“His” Story: Jamaica Kincaid’s Finding of History’s True Definition in “In History” In “In History,” Jamaica Kincaid tells the readers two stories of historically significant figures, Christopher Columbus and Carl Linnaeus. She first explains the discovery of New World and then describes how Linnaeus created the modern version of binominal nomenclature. In between these two stories, she vaguely mentions her own history, coming from “a place called Antigua”; her own story is only a small proportion compared to the stories of Columbus and Linnaeus (Kincaid 622).
Significantly, no matter what story she tells, she continuously raises an issue with the word “history. ” She struggles to define the word but does not vividly express where the confusion comes from. While she maintains a neutral tone throughout the story of Columbus, she abruptly expresses her dissatisfied and somewhat cynical voice, happening before the story of Linnaeus. The significance about this section is that she begins to directly talk to us the readers, as if she is passionately speaking to us in person.
Using first person and second person pronouns, her target suddenly becomes clear by starting the aragraph with “I, the person standing before you” (623). Due to her straightforwardness, a question is raised: why is she suddenly expressing her confusion of the definition of history to us, as if she is desiring to talk to us personally? First we can ask why Kincaid is wanting to redefine the word “history. ” Why is she so uncomfortable with the common definition that she continuously questions the true meaning of “history”?
Regardless of how straightforward the word “history” seems, Kincaid shows her discomfort with its general definition and irresistibly asks both herself and the readers what history is: what to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me? Should I call it history? ” (620)… what is a history? Is it a theory? ” (623). As the readers encounter the endless inquiries, they start to question themselves if they truly know the meaning of history: why would Kincaid be so eager to write about her confusion of “history” if the well-known definition is correct?
Her uneasiness might seem idiotic and puzzling; nevertheless, it reveals a deeper significance in her writing. Kincaid is displaying her dissatisfaction with the generalized definition to us not only o express her dissatisfaction but also to advise us to rethink about our oblivious attitude towards history. Kincaid first elucidates who her subjects are and what her objectives will be throughout her writing. By conversing directly to the readers, she makes her target of her piece clear: “I, the person standing before you, … nd they that look like me am not yet a part of this narrative” (623). By boldly saying “I, the person standing before you,” Kincaid intentionally breaks the fourth wall as if she is performing in front of us the readers, which ecreases her distance from us and augments the influence her words will have on us. Then, she sets the subjects of her piece vague and unclear. For instance, she continuously refers her ethnicity group as “I and they who look like me” (623). She does not evidently define but instead keeps the ambiguity of her ethnicity.
By doing so, the sole focus of her writing seems to be on communication directly to us and to go through the process of finding “history” together. Additionally, when Kincaid describes the discovery of the New World, she never specifies the pre-existing features that Columbus finds: “. nd then finding in these new lands people and their things and these people and their things, . and he empties the land of these people, and then he empties the people, he just empties the people” (623). The repetition of “things” and “people” alerts the readers for their lack of attention on the specifics.
Then, Kincaid explains that “I and the people who look like me begin to make an appearance, the food I eat begins to make an appearance, the trees I will see each day come from far away and begin to make an appearance, the sky is as it always was, the sun.. ” (623). She refers to features that had endured before Columbus’s discovery as if they just “[began] to make an appearance” in the scene. This irony allows Kincaid to signal the readers to understand more deeply about what actually happened in history.
Kincaid criticizes the ambiguity of history, which only uses Columbus’s perspective as the deciding factor for the story of the New World, the finding of new nature and people. Kincaid conveys us that all the discoveries that Columbus achieved were already existing objects, and they were just new to Columbus himself and his people. History is ot one-sided. History contains perspectives from various figures, from the major ones to the insignificant ones; nevertheless, people tend to only view the story coming from the power.
Throughout Kincaid’s two historical stories, the readers can realize that the stories never consider any trivial characters, such as “the people who lived in the area of the Dutch trading factories” or people that were “emptied” during Columbus’s discovery (626). On the other hand, the history of Christopher Columbus, being the patriotic and adventurous founder of the New World, or Carl Linnaeus, being the founder f binominal nomenclature, are recorded in details among diverse versions of history.
The details of the main characters exist through most of the historical stories, but even mentioning the so called “unimportant” characters seems to be forgotten. Kincaid condemns the oversimplified version of history. Nowadays, no matter what narrative history takes, it always contains the same opening with same characters: “Its narrative, too, can start with that man sailing on his shops for days and days, for that man sailing on his ships for days and days is the source of many narratives” (623).
By stating “its narrative, too, can start with a man” displays how such generalized styles with the unchanged figures accomplishing the identical achievements are being “the source of many narratives” (623). She is even no longer “living in the place where I and those who look like [her] first made an appearance,” living “in another place” and having “another narrative,” but is still experiencing the same version of history (623). This ironic situation justifies Kincaid’s confusion and undoubtedly critiques the people’s overgeneralized and somewhat ignorant attitude towards history.
They have never actually considered understanding thoroughly the history of her people, but only considered the surface of it and believed that to be the entire story. Thus she is confused with the definition of history. For instance, so called “experts” claim that history starts on the year “fourteen hundred and ninety-two,” when Columbus finds the land (623). What is so important about Columbus that he appears throughout most of histories but not the minorities or the people like Kincaid?
Although Kincaid wants to call her past as part of history, she is hindered by the majority because she and her people are not he key roles of history. “What is history? Is it a theory? When did I begin to ask all this? ” (623). Her belief of her ancestors’ lives to be part of history starts to be questioned “while standing in this other place that has a narrative mostly different from the place in which [she makes] an appearance” (623). Public has been ignorant and got used to their own oblivious behaviors that Kincaid herself had to end up questioning her views.
Searching for the “true” definition of history, Kincaid had to forcefully open up her pain and sadness of her people’s past, hile others unquestionably accept the unpainful story, which contains no sufferings but only the shallow and dull truths of her society: “should [history] be an idea, should it be an open wound and each breath I take in and expel healing and opening the wound again, over and over, or is it a long moment that begins anew each day since 1492? (626). Kincaid desired us to undergo the uneasiness of acknowledging the current meaning of history; thus, she gave us a chance to experience her process of finding history – a chance for us to ponder about the definition – by endlessly asking us “what is history? “