May 2018

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On June 22, 2015, a podcast was posted online after an interview with US President Barack Obama, following the shooting deaths in the previous week of nine black people in a church in South Carolina. The shooter was a 21-year-old white man espousing racist ideology. The podcast interview with Marc Maron made headlines for many reasons, but mainly because then President Obama used the ‘n- word’ in the interview. Obama said this:

…race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, opportunities have opened up … attitudes have changed. That is a fact. What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives casts a long shadow and that's still part of our DNA that's passed on. Racism, we are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior…

Still, Obama insisted on the fact that we had made progress: “progress is real” he said, “and we have to take hope from that progress.”

Obama knew that the “n” word’s problematic epistemology would draw attention to the situation; provocation is always useful tool. But it was the idea of racism as being part of our DNA that was troubling, particularly in the racialized world of 21st century identity politics. I begin with this idea because in many ways it is salient to the problematics of our own history of racism and trauma and its enduring effects on our 21st century psyche.

America is not the Caribbean, and being black in America is not the same as being black in the Caribbean. Identity politics remain for the most part a localized phenomenon. An African-American and an Afro-Caribbean may share a past of slavery and colonialism and face racial, economic and class discrimination, but the distinctions that arise from complex socio-cultural contexts create particular and unique circumstances for each group and individual. It is all in the details. This is not a revelation to anyone and yet the conflation still occurs. Even the word African is a homogenization and a reduction of a continent that is diverse and complex. Again, this is not a revelation; but still, consider the reduction of the prefix: “Afro.” In the US there are Italian- Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans and then there are African- Americans; no national or implied cultural distinction, no details, but instead an entire continent contained in a prefix. I would argue that the Caribbean is a more racially sophisticated society than the US. But I would also argue that the legacies of colonialism and slavery are still very much part of the DNA of our 21st century Caribbean.

This evening, I would like to look at some of these issues drawing primarily on the work of a young, black Martinican writer who wrote, in 1939, a long poem that would become a seminal work in Francophone Caribbean Literature and in the literary world as a whole. The poet is of course Aimé Césaire and the poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) is as relevant today as it ever was in its exploration of the traumas that we face.

The Caribbean has long been a location of trauma. It is a region traumatized by a past that continues to haunt its present. Stuart Hall described the region’s violent colonial history as “the trauma of transportation.” As someone of Caribbean origin, as well as someone who writes both creatively and academically about the Caribbean, I have often felt the resonance of Frantz Fanon’s words: “These are the cracks in the edifice.” Fanon, Martinican psychiatrist, activist, writer and theorist (1925-1961), was talking about the pitfalls of a national consciousness that was inherently tribal; Fanon affirmed: “… when dealing with young and independent nations, the nation is passed over for the race, and the tribe is preferred to the state.” But he also captured in this phrase, the indelible psychological scar left by the Caribbean region’s history. Fanon is but one of many since it would be hard to signal creative and scholarly works from across the region that have not dealt in some way with the manifestations of these cracks. This ever-present past continues to be explored and exposed across languages, generations, genres and genders.

My research interest in this area is by no means the first interrogation, much has been written about trauma in Caribbean fiction. One of the most recent critical studies is Paula Morgan’s work, The Terror and the Time: Banal Violence and Trauma in Caribbean Discourse (2014). Two of Morgan’s core questions are noteworthy, she asks: “To what extent are existing conceptions of trauma useful for analyzing the ruptures peculiar to Antillean history, with its attendant anxieties, identity crises and representational dilemmas? And secondly, “has trauma been normalized in Caribbean society?” The term “normalized” is of course part of the knotted problematic that trauma researchers attempt to unravel.

Trauma scholars like Stephen Craps have argued that there is a problem with trauma studies and the lack of focus on disadvantaged groups. There is still a need to continue to decolonize definitions of trauma especially when we examine works from a Caribbean perspective. I am not a psychiatrist so my approach is literary. I look at the poetics of trauma to examine the ways in which it is expressed in our writings and to see what the writing reveals firstly about the world of the text and the world beyond; in the case of my research, that world is the Caribbean.

My focus in this lecture is on the writer Aimé Césaire but my wider project draws from a range of Caribbean texts written in both English and French. This cross-lingual perspective opens a new space to navigate the poetics and problematics of the selected narratives. A comparative reading also facilitates the formulation of new constructs of trauma by locating areas of convergence and divergence.

Apart from Césaire’s Cahier, I also examine the poetics of Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat’s collection of short stories, The Dew Breaker (2004). Danticat looks at the effects of the Duvalier dictatorship on diverse Haitian communities. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Dominican-American novelist Junot Diaz revisits historical accounts of another dictatorial regime, that of Rafael Trujillo, and Dany Laferrière’s L’Egnime du retour (The Enigma of return) (2009) explores the loss of his biological father and his literary father, Aimé Césaire. Laferrière’s work, like Césaire’s, focuses on the idea of a return to a homeland constructed from memory, imagination and his reality.

Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw is a professor of French Literature and Creative Writing at The UWI St. Augustine. This is an excerpt from her Professorial Inaugural Lecture which was delivered on April 19 at the School of Education Auditorium. The full lecture, “Cracks in the Edifice: Notes of a Native Daughter,” can be read here.