Writers and scholars of the Caribbean



Let’s first address the basics: “What is a Caribbean writer?” An Oxford University graduate student named Dominic Davies raised this question, through the school’s “Great Writers Inspire” initiative.

‘What is a Caribbean Writer?’ is far more complicated than it might at first appear. Indeed, it would be possible to argue that this is the central question asked and explored by many Caribbean writers themselves — throughout the last hundred years or so, they have interrogated these geographical, historical and cultural boundaries. Some retain an adamant loyalty to their European heritage, conceiving of themselves as part of ‘English’ literary traditions, for example, and demonstrating this through the strict form of their poetry and prose. Others have sought identification with their African ancestry, recovering and retelling mythologies and stories from the continent across the Atlantic, albeit in European languages. But in contemporary Caribbean writing, as well as in much that came before, it is the formation of the creole identity that has found a cultural manifestation in distinctive and exciting literary styles. These writers are concerned with carving out a new literary space from what were once the languages of colonialism, engaging with passion and enthusiasm in the complex cultural, political, historical and geographical movements in which such a project is inevitably embroiled.

Also key to a better historical and cultural understanding of the area, is the work of anthropologists who have been dubbed “Caribbeanists.” (Many Caribbeanists are not Caribbean.) For a synopsis of their work, what-when-how offers this historical overview of the field.

Twentieth-century Caribbean anthropology began with the collection of folklore by local ethnologists, even though their contribution was often minimized by professional anthropologists. These included Lydia Cabrera (1900-91) in Cuba, much encouraged by her brother-in-law Fernando Ortiz (1881-1969), Antonio Salvador Pedreira (1899-1939) in Puerto Rico, and Jean Price-Mars (1876-1969) in Haiti – upper and middle-class scholars who dealt with Afro-Caribbean themes. The aims of some were avowedly political. Early North American scholars were the students of Boas: Martha Beckwith (1871-1959), who collected folklore and data on ethnobotany in Jamaica; Zora Neale Hurston (1903-60), whose work in Haiti experimented with fiction-writing techniques; and Melville J. Herskovits, whose fieldwork was conducted in Suriname, Haiti and Trinidad. The impact of Herskovits’s work (often in collaboration with his wife Frances) was substantial. He aimed at exploding racist depictions of New World Blacks by maintaining the conceptual separation of race and culture and by tracing African cultural survivals in religion, language, the family, etc. from what he called the West African ‘cultural area’ with such theoretical tools as ‘acculturation’, ‘cultural focus’, and ‘reinterpretations’ (e.g. Herskovits 1941). In the process, he trained students and inspired others to work in the Caribbean. The opposing theoretical poles of the Afro-American culture question were framed by the debate between Herskovits and the African-American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. The former stressed the African origin of (for example) Afro-American family forms, while the latter argued that Africans were stripped of their culture in the enslavement process. This intellectual tension persists.

When I was in graduate school, much of the Caribbean anthropology we explored was the work of Sidney Mintz.


One of the most important contemporary anthropologists of the Caribbean was the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot.


Political anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla explored Trouillot’s work for the North American Congress on Latin America in 2013.

On July 5, 2012, the world-renowned anthropologist, historian, and writer Michel-Rolph Trouillot passed away in his home in Chicago, after a decade-long struggle to recover from a brain aneurism. He was 62. Trouillot leaves behind a rich body of work striking in its compelling prose, intellectual sophistication, theoretical rigor, and disciplinary innovation. Although an anthropologist by training and professional appointment, he produced both academic and non-academic texts about Haiti, an ethnography (and transnational study) of the Dominican banana industry,  and a book about the politics of historiography, as well as a number of songs and literary texts. His writings reflected his persona: bold, charismatic, unabashed, unapologetic, and fully engaged with life’s pleasures and ironies.

Shifting to the literary world, there is a bottomless cornucopia of writing from Caribbean poets, novelists, and playwrights to add to your reading list, though a complete collection would be far too long to post here. Writing in English, Spanish, French, Hindustani, Dutch, and Creole, these writers were both born in the Caribbean, or of Caribbean ancestry, based in the lands of their colonizers.

I think of Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay in that context.


I have never forgotten reading “If We Must Die” as a young person. 

If we must die, let it be not like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Then there are contemporary writers as well. A Twitter search offers numerous posts and links to introduce us to their work.

There’s Barbados’ George Lamming


… and Antigua’s Jamaica Kincaid.


There’s also Haiti’s Edwidge Danticat



… and Dominican American Julia Alvarez.

Moving to the world of history and historians, C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins should be required reading for everyone.


The work of Eric Williams is a must-read. Williams was not only a historian, he was also the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago.

This is just a snapshot of some of the writers we’ll be exploring in-depth in the coming weeks. I would love to hear suggestions and recommendations from readers, so join me in the comments section below to post your thoughts and reviews, and for the latest Caribbean news updates.  


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