I recently came across Michelle Cliff’s work because I am composing my doctoral exam fields and was advised to add Michelle Cliff’s texts to my reading lists. Although, I haven’t read much of her work, her collection, The Land of Look Behind, profoundly impacted my scholarship and my academic and creative thought. In her preface- “A Journey into Speech” Michelle Cliff wrote about her difficulty with writing this book, since she struggled to “competently” and intellectually write about her personal life. She claims her dissertation provided her with “an intellectual belief in [her]self that [she] had not had before” and simultaneously this intellectual belief in herself, she writes, was “distancing me from who I am, rendering me speechless about who I am” (11). So much of my academic work relies on what I or my family have lived through- it is the reason why decolonial and feminist practices and ideologies influence and shape my research, my thought, and my goals. Yet, I too struggle with speechlessness.
I entered my doctoral program right after I obtained my bachelor’s degree, so I struggle with this feeling of being an outsider- of knowing and not knowing at the same time. In her essay, Michelle Cliff states, “I could speak fluently, but I could not reveal’ (12). It is hard for me to communicate in my academic and personal work how much academia has made me feel like I do not belong because I feel like I carry my ancestors and family with me in every single classroom, meeting, abstract submission, and academic space I occupy or endeavor I approach. And, this weight makes me I feel like I have so much more to prove because my Caribbean diasporic descent, my class, my gender, and my ebonics resonate with strangers far more than my intellect or character. Like Michelle Cliff, my light skin does not save me from the colonial ghost that haunts my island, my family, and myself. She writes about the legacies of colonialism in her homeland of Jamaica and how the oppressors have become middle-class Jamaicans who interpolate and perpetuate colonialist, racist, sexist logic.
Her writing helps me make sense of the world around of me and my position as a subject in it- witnessing, surviving, and analyzing. Her words provide with clarity and a humbling way to helps thinking about the ways in which my Puerto Rican family internalizes and continues to perpetuate cultural logics and myths produced by U.S. hegemony. Michelle Cliff wrote, “one of the effects of assimilation, indoctrination, and passing into the anglocentrism of British West Indian culture is that you believe absolutely in the hegemony of the King’s English and in the form in which it is meant to be expressed. Or else your writing is not literature; it is folklore, and folklore can never be art” (13). This passage resonated with me the most because as a child, my siblings and I were ostracized for not speaking the proper form of Spanish and for naturally code-switching between Spanish and English. As a young teenager, I mimicked ‘perfect Spanish’ speakers and felt ashamed to speak in my native tongue in front of strangers. In Nuyorican poetry, I felt my experiences were legitimized and real. The colonial ghost that is implicated in Cliff’s work, and notable in many diasporic writers like Junot Diaz, Julia de Burgos and so on, has haunted me for so long because, like my mother and father, I inherited erasure and myth as truth.
In my own decolonial project, which is ongoing and evolving, I will think of Michelle Cliff. Part of Michelle Cliff’s decolonial project, as a writer and as a historian, is to obtain wholeness and produce work within fragmentation, to recover from erasure, to be herself outside of her family and society’s expectations. As a Puerto Rican, I can not read Michelle Cliff’s work without thinking about the colonial ghost in Puerto Rico- past and present- and of my responsibility as a scholar and graduate student to produce scholarship and testimony in the service of undoing erasure, of seeking justice.
Michelle Cliff states, “To write as a complete Caribbean woman, or man for that matter, demands us retracing the African part of ourselves, reclaiming as our own, and as our subject, a history sunk under the sea, or trapped in a class system notable for its rigidity and absolute dependence on color stratification. On a past bleached from our minds. It means finding the artforms of these of our ancestors and speaking in the patois forbidden us” (14). No longer am I ashamed of the pieces of myself I was taught to hate, and my goal is to help my family, my friends, and future students participate in the decolonial project Michelle Cliff has showcased to us in her writing. Her decolonial love to herself and her nation rejects racial violence, sexual politics, anti-blackness, gender roles, femininity, and oppositional politics. For me, Michelle Cliff’s legacy is carried in the lesson of testifying… she bore witness to her experiences as a Caribbean lesbian woman in the U.S., London, and Jamaica and etched her story into our lives as an example of obtaining wholeness in fragmentation-forever.
Cliff, Michelle. The Land of Look Behind. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1985. Print.
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