“Memory, Rememory, and the Moral Constitution of Caribbean Literary History”
This essay will explore, I will explore a paradigm of early Caribbean literary history that privileges the mythic consciousness and material culture of indigenous Caribbean people, and the occult knowledge and revolutionary imaginary of transplanted African slaves. Positioning memory as the central impetus of my essay, I will apply memory’s late-twentieth-century reinstitution as a legitimate episteme and analytical tool to evaluate the pre-Columbian archives collected in the work of Ricardo E. Alegría (Apuntes en Torno a la Mitología de los Indios Taínos de las Antillas Mayores y sus Origenes Suramericanos, 1978 [Notes Towards a Mythology of the Taino Indians of the Greater Antilles and their Origins in South America]), and Louis Allaire’s work on the Island Caribs of the Lesser Antilles (Vers une Préhistoire des Petites Antilles, 1973 [Towards a Prehistory of the Lesser Antilles]). Archaeological and prehistorical, these texts will add the value of indigenous consciousness to the constitution of literary history. The present reading will demonstrate how a critique of remembering narrative, visual, and complex symbolic systems (which define categories of cultural membra) may release suppressed voices and inscribe them in their rightful place, where ‘literary’ histories should properly begin. To illustrate how the propulsion of the Taino into historical consciousness would shape a Caribbean literary history, I will proffer Father Ramon Pane’s Relación Acerca de las Antigüedades de los Indios, 1498 (An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians: Chronicles of the New World Encounter). Pane’s significance derives from his text’s priority as the first documentary account of indigenous lives and beliefs written in a European language on Caribbean soil. But his relationship to the colonizing project, as a Spanish intellectual worker commissioned by the state to collaborate with Columbus, codes his work with certain issues of accuracy and intentionality that would add the dynamic of multivoiced tensions to the volume. Separated by nearly three centuries from Pane, William Earle reflects in his Obi; or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack (1800) the irresistible power of memory and rememory as animating impulses in the responses of Caribbean subjects to slavery and oppression. In the slave rebel Obi, memory functions as a will to remember and to avenge the crimes of slave dealers against his father, mother, and grandfather, and against their people, the Feloops. My critique will illuminate that these impulses are the energies that drive Obi to oppose the formidable weight of slavocratic power with the militant terror of rebellion, the threat of occult knowledge (specifically obeah), and the imaginary of revolution. Received principally through his mother’s narrative retellings of the crimes alluded to above, Obi’s relation to memory defines rememory in that it destabilizes family history, threatens political structures and inscribes itself on the public consciousness as an inerasable fact—persistent, repeatable, indelible. This trope of persistence and repeatability links Obi, other obeah practitioners, and runaway slaves with runaway Amerindians. All these groups used caves as sites of ritual and resistance in the politics of marronage. Further, where obeah practitioners used bones, hair, dirt, and stone in their rituals, Amerindians imbued carved objects of stone and wood (zemis) to embody cultural power and mystical meaning. These belief systems and mythic forms approximate Foucault’s and Sylvia Wynter’s epistemes, the condition of possibility for all knowledge within a culture. So defined, they name a complex of mores (customs, values, beliefs) that produce the moral constitution which is the objective of this essay.
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