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Monday, April 24, 2006

You and Me Alike – a comparison of Charlotte Williams’ Sugar and Slate and Jean Rhys’ I Used To Live Here Once by Isabel Adonis...





You and Me Alikea comparison of Charlotte Williams’ Sugar and Slate and Jean Rhys’ I Used To Live Here Once.


The grass was yellow in the hot sunlight as she walked towards them. When she was quite close she called again, shyly: 'Hello'. Then, 'I used to live here once,’ she said. Still they didn't answer. When she had said for the third time ‘Hello’ she was quite near them. Her arms went out instinctively with the longing to touch them. It was the boy who turned. His grey eyes looked straight into hers. His expression didn't change. He said, 'Hasn't it gone cold all of a sudden. D' you notice? Let's go in.' 'Yes, let's,' said the girl. Her arms fell to her sides as she watched them running across the grass to the house. That was the first time she knew.

Jean Rhys.

Jean Rhys’ words evoke a woman’s rediscovery of her home, and her longing to reconnect with the home environment and to reconnect with the happiness of her past. The relationship with nature promotes an integration of her adult self with the child of her memory, the natural culmination of which would be a relationship with the living children in a social context – I was like you, here; we are connected.

Her psychological journey is cut short when the two white children see her but do not recognise her in that place. The glassiness of the sky, which she does not recognise, is a metaphor for the glassy look of the boy, who in refusing to acknowledge her, puts up an invisible barrier, not just between her and the children, but also between her and her home – an internal barrier. Her knowing, with which the story ends is the painful isolation of separation, the same knowledge that casts Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Charlotte Williams’ return to her mother’s home in Sugar and Slate does not evoke any excitement, intimacy or longing. Her perceptions more closely resemble those of the white children in the above narrative. What she sees is ‘empty and spiritless’ and appears to have no inner feelings. Her mother’s home of Bethesda is the claustrophobic scene of her mother’s beginnings, an environment that leaves no option for her mother but to climb out from under a mound of slate.

“Yet this passage was part of her won inner drive to move out from under the claustrophobic pile of slate that was her birthplace.”(Williams.p.7)

The vision is contemptuous and dismissive; in another part of her writing she talks about Bethesda juju. (P.64)

It is a place oxygenated by ‘hatred of the outsider’;(Williams.p.172) it is a place of animosity and conflict, a place of ‘empty pubs and chapels’ (Williams.p.172)– a veritable spiritual wilderness. Her early experiences of visiting her auntie’s pub evoke desperation, a nadir of personal experience, a looking down on an empty High Street watching nothing happen. Yet she extols and sentimentalises the past, the Bethesda of history, but even then denigrates the feminine – the ‘lazy wives of Bethesda. (Williams.p173)

Bethesda, her mother’s home takes up all of a page in her book. She seems to know no one there and doesn’t enter into any relationship or community with this place. Her survey of the environment is distant and voyeuristic, as if this place; her mother’s home, the symbolic alma mater, is of no significance and is spiritually dead to her.

She erases it: she e-races it: a cultural no man’s (woman’s) land of existence. Bethesda, is however the primal scene of her writing – the sugar and the slate, appellations given to the Pennants, the slate owning and slave owning family. She claims Bethesda, even as they do, or did, while simultaneously dismissing it.

This is the place where her mother was born but her slate memories are male. Unlike Jean Rhys her going home is not about belonging to her mother’s land and the relation to mother is crucial here. The whole book is about male activity. Bethesda exists in her imagination as a ‘forsaken lover’.(Searle) She can’t get close; she remains inside the pub looking out on grey streets, detached and not part of that belonging. She is not merely an outsider but part of a colonial looking, arrogating sugar and slate, both symbols of exploitation. She is monument and edifice and owner of her mother’s world, a world she does not identify with. This inversion is characteristic and in stark contrast with Jean Rhys she maintains that she is rejecting rather than rejected, possessor and dispossessed.

Her mother is white and she is not like her mother, but like her father: he is the person she identifies with. This is the black man who has left and abandoned her as a dark woman in a white culture, a culture she cannot identify with because of her lack of closeness to her mother’s white skin. The colour of the skin divides and she is her father’s daughter. She is rootless, even while she enters the historic imagination of Welsh grandparents and Congo boys. The Congo boys’ story is more meaningful than Bethesda because it is a story of her symbolic father coming to a Wales where in the end he finds no home. ( Williams.p.25)

Identity is a feeling of belongness, it is a starting place for life yet she cannot in truth identify with Wales. Instead her move is to have it all; since she in fact has nothing, which is her father.

She is in a deep conflict about which side to be on, white or black, colonizer or colonised. Her father, a black man is culturally English, her mother, a white woman is part of that place of ‘laziness’ of slaves and religious hypocrisy reminiscent of the ‘laziness’ of slaves in slave plantations. She cannot just look and feel as Rhys does; rather she looks and asserts possession. She cannot simply accept that the land is her sacred place. She looks at what those folks are doing and not the way they are being. When she looks at Penrhyn Castle she owns that too.

She has to make Welsh people black in her search for authenticity and father. She even transmutes her desire for father into a Welsh black penis. (Williams. P.176) She desperately desires intimacy and the feeling of belonging and wholeness through his skin colour. Mixed race people are never white, despite the fact that they are no more black than they are white. She imagines Wales her own, as father, but these are play objects, which she can transform into any shape and colour.

Her book is divided into Africa, Guyana and Wales. Africa includes her early life in Llandudno before her father left, and many other incidents, which do not take place in any tropical clime. Africa is father, representing her formative years but she extends this Africa place to include all of her life until he her father is no more. Guyana is also father. Mother and Bethesda get one page.

Jimi Hendrix is symbolic of father and of African homeland.(Williams. P.88) He is dead but the black face image of her father lives on. Tragically she cannot afford to let it die, although she claims she has ‘banished’ him completely by the time she is sixteen, another inversion. (p83) Her sister’s marriage to ‘Billy boy’ she turns into a symbolic Africa where father’s spirit is present but his agbada is empty. (Williams.p.62) She worships a ghost which makes her writing disembodied and without true context.

She cannot find a context, an identity without the other, unlike Jean Rhys. She must create a new paradigm in which to exist, where she can safely cross the borders of racial hegemony at will. White people are black because she says so, and that is the only way she can find a place. And endless imagery replaces real relationship.

She claims that her mother has a history, an inheritance, (p51), a language, and simultaneously denies it. She cannot live or relate to her or her community. She is classless, clubless and groupless (p50) as well as dislocated and groundless. Black, colour, race is denied within her family and is denied in the Welsh community.

There are slippages and indiscretions. “Racism hadn’t been invented” a fact that was more to do with the community than some quality within the family itself. She enjoys an isolated existence in the ‘haven’ (Williams. P.46) Beit- Eel, whose meaning is the Arabic, house of god is a ‘sanctuary’, but it is a sanctuary with no relation: in order to exist in a white society (her mother’s) she must pass for white.

“Black stood for nothing, nothing at all,” (p47) perhaps this is the nothing she glimpses through a glass darkly. She has to learn to be a “paleface” to appease her mother and she inherits, willingly or unwillingly the angelic aura of her mother, the “halo of mam’s spirit.”(Williams.p.21)

The writing is littered with the word spirit, though she rejects the ‘empty churches’ (Williams.p.172) and religion, which binds her mother to her native place. Her mother’s spirit is transcendent, where suffering and sacrificing are part of a biblical imperialism. Her mother has freed herself from the confines of the past and has absorbed the African people with missionary zeal. Her mother feels “kinship with the spirit” and participates in being one of those who have the god given power (of white folk) to save the natives from themselves “unsullied by ruthless imperialism” In the end everyone remains innocent – unsullied by any taint of reality. (Williams.p.34)

Her mother’s religious domination is however kindly – religious and angelic, clean and pure as she sucks dry the spiritual soul of black people while leaving their bodies intact. She is as innocent as the driven snow. She lives in Beit-eel, a house of god, a spiritual haven, a haven secure from the encroachments of the English (father).

The mother, she portrays, does no wrong, wears a ‘starry sky dress’ smells of Nivea, a white cream.(Williams.p.35) Is this the kink in the dragon’s tail I wonder? Her mother’s repressed sexuality? But that too remains a metaphor without any reference.

Charlotte Williams’s love for her father is anachronistic. In her father Denis Williams novel, Other Leopards, no mention is made of his daughters and her mother is reduced to amanuensis. In Icon and Image, a scholarly text on African art, there is no place for woman. He testifies to the absence of the women in the religious pantheon. There is no woman in the Orisha. She longs for her father but he has sadly abandoned her. She is a stranger in her own land as is Jean Rhys, longing to be part of home, but in her case there is no awareness.

She feels the uncertainty of her racial position within a white Welsh and nationalistic political setting. To identify with patriarch is what she does and wants: this patriarchy is however overwhelmingly white, like her mother. How can she do the impossible and integrate blackness into whiteness?

Even her language betrays her; an academic language of linguistic edifices which express and sustain the imperial past. She finds refuge in poetry and a poetic sensibility and seeks to please and placate the symbolic father’s “savage spirit” (Williams. P.20)- Welsh people are not only the ‘real’ Caribbean slaves, they are the real Africans, the humanity and soul of black folk.

The majority of the book is a discourse with father – father as white man, father as authority, father as cultural hero. She is accomplished and intellectual as regards her relationship with Wales. She knows what to say and what the symbolic ‘daddy’ wants to hear.

Simultaneously Bethesda as mother is marginalised, empty and forgotten. Father is writing, father is art, father is cultural authority. Bethesda is not a place for cultural authority. In truth it is a place of great creativity but she does not appear to notice this. Bethesda is a place of failures, of women, of mothers who have no place in her legislative framework. The story of sugar and slate is hers by a divine right of kings (or queen?). The dialogue with Wales, with nation, with flag, with political image she invents and re-invents through her chimerical tail-twisting dragon.

Transcending all this positioning is the morality of god, the Manichean attributing of white with goodness, purity with innocence. In the Land of the Fathers what she actually thinks is a mystery, a whatever you like. What she knows about Bethesda also remains a mystery. I doubt whether this is the same knowing as Jean Rhys.

Yet the problem of identity is stultifying – how do you become a pale face while you are black. How do you wear your mother’s halo, which engenders and encodes the female suffering, servility and saintlihood while having to ignore the deep and dark nature of her femaleness?

Her mother, by her very modus operandi makes father black, cruel, worthless and evil. The notion of the natal home is despised both by the author; wearing the angelic aura points to a denial of blackness, a denial of origins. The natal home of Bethesda becomes meaningless, without aspiration and inspiration.

Her “ I’ll never be like mum” leaves her exactly like her mother. She denies her mother a true voice, a black heart unexpressed as she denies her own authentic sexual and racial voice. She inhabits the space of L. P.Hartley’s Go-between, passing messages from mother to father, from one racial group to another.

She is the little boy, Leo, passing messages between illicit lovers. Sugar and Slate are also illicit lovers forged by history and thirst for image and power. Leo’s tragedy is that he thinks he is in a relationship, that he is loved, when he is just being exploited. Her familial position is clear, and mirrors her function vis a vis the community and the political context. Words emanate from the body: the body is the repository of feeling, of place, but she has no place from which to speak, and her words are not for communicating, just images to placate and please.

Jean Rhys is clear, like glass, waiting, yet cautious, aware and sensitive to her rejection. She knows of her place as outsider. She has an intimacy with her mother’s home and environment even while her life is not recognised. Her displacement is integrated yet still.

In Sugar and Slate the plea is innocence- father has to be good and mother bad. Mother has to be good while she buries father. She has no way back home accept in her imagination where she can have everything. She claims the moral high ground of innocent – the go-between is innocent because he is lost in his activity of pleasing both adults in which communication is indirect. No-one can talk directly.

Her white mother uses her as a go-between with her father. Her sisters also exploit her in this way as she is the “charmed” (Williams.p.21) one, her “remonstrations are still weak” as she negotiates her way between a black and a white world.

Sugar and Slate is a repetition of the past where the “love” message is passed from white to black and back again. Miscegenation is a dirty word, the notion of equality a myth bandied around by those in power. She is a Jesus figure sacrificed for a higher good, a figure where all meetings are through her.

In Guyana, Britain’s oldest colony (apart from Wales!) she keeps all her sad stories buried. (p110). She looks into her father’s face and doesn’t see herself. She is as the boy in Jean Rhys’ story and there is no sign of the spiritual authentic Lobo. It’s all as empty as Bethesda.

She cannot get on with her servants, her whiteness cannot meet her blackness and as with father and mother there is no reflection and no relation. The sexuality of black women is disturbing to her and she makes the black women who court favour with the expats, innocent and the men, ‘ugly’, removing responsibility and agency from them. Her true feelings and conflict around race and sex are exposed, like unwanted twins, are aroused through the projected shame of the white man.

“Is she wife or girlfriend?” (mother or whore?)

“Racism has silenced something in me. It had made me compliant and accepting…” (p123).

These words are as honest as this book gets but she fails to see that it is her own inner racism and hatred and what it really means to be a black women in white society that is at stake here. But her inner wilderness is as silent as the streets of Bethesda.

Georgetown is also an “empty space where there is no place.”(p124)

The missionaries of Guyana she describes as holding the moral high ground; an influence not exacted on the body is of course unsullied and beyond reproach. She straightens her hair, to further deny her blackness, but blames her husband for robbing her of her inheritance. (p161). He responds by saying ‘You have a symmetry with Wales…she ( mother) had the authority to define you with that country. “

His words are honest but the sentiment is misplaced as he pushes her back to the safety of her role by mother’s side.

She returns to Wales, she is disallowed a personal exploration that she wants so much and she disallows it to herself. Her belonging is with mother and with someone she doesn’t want.

Power, from parents or from state, patriarchy or matriarchy is defined through separation and distance. White and black must be kept separate and fragmented. White kept safe and black as other, safe within their racial boxes. The mixed race woman can only transgress these social boundaries, but it is imperative that her sexual nature not be revealed. Black can be supported financially and included but only in a framework based on skin tone. W.E. Dubois’ colour line must be maintained no matter what. The true paradox and ambiguity of colour and race is in the end a surrender to the body but this is a lazy wives thing.

Charlotte Williams passes almost unnoticed; in her passing for black to father and passing as white to mother, passing to black Welsh or white Caribbean. Her mother also makes father the centre of her life and agency so that paradoxically she also aligns with father. This is the sadly an alignment of fear. Perhaps this is why this book is successful, it panders to the sentimentality of Welsh and Caribbean alike.

The brown: not black or white person, finds themselves in a place of extreme loneliness, with a terrible longing to be recognised as human, as whole, but in a black and white world this is not possible as nobody will accept you just as you are. This was certainly true in the lifetime of Jean Rhys who bore the psychological burden of the unexpressed feelings of white people, her characters a testament to loneliness and desolation. The soul of black folks is always exploited to sustain white power and skin colour is encoded with deep significance even while we hear that race does not matter and that we are all equal and colour blind.

Jean Rhys stands still, her integrity is intact though she stands outside, waiting, looking through a clear glass. Even as she speaks the joy of her homecoming she is silenced and not accepted – a cold intrusion on the landscape within the warmth of whiteness. They cannot accept her: all that remains is that she can love them.

Identity as a form of political power requires sameness and Charlotte Williams is not the same. Identity says I have a father, I have success, and I am white. There is no way back home for this exile who longs for blackness and for an African nostalgia of that old relation with father. The only true identity must be constructed within the inner space of the body by discarding image and not retaining it. Nostalgia for the symbolic father, the grief for the life that might have been is in the end always a call for the symbolic mother. The natal place is central to this discovery without which only fragmentation is possible. On the face of her father is her mother and vice versa but in the end it is mothers who bear children.

In slavery white male power structures made ordinances where the halos of white women were protected while the bodies of black woman subsumed the function of reproduction, commodities in service the slave trade of the white man. The sexual identity of black women was clear. The white woman, chaste and unsullied though her chastity was suffocating, but this separation between mother and whore had to be maintained at whatever cost. It is these same rules and assumptions that still resist, and underscore the struggle for psychological freedom for the black/white woman and which render honest community and social relations an impossibility.

Charlotte Williams longs to be black but cannot penetrate the opacity of the mirror; she cannot see that the blackness on her father’s face and his abandonment is the implicit abandonment in her mother – her own mother’s flight from the natal home. White or black patriarchy- the illusion of power is what stands in the way of wholeness. Power and authority everywhere and whatever the colour corrupt the vision and drags us from authentic feeling to what we are supposed to feel and think. In the face of the fragmented father both the vulnerability of the mother and the father are witnessed but cannot come together.

Her knowing does not know, but she suspects that something is amiss – the twitch in the dragon’s tail is too difficult a room to enter. It is easier to say, ‘there is nothing there.’(Williams.p173)

Knowing requires patience and an attentive, deep self-knowing, which is what Jean Rhys undoubtedly has, and is where the symbolic Africa and the primal mother are to be found.

Bethesda is in truth teeming with spirit and creativity. But Sugar and Slate is a tale that the Land of the Fathers wants to hear and not the true tragedy that needs to be told. The whole book is a desperate attempt to deny and cover up what Jean Rhys exposes so clearly – the look that says you don’t belong here, you are not part of me, you do not exist. The look of authority, the look of the colonial to the colonised of white male to Jean Rhys is the look of sugar and slate, possessing and dismissing, both insatiable and blank.

This is what Jean Rhys knows and what Charlotte Williams knows but cannot speak its name and what Wales (and Guyana) needs to know.

You do not hear, Bethesda

O still green water in a stagnant pool.

Love abandoned you and me alike.

There was a day you held a rich full moon

Upon your heart and listened to the words.

Of men now dead and saw the angels fly.

There is a simple story on your face;

Years have wrinkled you. I know Bethesda!

You are sad. It is the same with me.

Arna Bontemps.

With thanks to the writing of Jean Rhys and Paula Morgan’s: A Tall Far Island floating in Cobalt Paint. Race and Displacement in Rhys’ fiction (Internet). Other Leopards (Heinemann 1963) and Icon and Image – a Study of Sacred and Secular forms of African Classical Art (Allen Lane, 1974)

Norton Anthology of African American Literature:

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay.

Isabel Adonis

December 2005

Biography: You and Me Alikea comparison of Charlotte Williams’ Sugar and Slate and Jean Rhys’ I Used To Live Here Once.

The grass was yellow in the hot sunlight as she walked towards them. When she was quite close she called again, shyly: 'Hello'. Then, 'I used to live here once,’ she said. Still they didn't answer. When she had said for the third time ‘Hello’ she was quite near them. Her arms went out instinctively with the longing to touch them. It was the boy who turned. His grey eyes looked straight into hers. His expression didn't change. He said, 'Hasn't it gone cold all of a sudden. D' you notice? Let's go in.' 'Yes, let's,' said the girl. Her arms fell to her sides as she watched them running across the grass to the house. That was the first time she knew.

Jean Rhys.

Jean Rhys’ words evoke a woman’s rediscovery of her home, and her longing to reconnect with the home environment and to reconnect with the happiness of her past. The relationship with nature promotes an integration of her adult self with the child of her memory, the natural culmination of which would be a relationship with the living children in a social context – I was like you, here; we are connected.

Her psychological journey is cut short when the two white children see her but do not recognise her in that place. The glassiness of the sky, which she does not recognise, is a metaphor for the glassy look of the boy, who in refusing to acknowledge her, puts up an invisible barrier, not just between her and the children, but also between her and her home – an internal barrier. Her knowing, with which the story ends is the painful isolation of separation, the same knowledge that casts Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Charlotte Williams’ return to her mother’s home in Sugar and Slate does not evoke any excitement, intimacy or longing. Her perceptions more closely resemble those of the white children in the above narrative. What she sees is ‘empty and spiritless’ and appears to have no inner feelings. Her mother’s home of Bethesda is the claustrophobic scene of her mother’s beginnings, an environment that leaves no option for her mother but to climb out from under a mound of slate.

“Yet this passage was part of her won inner drive to move out from under the claustrophobic pile of slate that was her birthplace.”(Williams.p.7)

The vision is contemptuous and dismissive; in another part of her writing she talks about Bethesda juju. (P.64)

It is a place oxygenated by ‘hatred of the outsider’;(Williams.p.172) it is a place of animosity and conflict, a place of ‘empty pubs and chapels’ (Williams.p.172)– a veritable spiritual wilderness. Her early experiences of visiting her auntie’s pub evoke desperation, a nadir of personal experience, a looking down on an empty High Street watching nothing happen. Yet she extols and sentimentalises the past, the Bethesda of history, but even then denigrates the feminine – the ‘lazy wives of Bethesda. (Williams.p173)

Bethesda, her mother’s home takes up all of a page in her book. She seems to know no one there and doesn’t enter into any relationship or community with this place. Her survey of the environment is distant and voyeuristic, as if this place; her mother’s home, the symbolic alma mater, is of no significance and is spiritually dead to her.

She erases it: she e-races it: a cultural no man’s (woman’s) land of existence. Bethesda, is however the primal scene of her writing – the sugar and the slate, appellations given to the Pennants, the slate owning and slave owning family. She claims Bethesda, even as they do, or did, while simultaneously dismissing it.

This is the place where her mother was born but her slate memories are male. Unlike Jean Rhys her going home is not about belonging to her mother’s land and the relation to mother is crucial here. The whole book is about male activity. Bethesda exists in her imagination as a ‘forsaken lover’.(Searle) She can’t get close; she remains inside the pub looking out on grey streets, detached and not part of that belonging. She is not merely an outsider but part of a colonial looking, arrogating sugar and slate, both symbols of exploitation. She is monument and edifice and owner of her mother’s world, a world she does not identify with. This inversion is characteristic and in stark contrast with Jean Rhys she maintains that she is rejecting rather than rejected, possessor and dispossessed.

Her mother is white and she is not like her mother, but like her father: he is the person she identifies with. This is the black man who has left and abandoned her as a dark woman in a white culture, a culture she cannot identify with because of her lack of closeness to her mother’s white skin. The colour of the skin divides and she is her father’s daughter. She is rootless, even while she enters the historic imagination of Welsh grandparents and Congo boys. The Congo boys’ story is more meaningful than Bethesda because it is a story of her symbolic father coming to a Wales where in the end he finds no home. ( Williams.p.25)

Identity is a feeling of belongness, it is a starting place for life yet she cannot in truth identify with Wales. Instead her move is to have it all; since she in fact has nothing, which is her father.

She is in a deep conflict about which side to be on, white or black, colonizer or colonised. Her father, a black man is culturally English, her mother, a white woman is part of that place of ‘laziness’ of slaves and religious hypocrisy reminiscent of the ‘laziness’ of slaves in slave plantations. She cannot just look and feel as Rhys does; rather she looks and asserts possession. She cannot simply accept that the land is her sacred place. She looks at what those folks are doing and not the way they are being. When she looks at Penrhyn Castle she owns that too.

She has to make Welsh people black in her search for authenticity and father. She even transmutes her desire for father into a Welsh black penis. (Williams. P.176) She desperately desires intimacy and the feeling of belonging and wholeness through his skin colour. Mixed race people are never white, despite the fact that they are no more black than they are white. She imagines Wales her own, as father, but these are play objects, which she can transform into any shape and colour.

Her book is divided into Africa, Guyana and Wales. Africa includes her early life in Llandudno before her father left, and many other incidents, which do not take place in any tropical clime. Africa is father, representing her formative years but she extends this Africa place to include all of her life until he her father is no more. Guyana is also father. Mother and Bethesda get one page.

Jimi Hendrix is symbolic of father and of African homeland.(Williams. P.88) He is dead but the black face image of her father lives on. Tragically she cannot afford to let it die, although she claims she has ‘banished’ him completely by the time she is sixteen, another inversion. (p83) Her sister’s marriage to ‘Billy boy’ she turns into a symbolic Africa where father’s spirit is present but his agbada is empty. (Williams.p.62) She worships a ghost which makes her writing disembodied and without true context.

She cannot find a context, an identity without the other, unlike Jean Rhys. She must create a new paradigm in which to exist, where she can safely cross the borders of racial hegemony at will. White people are black because she says so, and that is the only way she can find a place. And endless imagery replaces real relationship.

She claims that her mother has a history, an inheritance, (p51), a language, and simultaneously denies it. She cannot live or relate to her or her community. She is classless, clubless and groupless (p50) as well as dislocated and groundless. Black, colour, race is denied within her family and is denied in the Welsh community.

There are slippages and indiscretions. “Racism hadn’t been invented” a fact that was more to do with the community than some quality within the family itself. She enjoys an isolated existence in the ‘haven’ (Williams. P.46) Beit- Eel, whose meaning is the Arabic, house of god is a ‘sanctuary’, but it is a sanctuary with no relation: in order to exist in a white society (her mother’s) she must pass for white.

“Black stood for nothing, nothing at all,” (p47) perhaps this is the nothing she glimpses through a glass darkly. She has to learn to be a “paleface” to appease her mother and she inherits, willingly or unwillingly the angelic aura of her mother, the “halo of mam’s spirit.”(Williams.p.21)

The writing is littered with the word spirit, though she rejects the ‘empty churches’ (Williams.p.172) and religion, which binds her mother to her native place. Her mother’s spirit is transcendent, where suffering and sacrificing are part of a biblical imperialism. Her mother has freed herself from the confines of the past and has absorbed the African people with missionary zeal. Her mother feels “kinship with the spirit” and participates in being one of those who have the god given power (of white folk) to save the natives from themselves “unsullied by ruthless imperialism” In the end everyone remains innocent – unsullied by any taint of reality. (Williams.p.34)

Her mother’s religious domination is however kindly – religious and angelic, clean and pure as she sucks dry the spiritual soul of black people while leaving their bodies intact. She is as innocent as the driven snow. She lives in Beit-eel, a house of god, a spiritual haven, a haven secure from the encroachments of the English (father).

The mother, she portrays, does no wrong, wears a ‘starry sky dress’ smells of Nivea, a white cream.(Williams.p.35) Is this the kink in the dragon’s tail I wonder? Her mother’s repressed sexuality? But that too remains a metaphor without any reference.

Charlotte Williams’s love for her father is anachronistic. In her father Denis Williams novel, Other Leopards, no mention is made of his daughters and her mother is reduced to amanuensis. In Icon and Image, a scholarly text on African art, there is no place for woman. He testifies to the absence of the women in the religious pantheon. There is no woman in the Orisha. She longs for her father but he has sadly abandoned her. She is a stranger in her own land as is Jean Rhys, longing to be part of home, but in her case there is no awareness.

She feels the uncertainty of her racial position within a white Welsh and nationalistic political setting. To identify with patriarch is what she does and wants: this patriarchy is however overwhelmingly white, like her mother. How can she do the impossible and integrate blackness into whiteness?

Even her language betrays her; an academic language of linguistic edifices which express and sustain the imperial past. She finds refuge in poetry and a poetic sensibility and seeks to please and placate the symbolic father’s “savage spirit” (Williams. P.20)- Welsh people are not only the ‘real’ Caribbean slaves, they are the real Africans, the humanity and soul of black folk.

The majority of the book is a discourse with father – father as white man, father as authority, father as cultural hero. She is accomplished and intellectual as regards her relationship with Wales. She knows what to say and what the symbolic ‘daddy’ wants to hear.

Simultaneously Bethesda as mother is marginalised, empty and forgotten. Father is writing, father is art, father is cultural authority. Bethesda is not a place for cultural authority. In truth it is a place of great creativity but she does not appear to notice this. Bethesda is a place of failures, of women, of mothers who have no place in her legislative framework. The story of sugar and slate is hers by a divine right of kings (or queen?). The dialogue with Wales, with nation, with flag, with political image she invents and re-invents through her chimerical tail-twisting dragon.

Transcending all this positioning is the morality of god, the Manichean attributing of white with goodness, purity with innocence. In the Land of the Fathers what she actually thinks is a mystery, a whatever you like. What she knows about Bethesda also remains a mystery. I doubt whether this is the same knowing as Jean Rhys.

Yet the problem of identity is stultifying – how do you become a pale face while you are black. How do you wear your mother’s halo, which engenders and encodes the female suffering, servility and saintlihood while having to ignore the deep and dark nature of her femaleness?

Her mother, by her very modus operandi makes father black, cruel, worthless and evil. The notion of the natal home is despised both by the author; wearing the angelic aura points to a denial of blackness, a denial of origins. The natal home of Bethesda becomes meaningless, without aspiration and inspiration.

Her “ I’ll never be like mum” leaves her exactly like her mother. She denies her mother a true voice, a black heart unexpressed as she denies her own authentic sexual and racial voice. She inhabits the space of L. P.Hartley’s Go-between, passing messages from mother to father, from one racial group to another.

She is the little boy, Leo, passing messages between illicit lovers. Sugar and Slate are also illicit lovers forged by history and thirst for image and power. Leo’s tragedy is that he thinks he is in a relationship, that he is loved, when he is just being exploited. Her familial position is clear, and mirrors her function vis a vis the community and the political context. Words emanate from the body: the body is the repository of feeling, of place, but she has no place from which to speak, and her words are not for communicating, just images to placate and please.

Jean Rhys is clear, like glass, waiting, yet cautious, aware and sensitive to her rejection. She knows of her place as outsider. She has an intimacy with her mother’s home and environment even while her life is not recognised. Her displacement is integrated yet still.

In Sugar and Slate the plea is innocence- father has to be good and mother bad. Mother has to be good while she buries father. She has no way back home accept in her imagination where she can have everything. She claims the moral high ground of innocent – the go-between is innocent because he is lost in his activity of pleasing both adults in which communication is indirect. No-one can talk directly.

Her white mother uses her as a go-between with her father. Her sisters also exploit her in this way as she is the “charmed” (Williams.p.21) one, her “remonstrations are still weak” as she negotiates her way between a black and a white world.

Sugar and Slate is a repetition of the past where the “love” message is passed from white to black and back again. Miscegenation is a dirty word, the notion of equality a myth bandied around by those in power. She is a Jesus figure sacrificed for a higher good, a figure where all meetings are through her.

In Guyana, Britain’s oldest colony (apart from Wales!) she keeps all her sad stories buried. (p110). She looks into her father’s face and doesn’t see herself. She is as the boy in Jean Rhys’ story and there is no sign of the spiritual authentic Lobo. It’s all as empty as Bethesda.

She cannot get on with her servants, her whiteness cannot meet her blackness and as with father and mother there is no reflection and no relation. The sexuality of black women is disturbing to her and she makes the black women who court favour with the expats, innocent and the men, ‘ugly’, removing responsibility and agency from them. Her true feelings and conflict around race and sex are exposed, like unwanted twins, are aroused through the projected shame of the white man.

“Is she wife or girlfriend?” (mother or whore?)

“Racism has silenced something in me. It had made me compliant and accepting…” (p123).

These words are as honest as this book gets but she fails to see that it is her own inner racism and hatred and what it really means to be a black women in white society that is at stake here. But her inner wilderness is as silent as the streets of Bethesda.

Georgetown is also an “empty space where there is no place.”(p124)

The missionaries of Guyana she describes as holding the moral high ground; an influence not exacted on the body is of course unsullied and beyond reproach. She straightens her hair, to further deny her blackness, but blames her husband for robbing her of her inheritance. (p161). He responds by saying ‘You have a symmetry with Wales…she ( mother) had the authority to define you with that country. “

His words are honest but the sentiment is misplaced as he pushes her back to the safety of her role by mother’s side.

She returns to Wales, she is disallowed a personal exploration that she wants so much and she disallows it to herself. Her belonging is with mother and with someone she doesn’t want.

Power, from parents or from state, patriarchy or matriarchy is defined through separation and distance. White and black must be kept separate and fragmented. White kept safe and black as other, safe within their racial boxes. The mixed race woman can only transgress these social boundaries, but it is imperative that her sexual nature not be revealed. Black can be supported financially and included but only in a framework based on skin tone. W.E. Dubois’ colour line must be maintained no matter what. The true paradox and ambiguity of colour and race is in the end a surrender to the body but this is a lazy wives thing.

Charlotte Williams passes almost unnoticed; in her passing for black to father and passing as white to mother, passing to black Welsh or white Caribbean. Her mother also makes father the centre of her life and agency so that paradoxically she also aligns with father. This is the sadly an alignment of fear. Perhaps this is why this book is successful, it panders to the sentimentality of Welsh and Caribbean alike.

The brown: not black or white person, finds themselves in a place of extreme loneliness, with a terrible longing to be recognised as human, as whole, but in a black and white world this is not possible as nobody will accept you just as you are. This was certainly true in the lifetime of Jean Rhys who bore the psychological burden of the unexpressed feelings of white people, her characters a testament to loneliness and desolation. The soul of black folks is always exploited to sustain white power and skin colour is encoded with deep significance even while we hear that race does not matter and that we are all equal and colour blind.

Jean Rhys stands still, her integrity is intact though she stands outside, waiting, looking through a clear glass. Even as she speaks the joy of her homecoming she is silenced and not accepted – a cold intrusion on the landscape within the warmth of whiteness. They cannot accept her: all that remains is that she can love them.

Identity as a form of political power requires sameness and Charlotte Williams is not the same. Identity says I have a father, I have success, and I am white. There is no way back home for this exile who longs for blackness and for an African nostalgia of that old relation with father. The only true identity must be constructed within the inner space of the body by discarding image and not retaining it. Nostalgia for the symbolic father, the grief for the life that might have been is in the end always a call for the symbolic mother. The natal place is central to this discovery without which only fragmentation is possible. On the face of her father is her mother and vice versa but in the end it is mothers who bear children.

In slavery white male power structures made ordinances where the halos of white women were protected while the bodies of black woman subsumed the function of reproduction, commodities in service the slave trade of the white man. The sexual identity of black women was clear. The white woman, chaste and unsullied though her chastity was suffocating, but this separation between mother and whore had to be maintained at whatever cost. It is these same rules and assumptions that still resist, and underscore the struggle for psychological freedom for the black/white woman and which render honest community and social relations an impossibility.

Charlotte Williams longs to be black but cannot penetrate the opacity of the mirror; she cannot see that the blackness on her father’s face and his abandonment is the implicit abandonment in her mother – her own mother’s flight from the natal home. White or black patriarchy- the illusion of power is what stands in the way of wholeness. Power and authority everywhere and whatever the colour corrupt the vision and drags us from authentic feeling to what we are supposed to feel and think. In the face of the fragmented father both the vulnerability of the mother and the father are witnessed but cannot come together.

Her knowing does not know, but she suspects that something is amiss – the twitch in the dragon’s tail is too difficult a room to enter. It is easier to say, ‘there is nothing there.’(Williams.p173)

Knowing requires patience and an attentive, deep self-knowing, which is what Jean Rhys undoubtedly has, and is where the symbolic Africa and the primal mother are to be found.

Bethesda is in truth teeming with spirit and creativity. But Sugar and Slate is a tale that the Land of the Fathers wants to hear and not the true tragedy that needs to be told. The whole book is a desperate attempt to deny and cover up what Jean Rhys exposes so clearly – the look that says you don’t belong here, you are not part of me, you do not exist. The look of authority, the look of the colonial to the colonised of white male to Jean Rhys is the look of sugar and slate, possessing and dismissing, both insatiable and blank.

This is what Jean Rhys knows and what Charlotte Williams knows but cannot speak its name and what Wales (and Guyana) needs to know.

You do not hear, Bethesda

O still green water in a stagnant pool.

Love abandoned you and me alike.

There was a day you held a rich full moon

Upon your heart and listened to the words.

Of men now dead and saw the angels fly.

There is a simple story on your face;

Years have wrinkled you. I know Bethesda!

You are sad. It is the same with me.

Arna Bontemps.

With thanks to the writing of Jean Rhys and Paula Morgan’s: A Tall Far Island floating in Cobalt Paint. Race and Displacement in Rhys’ fiction (Internet). Other Leopards (Heinemann 1963) and Icon and Image – a Study of Sacred and Secular forms of African Classical Art (Allen Lane, 1974)

Norton Anthology of African American Literature:

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay.

Isabel Adonis

December 2005

Biography:

Isabel Adonis is a writer, artist and educator and has contributed to the New Wales Review, Open Mind, Diverse Minds, Urban Welsh Anthology. She lives in Llandudno with her partner, bob Macintosh and two of her four children.


Posted by jebratt :: Monday, April 24, 2006 :: 1 comments

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