Windrush, Laozi, and Race Conflicts in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.

The ancient Daoist philosopher Laozi once told us that: ‘Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.’ With this phrase he wants us to imagine a lake, whose balance has been disrupted, and has therefore swept up a storm of murky earth from its bottom, clouding its crystal clear surface. Such a lake’s water will, for a time, seem polluted and disturbed; but, with the benefit of time, the earth will settle back to where it was and the water will look clear once again. Of course such an analogy is supposed to remind us to be patient through times of anxiety; but I, for the purpose of this article, wish you to think of that lake as a government, the UK government, and the mud as its politicians’ rhetoric of equality. For, no matter how long the lake’s rhetoric flows at the surface, convincing the world of its egalitarianism, of its liberty, that earth will eventually be swallowed again by the lake. Revealing for us, in all its horror, the crystal clear nature of its bigotry.

The catalyst for such a stark, and forceful, reminder of this bigotry came in the form of the Windrush scandal. Which, by the power of its own realities, made clear the inherent forms of racially charged injustice still present in the cycles of government. The ‘hostile environment’ created by Theresa May (not Amber Rudd, who acted as the human shield), set in motion the first clearing of that muddy water, so that now, through the inevitabilities of its policies, has illustrated the lake’s inherent cruelty.

These almost hereditary attitudes, and the repetitions of abuse conducted towards the Windrush generation by the system that espouses them, can be firmly identified in the colonial history of the “west-indies”, or as it is better known, the Caribbean. This string of islands, ranging from Cuba to Trinidad and Tobago, has changed from many an imperial hand, and became the go-to place for european colonialists to supplant their slave populations for the purpose of growing cash-crops. It is here, in such a melting pot of culture, language and origins, that gave birth to the generation who arrived in the UK via HMT Empire Windrush.

Many of those travellers (mainly from Jamaica) settled here, worked here, paid taxes, contributed to the system and developed our culture; and yet, despite years of progress, scandals such as Windrush have still surfaced. The reality of the lake was muddied, but over time, and through mean-spirited policy, the crystal clear bigotry was uncovered.

The complexities of these developments of race, ethnicity, identity and imperialism are plain to see; and confusing for sure. There are; however, works out there that, although lying within the realm of fiction, speak irrefutable truths about the relations between Britain and the Caribbean. One such work is named: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, a pioneering rewriting and fleshing out of Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic”; Rochester’s Creole wife in Jane Eyre, who was forcibly locked up on account of her “madness”.

In this book she becomes Antoinette Mason, a white Creole girl growing up in British-controlled Jamaica. Her previously slave-owning family goes bankrupt, causing her to be ostracized by both the black community, whose grievances are obvious, and the white community, who have a phobia for her poverty and her mixed-background. Her position as the hated other for both communities does not make her a saint; however, as you may see here:‘But how can she know the best thing for me to do, this ignorant, obstinate, old negro woman.’ Such a statement seems contradictory and arrogant, not only because of its racism, but because of her own creole heritage. But Antoinette, through both the black communities want for their own, secure identity, and through the imperial’s racist condemnation of such an identity, becomes this mixed bag of outward and self-flagellation. She is considered both a ‘white cockroach’ by those Jamaicans her family oppressed, and ‘worthless and spoilt’ by a British man whose sees her slight “blackness” as a sign of ‘the madness that is in her’. Her husband, the famous Rochester of Jane Eyre, is so embroiled in his feelings of racial superiority that he becomes constantly wary of what he feels are the ‘lazy’, ‘horrible’ and ‘dirty’ components of her being.

Jean Rhys, through the lens of a woman with a mixed background, evocates the explosive axis of conflict between the oppressor and oppressed, the domestic and the other, in a way that illustrates for us the malicious progenitor of the British government’s own dangerous attitudes. The lake, whose muddy rhetoric has been swept away, is deep, and contains multitudes of contradictory hostilities whose origins fall back far back into history. The hostility that has affected the Windrush generation, and the prejudice that allowed it to happen, has its past illustrated in Wide Sargasso Sea. It is a masterpiece of a book, and a must-read.

You can buy the book for £5.67 on Amazon UK, for £5.99 at Waterstones, or for £6.79 at The Guardian Bookshop.

3 Comments

  1. F says:

    A lovely, unepected metaphor that drew me into your article! You also link your point well to Wide Sargasso Sea 🙂

  2. F says:

    A lovely, unexpected metaphor that drew me into your article 🙂

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