Althea Spencer Miller–Althea Spencer Miller

In 1969, Aimé Césaire wrote an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which he titled, A Tempest. Though all the original characters reappear in A Tempest, my focus is on Prospero and Caliban. Shakespeare’s Caliban, a savage, is the antithesis of civilization according to Prospero, who as protagonist, informs and assures the reader/hearer. Assuredly, it is unoriginal on my part to point out the analogy of colonialism that Caliban’s and Prospero’s relationship provide – an analogy cemented by the occupation and conquest of Caliban and his island by Prospero. Caribbean peoples, in our histories and in some remaining island colonies today, understand the gravity of Prospero’s occupation and derogation of Caliban. Our islands were colonized by England, France, Spain, and The Netherlands – our Prosperos. Césaire wrote A Tempest at a time when Caribbean nations were achieving independence from their colonizers. Independence signified the desire for nationhood marked by economic self-reliance, political autonomy, and cultural renaissance, or the rising of Caliban.

One of Césaire’s strategies in Caliban’s renaissance is ancestral reclamation. Ancestral reclamation is necessitated by one of the most invidious forms of dehumanization, the attack on a people’s history and historical cultures. To put it in African terms, it is an assault of the ancestors. African ancestors are the bearers of a people’s nobility, signs of the highest possible aspirations, guardians of that morality which ensures success. Ancestors are not to be trifled with. To maim, caricature, vilipend, or dislocate the ancestral memories is to do moral injury and inflict harm. It is an inexpiable wrong. By this, know the heinousness of savaging Caliban and understand the force of Caliban’s declarations as he responds to Prospero in A Tempest.

“Prospero: ‘What would you be without me?

Caliban: Without you? I’d be the king, that’s what I’d be, the King of the Island. The King of the Island given me by my mother, Sycorax.

Prospero: There are some family trees it’s better not to climb. She’s a ghoul! A witch from whom – and may God be praised – death has delivered us.

Caliban: Dead or alive, she was my mother, and I won’t deny her!

Caliban’s encompassing reclamation of his mother is the antithesis of Prospero’s derogation. In this way, Césaire effectively recalibrates Caliban. Caliban reclaims his heritage, at least in aspiration and intent. That is what attention to the oral “and” contributes to, the reclamation and restoration of heritage and of ancestral mores, knowledge, and due right. In A Tempest, Caliban rebels, albeit unsuccessfully. But Prospero’s obtuseness, causes him to trumpet, “It’s odd …. no matter what you do, you won’t succeed in making me believe that I am a tyrant!” (Césaire, 61) thus provoking Caliban’s outraged outcry,

Understand what I say, Prospero:

For years I bowed my head

For years I took it, all of it –

Your insults, your ingratitude . . .

But now it’s over!

Over, do you hear?

Prospero, you’re a great magician:

You’re an old hand at deception. (Césaire: 61)

And you’ve lied to me so much,

About the world, about myself, that you ended up by imposing on me

An image of myself:

Underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetent

That’s how you made me see myself!

And I hate that image . . . and it’s false!

But now I know you, you old cancer,

And I also know myself!

And I know that . . .

The old world is crumbling down! (Césaire, 62)

That is Caliban’s promise. It would take a long time to be fulfilled – and it is still coming.[1] It would seem that Prospero is more prophetic than Caliban when he says, “You know I will be the stronger, and stronger all the time. I pity you!” (Césaire, 63)! Yet, the tides differ. The aggregative “and” has plied on, piling on wave upon wave of Caribbean and African intellectual traditions. Each in its generation reaching forward for liberation and backward to find the ancestors. There, then is the reason for “and.” The ancestors demand restitution. The reversal is underway. The time is now. The decolonizing frontier is epistemological and folkloric. And . . .

And when were the ancestors despised? That’s my first indicative “and.” It is invitational and indicative of an imagined interlocutor who requires a response. The evidence is weighty and oft reprised within Christian traditions and scholarship. I will point briefly to Georg Friedrich Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. According to Hegel, “In Africa proper, [man] has not progressed beyond a merely sensuous existence, and has found it absolutely impossible to develop any further. Physically he exhibits great muscular strength, which enables him to perform arduous labours; and his temperament is characterized by good-naturedness, which is coupled, however with completely unfeeling cruelty.” (Hegel, 1998, 172-73) [2] Additionally, he described Africans as devoid of history, cannibalistic, lacking in moral sentiment, being of impoverished religiosity, and well suited for slavery. In his book published in 2011, Hegel and the Third World: The Making of Eurocentrism in World History, Teshale Tibebu inveighs that, “Hegel justified African enslavement in the Americas, rationalized the American holocaust, and articulated a sophisticated theory of the rationality of European colonial expansion on the grounds that the inherent contradictions of bourgeois civil society need a colonial outlet into the Third World.” (Tibebu, 2011, xiii) From Césaire’s adaptation, I can hear Caliban shouting, “You’re an old hand at deception. You have lied to me so much.” (Césaire, 61-2) For many this is a needlessly belabored point and one that we should hurry past. For Edouard Glissant, the road to freedom of the soul must disentangle beginning with the points of contact. Thinking about the oral “and” as an ancestral imperative counters intellectual amnesia and decontextualization. It is a decolonizing task and a kind of Glissantian strategy.

New Testament scholar, Walter Ong, participates in ancestral disparagement when he opines on the word, “and” as a superfluous product of oral psychodynamics. Here, I can only briefly skim the connection between Hegel’s disfigured Africa, as a cultural ancestral ground and the minimalization and derogation to which Ong relegates orality. Orality is most commonly associated with illiteracy. As such, it is characterized as lacking the higher skills of abstraction and conceptualization. In many discussions of orality those higher skills are reserved for cultures that produce Latin script for reading and writing. Literacy, then is a marker of higher civilization. Walter Ong assumed, with the appearance of uncritical smugness and propelled by Claude Levi-Strauss’ experience of a Primary Oral Culture, that literacy is the highest aspiration of illiterate cultures. The African ancestors lacked for literacy’s capacities as did other POCs – acronymic pun intended.[3] There is, then, the appearance of a nexus. In it, non-Latin scripting, non-white ethnicities, illiteracy, underdevelopment, and epistemic inferiority are inextricably related. The nexus then provides an essentialized, inextricable, and irrefutable entanglement of characteristics that are pinned on to the bare shoulders of POCs and our cultures of origin. They constitute the unexamined presuppositions about orality that ground New Testament orality studies. I hear Césaire’s Caliban crying, “Liars!”

This essentialist, inextricably entangled knot of inferior characteristics, presented with Prospero’s certitude, I propose, are presuppositions and assumptions for Walter Ong’s presentation of oral psychodynamics in his book, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. He presents nine pairs of binaries that are the sum of oral psychodynamics. The oppositional pair selected for this presentation is that orality is additive rather than subordinative. Hence “and” appears as an example of the inefficiency of oral styles. Ong’s diagnosis of “and” is that its repetitious use in biblical manuscripts “strikes the present-day sensibility as remote, archaic, and even quaint. Peoples in oral cultures or cultures with high oral residue, including the culture that produced the Bible, do not savor this sort of expression as so archaic or quaint. It feels natural and normal to them somewhat as the New American version feels natural and normal to us.” (Ong, 37). “Us” are Americans, literate Americans reading his book. “Us” does not include Americans whose primary experience is of culture with high oral residue. “Us does not include people like myself from literate cultures that are grounded in oral relationalities and national functionalities. He does not think that “I” would read his book. Do I hear Césaire’s Caliban? Yes! I hear Césaire’s Caliban? He is breaking the artifice of entanglement as he shouts, “Dead or alive, Sycorax was my mother, and I won’t deny her! And,

I can hear my mothers cry

I can hear their red tears

Though I cannot see their faces

Ramah weeps for her children

Because they are not

Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia,

Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone

Lost scripts, abused scripts,

Yet the mothers’ tears write

One with ocean waves, deep tides

To brush the Caribbean Sea

Whispering, “Remember”[4]

Across the seas, intergenerational transmissions, codes written skeletally and in the musculature, cells, nuclear and mitochondrial memory, are remembered with the body, re-membered with the heart. From north, south, east, west, the memories reach for each other for Sycorax is. I rejoice in their accumulating presence creating vital and vitalizing intellectual trends.

One of the trends’ attitudes is perhaps best articulated by Hamid Dabashi who responds in part with a tirade against critics of one of his earlier essays. He says:

I was in fact addressing no European philosopher at all. But whenever something happens anywhere around the world they think it has something to with them. It does not. And that precisely is the point: people like me are no longer interested in whatever it is they fancy to be “hegemonic” or “counter-hegemonic” in Europe and for Europeans. We have been to much greener pastures. Yet these belated defenders of the dead interlocutor they call “the West” were not up to speed with where we were. We (by which I mean we colored boys and girls from their former colonies) were mapping a new topography of the world (our world, the whole planetary disposition of the globe we are now claiming as ours) in our thinking and scholarship; while they were turning their ignorance of this body of work into a critical point of strength for their philosophical arguments – just as their forebears did with our parents’ labor, abused and discarded it.[5]

Further, he says his book, Can Non-Europeans Think?:

points to a mode of thinking . . . marked as beyond the limits of the condition called “postcoloniality.” This book comes together, in effect, as a declaration of independence, not just from the condition of postcoloniality, but from the limited and now exhausted epistemics it had historically occasioned. Here you will perhaps have detected a cautious searching for the paths ahead, for a condition and urgency of thinking beyond coloniality, beyond postcoloniality, and thus above all beyond the explicit or implicit presence of a European interlocutor looking over our shoulder as we write.[6]

Césaire, you have been heard through your Caliban! So what does all this have to do with Ong, oral psychodynamics, “and,” and New Testament Studies? Much.

Ong identified the additive oral style in the Bible. It appears in the repetitious, seemingly redundant use of “and” in Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Ong noted it in Gen. 1:1-5 but the style is also present in the New Testament. The New American Bible excludes all those “ands” substituting words like when, while, then or thus. The New Revised Standard and New International Versions work similarly to the New American Bible. Ong quotes Chafe, that “and’s” repetitiousness should be refined, “to provide a flow of narration with the analytic, reasoned subordination that characterizes writing and that appears more natural in twentieth-century texts.” (Chafe 1982, 37) Once writing cultures develop to the point where the disconnect from orality is great, then oral writing supersedes unpalatability, it contains inconsequential and illogical additives such as “and.” To adapt Dabashi’s question, “Can oral POC’s reason?” Like Edouard Glissant before him, Paget Henry answers, “Yes!” In Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy, Henry describes Afro-Caribbean philosophy as emergent from but abandoning of Euro-Caribbean hegemony with its linkages to European philosophical traditions. The intent to “destroy” that heritage “produced a seismic shift in its orientation. The third of three phases in this shift were shared by two schools, the poeticists, e.g. Claude McKay, Aime Cesaire, Edouard Glissant, Derek Walcott, Sylvia Wynter, to which I would add Irma Brodber, Paulette Nardal, and Pauline Nardal. The other, the historicists would include persons such as Marcus Garvey, C. L. R. James and Frantz Fanon. Today, I am selecting to work with the fruit of the poeticists in an effort to explicate “and” in order to rescue it from Ong’s additive banality and to honor the ancestors.

In the actual presentation, I narrated a Jamaican folk tale titled, “Sore Bwoy an de Yella Snake” as recorded in Jamaican Folktales and Oral Histories [7] This tale is one that was transcribed from live narration. It frequently used, “and.” “And” comes alive in the telling and functions in a number of identifiable ways. The narration of “Sore Bwoy” was precursor to a reading of the transfiguration narrative with “and” replacing a number of smoothed translations. The tales were told as stories with “and” holding sway. As the repetitious use of “and” assumed its rightful place in both narratives, its vocalization demonstrated a few particular functions that were signifiers in the dynamic of both stories. The first was an agglutinative function. “And” gave to the story a sense of continuity and accretion. It knit the parts together as a paste that allowed each to be its own but connected. Agglutination is an affect that occurs in the telling. “And’s primary function then is as an agglutinant, not an accrual. As such “and” was expressive. It lifted the next segment and the immediately following language into excitement, wonder, perplexity, crescendo. Its expressiveness leant inflections to the narration that elicited bodily actions. “And” transported the narrator into shrugs, flailing hands, deflating exhalations and inflating inhalations that brought a complete body/text integration such that the text was extended to the body and transformed into waves and rhythms. I argue that “and” facilitated this in a way that “while,” and “when,” “then,” and “thus” may not. From the storyteller’s experience, these words objectify the text, needing supplements to restore connectivity. For texts that are the products of oral cultures, to be read for and by oral persons, the oral imaginary, applied anachronistically, restores dimensions to these ancient texts that the chirographic imaginary disembodied. The oral “and” transfigures the delivery, reception, and the interpretation.

How do I know this? That is how my parents told stories. They learned it from their parents. They learned it in the village. The slaves brought it across the Atlantic. I hear the ancestors laughing, laughing for “and!”


[1] Cf. Kortright Davis, Emancipation Still Comin’: Explorations in Caribbean Emancipatory Theology (Orbis Books, 1994).

[2] Cited in Teshale Tibebu, Hegel and the Third World: The Making of Eurocentrism in World History (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2011) xiv.

[3] POC stands as acronym for both “Primary Oral Cultures” and currently, “Peoples of Color.”

[4]  Althea Spencer Miller, Lachrymal Memories Unpublished Poem.

[5] See interview, “Hamid Dabashi: Can Non-Europeans Think” accessed September 5,1971.

[6] “F**k You Žižek!” accessed September 5, 1971.

[7] Laura Tanner, ed. Jamaican Folktales and Oral Histories. (DLT Associates, 2000).