The A, B, C's of Alienation and Re-Integration : Merle Hodge's Crick Crack, Monkey

Dr. Bill Clemente
Department of English

Peru State College

My original title and the direction of my presentation recently underwent a sea change. This sudden alteration in course, which my teaching the novel these past two weeks instigated, landed me in an area the addition of "and Re Integration" marks. Up until literally three or four days ago, this talk focused pretty much exclusively on the dual processes of alienation and depreciation the protagonist of Crick Crack, Monkey undergoes during her school education in Trinidad.

To this end, I took at face value the finality of the novel's concluding sentence and its open-ended narration, when 12-year-old Tee/Cynthia, the first person narrator, on the eve of her flight to London, expresses exhaustion over her life:

"I desired with all my heart that it were next morning and a plane were lifting me off the ground." (111)

For purposes of clarity I must note now that Tee is the name Tantie, her working class Aunt Rosa, uses--Tee stays with this aunt in the country after the death in childbirth of her mother and after her father's subsequent emigration to England; Cynthia is the name, the "proper" name, used by her Aunt Beatrice (otherwise known as "the bitch"), a middle-class wanna-be-white from Santa Clara with whom Cynthia eventually lives for a time. The names become significant for what each represents.

In my earlier reading, Crick Crack, Monkey leaves us, at its conclusion, as unsettled as Tee, a character--fraught with fissures, uncertain, conflicted about virtually everything--in flight from Trinidad and bound for England. In her confused state, she perhaps half believes that she will, in addition, as all her education and much of her experience underscore, land in the Center, Up There, in that Land of Hope and Glory and Golden Gates, where people speak proper English; here, she will also be reunited with her father.

The "and then" of the matter has come to concern me a good deal because, quite frankly, so many of my 32 students in Non-Western Literature want very much to know what happens next. As one said, "Geez, if she had committed suicide like Okonkwo did--which I still don't understand--at least that would have been something. But she just flies away. It's depressing."

Well, naturalizing the lacuna, that apparently empty space between the experiencing protagonist and the experienced implied author, falls, of course, on the reader. What explicitly happens to Tee after that final sentence seems to interest Hodge not in the least. But eventualities and possibilities actually inform the novel, transforming Crick Crack, Monkey from a journey out to a voyage back and in, a homecoming, if you will.

Excluded from Tee's quest for identity in the story is any mention of the youngster's experiences at the false center, England; that process finds inclusion, if any, only through rather vague implication. But while the mature and confident narrator turns her eye not on the general idea of integration, she brings considerable energy to bear on the essential details that reveal, through a diachronic rendering of the plot, if not Tee's specific reintegration into Trinidadian society then certainly by virtue of her sympathetic and specific rendering of the young girl's experience, the syncretic nature of postcolonial Caribbean culture and the emerging Tee/Cynthia who writes of her life.

What Olive Senior accents in her poem "Colonial Girls School" echoes the argument about a postcolonial education that finds frequent repetition. She notes that in school, the instruction:

"yoked our minds to declensions in Latin, and the language of Shakespeare told us nothing about ourselves. There was nothing about us at all.

Nothing that Hodge describes contradicts Senior's assessment. Indeed, Hodge has argued against this form of education that seeks to abrogate the student's experience: "The problem in a country that is that the education system takes you away from your own reality...turns you away from the Caribbean...We never saw ourselves in a book, so we didn't exist in a kind of way and our culture and our environment, our climate, the plants around us did not seem real, did not seem to be of any importance--we overlooked them entirely. The real world was in books." As a look at Tee's education reveals, the reader learns very little directly about the specific texts taught in school, material the author seems to take for granted; instead, Hodge concentrates more directly on how both the material taught and the method of instruction denigrates her protagonist while simultaneously upholding and extolling the value of the experience this education omits.

Tee's schooling, all by black instructors from Trinidad, takes place in two different locations. First, while living in the country with Tantie, she goes to ABC class at Coriaca with Mr. and Mrs. Hinds; next, she enters the nearby Big School where she encounters Sir; and lastly, after Tee receives an impressive scholastic award, Tantie agrees that she should move in with Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Norman, who get Cynthia enrolled in St. Anne's, purportedly the best school in Santa Clara and where she learns to despise the more traditional life she had earlier led, for, despite her vapid Aunt, the environment reinforces exactly what she learns in school.

Unlike at home with Tantie, where the dominant Creole provided a rich and strong counterpoint to the King's English she hears in school, in Beatrice's dysfunctional family, all speak this "foreign" language with affected emphasis. The former and rich center of Tee's life will be if not replaced with then certainly dimmed substantially by the shadow she formerly believed herself to be.

At first, the thought of going to school, especially of learning to read, fills Tee with wonder:

"I looked forward to school. I looked forward to the day when I could pass my hand swiftly from side to side on a blank piece of paper leaving meaningful marks in its wake; to staring nonchalantly into a book until I turned over a page, a gesture pregnant with importance for it indicated one had not merely been staring, but that the most esoteric of processes had been taking place whereby the paper had yielded up something or other as a result of having been stared at."

Of course, as the preceding quotations suggest, education is best described as a double-edged sword, for it promises social and intellectual elevation but often at huge cost. Tee's idealized notions about learning clash quickly with the reality of Mr. and Mrs. Hines, who couple religious instruction with the degradation of the students' lived experience.

Everything Tee learns points to England at the expense of their place, at best a shadow reality casts on them.

A sophisticated writer, Hodge tempers her political activism with humor, generally through Tee's dumfounded reaction to what goes on. For example, she pokes fun at Mrs. Hinds's "noble bottom": "When she stood she always had her arm resting on top of it or brushing swiftly over it as if to see whether it was still there." And Mr. Hinds, the Headmaster of Coriaca E.C., reiterates at the drop of a hat his years of service in His Majesty's army during WWII and his nearly becoming a lawyer: "that was why he talked in that way," that is in convoluted, long sentences that leave the children, who find him little more than an unusual creature, dazed: when angry with them, which is most of the time, "he would still them into incomprehension because in his angry rhetorical transports he soared into a vocabulary that fell like gibberish on the ear." His students refer to the large framed portrait of his hero, Winston Churchill, as "Crapaud-Face," frog face.

As for what she learns, the narrator notes that "My reading career also began with A for Apple, the exotic fruit that made its brief and stingy appearance at Christmastime." Likewise, the central characters in her Caribbean Reader Primer One are two English children "known as Jim and Jill, or it might have been Tim and Mary." This othering, in other words, can hardly be labelled subtle. Nonetheless, the reading of fairy tales cannot help but trigger a smile: "So we stood and counted in unison to a hundred, or recited nursery rhymes about little Boy Blue (what in all creation was a `haystack'?) and about Little Miss Muffet who for some unaccountable reason sat eating her curls away."

While humorous, the descriptions point to an insidious undermining of the life--one close to its African roots, one that openly embraces Indian and Chinese cultures, etc.--she lives with Tantie; all instruction, religious and secular, demeans the non-white students and emphatically points to another place as the single and great signifier of worth, of which, here and later she will be reminded, she possesses none. Mr. Hinds, for example, calls the children "nincompoops," which, ironically, provokes laughter; the children do not understand the prefix, but the "onomatopoeic final syllable" they know: passing gas. At those frequent times when Mr. Hinds goes more thoroughly postal over their inability to understand his language, he calls them " little black pickaninnies": "Here I stand, trying to teach you to read and write the English language, trying to teach confounded pickaninnies to read and write...I who have marched to glory side by side with His Majesty's bravest men."

Mrs. Hinds pursues a similar course, instructing the children about their redemption. Through her influence, Tee comes to associate Up There, where she assumes her mother now resides, with England: "Various kindly and elderly folk had long since assured me that my mother had gone to Glory. And now at school I had come to learn that Glory and The Mother Country and Up-There and Over-There had all one and the same geographical location. It made perfect sense that the place where my mother had gone, Glory, should also be known as The Mother Country. And then there was `Land of Hope and Glory/Mother of the Free..." Tee also learns to equate the color of her skin with sin and redemption with leaving Trinidad for England, where blond-haired, white children live: "Till I cross the wide, wide water, Lord/ My black sin washèd from me, Till I come to Glory Glory, Lord/ And cleansèd stand beside Thee,/ White and shining stand beside Thee, Lord,/ Among Thy blessèd children."

At this juncture, approximately one-third through the novel, the foundation is laid for the coming erosion of Tee's person.

Experience at the big school reinforces everything the Hinds's taught. Here, however, Sir, offers more than verbal lashings--he strikes with a whip, he fondly refers to as "The wrath of God." Like Mr. Hinds, he loves to hear himself speak, and utters long and incomprehensible sentences, using words that will enter Tee's vocabulary: "Seemliness" and "Constancy" and "Veracity" and others. That Sir has no last name suggests his complete surrender to colonial values; and his regular and violent drilling the students "in the Art of Noiselessly Rising" from their seats underscores their insignificance. He also beats Tee mercilessly for cursing--"Marche-shoo...Marche-shoo whitey-cockroach!"

Whitey-kinkalay"--Mr. Brathwaite, the owner of The Estate (a reminder of Colonial rule and slavery) who had caught her trespassing for fruit: "Disrespect!...Disrespect!," he said as he beat her with a ruler. "Keep your rudeness for your mother and father!" In other words, Mr. Braithwaith and his manor represent the authority from abroad Sir signifies, honors, and seeks to replicate in his students.

Subconsciously these repeated reminders, these verbal and physical lashings at school, affect this young girl who loves to read and who now consumes books voraciously, for what she reads repeats what Tee hears and what the earlier quotation from Hodge argues: "Books transported you always into Reality and Rightness, which were to be found Abroad." As a metaphor for her growing insecurity, Tee invents Helen, her "proper" self who speaks in cadences reminiscent of Sir's and who dreams of winter coats, scones, tea, cowslips and honeysuckle: "Helen wasn't even my double. No, she couldn't be called my double. She was the Proper me. And me, I was her shadow hovering about in incompleteness." The books therefore remind her of her inconsequence and "recommend at you every commodity proposed to your daily preference, from macaroni to the Kingdom of Heaven." Tee claims to have discarded Helen; but, in fact, when she goes to live with Aunt Beatrice, she becomes more and more like Helen, filling the shadow, she imagines, with substance.

Tee's experiences at Saint Anne's only reiterate what occurred earlier. At this school, she recognizes a much more subtle form of black-on-black racism: that success in school, no matter that our protagonist eventually finishes near the top of her class, has little to do with scholastic achievement. Indeed, her teacher tells Tee, "You are one of those who will never get very far." Though more subtle, perhaps, in its condemnation of its students' black identity, St. Anne's, the perceptive Tee comes to realize, awards honors based on shadows and shades: the fairer skinned the better, as her school days and her conversations with Beatrice make obvious. As Aunt Beatrice with frightening conviction tells her daughter Jessica who does not do as well in school as her sister Carol and who justly complains that only "fair" girls get pointed out for special attention and chosen for awards: "Look, my girl, it's not any fault of mine that you are dark; you just have to take one look at me and you will see that! There you have nothing to reproach me for. But the darker you are the harder you have to try, I am tired of telling you that! What you don't have in looks you have to make up for otherwise." Everything that happens to Tee in Santa Clara conforms to this assessment, prepared prior to her arrival.

At the conclusion of the story, Tee guiltily rejects Tante but also quite literally slaps the hand of Beatrice, leaving her alone and embittered and anxious to escape her situation. She is saved when Tante, whom Tee also rejected but who wanted Tee to remain in Trinidad, relents and gives into the Selwyn's, Tee's father's, wishes: she will flee to England--alienated from Tante whom she loves but whose lifestyle she has come to abhor; and equally put off by Beatrice whom she detests but whose middle-class values she has adopted. Thus what seems an open-ended conclusion. But I have omitted essential information!

Speaking of the Caribbean, the authors of The Empire Write Back note that "In the West Indies, where British educational policy deliberately excluded any reference to slavery on the African ancestry of the slaves, it has in some cases been seen to be necessary to revive that lost ancestral link before the Caribbean present can be understood, before the islands become "home." Merle Hodge moves in this direction, for Tee/Cynthia's descriptions place considerable weight on her African and colonial past, including both her grandmother's grandmother's experiences in Africa, the plantations on the island, and Aunt Beatrice's religious regard for the family's Great White Ancestor, Elizabeth Helen Carter, whose faded picture Auntie Beatrice adores.

In this important respect, the novel bespeaks a return because in the rendering of experience Hodge gives special emphasis to the substance of Tee's former life without omitting the reality of the empty existence Beatrice relentlessly pursues, but one that Tee's education will not allow her to avoid; in important ways, what Beatrice epitomizes cannot be separated from the benefits Tee gains through education.

Thus, while the novel tells of Tee's supposed appropriation of middle class values, it also undermines their worth--Hodge goes to great pains to portray the cultural bankruptcy of playing monkey to the Great White Ancestor. In this important respect, the narrative, which in the fiction a mature Tee/Cynthia relates, places considerable vaule on the vulnerable African oral culture that so easily succumbs to the power of the written word. Thus the dominance, for example, of Creole, much of it unglossed, throughout the major part of the text- in this manner, Hodge gives voice to a traditional or colonially voiceless majority. This influence Tee's grandmother embodies. We meet this remarkable woman only once in the narrative, but the profound impact on the retrospective author's part cannot be escaped, underlining the diachronic significance of the memory, which has a substance that flies in the face of the Great White Ancestor's faded photograph. The Grandmother, Ma, promises to tell Tee of her True, True name, the one the People, code for slave owners, tried to take from her great, great, great grandmother because they could not pronounce the actual name easily: "Ma said that I was her grandmother come back again. She said her grandmother was a tall straight proud woman who lived to an old old age and her eyes were still bright like water and her back straight like bamboo, for all the heavy-load she had carried on her head all her life. The People gave her the name Euphemia or Euph something, but when they called her that she used to toss her head like a horse and refuse to answer so they'd had to give up in the end and call her by her true-true name."

This grandmother tells Nancy stories, lives off the land, and loves Tee--but she can't remember either the euphemism for the African name the white slave owners gave her grandmother or the real name. Indeed, at the conclusion of the novel, Tantie informs Tee of Ma's death, telling her that the grandmother remembered the true true name but that she, Tantie, forgets it. This news devastates Tee, but it will ultimately free her.

The goal of the novel, it seems to me, is not to idealize a lost African past but to reveal the cultural sovereignty of Trinidad. As Merle Hodge writes, "Caribbean people suffer great ambivalence regarding their culture. We do not acknowledge or give value to our most deeply rooted behavior patterns, our most intimate psychology. In the first place, we are not fully aware of what constitutes our specificity. We recognize our culture only in a negative, rejecting way: we see in our people tendencies and characteristics which we regard as aberrations to be stamped out."

This story suggests that substance comes neither from an essentialist search for true, true names, from embracing an ideal African past, nor from a surrender to the dominant power, epitomized by the insubstantial life Beatrice embodies. Instead, Crick Crack, Monkey emphasizes the syncretic nature of much Caribbean literature, which instead of searching for substance from another place, whether in an imposed heritage Up There in England or a distanIndia, or China; they must look instead to the place they have inherited where they make their own history, rejecting nothing in totality and embracing only the best their often imposed and conflicted history offers. In this respect, Merle Hodge offers this novel as a political statement, for in her estimation, "there is no fundamental contradiction between art and activism. In particular, the power of the creative word to change the world is not to be underestimated...Fiction which affirms and validates our wold is therefore an important weapon of resistance." In the final analysis, the conflict surrounding the juxtaposition of Tee/Cynthia registers not alienation but the rich potential for integration; the open-ended conclusion points not to despair, but to a hopeful future--and the Tee/Cynthia who leaves for London hardly gives way to silence; she speaks confidently of her worth, discovered at the heart of Crick Crack, Monkey.

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