Goodison’s ‘Inna Calabash as a Gender-responsive Approach to Caribbean History

One slave child
that count already
while it inside my belly
tell them that the baby
Inna Calabash.”

(An excerpt from ‘Inna Calabash’ by Lorna Goodison)

As my Caribbean tongue finds a steady rhythm rolling across these lines, I can practically hear the beating of African drums invoking ancestral spirits to come tell their stories. Simple as they may seem, these lines are a powerful depiction of the cunning required to be an African woman in pre-emancipated Jamaica. Goodison’s “Inna Calabash” highlights one of the many non-insurrectionary measures which women took to oppose African chattel slavery. The persona is a slave girl of childbearing age. In the poem, she explains how she learned to access “a little soft life and ease” like the “Misses” by using the shell of a gutted Calabash. 

As a way to escape the more laborious tasks, it was not uncommon for African slave women to feign pregnancy. They did so by tying an empty Calabash shell under their “oznaburg” frock to create the impression of a pregnancy. On discovering the bump, their white masters (who eagerly counted all unborn children as potential chattel) would assign the lighter tasks to the apparently pregnant slaves. This would hopefully decrease the already high chance of them having a miscarriage. Side note: I found that it was interesting how in a system where the females were worked just as hard as males, women learned to harness their biological makeup to gain an advantage. Today, in a society where females are forced to break the glass ceiling to access equal opportunities and compensation as their male counterparts, we (myself included), choose to suppress our natural biological abilities to gain an advantage. I guess this is the beauty of technology and the versatility that it provides. Though it raises the question, if females were given equal ‘opportunity’ when it benefitted economic powers, then I wonder who is benefitting from keeping the vast majority of women out of boardrooms and high powered positions. But that’s a discussion for another essay!

The slave girl in the poem credits this creative Calabash idea to ‘Quasheba’, a Jamaican urban myth of a Sunday-born female. Quasheba is regarded as the mother of rebellion and resistance against oppression, especially of women. It’s absolutely necessary to note, that Quasheba is a figure from African ORAL history. Winston Churchill once said that history is written by the victors. In the Caribbean, our history strongly influences the major thematic concerns of our literature. This is why poets and activists like Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite and Martin Carter have dedicated their extensive literary careers to exploring and rewriting history to account for the Caribbean’s own post-colonial experience. Our literature is, therefore, a symbol of our victory despite desolate beginnings. But if history is written by the victors what about our victrices? If women were not accounted for in our history, how were they supposed to be reflected in our post-colonial literature? By drawing reference to oral tradition and its role during African slavery, Goodison automatically re-writes women into Caribbean history. Through this poem, she manages to acknowledge women as relevant to the injustices suffered, validates the female experience, and commends female resistance against slavery. This poem can be read as a powerful retrospective act of solidarity.

Though “Inna Calabash” specifically relates to the slavery experience, we can safely say that women today still have various forms of oppression and repression to resist. We see that while some women are constantly making strides toward a more inclusive social narrative, there have been consistent attempts to continue discrediting their achievements and to write them out of history. A recent example from the Caribbean happened on March 9th, 2020. In honour of international Women’s Day, a youth parliament was organized by ‘Young Women in Leadership Trinidad and Tobago’ (YWiLTT). The event was the culmination of the YWiLTT Conference 2020 which was geared toward encouraging young women to seek leadership positions in politics, the public, and the private sector. The participants who were between the ages of 18 – 25 had the task of debating a “Gender-responsive Budget”. 

After a successful sitting, Speaker of the House, Brigid Annisette-George congratulated the women on being “the first” in the Caribbean; “you broke down the boundaries for an all-woman parliament” she said, and then she proceeded to commend them on being “well-researched” for the debate. Yet, on March 11th 2020, a headline reporting on the event read: “Plenty Banter and Rebuttals as all-female ‘Parliament’ debates.” As if stirred up by the spirit of Quasheba, participants of the debate quickly took to social media to voice their dissatisfaction with the journalism.

Posting a picture of the full newspaper article, Trinidadian poet and activist, Ashlee Burnett wrote:

“This headline is extremely problematic and enforces a type of narrative that many hold when speaking about women. As you’d know, I too was part of this Parliamentary debate. I had the privilege to witness 57 women skilfully deliver their contributions which were well-researched

Another participant, Mya John also wrote:

“…We live in a society where women’s voices are often muzzled or reduced in significance…I hope that someday we would see that women’s voices are significant and it’s more than banging tables and witty comments.”

And after a lengthy post about the ordeal, Alliyah Jackson closed her discussion by posing this question: 

“Is this merely a poor choice of words or a reflection of the views that many members in our society still hold of women in politics?”

I’d like to join with these women in asking my own questions: If it were an all-male youth parliamentary debate would the headline have been worded differently? Would the journalism have foregrounded the seriousness of the simulation? Would they have emphasized that the future of our local government was in safe hands because not only are our youth interested, but they’re proving themselves to be capable of making educated contributions toward the governance of our country? These women are pioneers. They’ve made history and yet, a local newspaper seeks to diminish this accomplishment. Instead of congratulating them, journalists chose to perpetuate a stigma that women are “playful” and not to be taken seriously. Educated discussion and well researched material has been reduced to ‘banter.’

Goodison, through her poetry acknowledges that, yes, our women are witty, they are creative and they are intelligent. This was how they survived the hardships of plantation life!  Their wit and intelligence is exactly what makes women capable of taking everything that society tells them they should not have. But the moral of all of this is; when we did not have the right we used our wit, and when we didn’t have a say, we had a voice loud enough to whisper rebellious tactics down to generations. Now, almost 200 years later, these are the poems and the stories that we encourage our children to read at school. In 2020, women no longer have to hide. Women have a place to take in written history. We no longer have to whisper to survive, we can – and as you see – we will open our mouths loudly against all injustice. And whether society likes it or not, we will stand in Parliament and allocate to all what is rightfully theirs, including ourselves. Lorna Goodison’s “Inna Calabash” is proof enough that the narrative of resistance will always be incomplete without the “her” side of his-story.

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