Who Am I as Travelling Subject? The ‘Crossover Griot’, Creolisation and Theoretical Navigation

Joan Anim-Addo, Dept. of English & Comparative Literatures, Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK

Keywords: creolisation, race, resistance

When the travelling subject is also visibly a ‘dark continent of feminist thought’ (Braidotti, 1994: 180), which travelling concepts might we privilege: perceptions of race (your gaze), resistance that has informed and ensured her survival, or creolised, gendered knowledge and experience grounded in that body? Giovanna Covi, in her paper, locates the intersection between race and gender on Gloria Anzaldùa’s borderland/la frontera, ‘where the ceaseless negotiation between history and theory compels us to engage a discourse in which history (social reality) and story (lyrical, mythical reality) coexist dialogically, because “narrative is not and never has been enough” (Morrison, 1984: 388)’. Alert to the nature of such a dialogical relationship, I wish to develop my particular position while also considering Sabine Grenz’s introductory questions: ‘Who actually is travelling? Are the concepts travelling or is it us [sic] who move through different locations, periods of times and disciplines … thereby giving to or discovering new meanings of [the] concepts?’ The position I am attempting to articulate is necessarily interrogative, giving rise to many more questions than answers.

Even while resisting history itself, as this ‘dark continent’ must, at times, the daily negotiation between history (mine) and history (yours) compels a theorising which is perhaps easily unheard since it positions the self at the crossroads. Caribbean poet Lorna Goodison, writes in her collection Travelling Mercies of the ‘crossover griot’, who ‘… left to mind/ first mulata child/ would go end of day/ to ululate by the bay’. While ‘[t]he jump-ship Irishman / who took that Guinea girl’ croons, [s]he moans, ‘since them/ carry me from Guinea/ me can’t go home’ (2001: 74). So, the nature of the journey, the how and why of travel carries significance in terms of gendered knowledge experienced through that body. While it is true that ‘narrative is not … enough’, the questions remain to be addressed, specifically here in Europe: which bodies and indeed which minds are weighted in discourse encoding the power to give or alternatively to discover, and where are the narratives of the ‘crossover griot’ to be found in all of this? Like Josefina Bueno Alonso, in her paper here, therefore, I stress the complexity of identity and how this impacts upon writing.

In adopting Goodison’s ‘cross-over griot’ figure, my intention is to highlight a particular travelling subject for whom the ‘crossing’ is one of violence remembered (in a particularised mix of history and collective memory) and specifically the gendered body at risk. In this encounter, race cannot be ignored. Indeed, two differentiated notions of race may be flagged (1). The first privileges black / white distinctions effectively utilised during the colonial era in which much of Europe is implicated, while central to the second is the mixture of races or métissage primarily a result of that encounter (2). Directly related to the same encounter, Goodison’s ‘griot’, originally from ‘Guinea’, in Africa, has crossed over into a ‘white’ world, that is, one dominated by differentiated value systems. Furthermore, the nature of her gendered knowledge has literally been born(e) through her body. With the birth of her ‘mulata’ or métis child, she has also been catapulted into a creolised existence.
Writing about the obscurity of the term, ‘creole’, Carolyn Allen states:
… the Dictionnnaire de la langue francaise gives three possibilities: Caribbean origin; an invention of the Spanish conquistadors; a derivation from Spanish criar. By most other accounts however, it derives from Portuguese (Brazil), with the Latin root “to create” referring in this context to servants born and brought up in the master’s house. Yet, this received opinion does not fully account for what some etymologists have acknowledged as an uncharacteristic suffix. Among available sources, the Diccionario Crítico de La Lengua Castellana gives the most extensive examination of possible transformations, but is unable to come to any definite conclusion in the absence of systematic study of suffixes in sixteenth-century Portuguese and Brazilian speech (2002: 49). (3)

I have quoted Allen at length since the etymological search is itself revealing of creolisation. Thus, in a quest for clarity concerning a term widely used in referencing geographically different areas including the Caribbean and islands in the Indian Ocean, simultaneously known as European territories or ‘French departments’, several European languages - French, Portuguese and Castellana - are scrutinized. Nor does it end there, for as Allen indicates, ‘recent research by Maureen Warner-Lewis reinforces the notion of possible African origin’ (cited in Shepherd et al, 1995: 49).

My main concern, to interrogate creolisation as a discursive space into academic and political thinking on race, includes a preoccupation with the navigation and inclusion of black women’s theorising voices. By black women, I refer in this instance, to black ‘crossover griots’ in the European context. As background to this interest I shall indicate my involvement in planning and teaching a new postgraduate course in 2004 which focuses on Caribbean literature and Creole poetics even as ‘new Europe’, including Britain, celebrates ‘new’ European-ness rendering ‘my dark continent’, and that of other ‘crossover griot(s)’, invisible again (5). At the same time, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels I teach courses on Caribbean women’s writing, am one of a handful of ‘tenured’ African-heritage women in the British academy, and the director of the Caribbean Studies Centre at my university, all of which underscore the ambivalence of my position.

In terms of theory, I share Silvia Caporale Bizzini’s concern with literary discourse in her paper. However, this concern is not widely shared. A preliminary survey of relevant texts reveals an impermeability on the part of literary theory to the creolisation debate. In this sense, I mean my interventions on race and creolisation to challenge the power relations exemplified through the practice of ‘the academy’. Specifically, if the new theoretical orthodoxy for annexing literatures is postcolonialism, then creolisation theory, signalling resistance in its interpretation of history, constitutes a threat beyond the reading of texts privileged in the academy. Secondly, while, African-Caribbean historical contributions, such as Verene Shepherd [et al’s], are important to historical debate, their reach appears to be fairly location-specific, restricted mainly to the Caribbean. Yet, creolisation theory runs counter to the trend identified by Bizzini as a ‘weakening… of the historical process’. Rather, creolisation is inextricably linked to the history shared by the Caribbean and Europe. The questions arise: whose ideas become global and by what process? Crucially, what happens when concepts persist in travelling with the dark body?

I am interested, then, in Caribbean and diaspora texts, the theoretical, critical and the literary, themselves a site of resistance, in relation to the ways in which ideas are produced and distributed through processes grounded in the practices of academia and publishing. This interest and its relationship to creolisation is linked to Europe for historical reasons including that of diasporic movement into Europe by Creole peoples (Spanish, French, Dutch and English, for example). In other words, Europe is involved in creolisation not only when the Creole subject moves to Europe which then becomes the site of his/ her cultural production. As Francoise Verges (1999) again reminds us, Creole territories such as Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and Guadeloupe in the Antilles occupy European Union status. How, then, is the creolised body as text received in the European context? If power produces resistance, as Foucault theorises (1977: 26-7), it also gives rise to resistant literature. Issues of language and consideration of mothertongue(s), including Creole, as literary language also arise.

In considering the contemporary text and the published word of the ‘crossover griots’, the travelling black women of the twenty-first century, it becomes necessary to ask where is her textual body in the over-arching framework, what are the theoretical discourses of significance to the location into which she has crossed over? Two difficulties may be signalled. On the one hand, in terms of negotiation between Creole poetics and the dominant discourses, it appears that a comparative vacuum exists. On the other hand, a marginalised situation, which might be read as a gendered appropriation of Creole poetics pressed into the service of postcolonial theory, cannot be ignored (6). In highlighting questions of race, gender and intellectual life, then, I am also flagging a ‘simultaneity of oppression’ of relevance to the theorising of black hyphenated-European women’s poetics.

In my reading, the creolisation paradigm may be seen as offering theoretical tools of wide-reaching significance. I anticipate, for example, that cultural translation concerns such as those raised by Giovanna Covi, will prove a particularly interesting point of convergence. This is because creolisation perspectives, identified here through my literary preoccupations, nonetheless provide the possibility of fruitful theoretical intersections.

Central to, and continuing the ‘ceaseless negotiation’, my paper challenges the absence of black women, as theorists, within the larger debate. The question remains to be asked: where are the black women theorists in European academic debate and why does the tradition by white women of ‘speaking for’ black women persist largely unchallenged? Remarkably, this appears to be the case despite Moira Ferguson’s (1992) convincingly argued deconstruction of this tradition established from the days of Atlantic slavery (7).

If a concern with creolisation challenges also notions of language, voice and voicelessnes, then, arguably, the complexities of identity are central to notions of creolisation. In literary terms, so too is the writing of home and absent motherlands in relation to interregional and international migration, exile and homecoming, and the theorising about which the ‘crossover griot’ continues to chant.

1 The term race is used here as cultural factor crucial to colonial Caribbean history. My matter of fact approach to race in this paper also connects with Giovanna Covi’s lucid discussion of race and her foregrounding of racial complexity and multiplicity in her paper here, in that it underscores the particular situatedeness that each participant in ‘Travelling Concepts’ brings to the debate. In presenting race as cultural/ historical reality, I am also illustrating Covi’s concern that ‘race is an awkward yet necessary concept’.
2 Francoise Verges (1999) points to the adverse perceptions of Creole language and culture, its interpretation as Creole pathology in the narrative of French psychiatry and the claims that the source of that pathology is the Creole mother.
3 Allen’s linguistic enquiry is also indicative of the diversity of Creole Studies and its interdisciplinarity.
5 Media coverage of the ‘new’ Europe renders black Europeans invisible. See, for example the front cover of The Times newspaper. By inaccurately reflecting the black presence in multi-racial Europe and indeed excluding all but the pale face of Europe, regardless of Creole areas that are ‘European’, such coverage perpetuates certain racial myths but also contributes to the crucial issue of ‘subject formation’ highlighted by Sylvia Caporale Bizzini, in her paper here.
6 It is instructive to examine critical and theoretical texts with a view to confirming which black women are represented and where they are located.
7 Moira Ferguson argues that a ‘classbound perspective’ traced back to Apra Behn’s writing, together with an acceptance of the contemporary situation, Atlantic slavery, served as the basis for much racialised discourse.

Allen, C. (2002). Creole: the Problem of Definition. In V. A. Shepherd & G. L. Richards (Eds.), Questioning Creole: Creolisation Discourses in Caribbean Culture. Oxford, James Currey and Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.
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Braidotti, R. (1994). Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ferguson, M. (1992) Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834. London and New York: Routledge.
Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Alan Sheridan (trans.). London: Penguin Books.
Goodison, L. (2001). Travelling Mercies. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.
Morrison, T. (1984). Memory, Creation and Writing. Thought, 59 (December 1984), 385-90.
Shepherd, V., Brereton, B. & Bailey, B. (Eds.). (1995). Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers & London: James Currey Ltd.
Verges, F. (1999). Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Métissage. Durham and London: Duke University Press.