Louis Reyes Rivera raising a point during the panel discussion at the 2011 Festival. Photo: Veronica Caicedo Copyright © 2011
2013 Theme: Celebrating Afro-Caribbean Poets & Writers
This is a preliminary overview of the 2013 Festival and is subject to change as we continue to research and coordinate with participants for their input, so check back with our website for additional information as we get closer to the event.
This year’s Festival, “Celebrating Afro-Caribbean Poets and Writers,” examines literature throughout the Caribbean archipelago and beyond. Our goal is to investigate Afro-Caribbean literature not only globally, but specifically in the United States including its association with Negritude and Negrismo and how it connects to African American literature and culture. Using a variety of genres (short fiction, the novel, creative non-fiction, and poetry), the panelists and guest speakers appearing throughout the Festival will examine issues which have shaped the islands and its influence in contemporary literature today: colonialism, island rivalries, politics, the heritage of slavery, connection to Africa, gender roles, and economic development/exploitation. While we intend to touch on the historical, cultural and social foundation of Afro-Caribbean literatures (which in many ways has become a “global” literature), since this is an extremely vast topic, the Festival’s objective is to concentrate on the genesis of Afro-Caribbean literature in the United States.
In selecting this theme, we have taken on the huge task of presenting all facets of Afro-Caribbean culture: Greater to Lesser Antilles, Leeward to Windward — moving in one direction throughout the archipelago, which covers the Anglophone, Hispanophone, Francophone and Dutchophone language and cultures. This also includes non-island entities such as Belize in Central America and Guyana (which was once three separate countries colonized by the British, Dutch and French) on the north coast of South America. Do they all fit under the rubric of Afro-Caribbean literature? And are these literatures adequately represented in the American literary canon? It is certainly an issue we want to tackle head on at the Festival and specifically, during our panel discussion.
Another challenge for our panelists and guest speakers is the very definition of Afro-Caribbean literature. Certainly, one must take into account that since immigration has become a way of life from the middle of the last century, an important body of expatriate writing exists, which continues to the present day. Yet defining a Caribbean author is even more complicated. Is it someone who was born there, lived there, or whose parents were born there? Some critics have argued that how one labels oneself is the definitive point, nothing more and nothing less. But is that explanation sufficient in itself?
If that isn’t difficult enough, the next bone of contention we intend to grapple is what distinguishes Afro-Caribbean literatures from African American literature, and does Afro-Caribbean American literature exist in the United States as a specific and separate genre. It’s a question that has been discussed, debated, quietly contemplated, and even bitterly argued during the last 85 years or so, from its emergence from the then colonies to the present.
On a cultural level, many African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans do not always see themselves as one people in spite of their common African heritage. Even the Afro-Caribbean community is not a monolithic whole. Although many of them probably identify themselves as a collective entity with a common history and common culture – such as West Indians – they still don’t constitute an organic whole that is indivisible. This is partly because Afro-Caribbeans constitute distinct ethnic groups from not only the island nations in the Caribbean (including the former Spanish colonies), but also from Canada, Britain, France, and elsewhere. As a result, they have shared conflicting perceptions about each other, which have been shaped not only by their different historical experiences but also by their conquerors who have played a major role using various means (such as the media), to keep them divided.
There is no question that Afro-Caribbean history has been largely ignored in studies of American and African American history, and has also been, inexplicably, neglected in the literatures on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American immigration. While in recent years, Afro-Caribbean studies programs have been created specifically to address this and other issues, what is perhaps the most frustrating and perplexing aspect for some Afro-Caribbeans is being unceremoniously lumped into African American culture as one homogenous ethnicity, when in fact, it clearly is not. Narrowing down these cultural differences and misunderstandings, we hope to participate in an honest discussion on what constitutes Afro-Caribbean identity, as it pertains to the United States, its relationship with the African American diaspora, and how we can reconcile those differences through literature. These and similar questions will no doubt generate highly animated conversations throughout the Festival.
While we intend to concentrate on contemporary writers, the Festival will also address the early literary breakthroughs that departed from mere imitation of the conventions of the European colonizers to what it is today. At the beginning of the 20th century, Negritude and Negrismo appeared in the Francophone and Hispanic Caribbean as well as in Africa, revolutionized the literary world. Negrismo appeared in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic initially as a way to represent certain African cultures through the imitation African sounds. Writers like Aimé Cesaire of Martinique, Luis Palés Matos of Puerto Rico, Jacques Roumain of Haiti, Nicolás Guillén of Cuba, Manuel del Cabral of the Dominican Republic, and Léon Damas of French Guiana were the first to attempt carving out a distinctive Caribbean literary identity. José Zacarías Tallet and Emilio Ballagas, two white Cubans, began to create poetry that dealt with black issues. What attracted white poets to Negrismo poetry can be explained in different ways, but their participation helped underscore the pre-eminent role race played in the construction of identity. This identity was based not on European ideals but on links between the African communities of the Caribbean.
The British West Indies did not really pick up this challenge until after World War II. With the growth of newly independent states like Barbados, Trinidad, and Jamaica, Anglophone writers finally began to develop a tradition that focused on a distinctly Caribbean consciousness. Pioneers in this movement include Vic Reid, George Lamming, and V.S. Naipaul. In recent years, a wide variety of Caribbean writing in English exists from the English, French, Dutch and Spanish countries (which finally include women writers as well) has taken on not only Caribbean issues but contemporary issues as it pertains to Afro-Caribbean culture within the United States. We hope that these and other topics will bring Festival attendees closer to a better understanding of the complexities of Afro-Caribbean literature as well as alert them to the many writers who make up this wonderful genre of literature.
We are very excited about our 2nd Annual phati’tude African American Literary Festival and this year’s theme, “Celebrating Afro-Caribbean Poets and Writers,” and look forward to seeing you at the Queens Library’s Langston Hughes Community Library & Cultural Center in Northern Queens on Saturday, February 23, 2013.
— Gabrielle David