Brown Face, Big Master by Joyce Gladwell (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 0-333-97430-1, 192 pp)
The title of Joyce Gladwell’s autobiography — recently reissued by Macmillan in its Caribbean Classics series — makes one think immediately of Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, but the more you read, the more puzzling that apparently deliberate reference becomes.
When her book was first published in 1969, Gladwell was a young mother living in the UK. Born and brought up in Jamaica, there she’d been part of an elite by virtue of her class, colour, and education. In England, however, where the nuances of skin tone observed by West Indians meant nothing, Gladwell was black, and the fact that she was married to a white Englishman brought not prestige but disapproval and racist abuse. Her education, too — a degree in psychology from London University — had been part of an imaginary arsenal with which she armed herself against racism: “There were people in the world who would assume I was, by virtue of my race, inferior in intellect. It became terribly important to me to demonstrate to myself and other people that this was not so.” In her new life, however, Gladwell found her education counted for nothing; in fact it made her life as a housewife and mother (one of her three sons is the New Yorker journalist Malcom Gladwell) even more tedious. Raised in a house full of servants, brought up to assume that she would have a high-powered career, she was surprised and resentful to find that in England she was expected to do all the household work herself.
But Gladwell’s response was not — as her reference to Fanon might lead one to expect — to revolt, physically or intellectually, against the oppressive conditions under which she found herself living. Instead, her book is both a bold attempt to assert her own existence, to write herself into being, and an account of her struggle to reconcile the contradictions between her high expectations and the frustrating reality — through a deeper faith in God (The Big Master of the title). A few years later, the women’s movement would declare, “The personal is political.” Gladwell turns that idea on its head, in her isolation seeing her struggle as a purely individual one. She views her unhappiness as evidence that something is amiss not with the life she is made to lead, but with her.
I longed to be out in the world again, the world of people and demanding mental work. When I voiced my longing I was reproved, “Why can’t you make your home and child your career?” I felt guilty — perhaps I lacked humility. I was alone in my problem. In my limited world I found no other woman like myself.
There are tantalisingly brief references to the spells of depression she suffered, and she writes that she got over them by turning to the very housework she hated: “I had learnt the way to escape these depressions: this life of doing and serving which I thought I hated was the cure to my illness, for it provided balance to my introspective and self-centred self.” With what the less pious will see as an excess of Christian charity, Gladwell even empathises with her in-laws’ disapproval of their son’s intentions of marrying a black woman.
At the climax of the book, a turning point in her spiritual quest, when a boy on a bicycle calls her “Nigger,” Gladwell’s first reaction is anger. But, characteristically, she falls to her knees and wrestles with that rage, converting it into a deeper devotion to God. It was the church, too, that provided other routes to escape for Gladwell. It turned out to be both a means of making friends and a source of satisfying work: she was commissioned to rewrite a translation by the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, whose press eventually published Brown Face, Big Master.
It’s difficult now to believe that this book was controversial in its time; but then, it deals, although innocuously, with the touchy subjects of racism and a mixed marriage. From this distance, however, Gladwell often seems preternaturally meek. It’s tempting, indeed, to surmise that, as with many West Indian women, Gladwell’s subservience to her faith may have prolonged and deepened her oppression as well as making it easier to bear.
For those of lesser faith, the most interesting chapters of the book are those in which Gladwell examines her early upbringing, dissecting the beliefs instilled in her about race, class, and colour, and the understandings she reached on her own account. At the Jamaican boarding-school she went to, she and her peers were brought up to be Englishwomen; but this was the 1950s, and new ideas about independence filtered into the school. Boldly, the girls even staged plays in Jamaican dialect.
Gladwell writes carefully and with affection of the sights and sounds of rural Jamaica, the hymns and folk songs they sang. Her attention to detail and her engaging frankness and sincerity make Brown Face, Big Master, while not great literature, a useful document for the social historian, and a testimony to the distance that has been travelled in the 35 years since it was first published.