Living Within The Color Line But Along the Color Spectrum

In Derek Walcott’s Sea at Dauphin, the characters use a mix of Creole and English when speaking with each other. For instance, early in the play, Afa, speaking with Gacia, says, “Merci…Ay, ay, boug. ‘Ous riche, a whole one? Is only natural for wind to blow so hard, but to turn, and turn (47).” This mix of language is remarkably fluid; the characters speak both languages to everyone and even switch back and forth over the course of a sentence.

Walcott was known as an exceptional presenter of hybridity. This language is one example of that. Hybridity is natural in the Caribbean, rather than terrifying. Take, for comparison, the depiction of hybridity in The Octoroon by Boucicault. The phrase “octoroon” is a desperate attempt to retain the color line. By defining this person in exact proportions (1/8 black, 7/8 white), society attempts to keep that division between black and white. Yet Walcott doesn’t abide by that division; where white, colonial society ends and Black society begins is nearly impossible to tell. Rather than starkly divided, the two sides are fluidly united.

Yet, while Walcott’s work may present a Caribbean that does not stick to the color line, Césaire introduces the reader to a color spectrum. In A Tempest, Prospero treats Ariel, a mulatto slave, and Caliban, an African slave, completely differently. When he first speaks to Ariel in the play, Prospero calls him an “intellectual (16).” In his first interactions with Caliban, he calls the slave “an ugly ape” and “a savage” (17). While these conversations are not the first time Prospero has interacted with the slaves, and thus their previous interactions could have contributed to widening the discrepancy between these two depictions, it is impossible to view Prospero’s words without looking at the race of the two slaves. If anything, these scenes show that whiteness still has some value in the Caribbean even if the color line is not as prominently defined as in the United States. As Ryan helpfully pointed out, Ariel has access to Prospero’s magic and Caliban does not. Additionally, Ariel ends the play deserving of freedom while Caliban does not. Whiteness carries privilege even if it is not full whiteness. Looking at Walcott and Césaire together, we see that hybridity is celebrated as an integral part of the Caribbean experience yet a color spectrum still remains in which one’s closeness to whiteness provides certain privileges and advantages.

2 Replies to “Living Within The Color Line But Along the Color Spectrum”

  1. The pairing of these two pieces, as Julian points out, really demonstrates the dual nature of hybridity in the Caribbean. Or if not fully a dual nature, it nuances and informs an understanding of hybridity. While Walcott’s work may not stick to a color line, perhaps reading it with A Tempest in mind could help us to read more directly where the color spectrum plays into his work and his understanding of himself. Cesaire’s depiction is stark and lays out clearly the dynamics of color and the privilege attached to whiteness. I think Walcott’s work still reflects that, but it becomes clearer with the context of Cesaire, when you know it’s present and look for it.

  2. I think the interview with Walcott where he could freely discuss these bigger themes of hybridity and identity more directly than in his poetry or plays really helped show his views of colorism and its ability to define and limit certain peoples. His point that mixed couples are not the sort of eye-catching feature which it typically be in the United States shows this really well in my opinion, but the interview and his works we read for class still suggest some sort of racial or ethnic hierarchy. The centuries of mixing ideas, cultures, and even bodies creates a kind of separate society for the Caribbean, especially in regards to the United States and its much more rigid notions of color and the color line. The idea of people of different races and ethnicities there is almost the norm, with Walcott’s black, white, and Creole background acting as a kind of microcosm showing the vast mulititudes of experience and culture in the Caribbean. As a result, the uses of colloquial speech come off as more natural than anything else in the works, reflecting the different but coexistent backgrounds and heritages within Walcott himself

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