- Purchase/rental options available:
Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 821-843
[Access article in PDF]
When Light Becomes White
Reading Enlightenment through Jamaica Kincaid's Writing
It's white people who are flawed and at fault.
The human norm, of course, is always glimpsed only negatively: it is what allows us to see the deficient and abnormal without itself being seen. ( . . .) Accordingly, in its most historically effective forms, whiteness does not speak its own name.
A child might demonstrate to you that a negro is not a man because white color was one of the constant simple ideas of the complex idea he calls man. 1
The invention of this system (of naming) has been a good thing. Its narrative would begin this way: in the beginning, the vegetable kingdom was chaos; people everywhere called the same things by a name that made sense to them, not by a name that they arrived at by an objective standard. But who has an interest in an objective standard? Who would need one?
—Jamaica Kincaid [End Page 821]
In a brilliant satire on every tourist's epiphany upon first entering an African, or Africanized environment like a Caribbean island, Kincaid interrupts white people's preying on Antigua:
Oh, what beauty. You have never seen anything like this. You are so excited. . . . You see yourself eating some delicious, locally grown food. You see yourself, you see yourself. . . . Ordinarily, you are a nice person, an attractive person, a person capable of drawing to yourself the affection of other people (people just like you), a person at home in your own skin . . . a person at home in your own house . . . you are a whole person . . . But one day . . . you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting a heap of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it . . . to being a person marveling at the harmony (ordinarily, what you would say is the backwardness) and the union these other people have with nature . . . this ugly but joyful thought will swell inside you: their ancestors were not clever in the way yours were and not ruthless in the way yours were, for then would it not be you who would be in harmony with nature and backwards in that charming way? 2
Jamaica Kincaid's brazen address to her white reader/tourist stepping off the plane in A Small Place and submitting the black world of Antigua to his/her rather deluded gaze has sent me on my own particular journey that I would like the readers of this article to share. I mean to take readers on a tour to visit their own whiteness (my own included), as perceived and passed on in almost viscerally painful terms by Kincaid. She is shredding the assumed universality of whiteness to pieces in unforeseen and unspectacular, but nonetheless aggressive ways. It bespeaks the entrenchment of whiteness as that which is unquestionable that critics—feminist or otherwise—have chosen to read past these shattering moments and have preferred, instead, to couch their perception in terms like: Kincaid's uncorrupted view of "colonialism," of "the British (culture, ruling class, poetry, you name it) or of "Western domination."
The effect of this mechanism of "refusing the message," as I want to call it, is to neutralize one of the most clear sighted attacks on and fracturings of whiteness, white ideology, and white subject positions that contemporary literature has produced, and to maintain a position of critical comfort, a position of "I am not the target of these attacks," an evasive de-personalization of reading working to the advantage of underwriting white assumptions—for example, the assumption to be able to be a critic of a black person's criticism of one's own privilege and domineering cultural, social and individual history, without being "meant," without, accordingly, having to own the responsibility for it. Part of the problem seems to derive from the fact that, whereas there is by...