Charcoal and Cinnamon: The Politics of Color in Spanish Caribbean Literature.
Charcoal and Cinnamon proposes an auspicious project: "to explore what it means to be black or mulatto and female in the Caribbean. It brings together the work of Caribbean writers, both male and female, and looks at the way in which they have used language to represent... women of African ethnic origin." Such scholarly research can be very useful in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, where studies sometime underestimate the African heritage, and even the very Caribbean nature of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.
This book, however, has serious shortcomings. The decision not to consider this literature as Latin American literature has prevented the author from realizing the innovative nature of Cuban, Dominican, and Puerto Rican literature as part of a continental body of literature and culture. Although Spanish Caribbean literature copied European trends until the nineteenth century, it nevertheless enriched world literature with such notable contributions as the distinctively American romanticism of Jose Maria Heredia (among others). The Modernismo movement was born in Latin America and afterwards influenced Spanish continental literature. Jose Marti was one of its precursors.
The author also fails to recognize one of the main differences between the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and the English-speaking Caribbean. In the former, as in most territories elsewhere in Latin America, the wars of independence were catalysts for the formation of national identities. Moreover, even though most Caribbean territories had a similar background of plantation economy and thus slavery, absentee British planters had no interest in cultural development, whereas in the Spanish territories academic institutions and a network of literary periodicals accounted for the early formation of a Creole population whose views and interests were, necessarily, different from those of their metropolitan counterparts. In fact, many white Creole landowners had economic interests that promoted an early drive for the abolition of slavery. Notably, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes freed his slaves so that they could fight for Cuban Independence, and from the very beginning ex-slaves fought alongside their former masters in the independence army. In the Ten Years War, it was a mulatto man of very humble origin who commanded the army in the tactically decisive "Invasion de Oriente a Occidente," General Antonio Maceo. Together with Jose Marti and the Dominican Maximo Gomez, he is considered one of the national heroes of Cuban Independence and one of the international heroes of the Americas.
While it is undeniable that there was--and still is--racism in the Spanish Caribbean, social and historical factors contributed to the formation of a nationality of mixed origins. The prevailing ideology of that society was necessarily different from that of other Caribbean territories that gained their national independence years later. To equate the social and cultural phenomena of both is as misleading as to equate the literature of any of those islands with Haitian literature, born in the first black-governed country of the Western hemisphere.
Another problem with the ambitious agenda of Charcoal and Cinnamon is the lack of explanation or sources for important polemical assertions. Using the paradigms of race, color, class, and gender, the author tries to prove her view with literary examples from the three Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean. Most of the examples are poems, all of them in English translations. Since in poetry the connotative meaning even of isolated words is important, depriving the reader of the Spanish originals is another factor that hinders this book. In most cases Williams herself provides translations--at times faulty translations, due to a lack of knowledge of the Spanish context, which results in a biased or erroneous interpretation. Deficient knowledge of Spanish Caribbean culture also leads the author to misinterpretation. For example, Williams refers to the "grotesquely exaggerated images" in a poem about the rumba dance. But rumba is a pantomime about the sexual act; it is deliberately, not grotesquely, exagger ated as the man attempts to vacunar the woman and she "defends" herself from the vacunao; rumba and guaguanco are explicit references to sexual intercourse. William tries to use a feminist discourse about sexuality and culture in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, but the subject is so complex, with so many nuances that are culturally specific, that such analysis certainly cannot be done with the self-righteous outlook that pervades Charcoal and Cinnamon, leading to such judgments as "bestial images," "wanton lust," or "refuting the negrista's vision of non[-]reproductive eroticism."
Another problem is the author's inadequate familiarity with the syncretic religions of African origin in the Spanish Caribbean region. She seems to confuse voodoo with Santeria. The two come from completely different African origins. When analyzing the poem "Carida" the author writes of "Yeyema, the Yoruba goddess of rivers and springs," whereas the goddess of rivers and springs is Oshun. Williams may have wanted to refer to Yemaya, the Yoruba goddess of oceans and seas. One also wishes that the author had found her own original sources for analysis instead of relying very heavily on selections made by previous critics.
Despite its shortcomings. Charcoal and Cinnamon is an interesting approach to such Caribbean issues as the social and psychological insecurity of the mulatto and the ambivalence of the white Caribbean toward racial mixture. On this topic Williams provide valuable examples taken from the literature of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, revealing the complex attitudes and feelings toward race pervading Caribbean cultures and societies.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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