A Tradition of Individualism vs. Communalism


A fundamental value that shapes Western European emphasis on the right to accumulate, and to ownership of property and people, is the right of the individual. Western law, for example, legalizes the individual rights of property owners. The U.S. Constitution gave states the power to determine who was allowed to vote. The states in turn enfranchised property owners and denied the vote to the nonpropertied, nonwhite, and nonmale -- Indians, blacks, women, and propertyless indentured servants. "The Supreme Court of the United States to this day says that the U.S. government is free to take away Indian land, to confiscate it, to extinguish aboriginal Indian title without due process of law, without any compensation and without any regard whatever for the Fifth Amendment" (Coulter, 62).

Communal, not individual rights, formed the moral and public codes and laws which governed tribal life in the Americas and Africa. It is one's obligation to community, not oneself, which is binding. Indians, blacks, and Latinos discover their identity in and through community.

Paula Gunn Allen


The hero of Western literature, on the other hand, discovers himself by separating from others, striking out for independence, and becoming his own man. In Western culture, independence, and thus maturity, is achieved in separation. Native writer Paula Gunn Allen says Native American literature focuses on themes of modern enslavement and colonization to reveal these ruptures of communal identity and meaning. "A theme that shows up frequently in Native writers' stories [is] about jail, boarding school, war and abduction. In all these stories the underlying theme is about forced separation, signifying the loss of self and the loss of personal meaning" (Gunn Allen, 8) 

Slaves and maroons of the Caribbean and Latin and North America preserved the African tradition of mati, which emphasizes a ritual of kinship that implies a friendship based on deep bonds of solidarity. This practice, referring to the experience of having shared passage on the same slave ship, extended the sense of community care and responsibility for the people that slave culture embraced. As in Indians' culture, black identity is discovered through solidarity with one's people, not through Western hero's quest.


For Caribbean writer Jan Carew, identity was achieved by recovering his memories in Guyana village life which culturally location his connection to generations of ancestors. 

Leaving Agricola, I soon began to realize that my village in the sun was an important spectrum through which, for the rest of my life, I would view the world. The more widely I travelled, the more forcibly it struck me that Agricola with all its mysteries – its deceptive façade of poverty, squalor, and apparent hopelessness – was, in fact a microcosm of the Third World. Growing up there, I made the acquaintance of secret sorrows and beheld the vision of hidden, stubborn hopes from my soul landscapes within. I needed to have true images of myself and a sense of identity clearer than the one I carried in my mind’s eye and ear. All the scattered pieces of my life in Agricola and the complex configuration of my ancestral links had to be shaped into a whole if I was going to live with myself… it is slowly dawned on me that I was the product of a bewildering array of races, colors, creeds, and cultures; that I carried in me the blood of masters and slaves, bondsmen and overseers, renegade’s castaways, and convicts. 

~Jan Carew, Fulcrums of Change, 119


Reclaiming culture requires recovery of the people’s lost voice and history. To remember is to discover the culture of ancestors and in the process discover oneself. Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff describes the process.

Jamaica is a place halfway between Africa and England, to put it simply, although one culture (guess which one) has been esteemed and the other denigrated… as a writer, as a human being, I have had to accept that reality and deal with its effect on me, as well as finding what has been lost to me from the darker side, and what may be hidden, to be dredged from memory and dream. And it is there to be dredged.

To write as a complete Caribbean woman, or man for that matter, demands of us a retracing of the African part of ourselves, reclaiming as our own, and as our subject, a history sunk under the sea, or scattered as potash in the canfields, or gone to bush, 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 art forms of these of our ancestors and speaking in the patois forbidden us. 

~Michelle Cliff, “A Journal into Speech”

African Creation Myth

The Africans... do not on the whole share the almost universal preoccupation of Amerindians with the creation of the world. [However]... African myths are impregnated with realism and in them gods and humans are never far apart, and the former are eternally responsible to the people they both rule and serve. The genesis myth of the Amerindians around Lake Titicaca portrayed the world as beginning when the Great Serpent stirred under the sea and pushed the earth upwards from murky depths. This makes the whole conceptual framework of creators and creation far more abstract than that of the West African myths which tell of the creation of people and not the world. The maroons of Jamaica, for example, tell of how Damballa, one of the senior West African members of their pantheon of gods, created humans by baking cakes. The burnt cakes were the ancestors of black people, those that were neither well baked not underdone were the ancestors of brown people, while white people were sired by cakes Damballa neglected to bake at all.

~Jan Carew, Fulcrums of Change, 75

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