A Story of Jamaican Cultural Resistance
Anansi the Spider, a well known figure in West African lore, acquired another life in the Caribbean. He travelled there perhaps more than five centuries ago, in the slave trade’s forced migrations. Anansi stories, in sanitized published versions, may resemble entertaining tales of morally ambiguous, lisping, limping trickster figure, whose verbal and physical disguises, including gender shifting, serve his changing appetites: Anansi cheats Death, rides Tiger to impress a girl, or coaxes his fellows into his cooking pot. As Emily Zobel Marshall shows, however, with Anansi there is always something more going on.
Beginning with Anansi’s roots among the Asante communities of Africa, Marshall finds that the spider-hero, though similar to shape-shifter gods, is an individualist. Anansi moves easily between wilderness and safe zones, upsetting both, but ultimately reinforcing the sense of order in the community. Transferred to colonial Jamaica, Anansi’s behaviour and its meaning change. His deceptions and increased violence become linked with the subversive intelligence necessary to survive and resist plantation conditions, with bullies such as Dry-Bone and Death at large.
Marshall’s assertion that the stories provided “mental training” for active resistance is, however, problematic. Despite her sharp analysis of rebellions and no-holds-barred self-preservation strategies, it is a stretch to suggest, as she does, that these are literal translations of metaphorical “Anansi tactics”. Her account of Jamaica’s Maroon communities- formed, as early as the sixteenth century, of runaways who became formidable warriors with limited territorial control even today- highlights living elements of African-Caribbean culture, including story-telling. But the Maroons’ sophisticated and practical means of self-fashioning exceeded the stories that inspired them and which, in turn, reflected them.