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  • Sacred Ways of Meaning and Knowing:A Comparative Reading of Caribbean Literature
  • Matthew Pettway (bio)
CARIBBEAN LITERATURE AND THE PUBLIC SPHERE: From the Plantation to the Postcolonial. By Raphael Dalleo. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 2011.
OSHUN’S DAUGHTERS: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas. By Vanessa K. Valdés. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2014.

This essay is a comparative reading of Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere: From the Plantation to the Postcolonial (2011) by Raphael Dalleo and Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014) by Vanessa Valdés. Raphael Dalleo’s book is a pan-Caribbean literary history examining the role of the public intellectual from the plantation colony to the emergence of postcolonial regimes. Though also concerned with Caribbean literature, Valdés’s woman-centered approach engages Afro-diasporan religion not as an intellectual project but an intimately sacred means of knowing and healing in the lives of black female characters across the Western Hemisphere. Her emphasis on Caribbean, [End Page 115] U.S., and Brazilian women writers, female protagonists, and female-identified African divine entities, situates her scholarship in the vein of renowned critic Miriam DeCosta-Willis and qualifies her book as an interruption of an otherwise androcentric paradigm. By way of juxtapositional analysis, I explore the multiple contributions of Valdés and Dalleo’s books in order to compare disparate methodologies and to make critical suggestions for future research. Owing to my interests, my critique is centered on Hispanophone Caribbean authors, the recovery of Afro-Caribbean colonial literature, Spanish-speaking Caribbean writers, and a critical approach to African diasporic religion as epistemological practice. I argue that future literary histories should further integrate black colonial literati into Dalleo’s notion of a nineteenth century Caribbean counterpublic, thus expanding an otherwise constricted notion of discursive practice. In that respect, there is much research to be done. Moreover, I believe the silence Dalleo assigns to Afro-diasporic religion inadvertently negates the epistemological significance of such traditions. In this essay, I recommend constructive approaches for the revision of the literary record and my reading of Vanessa Valdés’ work submits certain methodological considerations.

Instead of speaking in terms of zeitgeist, Dalleo names three periods in Caribbean literary history: plantation slavery, modern colonialism, and post-coloniality. Dalleo reworks Pierre Bourdieu’s framework of “literature as a field” in order to examine “the mediating autonomy of cultural producers” (6). Though his primary concern is the writing of a pan-Caribbean literary history, Dalleo engages cultural studies as an instrument for contextualizing literature in terms of social structures and institutional power. The author explores how colonialism persists in the Caribbean not in a static way but as the reemergence of domination to contain resistance movements. Dalleo’s critical scope is impressive, embracing the Francophone, Anglophone, and Hispanophone Caribbean from the nineteenth century through the twentieth and into the present. Dalleo says that Caribbean writers were unable to forge a Caribbean public sphere grounded in local practices until the second half of the nineteenth century when it slowly began to take form (15–16, 44).

Plantation Societies and the Rise of a Caribbean Counterpublic

Rafael Dalleo argues that the nineteenth-century Caribbean was not a public sphere as theorized by Jürgen Habermas, but rather constituted a counterpublic where abolitionist literature—largely published in Europe—represented enslaved populations. Habermas envisions a “utopian version of the public sphere” as an emporium of ideas that democratizes discourse by allowing for exchange across class divides (40). But, Dalleo says that newspapers in Caribbean slave societies were the rhetorical vehicle of a small slave-holding elite that feared widespread literacy would give enslaved men and women access to radical abolitionist ideas. The Caribbean press was established in the eighteenth century with two objectives: [End Page 116] keeping records of the monetary value assigned to human captives and as a means of regulating the movement of enslaved persons (25, 30). Dalleo evokes Ángel Rama’s notion of the lettered republic in order to highlight the hierarchical nature of public discourse in Caribbean colonies based on monoculture and captive labor (27). The Uruguayan theorist argued that the Catholic Church and the...