In hand: Caribbean Middlebrow

by Nicholas Laughlin on June 11, 2010

The history of leisure culture in the Anglophone Caribbean for the last 150 years is very much the story of the nascent black middle class and the aspiring black middle class, striving to reconcile their origins in black-identified culture with its aspirations for social ascendance and international recognition . . . There are intellectual histories that address the emergence of the black and brown middle class in the Caribbean, but these tell a story of political, not cultural, ascendance. Authentic Caribbean culture is assumed to be the preserve of the working class.

Cover of Caribbean Middlebrow“Middlebrow” is a heavily loaded word, generally used disparagingly to describe an attitude to art and culture rooted in social aspirations and anxieties, rather than aesthetic or intellectual appreciation. Caribbean Middlebrow: Leisure Culture and the Middle Class, a new book by Belinda Edmondson, caught my eye the other day as I was sorting through the pile of recently arrived review books. Edmondson, who teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has written “a history of middle-class popular culture . . . aspirational culture — in the English-speaking Caribbean from the mid-nineteenth century to the present moment.” On a quick skim, it looks like a fascinating contribution to the recent and exponentially growing body of scholarship on the Caribbean “popular.” I’m looking forward both to a more careful read and to the full review that will appear soon in the CRB.

Edmondson’s history starts with late-nineteenth-century newspaper culture in Jamaica and Trinidad, then moves on to “Brownness, Social Desire, and the Early Novel” (Emmanuel Appadocca, Rupert Gray, Jane’s Career) and the “gentrifying” of dialect poetry by Louise Bennett. Subsequent chapters look at beauty pageants, the proliferation of jazz festivals across the Caribbean, and the Calabash Literary Festival’s efforts to market itself as “a standard of Caribbean literary authenticity.” The final chapter looks at recent Caribbean pop fiction, focusing on Nalo Hopkinson’s science fiction, Colin Channer’s “urban relationship novels,” and Valerie Belgrave’s romances, examining the interactions and contradictions between literary ambitions and marketing imperatives, aesthetics and branding. Here, for example, is Edmondson’s take on Channer and “the ‘new’ Caribbean writing . . . inspired by a globally positioned ‘reggae aesthetic’”:

Positioning himself as a sort of America-inspired literary rebel, Channer takes as his creed the Bob Marley lyric “I want to disturb my neighbour”: in other words, literature should provoke.

Provoke what, though? It is hard to see any, save erotic, provocations in his oeuvre, most of which derives from the popular African American “urban relationship” genre, despite his insistence to the contrary. (Indeed, the “new” aesthetic in Channer’s work seems to consist mostly of a tendency toward explicit depictions of sex.)

You can read the opening chapter of Caribbean Middlebrow, “Making the Case for Middlebrow Culture”, at the eScholarship website.

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