was the first person he knew that understood and accepted contradictions” (156). In fact, one of the central insights that Jerome gleans from his initiation has to do precisely with the importance of this “non-binary” mode of thinking: “Jerome knew that by the time the spirit called you, you knew that life itself was a contradiction” (177).

In the context of an “indigenous” criticism, the need for “non-binary” modes of thinking that resist the totalizing impulses implicit in both the “universalist” and “nativist” positions—the impasse between which the Buju Banton controversy so clearly exemplifies—is equally urgent. Given the alarming persistence of anti-gay violence in contemporary Caribbean societies and the reproduction in literature and popular culture of ideologies that condone or legitimate such violence, we clearly need a critical practice that goes beyond simple dichotomies—us/them, native/foreign, natural/unnatural—a practice that can not only affirm but also critique “indigenous” cultures in all of their varied and inevitably contradictory forms.

Timothy S. Chin

Timothy S. Chin, a Jamaican by birth, is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Bates College.

Footnotes

1. See Ransdell Pierson, “‘Kill Gays’ Hit Song Stirs Fury,” The New York Post, 24 Oct. 1992; Joan Morgan, “No Apologies, No Regrets,” VIBE, Oct. 1993; Peter Noel; Robert Marriott, “Batty Boys in Babylon,” Village Voice, 12 Jan. 1993. Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text.

2. Carolyn Cooper, “‘Lyrical Gun’: Metaphor and Role Play in Jamaican Dancehall Culture,” The Massachusetts Review (Autumn-Winter 1994): 437. Cooper borrows the notion of the “lyrical gun” from Shabba Ranks’ dancehall tune, “Gun Pon Me.” Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text.

3. See the “Open Letter” that was published alongside Morgan’s VIBE piece and collectively signed by many prominent “lesbians, gay men, and transgendered persons of African, Afro-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Latin descent.”

4. The quote is taken from an unpublished paper that the author was kind enough to share with me. Entitled “On Liminal Subjectivity,” the paper was presented at the “National Symposium on Indigenous Knowledge and Contemporary Social Issues” in March 1994, Tampa, Florida.

5. According to Cooper, plans for a protest to be led by a group of “local homosexuals” failed to materialize because “on the day of the rumoured march, men of all social classes gathered in the square, armed with a range of implements—sticks, stones, machetes—apparently to defend their heterosexual honor.” Nevertheless, Cooper states that the aborted attempt paradoxically generated a public discourse on homosexuality when, in the wake of the non-event, “[n]umerous callers on various talk show programs aired their opinions in defence of, or attack on the homosexual’s right to freedom of expression” (440). In addition, the recent film by Isaac Julien, The Darker Side of Black, explores these very issues in relation to Rap, Hip Hop, and African-American popular culture in general as well as its diasporic counterpart in the Caribbean, the culture of the Dancehall.

6. Wayne Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 75. Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text.

7. Bernard Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 118.

8. I am indebted to my colleague, Charles Nero, for helping me to clarify this concept of the homosocial in McKay’s novels.

9. Claude McKay, Home To Harlem (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928), 129.

10. For example, see Wayne Cooper’s discussion on the critical reception—especially on the part of Black American intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois—of McKay’s Home To Harlem (238–48).

11. M. Jacqui Alexander, “Not Just (Any)Body Can Be A Citizen: The Politics of Law, Sexuality and Postcoloniality in Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas,” Feminist Review 48 (Autumn 1994): 9. Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text.

12. Claude McKay, Banana Bottom (1933; New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1961), 291. Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text.

13. Early in the novel, Bita is raped by Crazy Bow Adair, a third generation descendant of a “strange Scotchman who had emigrated to Jamaica in the eighteen-twenties.” Although the narrator states that the mixed-race progeny of this “strange liberator” were, for the most part, “hardy peasants,” he nevertheless admits that there are those who believe “the mixing of different human strains” had less salutary effects (2–4). In addition, the novel suggests that Patou, the “cripple-idiot” son of the missionary couple, Priscilla and Malcolm Craig, is both a product and a reflection of the repressed sexuality that is associated with their Englishness.

14. Hortense Spillers, “Chosen Place, Timeless People: Some Figurations on the New World,” Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), footnote 6, 172–73.

15. Stuart Hall, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), 31. Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text. See also Paul Gilroy’s article, “It’s a Family Affair,” in the same anthology and Anne McClintock’s essay, “Family Feuds: Gender, Nationalism and the Family,” Feminist Review 44 (Summer 1993).

16. Paule Marshall, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969; New York: Vintage, 1992), 328. Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text.

17. Michelle Cliff, The Land of Look Behind (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1985), 68. Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text.

18. Simon Gikandi, Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 233.

19. Michelle Cliff, Abeng (1984; New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 35. Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text.

20. Michelle Cliff, No Telephone To Heaven (1987; New York: Vintage, 1989), 171. Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text.

21. H. Nigel Thomas, Spirits In The Dark (1993; Oxford: Heinemann Publishers, 1994), 198. Subsequent references appear parenthetically within the text.

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6512
Print ISSN
0161-2492
Launched on MUSE
1997-02-01
Open Access
No
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.