Musings on Caribbean Emancipation (via my Netflix Summer Binge)
This piece is third in a series of pieces featuring Caribbean writers reflecting on the theme of Emancipation, first published on August 1, 2017 (Emancipation Day).
Now that it is summer – in the Northern Hemisphere, anyhow – some of my favorite television shows have returned to Netflix. Among others, I have been binge watching Reign and Death in Paradise. Watching these two, almost in tandem, has had me meditating on the notions of emancipation, independence, and identity in the Caribbean context. Allow me, if I may, to circuitously ponder the meaning of Emancipation Day in the Caribbean by first discussing artistic productions that are not Caribbean-created but are related to our histories and current lived realities...
For context, Reign is a historical fantasy exploring the rule of European monarchies, mainly Scotland, France, and England. Its plot runs rampant with the typical dalliances, corruption, machinations, and violence that make for popular guilty pleasure television. Death in Paradise is a bizarre British mystery-comedy taking place on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie, located somewhere in the Eastern Caribbean, presumably near Guadeloupe. The storyline revolves around a socially-awkward English detective leading a team of eager local officers in solving homicides.
Admittedly, though I (reluctantly) find certain aspects of the show compelling, Reign perturbs me with its embedded sympathizing with colonizers and imperialists. One of the more recent episodes I watched introduced the character responsible for the spread of the English empire and the practice of enslaving and shipping people from West Africa to the Caribbean. When I realized the weight of this character’s existence, I felt unease fermenting in my stomach.
Angry with the characters, angry with the real-life figures they portray, angry with the show and its writers, and angry with myself for having gotten so deep into it. My increasing vexation came from my subsequent reflecting on how Caribbean lands and enslaved Africans were exploited and abused for economic gain and world dominion. How people of African descent had to fight, literally with blood, sweat, tears, limbs, children, and their own lives for emancipation, for freedom, for their humanity.
I ruminated on what came with emancipation for those formerly enslaved. On the oppression and discrimination that people of African descent around the world still face. On how the humanity of Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks was, and still is, not fully recognized. I thought about what things we are still blamed for and what challenges we have not yet been able to overcome. About how the Caribbean region was, and still is, treated like a pawn and an afterthought to countries seeking greater power and influence.
Coming out of the historical deliberations, I started questioning the proliferation of and obsession with shows based on history, these “period pieces” that imagine and reimagine the past and try to humanize some of the vilest players in global history. Why are there so many that glorify those complicit in enslavement and exploitation? Why do creators make these stories so alluring, so intriguing? Why do so many utterly romanticize the past, denying responsibility for subjugation and essentially whitewashing history?
Roxane Gay deftly addresses some of this in "I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction", an article penned about “Confederate”, the latest show to “[replicate] histories where whiteness thrives and people of color remain oppressed” or invisible. Like other period shows, Confederate, in its reimagining that slavery still exists in the U.S. South, necessitates viewers’ suspending of unease and tolerance and embracing of the real life racism of times past. Whether based in the U.S. or the Caribbean or other places where European ships filled with humans as chattel docked, these histories and their current representations are all connected.
In its dearth of Black, Brown, and Indigenous characters, Reign pursues “historical authenticity” that, too, requires us to permit showrunners creative license at the expense of those whose traumatic histories should not be blithely treated as fair game for diversion. And in its own right, Reign is not a show about the Caribbean. But the casual mention of expansion and colonies and explorers struck me as too cavalier for my mind and heart to excuse. My history, the history of my home country, of my home region, was relegated to an aside, to the footnotes. But we are no footnote in history.
It was one character that caused me to spiral rapidly into heavy contemplation and introspection. But this was a long time coming, given the subtext of this show. And now I was standing in the middle of the maelstrom of emotions and historical trauma this brought up for me. For the sake of my slighted ancestors and my embittered heart, I had to stop watching. I needed to divert the time and energy that I spent watching the show to refreshing my memory and learning more about the histories of enslaved peoples in the Caribbean and not the histories of their oppressors, mindless entertainment be damned.
Footnotes be damned.
In comparison to the drama and gravitas of Reign, the lightness and whimsicality of Death in Paradise is much-welcomed comedic relief. But this show, too, irks me, although to a much lesser degree, as there are too many incongruous aspects that do not make sense for a show set in the Caribbean. There is a police team made up of Black French Caribbean locals (who are actually played by actors of Dominican, Cape Verdean, and Nigerian descent, but that is a discussion for another time), and a white English detective comes in to help them solve the murder of a previous white British police officer. After solving the crime, the detective stays on to become the principal investigator for the police station. Over the next several seasons, two more white European men come in to lead the Saint Marie team, replacing each previous detective.
Yes, Death in Paradise is a BBC show made by British and French people. But it is based in the Caribbean without truly being Caribbean. Accordingly, I have questions (and rightfully so). Why did the Saint Marie team need a white English detective to come help/do their work for them? Why is a man from London the only person able to solve the crimes on the island? Is the deference shown by the Saint Marie team merely respect or symbolic of something more? Why are the local Caribbean officers subordinate to the white outsider? Why do so many of the storylines revolve around tourists or non-locals? Why are the differences between England and Saint Marie used as punchlines? How is this team representative of interactions between people of different ethnicities and races or between locals and foreigners in the Caribbean? What is being replicated in this show that is relevant to real life? Is this depiction representative of how the British and/or the French see Caribbean people in their “territories”, former or current?
It is by some peculiar chance of fate of my eccentric taste (and willingness to indulge recommendations) that these two shows find themselves in comparison. But, indeed, together they elicit questions about the history, present, and future of the Caribbean, with Death in Paradise serving as auxiliary to the flurry of historical considerations catalyzed by Reign.
And of course, as an aspiring Caribbeanist of Jamaican heritage, I cannot help my conscious and subconscious seeking of representations of the Caribbean in everything. And when I catch glimpses or glean gaps, I often wonder about the deeper implications of the creation of Caribbean identities from time immemorial to now. Reign facilely mentions those involved “behind the scenes” of the Transatlantic slave trade, and I think about the dismissal and consequences built into that. Death in Paradise has me mulling over how Caribbean people (and countries) are still somehow underneath the rule of or in deference to European entities, how there are still unbreakable ties to the countries and people whose ancestors raped, murdered, exploited, and reviled ours.
So how does one come to terms to that? How can I come to terms with that, when even in indulging in frivolous melodramas and facetious comedies for the purposes of entertainment, I cannot un-see, un-know, un-feel the vestiges and overt legacies of the histories and realities of my ancestors and their descendants throughout the world?
It is evident that coming to terms with this is and will be a never-ending process. You do not just “come to terms” with such simultaneously tumultuous and triumphant histories as those belonging to the enslaved and oppressed. But it is important to know and understand these histories, to give the proper acknowledgement and importance, to celebrate the embedded determination and resilience while honoring that there is still so much more to be gained in the way of freedom for Caribbean people, for Black folks of different ethnicities across the Diaspora, for still-marginalized folks.
And so, here we are, a century and decades out from emancipations throughout the Caribbean in the 1800s, commemorating them with national holidays and individual and public reflection. For those of us whose ancestors were enslaved Africans and whose countries were built by enslaved Africans, it is important to celebrate this history. And this honoring is not, and does not have to be, “just symbolic” – with the effects of transgenerational trauma and epigenetics, our lives, the lives of our descendants, and the futures and realities of our changing Caribbean lands have all been and continue to be irrevocably affected by the legacy and the horrors of the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. Even though we still have so much work to do in achieving true freedom at both the personal and national levels, we can respect and memorialize the past without glorifying or romanticizing or vilifying that history.
We must continue to ensure that thinking about our collective history does not begin or end with European explorers. Or with the near decimation of native indigenous populations. Or with revolts and revolutions and the end of the slave trade. Or with the emancipation of enslaved peoples of African descent. In our celebrations, we must continue to think about what our ancestors lost when they were enslaved. What was lost with Emancipation. What was gained with Emancipation. What there is to still be gained.
In acknowledging artistic productions with some relation to Caribbean histories and present realities, this Emancipation season I advocate for the continued increase in and support of Caribbean-created content, of us telling our own stories and owning our representations. Know Your Caribbean, KraasImages, ARC Magazine, The:Nublk, Susumba, and Studio Anansi TV are only some of Caribbean-focused entities that I have encountered thus far that, in their own ways, are continuing the work of emancipation, of freedom, of identity creation. This is one of many ways through which we can ensure that emancipation is more than celebratory. By not allowing others external to the Caribbean region to tell our stories, by not allowing them to curate our representations using people not of Caribbean descent, by not permitting them to leave us out of the narratives they craft when we rightfully played a role.
I am very aware of the irony in this article about the Caribbean being inspired by non-Caribbean originating stories. Although not preferred, they have indeed fostered a deeper reflection within me than I have had in previous years. At the very least, I will endeavor to keep seeking out the Caribbean in everything. Our influence on the world has been so great that it is unquantifiable. We deserve to celebrate all small and large victories that we have achieved every step of the way.
Taking our freedom, crafting our identities, was no small task. Maintaining them will not be either.
Sherine Andreine Powerful is a Diasporic Jamaican and Caribbean creative. Her writings on Caribbean health, identities, family, and other topics can be found on "The Caribbeanista". She can be found on Twitter at @QueenAndreine.