Jamaica

I was sitting on a beach in Jamaica reading a collection of C.L.R. James’s occasional writings on cricket. The place had once belonged to Errol Flynn. My daughter was playing on the edge of the sea. James had been the deputy cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in the 1930s. I found myself reading about my father’s heroes in the Lancashire cricket team of that period as if it were today’s sports news.

I had been devouring everything I could by James since I came to Jamaica to help establish a new graduate school for social science research. I knew that he had lived in Lancashire when he left Trinidad for Britain. It occurred to me that we had lived in the same places — the Caribbean, Britain, America, Africa — in a different sequence, at different times and with very different trajectories.

Now, watching my daughter play on that exotic beach, with my father’s stories from childhood coming alive again, the gap between me and that old black man was collapsed into a single moment by the vivid immediacy of James’s prose. Generation and racial difference were erased in an epiphany of timeless connection. I felt compelled to meet him and so I wrote the first and only fan letter of my life.

Jamaica was a revelation. There was nothing surprising about West Africa for me. It seemed to be an old society, like Britain. America was new, the mirror image of Europe, but I still had not digested its significance. The Caribbean was all of the other three combined. Like the United States, it had been created from scratch by adventurers, the aboriginal population destroyed. But Africa and Europe remained a conservative force in the Caribbean that the Americans had broken with decisively. Sometimes I had the impression that Jamaica was frozen in the eighteenth century.

Perhaps it was because I had come there as the last leg of that unholy quadrilateral, but Jamaica helped me to integrate experiences that had been disparate until then. I realized that, in shadowing the African diaspora, I had absorbed something of their perspective on history as dispersion and movement. I later came to think of this perspective as cubist. Whereas agrarian civilization taught people to see the world as if they were rooted in one spot, the Middle Passage had spawned the first truly modern people, as James insisted, a people formed by dislocation and dreams of emancipation who could see the picture from several points at once. I learned to place myself imaginatively in the different regions I had been and, sure enough, the world changed as I did so.

I had been invited to Cape Town while I was still in Britain. African friends told me the ANC embargo on visiting South Africa did not apply to people like me. But when I mentioned going there in Kingston, they were horrified. This was 1986 and the Soweto uprising was on the TV news every night. Jamaica's former slaves felt stuck in a racial system for which the anti-apartheid revolution was a potential solution. They sat on the edge of their seats waiting for apartheid to fall, another chance of gaining the real emancipation they had been denied for so long. The idea of my going to Cape Town was unthinkable.

I date my self-reinvention as an anthropologist to that moment on the beach in Jamaica. Not least, it took me to James for the last years of his long life.

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Comment by John McCreery on April 6, 2010 at 6:34am
I later came to think of this perspective as cubist. Whereas agrarian civilization taught people to see the world as if they were rooted in one spot, the Middle Passage had spawned the first truly modern people, as James insisted, a people formed by dislocation and dreams of emancipation who could see the picture from several points at once. I learned to place myself imaginatively in the different regions I had been and, sure enough, the world changed as I did so.

Anthropology as Cubism — I like it. What instantly popped into my head was Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, with motion captured in what is, in effect, an overlapping series of snapshots. I can see the ethnography of a region in which there have been multiple studies over the past century being read in the same way, with the eye moving back and forth over different points in space and time, trying first to articulate and then to explain what is seen.

History with dispersion and movement is a topic with which anthropology began — in those classic "threads and patches" studies of traits, artifacts and motifs that were put aside to focus on peoples and cultures conceived as clearly bounded units analyzable in terms of structure and function. Now that tracing the movements of people, goods and information, pests and plagues around the world has once again become popular in all sorts of fields, we anthropologists need to consider what we, in particular, can contribute to these conversations.

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