Colonial Influence and Cultural Identity in Annie John
Annie John is a novel written by Jamaica Kincaid in 1985. The book is a coming of age story as it depicts the life of a young girl named Annie John as she shifts from her childhood to her adolescence. At first, the book shows the strong bond between a young girl and her mother, but as she searches for her own identity, we see this girl gradually distance herself from her family. As Annie grows she experiences knew facets of her culture through the diverse adventures she partakes in and many friendships she forms. The story centers itself around three main themes: parent-child relationship, feminism and colonial influence on Caribbean culture. Through the analysis of colonial influence on Antigua’s educational and cultural standards in Annie John, we can ask ourselves: How and why is a social group represented in a particular way? In order to answer this question, this text will focus on the depiction of the British by firstly examining the coexistence of the two different nationalities, secondly deconstructing British social expectations and conformity to British standards and lastly studying the colonial history of Antigua.
Firstly, the story depicts the challenges that Annie goes through to find her cultural identity on this culturally diverse island. Although most of Antigua had a predominant creole culture because of its Afro-Antiguans majority, the British still formed a white oligarchy by constituting 1,7 percent of the Antiguan demographic in the 1950s. The Creole culture emerged from the mixing of Amerindian, West African and European cultures during colonization and is still a greatly spread culture throughout the Caribbean region. In the story, we can clearly see a split between two cultures: British culture and Obeah culture. Throughout the story English folks are regarded as more uptight and proper individuals by depicting them as rule enforcers such as the school teacher ““our headmistress (said) that she hoped we had all left our bad ways behind us, that we would be good examples for each other and bring greater credit to our school”. On the other hand, Afro-Antiguans are regarded as more superstitious individuals that consult their spiritual guides (Obeah women) to make decisions, “We took these baths after my mother had consulted with her obeah woman, and with her mother and a trusted friend. And all three of them had confirmed that from the look of things around our house (…) one of the many women my father had loved (…) was trying to harm my mother and me by setting bad spirits on us.”
Secondly, the English school system in which the story is set illustrates the conformism of British culture and suppression of Creole culture. Annie John’s maturing pushes her to reject the oppressive nature of her school system. Therefore, the rejection of British order is exemplified by the judgment she has over her English teacher “I knew right away that she [miss Moore] had come to Antigua from England, for she looked like a prune left out of its jar a long time and she sounded as if she had borrowed her voice from an owl. […] I wondered if she even smelled like a fish.” Not to mention, the loathing sentiment Annie withholds for the codified gender roles that are imposed upon her. Therefore, these social constructs are threats to Annie’s sense of identity, as she has to follow a code that contradicts her very sense of personal freedom and identity. For example, Gwen and Annie’s relationship was frowned upon by the English characters in the story and at the time two girls would be forbidden to have such close relations.
Thirdly, Antigua’s history with colonialism is a central aspect of the book. Although Afro-Antiguans had been liberated from the slavery they had endured for centuries, the colonial culture was still predominant in the educational spheres. Annie John does not adhere to the ideals of colonial history and wants to challenge the order by contesting the actions of colonizers. For example, when Columbus Day rolls around Annie decides to take a stance against this commemoration by blaspheming Christopher Columbus in her history book and consequently gets reprimanded by her principal by having to Annie copy Paradise Lost as punishment, “When I next saw the picture of Columbus sitting there all locked up in his chains, I wrote under it the words: The Great Man Can No longer Just Get Up and Go.” The principal’s choice of the book is important because it serves to symbolize what is to come if Annie does not straighten up her behavior and depicts quite fairly the reality of Antigua when this paradisiac island became a living hell with the arrival of the British and establishment of slavery.
To conclude, it is now clear that British cultural clashes with Annie John’s character development throughout the story. Although Annie rejects the British social standards, these aspects of her environment are constantly evoked by the often criticized English characters in the story. Therefore, Jamaica Kincaid establishes a constant struggle between the coexistence of these cultures and shows the difficulty Annie has to find her own cultural identity.
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