A Small Place | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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A Small Place | Summary

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Summary

A Tourist in Antigua

Kincaid describes a typical white tourist's arrival on the island of Antigua. The tourist rides in a taxi, passing an Antiguan school, the hospital, the damaged library, and several mansions on the way to their hotel. Focused on enjoying their vacation, the tourist doesn't consider the realities of life in Antigua. The black residents live in poverty after centuries of British rule. Their hospital gives poor medical care, and drug dealers and foreign merchants live in the mansions. The water the tourist swims in connects to Antigua's sewage and waste.

The tourist is probably a decent person in their everyday life, Kincaid explains. They only become "an ugly human being" when they go on vacation, treating the lives of other people as spectacle and entertainment. The tourist also may feel innately superior to Antiguans because they have access to greater wealth and technology. In fact Antiguans despise tourists and envy their ability to travel.

History of Antigua

Kincaid begins to speak directly about the history of Antigua after British colonization, and about her own experience growing up as a black Antiguan. Streets in Antigua were named after British "maritime criminals." High Street, where most Antiguans did business, had a bank named after the Barclay brothers, who were slave traders. An exclusive resort called the Mill Reef Club wouldn't let black people enter unless they were servants. Kincaid and other Antiguans thought the white settlers had bad manners. They didn't realize the settlers were racist.

England brought black slaves to Antigua, taking their history and language and replacing it with British history and the English language. Kincaid sees the situational irony of writing her essay in English, "the language of the criminal who committed the crime." All Antiguans have learned from white colonizers, she says, is "how to govern badly" and how to destroy their own societies. White people may think black Antiguans and the natives of colonized countries are innately bad at business and self-government. But Kincaid says they simply have no desire to participate in a system that was designed to favor the English and that treated Antiguans like property.

Revisiting Home

When Kincaid returns to Antigua as an adult she wonders if Antigua, now independent and ruled by Antiguans, is better or worse off than it was under British law. She tries to find out if the damaged library will ever be rebuilt. The library was important to her as a child. Kincaid speaks to several important people in Antigua, none of whom know when or if the library will be restored or how it will be funded. One woman tells Kincaid the old library will be turned into a gift shop. Kincaid considers asking the minister of education about the library and then considers the government's role in Antigua, which consists mainly of obscuring information and covering up corruption and theft.

She explains the typical Antiguan attitude toward the passage of time. Antiguans see the past, present, and future as the same. This attitude keeps Antiguans from seeing how the past affects the present. For instance, they can't tell how slavery connects to employment in the hospitality industry—another way of serving white people. Antiguans also assign too much importance to trivial events. Kincaid thinks if Antiguans could "put in their proper place everyday and event" they'd be more empowered and less victimized.

She then recounts Antiguan government scandals and misdeeds, all common knowledge to the people. Antigua is driven by foreign investment, tourism, and offshore banking (often money laundering). The powerful Bird family dominates Antiguan politics. Kincaid fears the government will descend into violence and autocracy or rule by one person with unlimited power, as other Caribbean countries have.

Kincaid ends with an ode to Antigua's incomparable physical beauty. The habits of the people are beautiful too. But their isolated island, where behavior hasn't changed for many years, functions as "a prison" for its residents. The island was once a place where white masters imprisoned black slaves. Now, although the same power dynamic remains in many ways, white visitors and black Antiguans are only "human beings."

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