Escape from the Colonial Asylum
MetadataShow full item record
David was a white Barbadian who died in the Barbados Mental Hospital in 1963 at age 46. Although making sense of his story is meaningful to me for personal reasons, I have wondered what interest other people might have in the story of this insignificant bystander to the march of history. Marlene Kadar has been my colleague and friend in battle over many years. I have listened to her presentations, read some of her writings, and worked with a few of her many students. But I am an insecure outsider in the field of life writing. I questioned her about the value of my research: “Well, you are doing it,” she replied, “so you need to do it!” I am still not sure what she meant, and I may not be quoting her correctly, but Marlene legitimated the academic study of life writing for me, and dragged me into the field, albeit still waiting for meaning to emerge. A trace in the Barbados Archives, a strange reference to Toronto, Upper Canada, led me to the Ontario Archives, located, coincidentally, in the same building as my own office. There I experienced what I can only describe as a Marlene Kadar moment. In David’s life and writings, his ambivalent white Creole romance of Englishness (see Lambert 2010) sat uneasily with his utopian embrace of West Indian decolonization. Postcolonial theorists have used the term melancholia to describe the affect associated with the failures of independence and the sacrifice of the postcolonial ideal to lingering colonial contradictions (Gilroy 2005). David was a melancholic, his life pre-figuring aspects of postcolonial melancholia. Unknowable to him was a silenced past (Trouillot 1995), hidden away in the archive: an ancestor, the son of a Barbadian planter, colonial legislator, and owner of enslaved persons, who had been diagnosed with “mania” following “insane attacks.” Committed by his own father to an institution in a distant land, the Toronto Asylum for the Insane, he would die there, his memory lost to his family. White Barbadian masculinity constructed itself historically as noble, immutable, and free. Trapped in itself, however, it returned to haunt its descendants in a “boomerang effect of colonization” (Césaire 1972). By reading David’s story and hospitalization in relation to his ancestor’s I hope, following Khanna (2003), to unleash from the archive the critical agency of melancholia revealed in the silences haunting the postcolonial nation. I am grateful to Marlene Kadar for providing the space for unleashing the silence.