A Small Place | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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A Small Place | Section 2 | Summary

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Summary

Kincaid writes the rest of the essay in the first person, occasionally addressing the reader/tourist as "you." She explains the Antigua she grew up in no longer exists. The English, who used to rule Antigua, are "pitiful" and can't repent for the legacy of their empire that once enslaved "one quarter of the earth's human population." Kincaid believes the English should never have left home in the first place, and now they're miserable because they have no other lands to conquer.

Kincaid's Antigua had streets named after "English maritime criminals" like Horatio Nelson. There was a well-kept building called Government House and a section of High Street where residents could conduct official business. The Antiguans followed English laws, including a law against "using abusive language." Also on High Street is Barclays Bank, named after slave traders the Barclay brothers. The Barclays went into banking after slavery was outlawed. Antiguans still remember the date the first black person was hired at Barclays Bank. Kincaid imagines burning the bank down. She wonders if the reader can understand her inability to "forgive" and "forget" the evil of slavery.

Another Antiguan institution is the Mill Reef Club, built by and for white North Americans and staffed by black servants. Antiguans still remember the dates the first black customers ate and golfed at the club. Antiguans in Kincaid's day thought the white Mill Reef Club members were rude "like pigs" and "strangers in someone else's home." The club members made token gestures of charity, but like all North Americans and Europeans in Antigua they behaved badly.

For instance, a Czechoslovakian dentist who moved to Antigua refused to see black patients, including young Kincaid, unless they'd been cleaned and inspected first. The headmistress of Kincaid's school, a woman from Northern Ireland, accused the children of "behaving as if they were monkeys." No native Antiguans thought the white people were racist at the time. They just thought they had bad manners.

The English didn't act civilized but behaved like "an animal, the thing we were before the English rescued us." Antiguan children learned about English history and celebrated Queen Victoria's birthday long after the queen's death. Kincaid resents how North Americans see charm in England. All she sees is "millions of people, of whom I am just one, made orphans." One of the most painful effects of colonialism is having "no tongue" or native language. Kincaid speaks English, the language of the colonizing criminals. She says the language of the criminal can't truly contain the "horror," "agony," or "humiliation" of their crimes. The criminal doesn't understand how he has wronged others, or why Kincaid is full of rage at wrongs that can never be righted.

As another example of how Kincaid's Antiguan world revolved around England, she describes the time an English princess toured the island. Antigua made a fuss over her visit "as if she were God Himself," repairing every building she would enter. But the princess had been sent to the island for a banal reason—to get over a love affair.

Kincaid suspects the reader is thinking she should get over old crimes. Wouldn't her ancestors have "behaved just as badly ... given the opportunity?" She reminds us again the Antiguans she grew up with never saw the colonizers as racist or through a "political perception," but just as strange, ill-mannered people.

She asks if the reader has ever wondered why all Antiguans seem to have learned from white people is "how to imprison and murder each other, how to govern badly" and "how to corrupt our societies." She blames white colonizers. They came and took land, imprisoned and murdered native people, stole their wealth, and erased their history. When colonizers were murdered in their wealthy homes, they finally left. Then they watched as the Antiguans "do to ourselves the very things you used to do to us." White colonizers may feel they're enlightened and love knowledge, but they also feel people like Kincaid are incapable of managing their own lives.

Colonizers, Kincaid points out, ask non-Western people to live in a system white people created to "mysteriously favor" themselves. Kincaid and others like her are wary of capitalism because they were capital, as slaves, for so long. Kincaid no longer cares about her own erased history but says it must have been better than what became of her people after England's influence.

Analysis

Kincaid only makes passing references to herself as narrator in the first section. The other three sections are more personal and autobiographical. Details of Kincaid's childhood sneak in, specific memories that formed her future. The "you" in this section expands to encompass the reader, whomever they may be, and the white and English colonists who still wield influence in the Caribbean. Kincaid frequently asks rhetorical questions, anticipating and inviting debate.

She analyzes the legacy of the British Empire and how it affects both colonizers and colonized. She uses dramatic language to depict the long-term damage of slavery and conquest. The native people's freedom, autonomy, and way of life has died, a process Kincaid thinks might be worse than "actual death."

The reader, she presumes, has read and studied about the horrors of slavery. Kincaid wants them to understand slavery in an emotional, personal sense, and to see why Antiguans view slavery and its repercussions as immediate and relevant.

The legacy of slavery is evident in language. The Antiguan streets are named after "English maritime criminals," conquerors and explorers who helped ensure the survival of the slave trade. The bank is named after known slave traders the Barclays. Antiguans who navigate or conduct business in their country have to contend with the legacy of slavery through the names of the institutions. The English guard against "abusive language" as a way to govern, and eventually eclipse and erase, the language of the conquered people. Kincaid sees the dark humor in the Antiguan tradition of "making a spectacle of yourself through speech" as the English attempt to control speech. Language too will be taken away from Antiguans eventually, as Kincaid points out later in the section.

Even in the collapsed Antiguan perception of time, certain important dates stand out. These dates are when black Antiguans got to participate in Western cultural institutions as customers and consumers, not servants. Kincaid is enraged at a country that sees this participation as significant, and a culture that glorifies Western institutions despite their crimes. At the bank named for slave traders, black Antiguans borrow the money that was stolen from their ancestors in the first place. She transitions abruptly into an illustration of her own rage, inviting the reader to put themselves in her shoes through a rhetorical question. ("Do you ever wonder why some people blow things up?")

When settlers created the codes of exclusion, they never mentioned race. This exclusion kept Antiguans from seeing English racism. Kincaid specifies "black person" in parentheses after "Antiguan" to explain what the codes really mean. Racism in Antigua came disguised in the form of discrimination based on nationality or family origin. Kincaid emphasizes how the white settlers, described as guests who wrongly felt at home in Antigua, refused to have anything "human" to do with their native hosts or even see the hosts as human. The Antiguans, similarly, saw the colonizers' behavior as "a bit below human standards as we understood those standards to be."

She doesn't feel respect or kindness on the part of the natives is the solution. Antiguans' "good behavior," in her experience, was meant to show the goodness of the well-behaved Antiguans but only confirmed the conquerors' feelings of superiority. Antiguans, "cowed" and servile, were conceding to them. Good manners only gave the conquerors a respect and privilege they hadn't earned.

Kincaid uses strong, occasionally hyperbolic adjectives to make her point. Queen Victoria and her birthday were seen as "beautiful" and "blessed" while the English settlers, England's representatives, were "ugly" and "piggish." The consistent celebration of Queen Victoria's birthday even after her death, as if the queen were immortal, is an example of the recurring nature of events in Antiguan time.

The Antiguan identity crisis—not England, but not its own country, either—fuels much of Kincaid's exploration. Her country is defined by its lack: "no gods, no mounds of earth for holy ground." With no common stories to tell themselves, the Antiguans' individual senses of self and group sense of community both suffer. Kincaid feels her own life is "unlivable" from the effects of racism and colonialism. Her identity and history have been taken away.

Language helps shape identity too. It's both a communication tool and a marker of origin, providing ownership, community, and strength. The pain of having "no tongue" shows another insidious way Antiguans' freedoms have been taken from them. Kincaid points out the situational irony of her writing the essay in English, the language of the criminal—here calling the colonizers "criminals" directly for the first time. She asks the reader to consider the role of language in colonization. A phrase like native language, for instance, might describe the first language someone learns. But Kincaid's first language was English, the communication method of the colonial powers, and not her real native tongue.

Even within the same language, meaning can differ. The word bad to a white capitalist might imply swindling someone or committing white-collar crime: "a fellow criminal betrayed a trust." Kincaid thinks of bad in a more universal sense as morally wrong or evil. Without a mutual definition of an important concept, she and the criminal (the colonizing powers, or the tourist) can't communicate. They'll never understand her.

Throughout this section Kincaid explains why her rage is not only justified but also essential, since it comes from her response to true events. The tone of the book was a major point of criticism from readers who felt Kincaid's voice was too "angry." Kincaid anticipates these readers in this section, explaining why she can't simply "get beyond all that." Racism and slavery are still part of the Antiguan identity, and part of hers too, even though she lives elsewhere. Although everyone might behave badly "given the opportunity," Kincaid can see the conquest of Antigua through the worldwide reality of antiblack racism.

The troubles of the visiting English princess ("her life was one big mess") and the celebration and work around her arrival in Antigua provide a contrast that Kincaid presents as verbal irony. The princess isn't "God Himself," she's just a fallible human who had an affair. But Antiguans were raised to see the British royal family as powerful and divine. Kincaid questions the validity of a system that would allow the British, whether they're colonizers, criminals, and murderers—or simply imperfect humans—to have absolute authority over other cultures.

She then describes the natural consequences of such authority. The Antiguans are human, too, and eventually they'll fight back. The "you" in the last part of Section 2 ("Have you ever wondered ...") becomes, again, a specific type of reader: the tourist and white North American or European, someone whose role in colonization may not have been a direct one but who still benefits from privilege. Her "at least you were polite" digression is a sarcastic way to point out the Antiguans weren't even granted the dignity of conversation.

There's also wounding sarcasm in "you must be a little sad." Kincaid depicts the murder of a white plantation-owning family as a natural possible consequence of years of slavery and conquest. Like the colonizers themselves, the colonized victims resorted to violence after verbal methods of persuasion ("eloquent speeches") didn't work.

The civilization the British set up in Antigua is an erasure, both of names ("The accounts were in your name") and of history. The building of schools and libraries may seem like a gesture of benevolence, but these institutions only teach Antiguan children more about England. The Antiguan school and library have a more complex meaning for Kincaid, which she explains in Section 3 as she discusses their impact on her own childhood.

Meanwhile Kincaid identifies herself in a global sense. "People like me" are Antiguans, black people, and any colonized people of color who live under capitalism. The words bungalow and plantation reflect Western colonization of other countries like North America and India. As in Section 1, she explains how white Westerners see the world through their own prism. They equate ability to succeed with ability to understand a system they created to favor them. By contrast, when colonized people fail to succeed in a system rigged against them, they're blamed and deemed unable to "run things."

So what does the Antiguan worldview look like? What would it take for Antiguans to succeed in a postcolonial world? Kincaid addresses these questions in Section 3.

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