Central Africa in the Caribbean: Transcending Time, Transforming Cultures. MAUREEN WARNER-LEWIS. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2003. xxxvi + 391 pp.
This interdisciplinary study has much to recommend it. It provides a useful survey of the substantial literature now available, but often not readily accessible, concerning the impact of western Central African culture on “the islands of the Caribbean Sea and circum-Caribbean areas in Central and South America” (p. xix). It also advances scholarship by a critical examination of recent monographs across the growing subfields of English, French, and Spanish Caribbean studies. Warner-Lewis is in a privileged position to take this comparative approach, for she has done original oral-history research on Jamaica and Cuba as well as on her primary area of study, Trinidad and Tobago.
In her introduction, Warner-Lewis criticizes what she sees as the persistence, especially within the English and French Caribbean, of the idea that African cultures were diverse in the extreme, and that this, together with the conditions imposed by the slave-trade/plantation system, made the perdurance in the New World of specific cultures impossible. Instead, she reaffirms the concept of African culture zones, indeed of even broader commonalities among the enslaved, and stresses continuities across the Middle Passage, including the ability of many Africans initially to reconstruct their original speech communities. Continuity was particularly strong, in Warner-Lewis’s view, in “private/personal” micro-institutions: such things as “songs, games, proverbs, [and] cooking methodologies” (p. xxviii). Thus, she sees individual and group creativity in the formation of “creole cultures” (among Africans and between Africans and Europeans) as conditioned by the continued presence of particularistic heritages, as well as by strong possibilities of dialogue between Africans from a given culture area, or even from different ones. On the question of African continuities Warner-Lewis takes issue with Sidney Mintz and Richard Price (1992) but perhaps discards too readily the possibility that the model of historical change that they propose could be adapted to her purposes.
Warner-Lewis’s sources are published materials from observers of the Caribbean since 1500 and interviews conducted with “associates and descendants of Central Africans” (p. xix). She analyzes these materials in the light of the bibliography on west Central Africa (seen as a culture area), particularly travelers’ and missionaries’ accounts and modern anthropological studies regarding the Kongo, Mbundu, and Ovimbundu peoples of the lower Zaire basin and western Angola.