Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Imagining Womanhood in Early Twentieth-Century Rural Afro-Jamaica1

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Imagining Womanhood in Early Twentieth-Century Rural Afro-Jamaica1

Article excerpt

Introduction

Folk tales, myths and legends often conceal more than they tell; it is our business as either listeners or readers, to wrinkle out the hidden meanings, associations and suggestions.2

As a result of high illiteracy rates and poverty, the views of AfroCaribbean men and women in the post-emancipation period are largely absent from the archive. Folktales are one of the few sources that give us an insight into their value system. Storytelling was an important pastime in the rural Afro-Caribbean community. Several nights a week, young and old gathered to listen to stories that were intermingled with dance and song. Among the many messages conveyed in Caribbean folk-tales are ideas about appropriate female behaviour. This article explores ideas about the place and roles of women in early twentieth-century Jamaican folktales as a means of opening up the debate about the construction of norms of black womanhood in the post-emancipation AngloCaribbean. Historians working on gender in the Anglo-Caribbean have thus far focused mainly on the period of slavery and have been more concerned with women's lived experiences than with gender ideology.3

The tales examined are those in Walter Jekyll's Jamaican Song and Story: Anancy Stories, Digging Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes (1907) and Martha Warren Beckwith's Jamaica Anansi Stories (1924).4 These are the most comprehensive published collections of post-emancipation, Anglo-Caribbean folktales.5 This, however, is not the only reason why this article concentrates on Jamaica. As the scholarship on the postemancipation Anglo-Caribbean is heavily biased towards Jamaica, it is easier to contextualize messages about appropriate female behaviour in Jamaican than in other Caribbean tales. Both collections draw their material from rural Afro-Jamaica. Jekyll collected his 50 tales in the Blue Mountain region and Beckwith collected her 138 tales in the northwestern parishes. Both Beckwith and Jekyll were outsiders to rural AfroJamaica. Beckwith was an American ethnographer, who collected the tales during two visits to the island in 1919 and 1921, as part of a larger project on Jamaican folklore. Jekyll had arrived in the island in 1895 to escape the restraints of British society and spent his time translating books and collecting tales and songs.6 We know relatively little about the methodology adopted by the two collectors. Both mention that they had taken the tales down verbatim: Jekyll from his male employees and Beckwith from some sixty men and women of differing ages and classes.7 Jekyll's remark that he hoped that his collection would find its way into the nursery and that it would "pay tribute to Jamaica's dusky inhabitants with their winning ways and their many good qualities", and Beckwith's opinion that the tales reflect "true folk art", suggest that both collectors altered and perhaps even suppressed the stories told to them.8 We should also not rule out that their informants had carefully selected the stories that they dictated. In other words, the tales in the two collections may differ from those that were told at informal social gatherings.

Considering that storytelling was an important means of socialization for a large part of the Afro-Caribbean population until very recently, it is surprising that so few scholars have examined their content.9 A notable exception is Carol Bryce Davies, whose article " 'Women Is a Nation . . .': Women in Caribbean Oral Literature" (1990) provides a short survey of dominant images of women in Caribbean folktales from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries.10 The first section of this article confirms Davies's conclusion that women are marginalized in Caribbean folktales. It provides a brief comparison of the way male and female characters are represented in the two collections. The second section deals not with representations but with expectations. It demonstrates that the tales present motherhood as one of the most important roles expected of rural Afro-Jamaican women and explores the various motherly duties listed. …

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