Jamaica Kincaid, Merle Hodge, George Lamming

The Two Worlds of the Child: A study of the novels of three West Indian writers; Jamaica Kincaid, Merle Hodge, and George Lamming

by Tannistho Ghosh and Priyanka Basu

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses
A six years' Darling of a pigmy size!
See, where 'mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother's kisses,
With light upon him from his father's eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learned art. [1]

To William Wordsworth and to most of us these words conjure an image of the cherubic individual who, in common parlance, we refer to as a 'child'. But perhaps our image does not remain quite so angelic if his complexion darkens and he is placed in the context of colonized West Indian society. An Antillean black child is, both literally and metaphorically, miles away from his fairer counterpart. His upbringing involves an education system that moulds him into a black-Briton, half alienated from his original culture. The colonial educational system is shaped by deep economic and political motives, which need the child as raw material for the further propagation of this exploitative system. The authority imposed by the state infiltrates the family and the education system, making a victim out of the black child who finds himself trapped helplessly in the mesh of a foreign way of life.

As Ngugi put it in Decolonizing the Mind [2]:

Children who encountered literature in colonial schools and universities were thus experiencing the world defined and reflected in the European experience of history. Their entire way of looking at the world, even the world of the immediate environment, was Euro-centric. Europe was the centre of Universe. The earth moved around the European intellectual scholarly axis. The images children encountered in literature were reinforced by their study of history and geography, and science and technology where Europe was, once again, the centre. This in turn fitted well with the cultural imperatives of British imperialism.

The picture holds true for the Antillean child, who even in his own familiar environment is considered as the 'other'. Thus it becomes difficult for him to identify with either of the two cultures. On one hand he is a member of the Antillean community with its oral traditions, something that he is not quite familiar with, while on the other he is groomed by the Euro-centric education system, something that he can neither identify with, nor shun. These constitute the two worlds of the West Indian child.

The novels of Jamaica Kincaid, Merle Hodge and George Lamming plunge head on into this no-man's land, where the black child is in a state of confusion, desperate to clutch his/her roots, roots that s/he has never developed.

In Jamaica Kincaid's novel Lucy, for example, Lucy's reaction to Wordsworth's poem Daffodils is one of distaste:

I remembered an old poem I had been made to memorize when I was ten years old and a pupil at Queen Victoria's Girl's School. I had been made to memorize it, verse after verse, and then had recited the whole poem to an auditorium full of parents, teachers, and my fellow pupils. After I was done, everybody stood up and applauded with an enthusiasm that surprised me, and later they told me how nicely I had pronounced every word, how I had placed just the right amount of special emphasis in places where that was needed, and how proud the poet, now long dead, would have been to hear words ringing in my mouth. I was then at the height of my two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another, outside false, inside true. And so I made pleasant little noises that showed both modesty and appreciation, but inside I was making a vow to erase from my mind, line by line, every word of that poem. The night after I had recited the poem, I dreamt, continuously it seemed, that I was being chased down a narrow cobbled street by bunches and bunches of those same daffodils that I had vowed to forget, and when finally I fell down from exhaustion they all piled on top of me, until I was buried deep underneath them and was never seen again.

The poem, a strong colonizing force for the child, haunts her even in her unconscious. Lucy has to keep up the sham of enjoying it just to please the audience, which includes people like her mother, representatives of those who have accepted the process of colonization as the norm. But unlike those who applaud after her performance, Lucy desperately wants to break away from the culture that has been forced on her. The two selves that she speaks of are in conflict. While her outer self recites the poem her inner self sharply reacts to its meaninglessness. The word 'daffodil' means nothing to the little girl who is made to recite it, and therefore she can neither feel nor appreciate the feeling of pleasure that the poem is supposed to communicate.

When Lucy visits the Lake District for the first time, the abhorrence that she had felt while reciting Daffodils remain unchanged:

It was a big area with lots of thick-trunked, tall trees along winding paths. Along the paths and underneath the trees were many, many yellow flowers the size and shape of play teacups, or fairy skirts. They looked like something to eat and something to wear at the same time; they looked beautiful: they looked simple, as if made to erase a complicated and unnecessary idea. I did not know what these flowers were, and so it was a mystery to me why I wanted to kill them. Just like that. I wanted to kill them. I wished that I had an enormous scythe; I would just walk down the path, dragging it alongside me, and I would cut these flowers down at the place where they emerged from the ground.

The desire to cut down the flowers emerges from the hatred that she nurtures deep inside her, a hatred rooted in her alienation from her own cultural roots. Unlike a Briton Lucy cannot appreciate Daffodils because she had never seen them blossoming in her homeland, nor could she associate it with any memory of her childhood. When Lucy refuses to wonder at the daffodils or when she tries to erase the poem from her memory we find the two worlds of the child coming into a direct confrontation. Lucy has to pretend to like it, because she has to rise above her station and prove herself more a Briton than a colonized Antillean, even though her conscience speaks a different language.

From her early schooldays, or perhaps from the day she is born, the Antillean child is fed with the idea that she is inferior, and that she has to rise above it. She is also given a model of superiority to follow; the white child. Thus the process of growing up forces a transition from independent to dependent behaviour.

This process is also seen in the case of Tee, the central protagonist of Merle Hodge's Crick Crack Monkey. In this novel Merle Hodge presents the process of alienation by depicting Tee's transition from a typical Antillean tradition to that of a pseudo-European culture. Tee has to choose between two worlds, those of Tantie and Aunt Beatrice. While all that Tantie has to offer is the promise of staying on with the original culture of the Caribbean islands, Aunt Beatrice offers the lure of abroad - a culture that Tee slowly becomes familiar with but does not belong to.

The inferiority that Tee is burdened with both in school and with Aunt Beatrice disappears when her father asks her to come abroad. Even her schoolteacher, who had previously rebuked her, mellows down her voice and says, 'Seven years! But you never told us you naughty girl, you never told us your daddy was abroad,' as if the fact of having her roots in England made her superior to everybody else.

As Frantz Fanon says in his book Black Skins White Masks [3], 'It is the racist who creates his inferior'. The creation of the inferior starts from the day a child is born and continues throughout the whole process of his education until he finally adopts a kind of 'dependent behaviour'. Childhood's relation to colonization is a rather strange one. The concept of the child, as the blissful prototype of the beatific angel, seemed null and void when it came to the black child of the Antillean world - the very colour of his skin suggested to the Colonizer a need for proper civilizing education.

In his book Centuries of Childhood [4] Philippe Aries claims that the modern concept of childhood is essentially a seventeenth century construct. Rather than a smaller version of the adult, the child then was demoted to the inferior state of the latter. Childhood thus lost its angelic connotations and was made to resemble a tabula rasa on which adults could inscribe moral and ethical codifications.

Building on Aries's view, Ashish Nandy in The Intimate Enemy [5] explains how this pre-industrial revolution concept frames itself on the line of colonization:

it became the responsibility of the adult to 'save' the child from a state of unrepentant, reprobate sinfulness through proper socialization, and help the child grow towards a Calvinist ideal of adulthood and maturity. Exploitation of children in the early days of the Industrial Revolution in Britain was a natural corollary of such a concept of childhood.

Colonialism dutifully picked up these ideas of growth and development and drew a new parallel between primitivism and childhood. Thus the theory of social progress was telescoped not merely into the individual's life cycle in Europe but also into the area of cultural differences in the colonies. What was childlikeness of the child and childishness of immature adults now also became the loveable and unlovable savagery of primitives and primitivism of subject societies.

It was thus assumed that the 'childlike native' was the loveable one who could be reformed through westernization, modernization and Christianization; while the 'childish native' was the ignorant, ungrateful and sinful savage who had to be repressed by providing tough administration.

Thus the term 'child' is something of a double-edged sword, indicating either a spiritual inadequacy referred to as 'childlikeness', or the barbaric savagery of a 'childish' adult native. In most cases, however, these two principles act upon same individuals. The inference is that the colonizers' terming of the native as 'childlike', meaning gullible and innocent, is mere eyewash beneath which lie darker truths rooted in a firm belief about the savagery or childishness which they think can be controlled and regulated by coercive and exploitative methods.

As Fanon [3] says, 'The black man has two dimensions. One with his fellows, the other with the white man. A Negro behaves differently with a white man and with another Negro. That this self-division is a direct result of colonialist subjugation is beyond question.'

Practically speaking, how would a child know that he is black and inferior unless it is pointed out to him that he is so and in constant need of westernization?

Moving back two centuries, we find the French philosopher Rousseau presenting a similar theory in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men [6], where he eulogizes the incorruptible 'noble savage' as 'the happiest state of humankind' when contrasted with the civilized individual of the city. An attempt at self-understanding, Rousseau's theory provided a hypothetical 'other' as an alternative to the decadent community. This so-called 'liberal' idea of the noble savage is neatly turned on its head by the Hobbesian-Lockeian view of the 'nasty, brutish and short' existence of the savage unfavourably contrasted with the white, civilized European. It is the latter concept which holds sway in the psyche of the colonizer, as it is more viable economically and politically in the power game inside the colonies. The 'civilizing' process of the colonizers, of course, includes a gradual process of colonization.

The novels of Kincaid, Hodge, and Lamming reflect the seeping in of the European civilization through the veins of the children growing up in the Antilles and receiving European education in schools. They highlight the narrow-minded schooling system which inculcates alien values, bringing about this gradual metamorphosis.

In Merle Hodge's Crick Crack Monkey Tee's education puts her above the 'ordinariness' of Tantie's household, but at the same time, it does not make her belong anywhere. As Sophia Lehmann [7] aptly puts it, 'The paradox of assimilation is that it tends to exacerbate rather than alleviate the sense of marginality for which it was supposed to be the cure'. However, assimilation only became needed as 'cure' once Tee was feeling marginalized, a condition she did not know before her schooling or her stay at Aunt Beatrice's. Thus, the colonized middle class passes on its own sense of marginalization, which results in an endless cycle of attempted assimilation as a supposed resolution to a state brought about by the desire for education - and education then makes the feeling of marginalization more acute.

For Tee, this closed circle of alienation leads to such feelings of hopelessness that -

her sense of unworthiness expresses itself in a desire for annihilation . . . I wanted to shrink, to disappear. . . I felt that the very sight of me was an affront to common decency. I wished that my body could shrivel up and fall away, that I could step out new and acceptable.

Though she does not actually contemplate killing herself, her self-hatred and eagerness to assimilate are the cultural equivalent of suicide.

Trinidad seems to offer no escape from this condition for Tee, and so it is that both Tee and the reader suspect that Tantie was the instigator behind Tee's father in England sending for her, as a means of saving her from Aunt Beatrice's self-negating and self-hating cultural influence. The novel thus ends on an ironic note: to save Tee, who is unable to return to the Caribbean-ness she has known in Tantie's household through having become socialized in the worship of Englishness, Tantie sends her to the ultimate source of this cultural negation: to the metropolis, to England.

George Lamming wrote In the Castle of my Skin, an intensely local novel in which he portrays the claustrophobic intimacy of the native village, when he was twenty-three and homesick in London. The child-hero George goes to a school which celebrates the Empire's Day, Queen Victoria's birthday. Marshalled in squads below the Head Teacher and Inspector, the boys' individuality is swamped by rote learning and discipline, and the boys form a picture reminiscent of their ancestors packed in slave ships.

But the amnesiac ritual has expunged the slave past. Slavery 'had nothing to do with people in Barbados. No one there was ever a slave, the teacher said. It was in another part of the world that those things happened'. They are given pennies, but the boys are confused. Whose face is on the coins, validating them? Had anyone known or seen him? Perhaps 'there was a shadow king who did whatever a king should do . . . The shadow king was a part of the English tradition. The English, the boy said, were good at shadows'.

George is intellectually precocious. At school his literary talent is recognised and encouraged by a schoolmaster, but education cuts him off from his emotional roots, and his knowledge both protects and alienates.

Nothing would ever go pop, pop, pop in your head. You had language to safeguard you. And if you were beginning to feel strongly, you could kill the feeling; you get it out of the way by fetching the words that couldn't understand what the feeling was all about. It was like a knife.

Fanon [3] echoes Lamming while discussing the Negro and language:

In any group of young men in the Antilles, the one who expresses himself well, who has mastered the language is inordinately feared; keep an eye on that one, he is almost white. In France one says, 'He talks like a book.' In Martinique, 'He talks like a white man.'

George remains ambivalent about his intellectual acquisition but goes on with his education while his friend Trumper goes off to the United States where he discovers his identity as a black man.

The result of such indoctrination is to inscribe Caribbean subjects into an English reality, and make them objects of English power.

To view the flip side of this scenario the enlightening-cum-colonizing procedure acquires a kind of subversive status for its subjects, and the children are seen to draw amusement by making up absurd and grotesque replicas of the authorities imposed upon them. The culture to which the children are introduced does not treat them with either love or respect. From the very beginning they are treated as Calibans, and the natural tendency for the West Indian child undergoing Europianization is to subvert or ridicule the established white authority.

In Merle Hodge's Crick Crack Monkey, a portrait of Winston Churchill

hung on the wall behind Mr. Hinds . . . [Whose] daily endeavour [was] to bring the boys to a state of reverence towards this portrait; when they became rowdy he would still them into shame at their unworthy behaviour in the very sight of the greatest Englishman who ever lived etc, or he would still them into incomprehension because in his angry rhetorical transports he soared into a vocabulary that fell like gibberish on the ear.

But for the children

the personage on the wall was and remained simply Crapaud-face. (Frog face).

A similar instance is found in Lamming's In the Castle of my Skin where during the occasion of the Queen's birthday, amidst inane eulogizing, the boys embark upon a comical exchange:

'It wusn't me,' he said. 'It was Boy Blue. When the Head say 'bout the Queen was a great Queen and not like the kings in seventh, Boy Blue ask . . . '
'What he ask?' the boys urged.
'He ask if the Queen's bloomers was red, white and blue.'

These colours are the colours of the Union Jack.

These deliberate acts of rebellion are interspersed with unintentional ones, which arise out of ignorance and produce a comic effect. Hodge presents such a situation when the children are made to recite The Lord's Prayer, which is beyond both their comprehension and vocabulary, generating nothing but an incoherent gibberish.

In these novels we find a gradual moving away of the protagonists to their 'promised land' by virtue of their educational excellence but 'quo vadis?' The roads are not laden with manna and what lies before them is nothing short of gross disappointment, they arrive in a strange land where they are denied acceptance. Kincaid, on her visit to England felt like a stranger visiting distant shores and Lucy, her character, has the same feelings:

Now that I saw these places, they looked ordinary, dirty, worn down by so many people entering and leaving them in real life, and it occurred to me that I could not be the only person in the world for whom they were a fixture of fantasy. It was not my first bout with the disappointment of reality and it would not be my last.

This awakening to a painful reality is the lot of those who try to find refuge in the mother country. While trying to find their way in the great white arena they are confronted with a harsh step-motherly treatment that in no way accepted them.

In the all-time favourite To Sir With Love, E. R. Braithwaite explores the predicament of a black teacher in a tough East End school. The liberal, just veneer of England is torn apart ignominiously when he recounts his abortive attempts to secure a job where he is disqualified principally on the basis of his skin pigmentation. Braithwaite's conclusion is blatant and stark:

Yes, it is wonderful to be British - until one comes to Britain. By dint of careful savings or through hard-won scholarships many of them arrive in Britain to be educated in the Arts and Sciences and in the varied processes of legislative and administrative government. They come bolstered by a firm, conditioned belief that Britain and the British stand for all that is best in Christian and democratic terms; in their naivet they ascribe these high principles to all Britons, without exception.

The question of identity remains for black children an enigma. Trapped between two worlds, and unable to identify with either they become inhabitants of a floating world. They move between shores and their lives become an endless journey without a destination. Perhaps this is why many of the principal West Indian novels structurally tend towards the bildungsroman. All these novels end with a journey, a journey to the Promised Land. The education which could have been the messiah in their journey through the shifting universe proves to be a misleading will o' the wisp driving them into the quagmire of uncertainty, deprivation and ultimate failure to look for themselves, rather than for the labyrinth of 'success'.

This feeling of a vacuum can be sensed in this excerpt from an interview with Jean Rhys:

'Do you consider yourself a West Indian?'
She shrugged. 'It was such a long time ago when I left.'
'So you don't think of yourself as a West Indian writer?'
Again she shrugged and said nothing. What about English? Do you consider yourself an English writer?'
'No I am not, I am not! I'm not even English.'
'What about a French writer?' I asked.
She shrugged and said nothing.
'You have no desire to go back to Dominica?'
'Sometimes,' she said.

1. William Wordsworth. Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. 1807.
2. Ngugi Wa-Thiongo. Decolonizing the Mind.
3. Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins White Masks
4. Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood
5. Nandy, Ashish. The Intimate Enemy
6. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men. 1754
7. Lehmann, Sophia. In search of a mother tongue: Locating home in diaspora. Melus 23.4 {1998}101-115, Infotrac 28 Nov 2000
See also:
Narinesingh, Roy. Crick Crack Monkey 'Introduction'. London : Heinemann, 1981

© Tannistho Ghosh, June 2002
See Tannistho Ghosh's blog: The Spirit of Ferdinand

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© Priyanka Basu, June 2002
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