Matthew Chin


In the broadest sense, intimacy indexes relations of closeness. In its most common iteration, intimacy is thought to occur between individuals and the nature of their closeness is often articulated in terms of affection, love, romance and/or eroticism. Looking at this kind of intimacy can be useful in understanding how the nature of relationships between individuals shape, or are shaped by, the contexts in which they exist. Yet intimacy is not confined to humans. It is also not necessarily limited to small scale relations. And because the very definition of intimacy suggests that differences – and by extension disparities in power – exist between intimates, relations of closeness may involve not only dynamics of care but also exploitation. Therefore, it is not only interpersonal intimacy of a positive nature that may operate as a site of knowledge but also intimacy among people, places, and things, as well as relations of violence.

I situate intimacy as a keyword for Caribbean studies for two reasons. First, intimacy functions as a basis upon which Caribbean people understand themselves. The ongoing cultural struggle of constructing a grammar of belonging in the Caribbean plays out in the realm of the intimate. Questions about intimacy become questions about citizenship: What kinds of intimacy are permissible? Who (or what) should or should not be intimate with whom (or what)? What are the acceptable ways for intimacy to be practiced? Second, intimacy operates as a framework through which to analyze how the Caribbean has been constructed as an object of knowledge. Narrated as the site of the world’s first transoceanic empires, the Caribbean becomes a region by virtue of its component nations’ similar (though not uniform) socio-historical and structural processes. If European colonization conceived of Caribbean territories as “empty” and then made them so via Indigenous genocide, the subsequent peopling of the region through African enslavement and Asian indentureship in the service of globalized plantation economies necessarily entailed forms of closeness across differently ethno-racialized peoples. Yet the intimacies that developed within and among these groups – erotic, economic, affective, familial, political etc. – did not always align with colonial modes of being and were often positioned as perverse, excessive, and subversive. Analyzing the various iterations of these intimate relations functions as a method of reckoning with the Caribbean’s ongoing legacy as the laboratory of modernity and global capitalism.

Title: Garifuna Research Center
Founder: Zoila Ellis Browne
Steward: Garifuna Heritage Foundation

Curatorial Note: What can intimacies between different ethno-racial groups tell us about the Caribbean? One product of such intimacies – ethno-racially mixed people – are thought to be particularly indexical of the region. The Garifuna are one example. They are a maroon people who came into being from the intimacies between escaped African enslaved and Carib people in St. Vincent in the seventeenth century. Garifuna communities are now found across the Americas, most predominantly in Honduras and Belize. Garifuna cultural forms are syncretic, draw from both West African and Amerindian influences in language, religion, and dance. The Garifuna Research Center is a non-profit organization that seeks to promote Garifuna heritage and culture in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in the Caribbean, and around the world. The Center’s website exists as a useful resource to examine institutional efforts to document and maintain a sense of identity, community, and culture among the Garifuna.

Title: “Indian Folk Music Brought To Trinidad Looks For Fans Outside The Caribbean”
Author: Ike Sriskandarajah
Steward: NPR

Curatorial Note: How can we understand the Caribbean through the intimacies of different musical forms? This question is pertinent to Caribbean studies because the region has been constructed to be exemplary of cultural hybridity/syncretism. Chutney soca in Trinidad is one example of this cultural mixing. It is commonly understood as a fusion of chutney, an Indo-Trinidadian folk music performed for Hindu weddings, and soca, Afro-Trinidadian music that developed through the mixing of calypso with soul. This podcast from NPR traces the history of Indian arrival to Trinidad via systems of indentureship and the subsequent development of chutney soca as a musical genre that has since been mobilized to index a national cultural form even as its artists actively engage with diasporic and international audiences.

Title: Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox
Author: Dexter Wimberly
Steward: MoAD

Curatorial Note: How can we understand the Caribbean through intimate relations between things? European contact with Caribbean territories was initially motivated by the search for gold and their continued interest in the region was premised on its capacity to generate wealth through the production of agricultural goods, especially sugar, for overseas markets. What can the intimacies between the commodities most prominently associated with the Caribbean tell us about the way that the region is positioned within global economic imaginaries? One way of addressing this question may be through an analysis of the 2019 art exhibition by the Museum of the African Diaspora entitled Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox. Showcasing the work of ten contemporary Caribbean visual artists, the exhibition highlights the relationship among commodities to explore the continuing legacy of European colonialism in the region. The website of the exhibition hosts not only images of the artists’ works but also an educator resource guide to facilitate conversations on this topic with students.

Title: An Interview with Ada Ferrer
Author: Ada Ferrer
Steward: Cambridge University Press

Curatorial Note: How might looking at intimacies between places be generative for Caribbean studies? Even though different Caribbean territories are related, the challenges of working against national and linguistic boundaries often make it difficult to parse these relations to get a broader sense of the region as a whole. In this video, Dr. Ada Ferrer discusses her research in which she disrupts these boundaries to study the relationship between the Haitian Revolution and Cuba. In so doing she illustrates how the movement toward emancipation and national independence in Haiti is closely related to the intensification of slavery and sugar production in Cuba. Ferrer’s research makes use of intimacy as a methodology to yield more expansive insights on Caribbean history.

Title: “Legalization of Abortion, Gay Rights Has Haiti Churches Up in Arms, Criticizing President”
Author: Jacqueline Charles
Steward: Miami Herald

Curatorial Note: What do contests over sexual intimacy reveal about the way that Caribbean people understand themselves? As the region comes to be “languaged by sex,”1 it is the sexed bodies, practices, and identities of Caribbean people that emerge as the terrain on which struggles over political and cultural sovereignty are waged. Most recently, the passage of a new Penal Code in Haiti in June 2020 has – among other changes – transformed the criteria for what counts as legally permissible forms of sexual intimacy. These changes elicited significant public backlash, particularly the reduction in the age of consent, the banning of discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the condemnation of forced sex with animals. In detailing the opposition to these changes, the newspaper article included here outlines the contours of the debate over sexual citizenship in Haiti.

Matthew Chin is an assistant professor in Women, Gender and Sexuality at the University of Virginia. His research examines the histories of racial and sexual formation in the Anglophone Caribbean.

Smith, Faith. “Sex and the Citizen.” In Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean, edited by Faith Smith, 1–20. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Image used under a Pixabay license

  1. Smith, “Sex and the Citizen,” 1.