Carole Boyce Davies is a professor of Africana studies and English at Cornell University. She is the editor of the three-volume Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture and several other collections in African and Caribbean studies and black women’s studies internationally.
Boyce Davies recently answered some questions about her new book Caribbean Spaces: Escape from Twilight Zones.
Q: Tell us about the title of you book, Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from Twilight Zones. How do you define “Caribbean Spaces” beyond geographical location?
Carole Boyce Davies: Caribbean Spaces reaches beyond island fragmentations, small spaces and geographic separations for a much wider, more expansive internationalized understanding of how we see and understand the Caribbean and its impact on world cultures. Caribbean Space incorporates contexts that come out of dance and carnival like “taking space” and challenges us to see the in-between spaces as not empty spaces. The expanding scientific meanings of space provides us with additional opportunity to think of any space beyond geographical limitations. Caribbean Space has always reached for international circulations of ideas, people, political movements, cultural practices like carnival.
Q: Describe twilight zones and spaces. How does this theme reoccur in both the scholarly and autobiographical essays?
Boyce Davies: Rod Serling from Binghamton, New York created The Twilight Zone series which always began with the following: “There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fear and the summit of his knowledge. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.” It seems that science is coming to this understanding gradually about spaces that are in-between realities. So “Twilight Zone” also refers to places like upstate New York, caught between urban expansion and rural neglect. In the book, it refers to variety of locations where different realities collide or collaborate and also which camouflage more than they reveal.
Q: How does your book “play on Underground Railroad imaginaries and histories?”
Boyce Davies: Just as the North has iconic significance as a destination of escape from the South, so does the far south, the Caribbean and Latin America, with movements in both or multiple directions.
In this writer’s understanding, the Underground Railroad worked in multiple directions. I want to capture movement as not singular (south to north) but back and forth or repetitive even if not the same people or same directional movement. From Florida to the Caribbean is another less acknowledged escape route which captures the idea that mobility provides a route to freedom. The legendary Harriet Tubman settled as she ended her years in upstate New York after a very busy life of navigating “escape routes.” Her role as the primary captain of the Underground Railroad is evoked symbolically to describe a number of escape passages from situations of oppression. In upstate New York, signs of that prior escape activity are everywhere but are often not readily visible unless one can read the codes. But signs identifying Indian massacres also litter upstate New York and still surprise each time one comes upon a historic marker. Today, the famous prison in Auburn, New York, houses, as usual, a large population of African American and Latino prisoners. The complicated meaning of this conjunction is another “twilight zone.”
Q: Why are Caribbean Spaces “spaces of possibility?”
Boyce Davies: They are spaces of possibility of creating something out of nothing, of putting together disparate cultural identities, they are also places of transformation. The iconic steelband created in Trinidad and Tobago is a representative example—the only new musical instrument in the 20th century—created out of discarded oil drums, used initially for commercial/industrial reasons, now repurposed and made into something that carries that determination to beat beauty out of degradation, music out of hardship.
Q: What dynamics of race, gender and sexuality are embedded in Caribbean Spaces and therefore Caribbean people’s stories?
Boyce Davies: Race, gender and sexuality are human elements which appear in populations everywhere. There are some particularities specific to the Caribbean though that have to do with history of migration to the region and the ongoing migrations which then create new diasporas. These have to be reconnected as family stories remain isolated unless we are able to bring back some of those connecting narratives and memories into the contemporary realities that we continue to create.
Q: One of the people acknowledged in the book’s dedication is Clara Braithwaite, grandmother of the pop singer Rihanna. Why did you dedicate the book to Rihanna’s “Gran Gran?”
Boyce Davies: Rihanna seemed to many to be a solitary figure, caught living in the U.S., subject to abuse, without her Caribbean family. Then we began to see her own narrative of family in the Caribbean but also a grandmother in New York whom she dearly loved and visited until she passed away. Circulated photographs of her “Gran Gran Dolly” were instantly recognizable to those from the Caribbean as representative of the many Caribbean women who came to the U.S. in a variety of circumstances, as workers, or as parent-providers and stabilizers while their children and grandchildren made their way through higher education or professional lives after migration.