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?
Benitez-Rojo: “Let’s be realistic: the Atlantic is the Atlantic … because it was once engendered by the copulation of Europe … because Europe, in its mercantilist laboratory, conceived the project of inseminating the Caribbean womb with the blood of Africa” (5).
I found this image striking, even though less shocking than the ‘painful birth’ scene, particularly after reading your blog post. Interesting that B-R evokes mercantilism, technology, the laboratory as one of several metaphors of procreative violence, particularly considering (as you mention) histories of sexual violence and how they’re embodied.
I also wanted to bring up a secondary point re: gender & these readings. It’s notable that the examples of syncretism — the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre and associated deities/figures in Benitez-Rojo (and I can’t help but think here of Baucom’s description of Sutapa Biswas’ photograph as “a Pieta in which three bathers replace the incarnation of the Trinity” ) — are female/feminine. Maybe we can talk about that a little more in class.
I wanted to note that I too was struck by the extreme feminization by Benitz-Rojo of the Caribbean. There were a number of keywords which stuck out to me as stereotypically (and problematically) feminized and feminizing, among them “fluidity” (3), the concept of time unfolding “irregularly” (11), “a histrionic virtuosity” (220), and even claiming directly that “There is something strongly feminine in this extraordinary fiesta: its flux, its diffuse sensuality, its generative force, its capacity to nourish and conserve….”(29). While being copacetic to Benitz-Rojo’s desire to invoke a model and structure of meaning which challenges Western phallogocentrism, I’m also deeply suspicious of a description which then goes on to (re)assert essentializing and problematic binaries or dualisms. In the hinge of the metaphor lies a great amount of meaning- in both directions-, and invocations of the Caribbean, and femininity, as histrionic replicates old claims which need to be done away with. I offer as an interesting challenge to Benitz-Rojo’s feminization of the Caribbean Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s excellent Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage,” published in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2-3 (I’ve provided a ProjectMuse link, hopefully it works for you). Tinsley directly, and very productively responds to and critiques, Benitz-Rojo’s feminizations, claiming that it “stops short of the most radical potential of such oceanic imaginations. There
are other Atlantic and Caribbean histories that these scholars could have evoked to make sense of the present, other material details of maritime crossings they could have drawn on to make their metaphors richer conceptual tools.” (197). Tinsley provides a queer reading of the Black Atlantic in order to address the “fluidity” of the Black Atlantic, claiming that “Once loaded onto the slave ships, Africans became fluid bodies under the force of brutality. Tightly or loosely packed in sex-segregated holds─ men chained together at the ankles while women were sometimes left unchained─ surrounded by churning, unseen waters, these brutalized bodies themselves became liquid, oozing. (Tinsley 197). I find Tinsley’s invocations of fluidity and queer theory far more persuasive than Benitz-Rojo’s (re)assertions of an essentializing feminizing characteristic of the Caribbean.