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Metaphors and Creolization: Reading J. Michael Dash’s “Bateaux-Prisons”

by Alessandra Benedicty, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, The City College of New York

In keeping with the intention of this seminar in which we are considering, interrogating and creating new epistemologies about the Caribbean, I’d like to mention that some of the ideas that I am including have come out of conversations that I’ve had with several persons here—Professor Dash, Kaiama L. Glover, Robert Baron, Maja Horn, Rose Réjouis, Robert Baron and Jarrettia Adams. It’s also a great honor to be able to discourse so directly and in such a venue with J. Michael Dash.

Binaries offer scholars, if not a productive tool, at least a point of departure, with which to consider and reconsider one or more epistemological spaces. A binary that I think might inform our discussion in this seminar is that in which creolization appears as one of the terms, and which I think might serve as a point of contact with J. Michael Dash’s work here today. Before going further, I am not bringing this up to be polemical, although what I describe is provocative. I think that Dash’s notion of the “bateau-prison” is exciting precisely because it opens up a space within which the polemics of creolization become less significant.

As of yet, I have not yet stated the two poles of the binary in which the notion of creolization may or may not appear. First, I will articulate what Robin Cohen and Paola Toninato in their introduction to The Creolization Reader: Studies in Mixed Identities and Cultures consider possibly the most general of dichotomies: that which posits in its largest, and maybe prosaic of senses, the term of “creolization” against that of the term “Africa”. Cohen and Toninato consider both proponents and opponents of the concept of creolization. On the one hand, the advocates see creolization as a redemptive concept that encompasses at the same time both the traumatic slashing of economic, cultural and socio-political realities to both individuals and their communities in colonial, postcolonial and transcolonial spaces. Creolization’s proponents acknowledge a richness in the re-composited identities that are the result of such disturbances, something that Derek Walcott encapsulates in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, which we read earlier this semester, when he considers the broken and reconstituted vase that “reassembles our African and Asian fragments” (Walcott). In this light, creolization becomes a model—a “metaphor”—for non-Atlantic considerations of postcolonial subjectivity: Cohen and Toninato, write:

Creolization in the Caribbean (in particular) began to be seen as a ‘master metaphor’ for comparable historical experiences in other societies and prefiguring of what was taking place in the contemporary world, where mass migration, increased connectivity, tourism and other aspects of what we can loosely call cultural globalization have breached prior frontiers of identity. (5)

On the other hand of the debate on creolization as a term and concept are those who are wary that creolization as metaphor compromises the specificity of the Caribbean, and especially of its connection to the African continent and its cultures (Cohen and Toninato 5). In the study of Atlantic religions such as Vodou, Santería, and Candomblé, the tension is manifest in the eclectic terminology used to collectively describe these religions: “African-derived religions” in the Americas, “creolized religions”, “new world African religions”, or “syncretic religions”, and each terminology grounds itself within the above discussion of the polemics associated with the word creolization.

Another dichotomy that might inform a discussion of creolization is that which Matthias Röhrig Assunçao describes as “nurturing”. In speaking of an etymology of the word “creole”, Assunçao writes that the “emphasis” of an 1813 Portuguese language dictionary definition is “not on fusion, but on nurturing, on growing up in the specific conditions of the master’s house, which we can take here as a metaphor for slavery” (Assunçao 186). Thus, Röhrig’s image reiterates Dash’ proposal that “the slave ship becomes a womb which is filled with Jamesian castaways” (Dash). If as Dash proposes, “sea and land are intertwined in a new non-territorial geography of ideas and desires”—whether it’s Melville’s Ahab, James himself, Toussaint Louverture, Rimbaud’s narrative voice in Bateau ivre, or Aimé Césaire and Edouard Glissant’s portrayal of the slave ship, what Dash calls “[Anténor] Firmin’s castaway consciousness”, or the more contemporary images of Edwidge Danticat’s Krome detention center or Dany Laferrière’s grandmother, who lives on a veranda facing the “terre-mer”—the “land-sea” (Dash).

Thus, my question is the following: Is creolization the ultimate metaphor for the Caribbean? For more global processes of dislocation and relocation? In other words, a scholar such as Stephan Palmié warns that creolization as metaphor for hybrization is dangerous, for, and here I quote Assunçao, the words “creole” and “creolization”:

[…] carry ‘deeply troubling ideological ballast’ and suggest ‘liberating indeterminacy’ where there was, in fact, a rather rigid caste system. He therefore strongly advises against ‘rushing to incorporate an ill-understood historical vocabulary into our diagnoses’” (2007: 68, 76). Whilst completely in agreement with the first part of his reasoning, I would like to argue here that the great variation of meanings of the term creole at different historical moments and in various local contexts can also be an opportunity. (Cohen and Toninato 185).

I personally am of the vision that Dash, Glissant and Assunçao propose, that creolization, as “bateaux-prisons”, and I quote Dash, as “[t]he poetics of location and dislocation” is inevitable. What intrigues me though as I read Dash is that to speak of the “middle passage”, to speak of the Caribbean, might be to perpetually exist within a metaphor, to be its process. If the etymology of the word metaphor is “a carrying over, […] a ‘transfer’ from meta- ‘over, across’ and pherein ‘to carry, bear’”, then the Middle Passage, Dash’s notion of the “bateaux-prison” is the ultimate metaphor, the critical bearing of so much, of everything that is hemispherically related to the slave trade—from the democratic ideals of Toussaint or James, to the new articulations of hemispheric American capitalism. In other words, these relations become cultural facts that obsess Melville’s characters and which strengthen the United States to the point that this very capitalism would aggressively protect itself with McCarthyism, detaining C.L.R. James on Ellis Island. If Glissant’s “poetics of relation”, “poetics of creolization” may initially seem—in the first connotations associated with the usage of the word “poetics”—to be too soft, too positive a terminology, then maybe we need to return to the etymology of the word metaphor: To “bear” the burden of carrying meaning from one place to another, in the dislocation that informs Caribbean histories, in its very process, incarnating the horror, the weight, the inevitability and the creativity of the “bateau-prison”, of what is the Caribbean burden, and by extension the hemispheric denials, recognitions, and responsibilities of both the past and the present of these burdens.

Cohen, Robin and Paola Toninato. The Creolization Reader: Studies in Mixed Identities and Cultures (Routledge Student Readers). 1st. New York/ Milton Park/ Oxon: Routledge, 2009.

Röhrig Assunçao, Matthias. “Capoiera: The Brazilian Martial Art.” Cohen, Robin and Paola Toninato. The Creolization Reader: Studies in Mixed Identities. London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2009. 185-200.

Walcott, Derek. The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory. 1992 йил 7-December. 2010 йил 15-October <http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/walcott-lecture.html>.