Prior to enrolling in my MLIS program, I did not give much thought to the idea of banned books. I had been allowed to read whatever I wanted as a child. It was when I took a course that specifically covered banned and challenged books that I realized my interest in these books and their authors, and the immense value of promoting intellectual freedom. In fact, researching and writing about banned authors has been one of my favorite parts of writing for the Intellectual Freedom blog. I recently learned about Jamaica Kincaid, award winning author of over a dozen books and a professor of African and American studies at Harvard University. I had not previously heard of Jamaica Kincaid, but after learning about her history and her writing, I plan to dive into her work ASAP.
Early Life and Career
Jamaica Kincaid, born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949, hails from St. John’s, Antigua. She grew up with her mom, who stayed at home with her children, and her step-father, a carpenter. When she was nine, the first of her 3 brothers was born, which instigated the start of a tumultuous relationship with her mother. Kincaid felt that her mother’s attention went solely to her brothers, leaving little to no care for her. When she was 16, Kincaid was sent by her mother to New York to become an au pair to help support the family.
Once in New York, Kincaid struggled through several jobs as an au pair, a receptionist, and even a back up singer. She began writing for various magazines and soon after, met New Yorker editor George Trow, who later introduced her to the editor-in-chief, William Shawn. Her work was featured in the New Yorker, and she became a staff writer in 1976, a position she held until 1996.
One of her novels, Lucy, began as a serial publication in the magazine, and was published as a novel in 1990. The short book features the protagonist of the same name, who comes to America from the West Indies to work as a nanny for a wealthy couple and their 3 children. As she settles into working for the family, she discovers that this seemingly perfect family is not the idyllic life it seems. This coming of age story also delved into Lucy’s own sexual awakening. Remnants of Kincaid’s own life are present in Lucy, though Kincaid cautions against seeing her books as wholly autobiographical. In 1994, Lucy was banned at a Pennsylvania high school for being “most pornographic”.
Racism and Censorship
When Kincaid first arrived in the United States, she said that she had trouble finding a position as a writer because many magazines did not want to hire a young black woman. Because she had come from an almost entirely Black community in Antigua, this was one of her first experiences with racism. When she was employed as a staff writer for the New Yorker, people would often ask her how she got her job. She would reply that she was introduced to the editor, who was impressed with her work and offered her the job. The common response was confusion. Kincaid noted in an interview with The American Reader,
“Here I am, this young black woman, just from nowhere and I’m writing for the New Yorker…I have no credentials. I have no money. I literally come from a poor place. I was a servant. I dropped out of college. The next thing you know I’m writing for the New Yorker, I have this sort of life, and it must seem annoying to people.”
When I was researching more about Lucy and Kincaid’s other works, I was struck by the number of criticisms that labeled her work as “angry”. Considering her childhood trauma and that many of her works contain autobiographical elements, it is not surprising that her characters are angry, or experience passionate feelings. That is true of many coming of age stories or memoirs. However, Kincaid herself notes that, “People only say I’m angry because I’m black and I’m a woman. But all sorts of people write with strong feeling, the way I do. But if they’re white, they won’t say it.” She goes on to say that labeling her work as angry isn’t a valid criticism. The anger present in her stories might make the reader uncomfortable because it’s true or justified, but labeling a work as wholly angry is not a criticism. Rather, it implies that Black people, and in particular, Black women, should not be angry or write about their personal experiences of trauma or anger because discomfort is unpalatable to readers.
In 2013, Kincaid served as the keynote speaker for the Freedom to Read Foundation Banned/Challenged author event. She spoke of her childhood experience of her mother burning a pile of her books after an incident where she was supposed to be watching her brother, but was reading instead. Even to this day, as an adult, she said that event continues to have a profound impact on her. She processes this, and other events of her past, by writing about them. Writing, to her, is life saving. Censorship is death. It is the loss of information, of stories, of the ability to share experiences. I look forward to peering into the window of Kincaid’s experiences she has generously opened for us.
Rebecca holds an MLIS from the University of North Texas and is a former teacher and school library consultant. Though not currently working in a library, she continues to fight against censorship and advocate for intellectual freedom rights, especially for children’s literature. When she’s not wrangling her three children, Rebecca enjoys reading, running, writing, and roaming the world.