An Analysis of the Historical Context of Girl by Jamaica Kincaid

Kincaid still remains one of the most famous Caribbean writers renowned the world over for her intriguing masterpieces. Growing up in Antigua, Kincaid was impacted heavily by the imperialism witnessed in her homeland.  By the time she had a proper grasp of reality, Kincaid was aware of Antigua’s status as a colony and what this meant for thousands of island inhabitants living under the yoke of subjugation.  Nevertheless, Kinacid’s bright mother sought to bring the best out of her and invested heavily in her education. As a young child, Kincaid had always been aware of the position occupied by black Antiguans such as herself in the societal hierarchy.  They were constantly harassed and expected to serve their British overlords, a status quo which she highly resented. Her disdain for the social conditions in her native Antigua soon saw her move to New York in 1966 at the tender age of seventeen with the aim of developing a career in the United States.  It was here that she began her writing career as a columnist for The New Yorker and a columnist for a host of popular magazines. During this period, she wrote Girl; a short story recounting her childhood in Antigua. Kincaid had long suppressed the urge write about her childhood for she considered it a poignant affair that also doubled up as an arduous undertaking.  Her decision to finally write was, therefore, a Eureka moment for her since she finally found her voice as a writer. Thus, Girl captures the Antiguan historical reality presented through a masterfully crafted narration and the primary reason why a critique of this connection is important.

            In Girl, Kincaid objective is to provide her readers with an accurate presentation regarding her childhood experience as a black Antiguan. Yet, one would have to wonder how a black Antiguan of African descent ended up in the Caribbean. The reality is, however, quite bleak. Initially, Antigua was an independent island that was yet to be claimed by any of the powerful European colonial powers. Carib Indians roamed free within the island and had established an elaborate Amerindian way of life. However, the British were already eying this crown jewel and would stop at nothing to occupy it.  Initial attempts to capture the island were thwarted by fierce Carib warriors who built excellent defenses and were determined to put up a fight. Even so, the British gained full control of the island in 1667 after nearly 30 years of constant warfare (Snodgrass). They then embarked on establishing their planation system that was generally viewed as one of the surest ways of attracting settlers to this new colony and promoting global commerce. Since the most of the Carib people were wiped out during clashes with British, forces they were not looked at as a viable option with regard to providing labor to the great sugar plantations. Hence, slaves were promptly brought from Africa as the main source of labor for the island’s land lords. However, tides of historic change soon hit the civilized world and Britain was forced to free its slaves.  Their descendants went on to populate the island in coming years and the still make up a sizeable part of the country’s demography. Kincaid is part of this group of individuals with Girl being an authentic representation of her experience as a black Antiguan growing up in an island with century’s worth of history.

            Social class and ethnicity are clear trademarks of Antigua’s historic colonial legacy which is also put into context by the author. After the emancipation of African slaves in the Caribbean, it was apparent that the colonialists had to now embark on the creation of a new society. It was clear, that distinct groups of individuals existed in the island, all who wanted to fit into its structure. Freed African slaves still resided in the island under squalid conditions and were forced to work for menial pay in the same plantations that they previously worked at as slaves. They were at the bottom rung of society’s rungs and it was common to find them living in shanty towns. Next were the mulattoes who were the result of mixed race relations between the British slaves. Their lighter shade saw them enjoy benefits such as education unlike their African counterparts (Jelly-Schapiro 65). The highest rungs were occupied by white European settlers (Portuguese, Irish and British who generally lived a privileged life. As a result, Antigua became a class based society that affected all its members. Kincaid is acutely aware of this fact and the impact that it has on an individual’s life. The girl in her short story is always reminded of class as a major determining factor in her life and what her mother expects of her. As part of the burgeoning middle-class, her mother fashions her advice in a manner that implies that the girl in question should always remain aware of her social class and strive to uphold it. Additionally, the girl’s mother singles out certain individuals who her daughter should avoid; “wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions” (Kincaid 13). Thus, her instructions imply that there are particular individuals in society who, because of their financial and ethnicity, should be shunned to avoid brining shame to the family name.

            The admixture of a variety of cultures in the Caribbean resulted distinct traditional practices that influenced nearly all aspects of an individual’s way of life. African, European, Middle Eastern and Amerindian influences all played a major role in informing the culture of Antigua. Kincaid was aware of this heritage and was determined to present it to her audience through her childhood experience. The girl is expected to adopt a set of ideals which are meant to aid her maneuver a world she is quite unfamiliar with since she is still young (Gale 13). On the other hand, her mother knows this is the best time to teach her these basic skills since she is still impressionable and not question the instructions provided. The girl’s mother is particularly keen on teaching her how to behave as a woman using the Antiguan historical context as her reference point. Therefore, the girl is schooled on femininity and the best demeanor to adopt in the West Indian context. She is firs taught important recipe adopted by the island’s inhabitants. The girl’s mother is fully cognizant of the importance of learning how to cook and how it is, essentially, at the crux of every household. Her knowledge of culinary traditions and different types of food is astounding. She gives the girl rich advice on how to prepare bread pudding, salt fish and the legendary doukona. Moreover, the girl’s mother also teaches her about fundamental parts of femininity historically passed down through the generations.  For instance, when instructing the girl about her femininity, she also teaches her how to prepare a brew that would induce an abortion; “a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child” (Kincaid 20) Her mother’s clear description of how to prepare the portion is a clear indicator that the recipe had its roots in slavery. African women were frequent victims of rape. They were also determined to prompt miscarriages as the only way of ensuring that they had control over their bodily functions. This recipe was probable passed down from slavery times.

The traditions presented by Kincaid in Girl are a reflection of Antigua’s history as a hodgepodge of dissimilar philosophies and religions. The original inhabitants of the island were probably animists whose practices were soon lost due to the European takeover. Nevertheless, the introduction of African slaves left an indelible cultural mark on the islands culture. It was from this strange origin that the obeah religion was developed and spread across the island’s inhabitants (Edwards 56). Rituals and magic practices were a common feature with the main aim of hastening the attainment of specific results. It is evident that the girl’s mother is an adherent of this religion since her wisdom is clearly informed by superstitions. She uses them as a precautionary meant for she wants her daughter to pick specific moral lessons. The girl is even warned to avoid throwing stones at black birds since bad things may happen to her in the long haul.             In conclusion, Kincaid’s Girl is a short story that was heavily influenced by a specific historical context. Childhood experiences as a black Antiguan, social class, cultural mixtures and traditions all influenced the author’s perspective. Kincaid uses this rich historical past to craft a magnum opus that is second to none in the literary world.

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