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Beyond the Doctrine of ManDecolonial Visions of the Human$

Joseph Drexler-Dreis and Kristien Justaert

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780823286898

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823286898.001.0001

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Where Life Itself Lives

Where Life Itself Lives

(p.19) Chapter 1 Where Life Itself Lives
Beyond the Doctrine of Man

Mayra Rivera

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Sylvia Wynter’s work seeks to expose Man as an arbitrary conception inherently linked to racism and too often mistaken for the human as such. She also offers a more capacious model for being human—one that is culturally specific, relational and dynamic. This constructive dimension of her work is especially evident in her novel, The Hills of Hebron, for the literary genre is consonant with her argument that communities invent genres of being human from their local histories, the specificities of landscape, religious visions, and creative practices. This essay examines the contribution of the novel to Wynter’s broader project of deconstructing the doctrine of Man.

Keywords:   creative practices, The Hills of Hebron, “Man”, Sylvia Wynter

The story begins on Saturday. Holy Saturday, I presume, for their prophet is dead. Moses had inspired them to build a new community, to create a new life. He had promised them “those things that had been lost in their trespass across the seas, across the centuries”: “gods and devils that were their own … familiar ​trees and hills and huts and spears and cooking pots … their ​own land in which to see some image of themselves.”1 Now even the land is dead and “a strange lassitude” affects the bodies of the New Believers (40). Having lost hope, they have become like petrified beings. It was as if “life itself had died” (79).

Life itself is woven out of seemingly disparate things—gods, trees, cooking pots, and dreams; its patterns unique and evolving. But we tend not to treat trees or hopes as constitutive of life, for we have inherited modern conceptions of “Man” that reduce the human being to a natural organism. These conceptions occlude how cultural and social forces shape life itself—and thus the historical specificity of any given view of humanity. Sylvia Wynter’s work seeks to expose Man as an arbitrary and local conception inherently linked to racism. She also offers a more capacious model for being human—one that is culturally specific, relational, and dynamic.

(p.20) Wynter presents this view lucidly and empathically in The Hills of Hebron, her only novel. While her essays take a broad historical view, The Hills of Hebron zooms in to observe the dynamics of life from the perspective of a Jamaican community, thus highlighting the importance of local histories, the specificities of landscape, religious visions, and creative practices in the invention of particular ways of being human.

Writing the Past, Reinventing Being

Published early in Wynter’s career, The Hills of Hebron is marked by the urgency of questions of self-definition that occupied Jamaican intellectuals in the decades leading to independence. The novel offers a deep examination of how social/religious ideas shape life materially and thus implicitly challenges the avowed universality of European notions of the human, as well as reductionist biological views, which ignore history, landscape, and culture as inherent dimensions of what it means to be human. The novel is an example of what Wynter describes as the work of a “specific intellectual,” one who does not trade in universal categories but rather works “on the terrain and in the mode of struggle provided by the existential conditions of her or his life to which she or he bears witness.”2

Wynter relates the novel to the world of her grandparents, peasants who owned land. She explains that The Hills of Hebron was written out of her memories of that “self-contained peasant world.”3 “Even today,” Wynter explains, “the memory of that gives me a sense of grounding in an existential sense of justice, not as grim redistribution but as shared happiness.”4 The novel also gives witness to the memories of religious movements in the Caribbean; the legendary prophets Bedward in Jamaica and Jordan in Guyana serve as its main inspiration.

Prophet Bedward was a grassroots religious leader who worked mostly in Kingston at the beginning of the twentieth century. He identified with the Baptist leader of the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865, Paul Bogle. Bedward’s message emphasized “the need for land and justice, the injustices associated with White rule, and the necessity of setting up social welfare schemes that addressed the needs of the aged, infants, sick, and illiterate.”5 His congregation of up to thirty-six thousand members provided for its poor members. Bedward performed healing ceremonies at a time when the economic crisis in Jamaica affected medical services.6 Around 1920, he claimed that he would fly to heaven—evoking both the Caribbean legends of enslaved peoples flying back to Africa and the biblical story of Elijah riding in a chariot of fire. Bedward asked his followers to sell their (p.21) possessions in preparation for departing with him. There are different versions of what Bedward meant and what transpired on the day of the flight. Folk stories and songs relate that Bedward put on his white clothes and climbed a tree, telling the crowd gathered around him that he would fly and take them with him—only to crash.7 But even after his dramatic fall, Bedward continued to exercise influence on his remaining followers. In April 1921, in response to conflicts between his followers and the colonial authorities, he planned a march from August Town to Kingston, which resulted in his arrest for sedition.8 He was committed to a mental asylum, where he died. Bedward is remembered as a lunatic by some and as a political leader feared for his power to galvanize marginalized people into action by others.9

Prophet Jordan was a shoemaker who lived in Agricola, Guyana. Jan Carew describes him as an “extraordinary prophet-storyteller” who “never hesitated to bring biblical characters into his pagan mytho-poetic folk legends.”10 “Jordan spun tales of redemption and escape. … The reality he invented became more palpable, more real than the tawdry reality of Agricola itself.”11 In his 1958 novel Black Midas, Carew gives an account of prophet Jordan’s ministry.12 Jordan knows about farming, it explains, and thus he rented land where his followers worked. The farm prospered. When his enemies questioned “his right to the gift of prophecy,” he decides to make a strong statement on the day of his birthday. At the churchyard where they had gathered, he commands some of his followers to crucify him.

Moses, the main character in Wynter’s story, integrates traits of both Bedward and Jordan. Like Jordan, he is a storyteller who brings biblical stories to life and planned his own crucifixion. Like Bedward, Moses is a leader who promised he could fly and who was confined to a mental hospital. It would be easy to mock Jordan and Bedward for their extravagant promises. But Wynter refers to these prophetic movements as “precursors of the anticolonial movement that had opened onto [her] own political horizon.”13 Indeed, she points to the connection between the movements and the philosophical questions that occupy her. They “raised a specific political issue … ​a question of being”—not as an individual but as a collective one.14 Wynter draws on these histories creatively, seeking to illuminate the challenges of seeking new ways of being in a context shaped by the legacies of colonialism and slavery. As Wynter describes it, her aim was to think through alternative models of being human beyond its prevalent conceptions, beginning with the lives of the “wretched of the earth” (Fanon).

(p.22) The Hills of Hebron highlights the significance of the question of being by treating the emergence of a religious movement among the disenfranchised as an assertion of their dignity against a world that denied their humanity. As she argues in her theoretical essays, our very conception of the human is founded on the definition of indigenous peoples and those of African descent as lacking in being. Modernity defined Man in terms of the capacity for Reason, and it presupposed that only some men have the required rationality while others remained captive of their bodily senses. “Ontological Lack,” which medieval Christianity had attributed to all fallen humanity, “was now embodied, outside of Europe, in the binary opposition between the European settlers and the New World peoples (Indios) and the enslaved peoples of Africa (Negroes).”15 She calls this logic the “Word of Man.”

Those who are marked as lacking in true being experience the effects of this conception of the human externally—as social, political, and economic forces. But we also experience it internally—as self-abjection. Wynter notes the similarities between this self-abjection and Original Sin. “Like the lay man of medieval-Christian Europe who could realize optimal being as a baptized, redeemed feudal Christian subject only through his or her autophobic aversion to prebaptismal being as the embodiment of ‘fallen natural humanity’ enslaved to Original Sin,” Wynter observes, “the Antillean subject had to become reflexively autophobic to its own specific physiognomic being as the condition” of becoming Man.16

Even aspiring to be accepted as Man is a trap—for it mistakes a Modern European “local culture” conception of Man for humanity as a whole. “This conflation of Man/human then enables the well-being of this specific category of the human to be represented as if its well-being, too, were isomorphic with the well-being of the human species as a whole.”17 These cultural conceptions of the human continue to shape our desires, our behavior, our being. We are enchanted by Man, as if our well-being depended on it, and we accept carrying the burden of Original Sin. Uncovering this view of Man and its Others as arbitrary—as historically and culturally contingent—is a step in breaking our enchantment with Man. It implies a recognition that visions of Man cannot support the flourishing of those marked as others. New understandings of humanity must be invented, moving beyond Man and renouncing the very project of defining humanity in abstraction from culture in order to see human beings as always constituted by their sociomaterial environment. The Hills of Hebron offers glimpses of the emergence of culturally grounded, life-sustaining forms of being.

(p.23) Transforming Religion

Religion is part of the cultural fabric that shapes communal and individual perceptions of the world, and thus their actions and their being. Yet religion is not adopted passively. It is transformed in radical ways by those who live by it. The Hills of Hebron conveys the constitutive power of religion through its content and its style. The novel does not offer the reader a spectator’s position; instead, the author guides us to see the world through the eyes of the characters. The use of biblical names for the characters—Moses, Aaron, Isaac, and Obadiah—accentuates the significance of Christian stories in the novel. The names evoke specific biblical stories and thus also draw attention to the discontinuities between the expectations created by the biblical names and the realities of the twentieth-century story. Through the consistent use of biblical language and names, the novel explores the creation of unofficial religious visions through the transformation of received imaginaries in relation to the geographical, historical, and social contexts. By reinventing religion, the characters are reinventing themselves.18

The whole story unfolds in a time shaped by the Christian story of the death of Jesus. This is accentuated by the novel’s organization in four parts, entitled “Saturday,” “Friday,” “Night,” and “Morning.” “Night” is the time of the crucifixion. The focus on a community at the margins of society and on the everyday struggles of its characters—for food, water, and belonging—implicitly places the lives of ordinary peoples in a complex and ambivalent relation to the Christian narrative of salvation. The first-century Christian story is not the only narrative of the past at work in the life of the community. Stories of colonialism in Africa and in the Caribbean, accounts of slavery and rumors of revolt, and reports of ancient African ontologies are also constitutive of their lives.

The prophet’s appearance is a poignant example of the transformation of a biblical story to a new soil. His past is not revealed. He offers only a past recast in the likeness of the biblical patriarch. Moses claims to have been adopted by the reincarnated daughter of Pharaohs. He encountered God in a burning rhododendron bush, though, unlike the patriarch, he had no shoes to take off.

The specificity of the epiphany—a rhododendron, not just a “bush,” a prophet too poor to worry about sandals—shows not only the creativity of the prophet’s reinterpretation but also the significance of the revelation linked to the particularities of its time and place. Here and throughout the novel, the particularities of the geography, climate, and vegetation of the (p.24) island, as well as the most ordinary phenomena, acquire theological significance. “A single drop of water trickled into the dry soil, was quickly absorbed, ‘like water spilt on the ground and never to be gathered up …!’ Where had she heard that? It must have come from the Bible. Everything came from the Bible” (279).19

The words shape their world—their social world as well as the landscape around them and even their bodies. Their anger, hopelessness, or forgiveness bring about analogous responses from the air, the trees, the ground on which they stand; intangible feelings could call forth tangible ecological effects. This intertwining of the social and ecological is exemplified in Obadiah’s expressions of anger at being misjudged and isolated from the community: “He would show them, would hurl down hail and thunder and lightning, and a black rain to flatten trees, sweep away the soil, cut deep wounds and crevasses in their slopes as a reminder of his fury” (65). But his relationship to the land did not imply control over it. Obadiah could not stop what he initiated.

And yet, days after his initial rage had subsided, his rain still cursed [sic] through secret channels of the hills to feed the roots of living things, to send the sap pulsing through branches which sprouted green leaves that sparkled as they caught the sun and breathed in moisture that would one day renew his anger, would one day force open the bowels of his wrath, his business always theirs, theirs, his. …(65)

The stories, the land, and the individuals’ affective relationships to one another constituted the community of Hebron.

Choosing Life

Hopes and desires for a new life are expressed in the community’s relentless search for God’s embrace. The narrative unfolds as an account of this search, its triumphs and disappointments. The members of the community live by different visions of God. The worldviews are religious and also cultural and ontological; each reflects a specific relationship to the Word of Man. These different communal visions become actualized in the life of the community of Hebron. Their theological visions influence the way men relate to women, how the community relates to the land, what they cultivate and eat, how they dress, and the rituals that they practice. “Beliefs materialized in deeds.”20

Moses first appears in Cockpit Centre as “a prophet of the castaways, a cavalier of the impossible, seeing visions, dreaming dreams.” Like the (p.25) people of Cockpit Centre, God was wearied of waiting and commissions Moses to stir people “out of their waiting on faith, hope, and charity under the sun” (135). He preaches a “Kingdom of Heaven Now”; his church is oriented toward escaping the intolerable conditions of their existence. In heaven, rather than in Kingston or in Africa, they would be able to experience their full humanity.

Moses’s message was an alternative to that of the white Baptist church, as well as to the African traditions that flourished in Kingston. The Pocomania rituals associated with African traditions openly rejected the white God and offered exaltation and abandon to the spirits. Its followers were sure that the white God would eventually betray Moses. The God of the Baptist church demanded respectability, that is, conforming to the colonial elite’s rules of social propriety; his followers were called to conform to the Word of Man. Aloysius, a deacon in the Baptist church, embodies the traps of becoming enchanted by the Word of Man and caught in its autophobic demands. Aloysius’s participation in church is premised on his ownership of a suit, as if it could cover over his lack in relation to Man. He is deeply embarrassed by the New Believers, for they threaten the fragile acceptance that he had worked so hard to earn. However, the narrator’s harshest description of autophobic behavior is reserved for the officials of the court. “They were all black clowns striking postures in a circus of civilization.” They too saw Moses’s rejection of the Word of Man as a threat. And thus the “barristers worked out their frustrations on the prisoner, attacking him for being black and stupid and not knowing the white man’s ways, not talking like him, not hiding his black madness under a wig and gown, as they had done” (135). The conflict depicted in the courthouse is between those who accept the mode of rationality and of being human imposed by colonial authorities and those who attempt to live otherwise. A bourgeois European definition of humanity can only regard the refusal of Man as madness.

Escaping the enchantment of the Word of Man is never easy. Wynter articulates the need for, and the great difficulties of discarding “a stereotyped view of yourself that you yourself have been socialized to accept.”21 Aloysius represents the painful and doomed project of becoming Man, which is expressed as both self-hatred and resentment against those who, like Moses, reject the path of respectability. But even as Moses and his followers seem to reject the externally imposed definitions of Man, they struggle with its persistence in their own being—reflected most clearly in their gender relations. They would have to reorient their relationships inside as well as outside their community.

(p.26) Moses’s followers imagine salvation as an escape from the world. Still their otherworldly visions filled them with productive hope. They were able to dream of abandoning the “circus of destitution” into which they were born. They gave their possessions to the prophet, who made sure all were fed. They dressed and acted differently. Their lives were “touched by the magic of new hope” (122). They became a community. They placed their trust in Moses, just as Moses placed his in a God who would rescue him, enabling him to rescue his followers. But on the appointed day, when all had gathered to witness Moses’s flight to heaven in anticipation of their own escape, Moses falls. His failure—interpreted by some as God’s betrayal—sent most of his followers back into hopelessness.

The prophet’s conversion to the black God is, ironically, inspired by learning (from the Irish superintendent of the mental hospital) about the practices of the Englishman who had stolen away Africa in exchange for a God created in the Englishman’s own image—“a wise and holy father-figure who never existed” (142, emphasis added). Moses never says that he will create a God who never existed; instead, he speaks about turning toward him. The question of the ontological reality of this God is thus marked but suspended—or at least deferred. Still Moses recreated himself in the image of his God—“a man with all the craftiness and the cunning of the deity he was to serve,” a black God partial to black men (146). This God would be on their side. He used deception to get the land of Hebron, their redeemed land. “After all,” Moses argued, “in this life itself it is only the right to squat that the Lord hath granted unto us, the right to dwell upon the face of the earth for three-score years and ten which is the life of a man” (201). They would move to Hebron, where they would all work and build houses; they would be fed and clothed.

The land of Hebron now replaces heaven as a site of hope. Rather than taking leave from the world, they would abandon their past. To mark their break with their previous life, Moses made a bonfire of all the belongings they had brought. “And their past vanished, like Elijah, riding in his chariot of fire, a conqueror in an empty sky” (5). Or so they thought.

Miss Gatha held on to an apron that had belonged to her grandmother as a quiet rebellion against the new order under her husband’s leadership. The seemingly simple action “marked her first impulse to withdraw a part of herself from Moses” (87). The object became her tangible connection to the past and to the life of other women, lives too often sacrificed to the community and its male leaders. Indeed, it is Miss Gatha who sees the hidden truth behind Moses’s call for purification. “She could see that when Moses made the bonfire that night, claiming that he wanted to destroy the (p.27) symbols of their past sufferings, what he had really planned to do was to leave them all like the naked clay to be shaped into an image of his making” (87). For Miss Gatha, the absolute separation from the past was not a liberation but a subjection to a new master. Moses “created this community in his own image,” for which he secretly depended on the sacrifice of women. He demanded Miss Gatha’s financial resources. He told Sue that “the sacrifice of her virginity was necessary to their successful exodus into the land of Hebron” (11). Patriarchy undermines the vision of dignity that was supposed to guide Hebron; it tears the fabric of the community from the inside.

Moses’s dramatic end, however, is brought about by his own desire to prove himself worthy to those outside the community, who reject the uniqueness of his project and his position. He encounters a political activist proclaiming the social principles on which Hebron was built, the dreams that were, in Moses’s view, realized in Hebron. Yet the speaker has not heard about Hebron and ridicules Moses’s religious speech. For those aspiring liberators, the longings of the New Believers were merely a failure of rationality, a delusion. Their political ideology was modeled after Western ontologies that relegate religious visions to the realm of irreality.

The crowd contests Moses’s claims to be the Son of a black God, demanding that he prove it by crucifying himself. Moses decided to end his life. “The market-place had become his Golgotha, his place of skulls; and God had manifested His Presence, not in anger against the unbelievers, but in the sacrifice of His Son” (227). Moses’s God appears to be no different from the God of the white church, whose embrace depended on self-negation. Moses subordinates the life-giving impulse at the heart of the constitution of Hebron to his desire to be the only Son of God and to prove his Sonship to others. He asks Aloysius and Obadiah to bind him to a cross of their own making. In his agony on the cross, Moses cries out, “God is white after all. … God is white!” (243).

The crucifixion had been a betrayal—Moses’s betrayal of life.

And thus, with his death, Prophet Moses made all the New Believers accomplices in his legend. Their belief became a necessity, was magnified into myth. … Moses alone had died, but Hebron, its past, present, and future were entombed with him, awaiting his resurrection. The life led by the New Believers after his death was an epilogue, a ritual dance, ossified by repetition now that its original impulse had been forgotten. (243–44)

(p.28) This is Obadiah’s retrospective account of the community’s demise. The original impulse behind the creation of the New Believers, the vision and hope that had guided them, was replaced by a myth that could not sustain life. It was as if “life itself had died.” The long, detailed description of the drought that follows conveys the sense that this was at the same time the death of the leader, their hopes, and the material elements needed for their survival. “Now that the land was dying they were careless of themselves. They sprawled on the benches, their dresses crumpled and soiled, their bare toes indolent on the earthen floor, the nails invisible under layers of dirt. The reddish dust of Hebron had powdered their faces and necks, settled into seams and wrinkles, gathered in secret whorls of unkempt hair” (57).

The nature of God and the fate of the leader are linked to the whole community. This is clear after Moses’s death but had been the case all along. Moses’s vision of God shaped the type of power he exercised in the community. His widow, Miss Gatha, has a very different vision of God: “Anonymous and not to be depended upon. For he might turn out to be white after all, and harsh.” Miss Gatha was similarly addressed as “a blind and merciless God” (46). Her leadership was harsh. Her contempt for what she sees as the submissiveness of the people bears a certain similarity to the attitude of her grandfather, who had betrayed other slaves in order to gain the favor of his master. Miss Gatha does not envision a revitalized community but a new order under the leadership of her son Isaac who was sent to get an education and is expected to return and rule the community in Hebron. Ultimately, she placed her trust in the very patriarchal order that had consistently used and betrayed her. Despite their starkly different visions of the world, neither Moses nor Miss Gatha escape the grip of the colonial/patriarchal order.

Given the novel’s critiques of colonialism and its racial ideology, the reader might expect the black God to be presented as the solution to the problems of the white God. Or she might, alternatively, anticipate an argument about the delusions of religion and an appeal to a secular liberation project. And those opinions are voiced by some of the characters. But Wynter does not advocate such stock solutions. Wynter’s critiques of modern understandings of Man and his Others include its secular forms as much as its Christian antecedents. Wynter locates “secularism” or “de-godding” as part of the local culture of Europe, the universalization of which should be seen as part of the project of modernity, which “made the ‘real real’ and the ‘normal normal’”22 for the conquerors. This de-godding (p.29) is a step toward a merely biological understanding of human, which bolsters the assumed universality of Man. The dismissal of religion as irrational is often a veiled call to conform to Man. Wynter exposes the hidden investments of secularism and has also written insightfully about the role of the religion of the formerly enslaved in the Caribbean in resisting their dehumanization. This is not the official religion, she argues, but a religion reinvented in new soil. “Their recreation of a culture and a religion in which their gods could sustain and affirm their humanity was a central moment in their struggle to rehumanize themselves.”23 The humanizing impulse, what appears in the novel as the “original impulse” of Hebron, is an affective orientation structured by ritual, song, and ceremony.24 Rituals can harbor and structure longings with the power to stir new life. But they can also cease to be effective. When the humanizing impulse is lost or forgotten, rituals become ossified.

The Hills of Hebron represents religious rituals as arising from the strivings that animate human life. Moses had stirred the people out of waiting and inspired them to create a new world for themselves. But after Moses’s crucifixion, Obadiah had treated “the ritual of existence” as if it were “immutable” and “sealed” (13). Obadiah performed the same rites that had animated their lives. When he preached, his voice, gestures, and the inflection of his words merely repeated Moses’s masterful performance.25 Similarly, Aunt Kate recognized that the rites assured the community of the reality of their world, but the “madwoman” wanted only to escape that world and thus she simply repeated them.

Obadiah’s path toward the revitalization of a belief that is no longer a repetition of an ossified ritual starts with his rejection of the patriarchal rules that demanded that he curse and cast away his wife for conceiving a child that was not his. After months of madness, after finding out Isaac had raped his wife, after losing even his anger toward Isaac, Obadiah reached out to console his wife. In doing so, he “stumbled upon himself.” After finding himself, Obadiah begins carving—a return to what had been his trade before he joined the New Believers. His initial intention is to make a crib for the baby, but he finds himself carving a figure. What began as an almost unconscious task evolves into an intentional act. “For the first time in his life he created consciously, trying to embody in his carving his new awareness of himself and of Hebron” (28). The simple creative act of shaping wood brings about what they had been longing for: “In carving the doll, Obadiah had stumbled upon God” (28).

(p.30) Creativity

The Hills of Hebron treats creativity as a necessary element for the vitality of religious beliefs and practices, and thus also for the transformation of life itself. Moses recreated himself in the image of a biblical patriarch and then in the image of a black God as he imagined him. He had a performer’s “ability to lift the magic of words from the printed pages of the Bible” (82). Obadiah had different skills. His craft was the slow, laborious art of carving. Obadiah’s metamorphosis was a similarly gradual and deliberate process.

At the beginning of the novel, when Obadiah is still just trying to repeat Moses’s gestures and rituals, he is described as a “rough-hewn unfinished carving.” His becoming would require both rejecting the patriarchal mode of being human and emancipating his creativity to invent himself anew. Through the act of carving, “something that had long been pent up inside him, crying out to be released, had been set free” (298).

The act of self-expression is, however, not merely an individual act. Obadiah learns from a traveler that his carving was similar to those made in Africa,

where your ancestors came from. And there they carve from father to son, and they carve out of the stories of their tribe, and their beliefs, their gods and devils. I bought a carving once that was made by the Dahomey. … They made this out of a belief that each man has four souls, one given to him by an ancestor … one, his own, the third, the small bit of the Creator that lives in each man, the last one, that which joins him to the others in his group. (300)

Obadiah’s carvings, like Miss Gatha’s hidden apron, link him to his ancestors. But they represent contrasting attitudes toward the past. For Miss Gatha, keeping the apron was an act of rebellion against Moses but also a reminder of the relative wealth and status of her family and thus a symbol of superiority in relation to others in the community. The apron was a given thing that had to be kept hidden and intact. Obadiah’s carving was created out of the materials available to him—the history of his people and their hopes, the craft that the elder had taught him, the wood that he carefully chose from the land of Hebron. It is a model for and an expression of the transformation of his being and that of his community. Obadiah had carved the doll out of “the story of Hebron, of their search for God … ​ out of this, the dream and the reality” (300). And the object itself becomes part of the new reality being born of his labor. The object is also a commercial (p.31) good that allows him to buy food and water for the community. “This object which had been dredged out of his anguish, his search for a sense of being, had become an extension, not only of his living body, but of Hebron” (300). After Moses, the world of Hebron had felt dead and life itself was escaping their bodies. Obadiah’s carving was the materialization of revitalized belief.

Obadiah’s model of creativity stands in stark contrast to Moses’s self-centered charisma and ingenuity. It is also different from Isaac’s cultivated, but self-conscious and anxious, intellect. Isaac tries writing as a creative activity and finds himself struggling with its meaning. He wanted to write the history of Hebron. But he doubts, “For whom am I writing? And why?” (266). Those in his community cannot read. Those outside the community cannot understand the longings that animate it. Isaac knew that even those outsiders who espoused anticolonial views had been seduced by “the false coin of shallow dreams” (266).

Unlike their illiterate would-be followers, they were spiritually and emotionally emasculated. In exploring the symbols of power that their rulers had trapped in books, they had become enmeshed in their complexities, had fallen victims to a servitude more absolute than the one imposed by guns, whips, chains, and hunger. … They had surrendered even the right to dream their own dreams. (257)

To “explain his present” to those distant from the community would require telling them “of the submerged past.” But what language could he use? If he adopted their language, he “would be seduced into distortions, and the bare truth that might have spanned the centuries and the differences would vanish, leaving only lost echoes” (266). How then to tell the story of the community? The task was too threatening for Isaac’s wounded soul. Like those seduced by shallow dreams, Isaac became a “shadow-man” who seeks security in a violent manhood (261). In the end, Isaac is also seduced by and becomes enslaved to the prescriptions of Man.

The encounter with the traveler reveals to Obadiah hidden connections to distant communities. It represents what Wynter calls, in a different context, “a transfer of empathy”—the possibility of connecting with the experiences of different subordinated groups.26 There are hints of this possibility in Moses’s relationship with the Irish doctor, who also saw himself as a colonized subject. But the Irishman’s view of freedom was still mired in racism. “Only Moses, through his madness, had begun to liberate himself from the spiritual shackles which held the Irishman in their grip” (138). In contrast to the Irishman, the unnamed traveler finds in the (p.32) story of Hebron a source for renewing his own hopes after a catastrophe. The traveler tells Obadiah that he comes from Germany, where a group of people had sought to create a “Promised Land.” But others had taken over; he had lost his family and everything he owned. Now he had stopped in “Paradise Bay” on his way to exile. And there the fortuitous encounter with Obadiah made the traveler believe that “man’s attempts to create Hebrons would continue forever” (301). Creating out of culturally specific stories and styles of craftsmanship allows Obadiah to begin to question the isolation under which they had lived since Moses led them to Hebron. Why were they “shut amidst these arid, thorny, almost inaccessible hills, straining for the embrace of God?,” he had asked himself (22). With a new consciousness of himself as part of the world, Obadiah became a different type of leader. “His own moment of vision had been brief, like a rainbow reflected in water. To explain it to [the people of Hebron] he would need the words and the rhythms, not of a sermon, but a song” (305). The songs were the appropriate vehicle to convey truths of their past and a new vision for their future. As Wynter argues, in oral cultures, memory is “maintained, reconstructed, represented, and in essence, reinvented in the very flesh of each generation,” not least through song and dance.27 Rather than seeking to create a community in his own image, Obadiah would guide the community to reclaim the right to dream their own dreams and reassert their humanity.


Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds.

SYLVIA WYNTER, “The Pope Must Have Been Drunk, the King of Castile a Madman”

Words, rituals, and hope shape the social and material dimensions of being.28 Belief materialized in deeds. The reinvention of beliefs, including our understandings of what it means to be human, is a crucial political practice. It is also an aesthetic endeavor.

The use of the metaphor of carving in The Hills of Hebron conveys the conjunction of materiality, dreams, and acts by suggesting intentional processes of re-creating society by giving shape to received materials through embodied creative labor—and in the process reshaping oneself. The invention of alternative forms of being human implies also perceiving and describing the ongoing interweaving of dreams and flesh.

(p.33) These are the themes of Wynter’s novel and also the traits of her practice as a writer. The novel is the product of a creative process through which she invokes a submerged past in order to help explain the present and transform it. The novel’s story explicitly reworks materials received from Caribbean history and geographic context. The writing is also indebted to Caribbean intellectual and aesthetic traditions. Antillean intellectuals of Wynter’s generation saw themselves as creating a new postindependence collective identity. Wynter describes the context of the anticolonial movement as one in which “everything Caribbean was still new, still to be done.” Then “all of a sudden, writers began writing, painters began painting … ​people who had been silent for so long now ‘found their voices.’”29 This historical context marks Wynter’s theorizations of the human. Understanding the human as a culturally grounded praxis was a political necessity. That praxis is conceptualized as analogous to artistic creation. Wynter’s consistent use of artistic metaphors is far from incidental. Wynter the playwright speaks about inventing new selves as roles in a dramatic reality. And it is Wynter, the literary scholar, who writes about the need to invent “new genres of being” or new “figurations of the human.”30

The works of intellectuals like Fanon and Glissant are a “continuation of the act of poetic uprising” started by their predecessors, Wynter argues.31 The “mode of revolt” of the Antillean intellectual “is one against the very roots of our present mode of conventional reason and therefore of the order of discourse and its Word of Man,” Wynter argues.32 This rebellion entails denouncing the fallacy of abstract conceptions of being, refusing to perform the role assigned to the Caribbean subject as its Other, and offering their own imaginaries of being. This project is aesthetic and political.

The fictional prophets in the novel are artists of sorts, inasmuch as they transform the symbols of the religious traditions they have received to stir hope and desire in a disenfranchised community. They abandon the white colonial churches—disenchanted with the roles those churches prescribed them. But the story is not about secularization in the Western modern sense of the term. To the contrary, religion expressed their particular longings, coded their ethical values, and concretized their claims to full humanity. Religion shaped their story, and their experiences changed their religion. As Wynter argues in an essay about C. L. R. James, “The novel, in its true pedagogical function … ​is not the product of a doctrine, not the formgiving mechanism to an already preestablished content. It is rather, the condition of possibility of the emergence of a new doctrine.”33 Words that constitute acts.34


(1.) Sylvia Wynter, The Hills of Hebron (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2010), 52. Originally published in 1962. All future page citations to this work will appear in parentheses in the text.

(2.) Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond the Word of Man: Glissant and the New Discourse of the Antilles,” World Literature Today 63, no. 4 (Autumn 1989): 640.

(3.) David Scott, “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter,” Small Axe 8 (September 2000): 124.

(5.) Charles Reavies Price, “‘Cleave to the Black’: Expressions of Ethiopianism in Jamaica,” New West Indian Guide 77, no. 1/2 (2003): 46.

(6.) Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, s.v. “Bedward, Alexander,” www.oxfordaasc.com.

(7.) Daryl C. Dance, Folklore from Contemporary Jamaicans (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985), 72–76.

(9.) See Roxane Watson, “The Native Baptist Church’s Political Role in Jamaica: Alexander Bedward’s Trial for Sedition,” Journal of Caribbean History 42, no. 2 (2008); and Price, “‘Cleave to the Black.’” For the folktales based on Bedward, see Dance, Folklore from Contemporary Jamaicans, 72–77.

(10.) Jan Carew, “The Fusion of African and Amerindian Folk Tales,” Caribbean Quarterly 23, no. 1 (1977): 7.

(12.) Jan Carew, Black Midas (London: Secker and Warburg, 1958), 60.

(16.) Wynter, 643 (emphasis added).

(17.) Sylvia Wynter, “The Pope Must Have Been Drunk, the King of Castile a Madman: Culture as Actuality, and the Caribbean Rethinking of Modernity,” in The Reordering of Culture: Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada in the Hood, ed. Alvina Ruprecht and Cecilia Taiana (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995), 29.

(18.) In her study of Jamaican religions, Wynter argues that “the pattern of religious creativity begun under slavery—the slaves reinvented themselves through their reinvention of religion—continued in the cities.” Sylvia Wynter, “Black Metamorphosis: New Natives in a New World” (unpublished manuscript), 201.

(p.35) (19.) Wynter quotes 2 Samuel 14:14.

(20.) “Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which crystallize our actualities” Wynter, “Pope Must Have Been Drunk,” 35.

(25.) When Obadiah “spoke and was caught up in the rhythm of words,” however, “his body flowed like water. His face, with its high sloping forehead, fleshly nose, drooping lips, and heavy jowls, was like some rough-hewn and unfinished carving. A perpetual self-doubt lurked in his eyes.” Wynter, 9.

(28.) “It is man who brings society into being” is a quote from Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 11. “The maps of spring always have to be redrawn again” evokes a verse from Aimé Césaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”: “Calm and lull oh my voice the child who does not know/that the map of spring is always to be drawn again.” Aimé Césaire, “Notebook on a Return to the Native Land,” trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, Montemora 6 (1979): 39.

(30.) This is the case even in her novel, The Hills of Hebron, where the main metaphor for the new being and thus the survival of the community is wood carving.

(33.) Cited in Kelly Baker Josephs, “The Necessity for Madness: Negotiating Nation in Sylvia Wynter’s The Hills of Hebron,” in Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature, ed. Kelly Baker Josephs (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), 46.

(34.) Wynter uses the phase “themes-that-constitute acts” repeatedly in Wynter, “Beyond the Word of Man.”