Jamaica Kincaid's essay On Seeing England for the first Time
"It's shit being Scottish! We're the scum of the fucking earth! Some people hate the English. I don't. They're just wankers. We're the ones what were colonised by wankers. We couldn't even pick a decent bunch of people to be colonised by."
-Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting
The cultural ties to empire are not so easy to efface as the political ones. This is perhaps one of the most important lessons the world has learned from the mass movement towards independence on the part of European colonies in the past half-century. Even we Americans, more than two hundred years after having rejected the British monarchy and all it stands for, are forever poking our noses in the supermarket tabloids to find out what crisis either Diana or Fergie is embroiled in this week. Have we progressed so little? Don't we owe it to ourselves to pay our own culture the tribute which is its due?
This is one of the many questions that Jamaica Kincaid's essay, "On Seeing England for the first Time," raises. Being a "colonial" herself, she is forever being forced to question where her cultural loyalty should lie. Is she first and foremost an Englishwoman? An African? An Antiguan? Kincaid's essay is an attempt to come to terms with her own identity by exploring the influence of a colonial culture on her daily life as a child as well as on her education. She inundates the reader with "English images," just as she was once inundated with them as a schoolgirl. We sicken of the surfeit of imagery just as she must have when every waking moment, an image of England somehow wormed its way into her consciousness. "Made in England . . . those three words . . . ran through every part of my life, no matter how small" (352).
Never, in the first part of the essay, does she explicitly show the reader her contempt for the image of England that was foisted upon her as a child, or for those people who forced the image down her throat until she was sickened by it. Yet an explicit affirmation of this hatred is not necessary; the reader is quick to appreciate the irony and utter absurdity of her situation and that of Antigua. Kincaid makes us want to condemn the imperialistic attitudes which fostered this indoctrination of English values and also the supposition that this culture was somehow inherently superior to any other. By putting her readers in her own position, and by appealing to their sense of the absurd, Kincaid is very effectively able to elicit sympathy.
Kincaid was never prepared for England as it is; all she had to go on was the idea of England that was presented to her as a child. She never had a single real tie to England: "No one I knew had ever been and returned to tell me about it. All the people I knew who had gone to England had stayed there" (356). In England she is conscious of the fact that she is an outsider. She is made to feel this way by the difference she perceives between the English and...