In the introduction to Antonio Benítez Rojo’s The Repeating Island, I was immediately struck by the jarring image of the Caribbean with a vagina stretched between the continental clamps of the “encomienda of Indians and the slaveholding plantation” and from which is delivered the Atlantic, defined in part as the network of a particularly novel global capitalism that begins with Columbus and continues today with NATO, World Bank and other transnational economic entities. There are a few other categories cast as the “clamps” holding the body of the Caribbean in place, such as the oppressions of the “coolie” and the criollo; and commercial monopoly and piracy, however I focused on the ecomienda and the plantation because of my own interest in the intertwined structures of colonialism, Indigenous genocide/dispossession and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Given the particular position of the Black and Indigenous female body in the processes of settlement and slavery, I wondered how Benítez Rojo could evoke this violent image of a forced birth without also dwelling on the role of sexual violence in the perpetuation of racial capitalism and colonialism. While he uses a dramatically gendered image, he does not dwell on what role gender might play in the “birthing” of the Atlantic. Interestingly, Ian Baucom’s “Charting the Black Atlantic” also dwells on the image of a womb as the disclosure of a postcolonial place: “not only of a then and a now but of a yet-to-be” (2). The image in question is a photographic print by Sutapa Biswas of three Indian women standing in the ocean, a scene projected onto and seen on a fourth woman’s torso. This photograph Baucom argues charts the “distinct and uncanny region within the dispersed territories of the post-colonial” (3). However, what might it mean that this is not just any chart but a woman’s body and specifically the womb? How might women’s bodies not just be the backdrop or the metaphor for these author’s arguments about the Atlantic and the postcolonial but the staging ground and means-by-which the violent histories of the Caribbean have been made possible? I’m thinking here of Tiffany Lethabo King’s work in her doctoral dissertation, In the Clearing and her argument that the settlement of North America was dependent on the metaphor of the Black feminine body in the New World as “terra nullius, the plantation (or the planting of settlements), unfettered access to property, and the unending reproduction of bodies and land” (56). How might King’s argument be extended to the Caribbean and account for the role of indentured Indian women in the process of birthing the Atlantic?
Considering the lack of critical discussion in regards to gender in Benítez Rojo and Baucom, I decided to turn to the Red for Gender website as a resource that might speak to this absence. The title on the webpage, a WordPress blog, is “Feminist Conversations on Caribbean Life”. The blog features posts by different contributors, mostly or all women it seemed, on topics pertaining to women’s life in the Caribbean, instances of hetero/sexism, cases of sexual violence and other topics falling under the category of feminist concerns. In the most recent post (from July 7, 2015) titled “Diary of a Working Mother”, which appears to be an ongoing series on the blog by contributor grrlscene, I noted right away the historical narrative of women in the British Empire at large and the Caribbean plantation in particular. Grrlscene writes, “Across the British empire, indentured women were hysterically casts as hyper-aware of their sexual and labour power, and as aligning themselves strategically with men to maneuver the colonial system.” Already, this blog had thrown a light onto processes by which women in the Caribbean, in this case Indian women, were maligned in the colonial system. While many of the posts following this most recent one describe current events, I noticed in my cursory review that many of the contributors were keen to link these current events to decades-long and historical reoccurrences of gender injustice. How does a site like this help supplement works such as Benítez Rojo’s and Baucom’s and how might the compiling of historical and contemporary perspectives on feminism and gender in the Caribbean move from the margins of discussion? Does this site exist at the margins or has it made itself a new center?