A Small Place | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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A Small Place | Section 3 | Summary

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Summary

Kincaid describes herself standing on Market Street, a central street in Antigua, wondering if Antiguan self-rule leaves the country better or worse off than British rule. Every Antiguan knows the current government is corrupt. Feeling "bitterness and ... shame" she stares at the relocated library and laments its destruction, remembering its beauty. The new library is so small most of the books are stored in boxes elsewhere. The librarians can't find anything because of the disorganization or their poor education. Kincaid sees the decline of education in Antiguan young people, who can't speak English—their native language—intelligibly when giving a speech at school and seem "almost illiterate."

The head librarian, the same librarian Kincaid remembers from her childhood, is looking for money to repair the library and hoping for donations from the Mill Reef Club. Kincaid recalls the librarian being haughty and suspicious in her childhood. Young Kincaid spent Saturday afternoons at the library, her favorite Saturday errand, while the librarian watched her closely to make sure she didn't steal books. The old library building is now filled with costumes for a traveling carnival troupe.

One woman, whose family founded the Mill Reef Club, encourages her "girls" to use the library—referring to the adult Antiguan women who work in her gift shop as "girls." The woman says anyone can buy anything in Antigua for the right sum. Kincaid notices the woman is pleased at the failures of the "self-governing—black—Antigua." The woman and her friends at the Mill Reef Club want to restore the library but may not be able to since they have competition from urban development—gift shops aimed at tourists—in Antigua's capital St. John's. Kincaid has heard the developer who wants to renovate St. John's is a foreign swindler, traveling with an Antiguan passport because his own country has banned him.

Kincaid wants to ask the minister of education about the library, but he's busy attending a cricket match. The minister of education is also the minister of culture and sport. Kincaid points out ministers and ministries of culture only exist in places without much culture. She compares the paradox to Liberty Weekend in the United States, which restricted citizens' liberty. She asks how to define culture, since "culture" seems to consist of lifestyle elements "people make ... up as they go along."

Kincaid isn't sure how the minister of culture would react to her anyway, since Kincaid's mother has well-known vocal political opinions. For example, Kincaid's mother supported "the second successful political party Antigua has ever had," the only one to briefly challenge the ruling party. The minister of culture once asked what Kincaid's mother was doing hanging political posters in support of her party. Kincaid's mother replied at least she was "not someone who steals stamps from Redonda." The insult made the minister retreat.

Redonda, Kincaid explains, is a small island or "barren rock out in the Caribbean Sea" considered part of the Antiguan nation, along with neighboring island Barbuda. Antiguans say "The Nation" to refer to all three islands. Barbuda was settled by English slave breeders the Codrington family. The "stamp" insult referenced a scandal about stamps supposedly issued from Redonda, although no stamps could possibly have been printed there or in Antigua. Kincaid suspects a large "stamp syndicate" issues stamps to Antigua and other "poor sap countries."

She then describes the Antiguan mindset and way of life. Small events become extremely important and later "absorbed into the everyday." Antiguans can't see themselves in a larger context. They only notice when events directly impact them. The events become burdens, and then simply part of life.

Antiguans can't give "an exact account, a complete account, of themselves" or of events they experience. They're unable to picture the nature of events in time since they don't distinguish between past, present, and future. A centuries-ago historical event may appear recent to them, and a current event may appear distant and dim. They don't think of the future when they act in the present. They're surprised when the future arrives.

Antiguans talk about slavery, for instance, as "a pageant full of large ships" with horrors that ended in emancipation. They imagine emancipation itself as a recent occurrence. Kincaid contrasts this "obsession with slavery and emancipation" with the importance of the Antiguan Hotel Training School, where Antiguan graduates are celebrated for learning "how to be good servants" in hotels. Antiguans can't see any relationship between long-ago slavery and their continued servitude to white men. They also don't see a connection between the government's corruption and their own complicity at voting this government into power.

While Antiguans see historical events as "everyday," they turn mundane incidents into events. Two strangers may collide in the market, for instance, and begin shouting and insulting each other. From then on whenever the strangers meet they'll trade insults. "Event and everyday" trade places, going back and forth, controlled by mysterious forces. Kincaid thinks if Antiguans understood more of their history and the reasons behind it, they'd relate to the world differently and no longer be "victims all the time of every bad idea." They might also be able to distinguish between trivial and important events, not wasting time worrying about the trivial and ordering the significant events into a story they understand.

Instead Antiguans combine the traits of children, misunderstood artists, and "lunatics." Kincaid imagines an Antiguan listing the current government's misdeeds in "a voice that suggests all three." A new hotel is a center for drug deals. Antiguans aren't allowed on the hotel beaches, even though all Antiguan beaches are legally public. Government officials and customs inspectors drive cars made by a Japanese dealership with a Syrian name, showing other countries' influence in Antigua. The Antiguan government owns the electric, telephone, and cable television services, as well as their own business and trade monopolies and a large prostitution house.

Offshore banks launder money for drug trafficking. One government minister is openly involved in the trafficking himself. In fact in Antigua "all the ways there are to acquire large sums of money are bad ways." Kincaid discusses the popularity of offshore banks, an industry second only to tourism, in the West Indies or Caribbean. The banks are modeled on Swiss banks. While some of her acquaintances love the peaceful way of life in Switzerland, Kincaid associates Swiss bank accounts with dictators and tyrants stealing from their countries. She isn't sure if the admired Swiss lifestyle has any connection to its corrupt banks. But she notes the Swiss are famous for banking and timepieces, and money and time are both "a neutral commodity."

Gambling is another popular Antiguan industry linked to tourism. Kincaid recalls hearing an Antiguan man defending casinos, saying the government-run casinos fed the hungry when the church did not. Kincaid thinks everyone in Antigua benefits from casinos "except for the people he had in mind."

The government has allowed ammunition testing and contaminated meat in Antigua. Syrian and Lebanese nationals own Antiguan land, which they use to sell condos to wealthy North Americans and Europeans and to sell commercial buildings to the government. Despite the large influence of Syrians and Lebanese in Antigua, they're still known as "foreigners" and distinct from North Americans and Europeans, who are "white people."

Several murders have taken place in Antigua, and no one's been found guilty. A government official researching financial scandals was electrocuted by opening his freezer (which was rigged to kill him). Two men holding the office of "Acting Governor General" died in suspicious ways. One was treated in the rundown Antiguan hospital, where Kincaid says no one from Europe or North America would send an animal. The third Acting Governor General, Bradley Carrot, is wary.

On the financial side, French aid money given to the government has disappeared, and the government has taken bribes to build a toxic industrial plant. The ruling political party owns the Antiguan radio airwaves. The government built an oil refinery hoping to start an oil industry, but the refinery is rusting while its foreign investor grows wealthy. The same foreign investor won an auction for the Codringtons' slave-trading records, which he gifted to Antigua.

The government wasn't always so corrupt. They used to steal smaller things, and there were even some good government ministers. But the honest ministers either died in poverty or became taxi drivers, and none of the current ministers want to follow their lead. Government officials in Antigua also have U.S. passports.

To further explain the complex history of Antigua, Kincaid discusses the 1939 founding of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union. The union fought for a better life for Antiguans. Eventually it became a political party demanding independent Antiguan rule. The president of this party (Vere Cornwall Bird, or V.C. Bird) has been Antigua's prime minister for almost as long as Antigua has had self-government—25 years out of 30. Antiguans see Bird sometimes as George Washington, sometimes as embezzling union leader Jackie Presser.

Antigua had another prime minister (George Walter) for five years. He wasn't reelected; Bird charged Walter with corruption and Walter went to prison. Disappointed Antiguans had hoped Walter's leadership would bring prosperity. Instead "the sugar industry went bankrupt, the tourists did not come," and corruption continued.

Bird, the longest-ruling prime minister, once worked as a bookkeeper for a merchant-importer. When the merchant-importer realized Bird seemed unusually wealthy, Bird threw his accounting books into the fire to avoid being caught. Antiguans trace this event to the downfall of the "original, honest leaders of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union," to "the decline of one sort of colonialism," and to Bird's rise in power. Bird treats the government like a private business, giving his two sons (Vere Cornwall Jr. and Lester) important cabinet positions. Antiguans worry this powerful family might not want elections to challenge their power. The Antiguan army isn't trained to fight but to "stand around as a decoration," as they did when the United States invaded Grenada. The army, however, still has the authority to shoot people.

The Antiguan Birds remind observers of a similar family, the Duvaliers, who ruled Haiti. Bird, like Haiti's Papa Doc (Francois Duvalier), is old and "needs daily injections of powerful things." One of the Bird sons reminds Antiguans of Haiti's Baby Doc (Jean-Claude Duvalier), wealthy and fun loving but not a leader. The other Bird son reminds Antiguans more of Papa Doc, ruthless and power hungry. Antiguans consider what will happen next in their government. It may follow the example of Haiti and the Duvaliers, or it may have an event similar to leader Maurice Bishop's rise and fall in Grenada.

Analysis

In this section Kincaid considers the honest answer to the question: "What is going on here now?" How did past events impact the present? How might the present impact the future? She's writing a new history of Antigua, using the concept of cause and effect—a concept, she believes, Antiguans don't quite grasp.

The library, for instance, is a study in contrast. Kincaid remembers her childhood experience of the library as a positive one. It was a well-kept, beautiful place and a refuge for a girl who loved to read. Education was Kincaid's own ticket out of Antigua. In many ways she values the education she received, which younger generations are missing.

But a closer look at the library reveals the strong influence of Western colonialism. The "fairy tale" is a story glorifying the British and explaining their "right" to take over Antigua. Kincaid compares young library patrons to "communicants at an altar," invoking an image of worship with the British in a godlike role.

Though Kincaid derides colonial education and identified English as the criminal's language in Section 2, here she criticizes Antiguan young people for being unable to speak and read English correctly. This may seem contradictory to the reader. But as Kincaid expands on her concerns, the reader realizes Antiguan education isn't preparing students to communicate, analyze, or think for themselves. Kincaid connects this failure of education to the absence of a working library. At the same time, the librarians can't locate materials because their education may not have given them the right organizational skills. It's a cycle of failure, and the young people of Antigua are the ones who lose opportunities.

Kincaid discusses the nation's identity crisis in tandem with her own emerging identity as a young Antiguan girl. Reading was a process of discovery for her. She asks the reader to understand how the demise of the library has affected her—telling a deeply personal story to develop a connection with the reader. As an argument against colonialism, the essay uses persuasive tactics such as rhetorical questions and emotional appeal.

The old library building, no longer providing education, now serves as a spot for tourism, pageantry, and spectacle. The "Angels from the Realm" carnival theme reintroduces religious imagery, where the British colonizers are given a divine or spiritual role. The angel costumes replace what Kincaid remembers about "the old Antigua" and its library, like the books and the smell of the sea. The building will eventually be turned into a gift shop as the island continues its tourist-oriented development.

Most importantly, the library and its materials provide a way for patrons to see history in a broader sense and to see themselves in a global context. Kincaid thinks Antiguans both lack and desperately need this larger perspective. The neglect of education in favor of tourism and hospitality means Antiguans are robbed of the chance to learn about history and the future. They're trapped on the island, both physically by poverty and mentally by limited resources. Kincaid sees the situational irony of the motto "A People to Mold, A Nation to Build" when the people can't read, learn, and "build" for themselves.

Kincaid connects this repurposing of the building to the outsized influence of the Mill Reef Club's wealthy patrons, whom she believes shouldn't have a say in Antigua's future. But they speak with their money, and it's Kincaid who has no say. She's been robbed of "the right to make a reply" and have an equally valid opinion on the state of the country. (Like the grown female employees of the woman with an investment in the Mill Reef Club, Kincaid worked as a seamstress in Antigua after she left school.)

When Kincaid analyzes the meaning of the word culture, she may have the tourist from Section 1 in mind. Culture can describe many aspects of a community's lifestyle, and the word is often used by Western tourists to describe the appeal of the nations they travel to (such as Caribbean nations). Kincaid asks the reader to examine what they mean by the word culture, just as she considered what a tourist really means by harmony in Section 1.

She defines culture primarily as lived experience that adapts as people's needs adapt. It's spontaneous and flexible, not government mandated and controlled. It should develop in the future for members of a society rather than be preserved in the past for visitors.

Her discussion of Antiguan identity segues into a critique of Antigua's government, known by every resident to be corrupt and crime-ridden. The story of the stamps from Redonda illustrates many of the problems she sees on the island. Antigua is repeatedly victimized and colonized, even in relatively minor, bureaucratic matters. Antigua's identity, like the images on the stamps, is created elsewhere and not by the people themselves. Even with industries supposedly created to help them, native Antiguans don't see any of the profits ("no one seems to know who got the money") or benefit from the product ("where the stamps actually ended up"). The island is marketed with "colorful and bright" stamps, projecting a cheerful, tourist-friendly image of the Caribbean to other countries. Again the queen of England is celebrated.

The stamp scandal is one of the "events" making up Antiguans' sense of their history. Events are described as physical bodies with mass, an "enormous burden" contributing to the legacy of oppression. Kincaid suggests Antiguans may not feel they can control their own lives and futures. They let history happen to them and "absorb" rather than create their identities. They are weighed down by events rather than doing the weighing themselves through measurement, analysis, and critical thought. They can't understand themselves, their country, or their predicament.

Kincaid explains how identity is formed through a sense of shared history: memory and legacy, cause and effect. She compares Antiguans to "children" who haven't developed the cognitive skills to tell the past, present, and future apart and see how they intersect. Are Antiguans willfully childlike, or are they kept in a childlike state by past trauma and continuing colonial influence? Though Kincaid doesn't offer a complete answer, she shows how the combining of "everyday" and "event" can warp anyone's perspective, including the reader's.

For instance, the fixed image of slavery as "a pageant" recalls the image of the "Angels from the Realm" carnival costumes. Both images are a spectacle, a show, but disconnected from the real world. Antiguans don't see slavery as a crime with present-day repercussions in racism and oppression. They think (as do many Westerners) slavery ended with emancipation. But Antiguans keep training to serve tourists in hotels, and white tourists keep booking hotels. Antiguans keep voting for oppressive rulers, and foreign investors keep enabling these rulers. Though Antiguans don't recognize their complicity in a flawed system, everyone is guilty.

A large part of the problem, Kincaid thinks, is the hiding and obscuring of information. A recurring idea in the essay, especially in the inner workings of Antigua, is "forces ... kept deliberately mysterious and unknown." Without clarifying knowledge or transparency, Antiguans don't understand the forces shaping their lives. Murders go unsolved, the government keeps secrets, and money meant to help Antigua disappears. For instance, "great effort goes into concealing" the identity of business owners who create government-backed monopolies.

Kincaid wants Antiguans to demand better for themselves, to ask for more, to no longer be victims. Focus on "the trivial" distracts Antiguans from creating meaningful change. Without education and a historical context for their lives—without centering themselves in their life stories—Antiguans can feel paralyzed by the dishonesty in their government and by the forces controlling them. Kincaid's critique of her fellow Antiguans may seem harsh, and her descriptions did upset many black Antiguan readers. Even as she details the crimes of the Antiguan ruling powers, she tells Antiguans they bear some responsibility too.

With the passage beginning "For it is in a voice that suggests all three," Kincaid brings in another imaginary Antiguan narrator to list the examples of government fraud. She uses this voice to show the rulers' misconduct is public knowledge. Although the government hides much essential information, it commits fraud right under the noses of the people. Kincaid occasionally interrupts the monologue with parenthetical asides to flesh out additional details, in the voice of an experienced resident who can see through government tricks.

The naive and dangerous white tourist character returns, in the form of Kincaid's friend who traveled to Sweden. Again the tourist reacts with hyperbole—"she had never seen cleaner streets anywhere"—and perhaps deliberate ignorance. As in the reference to the "invention of the wristwatch" in Section 1, Kincaid connects timepieces and the marking of time with money and capitalism.

Her concern about Syrian and Lebanese landlords in Antigua parallels her worry about the current Antiguan leaders. The relationship between Antigua and the Middle East isn't based on diplomacy or mutual benefit for citizens, but on gains for the wealthy landlords and government ministers. For instance, the Syrian/Lebanese "have no cultural institutions in Antigua," suggesting their interest in the country is purely financial. A patron from the Far East wants to build "a museum and a library" as a show of doing good, while his actions do more economic harm than good to the people.

This passage shows tourism from a different lens. Now Antiguans are reveling in the exciting story of their scandalous government, putting themselves on display. Kincaid's parenthetical asides interrupt the dramatic stories of betrayal and intrigue to share the less riveting truth. She reminds the reader again of the poor condition of the hospital. She explains how casinos are marketed as economic boons, while the only people casinos seem to help are rich owners.

As Kincaid describes the suspicious deaths of Antiguans who posed a threat to their leaders, she moves the section toward its final topic: the way the Antiguan government controls and consolidates power. Despite the "open, free elections," Kincaid fears a dictatorship or autocracy will arise in Antigua.

She uses the word event repeatedly to describe turning points leading Antiguan government to its present state ("An event in Antigua has been the founding, in 1939"). This usage follows the discussion of "everyday" and "event" in Antigua. Here Kincaid uses the chain of events to show a clear cause-and-effect relationship, one event connecting to the other. Young Bird's burning of his employer's books at the bakery leads to Bird falsely promising the Antiguan people reform and prosperity. Bird's promises lead to his election and reelection, which lead to his sons taking on increasing authority. Kincaid sees the pattern extend into the future and thinks it's dangerous for Antiguans not to ask "What next?" She hopes their tendency of letting the future happen to them, and acting surprised when it happens, won't continue.

Kincaid uses examples of other Caribbean governments that have experienced charismatic, ruthless, authoritarian leaders. "Papa Doc" is Francois Duvalier, a Haitian dictator who claimed to rule by divine right. "Baby Doc" is Duvalier's son Jean-Claude, who took over Haiti after his father. The family favoritism in Antigua, where Prime Minister V.C. Bird and his two sons (Vere Cornwall Bird Jr. and Lester, not named in the essay) head up the government, makes Kincaid think the Bird family has essentially bought the country. One son in particular (likely the younger son, Lester Bird) is "ruthless" and reminds Antiguans of fearsome "Papa Doc" who led Haiti to poverty and suffering. Will free Antiguan elections become a thing of the past? Will Antigua, after it has shaken off Britain, suffer at the hands of a different enemy from within? Have they traded "one sort of colonialism" for something just as bad?

Her last example is Grenada's Maurice Bishop, a prime minister who seized power in a coup and promised prosperity to the Caribbean nation. Instead Bishop took over each department of the government. Bishop was eventually captured and murdered by American forces, who then took over Grenada. If an Antiguan leader follows the path of Bishop, Kincaid implies, Antigua will cycle right back to white colonialism. It will return to where it started, only now with proof for those who think black Antiguan self-government will fail.

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