Carole Boyce Davies, Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from Twilight Zones. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013. x + 250 pp. (Paper US$ 28.00)
Carole Boyce Davies describes Caribbean Spaces as a text that attempts “a move between the autobiographical and the conceptual, the experiential and the theoretical, in order to disrupt the logic of exclusionary academic discourse that often denies the personal” (p. 6). She wants this work to be broadly accessible, a comfortable read for academics and nonacademics. The text does not disappoint. Clearly activist in intent, it provides autobiographical details that help readers understand the journey of a black academic in the northeastern United States during the 1980s. It outlines a personal journey, explaining how Boyce Davies, identifying as Caribbean, came to make common cause with the struggles and experiences of African Americans and others claiming space in the United States. It seems to me not accidental that the photographs (by her and her friends) appear on unnumbered pages, helping to explain how she found space in her imagination for these ideas, and how they featured in the shaping of her Caribbean American identity. One, for example, is entitled “Owegea, an Indian village burned August 19, 1779, by Gen. Clinton’s force en route to join Gen. Sullivan.” Such entries explain connections in the U.S. space in ways that Boyce Davies already understood in her Caribbean landmarks. Not surprisingly, race is an important thematic in the text, and readers are reminded—or informed—of the importance of Howard University to the African American and Caribbean American imagination of the 1970s and 1980s. Boyce Davies studied there during that period; her mentor and thesis advisor was Léon Damas, one of the Négritude writers of 1930s Paris.
The book is intimately concerned with Caribbean spaces—at home and abroad. On the cover is the subversively worded and deliberately darkened subtitle, “Escape from Twilight Zones.” Boyce Davies writes of English departments as often comprising “hearts of whiteness” with “an underlying set of colonial narratives that only the embedded know” (p. 24). The ironic use of “embedded” is clearly political, bringing to mind what appeared to be the institutional/national role of some U.S. journalists during the Iraq War. Boyce Davies’s narrative suggests that one inevitably, for professional and other purposes, at times engages in “negotiation in the twilight” (p. 25). Still, signaling what seems to be her sense of belonging in spite of negative twilight experiences, she speaks of escaping twilight zones for sustenance, rejuvenation, return: “Each escape recreates the person, culturally rejuvenates and allows one to work and prepare the ground for the desire for the next escape” (p. 31). This intriguing sentence suggests a claiming of the liminal space, a cycle of escape and return.
Chapter 2, “Reimagining the Caribbean: Seeing, Reading, Thinking,” begins with the story of Kick-Em-Jinny, an underwater volcano, a recurring memory of constantly unstable island space, and suggests a complex interpretation of notions of “seeing.” A “ ‘seer’ (woman or man) is often employed by those without the training, the gifts, the mental faculties to go beyond the surface, to see what is hidden or yet to be revealed. In a way, then, we all have to become ‘seer women and men’ if we want to pursue the levels of critical engagement that allow us to really see the Caribbean” (p. 35). For Boyce Davies, the seers (see-ers) of Caribbean folk and obeah traditions, who, in their known public capacity or in the ways in which their approaches inhere in the attitudes and actions even of those who claim not to believe in seeing, are often a quiet influence between the lines of Caribbean texts. In fact, the book contains ideas that could be useful to teachers of other Caribbean texts.
Chapters are short and digestible, provocatively and engagingly narrated. Chapter 3, “Caribbean/American: The Portable Black Self in Community,” meditates about family separation and migration. Considering her own Caribbean migrant/student experience of U.S. segregation, Boyce Davies writes, “At first there were still restaurants and guesthouses with signs outside that said ‘Colored,’ and the only formal hotel in town was off-limits to black people as patrons” (p. 48). And she evokes a march that “made us part of the community forever … my black and conscious self came of age in the United States in the midst of Black Power activity. It was a black self, constructed in full identification with U.S. African-American struggles but with a conscious link to other black struggles internationally” (p. 49).
The book is engaging in its discussions of gender identity and expressions of a feminist sensibility. With an internationalist vision, Boyce Davies makes links between (and notices differences in the expression of) black struggles internationally, for example comparing the death of Murtala Muhamad in Nigeria with that of Martin Luther King in the United States, and observing that while she came of age in her understanding of black struggle in the United States, one of her major influences was Jamaica’s Sylvia Wynter, then a visiting scholar at Howard University. Caribbean Spaces, a series of meditations inviting readers to explore and interrogate various Caribbean world spaces, has a lot more to discover. Enjoy the journey.