After hunkering down through this year’s particularly devastating hurricane season, many Caribbean islands are turning their efforts to recovery and rebuilding. Outside of the region, media coverage showing shuttered hotels, colorful and once-picturesque houses with their roofs blown off, and debris scattered on beaches, troubles the stereotypical images of the Caribbean as an idyllic tropical paradise. I was recently asked how Saint Martinique had fared after Hurricane Irma. Imagining this non-existent place, a composite of Saint Martin and Martinique, suggests that for some, the different islands are still a monolithic mass of interchangeable places that once signaled escapist leisure and are now sites of endless disaster.
In external media coverage, the Caribbean continues to oscillate between these two extremes of paradise and disaster. In the tourist-oriented paradise narratives, Caribbean histories are erased. Local people inhabit an eternal here and now for the sole purpose of providing services and cultural experiences to visitors. Disaster narratives are on the opposite end of the spectrum but they serve a similar purpose. As high-speed winds level cities and towns, disaster narratives empty islands of the people who live there and express nostalgia for colonial occupation. Thus, a recent Washington Post feature after hurricanes Irma and Maria, described islands that have been “pushed…back to the primitive, basic state that made the sandbars of the Caribbean so alluring to European empires, pirates and tourists for half a millennium.” In moments when people in the Caribbean demand to be seen and heard, the disaster narrative repurposes the language of death and destruction as a tool with which to critique the supposed moral and political failings of Caribbean people and states. The thinly-veiled racism of this critique was on full display after the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, and is playing out again in some of the responses to Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The persistence of these narratives belies the long history of Caribbean intellectuals’ demands for a more nuanced understanding and representation of islands that may be economically dependent on tourism, are structurally vulnerable to the ravages of hurricanes, but do not exist simply at these two reductive poles of tropical paradise and disaster zone. Turning to this intellectual history provides a useful frame for understanding and refusing reductive narratives.
The writings of Martinican thinker, Suzanne Césaire, provide one such important frame. In her 1945 essay “The Great Camouflage,” published in the journal Tropiques, Césaire argues that really seeing the Caribbean requires an ability to engage beyond appearances. The blinding beauty of the landscape camouflages the region and prevents external viewers from clearly seeing the economic depredation and racial malaise that is part of the region’s complex reality. Césaire reveals the potential for this great camouflage to function as resistance in the poignant closing lines of her essay: “If my Antilles are so beautiful, it is because the great game of hide-and-seek has succeeded, it is then because, on that day, the weather is most certainly too blindingly bright and beautiful to see clearly therein.” Césaire’s Caribbean is not a passive victim of reductive representations. It actively shields its most inner realities from outside scrutiny and determines the terms on which it reveals both its beauty and pain. Agency and power over representation are therefore central to her thesis.
Césaire also argues that anyone who hopes to have a lucid, clear-eyed view of the Caribbean must confront racial inequality and economic disparity, both legacies of the history of colonial occupation. She cites the specific example of Martinique, where French civil servants are confronted with the ugly image of their colonial presence: “When they lean over the malefic mirror of the Caribbean, they see therein the delirious reflection of themselves.” Here Césaire depicts a reversal of the colonist’s gaze that sees the Caribbean as empty space to be discovered and conquered. Europe looks through the lens of colonial exploitation and sees itself in the eyes of the Antillean looking back. In confronting this reversed gaze, the French civil servants sent to govern the Antilles refuse to recognize the humanity of the Antillean for fear of having to then recognize and acknowledge their intertwined political identities and fates. As Césaire writes, “perhaps they would not like to respond to the Antillean heir who shouts, but does not shout out ‘my father.’” Recognition here is not an abstract concept but rather directly linked to political power. The French civil servant needs this purposeful blindness in order to justify the colonial status quo that places him/her in a position of power as an employee of the French government in the Antilles.
Césaire’s ideas challenge the fragmentation and erasure enacted by dominant narratives about the Caribbean. They also establish connections among the various islands that defy the differences in language and political organization wrought by the presence of multiple colonial powers. The connections that she identifies are rooted in the very space, in the relationship between land and water, and in the shared Pan-Caribbean experience of the forces of nature as both destructive and creative. Césaire describes this relationship through a series of organic images: “There are the highest plateaus of Haiti, where a horse dies, lightning-struck by the age-old killer storm at Hinche. Next to it, his master contemplates the land he believed sound and expansive. He does not yet know that he is participating in the island’s absence of equilibrium. But this sudden access to terrestrial madness illuminates his heart: he begins to think about the other Caribbean islands, their volcanoes, their earthquakes, their hurricanes.” In Césaire’s writing, destruction and creation co-exist, as evidenced by her evocation of the major natural disasters that periodically put the Caribbean on the radar of international news. Yet these moments emerge in her text, not as an invitation to further a colonial agenda in the region, but rather as moments to express a Pan-Caribbean solidarity and imagine new civilizations.
Césaire’s radical reimagining of the Caribbean finds echoes in contemporary scholarship, particularly in a text like Gina Ulysse’s Why Haiti Needs New Narratives. These works remind us that the stakes of representation are high. They may be a matter of life and death. But they are also a matter of liberation. In Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from Twilight Zones, Carole Boyce Davies notes that “the claiming of Caribbean Space captures ontologically ways of being in the world. It assumes movement as it makes and remakes the critical elements of Caribbean geography: landscape and seascape, sky and sun, but also music, food, and style.” Thinkers such as Césaire, Ulysse, and Boyce Davies form part of a long tradition of rethinking the Caribbean, of refusing the stereotypes that are ultimately dangerous and destructive, and of articulating vitalist, creative narratives about the Caribbean and its place in the world.