Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Island Memories

The U.S. Virgin Islands lie about 40 miles east of Puerto Rico, and consist principally of four islands: Saint Croix, Saint John, Saint Thomas, and Water Island.  Collectively, their land area is equivalent to approximately twice that of our Nation’s Capital.  The first three islands were named by Christopher Columbus, who discovered them by accident back in 1493. Saint Croix, originally known as Santa Cruz, is the largest. 

Henry S. Whitehead set many of his “jumbee” tales on Saint Croix and the neighboring islands. It apparently was a very scary place, especially in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Judging by the content of his narratives, the islands were frequently overrun by ghosts, evil homunculi, restless products of dismemberment, fish-zombies and other phenomena.  So much so, that the natives often accepted these supernatural idiosyncrasies as familiar, even routine.  Whitehead derived all of these horrors from the folklore and supernatural understandings of the other immigrant population in the islands, people of African descent who were forcibly brought there as slaves generations earlier.

To be fair, Whitehead was actually curious and often respectful of the social and cultural differences he found on Saint Croix.  Nevertheless, his casual racism will offend some readers.  But contrast this attitude with that of his friend, H.P. Lovecraft, who was often dismissive or worse towards other ethnic or racial groups.  Whitehead might have said ‘I am Saint Croix’ in the same sense that Lovecraft said ‘I am Providence’.

Saint Croix and its sister islands were a quiet, attractive Caribbean destination in Whitehead’s day: whitewashed, leisurely, polite, and sunny.  It was a pleasant if perplexing locale for Whitehead’s principal narrator, Gerald Canevin and his amiable Caucasian friends. Yet the juxtaposition of the bright tropical climate with the dark history of racial oppression and colonization, white with black, as well as the uneasy friction between different cultures created optimal conditions for social nightmares to germinate and grow. Whitehead’s bemused, detached tone also sharpens the edge of the reader’s growing dis-ease.  Whether or not it was the author’s intention, the selection of an island seems to magnify the unfolding horror, as if it were a lens we would rather not look through.

Black Tancrède (1929) is superficially a “beast with five fingers” tale of vengeance, of which there were several examples in the horror entertainments of the time period, (see also Some Beasts With Five Fingers).  But the appearance of this trope near the end of the story is almost an afterthought, nearly an item of humor, and occurs after the real horror has been presented in gruesome detail.  The story begins at the Grand Hotel, literally a white hotel for white people.  The author lovingly depicts it as almost a monument to colonial power and privilege:

“The Grand Hotel of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands glistens in the almost intolerable brilliance of the Caribbean sunlight, because that great edifice is whitewashed in every corner, every winter.  Built somewhat more than a century ago, it is a noble example of that tropical architecture which depends, for its style, upon the structural necessity for resistance to summer hurricanes.  Its massive walls of stone brick, and heavy cement are thick and ponderous…but it is still as impressive as in the days when the Danish Colonial High Court sat in one of its sections; when its “slave-pens” were especially known for their safety.”

There has been a continuing disturbance in Room Number 4 at the Grand Hotel:  guests report a loud rapping at the door around 4:00 a.m. each night of their stay.  Gerald Canevin, the narrator, is an Americanized version of William Hope Hodgson’s “Carnacki, the psychic detective”.  Staying at the hotel with his cousin, he decides to investigate the phenomena, beginning with a survey of the area’s troubled history.

This is personified in the experiences of a hapless ex-slave named Black Tancrède, who fled Haiti for the island of Saint Thomas. There he resided in one of the slave pens that now, a hundred years later, form the basement of the narrator’s house.  Whitehead, always sensitive to racial and ethnic gradations, describes the man as “a full-blooded black African”.  Tancrède was a refugee from the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, in which slaves overthrew their colonial masters, but then succumbed to political turmoil and despotism.

Tancrède soon fell into debt in Saint Thomas and became re-enslaved to one of the Danish colonists.  He escaped to a nearby island, enjoyed relative freedom but hard labor, and later became involved in a slave uprising against the Danish colonial powers in 1833.  Captured, he was ‘made an example’ for other insurgents, chiefly through grotesque physical torments. 

Whitehead does not spare the reader the awful details, and this is the most disturbing part of the story. With his last tortured breath, Black Tancrède curses his tormentors, two of whom meet grisly ends themselves not long afterward.  But a third does not, nor does the judge who sentenced him to such a cruel death.  Canevin later has a personal encounter with this “jumbee” when he spends the night in Number 4; some additional research allows him to connect the hotel room with the horrific events of a century before.

The events in Black Tancrède may remind readers of the 1992 horror film Candyman, (based on Clive Barker’s story The Forbidden), which also involves the son of a slave who suffers racially motivated torture and death, but returns to wreak havoc on those who invoke his spirit—a racially charged urban legend that becomes horribly real and enduring.  However, in Whitehead’s story, the projection of Black Tancrède’s rage is a mere echo of the terror than befell him a hundred years earlier; his historical “reach” is diminished to a hotel nuisance. 

This seems to be a strategy of psychic distancing and minimizing of the trauma: the author seems to be saying ‘it’s over now, it happened long ago, things are better now’.  He whimsically disposes of the grotesque artifact first by pocketing it, (because it no longer has any power), then tossing it into a kitchen fire.  Will the spirit of Black Tancrède ever achieve complete justice? 

Yet Black Tancrède, along with Cassius (1931) and The Passing of a God (1931), is worth reading to appreciate Whitehead’s unique perspective on American race relations circa the late 1920s and early 1930s.  His bizarre images depict anxieties about racial integration, miscegenation, and cross cultural influences.  It is striking that he has his characters go offshore from the American mainland, to a bright sunny island, to explore these dark and perennial themes.  The U.S. Virgin Islands are still considered “organized, but unincorporated United States territory”, much like our national psyche. And just like our troubled history of race relations, the islands are volcanic in origin, and remain at risk for earthquakes and violent storms.

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