Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from Twilight Zones

Carole Boyce Davies

Urbana: University of Illinois, 2013


The title of Carole Boyce Davies' 2013 book, Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from Twilight Zones, does not reflect the breadth and depth of the work. While Boyce Davies provides thorough and productive definitions of "Caribbean spaces" and "twilight zones," the title elides the complex and far-reaching implications of her inclusion of literary analysis, autobiographical and biographical essays, pictures, interviews, and attention to popular culture. Through an analysis of these many modalities, Boyce Davies explores immigration, exile, returns home, racism, and sexism as global phenomena. Boyce Davies pays particular attention to the racial politics and socio-economic (and geographical) landscapes that ultimately structure people's experience of any given space, Caribbean or otherwise. Through her inclusion of personal narratives as they relate to the aforementioned concepts, Boyce Davies demonstrates that personal experiences, whether those of the author or of working class Caribbean and Caribbean American women, can and ought to be used as foundational texts in academic explorations. Boyce Davies' purpose in writing the text, as she outlines in the introduction, is "to identify a series of passages and locations between the Americas that facilitate movement as they identify a set of specific traumas," including those observable in both Caribbean literature and the experiences of Caribbean American women (6). She asserts that to accomplish this goal, the project "moves between explorations of Caribbean culture in a variety of locations (spaces) to a larger imagined geographical Caribbean space, broadening its meanings at every turn" (6). As such, the project moves across space (from Miami, Florida to New York City, New York to São Paulo, Brazil to Lagos, Nigeria, and beyond) and time (from the transatlantic slave trade to the civil rights movement to Boyce Davies' contemporary moment).

Boyce Davies begins with two chapters that expound on her organizing terms: "Caribbean space" and "twilight zone." She defines Caribbean spaces as "those locations in which there are distinctly identified re-creations of Caribbean communities following migrations" (2–3). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the language of re-creating certain elements of Caribbean culture in other sites, Boyce Davies makes frequent reference to Antonio Benitez-Rojo's The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective (1992). Like Benitez-Rojo, Boyce Davies resists totalizing the Caribbean, but deviates from him in her attention to material conditions that impact in different ways how people experience exile. Her inclusion of more diverse sources also reveals methodological differences between the two authors. Boyce Davies' deployment of Caribbean space is also informed by her concept of "twilight zones," as "that gap between different realities, that zone of instability between darkness and light, that time when transformation happens" (19). Caribbean spaces, operating as potential twilight zones, are thus both potentially transgressive and unstable, and sites of possibility.

The remainder of the book explores a wide range of Caribbean spaces in chapters that vary in approach—autobiography, fieldwork, surveys, and analytical essays—and in the issues that impact how people experience Caribbean space. The third chapter describes Boyce Davies' process of becoming conscious of how anti-blackness structures experiences similarly in the US and the Caribbean through an autobiographical reflection on her time in Trinidad and in parts of the US, especially Brooklyn. In this chapter, titled "Caribbean/American: The Portable Black Self in Community," Boyce Davies asserts that wherever she travels, she has "taken some aspects of [her] portable Caribbean identity with [her], and that identity has consistently overlapped with [her] black woman identity, [her] identity as a black faculty member in major universities, [her] community experiences, [her] experiences as a mother, consumer, traveler, and so on" (62). Here, Boyce Davies outlines the methodology of the project, that is, the use of the personal to inform the production of scholarship. By employing this method, Boyce Davies calls constant attention to how scholars' subject positions, experiences, biases, etc., inform their work.

The role of personal experiences in scholarship is particularly explicit in the fourth chapter, wherein Boyce Davies outlines fieldwork conducted through conversations with personal friends who are activists in São Paulo, Brazil. Boyce Davies asserts that parts of Brazil ought to be included in an alternate, expanded cartography of the Caribbean. This cartography, as Boyce Davies' own travels to and beyond Brazil suggest, is highly malleable and contingent on the ongoing effects of diasporic movements. Through this suggestion of a new map of the Caribbean, Boyce Davies invites a comparative analysis of parts of Brazil and parts of the Caribbean that reveals broader trends of colonial history and legacies of resistance. Boyce Davies' inclusion of Brazil in her use of "Caribbean" is an example of new analytical and ideological possibilities, or, as the aforementioned definition suggests, a twilight zone.

The sixth chapter, "Women, Labor, and the Transnational: From Work to Work," explores the experiences of working-class Caribbean women in the US, and includes narratives about and dialogue from Caribbean women who have migrated to the US. This chapter highlights the project's investment in exploring the structures that shape the parameters of Caribbean spaces. This concern invites a broader engagement, and criticism, of global networks and the circulations of rituals, stories, commodities, and bodies that inform even the most quotidian experiences in these local sites. In addressing both the local and the national/international/global, Davies provides a model for how scholars might ethically pursue transnational or global studies: with concurrent attention to local interactions and culture and global networks of exchange/systems of control.

Boyce Davies' inclusion of migration narratives exemplifies how engagement with local communities, particularly communities of Caribbean American women, enriches scholarship on such subjects as immigration and global studies by detailing how women have experienced their homes in the Caribbean and their immigration between the Caribbean and the US. One woman, Esther, details paranoia regarding her status in the US, explaining that she had not bothered to "regularize her papers [documents proving her legal right to be in the US]" and when Boyce Davies asked why, expressed fear "that if she does, it will alert ICE to her illegal status and send her home" (116). Esther's voice bolsters the chapter's argument that contemporary economic and political policies (including, especially, immigration policies) are informed by the "residual effects of economic slavery and colonialism" (108). By developing and supporting this thesis through accounts like Esther's, Boyce Davies suggests that scholarship can use and build on the experiences of those who might otherwise be excluded from academic discourse.

Boyce Davies puts her experiences of labor, particularly in the academy, in dialogue with these interviews "in order to disrupt the logic of exclusionary discourse that often deny the personal" (6). Boyce Davies asserts that the academy has "been the site of particular creation and maintenance of racial structures, interacting with policy makers and the media. Thus, the university is never an innocent and objective bystander" (186). Here, Boyce Davies consciously writes against a trend she identifies: the persistent devaluation of women of color's voices, experiences, and labor. In so doing, Boyce Davies reveals a desire to treat her own experiences, and those of other Caribbean-born women, with the same critical attention she allots to work by prominent authors and scholars. Indeed, her inclusion of autobiographical anecdotes and frequent reference to her earlier writing, namely Black Women, Writing, and Identity (1994), remind her readers of the importance of her personal experiences in the formulation of that work.

Boyce Davies' work invites a transnational consideration of a wide range of events, networks, and structures that have shaped and continue to shape migratory routes from, across, and into the Caribbean. For example, in the ninth chapter, "Haiti, I Can See Your Halo: Living on Fault Lines," Boyce Davies discusses the Haitian Revolution and its implications up to and beyond the devastating 2010 earthquake, and thus invites readers to consider connections between slavery in Haiti, the development of the first Black republic, contemporary neocolonialism in the Caribbean, and ongoing migratory flows from the nation. The title of the chapter, borrowed from Beyoncé's performance for the Hope for Haiti telethon, simultaneously invites readers to consider the role popular culture plays in disseminating ideas about Haiti.

Though Boyce Davies also includes descriptions of her time in Nigeria and Brazil, including extensive attention to local activism in the latter nation in "Spirit Scapes: From Brazil to the Caribbean," overall the work tends to privilege Caribbean spaces in the US. The scope of the project is limited to locations in which Boyce Davies has spent substantial amounts of time on academic grants for research and for pleasure. This reveals that her movements are as informed by strife in the Caribbean (as her initial departure from Trinidad suggests) as they are by the privilege of a professorship at a highly ranked institution (Cornell University). This, of course, serves as another twilight zone, which Boyce Davies recognizes: Black, immigrant women in academia must grapple with the instability of constituting an undervalued group in an otherwise privileged space. Boyce Davies' book performs the balancing act and invites others to do the same.

The multiple genres—autobiography, critical essay, historical overview—in Caribbean Spaces makes the work an engaging and challenging read, fit for courses in literature, creative writing, anthropology, ethnography, and cultural studies in postsecondary classes. The accessible language employed by Boyce Davies would also make the book, or select chapters, an appropriate addition to language arts and/or social studies courses at secondary level institutions. An examination of the book in courses in any of these levels and fields would provide a model of how community involvement, including dialoging with local activists, organizers, and other individuals who have experienced the phenomena we study, can enhance academic discourse.


Work Cited

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. 1992. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Boyce Davies, Carole. 1994. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge.

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