Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw: Notes of a native daughter

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From Lisa Allen-Agostini’s column in Trinidad’s Newsday.

Prof Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw argued passionately for the value of a humanities education, especially in philosophy and languages, at her inaugural professorial lecture on April 19.

The University of the West Indies (UWI) invested Walcott-Hackshaw as a professor of French literature and creative writing in 2016. Her maiden professorial speech at the auditorium of the UWI School of Education, St Augustine, encompassed both disciplines. Prof Christine Carrington, chair of the UWI Open Lectures Committee, helmed the event. Dr Heather Cato, dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education, introduced Walcott-Hackshaw, describing her as the “quintessential all-rounder” of academia and creative writing.

Walcott-Hackshaw’s lecture was entitled Cracks in the Edifice: Notes of a Native Daughter.

Seated in the work of Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire, her lecture foregrounded her discussion of his 1939 book-length poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of the Return to the Native Land) with an overview of Caribbean writers’ response to the region’s fragmentation and trauma.

“The Cahier story of return is one of the earliest examples of trauma poetics in the Caribbean,” she said. “It exposes the effects of insidious racial trauma on the Caribbean psyche. The Cahier is also a poet’s personal account of the journey from self-hatred to self-acceptance.” The poem addresses institutionalised racism and exclusion of the black man from European culture.

She began her lecture with a quote from former US president Barak Obama that talked about racism and its legacy of discrimination being part of the American DNA. She noted that “America is not the Caribbean, and being black in America is not the same as being black in the Caribbean”, but said, “I would argue that the Caribbean is a more racially sophisticated society than the US, but I would also argue that the legacies of colonialism and slavery are still very much part of the DNA of the 21st century Caribbean.”

“As someone of Caribbean origin, as well as someone who writes both creatively and academically about the Caribbean, I have often felt the resonance of Frantz Fanon’s words: ‘These are the cracks in the edifice’,” Walcott-Hackshaw said, referring to Fanon’s work The Wretched of the Earth, in which he wrote of “the facility with which, when dealing with young and independent nations, the nation is passed over for the race, and the tribe is preferred to the state.

These are the cracks in the edifice which show the process of retrogression that is so harmful and prejudicial to national effort and national unity.”

After saying there is an “indelible psychological scar left by the region’s history”, Walcott-Hackshaw turned to the field of trauma studies, and referred to Prof Paula Morgan’s research in her book The Terror and the Time: Banal Violence and Trauma in Caribbean Discourse on the prevalence and normalisation of Caribbean trauma. Citing contemporary works by Edwidge Danticat, Danny Laferrière and Junot Díaz, she noted that these authors’ work show how “colonial, historical, insidious and personal traumas transcend generations”, and observed, “trauma does not go away.” The key to healing from trauma is dealing with it through continuous questioning, she said.

Writers and intellectuals have described the region as both site of “dislocation, destruction, fragmentation” and “a panacea and a template for multiculturalism and creolisation”. Walcott-Hackshaw turned to the French-Caribbean movements Négritude, Antillanité and Créolité as ways to re-examine generational trauma and move towards a greater understanding of self in national, regional and global contexts.

She quoted her father, the late St Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott, taking an excerpt from his Nobel Prize lecture The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory:

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. […] Antillean art is the restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.

Walcott-Hackshaw referred in her lecture to the 1976 Carifesta journal Carifesta Forum: An Anthology of 20 Caribbean Voices, edited by John Hearne and including writing from Gordon Rohlehr, Octavio Paz, Césaire, Wilson Harris, Gabriel García Márquez, Édouard Glissant, CLR James, Sylvia Wynter — who would prove to be some of the “most influential and prescient” writers of the region.

Hearne described the contributions as “the individual’s voyage of discovery across the longitude and down into the parallel of a history that has not yet happened”. Walcott-Hackshaw said she was “overwhelmed” by the work in the collection and had come back to it repeatedly in her own work, and wondered if her contemporaries in the following generation had missed the mark or whether the ideal was ever attainable.

“I believe as a region we are more than the politics of the tribes. Equally powerful are our poetics,” she said.

Looking at Césair’s relationship with Africa and France, Walcott-Hackshaw traced his development, while studying in Paris in the company of Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas, of the literary and critical theory of Négritude. Négritude, a term based on the French-Caribbean word négre, meaning “black man”, rejected assimilation and viewed the Caribbean’s cultural roots in Africa as central to its expression.

Césaire returned to Martinique and became a schoolteacher; his students included Fanon and Glissant.

Glissant argued that the region should form its own identity, one that did not harken back to Africa but was shaped by the region’s own history and experiences. This movement came to be known as Antillanité. The movement influenced and was followed by another, Créolité, led by Patrick Chamoiseau, Jean Bernabé and Raphaël Confiant. Créolité used “the Creole language and creoleness as a way to define the complexities” of the region, a “project of inclusion”, Walcott-Hackshaw said. She later added Antillanité was the movement she felt most closely aligned with, though she did not dismiss the value of Négritude, saying, “The movie Black Panther, even if it is seen as a strategic Hollywood venture, based on its response and its overwhelming financial success, points to a need to celebrate representation albeit in a mythological Utopia.”

She concluded that engaging in such discourses was “a hopeful endeavour, for writing itself is an act of creation, even when the subject is disunity, fragmentation, even destruction. Shards may lead us to further understanding of latent aspirations.”

In response to the first audience question after her lecture, Walcott-Hackshaw said the discussion of race could be healing in regional discourse but that in discussing race “we jump too quickly into our tribes” and politics; “the politics have as much power as the poetics”.

“We operate from a sense of fear, a lot of times.” Explaining this, she said, “It’s difficult to accept another point of view. We think that, in accepting somebody else’s point of view, somehow, we’re going to be infected by it in some sort of way. That is why people are afraid of ideas.”

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