Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from Twilight Zone

Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from Twilight Zone

by Carole Boyce Davies

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Overview

Drawing on both personal experience and critical theory, Carole Boyce Davies illuminates the dynamic complexity of Caribbean culture and traces its migratory patterns throughout the Americas. Both a memoir and a scholarly study, Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from Twilight Zones explores the multivalent meanings of Caribbean space and community in a cross-cultural and transdisciplinary perspective.
 
From her childhood in Trinidad and Tobago to life and work in communities and universities in Nigeria, Brazil, England, and the United States, Carole Boyce Davies portrays a rich and fluid set of personal experiences. She reflects on these movements to understand the interrelated dynamics of race, gender, and sexuality embedded in Caribbean spaces, as well as many Caribbean people's traumatic and transformative stories of displacement, migration, exile, and sometimes return. Ultimately, Boyce Davies reestablishes the connections between theory and practice, intellectual work and activism, and personal and private space.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079535
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 11/15/2013
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 1,145,988
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author



Carole Boyce Davies is a professor of Africana studies and English at Cornell University. Her many works include Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones and the three-volume Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture.

Read an Excerpt

CARIBBEAN SPACES

ESCAPES FROM TWILIGHT ZONES


By CAROLE BOYCE DAVIES

UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03802-0



CHAPTER 1

BETWEEN THE TWILIGHT ZONE AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

"Owagea"


Twilight Zone

Twilight! That space of unreality between night and day, where spirits begin to roam and objects that seem perfectly normal in the daylight assume strange patterns and shapes, that gap between different realities, that zone of instability between darkness and light, that time when transformation happens. Perhaps it was Rod Serling's fault and all those episodes of Twilight Zone I watched in black and white in my youth, I thought, which provided the pretext or at least a possible explanation. Learning that Serling was from and imagined the sense of twilight space in Binghamton justified my feelings. Recreation Park, on Binghamton's West Side, which I passed many times to visit friends, then had a carousel that no longer functioned and seemed to invite that sense of mystery. I was not surprised to learn that it served as inspiration for some Twilight Zone episodes. It was not a stretch to conclude then that the entire Binghamton area, where I lived and worked for a large chunk of my adult life, was indeed the Twilight Zone. But this was before the now popular Twilight series of movies in which likable vampires move in and out of human habitations and as usual seduce young women with their charms. And though they are set in Washington State, they could easily have been anywhere else, upstate New York for sure.

One rainy night, I find myself lost amid the emptiness and sameness of the buildings and the depressed grayness in the area around Antique Row on Clinton Street. Warehouses from a bustling past of economic vitality either remained empty or hosted quaint antique shops. Making the best of postindustrial depression! Echoes of another time, vibrant in old black-and-white film footage, are all over the place in beautifully carved building fronts as in aging frame buildings and leftover train tracks. Sometimes cobbled streets peek through the tarred surfaces and create a bumpy ride. Driving off the highway, I take a wrong turn and somehow end up on a back street. Not sure which direction would take me to Main Street, I panic, observing the strange shapes that meander like ghosts. I panic and breathe a sigh of relief only when I finally cross the bridge over the Chenango River, pass the occasional streetlight, and see the Metro Center, perhaps the only new addition to a dying downtown.


TWILIGHT SCRIPT I

A Caribbean girl at heart, caught in upstate New York, attempts to negotiate her way out of the Twilight Zone, repeatedly. Speeding through the hills up over the city behind the Oakdale Mall or driving through winding highways in sleepy upstate towns, life seemed to suspend itself. I could be in the rolling mountains described in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Hilly terrain, houses that appear as the road bends; absent of human life as I recognize it, barns dated from 1876 are falling apart; occasional deer peer from the side of the road as they contemplate a crossing. People seem to vanish from their proper years only to find out that they had been sleeping all along and the world had moved on.

Flying in and out presented one escape. In pre-9/11 days, I could get onto a flight swiftly and look back at the receding trees as the plane climbed to its preferred height. One could always talk a ground attendant into letting you on the plane in what seemed like five minutes before it took off, and often there was someone else after you. One day, barely making it to the airport on time, I discover that for some reason, maybe bad weather elsewhere, or some other unspoken reason, all flights were indefinitely delayed, pushed back as one waited for the ominous decision—canceled. As I stand near the wall phones (in those days before mobile phones), planning to call my girls to tell them what had happened, deciding if I should wait around or try to fly the next day, I overhear a conversation of another delayed passenger contacting his people at work, or perhaps a girlfriend or wife somewhere: "'I'm trying to get a rented car to take me out of here. I cannot spend the night in this rinky-dink town. There's nothing here.' Sorry, ma'am!" He smiled, knowing that I had overheard. Me: "Oh, I'm not from Binghamton!" The thought of being consigned to what others saw as a "rinky-dink" town enveloped my consciousness. I refused to sign over my sense of belonging to this place. It was one of those moments of clarity when all the narratives that one constructs to keep one's life in place fall apart, for in reality, as I reflected: My work is here. My children are here; one of them was born here. My house is here. This is not really a rinky-dink town, I attempt to convince myself. Twilight Zone!

Maybe he was right. Flying in again after years of absence and having been in and out of larger-size airports, in various parts of the world, Link Field, as the airport was named (now Greater Binghamton Airport), seems even smaller, a space that opens suddenly between the trees. The plane, as usual, seems on the verge of overshooting its mark. The runway appears out of a field of grayness and trees stripped of leaves, paths of white-covered ground underneath trees. A few roadways become visible, a glimpse of a winding river, perhaps the Susquehanna, which I heard referred to as the native highway, maybe the Chenango, as the two meet in Binghamton, with sometimes historic and legendary overflows. A few scattered houses emerge, and then the mound that seems as the plane takes it to be on the side of an extended cliff drop, and the airport now, a beige-looking structure, isolated, weather beaten. A lone ground attendant in a yellow rain suit eyes the plane, a face resigned to a fate of helping people come and go. And I reflect on taxi drivers who proudly claim they have never traveled out of town since "the war," or teachers of my children who had never been to New York City.

Reclaiming one's baggage is always easy, though, as there is never much on the slowly winding belt, sometimes one lonely suitcase that is yours and easily spotted as it comes through the hutch from the other side. Then that meandering drive past some small farms onto Reynolds Road, the mall, Route 17, and then over to Vestal Parkway. That sinking feeling returns of having to leave behind always exciting other locations to return to a sense of (un)reality, where people crouch in the comfortableness of their lack of knowledge of the world.

Twilight Zone! People disappear here! Strange aliens walk around sometimes! Carousels sometimes turn aimlessly and reclaim the past with their painted horses—a happier time, perhaps, for a range of European immigrants. People easily walk into other time zones here. But upstate life for black people is fraught with a sense of permanent danger ... not of the kind that means you are going to be caught in an accident or the crossfire of some city crime, but another unspecified danger, such as capture, if you were escaping from slavery. So remaining undercover for black people becomes normalized, as each makes his or her way silently and clandestinely in a maze of whiteness, as in the past not sure if bounty hunters would recapture one back into enslavement.

Living in a zone of unreality, of mystery and unspecified danger, demands awareness and skill. An exhibit on migration to the western New York and northern Pennsylvania region in a local museum showed a series of memorabilia from past upstate scenes. But rounding a corner, a life-size Klan figure startles the unsuspecting. For most black viewers, it is a moment of terror; for many others, it is a dramatic curiosity. So it is easy to see how a perfectly undistinguished professor can make himself distinguished by bringing the KKK as his special guests to campus, mindless of the power imbalance in the classroom, the history of violence and terrorism that accompanies the Klan, the contempt of the community that such behavior represents. One student from the Bronx said it best: "Well, I hang around with a lot of people from my neighborhood who are kind of a bad element, and I could bring them on this campus so you all could experience them, but I didn't think this was that kind of place." Pennsylvania and northern New York for a long while hosted the upstate headquarters of the Klan, the exhibition says.

Professor Klansman appears in front of the class in his freshly laundered white robe and smiles. "Today I am going to teach you about affirmative action ..." He adjusts his white pointed hood and presents his colleagues to the class. The students are caught in the twilight zone, unable to leave, but one escapes.


TWILIGHT SCRIPT II

Upstate New York provides a landscape of numerous prisons and youth detention centers, often in picturesque communities that one drives by or passes on a rural highway, only to have to take a second look because of a sign marking itself. And only a few miles from Cornell University, on Upper Creek Road, in Ithaca, New York, a house is marked with locational blue and gold signs that identify it as a stop on the Underground Railroad. A sense of the past in the present permeates everything. Contradictory twilight zones of freedom and incarceration coexist.

The sinking feeling that similarly appears as one rounds Great Bend, Pennsylvania, and drives into Binghamton has a basis in history. As the visual markers of the town appear, my sense of resignation always returns. Unlike the students who could, if they choose, do four years and head back to the city, black people who live in upstate New York, like their students for four or five years, are similarly contained. And indeed, one of my colleagues has figured out that state prisons that populate the upstate region, like universities, run on the same principles: shared architecture, furniture, budgets, and sometimes land space.

Harriet Tubman's final home and grave site is in Auburn, New York. A place of freedom for her then is contradictorily now in the same neighborhood as a large upstate prison. A living contradiction in that incarceration is now read as the new enslavement.


SUNNY?

So I head across the parkway and onto the Stair Tract, taking that angled road to the more residential Vestal. Country Club Road, where I live, was named for the site of a former country club. Sometimes the landscape is white, with mounds of snow piled on both sides. Most of the time, it is rainy, a slight and continuous drizzle in place. But other times, it is a rich and vibrant fall, with myriad colors of browns, reds, and golds, competing for the fading sun, and for a moment it is breathtakingly beautiful and challenges the logic of continuing grayness. And the sun is there but just above the clouds.

On another gray day, thinking that the sky was too overcast to really fly, I reluctantly took a flight out of Binghamton. It seemed like bad weather was a permanent condition, but of course I had to go somewhere, and then we took off, and as the plane attained the necessary altitude above the heavy clouds that blanketed the city, the sun burst powerfully into view. The same thing happened once as we were about to drive south. That trepidation about getting on the road in bad weather stayed, but there was light, and clarity, south of Pennsylvania.

Moving out of the twilight can also mean moving into the dark, which sometimes is where the true light exists. The sun is always there, just obliterated under a cloud of dark grayness, ready to be revealed if one could only burst through and penetrate the surface obscurity.

Once a group of students with whom I had worked closely came to me during their senior year and announced that they had decided that when they graduated, they wanted me to leave as well, that they saw upstate New York as not a very safe place for activist intellectuals. Of course, they were not the first class of students who had felt similarly. For many, teaching in historically white institutions is an uphill battle, a struggle of positions. A willingness to challenge a whole history of dominant ideologies, misinformation, and tendencies to maintain the Eurocentric approach to knowledge provides an already-created construct. One is poised, then, if a truthful intellectual, against a mountain of distortions, half-truths, and incompleteness in the educational project. If one is committed to the task of education in a serious way as a professional, especially if critical of normalized racial or gender abuse, it is that which is taken as transgressive, which positions one as always the irritant, perhaps an impediment in a march toward destruction, and minimally as one who consistently raises issues that others, even one's colleagues, would rather silence, avoid, or defer.

I came to Binghamton in the early 1980s, after having just completed a Ph.D. in African literatures at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, having taught in Trinidad as part of my government service and a one-year position at the University of Mississippi. I remember I wore a red suit one of the days of my interview, not even thinking until later how transgressive that could be taken by others, but clearly going with my energy ... red comes naturally. At that time, those who came for on-campus interviews stayed in guest rooms in the student union building. I remember the discussion over salary upon being offered the position and that I felt so elated that I did not realize that the salary being proposed was so low that it would install me forever in a pattern of inadequate income throughout my Binghamton career. A few years later, after one of the group of professors who was hired with me left and decided to go to law school instead of suffering a professional poverty salary, I learned that one of our group had negotiated at least ten thousand dollars more than the rest of us (there were about five hired that year).

My position was a joint appointment with the African American Studies Department. I was given an office in the main hallway of the English Department and one on the thirteenth floor where African American Studies was located. I took the latter as my primary office rather than the promise of isolation and solitary existence in the English Department as the then only black faculty member. I was told by some colleagues that there used to be another black faculty member years before. This symbolic choice would mark my entire career, and I would relive it in all other professional locations. More recently at Cornell, I was offered a 100 percent move to English, which the person offering it thought a good option, but it was clearly after I had taken some public political positions in support of the historic Africana Studies Center. Many would have happily accepted this offer, and others had sought similar deals, but I felt that my political history would not support such a contradiction.

Besides, English Departments are very particular locations with specific colonial histories. Ngugi wa Thiongo and his colleagues were right to assert that they should be abolished in his African context with their origins and intent as fundamental to English colonial structures at the intellectual level. In the United States, they are often "hearts of whiteness." There is always an underlying set of narratives that only the embedded know, which seem outside of the realm of things that interest the black scholar: who is sleeping with whom in the department, who has taken whose wife, who has power, even without major publications of his own, to decide on someone's tenure. But anachronistic to the end, they are unified in their love for and commitment to European hegemony. Parties were specifically timed, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., for example. Often I chose to arrive about 6:30 to avoid small talk and curious queries about one's hair or clothing. Often at 6:30, people were leaving the event. It was clear these were unlike Pan-African parties, where an announcement of that sort would mean people would probably show up about 6:00. So I practiced that dance between realities, that negotiation in the twilight.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from CARIBBEAN SPACES by CAROLE BOYCE DAVIES. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents

Acknowledgments, ix,
Introduction. Caribbean Spaces: Reflective Essays/Creative-Theoretical Circulations, 1,
1. Between the Twilight Zone and the Underground Railroad: "Owagea", 19,
2. Reimagining the Caribbean: Seeing, Reading, Thinking, 33,
3. Caribbean/American: The Portable Black Self in Community, 46,
4. Spirit Scapes: From Brazil to the Caribbean, 64,
5. Middle Passages: Movable Borders and Ocean-Air Space Mobility, 85,
6. Women, Labor, and the Transnational: From Work to Work, 107,
7. Connecting Stories: My Grandmother's Violin, 129,
8. "Changing Locations": Literary Pathways of Caribbean Migration, 147,
9. "Haiti, I Can See Your Halo!": Living on Fault Lines, 158,
10. Caribbean GPS: Compasses of Racialization, 173,
11. Circulations: Caribbean Political Activism, 202,
12. My Father Died a Second Time, 216,
13. Postscript: Escape Routes, 220,
Bibliography, 227,
Index, 241,

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