Dr Adom Philogene Heron, Post-doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research
I have recently begun curating a review of the Caribbean studies holdings across our three libraries –The Institute of Historical Research, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and the general Senate House Library.
In this first blog post I shall offer an introduction to The Caribbean Collection Project and Senate House’s rich collection within the fields of kinship and gender, my particular areas of interest as a Caribbeanist Anthropologist. This ‘route in’ to the collection will be the first of numerous features with scholars who have used the library’s materials and will share their thoughts on a highlight of the collection.
The Caribbean Collection Project
The project centres on a survey of the Caribbean materials across the SAS libraries, with the goal of developing an online index that will give users a sense of the strengths of the collection. Often students of the Caribbean – from undergraduates to advanced and independent scholars – are not aware of the breadth, depth or rarity of SAS’ Caribbean materials. Our goal is to showcase several thematic highlights of the collection via a series blog posts and talks; before collating the online guide to assist library users in finding materials.
Core collection themes will include:
- The Amerindian/pre-Columbian and early colonial Caribbean
- The Plantation Caribbean (slavery, plantation life, indenture, and abolition)
- Ordering the colonial Caribbean (administration, discipline and European rule)
- Imagining Caribbean freedoms (maronnage, revolutions, ruptures and social movements)
- Caribbean spiritualties, religions and ‘mystics’ (the occult)
- Conceiving of the Caribbean post/neo-colony (‘nation building’, ‘development’ and their discontents)
- Gender and kinship
- Caribbean literary life and key thinkers
Researching Gender and Kinship at SAS Libraries
Early in my PhD research – on Fatherhood, Masculinities and Family life in Dominica (Eastern Caribbean) – I began visiting Senate House library (as a SCONUL member) and exploring the holdings on Caribbean families and gender relations. I encountered ethnographies of the late colonial era such as RT Smith’s (1956) The Negro Family in British Guiana and Edith Clarke’s (1957) My Mother Who Fathered Me. These early studies were useful for their rigorous mapping of familial patterns and roles. And although very much of their time (colonial in terms of scholar-subject relations; and structural functionalist in paradigm), they introduced key issues – ‘matrifocal’ (mother-centred) families, household economies, residence patterns and so-called ‘male marginality’.
Next, I went on to read Christine Barrow’s (1996) Family in the Caribbean volume, Merle Hodge’s essay ‘We Kind of Family’ in Mohamed (2002) Gendered realities: essays in Caribbean feminist thought and Alissa Trotz’s essay ‘The Caribbean Family?’ in Essed et al. A companion to gender studies. I found that each offered a nuanced and critical take on the tropes of earlier generations of Caribbean kinship scholars. For instance, Trotz asked if it is even useful to speak of ‘The Caribbean’ family at all, given how vastly the region’s familial dynamics often differ by class, island context and ethnic group.
In my meanderings through the library shelves I would also encounter the path breaking Women in the Caribbean Project (WICP) papers (Senate House holds Vol1. editions #1-6 – see references below). WICP broad together leading Caribbean social scientists to examine the social, economic, familial and cultural lives of women in the region. This project reflected a great wave of Caribbean feminist scholarship in the 1980s that culminated in such key texts as Janet Momsen’s (ed) (1993) Women and change in the Caribbean, Olive Senior’s (1991) Working miracles and Honor Ford-Smith’s (1986) Lionheart gal : life stories of Jamaican women.
These important explorations of the under-examined ground of women’s experience – particularly as mothers, aunts and grandmothers – were instructive for thinking through gendered familial roles in the region; particularly, as they intersect with issues of economy, class, education and religion. They were also useful for the glimpses they offered into girls/women’s relationships to male kin. For example Forde-Smith quotes a woman who recalled how her grandfather would,
sing wid me, dance wid me and treat me like me and him is friend. If him a tink bout anyting, him always ask, ‘Gal, what yuh haffi say bout dat?’ Him tell Ananse story and whole heap a odder story. Him even mek a lickle swing under di house bottom fi me…
(Ford Smith 1986:98).
With an evolving grounding in Caribbean feminist theory and praxis, I began reading about Caribbean men as gendered beings. Rhoda Reddock’s (Ed) (2004) interdisciplinary volume Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities: offered a necessary starting point in this endeavour by situating masculinities research within the historical context of Caribbean social science, history and literature. This book offered a critical lens with which I could revisit the gendered threads of earlier works, such as P J Wilson’s (1973) Crab Antics – about male sociality, respectability and counterculture in Providencia Island (Colombia); Earl Lovelace’s (1979) novel The Dragon Can’t Dance – which explores similar themes in the context of a community in Port of Spain and Trinidadian carnival; and Graham Dann’s (1987) The Barbadian Male: Sexual Attitudes and Practice – which offers a damning portrait of men’s sexual norms in Barbados, perhaps as revealing of such norms as is the ‘respectable’ values of the middle class Bajan author.
Finally, I found in fiction, poetry and film several affectively nuanced and qualitatively rich accounts of Caribbean family life. For example, Lorna Goodison’s (1988) poem, My Uncle in Caribbean Quarterly (Vol. 44, No. 1, to which Senate House subscribes), is about the funeral of her maternal uncle, in which she offers a detailed portrait of familial loss and love for a departed ancestor. Conversely, Jamaica Kincaid in her (1998) book The Autobiography of My Mother, shares a memoir about her a less intimate, often brutal relation to her mother – revealing a harsher imagining/remembering of familial life, that is reflective of the violent history of the Caribbean region itself. And finally, Euzhan Palcy’s 1983 film Sugar Cane Alley – based on the novel La Rue Cases Nègres by Joseph Zobel – tells the story of a young boy, José, who is raised on a sugar plantation in 1930s Martinique and receives a scholarship to attend school in the capital Fort-de-France. Yet, of interest for the scholar of kinship are José’s relationships to his loving grandmother who raises him, and to an elderly rum drinking labourer, Medouze, with whom he develops a kind of avuncular or grandfather-like fondness. Medouze shares with him visions of Africa and issues him his first lessons on the social inequities of their society. Together, these creative works offered a broader perspective on family realities than the social science literature – from departed ancestors, to distant mothers to honorary uncles/grandfathers.
In sum, this brief glimpse at my PhD reading journey at Senate House library has intended to give a sense of some of the kinds of texts the library possesses under the themes of Caribbean gender and kinship. Below is a reference list to some more of these texts (it is intended not as a comprehensive index of the holdings in this area, but is merely illustrative of some key titles).