How Michelle Cliff (1946-2016) Taught Me To Imagine Myself in The Most RADICAL History Possible

I learned yesterday from the blogspot of poet Opal Palmer Adisa that novelist Michelle Cliff passed away.  Michelle Cliff is a huge inspiration as a novelist to me because she taught me that it was okay to imagine myself in the most RADICAL history possible.  I taught Michelle Cliff’s novel No Telephone to Heaven during the History of Caribbean Culture course during the Spring 2010 semester at Temple.  Cliff did this in her second novel No Telephone To Heaven (1987) when she imagined a scenario in Jamaica where her protagonist Clare is joining a band of revolutionaries to mount a guerrilla attack on a film crew in Jamaica for telling a falsified version of Jamaican history.  

The story that Cliff wrote here affected me deeply because it opened my mind to the ways that the film industry is a business that explicitly supports white supremacy.  Her second novel opens with her white Jamaican protagonist Clare in the back of a truck that is driving to the scene of the film.  Throughout the novel Clare experiences flashbacks of the closest people in her life, her parents Boy and Kitty; her best friend Harry/Harriet; and her lover Bobby.  When Clare thinks about her father, Boy, named by the Jim Crow South that he goes to with Kitty, the reader reads the thoughts of what Boy should say to a white segregationist motelkeeper:

“What shall I say to this man?  Boy wondered.  A lesson from the third form on the history of Jamaica sprang to mind: mulatto, offspring of African and white; sambo, offspring of African and mulatto; quadroon, offspring of mulatto and white; mestee, offspring of quadroon and white; mestefeena, offspring of mestee and white.  Am I remembering it right?  He asked himself (56).

Cliff is obviously questioning and trying to deconstruct the hierarchy of class and color that still governs Caribbean society up to today.  Clare’s mother Kitty as interesting.  She finds a job in New York at White’s Sanitary Laundry where she puts notes in her white customers clothes of positive sentiments, messages that support the Cleaver family status quo, until she learns the racism of Jim Crow America of the 1950s and chooses to write more personal and heartfelt messages in her clothes, like:

“We can clean your clothes but not your heart.  America is cruel.  Consider kindness for a change.  White people can be Black-hearted.  The life you live will be visited on your children.  Marcus Garvey was right” (81).

Michelle Cliff through Boy and Kitty imagine a much more militant response to Jim Crow America than any novelist I have ever read.  In this novel, she tells the story of Christopher and his slaughter of an upper class Jamaican family for not allowing his grandmother “a proper burial.”  Christopher’s murder of this family is essentially why this novel is called “No Telephone to Heaven.”  Cliff is highlighting the ways that the “21 families” of Jamaica still rule, yet how the people of Jamaica can still take their future into their own hands and mitigate or end this rule by oligarchy.  Clare’s friendship with Harry/Harriet is very significant.  Harry/Harriet is the first transgender character I have ever felt so close to in a work of fiction.  Harry/Harriet writes Clare and tells her that while reading C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, he is in love with the Haitian revolutionary Jean Jacques Dessalines.  

Harry/Harriet forces Clare to come to terms with her lesbianity, and interprets his being raped by a white officer as “a symbol for what they [colonizers] did to all of us, always bearing in mind that some of us, many of us, also do it to ech other” (129).  This is true even to today when my cousin Jason tells me about how so many Jamaicans were celebrating the Orlando shootings, which happened to be the day that Michelle Cliff made her transition.   How Cliff writes Clare’s relationship with Bobby is very interesting.  Bobby is a former Vietnam veteran and tells her quite honestly:

“unless you want a little Black baby with no eyes, no mouth, no nose, half a brain, harelip, missing privates, or a double set like some fucking hyena, missing limbs, or limbs twisted beyond anything you might recognize, organs where they are not means to be, a dis-harmony of parts—any or all of the above, or the above in combination, better think again, sweetness.  (As he spoke, a confusion of emotion was in her—and she wondered at the coldness in his voice)” (156). 

Cliff is serious about showing the ways that U.S. imperialism harms the model U.S. nuclear family.  Because of his service in the Vietnam War being affected by Agent Orange, Bobby is unable to have fertile children with Clare.  Cliff’s postmaster character Miss Clare also lets Clare and the reader know about the stark reality of political Jamaica.  She said: “And the dollar falling fast.  People said the IMF might possess the country.  It was a time of more hideaways for rich—the expansion of the sandbox. ‘Make it your own,’ the tourist board told the visitors.  Tires burned again at roadblocks” (187).  Cliff is able in 1987 to publish a novel that still speaks to the situation of Jamaica in 2016.  Cliff also anticipates Jakob Johnston’s 2015 report called “Partners in Austerity” that states that Jamaica has suffered the most AUSTERE or ECONOMICALLY RESTRICTIVE budget because of its colonial relationship with the IMF.  Since Edward Seaga’s leadership, now fictionalized in Marlon James’s latest 2014 novel through the character of Peter Nasser, Jamaica has been what Cliff calls an expanded “sandbox.”  

Cliff extends this metaphor when at the end of this novel she quotes a 1984 New York Times article encouraging racist filmmakers to film in Jamaica: “It also has a racially mixed popularion of many hues and ethnic distinctions, which…includes a number of people willing to serve as extras.  The national language is English, and you can drink the water.”  Cliff’s “extra” character in No Telephone To Heaven is “De Watchman” who signals the guerilla band to open fire on the U.S. film crew that was originally telling a story that would whitewash and bastardize history.  The film director said: “we’re going to shoot the scene where the monster attacks Nanny, and Cudjoe rescues her” (207).  

Cliff shows how the film director bastardizes the actual history of Nanny who was never the one being rescued, but the one rescuing others in her triumphs as leader of a Maroon army against the British.  Cliff’s narrator tells us “Clare was lying flat in a bitterbush.”  She would be part of the guerilla attack on the film crew that depends on the colonial relationship between the IMF and Jamaica in order to tell misogynistic, sexist falsified histories.  What Cliff was saying in No Telephone To Heaven is that those interesting in making a telephone connection, or some connection with the Jamaican masses MUST think about undertaking the kinds of actions that her protagonist Clare undertook.

Special thanks to my graduate master’s thesis committee member Dr. Shirley Toland-Dix for introducing me to the work of Michelle Cliff.  Special thanks to Opal Palmer Adisa for telling the world about the transition of such an important fiction writer in Michelle Cliff.  How Cliff imagines Annie Christmas’s relationship with abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant in her third novel Free Enterprise is another very NECESSARY conversation to have. –RF.

Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.

One thought on “How Michelle Cliff (1946-2016) Taught Me To Imagine Myself in The Most RADICAL History Possible”

  1. Can there be a trustworthy relations with a culture set on the destruction of a human behavior of choice? Can we bridge the gap when there is "no telephone to heaven"

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