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Introducing the Caribbean Collections Project

Caribbeanist anthropologist Dr Adom Philogene Heron, who is curating a review of the Caribbean studies holdings held by Senate House Library (SHL) and the libraries of the Institute of Historical Research and Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, offers an introduction to The Caribbean Collection Project and SHL’s rich holdings in kinship and gender, his areas of study.

The goal of the Caribbean Collection Project is to develop an online index that will highlight the strengths of the collections of Caribbean materials held in the School of Advanced Study’s libraries. It is one of the projects being run by the Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research (CICR), which has been set up to as a resource centre designed to reinvigorate the study of Caribbean societies and cultures in the UK and beyond.

Students of the Caribbean, from undergraduates to advanced and independent scholars, are often surprised by the breadth, depth or rarity of these materials. Our plan, therefore, is to showcase several thematic highlights of the collection via a series blog posts and talks, before collating the online guide that will provide easy access to the materials.

Core collection themes will include:

  • The Amerindian/pre-Columbian and early colonial Caribbean
  • The plantation Caribbean (slavery, plantation life, indenture, and abolition)
  • Ordering the colonial Caribbean (administration, discipline and European rule)
  • Imagining Caribbean freedoms (maronnage, revolutions, ruptures and social movements)
  • Caribbean spiritualties, religions and the occult
  • Conceiving of the Caribbean post/neo-colony (nation building, development and their discontents)
  • Gender and kinship
  • Caribbean literary life and key thinkers

Researching gender and kinship at SAS Libraries
It was while researching for my PhD entitled ‘Fathermen: Predicaments in Fatherhood, Masculinity and the Kinship Lifecourse, Dominica, West Indies’ that I discovered SHL’s holdings on Caribbean families and gender relations. They include ethnographies of the late colonial era such as R T Smith’s The Negro Family in British Guiana and Edith Clarke’s My Mother Who Fathered Me.

These early studies were useful for their rigorous mapping of familial patterns and roles. And although very much of their time (colonial in terms of scholar-subject relations and structural functionalist in paradigm), they introduced key issues such as ‘matrifocal’ (mother-centred) families, household economies, residence patterns and so-called ‘male marginality’.

In my meanderings through the library’s shelves I also encountered the Women in the Caribbean Project (WICP) papers. WICP brought together leading Caribbean social scientists to examine the social, economic, familial and cultural lives of women in the region. It reflected a great wave of Caribbean feminist scholarship in the 1980s that culminated in such key texts as Janet Momsen’s Women and change in the Caribbean, Olive Senior’s Working miracles, and Honor Ford-Smith’s Lionheart gal: life stories of Jamaican women.

With an evolving grounding in Caribbean feminist theory and praxis, I began reading about Caribbean men as gendered beings including Rhoda Reddock’s interdisciplinary volume Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities, which situates masculinities research within the historical context of Caribbean social science, history and literature.

This book offered a critical lens with which I could revisit the gendered threads of earlier works, such as P J Wilson’s Crab Antics – about male sociality, respectability and counterculture in Providencia Island (Colombia); Earl Lovelace’s novel The Dragon Can’t Dance, which explores similar themes in the context of a community in Port of Spain and Trinidadian carnival; and Graham Dann’s The Barbadian Male: Sexual Attitudes and Practice.

Finally, I found in fiction, poetry and film several affectively nuanced and qualitatively rich accounts of Caribbean family life. For example, Lorna Goodison’s 1988 poem, My Uncle, detailing the funeral of her maternal uncle and presenting a portrait of familial loss and love for a departed ancestor. Conversely, Jamaica Kincaid in her 1998 book, The Autobiography of My Mother, reveals a harsher imagining/remembering of familial life that is reflective of the violent history of the Caribbean region itself.

And finally, Euzhan Palcy’s 1983 film Sugar Cane Alley, based on La Rue Cases Nègres by Joseph Zobel, tells the story of a young boy who is raised on a sugar plantation in 1930s Martinique and receives a scholarship to attend school in the capital Fort-de-France. The boy’s relationships with his loving grandmother and with Medouze, an elderly rum drinking labourer with whom he develops a kind of avuncular or grandfather-like fondness, should appeal to a scholar of kinship. Together, these creative works offer a broader perspective on family realities than the social science literature – from departed ancestors, to distant mothers to honorary uncles/grandfathers.

This brief glimpse at my PhD reading journey at Senate House library gives a sense of some of the Caribbean gender and kinship texts the library possesses. And through CICR, we will disseminate our research findings beyond academia using a range of means including a programme of events and activities that will transfer academic research on the region to non-academic audiences.

Dr Adom Philogene Heron is a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

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