A Conversation with Faith Smith
A Conversation with Faith Smith
In his short biography of the Trinidadian intellectual and philologist John-Jacob Thomas, Akins Vidale states that “the nature of the mind of the post-Emancipation African, particularly the intellectual, is an issue which has been characterised by both conjecture and suppositions.”1 Faith Smith’s Creole Recitations: John-Jacob Thomas and Colonial Formation in the Late Nineteenth-Century Caribbean (2002) challenges “conjecture and suppositions” about Thomas’s life by examining how he enacted within Trinidadian society his core belief that “educated and enlightened blacks had special duties and obligations to their race” despite racial anxieties that led many post-Emancipation Africans to “penetrate as far as possible into the white society.”2 Creole Recitations' “profound interdisciplinarity” also characterizes Smith’s 2011 edited volume Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean, which provides multiple perspectives of how discourses of sexuality affirm citizenship.3 Her newest book project centers on what she terms “not-yet narratives” of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Caribbean. Smith is a professor of African and Afro-American studies and English at Brandeis University, where she also teaches in the Latin American and Latino studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies programs. She graciously agreed to this interview during her tenure as visiting professor in the Department of English at Florida Atlantic University in spring 2016.
Sheryl Gifford: Your recent scholarship emphasizes the visual; in your 2013 article “Rupert Gray’s Vulnerability . . . and Ours,” for example, you focus on the black colonial subject’s self-fashioning as a reconfiguration of visuality.4 How does the visual factor into the book you’re working on now?
Faith Smith: It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve been trying to write about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I eventually realized it was a post-Thomas project and that I was trying to wrestle with questions that had pushed themselves forward after Thomas, so now the book is centered on 1900–1915. This takes me to the cusp of World War I and the occupation of Haiti. I’m beginning with Caribbean people’s relationship to the Spanish-American War and the second Boer War, because it’s an off-kilter way of thinking about particularly English-speaking Caribbean people; we don’t necessarily think about them in relation to those two wars. It unites several topics in the same conversation: the Boer War allows me to think about Afrikaners as self-fashioned, as a beleaguered group in relation to British colonialism, and that is helping me think through the Caribbean plantocracy as beleaguered. That is to say, representationally they understand themselves as beleaguered, engendering a discursive sense of being ruined, and that leads to questions about who is being ruined and how we understand ruination. The Boer War is also a moment when Caribbean people can see that the British are under duress as well. They’re following these battles very closely; this is evident in Trinidad’s Carnival in 1900 and the costumes that evoke some of these battles. We see Caribbean people at a moment when imperial Britain seems to have turned its attention to the Indian subcontinent and to Africa, which allows me to think about imperial Britain in relation to Africa and the Indian subcontinent and to ask how the “pastness-but-not-pastness” of the imperial relationship to the Caribbean is still part of the conversation.
One of the novels that I’m interested in is Rupert Gray, which was published in Trinidad in 1907.5 In the photography chapter, I begin with the moment that I started to work out in the article; it’s a moment in the botanical gardens in Port of Spain where Rupert Gray is being photographed by a countess. This is also the high moment of “kodaking” and of tourism in the Caribbean, of the United Fruit Company, of steam ships and hotels. Krista Thompson talks about the “tropicalization” of this moment, the moment when palm trees are being put into the lobbies of hotels and planted in hotel driveways to push back other conceptions of the Caribbean, for example, as a disease-ridden place where one might catch yellow fever.6 Lady Rothberry’s encounter with Rupert Gray in the botanical gardens invites questions about who owns the space and who is free to roam around the space. Rupert Gray and his creator, [Stephen N.] Cobham, are also asking about the possibility of a black male professional class being able to look forward to a future of shared political participation. How might Rupert Gray, how might men like him, rewrite a scene such as this, one in which the sitter is captured behind the camera? Is it possible to rewrite it? Alive in this moment—I think more so than in Thomas’s moment—is the belief that befriending the white patron affords the chance to share political power. Postcolonial theory teaches us to read that as a scene of hierarchy or conquest: she is capturing him via the look, the gaze. Both the fictional character and his creator want to reframe it as a moment of possibility. Rupert Gray realizes that Lady Rothberry sees a typical negro; perhaps he can talk her into hearing that although there are typical negroes, he is not one of them but the black man who will lead them. It’s a version of the Talented Tenth, the idea of the New Negro that the US articulated.
This prompts me to think through photography in a layered sense: yes, as a scene of conquest—I don’t want to ignore that—but photography also as self-fashioning, as a reframing, which leads me to people like Julia Margaret Cameron, who’s taking pictures in Victorian England during the 1860s and 1870s.7 Her photographs have a blurry quality, and in fact she was dismissed as an amateur photographer. The chapter is also interested in these notions of the amateur, since Rupert Gray and Lady Rothberry are amateur botanists. What’s their relationship to the accreditation of the discipline of botany? In some ways their friendship is based on their shared claim to that knowledge. Cameron interests me both because her photographs are of her London neighbors and her family but also of her Ceylonese laborers (her husband has tea plantations in Ceylon). The idea of the countess as a female photographer led me to Cameron, but also to theorists like Laura Wexler and her notion of tender violence, which leads her to consider the work of female photographers in the US during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.8 I’m trying to bring all of it together in a coherent narrative. At this point, photography is already several decades old. What questions of value, conquest, friendship, patronage, et cetera, are being generated? Why is it that the Boer War comes up in that initial conversation between the two in the botanical gardens, and how does the novel convene these questions?
SG: And these questions arise from the article’s initial concern: how a man like Rupert Gray might transform a tradition of visual subjection into subjectivity?
FS: Right. In some ways the novel is asking if we can see him not just as being stilled by that moment but also as one who is able to authorize himself. The novel is a romance that says we can. I want to say, Let’s follow him. Let’s not just read this novel which, as I think I say in that essay, is embarrassing for my generation because it’s an ornate, baroque rendering of men like my father. That’s really what I’m writing about; I’m trying to write about that generation and how I got here. I want not only to read it as this embarrassing or pompous narrative but to follow Rupert where he takes me, to access his logic. In Conscripts, David Scott explains that we postcolonial critics have to reorient ourselves in the moment: What questions circulate in that moment?9 That’s what I’m trying to do.
SG: Another trend in your work is considering what questions circulate within the dialogue between nineteenth-century anglophone Caribbean and African American intellectuals.10
FS: Yes, that’s all because of Donette Francis and Belinda Edmondson. We’d done a panel at the American Studies Association conference. While doing archival research for this book I’m writing, I stumbled on this visit by Booker T. Washington’s successor [Robert Moton] to Kingston in the year that [Marcus] Garvey leaves the Caribbean. It inspired another way of thinking about him, realizing that he [Garvey] saw himself as a kind of broker for blackness, that he would be the one who would adjudicate the relationship between African Americans and black Jamaicans. Washington dies in late 1915, and I’m still trying to figure out why Moton thinks it necessary to come to Jamaica through Cuba and Haiti in February 1916. It’s a very brief trip, and it’s as if he has to do it. Is it that Booker T. Washington had planned to do it? Does it have to do with Haiti’s occupation? I still haven’t put all the pieces together, but Moton comes to Jamaica and Garvey writes him this letter warning him not to trust all these people, not realizing that Moton taught them at Hampton. It’s such a fascinating and tragic image of insider-outsider. Yes, Moton is an outsider, but at that moment, we realize that he’s trained a class within the Jamaican colonial system; as much as we critique Hampton and Tuskegee for being conservative, they’ve trained these people to thrive in colonial spaces! The very thing we critique them for, their political conservatism, is the very reason that their graduates are successful in a British colonial system, because they’re sending them back to live in the belly of the beast and to thrive. Garvey has been knocking on the door of this black and brown Jamaican middle class that hasn’t let him in, and Moton’s visit is another example of it.
SG: Your syllabus indicates that you integrate that intercultural dialogue in your teaching as well.11 It’s one that has the potential to engage students in the American academy more meaningfully with the less familiar concerns of Caribbean literature. How has it worked in practice?
FS: I’m smiling because you’ve made me remember I should have read that article [on teaching nineteenth-century literature] before this semester; I’m thinking, “Oh, yeah . . . I’ve talked about this!”12 I’m having two different experiences this term. In the grad course, which is similar to the ones I teach at Brandeis, people here aren’t Caribbeanists, and so the question is how to make at least the theoretical scaffolding that we’re using resonant, how to make that translate. I’m still teasing that out because it’s not just that we’re reading Caribbean texts but that we’re reading the neoslave narrative in the Caribbean text, so the challenge is how to make that fairly specific topic meet their interest. In some ways I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s not an excellent fit, and so I’m trying to use some of the subquestions that follow from it—questions about gendered freedom, about how to theorize intimacy, agency and resistance, all questions that have bedeviled feminism and theories of class—to try and meet them, but that fit hasn’t really been there. But it’s a nonfit that I’m used to because in no space of graduate work so far has “Caribbeanist” been a fit for me. That’s always the thing that I haven’t found, even when I was in graduate school, and that I expect not to find, so in some ways it’s a familiar not-fitting.
For the undergrads . . . oh my God. I’m teaching Caribbean students in a public university, and it’s not that we don’t have that in the northeast, but the class I’m teaching now is saturated with that. When a student follows you out of the room and says, “I know the name of that Haitian torturer” . . . and that’s the other thing, I recognize how gory I am, because every text we’re doing is about sexual violence, every single one. In both classes. It’s like, “Faith Smith, who are you? What’s going on in there?” [laughs] It [the Haitian torturer’s name] is one in the Dew Breaker, one of the men who seeks asylum in the US, and he [the student] says, “Oh yeah, we know that name.”13 And he says it with the kind of excitement that’s not typical of nonliterature majors, and—I can’t tell you what that means, it’s deeply moving. What does it mean that I hold this in my hands, that it’s all these things, that it matters like that to others? During the second meeting I was looking at one student’s sleeping face—that’s what told me I was boring. He then sent me a letter explaining that his shift begins at three a.m. every day, so I thought, “Okay, maybe I’m not that boring.” He told me last week that he’d decided for the time being to drop that job because the class was more important to him, and he wanted to graduate this term. I didn’t show him, but I was completely . . . This matters, and so the question for me is how do I honor that and also encourage the theoretical complexity that I want them to bring to the text, even as I don’t appreciate theoretical complexity without this sense of seeing what’s at stake? I want it all; I want them to care and I want theoretical complexity. I don’t want the theoretical complexity without them caring, so how to achieve that balance in the classroom.
SG: And achieving that balance entails anticipating the attendant “responsibilities and burdens and expectations” of teaching the course.14 What kinds of responsibilities, burdens, and expectations do you prepare yourself to address?
FS: Students are not used to thinking about the Caribbean as a modern space, and it’s not just a matter of saying, “The Caribbean is modern! The Caribbean is modern!” It’s a matter of appreciating the ways in which it has been convenient to think of the Caribbean as not-quite-modern. I always want students to see how Caribbean people are invested in that as well. Part of what Krista Thompson is showing us is the ways in which not just foreigners but Caribbean people were invested in saying, “Come and leave your northern modernity and vacation with us as we rewrite ourselves as not-quite-modern so that you can enjoy it.” It’s that notion of scripting the place as exotic so people come and spend money that buys the resources to make it modern. The Caribbean has been doing this forever in different ways. My challenge is finding the language for that when people who reside in the Caribbean don’t necessarily think about these questions either. It’s not simply a matter of saying that outsiders don’t understand; we’re just not used to thinking in these terms.
So how is it possible in twelve weeks to come up with that discourse, even as I know that I’m battling against a lifetime of daily images of narrating non–North America, including Europe, frankly, as not-quite-up-to-par? That’s how in the US, in particular, we look out at the rest of the world: they’re not us. That’s what it means to live here. How does one turn that around, even for students who navigate that way of being in the US alongside their place in non-American households? Everything invites us to think that we’re in the greatest place in the world. I think one way to do it, and this is especially the case when I’m teaching novels of the last decade, is to see how these novelists portray the Caribbean state as failing its people in tandem with the history of US imperialism. It’s the US in league with Caribbean governments, and in these recent novels that unholy alliance has been part of the predicament that the characters find themselves in. It’s a fight against a way of seeing the world in which the Caribbean is the backyard of the US. There are also the questions of race in the classroom that one must navigate, but as someone who is parading as an objective instructor. For me it’s having to hold all of that together, at least for three hours. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
SG: For me, your thematic concerns and critical approach challenge that notion of the “backyard Caribbean.” It exemplifies the critical “openness” that Michael Bucknor and Alison Donnell refer to in their introduction to The Routledge Companion.15 To what extent do you think this openness characterizes the contemporary Caribbean literary community?
FS: I think of people like Belinda Edmondson and Rhonda Cobham. These are the people I hold in my head when I think about the nineteenth century, and in some ways they’re the people I want to be when I’m writing, even as they’re my generous personal interlocutors right now. What’s changed, I think, is that for a long time in the anglophone context, we didn’t have more than a vague sense of what “nineteenth century” meant, and that’s in part because of the so-called boom writers, as the Latin Americanists would say, the Windrush writers who themselves wrote these people out. When [George] Lamming says that his was the first generation of writers to give the peasant his voice, that’s a birth story; he’s saying we’re it, we’re the first, and every generation in some way does that.16 For me, writing about Thomas was a way to figure out how I could think about the before, about the 1920s and the 1930s, in particular that period before the 1950s. What threw C. L. R. James up? Where did James come from? That’s how I found Thomas. It’s not that these texts weren’t there, but they weren’t there in the kind of intimate way that I could think through them and see them. That project is still ongoing, as we find more editions, as we keep talking about the moment, and particularly as recent writers keep going back to that moment. This for me is part of the pleasure of reading Ramabai Espinet’s The Swinging Bridge.17 What that says is that in order to understand the familial sexual violence of this Trinidad community in the present, I need to understand the silent ways in which indenture marked itself on the bodies of women. That silence and shame around sexuality continues to mark the present. In that book you have to move between the nineteenth century and the present on every page. In some ways you could say that recent fiction requires us to make those leaps, and to put the present and the late nineteenth century in conversation with each other. I think that’s thrilling, and I guess in some ways I’m trying to be equal to it; I’m trying to teach myself how to do that.
SG: These late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century “not-yet narratives” aren’t just a means of understanding the present; for you, they explain how to navigate it.18
FS: Yes. That [the article “Resituating Not-Yet Narratives”] marks the moment I’ve figured out what I’m writing about in this book. I’m talking about the Thomas book but beginning to write about Rupert Gray, and in that essay I’m working through how Thomas got me to where I am now. There’s a moment when [Wilson] Harris talks about Thomas’s relationship to governors. He quotes Thomas in Froudacity as saying something like, “This governor did this for us, and that’s good, but that governor was bad.”19 Harris says, and understandably so, that you can’t just talk about political heritage in terms of the good British governor versus the bad British governor. I understand that, but I’m also saying, What if there’s something to learn there? That in fact Thomas’s very being depended on the patronage of governors? My life today depends on the patronage of the university, so what are the institutional structures which authorize us to have a public identity? What Thomas is trying to tell us is that for him, the system is impoverished. The 1970s pollster Carl Stone explains clientelism in the Jamaican landscape, certainly during the 1970s and 1980s (we’re in a “post” state now): the reason why poor neighborhoods took up arms against other poor neighborhoods is that if their party wasn’t in power, they wouldn’t get basic services for years.20 Thomas might be saying, My life depends on this good governor or bad governor. You can dismiss it as a kind of political system, or you can pause to understand what he’s telling us about the political system and how it works, and I’m invested in the second.
SG: And critical openness is what motivates you to understand it that way. M. Jacqui Alexander’s work exemplifies that openness for you. In your article on her Pedagogies of Crossing, you note Caribbean-based feminist social scientists’ omission of Alexander’s “diasporic” criticism, which leads you to ask how feminist social scientists in particular determine who to read and why.21 Has there been a move toward critical openness within this community, or do the assumptions behind those determinations persist?
FS: I write those things, and then I wonder, “Oops. How is this being heard?” But I didn’t hear senior feminist critics talking about Alexander. Even more important, given that in her work she’s thinking through social science and economic questions in terms of sexuality, I didn’t hear male or nonfeminist economists talking about her either. That raises questions about disciplines as well as about diaspora, and of course about the urgency of issues of sexuality in particular locations at particular moments in time. To read Alexander is to foreground such questions; different issues have felt urgent in different spaces, and I hope that that piece conveys my recognition of the need to be mindful of the continuous negotiation of the local and the diasporic. For me, the CSA [Caribbean Studies Association] has been an ongoing and wonderful opportunity to put myself through those hurdles. That is to say, not only do diasporic and residential Caribbeanists meet in those conference spaces, but we meet across the disciplines to do that difficult work of hearing each other speak across those disciplines. For me, the models of this have been feminist social scientist colleagues. Really, in some ways I’m trying to figure out how to learn from them and to write like them. I’m talking about people like Tracy Robinson, Michelle Rowley, Alissa Trotz, and Deborah Thomas. These are all social scientists who move nimbly across my discipline, fiction; they take whatever is necessary, even as in the course of an article or a book they rehearse the debates in their discipline, and for me that’s the way to do it. What are the debates within my discipline? How do I understand Caribbeanists across other disciplines trying to figure them out? In that essay I’m writing from that place: here’s someone who is saying these things and has been saying these things for a while, and I’ve learned to listen to her through the work of younger feminist scholars like Michelle Rowley and Pat Saunders. I’m trying to understand why I learned about Alexander through them and not from senior people. It may be that I’m stepping on toes there; I don’t know. But it seemed to me that I never saw her in their citations. I was wondering about that, even as I hope I made clear in that essay that this was an assumption that priorities in one location ought to be the priorities of another location. Very presumptuous, so I think diasporic scholars also need to hear when we’re told explicitly, but also in the silence, the places where our own spaces of privilege mark us, and we need to be humble about that both here and when we’re in the Caribbean. Who you cite, the business of taking seriously and ethically unpublished work that we find in the archives—we need to be very careful about all of it. At the same time, I know I’m not the only one who has been told by senior people in public in those spaces, “You, Faith Smith, don’t know what you’re talking about because you don’t live here.” Whether that’s said literally, as it’s been said to me, or not, I move in this space with that in my head.
FS: Absolutely, and I know I overthink it, but I’m very conscious of it. It’s trying to be ethical, but it’s also knowing that I’m sometimes being put through hoops that are unfair, and that it comes with the territory.
Sheryl Gifford is a senior instructor in the Department of English at Florida Atlantic University. Her research interests include gender studies, psychoanalytic criticism, and comparative and interdisciplinary approaches to anglophone Caribbean and African American literatures.
1 Akins Vidale, “Biography: John-Jacob Thomas,” TriniView.com, 8 July 2005, www.triniview.com/TnT/080705.html, para. 1.
2 Selwyn Ryan, quoted in ibid., para. 1; John Jacob Thomas, quoted in ibid., para. 31.
3 Leah Rosenberg, “The Audacity of Faith: Creole Recitations Explained,” Small Axe, no. 35 (July 2011): 166.
4 Faith Smith, “Rupert Gray’s Vulnerability . . . and Ours,” Small Axe, no. 40 (March 2013): 71–83.
5 Stephen N. Cobham, Rupert Gray: A Tale in Black and White, ed. Lise Winer, with annotations and introduction by Bridget Brereton, Rhonda Cobham, Mary Rimmer, and Lise Winer (1907; repr., Mona: University of the West Indies Press, 2006).
6 Krista Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
7 Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79) was a “devoted pioneer of the art of photography. She was visionary in her belief of the ‘divine’ power of the medium [and] daring in her experiments with image making.” “Julia Margaret Cameron,” Victoria and Albert Museum, www.vam.ac.uk/page/j/julia-margaret-cameron. For a biography of Cameron that details her relationship to her great-niece Virginia Woolf, see Charlotte Higgins, “Julia Margaret Cameron: Soft-Focus Photographer with an Iron Will,” Guardian, 22 September 2015, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/22/julia-margaret-cameron-vic….
8 Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of US Imperialism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
9 David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
10 Faith Smith, “Good Enough for Booker T to Kiss: Hampton, Tuskegee, and Caribbean Self-Fashioning,” Journal of Transnational American Studies 5, no. 1 (2013): 1–15.
11 This statement refers to Professor Smith’s syllabus for Imagining Caribbean Freedoms, a graduate seminar she taught at Florida Atlantic University this past spring.
12 Faith Smith, “Reading the Nineteenth Century,” in Teaching Anglophone Caribbean Literature, ed. Supriya M. Nair (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2012), 233–54.
13 Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker (New York: Knopf, 2004).
14 Smith, “Reading the Nineteenth Century.”
15 In their introduction to The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature, editors Michael A. Bucknor and Alison Donnell observe that “the present moment of Caribbean literary criticism is marked by an openness that suggests a certain confidence among the writers and critics alike, a sense that . . . the credibility of the field is no longer under threat.” The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature (London: Routledge, 2011), xxviii.
16 George Lamming, “The Occasion for Speaking,” in The Pleasures of Exile, foreword by Sandra Pouchet Paquet (1960; repr., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 37–39.
17 Ramabai Espinet, The Swinging Bridge (Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2003).
18 See Faith Smith, “‘Only His Hat Is Left’? Resituating Not-Yet Narratives,” Small Axe, no. 35 (July 2011): 197–208.
19 See Wilson Harris, “History, Fable, and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas,” Caribbean Quarterly 54, nos. 1–2 (2008): 5–38. John Jacob Thomas, Froudacity: West Indian Fables by J. A. Froude (1889; repr., London: New Beacon, 1969).
20 Carl Stone, Democracy and Clientelism in Jamaica (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1980).
21 Faith Smith, “Crosses/Crossroads/Crossings,” Small Axe, no. 24 (October 2007): 130–38; M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).