“Commonly Human”

Embodied Self-Possession and Human Rights in Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother

Authored by: Elizabeth S. Anker

The Routledge Companion to Literature and Human Rights

Print publication date:  August  2015
Online publication date:  July  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415736411
eBook ISBN: 9781315778372
Adobe ISBN: 9781317696285




It is a man who would ask, What makes the world turn, and then would find in his own reply fields of gravity, imaginary lines, tilts and axes, reason and logic, and, quite brazenly, a theory of justice.

Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother (1996: 134) A key premise of this volume and much scholarship on human rights is that narration is central to fostering a human rights culture. In particular, narrative self-fashioning – or autobiography – has provided one of the primary avenues for positing the human who is the subject of human rights. Insofar as human rights norms and statements envision a “liberal,” “self-determining” “individual,” certain modes of narrative self-assertion have been viewed as crucial to both claiming human rights and establishing a person’s entitlement to them.

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“Commonly Human”

It is a man who would ask, What makes the world turn, and then would find in his own reply fields of gravity, imaginary lines, tilts and axes, reason and logic, and, quite brazenly, a theory of justice.

Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother (1996: 134) A key premise of this volume and much scholarship on human rights is that narration is central to fostering a human rights culture. In particular, narrative self-fashioning – or autobiography – has provided one of the primary avenues for positing the human who is the subject of human rights. Insofar as human rights norms and statements envision a “liberal,” “self-determining” “individual,” certain modes of narrative self-assertion have been viewed as crucial to both claiming human rights and establishing a person’s entitlement to them.

Yet Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother is a strange “auto-biography” indeed, and its ambivalence toward that genre challenges a number of conventional assumptions about human rights norms and discourses. The novel’s first sentence explains that its first-person narrator and protagonist, Xuela, lost her mother in childbirth, thereby problematizing the title’s designation. Analogous tensions pervade Xuela’s narrative. In keeping with its stated genre, The Autobiography of My Mother initially charts her development through a linear chronology, but that account becomes increasingly circular and repetitive in ways that disrupt notions of coherent character, autonomous will, or historical progress. Living in a patriarchal culture that denies her forms of autonomy, Xuela at once rails against and requisitions the languages of possessive individualism and self-mastery, which she indicts for being complicit with empire and gender oppression alike. Moreover, although loss overhangs her entire existence, Xuela claims pain and suffering as meaningful and generative, unfolding what I will describe as a counterliberal odyssey of the human.

This chapter investigates how The Autobiography of My Mother simultaneously activates and subverts many of the assumptions about the “human” that guide liberal human rights discourses and norms. Human rights standards presume an agentive subject whose reasoned self-determination secures the privileges and protections of rights – just as deliberative, rational choice is understood to vest political process with legitimacy. Liberal definitions of human rights further understand their protections as facilitating the gradual overcoming of pain, with mind and intellect triumphing over and subduing the body and its anarchic drives. As such, human rights norms naturalize a vision of historical and individual progress that casts the condition of embodiment and especially corporeal suffering as inherently wasteful, or an automatic detraction from those qualities most fully constitutive of human liberty. This larger conceptual framework that grounds human rights norms furthermore locates dignity and bodily integrity at its core. To be entitled to rights, an individual must inhabit a dignified body integrated by the reasoning mind – meaning that rights discourses also cooperate with liberal vocabularies of freedom, self-possession, and autonomous will.

The Autobiography of My Mother, however, puts pressure on such equations, problematizing the articulation of the human that sustains them. In turn, this chapter looks to Kincaid’s novel to pose a series of questions about human rights discourses and norms: how does Xuela’s counterliberal itinerary of self-fashioning challenge liberal expectations about agency, reason, and civic incorporation? How should we understand the formative role of loss and brutality in her account of herself? While Xuela makes recourse to a grammar of self-possession, she simultaneously denounces it; how do such contradictions in her narrative illumine deeper paradoxes that riddle the liberal construct of rights? Xuela’s perspective is immersed in a vivid experience of her own embodiment; how does her visceral self-awareness trouble the dual premiums on bodily integrity and dignity that subtend liberal formulations of human rights?

On the surface, Autobiography conducts an extended outcry against a legion of human rights abuses. In so doing, it laments how these abuses are perpetrated under the banner of the twinned institutions of imperialism and slavery, which it further aligns with gender oppression. Xuela’s maturation occurs against the backdrop of the hard poverty of twentieth-century Dominica, with her narrative frequently lapsing into almost philosophical reflections on the interrelated tolls of colonialism, slavery, and patriarchy. Her narrative’s abrupt, caustic tone often communicates bitter cynicism, as one opening commentary expounds: “In a place like this, brutality is the only real inheritance and cruelty is sometimes the only thing freely given” (Kincaid 1996: 5). Countless incidents expose the ubiquitous hypocrisy of Xuela’s surrounding world, and they especially concern how economic self-interest aggravates the human capacity for cruelty. Whereas the image of “a man who traded in human bodies and then wrote a hymn” emblematizes such duplicity in one passage (1996: 215), in another Xuela “awake[s]” to observe her first sexual partner “counting his money, over and over” (1996: 78). Xuela’s sensitivity to corruption is unusually acute due to her own father, whom she describes as “commit[ting] his own crimes against humanity” (1996: 145). Although many of these “crimes” remain unspecified, her narrative at length wrestles with the fact that her father, a wealthy man, was both “perpetrator and victim” (1996: 192) of the exploitation and oppression of his own people. The novel begins with his abandonment of Xuela, recounting how she was left “in the care of the same woman he paid to wash his clothes” (1996: 4). As she speculates whether he “emphasized … the difference between the two bundles,” Xuela attributes his callousness to an economic demeanor that confuses not only divergent kinds of labor but also property with women (1996: 4).

In this respect, The Autobiography of My Mother offers a classic statement of postcolonial ambivalence. Xuela’s father claims such a mixed inheritance, being descended from the Scotsman “John Richardson,” who endowed him with red hair. But despite her grandfather’s “many children with many different women,” that European heritage remains, for her father, a badge of pride. Xuela rebukes him for “choos[ing] the ease of the victor” (1996: 186), and this theme of dividedness permeates her narrative. For Xuela, little exists that is not tainted by empire and the self-loathing it induces in the formerly colonized, and her acerbic sarcasm emerges most forcefully when she disparages her fellow Dominicans’ historical amnesia. Xuela, for instance, derides Christianity as “signif[ying] defeat” (1996: 133), and similarly mocks the drinking of English tea by people “even though they were quite aware that no such thing as a tea tree grew in England” (1996: 142). As a figure for the willed denials demanded by empire, “tea” registers both imperialism’s sanctioned crimes and its enabling fantasies, and her mockery decries how those fantasies engender a subordinated culture’s sense of chronic inferiority, as it strives but fails to fulfill illusory standards of civility.

Xuela’s suspicions about the artifacts of empire equally color her attitude toward education. The first words she learns to read are “British empire” (1996: 14), and those origins compromise both the outcomes of her education and its various components. Just as the basic act of writing requires “a penmanship born of beatings and harsh words” (1996: 18–19), Xuela experiences her colonial education as a source of subordination and “a humiliation so permanent it would replace your own skin” (1996: 79). This collapse of discipline into learning, however, points to more pervasive realities with which The Autobiography of My Mother contends. Xuela confronts a conceptual universe wherein all available interpretive lenses and explanatory paradigms are contaminated by the residues of empire – including the basic genre of the “autobiography,” as I will discuss shortly. Even empire’s positive bequests, like education, recall and entrench the regimes of oppression that motored and legitimized conquest.

Its portrayal of a world replete with paradox, then, is what renders The Autobiography of My Mother instructive for thinking about human rights. Importantly, Xuela does not single out her father and his wrongs as exceptional. To the contrary, his particular “crimes against humanity” mark him as no more than “commonly human” (1996: 192), given that for Xuela they are manifestations of impulses faced by all people – including herself. From her narrative’s inception, Xuela foregrounds her own propensity for cruelty, such as when as a child she starves and abandons three turtles while relishing their “complete … dependen[ce] on [her] for their existence” (1996: 11). Moreover, Xuela’s preoccupation with her mother’s death renders her unwilling to bear her own children. She confesses to multiple abortions, with a passage that punctuates her transition to adulthood containing a protracted, graphic rendition of her first abortion and its exquisite pain. Just as this sacrifice transformed her into “a new person then” (1996: 82), Xuela’s attempts at self-possession are recurrently predicated on violent refusals. In turn, if Autobiography offers up a portrait of the “commonly human,” it is one founded on destruction and other decidedly illiberal appetites. Whereas liberal human rights norms purvey expectations about dignity and self-improvement, those lofty ideals are suggested to be as divorced from Xuela’s reality as is the drinking of “English tea.”

While for Xuela all universals and ideals are rent by analogous contradictions, imperialism and its enabling logic are especially beset by such liabilities, which equally infect liberal humanism. At various points in her narrative, Xuela contemplates in almost philosophical terms the specific habits of thought that have sanctioned larger structures of oppression, showing how empire and humanism alike are supported by parallel ideological rationales. As I have suggested, she deems possessive individualism in particular both formative of human experience and yet innately lethal. As Xuela explains, “[t]he impulse to possess is alive in every heart, and some people choose vast plains, some people choose high mountains, some people choose wide seas, and some people choose husbands; I chose to possess myself” (1996: 173–74). While subsuming her own goals for her life as well as her strange autobiography within such colonizing ambitions, Xuela distinguishes between contrasting expressions of proprietary thought. Not surprisingly, when possessive individualism becomes a quest for “profit” it entails “the forced labor, the crippling, the early death of the unnamed many” (1996: 135) – or the active reduction of certain lives to the status of disposable, interchangeable property. For theorists like Ian Baucom, this principle of “equivalence” underlying finance capital’s “decorporealizing” logic also gave birth to interrelated ideas of rights (2005: 6–7). As Baucom maintains, the “double logic of speculative reason” that structures the architecture of capitalism also informs “Enlightenment theor[ies] of the human” (2005: 56). And to apply Baucom’s arguments to Xuela’s ruminations, her insights about possessive individualism suggest how rights discourses conspire with less salutary regimes of privilege, entitlement, and mastery.

Relatedly, Xuela’s reflections on discourses of historical progress highlight their collaboration with broader patterns of domination. Indeed, Xuela aligns the very desire for an inheritance of “ancestors and their deeds” with the middle passage and the “ship full of people” (Kincaid 1996: 136–37). Above all, her colonial education has rendered her cognizant of how all historical narratives of self-founding celebrate some lives while marginalizing others; for Xuela, the declaration of any name hierarchizes, indicating whether a “person holds herself high or low” (1996: 79). In this way, Xuela’s reservations about history-making further interrogate the tenor of rights rhetoric. Rights talk, with its frequently exhortatory and aspirational thrust, naturally marshals assumptions about civilizational progress, yet Xuela warns against such forward-looking teleologies, given how they collude with empire to allow its oppressions. At once, her reluctance about proper names – whether universal or particularizing – questions whether all gestures of self-constitution are fated to confirm the backwardness of certain peoples while elevating others.

To be sure, Xuela’s complaints about the rhetoric of historical progress also raise questions about the novel’s form, although Kincaid revises the conventions of autobiography in ways that mark their forfeitures and exclusions. Xuela explicitly scripts her narrative as an odyssey of self-discovery, in part verifying the autobiography’s standard plot. In this respect, The Autobiography of My Mother invites analysis as a Bildungsroman, a form credited with disseminating key norms pertaining to human rights (see Slaughter 2007). Yet while Xuela activates canonical expectations for her narrative, they conspicuously fail – perhaps most vividly through her paradoxical claims to simultaneously tell “an account of my mother’s life,” “an account of the life of the children I did not have, as it is their account of me,” and “an account of the person I did not allow myself to become” (1996: 227). Xuela’s ambitions are practicably impossible; however, those assertions also work to highlight the limits of both the Bildungsroman and autobiography. Insofar as those genres have naturalized normative ideas about progress, maturation, autonomy, civic incorporation, and human rights, her narrative refuses to conform to or verify them – akin to how its confused, circular temporality undermines linearity. In effect, Xuela’s appeal to autobiography invokes assumptions about self-determination vis-à-vis human rights while simultaneously enacting the disappointment of those compulsory standards. In the end, her principled rejection of liberal bildung thereby exposes that goal as a decoy that has served to occlude oppression and condone the status quo. Yet despite such resistances, Xuela’s reliance on genre also attests to its imaginative hold upon her, along with the parallel hold of liberal constructions of reality. As such, we might explain the warring tendencies in her narrative as symptomatic of this coterminous investment in and subversion of the individualist dictate to self-fashion via self-narration.

In a similar manner, The Autobiography of My Mother interrogates humanism. Although Kincaid does not adopt explicitly Enlightenment-based or juridical terminology, the rhetoric of the “human” circulates throughout the novel, often to establish a contrast between two competing regimes of naming. Xuela crafts her own identity by erecting a distinction between a “lady” and a “woman,” characterizing the former as “a combination of fabrications” and “distortions, lies, and empty” efforts (1996: 159). A parallel contrast between “man” and “people” denotes the enabling logic of colonization, or “the event of the African people meeting the hyphenated man” (1996: 188). Above all, the ubiquity of this opposition between “man” and “people” within Xuela’s narrative conjoins empire with humanism, marking their shared philosophical order and genesis. As Xuela explains of her father’s ambivalence toward his inheritance:

[T]his distinction between “man” and “people” was an important distinction, for one of them came off the boat as part of a horde, already demonized, mind blank to everything but human suffering, each face the same as the one next to it; the other came off the boat of his own volition, seeking to fulfill a destiny, a vision of himself he carried in his mind’s eye.

(1996: 181) Beyond registering how universalizing notions about civilizational advancement both author and gird philosophical humanisms, this passage underscores how conceptions of agentive will, progress, and individuality are central to humanism’s architecture. It furthermore illustrates why definitions of humanity require that category’s antithesis or negation – in other words, the existence of subhuman, inhuman lives – to incur explanatory legibility and salience. Historically speaking, The Autobiography of My Mother thus laments how humanism, as well as related concepts of freedom, self-determination, and rights, acquired meaning with direct reference to the dual institutions of slavery and colonization (and for Kincaid gender oppression), with the specter of an undifferentiated, un-individualized “people” consolidating beliefs about the fully human (see also Hartman 1997). Xuela’s meditations accordingly explore more than what we might call the oppositional structure of identity; rather, they elucidate how humanism, rights, and freedom were forged in the cauldron of dehumanization, rendering those notions complicit with legacies of oppression that continue to pollute any positive constitution of humanity or of human rights.

Xuela’s allegations about humanism are introduced to explain how her father “came to despise all who behaved like the African people” (1996: 187), and his biases importantly shed light on deeper exclusions that subtend liberal articulations of human rights. Xuela’s satiric caricature of the slave not only echoes common stereotypes about non-European peoples but also demonstrates why that category functions as a necessary foil to “hyphenated man.” Beyond being deindividualized, anonymous, passive, and without historical consciousness, Xuela’s slave has a “mind blank to everything but human suffering.” While a parody, this portrait poignantly captures how a prioritization of mind and intellect – and coeval disparagement of the body – not only underwrites liberal theories of the human but also sanctions forms of dehumanization. Whereas liberal definitions of humanity script that status in terms of reasoned self-mastery and agentive development, such itineraries of the subject cast the body and its drives as threats to full personhood. Further manifested in the twinned standards of dignity and bodily integrity, this classically Cartesian animus treats the body as a problem to be disciplined, integrated, conquered, and overcome, lest its inherent captivity and suffering jeopardize the liberal freedom and autonomy conferred by rights. Notably, this interrelated reluctance about embodiment and privileging of mind informs an array of theoretical approaches to human rights, whether Elaine Scarry’s seminal account of “the body in pain” or much trauma theory (for a more detailed argument, see Anker 2012). To be reduced or beholden to the body is to be labeled subhuman, and that equation has and continues to support the subjugation of “people” according to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, class, and species membership. From another angle, this is to say that the individual onus to discipline the body through rational self-determination is symmetrical to empire’s impetus to dominate and subdue nature. It is this connection that The Autobiography of My Mother subtly adumbrates, for instance as Xuela overtly links the structure of misogyny to that of empire, which together render all women “the eventually defeated, the eventually bitter” (1996: 80).

From this perspective we can better understand the significance of Xuela’s intensely visceral narrative and self-consciousness and their role in redefining what is at stake in the embodiment of human rights. Xuela’s aggressive celebration of her body and sexuality refute and reverse the denigrating logic that treats embodiment as detracting from humanity and therefore a condition to be conquered and surmounted. Xuela’s experiences of her corporeality are the locus of her identity and self-fashioning, precipitating her transition from one life phase to the next and actuating her perceptions of self-ownership. Whereas for her father’s wife Xuela’s “human form and odor were an opportunity to heap scorn” during her puberty, Xuela herself “loved the smell of” her many body parts and transitions (1996: 32, 58). Later, the onset of “the thick red fluid of my menstrual blood” induces self-love (1996: 57), much as she grasps what it means to be “alive” through feeling her “legs … hot and between them … a moisture, a sweet smelly stickiness” (1996: 66). Here, those aspects of her embodiment that might otherwise generate revulsion or disgust are embraced by Xuela as authentic insignia of self-knowledge and meaningful markers of her selfhood. Whereas liberalism derides bodily desires as hindrances to be mastered or alleviated – that is, as dangerous evidence of the subhuman or inhumane – The Autobiography of My Mother’s gritty realism claims them as formative.

Likewise, Xuela’s embodied self-awareness flouts the ideals of bodily integrity and human dignity, instead affirming the messiness and complexity of corporeal existence. Her first sexual encounter fills her with an “ache of pleasure” (1996: 72), and during her initial amorous liaison with her eventual husband, Philip, she binds her own wrists (1996: 154). Notably, Xuela’s enjoyment of bondage and suffering alike defy the assumptions about pain and captivity that consolidate human rights norms. Rather than cast pain as an inherently pernicious condition requiring control and transcendence, Xuela welcomes it as meaningful, at one point asserting that “everything” to which she is “inextricably bound is a source of pain” (1996: 6–7). Xuela similarly refuses to segregate or compartmentalize pleasure and pain, instead experiencing them as mutually productive. Overall, Xuela’s embodied suffering directly enables her self-possession, which is to say that her paradoxical odyssey of subject formations inverts the agenda of reasoned development that typically naturalizes human rights norms and standards. Quite differently, Xuela revels in those aspects of human experience that liberal humanism censures for jeopardizing or diminishing the individual’s capacity for human rights.

In addition, Xuela’s corporeal self-awareness attunes her to her surrounding lifeworld and the intertwining of all existence. Many of Xuela’s childhood memories recall being enthralled with the “sensations of seeing, smelling, and hearing” that embed perception, or with

the green of the leaves, the red burst of the flowers from the flamboyant trees, the sickly yellow fruit of the cashew, the smell of lime, the smell of almonds, the coffee on my breath, Eunice’s skirt blowing in my face ….

(1996: 13) Xuela’s memories here conflate colors with sounds and smells as her senses collaborate to absorb the rhythms and intensities of her environment. Similar passages depict her transfixed with nighttime sounds and what they conjure, prompting erotic self-love (1996: 43). This awareness of the interconnection of what Jane Bennett calls “vibrant matter” (2010) – or of being fully immersed within, rather than liberated from or superior to, the natural world – ushers in ethical recognitions for Xuela. Xuela undergoes a sense of symbiosis with and dependence on nature – a stance that defies colonialism’s and patriarchy’s shared conceits of power and domination. Relatedly, the many passages that find Xuela physically naked countermand the feint of sovereign self-enclosure that guides liberal human rights norms to instead laud vulnerability and openness as fonts of meaning.

It is through passages like the one above that Kincaid incarnates The Autobiography of My Mother’s portrait of humanity through its very style, form, and aesthetic. Kincaid’s prose is alive with rhythm, texture, sonority, cadence, and tactile qualities. This vivid, animate language harnesses the reader’s corporeal faculties of engagement, inducing a consciousness akin to Xuela’s. For instance, the narrative’s description of mangoes as “all ripe, and those shades of red, pink, and yellow were tantalizing and mouth-watering” (1996: 36) provokes a type of synesthesia, inciting the senses to cooperate to engender perception while revealing their constitutive intertwining. In this way, too, the novel refuses to privilege vision and mind, implicitly castigating that bias for authoring regimes of mastery; it instead stimulates the body’s participation in its entirety, demonstrating the body’s vital contributions to selfhood. Likewise, we might understand the narrative’s cyclical, episodic structure, while it repudiates genealogies of progress, as similarly mimicking bodily habits of perception.

By no means last, Kincaid’s deeply incarnated portrait of the human is partner to an embrace of the mundane and day-to-day. Xuela’s earliest memory of being sensorily alive notably occurs on a morning “so ordinary it was profound” (1996: 13), representing another way The Autobiography of My Mother thwarts the colonizing logic of narratives of historical progress and reasoned self-mastery. Fully cognizant of how such fantasies of civilizational and individual advancement have perpetrated the worst cruelties in human history, it is not accidental that Xuela in the same breath foreswears totalizing theories of social justice. We can recall here the quote from the novel that serves as this chapter’s epigraph: “It is a man who would ask, What makes the world turn, and then would find in his own reply fields of gravity, imaginary lines, tilts and axes, reason and logic, and, quite brazenly, a theory of justice.” Xuela cautions that accounts of “what makes the world turn” risk culminating with the violence of empire, even when oriented toward the salutary pursuit of “justice,” although Xuela deems that ambition especially “brazen” (1996: 134). In such ways do her ruminations throughout The Autobiography of My Mother compel haunting questions about our contemporary aspirations for human rights, asking whether they are equally caught up in myths of human progress that verge on becoming domineering and exclusionary. As visionary ideals, human rights carry with them assumptions about the archetypal “man,” and Xuela’s narrative pointedly confronts the tyranny of such universalizing gestures. That said, her strangely self-effacing autobiography simultaneously imagines an alternate odyssey of the human instead grounded in bodily exposure, vulnerability, and the onus to be sensorily “alive.”

Further reading

Asad, T. (2003) Formations of the Secular: Islam, Christianity, Modernity, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (A study of the relationship between secularism and empire.)
Gilroy, P. (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (A study of culture and the Black Atlantic.)
Kincaid, J. (1988) A Small Place, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (An extended polemic against the economic exploitation of the Caribbean.)
Scott, D. (2004) Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment, Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (An analysis of the tragic dimensions of decolonization.)


Anker, E. S. (2012) Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Baucom, I. (2005) Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hartman, S. (1997) Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-Century America, New York: Oxford University Press.
Kincaid, J. (1996) The Autobiography of My Mother, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Scarry, E. (1985) The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, New York: Oxford University Press.
Slaughter, J. (2007) Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law, New York: Fordham University Press.
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