The Books of My Numberless Dreams

More on “Banana Bottom”

Posted on: December 10, 2007

In finishing the novel today I was struck by how similar it was to those by Jane Austen. You are forgiven if you thought that was the overlying idea in which my earlier Fanny Price comparison was rooted in, but that observation was limited to character analysis. It was a closer scrutiny of my response much further into the novel, after I had read more about Claude McKay and the time period in which the novel was set, that led to such a conclusion.

After dutifully becoming more informed the bits of McKay’s writing that I didn’t like before were no more likeable now, yet I remained interested in the characters’ lives, curious about who’d get married to who, or slip with into the bushes, overall pretty willing to lose myself into the fertile Banana Bottom village. I realised that my reaction was remarkably similar to what I had when reading those long, rolling 19th century British novels, and Jane Austen’s in particular because of McKay’s focus on societal issues like class, the domestic sphere, with skin colour’s importance added to the mix.

The best thing I can say about Banana Bottom is that it’s…mellow. (The Nation blurb on the front cover was accurate — the third time I’ve thought a blurb to be unerringly so.) If you’re interested in Caribbean literature but wary of being preached at it would be harder to find a more perfect read. McKay feels as strongly as Roger Mais and Andrew Salkey does about black power and equality, but McKay’s manages to present this in an idyllic mountainous farming region coupled with a romanticised peasants who gossip, fornicate and farm their breadkind (“a general name for the staple vegetables and fruits” per McKay) in a tropical paradise; a blessed country life in the tropics to which the Negroes are naturally and simply suited.

A difference in water supply and land formation had given the Jubilee district a red colour remarkably dissimilar to that of the Banana Bottom country. The Banana Bottom land with its heavy growth of thicket was a fat slate colour with bubbling springs and rivers abundant and a heavy rainfall which imparted a luxuriant green and a rich ripeness to the staples: bananas, breadfruit, pears, coffee, cocoa and sugar-cane. Although the region had been under cultivation for generations, it still preserved its pristine aspect of virgin backwoods. Anything that was cultivatable in that island could be grown in Banana Bottom.

That passage was taken from the chapter in which Bita visits Leader Lakin, a farmer who invited her to watch his pimento crop being harvested. Therefore McKay must have singing peasants, who improvise on the spot, and female hands who swing their whips to the rhythm as they carry baskets from the field. One quote looks mild on its own but when you have variations of these theme throughout the story it can get pretty damn annoying.

Three year droughts followed by a hurricane are barely blips on the radar. Just a part of country living, you know. Peasants may be pushed to the brink of starvation but there are always rich peasant farmers and missionaries with extra supplies to make sure everyone gets through all right. Again, nothing notable on its own, but when it’s a part of an overall pattern in which every conflict is defused before it’s allowed to get interesting, it begs attention. Heck, McKay deals with Bita’s rape at 12 easily enough by having the Craigs, local white missionaries, adopt her and send her off to England as part of their civilisation experiment. Crazy Bow, the rapist, is shipped off to the madhouse, inexplicably returns in the latter half of the novel to play the piano beautifully for the “natives”, later attempts to strangle the Craigs’ mentally challenged son, is sent back to the madhouse, and dies in a straitjacket weeks later. Bita? Hardly anything phases her really, not rape, arranged marriage to a snotty reverend-in-training for whom she feels no affection or desire, another attempted rape, a family death — she just goes with the flow with the exception of two cases.

One of them was something that McKay felt strongly about: class status and how it was (and still is to a lesser extent) tightly entwined with skin colour. He considers it so important that he is meticulous about differentiating between even the slightest difference in shades of black, and never mentions a colour unless he’s compared it to a comparable one in the coffee-drinking (with or without milk) and natural world (undersides of leaves, fruit and vegetable skins, you name it he compared a skin colour to it). The difference between being a darker naseberry brown and a lighter honey coloured one could decide whether a woman got a husband from the village or could aspire to a shop-keeper, or maybe even the fortunate coloured (ie of mixed race) middle-class who relished any insignificant clerical or sales assistant post that allowed them to brush against their betters.

There are exhausting differences even among the darker side of the spectrum. Education, especially one acquired abroad, was a great mobiliser so Bita, despite being…some kind of dark lush brown black (I can’t remember which fruit/vegetable skin was hers) was able to eye the position of a clergy’s wife, or even that of estate overseers and educated shop owners of the envious lighter shade. Indeed, if she chose to marry another peasant many of the villagers would have seen it as a regrettable step backward — progress meant moving to the city and, if possible, gaining some kind of civil service (for the men) or marrying into it (for the women). With subtle satire and irony McKay shows not only how a rural life is a valid existence on its own merits, but also how the Nonconformist missionaries like the Craigs, descendants of admirable “emancipation pioneers”, still saw the white way as the path to civilisation, and almost everything particular to the blacks as dark and immoral. This is more true for Priscilla Craig who emigrated from England to Jamaica, than Malcolm her husband, who was born there.

…now she was lost in a fog of doubt, wondering if all that faithful and careful building up of mission work might not some day go the same way as did the solid-seeming façade of the great plantations now abandoned to decay and crumbling in the dust before the huts and fields and the careless living and grin of the blacks….

Because the “great plantations” eventual ruin was such a horrible, horrible thing for the “blacks”…

My current idea of Jamaica and stunted historical knowledge made me sceptical of such a developed, complex, rigid class system ever existing. I recalled reading somewhere that McKay had socialist leanings, tied this in with his overuse of the word “peasant” and his permanent departure from Jamaica — at what age I wasn’t sure but it must have been when he was very young, I surmised, to support my “he’s out-of-touch” idea — and concluded that his chronic case of nostalgia had knocked him off course. As usual, I was mostly wrong. For whatever reason I associated the word “peasant” with European societies — or really, any other kind except the Caribbean. We never had peasants. Even after searching for its meaning it still felt imposed and out-of-place somehow. However, I read a few history articles and realised that it was regularly used in a Jamaican context. After all, Jamaica was largely an agrarian society for the first half of the 20th century, a fact I had not had drilled into me at school.

McKay’s own experience when he looked to make his way in the city confirmed and classism and racism.

¹His perceptions of and preoccupation with injustice and inequality, his attitude toward women, his position on color and class hierarchies, his sympathy for and identification with the black oppressed and his attempt to give voice to their plight, all these—even though they adjusted over time—issued from his Jamaican background and experience and were evident before he left the island.

Bita’s rich peasant father was modelled on McKay’s own home life in which his family’s modest wealth acted as a bulwark against the difficulties and repression that came with their darker skin. So he wasn’t daft after all.

With all that out of the way I could enjoy the Obeah, bestiality, heart attacks, clandestine romantic assignations, Pocomania (site with pictures), tea-meetings, gossip, suicide, marriages, fist fights and singing in peace. Betraying his interest in poetry, perhaps, McKay made his peasants adept at song writing, making tunes about every social incidence that occurs. I found it irritating (really McKay, how many clichés are you going to fit in here?) but the results were worth it: amusing and entertaining, they revealed McKay’s exceptional air for the folks song rhythm. As I read them I could hear the melody in my head, the voices with the drum in the background.

This ditty was made about Gracie Hall, a villager visiting from Kingston where her parents had sent her to train to become a seamstress. Such a move marked her as one of a slightly higher station, unable to partake in “common” activities for fear of disgrace. However, her life in Kingston was not as restrained as her parents thought it would be, so when a merry-go-round came to Jubilee, a bigger town near Banana Bottom, Gracie laughingly mounted on a painted horse and had a good time. On hearing about this disgraceful development her father marched down, slapped her off the horse, and prevented from destroying the harmful instrument that destroyed his daughter’s reputation.

“Oh, Breddah Hall, an’ where was you
When Gracie went a-ridin’?
Good Breddah Hall, we know is true
Dat Gracie went a-ridin’.

“Merry go-roun’ is come to town
An’ naygurs ridin’ ebery way.
Oh, Breddah Hall, you’ gal gone roun’.
Today is Gracie ridin’ day.

“Oh, Breddah Hall, doan’ be so cross
‘Cause Gracie went a-ridin’
Knock off you’ gyal but not de hoss
Dat Gracie went a-ridin’

“Merry-go-roun’ is come to town…”

¹ James, Winston. “Becoming the People’s Poet: Claude McKay’s Jamaican Years: 1889-1912.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism. 19 (2003):19.


4 Responses to "More on “Banana Bottom”"

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