Decolonizing Labor in the Caribbean: A Conversation with Shona Jackson

Boats filled with sugarcane on a muddy river with smokestacks visible in the background

Accounts of Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean tend to start and end with colonial encounter. This perspective produces a narrative of total extermination, which obscures how colonial regimes managed Indigenous labor and erases historical interactions between Indigenous, enslaved, and maroon communities as well as the current presence of Indigenous and mixed-race groups, such as the Garifuna people, in the Caribbean today.

The cover of Creole Indigeneity by Shona JacksonAssociate Professor at Texas A&M University and the author of Creole Indigeneity: Between Myth and Nation in the Caribbean, Dr. Shona Jackson argues that Caribbean states continue to operate through logics of dispossession of historically marginalized groups and communities of color, in which anti-Black and anti-Indian racisms are mapped on top of Indigenous dispossession. Her scholarship also illuminates how the post-independence Caribbean state is an “involuntary settler state” because the people brought to the Caribbean as enslaved or indentured laborers were later made responsible by the former colonizer for granting land titles to Indigenous people as a condition of Creole independence or sovereignty. This makes modern Caribbean states fundamentally different than white settler states of the Global North.

Recognizing the overlaps and intersections of struggles for land and self-determination across Creole and Indigenous groups is necessary. For, as Jackson argues, we need to return to old lessons of struggle in order to find solidarity across difference, for activists and scholars alike. I spoke with Shona Jackson in October 2019 to discuss the politics of land use in Guyana, decolonizing labor, the lack of histories of Indigenous labor in the Caribbean, and how labor becomes a site of relation between Black, Indian, and Indigenous groups.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

These highlights have been edited for length and clarity.

Sara Thomas: Your recent work puts forward a framework for thinking of Indigenous historiography through what you call a “Middle Passage methodology.” Can you describe what this means and how it will reshape conceptions of what it means to be a modern subject in the Caribbean?

A photo of Shona Jackson smiling

Shona Jackson. Photo from Texas A&M University.

Shona Jackson: That is a big question. In the book that I’m working on now—which is the second in a series of three books on labor and how it works as a wedge between Indigeneity and Blackness and Indianness, primarily—I’m trying to address the absence of discussions of Indigenous labor history and the radical tradition in the region, in particular. I began with a basic question: are Indigenous peoples absent from labor history because of the extinction thesis, or are they absent because they didn’t do the so-called formative plantation labor of these other groups? This led me to a few findings, and I’ll share two.

First, even though we associate the plantation with a particular type of labor that Indigenous people supposedly did not do—labor that is fundamentally attached to Black and Indian bodies, which gets captured by labor history—the separation of these groups around labor actually occurs earlier, before the introduction of plantations. It’s a particular separation in terms of how we think about labor that occurs before the introduction of chattel slavery and the plantation into the region.

I articulate this as a break between labor and work. I look at that break between what are considered productive and unproductive bodily labors that comes to govern how we think and talk about labor history in the region, in order to produce a new method for labor history that would allow for a radical and collective history that could include Creole groups and Indigenous peoples.

Labor can become a point of relationality and reconciliation.

The second thing that this led me to is a Middle Passage methodology, which is what I call this approach to labor. Rereading for this break around labor, this break between productive and unproductive bodily actions, allows us to look beyond the outcomes of labor or the simple fact of labor itself, and at processes and movements out of which these distinctions actually emerge. What I find is that while the Middle Passage is articulated as first a Black and later Indian movement, if we read for its central function, which is to add values to some bodies, to make bodies productive in a sense, convert them for productive outcomes, we can look at how Black and Indigenous peoples are actually subject to different and similar processes of conversion, different and similar processes of adding value to bodies. I even go so far as to suggest that the first Middle Passage—again if we focus on movements and the function of these movements—that the first Middle Passage is Indigenous and not Black.

I see it as a way to bridge what at times seemed to be fundamental breaks between Blackness and Indigeneity in the region. Labor is one of those places. But if we look at it differently, labor can become a point of relationality and reconciliation. So, that is what is at stake for me in this particular project.

A person stands in a plantation in Guyana

Colonial representations of peoples and labor in Guyana continue to influence how histories of the region are understood. This photograph of a rubber plantation appears in a chapter describing the transition from Black labor after emancipation to indentured labor in Timehri: the journal of the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana, 1911.

ST: I’m thinking about Texas, where you live right now and where I’m from. The U.S. Mexico borderlands is a flash point of U.S. xenophobia. Houston is a location of fossil fuel overconsumption, with recurring floods. What insights does your work or experience give you in thinking through environmental issues and how they intersect with sociopolitical issues? How do you see your work fitting into a paradigm of environmental humanities? How do you suggest we think about conventional arguments about the climate crisis, climate refugees, or the unevenness of climate impacts, how might those be usefully thought through Indigenous and Black perspectives?

SJ: I don’t typically articulate what I do within an environmental studies or environmental humanities framework. However, in many ways it is fundamentally about the environment. What settler and franchise colonialism do is change peoples’ relationship to nature and to the built environment. My focus on labor addresses discourses of labor, especially those in the service of nation-state sovereignty, as a particular capture of the environment that extends systems of domination.

A stamp showing an illustration of the British Queen and an Amerindian shooting fish

Formerly British Guiana, Guyana gained independence in 1966. In this stamp superimposing Queen Elizabeth’s profile over a drawing of an Indigenous man, nature, labor, and sovereignty are entangled ideas. Image from Mark Morgan.

Nature exists for us through our culturally understood ways of engaging. It’s almost impossible to change how we interact with nature without also changing how we think and talk about it. The environment—or what we understand as the environment—is fundamentally political and cultural, and tied to deep historical and interconnected processes that we can’t change unless we realize what they are and begin to discuss them differently. It’s because of this that I often think of the environmental humanities (which are incredibly important) as an oxymoron, because it studies our own always already mediated experiences of the environment.

In Texas, we have lots of issues, but in terms of the ones that you highlight there are a couple of things. On the one hand, we have horrendous flooding that is recurrent. On the other hand, we have people who have nothing, who have to leave their homes and travel with the clothes on their backs to our borders. Both of these phenomena are devastating. Both involve fatalities. Both involve people who are fully at the mercy of nature.

But after the terminus of the weather event or the long walk for freedom, Houstonians and immigrants become part of two very different systems, particularly for those who have insurance and other resources. Some who have lost homes in the flooding become centered in processes of rebuilding that are racialized. We should think of rebuilding as an accumulative process within late capitalism. On the other hand, we have immigrants who are centered in processes of utter deprivation and disenfranchisement.

With flooding and loss of homes, people can be homeless. But with migration, groups are not just homeless but landless. Those positions index the fundamental inequalities of global capital that are tied to relationships with the environment that are both chosen and coerced. While we don’t see migrants who move for economic, political, or other reasons as environmental migrants, they do put into relief the fundamental outcomes of climate change and of our systems of consumption that contribute to it.

Featured image: A punt loaded with sugar cane in Skeldon, Guyana. Photo by KennardP, 2009.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Shona N. Jackson is Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University. Her first book, Creole Indigeneity: Between Myth and Nation in the Caribbean, was published in 2012 by the University of Minnesota Press. Contact.

Sara Gabler Thomas is a doctoral candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her dissertation examines the relationships between history, affect, and land in twenty- and twenty-first century archipelagic Caribbean literature and film. A former editor with Edge Effects, her recent contributions include an interview with Lynn Keller, “Why We Need Experimental Poetry in the Anthropocene” (May 2018), and an essay, “Private Land Conservation is Troubling—and Probably Indispensable” (March 2018). Contact.