The anger in Jamaica Kincaid’s short guide to Antigua is fierce and inescapable. Written in the second person, addressing a tourist from North America or Europe, A Small Place speaks of the past and present-day Antigua that tourists do not see. Kincaid writes of the Antiguans’ scorn for the white tourists looking for a lovely island getaway, and she notes that the tourists can only enjoy themselves by closing their eyes and their minds to reality:
You must not wonder what exactly happened to the contents of your lavatory when you flushed it. You must not wonder where your bathwater went when you pull out the stopper. You must not wonder what happened when you brushed your teeth. Oh, it might all end up in the water you are thinking of taking a swim in; the contents of your lavatory might, just might, graze gently against your ankle as you wade carefree in the water, for you see, in Antigua, there is no proper sewage-disposal system. But the Caribbean Sea is very big and the Atlantic Ocean is even bigger; it would amaze even you to know the number of black slaves this ocean has swallowed up.
Kincaid makes it impossible for this unseeing tourist to remain blind. She lashes out in anger at what history has wrought for her people. She does not mince words or offer caveats. When she considers the excuses a white person might make for not accepting responsibility for Antigua’s sad state, her only response is scorn. She feels scorn for all things English, even for the language she employs with such finesse:
For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime? And what can that really mean? For the language of the criminal can contain only the goodness of the criminal’s deed. The language of the criminal can explain and express the deed only from the criminal’s point of view. It cannot contain the horror of the deed, the injustice of the deed, the agony, the humiliation inflicted on me. When I say to the criminal, “This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong,” or, “This deed is bad, and this other deed is bad, and this one is also very, very bad,” the criminal understands the word “wrong” in this way: It is wrong when “he” doesn’t get his fair share of profits from the crime just committed; he understands the word “bad” in this way: a fellow criminal betrayed a trust. That must be why, when I say, “I am filled with rage,” the criminal says, “But why?” And when I blow things up and make life generally unlivable for the criminal (is my life not unlivable, too?) the criminal is shocked, surprised. But nothing can erase my rage—not an apology, not a large sum of money, not the death of the criminal—for this wrong can never be made right, and only the impossible can make me still: can a way be found to make what happened not have happened?
Kincaid’s rage can be off-putting, to put it mildly. Of course, not every individual European is culpable for crimes of the past. However, I didn’t see her rage as being directed at individuals but at the ugly history of white versus black. When considered in that light , I was able to step back and decide that Kincaid is not angry at me but at my history—and that is fair enough. In addition, I saw this less as a cogent, rational argument about the evils of Colonialism and more as a no-holds-barred rant. Rants are not logical; they rise from the gut, like bile. It’s painful, but sometimes it has to be let out.
When writing about present-day (1980s) Antigua, Kincaid recognizes that black Antiguans themselves bear some responsibility for their plight. They allow themselves to remain servants, even celebrating their servanthood by broadcasting the graduations from the Hotel Training Schools, where black Antiguans learn to serve white tourists. Corrupt governments were voted into power by the Antiguan people in free and fair elections. Kincaid notes that white Europeans brought their corrupt ways to the island, but she lays bare the complexity of the situation. I saw a similar pattern of post-Colonial corruption in The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, which pairs nicely with this book.
Although the overwhelming tone in A Small Place is one of fury and grief, Kincaid does offer one small glimmer of hope at the end, and I’d like to share that now with you:
Once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.
Shared humanity—that’s a dream worth embracing.