‘For years teaching West Indian literature I have seen students group round writers in terms of race – Indians black [sic] Brathwaite, Africans show a preference for Brathwaite on the grounds that he’s talking black people’s business. The whites, who are normally not many, quite often flock around Jean Rhys – the idea of the alienated white in the society. People inbetween flock around Walcott and Wilson Harris because these two writers seem to be talking about the Mulatto’. (Gordon Rohlehr, Tapia 5/28, 1975)

It would be naïve to imagine that Caribbean literary production and reception would be less shaped by race and ethnicity than other areas of Caribbean life. Caribbean societies are still profoundly animated by an awareness of the origins and ethnicities of their component parts. This diversity of origins both accounts for the extraordinary cultural dynamism of the region but is also a major contributor to the failure to realise coherent national and regional identities.

Other essays outline the connections between particular ethnic heritages and imaginative writing. This overview attempts to say something about the relationships between identities and some of the different ways of looking at those relationships in literary and non-literary academic and popular oral discourses. No group can be looked at in isolation because it is impossible to account for the ebbs and flows between comfort in an identity and panics about ethnic and cultural survival without recognising that groups are powerless to stem the flow of intercultural influence between groups or to see themselves other than in a relationship to ethnic others.

Elsewhere, the individual country topics under the general heading of PLACE offer some focus on how particular patterns of arrival and the relative proportions of groups give countries their specific cultural dynamics. Suffice to note here the differences between Barbados, Cuba, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Trinidad in terms of the presence/absence of Spanish, English, French and Dutch colonisers; the particular origins of Africans (e.g. the Yoruba presence in Trinidad), the opportunity for forms of neo-African marronage (e.g. the Jamaican and Surinamese Maroons) and the survival of distinctive African cultural forms and institutions (e.g. vodun in Haiti, orisha-focused religions in Cuba and Trinidad); the presence of descendants of Indian indentured labourers and of smaller minorities such as the Portuguese, Chinese or Syrians/Lebanese, or the existence, as in Guyana, of a significant Amerindian population. Not least are the differences in cultural dynamic due to the huge variations in the size and centrality of that most Caribbean of groups – those of mixed ethnic origins – between say Puerto Rico where a majority would identify as having mixed Spanish, African and Taino origins (though the last group has for centuries had no separate existence) and predominantly African heritage Barbados, which shows least evidence of ethnic mixing.

In this overview, though, the focus is regional and concerned with commonalities of process.

All groups stand in multiple relationships

  • to their origins
  • to what they have become
  • to what they may be becoming
  • to what they have been, are and may be becoming in relationship to other groups in both actuality and perception
  • to what extent and in what circumstances individuals and social formations within ethnic aggregates have loyalties to organisations based on ethnicity (either coincidentally or by design), to class interests, to nation or to region.

All such relationships have internal and externally relating histories. The history of African-Caribbean relationships to their origins is inextricably bound up with the shifts in their relationship to the European groups in the Caribbean, from subordination to uneasy coexistence. Again, whilst both Africans and Indians in Guyana can outline parallel histories of separation from their homelands, periods of enforced labour and cultural loss, social reconstruction and modernisation, the issue of prior arrival, of historical precedence and the relative dues paid under slavery and indenture has been one of the subtexts in the struggle between Africans and Indians for political dominance in Guyana.

Until the emergence over the last couple of centuries of the Caribbean’s growing but unequally distributed mestizo population (mainly in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean), only the Tainos, the ethnic group whose culture and social organisation dominated the Greater Antilles from 900 AD until the time of Columbus, could claim to have their origins in the region as the descendants of the groups who had migrated from mainland South America from around 400 BC to 300 AD. All other groups have their ancestries outside the region, though both between and within groups there are diverse relationships to those ancestries. For example, until recently at least, European Caribbeans were the only group to maintain actual links and relationships with their homelands. The sons of the wealthiest members of the white elite in the British Caribbean were sent to Britain for their education. (I met an old Dutchman in Guyana – a farmer from the Pomeroon – whose family were still returning to Holland to find their brides.) Whilst few Indo-Caribbeans would be able to identify relatives in India (though VS Naipaul’s visit to the village of the Dubes and his meeting with Jussodra, a distant relative who had been to Trinidad and returned to India, recorded in An Area of Darkness [pp252-263] indicates the possibility) many would be able to identify their actual place of origin, and with rising prosperity, particularly in Trinidad, a good many ‘ordinary’ Indo-Caribbeans have made their pilgrimages back to India. For African-Caribbeans, the separation from origins has been more complete and the history of relations with ancestry much more problematic. On the one hand, as the work of ethno-historians such as the Herskovits, William Bascom, Leonard Barrett, JD Elder, Maureen Warner-Lewis, Kamau Brathwaite and others has shown, much survived the crossing and continues to find its way from the margins of Caribbean societies into the mainstream. There were those, like Kwame Dawes’ grandfather, who returned to Africa as a missionary from Jamaica in the 19th and early 20th century, and there were always those, mostly amongst the poor and oppressed, for whom Africa was a place of inner spiritual journey through the rites of their religions (Shango, Pocomania, Cumfa etc.), but for many New World Africans the relationship to origins has been vexed. VS Naipaul notes in A Turn in the South (pp. 109) the embarrassed, hooted derision of Black cinema-goers to any images of Africa on the screen. This was in the 1940s, but as Kwame Dawes records of a Jamaican childhood of the 1960s (in Natural Mysticism) as a boy born in Ghana with an African name, insults and abuse for his Africanness were common fare. In a situation of contempt for things African amongst many sections of society, particularly the Black middle class, it is not surprising that the Africa of African Caribbeans (in comparison to the Europe of the Europeans or the India of Indo-Caribbeans) was a place of myth and inner vision rather than actuality. The significance of Ethiopia as Rastafarian homeland was all the stronger for not being the actual place of origin of African slaves brought to the Caribbean.

Inevitably, within each group there has been intense debate about how to relate to ancestry. Does the process of looking backwards becomes a destructive nostalgia or a necessary stage towards wholeness? Whilst the actual work of Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite has many points of overlap, there has been a tendency to champion Walcott as the voice of the former, and Brathwaite as the voice of the latter. Denis Williams, the Guyanese artist and novelist wrote very forcibly against the attachment to ancestral roots as an orientation that kept Caribbean people divided, and argued for a vision of the Caribbean in which cultural syncretism has been the dominant imperative for people living within the same geographic space.

Shifts in naming are but one index of the fact that all Caribbean peoples have been on a journey of becoming, one that still continues for all groups, though in different ways. For instance the passages from African to Creole, to Negro, to African or Afro-Caribbean or from Calcutta Coolie to East Indian, to Indian or Indo-Caribbean tell not only of a shift from definition by others to self-definition, but of a shift from origins to new multiple identities. These came about as a result of processes which involved cultural loss, accommodation/ acculturation to the culture of the master/dominant culture, interculturation with other groups and the conscious/unconscious processes of the remaking of selves within a new physical environment (these processes are discussed further in the CULTURE segment of the themes map.) But for the people who came that journey had different environments and different trajectories.

For the Amerindians on the islands (Tainos and Island Caribs) it was a journey to virtual extinction, for those in Guyana it has been a journey from maroon marginalisation to absorption through various evangelical Christian missions into a kind of marginal modernity and culture loss, until more recently Amerindian organisations have begun the process of self-definition recorded in Maximilian Forte’s edited collection Indigenous Resurgence in the Contemporary Caribbean: Amerindian Survival and Revival.

It must not be forgotten that Europeans arrived in the Caribbean under a variety of circumstance. There were the adventurers who became the owners of plantations and slaves but there were also those sent out in virtual bondage as indentured labourers (to Barbados, St Kitts and Montserrat) in the 17th century and the colonist settlers who as independent farmers became the future backbone of the anticolonial movement in Cuba. But with the exception of the latter group (who intermarried widely with the Tainos and Africans) for Europeans it has been a journey to an ambivalent Caribbeanness, particularly in the Anglophone Caribbean. Whether planters, managers, attorneys, overseers, merchants, government officials, missionaries, clergymen, for many there was always the feeling that the Caribbean was only a temporary place of residence, and that Britain was home. There was also the imperative to preserve whiteness at all costs, even and perhaps particularly amongst despised groups like the Barbadian ‘Redlegs’, the impoverished, marginal descendants of the indentured whites. Those feelings prevented the emergence the kind of cross community anti-colonial movements that emerged in Cuba and Spanish America in the 19th century. Instead, energies were devoted to denying access to blacks, browns and Indians to politics, business and even cricket. Yet as Kamau Brathwaite has documented in both Contradictory Omens and The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, many of the white West Indians who stayed were creolised into the language and style of those who served them. George Lamming has memorably described the status of the European as a person who cannot look down from the ladder for fear of those climbing up it. Yet whilst many European Caribbeans left the Caribbean at the time of independence, it remains the case that Europeans remain at the pinnacle of social privilege and continue to play an important role in the region (particularly in the post-globalised business sector.

For Africans, the journey towards the reconstruction of the selfhoods shattered by slavery has offered two contrary paths, but paths that have constantly intertwined. One was the path of revolt and the attempt either to totally destroy the power of the white master, to challenge it to the point it conceded equality and social justice or to effect a maroon withdrawal from that power. The other path was the route of mastering the ways of the master, through education, business or agricultural enterprise and thereby demanding a place at the table, though this strategy could sometimes be merely an act of accommodation, mimicry that was rewarded with no more than the crumbs. From the days of slavery to the present of global economic imperialism those paths continue: from Toussaint’s Haiti to Castro’s Cuba, from the Jamaican Maroons to the Rastafarians on the one side; from the loyal slaves who betrayed rebellions to their masters, to the erstwhile labour leaders who as political leaders have ‘liberalised’ labour, abandoned the role of the state in the search for distributive economic justice and dismantled welfare schemes at the behest of the IMF on the other. But the metaphor of the two paths is too simple. There has always been a zig-zag path between the two: the imitativeness which was mockery, the Calibanesque adoption of Prospero’s language the better to curse him, the adoption of the quintessentially colonial, English game of cricket and its transformation into an expression of Caribbean nationhood. African-Caribbean literature has faced the same choices, had its confrontations and followed the same zig-zags.

In comparison to Africans under slavery, there were far greater possibilities for indentured Indians of remaining within a cultural framework that was recognisably Indian (though one that involved interculturation between the different geographical, caste and religious identities of those who came). But it was a permission that exacted a price. Until the 1950s, access to education and the professions was generally open only to those prepared to convert from Hinduism or Islam to Christianity, and for others, adherence to a Hindu cultural framework separated them from the mainstream of national life.

Any satisfactory approach to thinking about the Caribbean’s ethnic groups must start from the recognition that no group is monolithic, and that differences of religion, of class, of gender, of urban/rural occupations may be as important as any sense of ethnic identity. The response to different circumstances – the political choices offered by an election – point to the fact that identities are always fluid. Gender is clearly of particular significance, where group identities may come under particular challenge from women within them. The changing position of women within the region’s Indo-Caribbean populations is a case in point.

The notion of Cultural orientation, a concept developed in Kamau Brathwaite’s seminal Contradictory Omens, is perhaps the most useful concept not only for describing the range of actual cultural differences between groups and also within them. The concept offers a way of describing how differently writers have portrayed Caribbean societies, of how, for instance Rooplall Monar’s and V.S. Naipaul’s portrayal of Indians in the Caribbean begin from very different social and cultural locations. Yet even Brathwaite’s monograph has its simplifications (regarding the Indian presence) and its own Afro-centric cultural orientation/biases.

For each group there is no escaping the situation of being in the eye of the other, as an awareness of regard, stereotype or accusations of difference. The self definition of one group frequently begins in the statement, ‘We are not like…’ and these implicit or explicit comparisons give rise to cultural systems that rest on a dialectic of difference. In India one can find multiple examples Hinduism containing within itself the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, of possessing both the poles of order and energy. In the Caribbean, in commonly held cultural stereotypes one sees Indians consistently placing their culture at the pole of order, whereas African-creole culture is invariably seen in writing by Indo-Caribbeans as its opposite.

One of the challenges for Caribbean writers has been how to write about their societies as whole complexes of different ethnicities and classes. It is not surprising that the dominant form of the novel has been the quasi-autobiographical focus on lives lived within the author’s own ethnic community. There is, indeed, a good deal of ethno-centrism in Caribbean fiction that only the most self-reflective of authors have evaded. George Lamming wrote in the 1960s about the scarcity of books that “Take us on the inside of Indian life in Trinidad or Guyana […] We guess and assume and project; but the real substance of that life we are only now beginning to glimpse” (“The West Indian People”, New World Quarterly, 2:2, 1966). There is no longer that scarcity, but it remains the fact that fiction still offers the best and sometimes only access to the lives of ethnic others.