Dreaming in color: race and the spectacular in The Aguero Sisters and Praisesong for the Widow.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1)
What Frantz Fanon articulates here is a kind of spectacular anxiety, a phenomenon that flourishes in an exhibitory environment: not so much the emblematic theater, but rather the color-bound society in which the theater operates. Fanon is a black man, a Martinican, and he sits quietly in the movie theater anticipating the coming spectacle of the screen. Those around him, white faces presumably, do the same, and yet a far more urgent, violent drama unfolds, one in which black skin slips uncomfortably into the role of spectacle (supplanting even the screen) by virtue of its distinction from and subordination to white skin. Even Fanon cannot help but position himself as the object of his own surveillance. He envisions himself waiting there in the theater, waiting to see himself yet again in the film at hand. The self-reflexive waiting and watching, and the awareness of those examining eyes around him also waiting and watching, produces a kind of nausea. Fanon wonders how the screen will represent him: no matter that he himself will not appear in the movie (he is no actor); the reductive fact of his darkness is sufficient to bind him inextricably to whatever representation of black men the film may offer. Will he be "battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave ships, and above all else, above all: 'sho' good eatin'"? (2)
Spectacle and "difference" go often together, frequently as cell mates. Fanon feels himself shift into his position as the object of the spectacle simply (and yet not so simply) because he is Afro-Caribbean, and he comes into the role with a profound conscious unwillingness, yet so entrenched are the ideas situating him there that he can offer little resistance to the power of the spectacle. Indeed this is the real business of social spectacle: power. While Fanon's experience implies that spectacle derives from the subject's exoticism--from the subject's difference from an accepted standard and rarity within a given context (perhaps he is the only black man in a theater where most patrons are white)--there is more to social spectacle than the exploitation of difference. The relationship between spectacle and spectator is indeed a hegemonic one, defined by both power and powerlessness. It is in this sense that Fanon's individual and representative experience, concepts of social spectacle and what Guy Debord calls the "spectacular economy," begin to mobilize questions and ideas about exoticism as a white lens for viewing the nonwhite Caribbean. (3) For here, too, within the mythology of exoticism, the relationship between object and spectator might seem to reveal the lure of difference, the seductive powers of the exotic, and indeed it does to a certain extent. Yet one must ask why the Caribbean makes for such fascinating spectacle? What is it that suits it so perfectly to this role? Is not the Caribbean also a kind of dark figure sitting in the dim theater of white Western tourism? Even now? "The spectacle is not a collection of images," says Debord, "rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images." (4) That this "social relationship" abides by rules regarding race, gender, and class goes practically without saying, but I will say it anyway. (5)
Broadly defined, this project is concerned with the manner in which two contemporary Caribbean American authors contend with the complex function of spectacle in their respective Caribbeans. While Paule Marshall critiques and subverts the mythology of the exotic spectacle in the Caribbean, Cristina Garcia seems to yield to it, and the gulf between the two authors reveals the scope and complexity of the Caribbean literary dialogue. Ultimately I look to fiction emerging from or written about the Caribbean to treat that region's women carefully, perhaps because the region itself often has not. I always hope to find stories that help move Caribbean women beyond easy stereotypes and out of ideological and material bondage. This work is no exception.
If the racist spectacle of dark skin enrages Frantz Fanon, what it has done to women of African heritage can hardly be overstated. Historically, nonwhite women living in the West, chiefly those of African heritage, but also Latinas and Asian and Indigenous women, have been singled out for exposure, exhibition, and the horrors that often follow. "The black female subject in the New World," says Carole Boyce Davies, "is born within the context of commodification and has only been able to resist it when deliberately re-claiming itself outside of the terms of and in resistance to this commodification." (6) The dark female body has long been emblematic of the naturalized spectacle; it is "natural" (a normalized act) to survey and evaluate the female body (we see this still), and it has historically been deemed perfectly "natural" to subjugate the darker (than white, of course) races; thus we see a long history of the spectacle of nonwhite women and the assumed sexual availability that involuntary role suggests. African women in the colonized Caribbean had to be watched when they were slaves to ensure that they did not escape, watched when they were free to ensure they did not steal, watched to keep them from tempting men in power or watched to ensure that they did, watched always to control, to harness their power, to silence their tongues. African slave women of the Middle Passage were compelled to remain on the quarterdecks to be accessible for rape, to be exposed and visible and thereby vulnerable to unspeakable horrors. (7) This history of watching communicates both the power of imperial law and the power of black threat; such surveillance has certainly been about containing something mighty. Spectacle, then, as it concerns the black female body, foregrounds both its powerlessness and its power. The object of the spectacle experiences anxiety and discomfort and yet inspires those sensations as well, and the cycle of anxiety and oppression thrives.
A distinction should be made, however, between, in Davies's words, "questions of spectatorship, location and the male gaze on the one hand and the ability of women to transform their own spaces on the other." (8) Her examination of Caribbean and Brazilian carnival is useful to my point, because within that discussion she identifies two distinct types of carnival; that is, two different rationales for the body as spectacle. Davies defines the "carnival of resistance" as a kind of political project occupying the "same pole as slave rebellions, uprisings," and cannes brulees. (9) As Russo, drawing upon Bakhtin, explains, this category of carnival with its object of interrupting dominant discourse should be viewed chiefly as a "site of insurgency." (10) That the object of the gaze is essentially the agent of the spectacle in this particular scenario is of immense importance, for the fact of agency denotes a profound shift in the usual power dynamic within a spectator-object relationship. This is the deliberate reclamation of which Davies speaks, or a "methodology of the oppressed," as Chicana theorist Chela Sandoval describes it, wherein the oppressed appropriate and revise oppressive systems for their own subversive objectives often through postcolonial mimesis; thus the carnival, that popular "native" spectacle, becomes a system that effects upheaval and sounds a dissenting voice where none was possible. (11) The spectator to a "carnival of resistance" does not get to choose a comfortable, empowering subject for consumption; rather, this sort of reclaimed spectacle acts upon the onlooker subversively, often inducing a subtle sense of discomfort, insecurity, and--most important--displacement.
Davies identifies a second type of spectacle, which she calls the "carnival of cooptation and tourism." Primarily concerned with "selling the location and the body as site of pleasure of outsiders," the "carnival of cooptation and tourism" maintains the traditional object-spectator relationship in which the (most often) white, imperialistic onlooker is made to feel superior to and somehow in control of (usually through the economic power to consume) the nonwhite figures he or she observes. (12) I do not view the subject as agent, even though he or she may be complicit in the spectacular process; in other words, the object is not literally forced to perform (not directly anyway). Rather, it is the goal and rationale of the spectacle that define it as cooptation or insurgency; so, while spectacle can be a site of resistance and empowerment, the history of the black female body as compulsory spectacle too often belies such a possibility.
In her highly acclaimed novel, The Aguero Sisters, Cuban-American author
Cristina Garcia provides a vivid example of the ease with which, even now, and even within works by "ethnic writers," in this case a Latina author, the black female body slips uncritiqued into the role of spectacle. Garcia's first novel, Dreaming in Cuban (1992), enjoyed a warm, indeed effusive, reception from reviewers. The novel's front and back covers are peppered with glowing accolades: The New York Times Book Review hailed it as a "marvelous jewel;" Newsweek called it "magical," the Denver Post "brilliant," and the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani praised it as "dazzling ... remarkable." All the usual adjectives were called into action, and from an artistic standpoint, they were certainly warranted. The only reservations the reviewers expressed concerned structural matters or Garcia's use of fragmented, multiple narrative voices. A nomination for the National Book Award would eventually underscore Dreaming in Cuban's critical success. Garcia's second novel, The Aguero Sisters (1997), enjoyed much the same swell of enthusiasm as the first. Garcia has established herself, by nearly all accounts, as a deft, supple and wholly original writer.
While literary critics now frequently include Garcia in their discussions of magical realism, exilic or immigrant writers, and mother-daughter relationships, little if anything has been said about the issue I found most striking when I first read Dreaming in Cuban several years ago. (13) I was struck at that time by her depiction of race, more specifically by her characterization of Afro-Cubans. I have returned to both Dreaming in Cuban and The Aguero Sisters time and again because I recognize the paucity of novels by Cuban, and to a lesser degree, Cuban-American women, and quite simply, because I wanted to appreciate Garcia's fiction with the abandon expressed by so many critics. (14) The reality, however, is that Garcia's Afro-Cuban characters, though in some ways complex and compelling, draw too often upon essentialist ideologies and deeply rooted Western fetishized ideas about the Caribbean. Implicit in their rendering is a Western consciousness of and even thirst for exotic, sensationalized spectacle with regard to Cuba and especially its African heritage.
Profoundly troubling, these images deserve critical attention, especially given that Garcia has, on one occasion at least, explicitly expressed her desire to do largely the opposite of what I find in her novels; that is, to reclaim through her writing the African component of Cuban identity. (15) With Cuba's slave history and an Afro-Cuban population of around 70 percent, the African component of any Cuban identity is considerable. I do not intend to psychoanalyze Cristina Garcia or even to make moral pronouncements about her, but I do assert through this reading of her fiction the insidiousness and naturalization of racial stereotypes, especially of black women as spectacle, those stereotypes' capacity to infiltrate and contaminate every image, idea, every vestige of the things we think we know, and the virtually inescapable power of racist discourse even among and within "ethnic" groups.
It is worthwhile to note that Garcia moved to the United States at the age of two and grew up in New York "in quite an upscale neighborhood," as she tells Allan Vorda in an interview, a neighborhood in which the Garcias were the only Cuban residents. (16) In an interview with Iraida Lopez, Garcia says that the issue of ethnic identity is important to her "even though I didn't grow up as part of any Latin or Cuban community. For me, being Cuban was very much a family affair.... On the other hand, this Cuban identity wasn't that relevant as I moved through the rest of my life." (17) She approaches Cuba and Cuban characters therefore through her eyes as a Cuban-American certainly, but also through a Western lens. In other words, as the interview with Lopez indicates, Garcia comes at Afro-Cuban culture very much as outsider, which of course greatly increases the possibility for misrepresentation, not in comparison to some authentic original, but rather in the sense that her ideas arrive filtered through the matrix of images and information I have named exoticism--as do my own. (18)
Before the body can move into the spotlight of the spectacle, one must determine that it is the right sort of body for the job, that it is suited for the spectacle, that it is different in all the right (or wrong) ways. That "difference" is keenly felt in the distinction commonly made between the exotic and the domestic, the Westerner and the Caribbean Islander, and the power of spectacle rests upon the seduction of difference. Exoticism, like Said's Orientalism, is "ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar ... and the strange." (19) And this promotion affords the white spectator in the Caribbean both commercial and personal power. The conceptualization and marketing of "difference" continues to motivate Caribbean tourism: "tourists are encouraged to view this 'difference' as a part of what they have a right to consume on their holiday. The construction of difference takes place around ideas such as 'natural' vs. 'civilized,' leisure vs. work, exotic vs. mundane, rich vs. poor, sexual vs. repressive, [and] powerful vs. powerless." (20) Difference is that thing that gets our attention and piques our interest, and that we are conditioned to desire and even expect to consume in some manner.
That she is "different," exotic, is precisely what we learn of Reina Aguero within the first few pages of Garcia's second novel, The Aguero Sisters. Garcia forges a careful divide between Reina and her sister Constancia, and the difference between them aggressively asserts the natural spectacle of Reina's body. A shrewd businesswoman and devoted wife, Constancia finds financial success wherever she goes, in whatever she does, and "considers her image her most effective selling tool." (21) Ultimately Constancia becomes a kind of beauty cult celebrity in Miami, where she sells products that target aging Cubanas. Garcia describes her as having soft white or pink skin, hair arranged in a French bun, and a petite figure often clad in a fitted suit and pearls. (22) Her manner is "precise," and everything about her appears constructed, deliberately put together to achieve success, elicit respect, and ward off intimacy.
Reina Aguero is actually only half-sister to Constancia; they share a mother and are raised by the same father, but Reina's biological father is a tall dark man of African descent with whom her mother once had an affair. Predictably, Reina could not provide a greater contrast to her sister Constancia. An electrician in Castro's Cuba, Reina is described as dark and sensual, an Amazon who climbs coconut trees when she wants a rum and coconut milk, who distrusts conventional discourse, and who understands the "private language of nature." (23) In this respect, Reina greatly resembles Jean-Jacques Rousseau's famous noble savage. (24) She is sexually voracious, often leaving men "weak and inconsolable for months," and "after she departs, black owls are frequently sighted in the ceiba trees." (25) Aligning black women with nature is of course a very old method for dehumanizing and primitivizing them, reducing them to something quite different from white citizens in more than skin color and therefore deserving of a different kind of law. So Reina's difference from Constancia is not quite the point; Constancia isn't even particularly likable, after all. The point is that embedded within her difference is a kind of primitivism that seems terribly misplaced in a contemporary novel about Afro-Cubans.
That Garcia's depiction of Reina is largely sympathetic, perhaps even more sympathetic than that of Constancia, is without question, although sympathy and patronage go often together. Reina clearly embodies those qualities we tend to romanticize, such as freedom of spirit, self-confidence, physical strength, and total disregard for social convention. I like Reina Aguero. In fact, compared to Reina, Constancia appears stilted, strapped into her costly suits, almost asexual. Yet this contrast, I would argue, works more aggressively against Reina than might be immediately apparent. Claudette M. Williams, in her work on the politics of color in Spanish Caribbean literature, reminds us that "sensuality" has long existed as a category for representing the mulata. "Implied in this construction of race is the desexualization of white women that Romantic literary discourse had engendered," says Williams; "the fiery sensuality of the 'dark woman' depended for its expression on the contrasting coldness of the 'fair lady.'" (26) This idea certainly applies to the Aguero sisters. Reina, for example, is dark where Constancia is light; she is highly sexual where Constancia is nearly asexual; she is irrational and emotional where Constancia adheres to reason, and she is aligned with nature in contrast with Constancia's careful civilization. All of these binaries resort to tired racial types and Island mulata mythology of the natural, earthy, and sensual primitive. Thus, even if we view the fair-skinned Constancia as frigid (a fraught term), that frigidity only sets up Reina's Afro-Cuban or mulata essence of languageless, anti-intellectual sexuality. She is the classic exotic type, embodying the very heart of wild, untamed Cuba, something to which Garcia's nostalgic Miami exiles are uncontrollably drawn.
Indeed it is when Reina comes to visit Constancia in Miami that her difference is most explicit, that we suddenly see the embedded potential of the dark woman to enter into the hegemony of spectacle. Reina is immediately, upon her arrival, the subject of the gaze, the hungry gaze of men and the jealous eyes of women: "Constancia's female acquaintances plead with her to keep Reina under lock and key" because their husbands cannot resist the lure and rhythm of her flesh, and indeed she has a number of affairs with local married men, Latin men. (27) She appears before Miami Cubans, particularly males, as an apparition from a far-off land, an exotic daydream, "temptation incarnate," and watching her carefully, eagerly, comes quite naturally to all involved. (28)
Even Constancia is awed by Reina's peculiar beauty and cannot help but become spectator in her presence: "Constancia watches as Reina gets dressed, the ease with which she moves her body, the concert of muscles like something well reasoned. Reina's breasts are beautiful, too, soft and generous." (29) The language is surely sympathetic; it conveys Constancia's admiration for both Reina's body and for Reina's comfort with it. It even betrays Constancia's sense of her own physical and sensual inadequacy next to Reina's innate ease and beauty. Reina's flesh clearly mobilizes in her sister a profound sense of loss and longing, but even if we read Reina as metaphor for the exile's hungry gaze homeward, the fact that such longing is cast in mostly sexual terms and projected onto the exposed body of the unselfconscious mulata shouldn't be ignored, for the "most distinctive and pervasive among the representations of the woman of African descent in Spanish Caribbean literature are those that center on her sexuality." (30)
The naturalized frequency and readiness with which Reina's body functions as spectacle is troubling, largely because of the legacy this fact invokes. We are told, for example, that men are "mesmerized by the size and swing of her [Reina's] buttocks." (31) While this statement seems to capture a kind of power that Reina wields through her body, it also evokes a long literary history and mythology of the spectacle of black women, especially slave women of the Spanish empire. Take, for instance, the poetry of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Negrista movement, in which Spanish men wrote erotic verse about Afro-Caribbean women, calling particular attention to their breasts and buttocks. (32) In making a point of the anatomical difference that marks Reina's body as sexual spectacle, Garcia recalls a long history of literature and art that also conflates race with character, skin color with sexuality. Indeed, the author seems to do the same when she creates Reina, a character whose identity is tightly circumscribed by the manner in which others respond to her body. Colonial Cuban lithographs often depicted mulatas with exposed breasts or buttocks to signify their availability for purchase, and Negrista poetry gave language to such images, as, for instance, in the following passage from an 1847 poem titled "La Mulata":
She is the one, in short, who thinks very little of the pavement where she walks, and the waggles of her hips wherever she goes shake shutters, awnings and signboards. (33)
Again, in a famous poem by Cuban poet Jose Zacarias Tallet titled "La Rumba" (1928), we see this same careful juxtaposition of the assertion of race and then the wholly irreverent allusion to body:
How black Tomasa dances the rumba! She moves one rump, and then the other Black Tomasa with a lewd gesture, Moves her hip aside, raises her head, And arms held high, hands joined, Resting on the nape of her ebony neck; Obscenely she thrusts out her round breasts. (34)
Repeatedly, we are told that Tomasa is black, "ebony," and then we are compelled to consider the risque allure of the mute gyrations of her exposed flesh, something we know is ultimately okay to do because she is not white. Given the long legacy of the dehumanization of black women and the reduction of Afro-Cuban women to merely sexual creatures, how can Reina Aguero not trouble her readers? Garcia fails to carve out a space for Reina in which she functions as something other than the spectacle of the exotic mulata.
Perhaps one of the most poignant examples of the naturalization of dark skin as exotic spectacle occurs in the scene focusing on Reina's hair: "Reina's bed is unmade, as usual, her pillows and pastel sheets strewn with the black curly hair she indiscriminately sheds. Constancia has noticed that the hair on her sister's head and pubis is identical, thick and springy and intimate." (35) Not only does Reina's hair announce, especially to her white sister, her essentially sexual nature, but through its intimacy suggests that Afro-Cuban women are always already exposed, that there is nothing about them which does not attest to their innate, exotic sensuality and potential as sexual subject, as intimate spectacle in the public domain. The message of this scene is the impossibility of coverage and ultimately of power. Reina cannot cover herself and therefore keep herself inviolate; the spectators about her will not allow it. The result is that she is, in a sense, perpetually naked and therefore always vulnerable. Even the hair on her head becomes an intimate detail of her body, and a particularly racial detail as well. It is Reina's very flesh that betrays her to Constancia. African-Caribbean poet and theorist M. Nourbese Philip further aids our understanding of this scene as she explores the epistemology of the female slave body:
The space between the black woman's legs becomes. The place. Site of oppression--vital to the cultivation and continuation of the outer space in a designated form--the plantation machine. Harness the use value of the inner space to the use value of the outer space so that the inner space becomes open to all and sundry. Becomes, in fact, a public space. A thoroughfare. The "black magic" of the white man's pleasure, the "bag o' sugar down dey" of the black man's release. And the space through which new slaves would issue forth. (36)
That the exposure, through her hair, of Reina's inner and private space speaks entirely to the power of the spectator to create his or her own reality becomes quite clear when we read Philip, for the spectator transfers onto the dark body, onto "ethnic" hair, etc., ideas that allow access to that body, that authorize its perpetual exposure, its transformation into public space, public spectacle. Even to her head, that seat of the intellect, is harnessed her essential use value, her potential as sexual subject; thus Reina's mind is supplanted by her pubis, and consequently those around her need not regard her as an intellectual being but merely and solely as a sexual one.
While a naturalized spectacular object such as Reina Aguero is troubling in her comfort with and seeming indifference to her own subject positionality, Paule Marshal's Avey Johnson demonstrates the spectacular anxiety missing in Garcia's text. Avey Johnson functions as a consciousness of the dangers of spectacle that we fail to find in The Aguero Sisters, and consequently, Praisesong for the Widow offers a pointed critique of the black figure as spectacle, whereas The Aguero Sisters seems simply to appropriate that figure and reinforce its proper function as the sexualized object of imperial gaze, as consumable goods in the spectacular economy. Avey's anxiety recognizes the history of atrocity embedded within the figure of black woman as exotic spectacle; it wags its finger at the white spectator eager for exotic island titillation; it sounds a warning against reviving the Negrista tradition and staunchly resists the neocolonial attitude of the West toward the Caribbean and especially toward Caribbean women. Avey Johnson's anxiety calls upon us to lay down our cards and examine the all too familiar figures that have been hiding in our own hands.
Praisesong for the Widow finds the recently widowed Avey Johnson (un)settled aboard a cruise ship, The Bianca Pride, and bound, amid the luxuriant indulgence that characterizes such cruises, for the Caribbean Islands. Sharing a deluxe cabin with two friends who feel very much to Avey like strangers, the normally controlled, dignified Avey Johnson begins to detect an amorphous something inside her, a vague knot in the pit of her stomach that threatens to unravel the carefully woven fabric of her sedate middle-class life. It is after she finally determines to abandon the cruise altogether that Avey uneasily recalls a momentous scene from the previous year's journey:
It had been Cartagena, Colombia, where, to Avey Johnson's disgust, the woman [one of her present touring companions] had abandoned them to dance in a carnival parade they were watching with other passengers from the Bianca Pride. Had gone off amid a throng of strangers swishing her bony hips to the drums. With the slight hump like an organ grinder's monkey begging pennies from her shoulders. And with their fellow passengers watching. White faces laughing! White hands applauding! Avey Johnson had never been so mortified. (37)
Although this carnival scene makes up just a fleeting few moments of her previous year's journey, the injured dignity and spectacular anxiety the experience generates are far more than ephemeral sensations for Avey. She spends a lifetime creating a respectable persona, evading or suiting herself to white gaze, and now, suddenly to her horror, her friend abandons the silent pact that had been made between them and willingly violates that feeble border between danger and safety, civilized and uncivilized. In becoming a part of the native spectacle at hand, Thomasina Moore demonstrates the permeability of all but racial boundaries, binds together all blackness (be it the blackness of sojourning tourists or of Colombian locals--class and culture boundaries amount to little protection against the iron bonds of race) within the rubric of the exotic. This move thoroughly amuses the dread white spectatorship--"white faces laughing ... white hands applauding!" [my emphasis]--that has quite suddenly materialized from among their fellow cruise ship passengers, transforming (pseudo) camaraderie into hegemony with disconcerting ease. "The spectacle," says Guy Debord, "appears at once as society and as a means of unification. As part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated--and precisely for that reason--this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation." (38) Avey's mortification, Debord implies, imparts the wisdom of suspicion, the understanding that this group that has gathered to gawk at the carnival participants, to laugh at her friend, represents not the unity of shipmates, of nation, or of class, so much as the separation and isolation of the color line.
The friend gives way, as it would inevitably seem to the spectators, to her "black blood," to the something inside her that all white people presumably know black people possess, something primal and primitive that cannot resist a good drumbeat. Harkening back to Frantz Fanon's own spectacular anxiety in the movie theater, Avey is all but literally beaten down by tom-toms. As the white spectators watch and laugh, Avey's anxiety centers not just on the fact of their suspect amusement at her friend's antics but also on the prospect of dehumanizing sympathy. Avey likens her friend, with her slight stoop, to an organ grinder's monkey, that inhuman thing people find funny and sort of pathetic as well (thus the pennies), and then there is the historical association of images of black figures with those of primates. Ultimately, Avey's anxiety implies that when the black figure becomes the conventional object of white gaze (that is, as some sort of exotic or primitive amusement), there is likely something inherently racist and imperialistic in the interaction.
Clearly, Avey's suspicion and dread of spectacle derive from both a broadly historicized racial consciousness and a narrower more personalized consciousness comprised of intimate memories, for this is not the first anxious spectacle in which Avey Johnson has been a part. The scene in which her friend joins in the carnival dance must absolutely recall for Avey a much earlier scene from her life in which she and the awesome Aunt Cuney come to blows on the White Plains front lawn for all to witness:
Worse, among the black faces looking on scandalized, there could be seen the Archers with their blue-eyed, tow-headed children, and the Weinsteins. The only ones for blocks around who had not sold and fled. An uncharitable thought surfaced amid the shame flooding her. Could it be they had stayed on in the hope of one day being treated to a spectacle such as this: at any moment the beast may spring, filling the air with flying things and an unenlightened wailing.... (39)
Here again we see that the agony of the spectacle lies not in some sort of pedestrian self-consciousness, but rather in the certainty that she and Aunt Cuney's row will inevitably confirm for white onlookers their deep-seated notions about blackness and primitivism. The mere act of looking becomes guilty in Avey's world, and the resultant anxiety she experiences affirms that the relationship between spectator and spectacle is never an innocent one and becomes more fraught still when the spectator is white and the spectacle is black. It is an explicit consciousness of this fact that appears to be wanting in The Aguero Sisters.
Praisesong for the Widow clearly posits black spectacle as an anxious project, and implies, moreover, that white creators of black spectacle should experience their own anxiety, be drawn into their own states of nervous self-consciousness. This text further suggests, however, that black figures must not be bound and enslaved by fear of the spectacle. The most remarkable thing here is that we have a character in Avey Johnson who recognizes all of this. She is not a one-dimensional type; she is no performing silhouette but rather a full, complex consciousness and, as such, she provokes us not into running from the black figure as spectacle, but rather into cultivating a keen discernment between its cooptation and liberation. (40)
As if to underscore that very point, to assert the possibility of black visibility without anxiety, spectacle without the trap of the exotic, Avey Johnson must ultimately move herself into the center of spectacle, not against her will, or in spite of it, but of her own volition. She must risk her dignity and integrate, participate, relinquish her defenses and move out of her position on life's periphery and into the fold. The annual Carriacou ceremony of the dance at the Big Drum provides the perfect such opportunity. (41) Conditioned by years of functioning in white society, where the ubiquitous threat of the gaze looms large, Avey is reluctant to call attention to herself by actually moving her body in a manner designed to attract attention; that is, by dancing. Yet suddenly, toward the end of the Big Drum "her feet of their own accord began to glide forward, but in such a way they scarcely left the ground.... She moved cautiously at first, each foot edging forward as if the ground under her was really water--muddy river water--and she was testing it to see if it would hold her weight." (42) As Avey dances in the Big Drum, she begins to feel genuinely connected, to see the invincible bonds between herself and these people she does not know and yet has always known: "And for the first time since she was a girl, she felt the threads, that myriad of shiny, silken, brightly colored threads ... which were thin to the point of invisibility yet as strong as the ropes at Coney Island." (43) It is those connections--those silken threads binding her to this black community, pulling her back to her childhood in Tatem and stretching forward into a future defined by a discourse of fabric, interrelatedness, and infinite ties--that support and maintain kinship. It is those very connections that fill her with a sense of belonging and safety. They begin to mitigate the spectacular anxiety that has defined her life and ultimately enabled her to earnestly claim her spot in the spectacle:
She began to dance then. Just as her feet of their own accord had discovered the old steps, her hips under the linen shirtdress slowly began to weave from side to side on their own, stiffly at first and then in a smooth wide arc as her body responded more deeply to the music.... All of her moving suddenly with a vigor and passion she hadn't felt in years, and with something of the stylishness and sass she had once been known for. (44)
As Avey enthusiastically swings her hips in this final scene, Marshall's language cannot help but recall the earlier instance in which Avey's friend, Thomasina Moore, moves her bony hips to the carnival music, and beyond that, Reina Aguero's own mesmerizing sway along with that of "Black Tomasa" of the Negrista tradition, but the difference here, the difference Avey and her dancing hips make manifest, cannot be overstated. Avey's full consciousness of what she does, what her dance is and is not, places an unbridgeable chasm between her role as spectacle and Reina's. The spectators who watch Avey also mark this event, this Big Drum, as quite distinct from the perceived dance of seduction tapped out by the rhythm of Reina's walk along a Miami boulevard, for the figures who watch Avey's dance are not lustful men, nor white tourists like those who laugh at Thomasina Moore's carnival escapade, but rather they are a kind of family, a racial confraternity. Marshall makes it quite clear that while the Out-Islanders do watch Avey, they have no desire to consume her; there is no fear that they will throw pennies at her; rather, they commune with her, watching with eyes capable of simultaneously seeing that which is without and within. They see her, and they see in her themselves and their shared reason for attending the Big Drum, to celebrate community and to dance the "Beg Pardon" in atonement for past sins.
Avey's dancing figure powerfully proves that the black female body can safely function as the object of the spectacle; it can move provocatively without being appropriated to convey racist stereotypes and exotic mythology, and it can do all these things without titillating the reader, without becoming the co-opted Island "type" of Western tourist fantasies. And this fact is crucial to our understanding of women of African descent and Latinas in literature, for just as "the nakedness ... apparently enjoyed by Africans, in contrast to European reserve" has historically "confused whites," I do not wish to find myself just another confused Westerner, confounded by Reina's uncommon comfort with her body and sexuality. (45) But what the figures of Avey Johnson and Reina Aguero both impart is the danger a history of exoticism, racism, and slavery embeds within the image of the nonwhite woman as spectacle--the risk inherent in her movement, the potential guilt implicit in watching her.
Reina's comfort with body and sexuality totally defines her and transforms her into the stereotype. That she is presented as little more than spectacular object occludes her potential as whole, complex identity, as something more than an ambivalently exposed body. Avey Johnson desires more than this, more than a role as the exotic dancing figure for the ubiquitous white spectatorship, and "as soon as I desire," says Fanon, "I am asking to be considered. I am not merely here-and-now, sealed into thingness. I am for somewhere else and for something else. I demand that notice be taken." (46) While Garcia seems to seal Reina into the "thingness" of which Fanon speaks, into the theater of exotic spectacle, Marshall liberates Avey from that role, not by asserting the impossibility of the black female body as object of desire or as spectacular object--like Fanon, Avey ultimately demands "that notice be taken" of her dancing body--but by determining that when it assumes those positions, it does so in ways that defy the imperialistic spectacular model. Both texts examined here deftly reveal the insidious danger implicit in a taste for the exotic--something that invariably morphs into a fetish for dark Island bodies, the production of their visibility, and their eventual consumption. History is very much with us, and the spectacle is seldom an innocent enterprise.
Most important perhaps is the understanding that it is possible to heed Patricia Hill Collins's demand of just over a decade ago that women of African descent be portrayed as self-defined and self-reliant, as "agents of knowledge." (47) Clearly it is possible to write about Afro-Caribbean women, their sexuality, their bodies, and their lives without participating in this tired discourse of the exotic. Michelle Cliff, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Merle Hodge, and, of course, Paule Marshall, among others, have accomplished this feat. Each, in her own unique fashion, has taught us, through her fiction, both the insidious danger of exotic spectacle and the particular beauty of freedom from it.
1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, trans. Charles Lamb Markmann (New York: Grove, 1967), 140.
2. Ibid., 112.
3. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995). Debord describes the "spectacular economy" as "the total practice of one particular economic and social [and historical] formation" (15). That formation takes its chief form, at this juncture in the West, as spectacle. "The spectacle," says Debord, "subjects living human beings to its will to the extent that the economy has brought them under its sway" (16). Debord stresses the materiality of spectacle, of high visibility, its profound economic power in Western society. Additionally, Natalie Davis offers an astute analysis of gender and spectacle, focusing especially upon carnival, in her early work "Women on Top," in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975), 124-51. Mikhail Bakhtin's research on carnival in Renaissance Europe is also useful in its theorizing of the power of spectacle. See especially his Rabelais and His World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968). Peter Stallybrass and Allon White extend Bakhtin's ideas to the modern era, but argue that within it, carnival has become a sublimated form. "Bourgeois Hysteria and the Carnivalesque," in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (New York: Routledge, 1999), 382-88. But Carole Boyce Davies, to whom I refer often in this essay, is absolutely the best source for bringing together spectacle, gender, and the Caribbean (see note 6).
4. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 12.
5. Authors whose work centers upon the Caribbean and maintains this triple race, class, gender consciousness include C. L. R. James, M. Jaqui Alexander, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and M. Nourbese Philip, all of whom are cited frequently in this project. Also see Honor Ford-Smith, "Ring Ding in a Tight Corner: Siren, Collective Democracy, and the Organization of Cultural Production," in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty (New York: Routledge, 1997), 213-58. Additionally, Ella Shohat's essay in that same collection is especially germane to my point about spectacle. "Post-Third Worldist Culture: Gender, Nation, and the Cinema," in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty (New York: Routledge, 1997), 183-209. Even the travel writing of Trinidadian V. S. Naipaul, though often unsettling, even offensive at times, should not be dismissed. His 1962 classic The Middle Passage uniquely elucidates the race, class, gender intersection with regard to spectacle and spectator. The Middle Passage (London: Andre Deutsch, 1974).
6. Carol Boyce Davies, "Carnivalised Caribbean Female Bodies: Taking Space/Making Space," Thamyris 5 (1998): 338.
7. Isabel Hoving, In Praise of New Travelers: Reading Caribbean Migrant Women's Writing (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 43.
8. Davies, "Carnivalised Caribbean," 338.
9. Ibid., 337.
10. Mary Russo, "Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory," in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), 218.
11. Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2000).
12. Davies, "Carnivalised Caribbean," 337.
13. Rocio Davis and Joseph M. Viera have each written essays that represent a general trend in Garcia scholarship of focusing upon the many mother-daughter relationships that populate her fiction. "Back to the Future: Mothers, Languages, and Homes in Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban," in Twayne Companion to Contemporary World Literature, ed. Pamela A. Genova (New York: Thomson Gale, 2003), 492-99; "Matriarchy and Mayhem: Awakenings in Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban," Americas Review: A Review of Hispanic Literature and Art of the USA 24, nos. 3-4 (1996): 231-42. Likewise, for evidence of the critical preoccupation in Garcia scholarship with her treatment of the exilic state and use of magical realism, see Ibis Gomez-Vega, "The Journey Home: Defining Identity in Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban," Voces: A Journal of Chicana/Latina Studies 1, no. 2 (1997): 71-100. Also see Kathleen Brogan, Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998).
14. While novels by Cuban-American women are still relatively scarce, they are not nonexistent. Some notable titles include Ivonne Lamazares, The Sugar Island (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000); Ana Veciana-Suarez, The Chin Kiss King (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997); Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, The Dirty Girls Social Club (New York: St. Martin's, 2003); Flor Fernandez Barios, Blessed by Thunder: Memoir of a Cuban Girlhood (Seattle: Seal Press, 1998).
15. Cristina Garcia, interview by Iraida H. Lopez, "'... And There Is Only My Imagination Where Our History Should Be': An Interview With Cristina Garcia," in Bridges to Cuba/Puentes a Cuba, ed. Ruth Behar (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 102-14. I allude here to Lopez's interview in which Garcia expresses the fascination for Santeria she developed while researching Dreaming in Cuban. "My family was Catholic," she explains, "and thought that Santeria was mumbo-jumbo African rites.... Once I became exposed to it, I was completely fascinated. It's part of our cultural landscape" (107). Garcia goes on to say that there is quite a bit of racism in the Cuban community and that she abhors racism in "all its forms," suggesting a connection between her reverence for Santeria and abhorrence of racism (110).
16. Cristina Garcia, interview by Allan Vorda, "A Fish Swims in My Lung: An Interview with Cristina Garcia," in Face to Face: Interviews With Contemporary Novelists, ed. Allan Vorda (Houston: Rice University Press, 1993), 64. Cristina Garcia was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1958 and at age two emigrated with her family to the United States after Fidel Castro came to power. She grew up in Queens and Brooklyn Heights, in predominantly Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighborhoods where she attended Catholic school. Later she attended Barnard College. This is why being Cuban was chiefly a family affair for her--she knew virtually no Cubans outside of her family. In 1984 Garcia returned to Cuba for the first time since leaving as a child. While the trip alienated her from many in the Cuban exile community and even from some within her own family, the Cuban people, whom she found amazingly warm and welcoming, moved her deeply. Garcia speaks of these events in her interviews with both Vorda and Iraida H. Lopez (see note 15).
17. Garcia, "'Only My Imagination,'" 103.
18. I wish to indicate here that even my own ideas and impressions navigate the pitfalls of exoticism. That is, despite my Cuban-American identity, despite my objective in this essay, I cannot totally escape the contaminating potential of exotic stereotypes. Thus I do not suggest that I am somehow immune from the charge made against Garcia's text.
19. Edward Said, "Orientalism," in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivken and Michael Ryan (Malden: Blackwell, 1998), 883. For further reading on the politics of difference in contemporary Western society, see Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000). Additionally, the relationship between female racial difference and social spectacle is compellingly explored in the following: Diane Negra, Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom (London: Routledge, 2001); Claire Sponsler and Xiaomei Chen, eds., East of West: Cross-Cultural Performance and the Staging of Difference (New York: Palgrave, 2000).
20. Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor, "Tourism and 'Embodied' Commodities: Sex Tourism in the Caribbean," in Tourism and Sex: Culture, Commerce and Coercion, ed. Stephen Clift and Simon Carter (New York: Pinter, 2000), 41.
21. Cristina Garcia, The Aguero Sisters (New York: Ballantine, 1998), 20.
23. Ibid., 36.
24. In his "Discourse on the Origins of Inequality" (1754) Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes the "noble savage" as having an intense relationship to nature. The noble savage is largely languageless in that, instead of utilizing formal linguistic structures, she or he relies upon an instinctive communicative sense that is largely private and unuttered. Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly, eds., Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 3, trans. Judith R. Bush (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1992).
25. Garcia, The Aguero Sisters, 10.
26. Claudette M. Williams, Charcoal and Cinnamon: The Politics of Color in Spanish Caribbean Literature (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2000), 48. For further sources that document the historical distinction between the pathologized sensuality of dark-skinned women and the untouchable reserve of white women as well as the symbiotic relationship that binds the two categories, see Sander Gilman, "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature," Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (Autumn 1985): 204-42. Additionally, Sara Mills offers an exhaustive analysis of American travel literature in her Discourses of Difference (New York: Routledge, 1991).
27. Garcia, The Aguero Sisters, 172.
29. Ibid., 172-73.
30. Williams, Charcoal and Cinnamon, 47.
31. Garcia, The Aguero Sisters, 10.
32. The Negrista movement within Spanish language literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has received little attention from English-speaking critics, largely because very little Negrista poetry has been translated into English. There is, perhaps, no better Spanish language Negrista text than the one by Morales that I use here (see note 33). However, I also suggest the following: Monica Mansour, La Poesia Negrista (Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1973); Miguel Arnedo, "The Portrayal of the Afro-Cuban Female Dancer in Cuban Negrista Poetry," Afro-Hispanic Review 16, no. 2 (Fall 1997): 26-35.
33. Creto Ganga, "La Mulata," in Poesia Afroantilliana y Negrista (Puerto Rico, Republica Dominicana, Cuba), ed. Jorge Luis Morales (Rio Piedras, P.R.: Editorial Universitaria, 1976), 310-11. I take my English translation of this poem from Williams, Charcoal and Cinnamon, 49.
34. Jose Zacarias Tallet, "La Rumba," in Poesia Afroantilliana y Negrista (Puerto Rico, Republica Dominicana, Cuba), ed. Jorge Luis Morales (Rio Piedras, PR.: Editorial Universitaria, 1976), 329-31. I take my English translation of this poem from Williams, Charcoal and Cinnamon, 51.
35. Garcia, The Aguero Sisters, 178-79.
36. M. Nourbese Philip, "Dis Place: The Space Between," in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 289.
37. Paule Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow (New York: Plume, 1983), 25.
38. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 12.
39. Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow, 45.
40. While I suggest Avey Johnson's cognizance of spectacular anxiety, I do not mean to imply that she is immune to it. She is not. In fact, chapter five of Lean'tin L. Bracks's Writings on Black Women of the Diaspora: History, Language, and Identity (New York: Garland, 1998) thoroughly explores Avey Johnson's painful habit of over-controlling her body out of fear of the spectacle, of denying it--especially its blackness. There are also two very good articles that explore this issue: Renu Juneja and James Kingsland, "The Caribbean-American Connection: A Paradox of Success and Subversion," Journal of American Culture 21, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 63-67; and Susan Rogers, "Embodying Cultural Memory in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow," African American Review 34, no.1 (Spring 2000): 77-93.
41. The chief purpose of the Out-Islanders' annual pilgrimage to Carriacou is to attend the ceremony called the "Big Drum" and especially to participate in the dance ritual locals call the "Beg Pardon," performed to atone for the year's sins. The ceremony is both deeply spiritual and highly festive, and is characterized by an attitude of openness, confession, and deep respect for elders from whom one must seek forgiveness for wrongs.
42. Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow, 248.
43. Ibid., 249.
45. Marietta Morrissey, Slave Women in the New World: Gender Stratification in the Caribbean (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989), 145.
46. Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, 218. For further enlightenment on this point, I turn to Aime Cesaire, who in 1955 posited an essential equation: "colonization = 'thingification,'" by which he meant to capture the relations of domination and submission that inevitably exist between colonizer and colonized. "They [the colonizers] talk to me about progress, about 'achievements,' diseases cured, improved standards of living," says Cesaire, and such talk, he further explains, has the tendency to make of him a "thing," something nonhuman defined by semantic maneuvering and numerical calculations (340). Thus, his term "thingification" (Fanon's "thingness") denotes the utter dehumanization of the colonized being. Aime Cesaire, "Between Colonizer and Colonized," in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert (Boulder: Westview, 1999), 340-42.
47. Patricia Hill Collins, "Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination," in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), 553.
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|Author:||Stevenson, Pascha A.|
|Publication:||Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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