October 3, 2012
Self-criticism is the most difficult challenge of mankind. We want to see ourselves as moral and upright, so we do—no matter what we are told. Behind a tall strong wall, our egos are protected. Criticizing others, though, is a favorite pastime. It is easy to identify the faults and failings of anyone outside of the safe, barricaded “me.” Jamaica Kincaid, in her essay “In History,” tests the limits of this most difficult challenge. Through a presentation of her innermost thought-process, Kincaid exposes herself. She allows herself to be criticized by readers, who are constantly inclined to judge and sneer at her reactions to and comments about historical stories and figures. This vulnerability is anti-instinctual, since people are always so careful to protect themselves from judgment. So why would Kincaid put herself in this situation? Why would she share her insecurities, questions, and feelings in a setting so open for criticism?
The reality is that Kincaid is not truly presenting herself to her audience, but rather purposefully performing. Through irony and mockery, she displays the ignorance and disconnection that, in her subtext, she is actually accusing and criticizing of the world. It is with this technique that Kincaid is able to coax readers into first questioning her fabricated thoughts and then, ultimately, their own, allowing her success in a seemingly impossible feat—inducing self-criticism.
As readers peer into her distressed mind, Kincaid repeatedly asks herself to define history, never truly seeming to be satisfied with an answer. She delves into a retelling of Columbus’ adventure to America and his discoveries, focusing specifically on Columbus’ process of naming people, places, and things. Then she skips to another place in history—that of botanist Carl Linnaeus, who invented a systematic organization of plant titles. As boring as all of this may sound, Kincaid is not purely delivering a history lesson. In fact, she is grabbing onto the reader’s collar and pulling him into the most intimate narrative of all. We are invited to a front row, UltraScreen production of Kincaid’s every inner thought. She writes her questions, her ramblings, her impressions and her reactions, most of which are almost inseparable from her projection of historical occurrences. Of Christopher Columbus, the author writes, “he empties the land of these people, and then he empties the people, he just empties the people.” (623) Kincaid’s retelling of history is filled with such inclusions of her judgments, suspicions, and influences. She is sharing, and readers are listening. As each page of her essay progresses, pieces of Kincaid’s personality become clearer, and the audience fits them together. The final product of the puzzle is not worthy of our much-valued approval. In fact, we scoff at Kincaid. We know her deeply; she has exposed it all. Her indifference to detail, her personal removal from history, her inability to see past simplicity, her claims to understand the past while ignoring missing gaps of information, her dismissal of questions to challenge what she hears—all of it! Kincaid’s thoughts during her discussion are the perfect example of how not to view history. Readers know they are different. They are not like her. We can’t be!
Now the audience has two options: one can leave the essay on his desk, roll his eyes at Kincaid’s flaws, and do his best to ignore the instinctual itch of anxiety. Or one can face the ugly, threatening, scary truth. In the end, this truth is inevitable. We cannot ignore it, as Kincaid’s words creep into our consciousness, staining our egos and intimidating our most valuable self-image. We are forced to realize that Kincaid, in fact, has not entrusted us with her most personal world. We were indeed not worthy. She has not allowed her real self to be vulnerable and criticized by readers from our golden thrones of perfection. In reality, Kincaid simply performed for us. Her acting was not for our entertainment, but for her audience to willingly identify and critique faults in the reception of history, which we, after reflection, can disapprovingly find in ourselves.
Through Kincaid’s introduction to Carl Linnaeus, readers learn of his partner and mentor George Clifford. We read his name and his relationship to Linnaeus and are ready to move on with the story. But Kincaid is stuck on something. She writes that Clifford has been described as a rich merchant banker. We are uninterested. But for some reason, with only these three words to rely on, Kincaid expresses that she now truly understands him. “To be a rich merchant banker is just a type of person one could be, an ordinary type of person, anyone could be that,” she explains. (625) Readers know nothing else about Clifford—nothing about his lifestyle or religious practice or family or origin. With simply three words, “rich merchant banker” and no more, Kincaid is certain she knows all she needs to know. The closeness she feels to Clifford is impossible. This limited information is just not enough to really know him or the type of person he was. Kincaid’s words are dripping with sarcasm and mockery. She is acting for us. Readers know that we should not believe her, we should not accept this—it is impossible! But it is so much easier to move on, to laugh at her craziness, to disallow ourselves to challenge her obviously sarcastic tone. It is easier to trust her, move on and forget about it. Investigating Kincaid’s mocking of ignorance means the self-realization that we, too, are ignorant. We, too, choose to trust a three-word descriptor of important historical characters. We do not even try to know them. We do not challenge it; we accept it, passively and uninterestedly. And, honestly, we do not want to change. The reader’s uninvolved, unassertive reaction to Kincaid’s words reflects the common reaction to history, which Kincaid is criticizing in the subtext of her performance.
After a long paragraph about color, Kincaid sums up Christopher Columbus’ observations of his newly found land as simply green:
“Let me describe this landscape again: it is green, and unmistakably so; another person, who would have a more specific interest, a painter, might say, it is a green that often verges on blue, a green that often is modified by reds and yellows and even other more intense or other shades of green. To me, it is green and green and green again. I have no interest other than this immediate and urgent one: the landscape is green.” (622)
In these sentences, Kincaid lowers herself to the simplest of mind. She purposefully limits herself to finding beauty and detail in an account of history, because it is easier to do so. The immediate and urgent is her priority, not the life or personality that exists in finer details. She dismisses her lowly understanding by asserting that others, maybe painters, have the responsibility to care for such unimportant details as color and beauty. But readers can see through this mask of performance. Kincaid’s blunt words and her clearly formulated regress in detail are flags to the audience that she is again performing. Kincaid is creating in her writing a mirror, in which each of her readers sees his or her face staring back. She is accusing us of not asking for more. We choose simply “green.” We choose to be lazy, noncommittal, and not responsible for such lively details in history. In the back of our consciousness, we are fully aware of this ignorance, yet choose to resist admitting it. “In History” is asserting that ultimately, this is not acceptable. History should be an active, living, detailed, challenged reality, in which mankind should be inserting itself at all times, “placing an asterisk somewhere in its text,” as Kincaid writes. (625) By forcing readers to identify the flaws in disinterest of detail and a lazy acceptance of a lifeless delivery of history, Kincaid is calling for change.
When confronting a moral dilemma in history—something she knows is not right—Kincaid writes that she feels “a little uneasy… But I am not too uneasy, I haven’t really entered this narrative yet.” (625) Here, a problem of the past is identified. Something was wrong and is still wrong today. By removing herself completely from history, Kincaid justifies her passivity about this problem. A challenge should be declared, but this confrontational role can be avoided. One can simply cut off any connection. I am not responsible, I was not part of that time, I do not need to care. No matter what my gut tells me. Again, the author is writing in a style of reverse psychology. She explicitly states that a historical story made her uneasy and that she is ignoring this feeling, exposing her passive, unrespectable decision. By dismissing this moral issue as irrelevant, she is actually pressuring readers to understand how important it is to take a stand against history and revive our pertinent connection with it.
Though readers may be angry with Jamaica Kincaid for lying to us—for performing ignorance and mocking our unchallenging acceptance of history—we must trust her. By judging and surveying this performance, we have identified and criticized the harmful flaws of the passive human reception of information. Kincaid teased us with sarcasm until we finally arrived at her accusation. In response to Columbus’ adventure to America, Kincaid writes, “The word ‘discover’ does not set off an alarm, and I am not yet confused by this interpretation. I accept it.” (620) I accept it; three words that encompass one of the most dangerous faults of mankind. We learn through this demanding process the threats that our world faces by our constant acceptance. Our tall, strong walls have collapsed, and the once protected “me” is vulnerable to the harshest of self-criticism. “In History” dares us to take on this challenge–to change.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for University Writing with instructor Lauren Whitehead at Columbia University
Kincaid, Jamaica. “In History.” Callaloo 24.2 Winter 1997 20.1 (2001): 620-26. Print.