When passions stir deeply, the repercussions can be extraordinary. Jamaica Kincaid has touched millions of people around the globe. She grew up under British rule in Antigua, a British colony until 1967. There she developed a disdain for colonists who had no regard for her native culture and homeland. When she wanted to speak out, writing became her tool. And when her family disapproved, she changed her name from Elaine Potter Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid and went on to become an award-winning writer, novelist, and professor.
She left Antigua at the age of 17 to work as an au pair in New York, and later studied photography at The New School for Social Research. After writing a series of articles for Ingenue magazine, she spent nine years as a featured columnist with The New Yorker. She has penned a long list of books and novels, including Annie John, Lucy, At the Bottom of the River, and A Small Place, which inspired the 2001 documentary, Life and Debt, about the impact globalization can have on a developing country. Her book Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas chronicles her adventure into the mountains of Nepal with a group of botanists.
Beginning in 1991, she held joint appointments at Harvard University in the English and African-American Studies departments and today she is a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College. She holds numerous honors and awards — among them, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts in Letters and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and recently earned the Clifton Fadiman Medal.
For her ability to positively channel her anger over social injustice and expose diverse issues through a literary voice that is rich with emotion, vivid imagery, and evocative honesty, Grinnell College is proud to honor Jamaica Kincaid.
Thank you very much. Thank you, Class of 2012, for asking me to speak to you. Thank you to President Kington, the Board of Trustees, my fellow honorees, your splendid faculty, some of whom I met yesterday. Thank you, and you should thank your parents, your relatives, your grandparents, all the people who supported you at this moment. I thank them for presenting you here, and may I ask you to publicly thank them for this extraordinary thing. Congratulations on this wonderful moment in your life.
I’m a bit nervous to be addressing people at this moment in your life because in a few minutes, really, some words will be uttered to you and they will transform you into something else. You will no longer be students. You will be grown-up people in the world, responsible, we hope, for yourselves. And so it’s a great honor to talk to you, to say a few words to you.
People who do this know how to draw you in to something. I don’t really know how to do that, but I know how to write something and to read it to you. And so, this is how I would like to address you.
Are you all well? Is this the most wonderful moment of your life so far? Are you so very happy, and at the same time, are you so very sad? For is this not the moment when you feel free from the burdens of the years just past, filled up as they were with the everyday burdens of term papers, reading assignments, class attendance, an emulsion of feelings and attachments that sometimes threatened to sink and ultimately obliterate the carefully constructed you arranged by your authors, who are your parents. And they have made you, that is by now unknown to the familiar eye. But here you are, a culmination of the sequence of events that would lead to this moment, your presence here. How do you feel now? How to do you feel right now?
Why don’t I leave you alone and say something quick, something fast, something funny, for we are all Americans, and as Americans we prefer funny. And so why don’t I tell you a joke, or make fun of you and all that you love and cherish? Your mother for instance and her devotion to doing something on weekends that women until her had never done before, and how happy it makes her, and how fulfilled it makes her. And how happy and fulfilled is all that she is right now, right now. Your father, for instance, but I can’t tell you anything funny about your father. Saying I can’t tell you anything funny about your father is funny, but if you don’t think so that’s alright. What if you’re saying to yourself, “My father is really funny” and you are now remembering that maybe he ate a grasshopper on purpose because he wanted to show you how cool a dad could be? Or because once at dinner time while you were sitting at the dining table with him he said…well, he said something that is very funny.
But the thing is, who are you? Who are you? I have been asked to speak to you, and I’ve been asked to speak to you by people who must have some idea who you are, and I must have agreed with them about who you are, and I, with enthusiasm, agreed to do so. But now that I have you in my mind’s eye, your bodies firm and still in your seats, your faces blank, for this space has no knowledge of you yet, I am writing with you in mind and as I write this I am imagining you, and when I say all that I am about to say here, I’m only imagining you, I don’t really know you at all. And so this is a leap on my part, thinking of you and composing a series of thoughts to you.
I have singled out one of them, one of those thoughts. It is a thought, one I have examined for a very long time now, since I was seven years of age, in fact, and it is this: You must bite the hand that feeds you. You are perhaps always told the opposite of this. The opposite of this is often said to you, “Do not bite the hand that feeds you.” But from time to time I tell you, you must.
When I was seven years of age, a child in a government school in St. John’s, Antigua where I was born, as a punishment for misbehaving in my classroom, I was commanded to copy Books One and Two of “Paradise Lost.” The assignment itself was a source of great shame to me, for to be made to copy anything we considered far worse than being beaten. At the time I didn’t understand the meaning of that. A beating is something shrugged off, a beating by the person who can administer it is accepted by the person who is receiving it. It is part of the arrangement of the social world that we lived in. For both the [administrator] of the beating and the recipient of the beating know that the chances of a reversal for beater and beaten is more than great. Both of them know that the world turns and this scientifically demonstrable fact of it turning on its axis is for beater and beaten a metaphor for the intimate social reality that existed between them. “Beat me now, for one day I will beat you.” But to copy word for word a text of any kind, especially a text that is of tremendous value to the group of people who dominate you, the group of people who hold sway over you, and you know it is of tremendous value to them because it is being placed before you in the most casual way, in my case, and also in the most important way it was a part of my education, it was meant to be a part of my being led into an understanding of the world, the moral world, and that I might see myself in this world in a certain way and adjust myself accordingly. That is why it was being placed before me. That is why I was being forced to commit that text to memory, for memory, in my case as I present it to you here, is one of the central ingredients of what make up our own being, your own existence. Memory is often all you have left of yourself, for yourself, your physical self, has its own set of reality and betrayals. Just for instance, as I recall this, as I recall all this, is there anything about my present physical appearance that could sum up in you right now, an abundance of positive feeling for the seven-year-old of me struggling to copy dear John Milton?
Dearest John Milton, that prophet of the modern world, the world in which you and I now live, the world in which we all are now trapped, trapped in the eternal corrupt world of things named Bain Capital, and random people named Jamie Dimon, a world in which derivatives is not a food crop, and have nothing at all to do with an element in the periodic table or a mineral that is essential to good health and must be taken daily. That is the prophetic world of John Milton.
A number of great writers who were deployed in the futile attempt to make me a subdued person, that is, a person who would fall so completely in the throe of the people who could produce such writers as these writers could produce such a literature that when I became acquainted with it through reading, I was meant to do nothing but fall silent and gape in awe at the people who gave me John Milton, William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare, John Keats. This world of words make into realms of imagination was more interesting and profound to me and had more power to impress me than a gun, though in truth, a gun pointed at me by the people who wished to subdue me was no longer necessary: these words were enough. Not only would I never know anyone who could produce anything equal to it, I myself must not even consider making an effort to match it. It took me years to separate these writers and their writing from this dishonorable enterprise of subduing me, and the people I am from. And when I did, in honor of William Wordsworth I planted at least 10,000 daffodils in the lawn that stretches out from the door in front of the house in which I now live.
Milton, that is, Books One and Two of “Paradise Lost,” I have had no reason to redeem for it immediately became part of my internal pondering, my plotting of who I might be, how I might respond to the world if I ever got a chance to meet it. Part of the way I came to see the world, part of the way I came to see and understand my every day. The hero of that book, the name by which he’s known in heaven before he has his famous falling out with his superior, his name is Lucifer. At seven years of age, I was not the first person to read this poem and understand that he’s one of the most appealing characters in literature, if you are in a certain frame of mind, but I didn’t know that. Years later, I wrote a book about a young woman who felt cast out of a paradise made up of a love and devotion into a world devoid of any familiar emotional contour, a world so new and beyond her imagining, and I named her Lucy, with that character in mind, that character, who in his early luminescence I must have determined right then at seven years of age, that his rebellion was justified. And what were those words that I was asked to copy. Here are some of them, and I quote
Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.
I was seven and I copied those words faithfully by lamplight, for we had no electric lights in my house and so I did not have a bed, and a bedside table with a lamp to illuminate my own book of Milton’s work. I copied those words of his, but I remembered nothing of them so much as I remember that fallen figure defiant in his defeat, proud, plotting, justifying to himself his lowliness relative to his former grand social stature; he had a been a prince in that realm. He is lying prone on the ground in lands unfamiliar to even the creator of these lands. That I identified with Lucifer, “the early light” is the meaning of his name, is no longer a mystery to me, though it is in reality preposterous and truly self-aggrandizing and ridiculous and everything dismissive to be thrown onto it. But my seven-year-old self did not know it would be held accountable for such an assertion. I identified with him all the same. His name is Lucifer, that is his name in heaven. That is his name when he’s good and obedient, and I assume, enjoying the life that has been provided for him in paradise. He is a favorite; he is the light in the morning sky. How great is that? To be the first thing beholden by the world as it opens its eyes. And yet, paradise is a strange thing. Its completeness has all the iron bands of a prison. It has its own tyrant, and that tyrant has a set of tyrannical ways, and in time, it really does become better to rule in a hell of your own making, than to serve in a heaven made by someone else.
That I was sensitive to the presence of Lucifer and his problem with paradise had a precedent, and it is this. I could read very well by the time I was three and half years of age. My mother, my tyrant if you like, had taught me to do so. She was a great reader, and she read for the sheer pleasure of it which was very unusual for a woman in her situation. She lived in a world of lack of most everything that would allow for leisure. When I now think about this process of my learning to read, I associate it with pleasure, magic, a sorcerer’s alchemy, where I can see the alphabet itself as a series of decorative images on a blank space, not something to be arranged into words. The words themselves leapt up to me, leapt up to my lips and my eyes. I knew them, those words, and they knew me. My mother had taught me to read because I interrupted her reading, because I interrupted her own devotion to reading, and she reasoned that if I could read, I would do so and leave her alone to continue with her own reading. That calculation of hers worked far better than she could have imagined, for it is so that the tyrant’s imagination can only imagine itself.
At the age of three-and-a-half years I was sent to school. Then, a child could only go to school at five years, but at that time my being three-and-a-half years, I became more of a bother to my mother as a reader than when I could not read, and so she sent me to school. I can remember her saying to me, “When they ask you how old you are, say you are five.” We rehearsed this, “Say you are five,” many times. When I got to school, I did as I was told, I said, “I am five.” But the books presented to us then, me the fictive five and the others the real five, were so easy for me to read, that I mastered it immediately, and the teacher was so amazed that she made me her favorite student. The other children hated me, and for this they threw me into the tub full of what you would expect a tub to be full of in a latrine.
I remember that, but not in the way I remember this: the book we were being taught to read from was about a man who was a farmer, for he lived on a farm, and his name was Mr. Joe. He had a cat named Miss Tibbs. He had a dog named Mr. Dan. He had a cow, and that cow must have had a calf, because surely there would have been milking, but I don’t remember that. He had a hen, and her name was Mother Hen, and she had twelve chicks. Eleven of her chicks were yellow, fluffy, adorable chicks and they made chick gestures all involving staying close to her protective wings and heeding her clucking sounds to stay within the boundaries of her protective wings. They had no names; they were only known as the chicks. The twelfth chick was named Percy, and he was bigger than the other eleven, and all his feathers were black. Percy was a great source of worry to his mother, Mother Hen. He was always doing something that caused disruption in the everyday workings of the farm. As I remember it, he was an irritation to the calm life of Miss Tibbs, the cat, and Mr. Dan the dog, and Mr. Joe, too, the farmer worried about him. The farm had fence that was height that I can now imagine could accommodate Mr. Joe leaning on it thoughtfully and reflecting on the totality on the day’s labor on the farm, and regarding all his endeavors and accomplishments with satisfaction. In any case, Percy was warned again and again not to attempt to fly up and sit on top of the fence. Many times he was told not to do this, and he was told not to do this many times because he always wanted to do this, fly up and sit on the top bar of the fence. All of his attempts failed, except once, he did succeed, but only for a moment, and then he fell to the ground and broke his leg. The sentence that illustrated his failure was, as I remember it, “Percy, the chick, had a fall. Percy, the chick, had a fall.” At three-and-a-half years old, pretending to be five years old, told to say false that I was five years old, that declaration, “Percy, the chick, had a fall” remained in my mind and in my memory and so when I met Lucifer years later, I knew how to read all sorts of things but I did not understand them. I did not understand the ideas contained in them, these ideas in which my historical existence, my common experience were contained, but something in me, I will not call it instinct, knew that the lone black chick who wished to fly up to the top of the rail of the fence and see all that made up the paradise of Mr. Joe’s farm, might be a way of understanding, and so therefore, loving Lucifer, the morning light.
A paradise has an author. A paradise has a creator. In Lucifer’s case, that paradise, according to his author, had been carved out of an infernal chaos of elements, untransmuted, into an order that is called a garden. In my case, paradise was island situated between a sea on one side, an ocean on the other. My island was the result of the earth’s progression to its ultimate ending or not, as far as anybody knows. My paradise had an author and a creator. It has a name, but I will just now say to you that it is the seventeenth largest island on the earth’s surface.
I am a writer, you know that. I sit in a room somewhere by myself and I imagine things, and then I try to find the words that will make real, or an approximation of real, what I have been piecing together in my head, and I put them on paper and I hope someone will read them. And so what I have had in my mind, my imagination, then takes on a reality, becomes something of substance to the person reading what I have written, and will see the world as I do, the world of my inner self, my imagination. It is that world I see and understand. You must bite the hand the feeds you. Yes, you are instructed to do the opposite, the instruction is, as I say, “You must not bite the hand that feeds you.” And that is said to you with severity and reverence, and to do the opposite is among the unspoken commandments. Certainly among one of the famous ten, this idea is delicately secreted. “Honor your immediate progenitors.” But it seems to me that you must bite that hand, for how else will you know who you are, who you truly are? Are you the morning star, permanently shining in the fixed firmament? Are you Lucifer with your righteousness so self-evident, so assumed, that for any doubt regarding it is a heresy of such enormity, a world must be destroyed? When you bite the hand that feeds you, it will cast you out and show you hell. And it will be that, hell. But can you make a heaven out of that?
I say to that, yes. For that heaven from which Lucifer came, that heaven from which you will be cast out, is hell. But only you, only you are able to see it. If you find yourself in a heaven, you must be certain it is not a hell. If you find yourself in a hell, you can make a heaven of it. Thank you.