In the first part of this column, I shared my pedagogical strategy of asking students whether they would like to have coffee with the author whose works they read for class; this, as an invitation to reflect not only on the author’s ideas and conclusions but also on his/her values and personality as manifested through the way they write: Engagingly or not? With arrogance and pontification or with intellectual humility? With stylistic grace, wit, even humor? With irony, perhaps crossing the line to sarcasm?
I mentioned the book “History of Puerto Rico,” by historian Fernando Pico, who specialized on the island’s 19th-century peasantry, incidentally in the coffee-producing central-highlands of Utuado. Pico’s works reflect the intellectual honesty and humility that characterized him, and his commitment to giving a voice to the poor, the marginal, the so-called “people without history” (past and present).
Rather than fill the pages of his books with names of Spanish colonial officials and “paper planters,” he summoned the common workers; “thousands of Creoles,” as he lyrically put it, “who battled day after day with clods and woody vines, and thus forged a nation.”
Yes, there is a way to write about those “at the edge of power,” as Fernando did, without the preachy, self-righteous tone that has come to characterize so much of the contemporary historical and sociological literature.
Coffee with Fernando Pico? Of course, any day, at any time. With posturing careerist historians and social scientists (some of whom I know personally)? I pass, and spare my students the burden of plowing through predictable, politically correct, so-called theoretically sophisticated tomes.
I assign them well-written books instead, like Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place,” a small book, only 81 pages. I start my Caribbean history class juxtaposing the first half of Kincaid’s book with a video clip from Antigua and Barbuda’s Tourism Authority. We notice the similarities: “That water — have you ever seen anything like it? Far out, to the horizon, the colour of the water is navy-blue;” Kincaid continues, “nearer, the water is the colour of the North American sky. From there to the shore, the water is pale, silvery, clear, so clear that you can see its pinkish-white sand bottom. Oh, what beauty!”
Kincaid’s poetic prose matches the alluring moving images one sees when visiting visitantiguabarbuda.com. Click on “culture and heritage” and you will see a dance troupe on stage, clad in clownish costumes, a pineapple, a deserted beach, a nicely put together fish plate, a view of Falmouth Bay and three old cannons pointing at who knows what.
That type of portrayal is precisely what infuriates Kincaid, the bulk of whose book is an indictment, poetic as it may be (a tirade, one may call it) of Antigua’s plantation-and-slavery past and British colonists, those: “bastards,” “pitiful lot,” “pigs,” “human rubbish” and more.
But Antigua Barbuda became independent in 1981 (eight years before “A Small Place” came out). “True,” one can hear Kincaid respond, “Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way.” That incomplete independence and incomplete emancipation are to blame, Kincaid reminds the reader page after page, for the mosaic of ills afflicting late 20th-century Antigua and Barbuda: racism and residential segregation, political corruption, underdevelopment and poverty, and widespread ignorance and alienation.
Kincaid is merciless when it comes to run-of-the-mill tourists who dare set foot on her island, whose economy, by the way, depends heavily on foreign tourism: “An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you.”
So, would you like to have coffee — tea perhaps — with Jamaica Kincaid? I ask my students. A majority respectfully declines. I don’t blame them. After all, we are all potential tourists, of the sort she has chastised page after page.
I ask them to imagine an over-tea conversation with Kincaid. What topics would she raise? In what tone? What is the sound of her voice like? Will she listen to what you have to say? Would you enjoy it, or not?
Back to the internet: We google J-A-M-A-I-C-A K-I-N-K-A-I-D, then click on video. She sounds nothing like the way she writes. She is poised, soft-spoken, sweetly musical. Sure, I’ll have coffee (or tea) with her any day, at any time.
More authors and cups of coffee next week.
Luis Martinez-Fernandez is the author of “Revolutionary Cuba: A History” and “Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba.” Readers can reach him at [email protected] To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www. creators.com.