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I write with my hand and my heart, not with my eyes.

--Marie Vieux Chauvet

Is all suffering equal when the people who suffer are not considered equal?

--Edwidge Danticat

The state of ambiguity, of liminality, is the condition of peoples who collectively lack origin narratives, which assign them a physical space; clarify their relationship to the human and animal environment; or establish ontological, social, or moral hierarchies of being.

--Maureen Warner Lewis

PLUIE et vent sur Telumee Miracle (hereafter, PV), published by Guadeloupian author Simone Schwarz-Bart in 1972, and Limon Blues (hereafter, LB), published by Costa Rican author Anacristina Rossi in 2007, advance critical discussions of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Both novels focus on Black communities in the Circum-Caribbean, or, el Gran Caribe as it is known in Spanish, a geographic region encompassing not only the islands in the Caribbean basin but also the Caribbean shores of countries in Central and South America (Berges Curbelo et al.). PV and LB engage with "Caribbean unconscious life and conscious experience--areas of knowledge that are articulated through its peoples' oral and scribal aesthetic expressions" (Warner Lewis 172), with PV attending to Guadeloupe and LB dedicated to Costa Rica's Limon Province. The establishment of both locales can be traced to Columbus' arrival in 1492, the destruction of indigenous Taino, Arawak, and Carib seafaring communities, and the enslavement of West African peoples for close to four centuries. (1) In the wake of such wreckage, as Paget Henry observes, origin narratives have become important for the mythopoetics of Afro-Caribbean self-formation and philosophy. Their cosmological and ontological significance lies in their concern for the ways that the spiritual world--the realm of souls--impacts the economic, political, cultural, and biological dimensions of everyday life--the world of the living (24-25). This note examines the "bridge work" undertaken by women in PV and LB between the two realms. I argue that the protagonists of the novels create ancestry where there would only be a void, suture the wounds of historical trauma, and deploy Afro-Caribbean spirituality as a productive mode of healing. The women derive their power from their choice to serve as bridges, thus delivering hope for a future to the enslaved souls of the departed as well as the perennially-enslaved souls of the living. This, in turn, results in their philosophical evaluation of themselves as orphans who have transformed themselves into women who possess a bounty of kin and spirits. PV and LB can thus be read as treatises in spiritual philosophy that engage with the existential, moral, cosmogonic, and empirical themes that result from the spirit's central position in Afro-Caribbean religio-philosophical frameworks.


The protagonists of PV are Telumee and her grandmother, Toussine, who is known as "Queen Without a Name" in their community. PV portrays the underlying violence particular to Guadeloupe as experienced by former slaves and their families following the end of slavery in 1848, particularly "the existence of economic violence in which plantation slavery is replaced by the peonage of the sugarcane fields and factories" (Kalisa 81-82). The descendants of the former white slave owners dehumanize black sugarcane workers, and the children of former slaves endure the same slave-era working conditions as their ancestors. Telumee recalls that as a young girl, she often heard the people in the village speak of the futility of black existence, calling life "a torn garment" (Schwarz-Bart 23). After all, there were but three options available to them: breaking their backs among the sugarcane and pineapple rows, hiring themselves out to work in white people's homes, or subsisting on roots, vegetables, and wild fruit. Significantly, PV explores the consequences of a context in which it is widely believed that "the only place on earth that belongs to a Negress is in the graveyard" (Schwarz-Bart 113). The magnitude of the violence borne by Telumee is beyond the scope of this note, but it is critical to emphasize that the tribulations faced by Telumee in mind, body, and soul lead her to gather the broken pieces of her fractured community and reconstruct a new origin narrative for it.

The protagonists of LB are Nanah, a Jamaican woman who immigrates to and later emigrates from Limon with her husband, and Irene, daughter of a Jamaican father and a Dominican mother who was raised by an aunt in Cuba, and settles in Limon after marrying Nanah's son, Orlandus. Although they have arrived in a country that abolished slavery in 1821, they hail from countries where slavery was not abolished until 1838 (Jamaica) and until 1886 (Cuba). Just as plantation economies post-independence turned the former slaves and their descendants into zombies in PV, in LB the Costa Rican railroad became a "fabrica de duppies" that claimed the lives of one man for every wooden railroad tie that was laid, a mortality rate that was aggravated by the incidence of yellow fever to which the men were exposed. When Costa Rica's economy turned to the foreign-owned banana trade and folded another wave of West Indian immigrants into Limon, their destinies became bound to the decisions made by the Costa Rican government's protection of the United Fruit Company's monopoly over all aspects of the banana trade, including its predominantly West Indian labor force. Faced with derision, they refuse to lose their primary identification as English and Creole-speaking, Protestant, British subjects. They respond by reaffirming their community's Afro-Caribbean uniqueness rather than assimilating into Spanish-speaking Costa Rican society, gathering to celebrate Coronation day, to herald the greatness of the British Empire, and to recite poetry at the headquarters of the UNIA. (2) LB thus depicts a community that faces economic violence and political marginalization whilst nonetheless establishing bountiful transnational ties with a plethora of Afro-Caribbean communities in the area.

Telumee, who consistently refused to work in the sugarcane fields for what it might do to her dignity, finally accepts work on the plantation when living on wild fruit puts her on the brink of starvation. She faces the same predicament that has broken other cane cutters in her community. As machetes skim low, the stems fall, and the prickles fly over her body and into the orifices of her body, Telumee thinks to herself: "It's here in the midst of the cane prickles that a Negro ought to be. But in the evening, when I got back to La Folie in my sacking apron, my face and hands all torn, I'd feel a faint, smiling sadness over me, and then I thought that groveling about like that in the cane fields I'd turn into a beast and even the mother of men wouldn't know me" (Schwarz-Bart 137). When she emerges from that condition, she resolves to protect her people from the exploitation that crushes their spirit. Observing that the post-slavery context has led many of the community's women to submit fatalistically to the violence that engulfs them, Telumee becomes the matriarch of the community that she takes under her wings. She thus joins a small cross-section of women who are both sought-after, scorned, and mythicized; women whose powerful knowledge of magic is unquestioned.

Like Telumee in PV, Nanah in LB faces insults and suspicion for the religious rites she practices as a way to amend the damage done to her community. As bridges, the women must vehemently face veneration and scorn from those very same individuals they protect. They accept the price of asserting their own volition while establishing their relationality with life and death, with that which is animate and inanimate. As Nanah tells her husband after he rebukes her for communing with spiritual forces to deliver punishment on the Scottish trader who raped their nine-year-old son, "Look Prince. Usted me quiere. Pero tambien detesta. Odia mis aceites. De cat o' nine. De oregano. De calvario. Le gusta lo que le doy contra la fiebre amarilla. Odia mi cuenta de ambar. Odia el jiggey. Ese manojo de hierbas en el armario con llave. La muerte me dio el jiggey. No le temo a la muerte. Porque trato con ella. [...]. Todo es del espiritu. La salud y la vida" (Rossi 98). Watching, Orlandus feels gratitude and recalls his mother desperately searching the soil on all fours for roots during a period of famine they experienced together in Jamaica. As he concludes much later in the novel upon observing his wife, Irene, cross the boundary from the living to the spirits to save him from drowning, these spiritual practices indeed guarantee health and have the power to restore the balance of life.


With pride in her soul, Telumee looks within her community and finds in it women who have been crushed and others who have risen above the depths of their agony. Telumee recalls that her mother, Victory, would once sing even as she wore out her wrists washing, drying, starching, and ironing. She was a woman with very dark skin who "looked on human speech as a loaded gun," carried her head high, and was never sad in public (Schwarz-Bart 17). After losing her young son and her husband, Victory becomes an alcoholic who can no longer care for her young daughters, Telumee and Regina. Ten-year-old Telumee is sent live with Queen and Regina is sent to live with her father in Basse-Terre, where she grows up sleeping in a bed instead of a mat, eats apples from France instead of harvested roots, wears dresses with puff sleeves instead of shifts, learns grammar and arithmetic in school instead of herbs and lore from her formerly enslaved grandmother, and is set on becoming an elegant city lady (Schwarz-Bart 40). Victory boasts about this child: "Regina has all the columns of the white folk in her head, she writes as fast as a horse can gallop" (Schwarz-Bart 40). Meanwhile, Telumee takes account of what Victory and Regina have both lost--pride in their blackness and the value of working with one's hands, including the physical labor involved in kinship and spirituality.

Telumee has been raised by two women wholly unlike her mother and sister. She quickly becomes Queen's "crystal" and receives a wealth of wisdom from Queen, whose simple home "mark[s] the end of the world of human beings and look[s] as if it were leaning against the mountain" (Schwarz-Bart 28). The young girl grows in the deep love of her grandmother and through the creole sayings that Queen uses on a daily basis. Queen teaches Telumee not to look at, but to see the land and the hearts of their people. When she crosses a bridge to their secluded community, Fond-Zombi unfolds before her eyes: "a fantastic plain with bluff after bluff, field after field stretching into the distance, up to the gash in the sky that was the mountain itself, Balata Bel Bois" (Schwarz-Bart 27-28). Even as an adult, she marvels at the sensation of feeling that she is in her right place in life, to which her grandmother responds in a way that deepens the mystical relationships that make this possible: "Picking up a dry branch, she started to draw a shape in the loose earth at her feet. It looked like a spider's web, with the threads intersecting to make ridiculously little houses. 'That's Fond-Zombi' [she said]. 'You see the houses are nothing without the threads that join them together'" (Schwarz-Bart 84-85). Queen's lessons are the fruit of mystical practices that have been translated into messages that the clairvoyant young girl can understand. From Ma Cia, the wise woman living on the mountain in a home that belongs "entirely to the spirits of the forest," Telumee learns how to heal and how to curse. Over the course of her apprenticeship with Ma Cia, Telumee cultivates the use of her hands and heart in an effort to repair the damage inflicted by slavery, and will always recall her last conversation with Ma Cia, who observed: "We have been goods for auction, and now we are left with fractured hearts" (Schwarz-Bart 130). Telumee's perceptions of womanhood, labor and the need to suture the wounds inflicted since the time of slavery --when "barrels of meat were worth more than us" (Schwarz-Bart 130)--are drawn from her observations of the somatic labor these women carry out with their very own hands. As K. Merinda Simmons (2014) poignantly notes, "how womanhood is presented and manipulated in changing geographies is affected by the kinds of work women do--from place to different place, in physical contexts of labor that are ever-varying, comprising a diachronic panorama that yields prospects of cross-temporal theorization and more exacting accounts of diaspora" (10). This observation holds in PV, as Telumee continues along her path of spiritual praxis, labor which prizes the use of hands and seeing with one's heart.

Over time, Telumee accepts her community's request that she become its bedrock: "The rumor spread that I knew how to do and undo, that I knew secrets, and with a vast waste of saliva, I was raised to the rank of seer and first-class witch. People ... put in my hands the grief, confusion, and absurdity of their lives, bruised bodies and bruised souls" (Schwarz-Bart 156-157). In taking her rightful place as a Negress, as she calls herself, Telumee defies the lessons about la civilization francaise and la mere patrie she received in the schools established in Guadeloupe in 1912 under the French Third Republic. Instead, she submits herself to the spirit world around her and the corporeal labor of healing and kinship. Telumee's responsibility--as well as Irene's in LB, as we shall see next--is to restore former slaves and their descendants to their original state. Noel Leo Erskine (2014) observes:

In African Traditional Religions everyone is born whole, everyone is born sinless. This means, among other things, that everyone has equal access to the tree of life. [...] In African traditional religions, it is not sin that is original; it is wholeness, it is wellness. Sin is an intrusion and has no ontological status in relation to human beings. Sin is parasitic and is not constitutive of what it means to be human. To be human is to receive one's life as a gift with all heaven and earth in the service of sustaining and supporting wholeness and wellness. (60)

The enslavement of African peoples was sinful precisely because it denied them equal access to the tree of life, an intrusion in the perfect condition of wholeness that was not repaired by the statutes that ordered emancipation. In this context, the work of healing to wholeness is done by women who can reestablish the "ancestral spiritual power through which flows the life force that animates the world and makes it come alive" and those who understand that it is "impossible to make it in a cruel world of suffering and oppression without the agency of the ancestors, who are encountered in the babbling streams and the beauty of nature" (Erskine 1, 33). An approach that channels the will of Telumee in PV and Irene in LB toward relationality across mystical planes--an objective distinct from that afforded by traditional Christianity--is critical in order to serve as a bridge between the spirits of ancestors and the living.

Like Telumee, Irene in LB is an orphan. Her mother loses her mind after finding out that the local butcher captures and slaughters black slave girls in order to make a highly coveted sausage she is regularly sent by her masters to purchase (Rossi 243). The condition is aggravated when, during the Cuban War of Independence--in which enslavement was a decisive issue--Irene's mother is placed in a concentration camp by the pro-slavery Spanish and finally perishes. Irene thus comes of age as an orphan after the abolition of slavery in Cuba (1886), which occurs forty-eight years after the abolition of slavery in Jamaica, from whence her in-laws and husband originate. The ghosts of slavery, dehumanization, and agony linger in the collective memory of the Afro-Caribbean immigrants in Limon, many of whom were themselves were enslaved and whom have living parents and kin who were enslaved, in Cuba, Jamaica, or elsewhere in the Circum-Caribbean. In a manner that mirrors Telumee's story, Irene is raised by two women who are the spiritual anchors of the community, her great aunt, Tia Jesusa, and her much older cousin, Talita, who raised her within the Regla de Ocha African spirituality circle. She has a special affinity for Ochun, Yemaya, Oya, and Eleggua and although she is aware of the social price for practicing the religion, she does not delay in showing her gratitude to the spirits when she recognizes their intervention. When a sea current overtakes her and Orlandus, she saves herself by crying out, "Santa Virgen de la Regla ... Madre del mar, a ti me doy, de todos la mas generosa" (Rossi 142). Watching Orlandus fight the powerful sea and failing to control its power, she goes back under the water to find his body, praying "Yemaya, a ti me entrego, de todos la mas generosa" and when she loses his body in the water again, she screams " Eleggua, senor de los caminos, quitame los obstaculos y las wembas!" (Rossi 143). She restores him to wholeness with a blow to the chest and a final cry of " Eluggua!," and when his lifeless body is back on the sand she urges him to praise the spirits to whom they are indebted: "'Yo recibi los collares de la santeria. Te explico porque juntos debemos hacer addimu para agradecer que salimos vivos del mar. Ven.' [...] Al pie de lo que ella llamaba ceiba y el cotton tree, Irene puso un plato y ordeno en el porciones pequenas de pollo, pescado, arroz y dulces." (Rossi 144). Throughout her formative years, she has assumed the energy, love and commitment to the spirits that she learned from Tia Jesusa and Talita. For their knowledge and sense of duty to the spirit world, Irene and the spiritual women are scorned in the increasingly orthodox Protestant context of Limon.

In her analysis of post-slavery texts, Susana M. Morris (2014) calls attention to the fact that "Black folk are exceedingly creative in fashioning intimate familial relationships that serve their needs but do not necessarily affirm idealized social norms" (136). What is at stake for Morris, and in the present note, is illuminating the various strategies for establishing relationality that have the potential for creating healthy, loving families in the aftermath of the shattering effects of enslavement. In LB, Nanah continues in her role as spiritual healer for her community while Irene delivers herself fully to what she feels is a calling to become a spiritual guide to her husband and children. She maintains a strong devotion to the women who carry the spiritual tradition forward, leading the reader to understand the values she will transmit to her children after they lose their grandfather and father. In the final pages, she and Nanah are left standing to connect the new generation of Robinson children to the spiritual realm of their ancestors. Irene observes, lost in seeing with her heart: "aparecieron dos tambores, uno grande, otro pequeno. Las mujeres de blanco y rojo empezaron los cantos con el ritmo de fondo. [...] Hablaban del rio Jordan, de una linea muy tenue entre los vivos y los muertos, de lluvias torrenciales. Rain oh fall oh heavy rain fall ... Irene sintio que la ceremonia revival le aliviaba la herida de su viudez doble" (Rossi 370-371). Irene closes her eyes, letting the sounds of the beating drums take her over her body and soul, submitting herself to the rhythm that does not stop until the conch is heard, announcing Prince's spirit's to return back to Africa. The spirit realm might very well be "abstracto e implacable," concludes Irene while watching Nanah move through the realms of the living and the deceased with grace and power, but in it there is an undeniable truth.


Rarely has the field of philosophy admitted the contributions of women, much less the work of Afro-Caribbean women (Henry). (3) The ontological and phenomenogical questions that Afro-Caribbean women raise and provide answers to in spiritual circles, kitchens and other private spaces have been largely left unturned in formal philosophy. As the earliest studies of maternal genealogies in Afro-Caribbean literature by Hochberg (2003), Rodriguez (1994), Sadoff (1985), and Scharfman (1981) through the more recent scholarship cited throughout this note illustrate, Afro-Caribbean women's philosophical work is still widely interpreted at best as feminist inquiries or musings about a gendered experience that do not engage with larger philosophical questions. As this note comes to its conclusion, it highlights three ways that PV and LB invite readers into the private spaces where Afro-Caribbean women dispense with social conventions and present themselves as philosophers of living entities and souls. Poignantly, the novels invite readers to consider how the physical labor involved in suturing wounds and bridging our world with that of the ancestors sparks philosophical questions and drives philosophical pursuits.

Henry locates the first expression of Afro-Caribbean philosophy in the West African religious ontologies and practices that were observed by enslaved practitioners and soon became, "the primary lens through which the consciousness of a racialized and colonized existence was articulated" (5). As the portrayals of Guadeloupian Vodun in PV and the depictions of Jamaican Obeah and Cuban Regla de Ocha in LB indicate, the first phase of Afro-Caribbean philosophy distinguished itself from others because of the predominant role that an individual's or deceased body's spirit played in its philosophical framework. This leads to the strong existential, moral, cosmogonic, and empirical themes that distinguish this approach from the Christian-influenced second phase of Afro-Caribbean spirituality. With their mutual concern for women who serve as bridges between the world of the living and the realm of souls, PV and LB can be read as treatises in spiritual philosophy. As evidenced in preceding sections, they engage with questions about the absolute spiritual forces in the natural world that possess higher ontological statuses than that of human beings. Significantly, these texts pose and answer metaphysical and phenomenological questions in a manner that philosophy has not hitherto attributed to enslaved Afro-Caribbean peoples and their descendants. Metaphysics drives the exploration into the nature of being, existence, and reality: all questions with which Afro-Caribbean communities grapple in the aftermath of slavery and in the context of their dispersal throughout the Circum-Caribbean. Spiritual philosophy lays the groundwork for explaining the metaphysical and phenomenological qualities of subjectivity occurring across time and planes of consciousness. These practices indeed bring to bear Afro-Caribbean philosopher Marcus Garvey's observation that: "human self-realization, whether individual or racial, required an ever-deepening knowledge of one's self that included its spiritual foundations" (Henry 208). Yet, the spiritual foundation here is not the Christianity that grounds Garvey's philosophical work. It is instead espiritismo, which is the bedrock of the first phase of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. As Diana Espirito Santo explains: "In espiritismo each person is a world, replete with his or her own seeds of existence and yet brought into existence only in and through his or her unfolding on a corporeal, social, and material plane, where these potentials become objects to themselves and others" (xiii). Selves are thus extended through the spirits and through mediation with them in a material world in which spiritual and physical matter is in flux. The protagonists' role as a medium of communication and analysis between the world of the living and the realm of souls foments their study of concrete human existence, including individual will and relationality in post-slavery contexts.

PV and LB dialogue with scholarship on kinship ties and oral traditions in post-enslavement literary contexts. Valerie Loichot observes that in Afro-Caribbean texts: "Family and narrative transmission come to each other's rescue, the one palliating missing links in the other. When the actual family is dismembered, narrative accounts invent new familial links. Reciprocally, biological family ties endure in spite of the literal and discursive violence inflicted on them" (2). Slavery, Loichot (2007) explains, enacted two murder attempts on family: literally as slave traders and slave holders enforced legal family codes, and through the conversion of reproduction into production when infants and children were turned into capital units. Loichot finds that Afro-Caribbean orphan narratives reflect on the fractures in family genealogies as a result of slavery and post-emancipation dispersal, without relegating protagonists to the position of victims. Importantly, the novels discussed in this note present readers with artfully constructed fictional female characters who despite being orphans, are at the center of family reconstruction, genealogists that take possession of the spirit world--and allow themselves to possessed by the spirit world--in order to ensure cultural continuity. Their family becomes not only those with close biological ties, but those whom they have resolved to heal. Poignantly, PV and LB deploy generative historicist phenomenology in order to study how meaning is generated in historical processes of collective experience over time. They do so by analyzing the places that break the spirit of Afro-Caribbean communities as sites where black communities have nonetheless created ethical, and epistemological systems that differ substantially from those adopted by white Guadeloupians or Costa Ricans. The distinction is wholly attributed to the value that protagonists give to spiritual causation, an ontological feature that persists since the arrival of the first enslaved African philosophers in the Circum-Caribbean. As Kwame Gyeke (1995) notes, in African philosophy, spirits are invoked in "extraordinary" situations to enact their spiritual causality on a critical historical context and heal those affected by its circumstances. In PV and LB the extraordinary situations are the fictional present of post-slavery in which expertly crafted protagonists rise to overcome the yoke of slavery with their extraordinary abilities to bridge spiritual and physical states.

The philosophical importance of PV and LB cannot be understated. As Gregory Currie observes, "some works have a capacity to embody philosophical ideas in ways which are both important and unmatched by other sources" (647). The protagonists in PV and LB revel in their spiritual gnosis and their transformation into spiritual women who are proud of their blackness, their relationships with those they nurture, and their ability to channel the spiritual energy of ancestors and the natural world. As such, they marvel at the life-giving possibilities of spiritual practices. They are women who use their hands and hearts to transmit the origin narratives of their peoples, women to whom the suffering of their people is equal to their own suffering. These are the wise, mystical women whose position at the threshold of the world of the living and the realm of souls brings forth the clairvoyance to understand their own place in the world, whilst establishing for their families and communities a place in the chain of ontological continuity. In bringing about the physical and spiritual healing necessary to counter the centuries during which African peoples were violently enslaved and put on vessels across the Atlantic Ocean, the women reestablish the sense of knowing self and history that slavery pillaged and plundered.


Berges Curbelo, Juana, et al. Los llamados nuevos movimientos religiosos en el Gran Caribe. Editores CEA, 2006.

Caceres Gomez, Rina. Rutas de la esclavitud en Africa y America Latina. Editorial de la U de Costa Rica, 2001.

Currie, Gregory. "Methods in the Philosophy of Literature and Film." The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Methodology, edited by Herman Cappelen et al., Oxford UP, 2016, pp. 641-57.

Danticat, Edwidge. The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. Graywolf Press, 2017.

Erskine, Noel Leo. Plantation Church: How African American Religion was Born in Caribbean Slavery. Oxford UP, 2014.

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Morris, Susana M. Close Kin and Distant Relatives: The Paradox of Respectability in Black Women's Literature. U of Virginia P, 2014.

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University of Minnesota Duluth

(1) The Spanish Crown issued first asiento--a license permitting Europeans to traffic and enslave West African peoples--in 1518. The first Circum-Caribbean republic to end slavery was Haiti in 1804 through its Declaration of Independence from France. The last two countries in were Cuba in 1886 and Brazil in 1888. See Rout (1976) and Caceres Gomez (2001).

(2) A chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association was established in Limon, Costa Rica in 1922. For more on migration to/from Limon, Kingston, Colon, Bocas del Toro, Santiago de Cuba, and a dozen other ports, see Putnam (2002).

(3) Two important Afro-Caribbean philosophers who should be studied more closely as such are and Sylvia Wynter (1928-) and Maryse Conde (1937-).
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Author:Gomez Menjivar, Jennifer Carolina
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Date:Jan 1, 2019

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