by Jamaica Kincaid
Where It All Goes Down
History lesson time! Gather around, Shmooperinos, it's time for a story about Antigua.
Antigua is one half of the country Antigua and Barbuda in the British West Indies. Think hot, with beautiful beaches and gorgeous mountains. Like all of the countries in the British West Indies, Antigua and Barbuda was colonized by England and ruled by the British for hundreds of years. During this time, the British brought slaves from Africa and India to harvest sugar cane and other crops that were exotic at the time, like tobacco.
Thanks to this troubled history, there's a whole lot of culture-mixing in this little country.
Antigua and Barbuda started governing itself in 1967, and in 1981 it finally became an independent part of the British Commonwealth. That means it's kind of like Canada, doing its own thing while still technically under the rule of Queen Elizabeth II.
Unfortunately, like many nations in the West Indies, Antigua and Barbuda relied too much on tourism and the nation became very poor after it gained independence. Kincaid was very upset about the poverty of her homeland, and her feeling that Antigua didn't have many opportunities for talented people—especially women—has influenced a lot of her work.
Between British and African Cultures
Remember that we said there was a whole lot of cultural stuff going on in Antigua? Someone like our protagonist Girl probably was growing up split between different cultures. In school and official places, British culture ruled the day. (Kincaid has talked about the weird experience of reading British literature without having any idea what England looked like.)
But at home and in the streets, a mixture of African cultures was still important in people's lives. So, every day was kind of like a game where you had to switch back and forth depending on where you were and whom you were talking to. It didn’t help that people of African descent (like Kincaid and the majority of Antiguans) were considered inferior to British people and so their culture was inferior, too. Understandably, Antiguans and Barbadians weren’t too happy with the situation.
The tension between British and Antiguan cultures is part of where Kincaid gets her anger. She writes in A Small Place: "But nothing can erase my rage...for this wrong can never be made right." She also says that the British “distorted or erased my history and glorified [their] own." In "Girl," we can see the tension between these two worlds. Sometimes, white culture and Antiguan culture seem like they can never meet up, as when Mom says, “don’t sing benna in Sunday school" (11).
At other times, they coexist: Girl learns how to make Antiguan food like pepperpot, but her mom also teaches her some things that are quintessentially British, like how to "set a table for tea” and make "bread pudding" (28, 38). In a place where you have to be super careful what you serve to whom, things can get pretty confusing.
So, this isn’t exactly a place (or maybe it's a state of mind), but it’s still super important for understanding "Girl." Kincaid was born May 25, 1949 as Elaine Potter Richardson. Her biological father never married her mother, and was not involved in Kincaid’s life. For nine years, Kincaid was an only child and she and her mother were close.
Since Antigua was a British colony, Kincaid received a traditional British education, even memorizing Milton. This is when she started to realize that she didn’t like the way that Antiguan culture was considered inferior to British culture—and she also realized that she was pretty good at this whole school thing.
Everything changed after the first of her three younger brothers was born. The got all the attention, and, while they were encouraged to go to college, she was removed from high school and sent to New York to earn money for the family. (Which she kept for herself. We love that.)
So, issues of culture, gender, and family are obviously important to Kincaid's personal life—and they're important to how we understand "Girl," too. While "Girl" is based on her personal experiences, it's also the universal experience of any girl growing up in a patriarchal, colonial culture. And there are a lot of those.