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Racial identity in Erzulie's Skirt and The Blues in Black and White

Updated on April 24, 2011

The Transmission of Culture: Mothers and Daughters in Lara and Ayim

Mother-daughter relationships are prominent sources of strength as well as of conflict in Afro-Caribbean women's literature.  The mother often transmits to the daughter dignity, tradition and a sense of agency within a social milieu that acts to limit their function by race and gender. The mother evokes that which is better as one who bears in her "blood" a superior, independent African identity and culture, and who transmits to her daughter through her being and her actions this positive heritage.  This view of the mother as a vehicle of positive heritage is in marked contrast to the experience of May Ayim as an Afro-German writer in the 1980s and 1990s.  The difference in the efficacy of the mother as a bearer of heritage in the life of the Afro-German woman and the life of the Afro-Caribbean woman may be linked to the different political readings of the mothers in these societies.  The construction of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-German subjects is conditioned by separate national discourses in the Caribbean and in Germany.

In both the Dominican Republic and Germany, the color of one's skin is an element of identity beyond the control of the one who bears it.  Whether one desires to be identified with the Afro-Caribbean community or the Afro-German community is not wholly a personal decision, but a condition imposed by others.  The contributions of the white parent, in the end, matter little to this ethnic categorization, as both Creoles and Germans pride themselves on their pallor, on being "white", and construct an identity for themselves edited for purity.  Thus, Miriam's Haitian heritage is denigrated and interpreted as a color, as a greater degree of darkness, in Erzulie's Skirt , and May Oyim is not permitted to be German, but suffers from a continuous assumption of her alien, African essence (Lara 119, Ayim afro german I).

In Erzulie's Skirt , however, the mother is a possible source of strength and a connection to heritage, a source not available to May Ayim as both an abandoned child and the child of a white mother.  In the Caribbean, the mother, as exemplified in the role of Michaela's mother as one who passes on a connection to maroon and African ancestors, despite her ultimate rejection of this role, transmits strength, purpose and connection to the world of the spirit and the community to her daughter (Berrian 200).  This explicit mother-daughter heritage is stressed in Erzulie's Skirt  at the expense of the definition and development of any male characters, ending in a spiritual adoption indicating that this lineage and inheritance need not be confined within a bloodline, but may reach out to form a new kind of community and strength (Lara 239-242).  The mothers connect the daughter to a real spiritual continuity that reaches into history, across the ocean, and rewrites the dark skin as resistant and powerful, as capable of creation.

This role is made possible by the influence of plantation slavery on the formation of Caribbean society.  There is a tie to the mother as a source of nutrition that is not easy to break in a self-reproducing labor force, and, thus, it was against the economic interests of masters to separate young children from their mothers.  In a slave economy, the female slave was an instrument for reproducing labor by bearing children and a vehicle for sexual gratification without the creation of intimate responsibility.  Bi-racial children, while the physical property of the slave-owners, belonged primarily to the world of their slave-mothers either because they were the products of rape, or because of the racialized status designations in the island communities (Stuart 28-29).  Therefore, children, whether fathered by slaves or masters, retained their mother's status designation and connection to her personal heritage and legacy.

The situation in Germany was different.  There, the fathers represent the tie to Africa or to one's black heritage, a heritage one's fellow Germans, on the basis of skin tone, utilize to attribute ethnicity and to situate the child in German discourse (Ayim, White Stress/Black Nerves 82-83).  The child, and, through the evidence of the child, the mother are problematized as impure, corrupt, or, in a more liberal vein, as vehicles for the regeneration of the nation's ethical and moral heart.  The child, then, is an object on which 'good' Germans may act to prove their goodness, or upon which 'bad' Germans may exercise violence and scorn (Ayim, no more rotten gray for a colorful republic).  The child is never only a child, but always implicated in an abstracted discourse on the nature of the German in the post-World War II world. In this discourse, the mother is included as a "victim" of the sexual aggression of an abstract black savage or as an anecdote proving declining sexual and moral control within the nation, a fallen woman explaining in her individual action a national, racial decline (Fehrenbach 110-111).

As Afro-Germans of the post-war period were often the sons and daughters of German women and men of African descent, often men attached to a foreign military, the mother was not able to play the role of legacy-bearer played by mothers in the Caribbean.  The construction of the children as somehow not-German privileged the heritage of a largely absent father over that connection to the nation present in the German mother.  May Ayim, therefore, cannot turn to her natural or foster mother for a sense of pride and strength in her difference, in that heritage that produced the skin that differentiates her from the German national type, but must construct a relationship with her absent father and, later, make contact with her father's family in Ghana for strength and recognition (Ayim, One of the Others, 36-37).  The isolated Afro-German, as a visible minority lost individually within a large, critical white majority, must act and create a community, actively seeking to construct solidarity within Germany without a recognized history within the German nation, in a way the Afro-Caribbean majority does not.

In the Caribbean, especially on islands which have suffered a great degree of strife and authoritarian government, male attachment and authority may be further complicated, privileging the maternal as a source of strength, through the participation of males in violence, as in the Haiti described by Edwidge Danticat.  In Haiti, the Tonton Macoutes and other paramilitary gangs disrupted family groups, destroyed men and women, and thus created a situation in which men were destroyers or victims, unable to protect their households.  This complicity between males and structures of questionable legitimacy, violence and abuse, privilege the female as upholder of the moral and traditional order threatened by dissolution.  Women become, in effect, the witnesses of their societies, the narrators of those stories that allow the community to continue and persevere through spiritual and physical dislocation.

Again, the difference between Caribbean and German constructions of the mother of bi-racial children is instructive.  Hybridity is deeply involved in the history of the Caribbean, and purity is of dubious value for the majority of its population due to that history.  However, German constructions of national identity are focused upon ideas of purity, threatened by the sexual 'indiscretion' of German mothers of bi-racial children, who create national impurity and a threat to the nation itself in the persons of their children (Fehrenbach 115).  Various fears regarding social change, the strength and potential of the nation, and the value of unity are made to reside in the bodies of bi-racial children and their mothers, with the children forced into the role of alien, incapable of incorporation into the ethnic nation of 'true' Germans.

Caribbean and Afro-German constructions of motherhood, and of the maternal relationship, especially between mothers and daughters, differ greatly.  These constructions are produced by both historical conditions and contemporary social and political conditions.  In the Afro-GErman context the heritage of difference lies largely with the male parent, counter to the Caribbean experience.  In the Caribbean, the legacy of the plantation colony and its distinctive social and family relationships continue to contribute to perceptions of appropriate family and community structures. 

Works Cited

Ayim, May. "afro german I". Ayim, May. Blues in Black and White. Tr. Anne V. Adams. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2003. 14-15.

Ayim May. "One of the Others". Ayim, May. Blues in Black and White. Tr. Anne V. Adams. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2003. 31-37.

Ayim, May. "no more rotten gray--for a colorful republic". Ayim, May. Blues in Black and White. Tr. Anne V. Adams. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2003. 114-133.

Ayim, May. "White Stress/Black Nerves". Ayim, May. Blues in Black and White. Tr. Anne V. Adams. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2003. 73-95.

Berrian, Brenda F. "Claiming an Identity: Caribbean Women Writers in English". Journal of Black Studies 25:2 (1994). 200-216.

Fehrenbach, Heide. "Rehabilitating the Fatherland: Race and German Remasculinization". Signs 24:1 (1998). 107-127.

Lara, Ana-Maurine. Erzulie's Skirt.  Washington, DC: RedBone Press, 2006.

Stuart, Sheila. "Female Headed Families: A Comparative Perspective of the Caribbean and the Developed World". Gender and Development 4:2 (1996). 28-34.


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