The Arts…Slavery as the theme in West Indian Poetry

With its grim and ghastly images of colonial history, slavery still inspires West Indian dreams of individual freedom and collectives independence. It also haunts their nightmares. Slavery’s past is part of the present life of the West Indies and it finds eloquent expression in West Indian Poetry. Here is a epitaph to that inheritance, by the Jamaican Dennis Scott.

They hanged him on a clement morning, swung between the falling sunlight and the women’s breathing like a black apostrophe to pain.

All morning while the children hushed

their hopscotch joy and the cane kept growing
he hung there sweet and low.
At least that’s how
they tell it. It was long ago
and what can we recall of a dead slave or two
except that when we punctuate our island tale
they swing like sighs across the brutal
sentences, and anger pauses
till they pass away.

The heritage is all here, in a catalog of West Indian experiences. The legacy of sugar, bitter rather than sweet for those enslaved to work that plantations that for so long provided the main economic resource for the West Indies. The juxtaposition of brutality and beauty (“ hanged him on a clement morning”), and the ironies of familiar sentimentality (“sweet and low”). The wonder of human being in the presence of something immeasurable larger than themselves, whether the awful power of the slave system or the hushed loveliness of life, renewed every morning and sustained by the gaiety of children. The mix of spoken and written languages, punctuated by silence and suffering and the stark image of the hanged man (“a black apostrophe to pain”). The experience of West Indian women, whose place has often been obscured but who both literally and figuratively have given breath to their people, and whose bravery has deep roots in this heritage. And the uncertainties of all such accounts (“at least that’s  how they tell it”), underwritten as they are by fear and hope as well as by rage and resignation, and signifying a humanity that paradoxically defies both hanging and history.

Slavery was just not the beginning, the first cause, of West Indian colonization. It was also its end, its final cause and purpose. Because of this, it continues to inform the imaginations of West Indian writers and artists, just as it continues to influence the realities of West Indian life. Many of the most powerful accounts of these realities are in poems written by West Indians, and contemporarary West Indian poetry provides a unique chronicle not only of the heritance of slavery but also of the changes that have taken place over the past fifty years as the islands have moved to political independence, and as their people have come to new terms with their past. In new ways. And new languages.

This inheritance is forcefully recalled in a poem by the Guyanese writer Martin Carter, published while he was imprisoned in Georgetown in the 1950s for his resistance to continuing colonial rule in British Guiana. The poem conveys an intensely personal suffering, and the opening words confirm both the difference of this experience from any thing that many of us have been through and the language that is part of that difference.

I come from the nigger yard of yesterday
leaping from the oppressors’ hate
and the scorn of myself;
from the agony of the dark hut in the shadow
and the hurt of things;
from the long days of cruelty and the long nights of pain
down to the wide streets of to-morrow, of the next day
leaping I come, who cannot see will hear.

In one of the central paradoxes of literature, poetic voices that are genuinely different, as Carter’s is, make us newly conscious of what is shared by all poets and by their readers in different times and places. In one sense, this should not be all that surprising. Poets, even those who have lived through such experiences, are in many ways much like the rest of us. And even their experiences are often quite close to ours. When they are at home they get restless, and when they are away they get homesick. They fall in love. And they talk about these things. That’s where the significant difference comes in and that’s why we read them. Robert Burns, writing for an eighteenth century Bristish audienc, said “my love is like a red, red rose”, opening everyone’s eyes to love …and to roses. And while his metaphor holds our attention still, William Carlos Williams, in industrialised America in the twentieth century, needed something new. So he said, “my love is like a green glass insulator against a blue sky”, and recovered something pf the freshness – or outrageousness – which Burns’s image must once have had and which we associate with being in love. The Guyana Poet John Agard, writing for British and West Indian readers in the 1970’s – and like Burns and Williams, for himself too – brings something new again, something different into the language of literature and of love.

If I be the rain
you the earth
let the love be the seed…
If I be a tree
clinging to parch earth
this time you be the rain
and love the wind…
and love the go spread wings
love go spread wings.

The local language used here, in conjunction with the literary phrasing and imagery of the poem, underlines the difference. But the difference often takes a more complex form, as in a poem called “Guinea Woman” by Jamaican writer Lorna Goodison. It tells of love and loss in the specific terms of that heritage of slavery which is the central legacy of West Indians. In so doing, it also shifts the poetic paradigms of love.

Great grandmother
was a guinea woman
wide eyes turning
the corners of her face
could see behind her
her cheeks dusted with
a fine rash of jet-bead wars
that itched when the rain set up.
Great grandmother’s waistline
the spam of a headman’s hand
slender and tall like a cane stalk
with a guinea woman’s antelope-quick walk
and when she paused
her gaze would look to sea
her profile fine like some obverse impression
on a guinea coin from royal memory.
It seems her fate was anchored
in the unfathomable sea
for her great grandmother caught the eye of a sailor
whose ship sailed without him from Lucea harbour.
Great grandmother’s royal scent of
cinnamon and escallions
drew the sailor up the straits of Africa,
the evidence my blue-eyed grandmother
the first Mulatta
taken into backra’s household
and covered with his name.
They forbade great grandmother’s
guinea woman presence
they washed away her scent of
cinnamon and escallions
controlled the child’s antelope walk
and called her uprisings rebellions.
But, great grandmother
I see your features blood dark
in the children of each new
the high yellow brown
is darkening down.
Listen, children
it’s great grandmother’s turn.

CS Lewis used to say that Romance of the Rose would not ring true if rewritten as the Romance of the Onion. What he should have said was, not in Europe. A romance of the rose would ring very false indeed as the figure for this West African/West Indian romance, while a romance of the onion, or cinnamon and escallions, might be just right.

The St Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott brings this into even wider perspective in his poem Omeros, a story of European and African adventure with a chorus of characters both from the Homeric epics and from the brutal history of contact with the aboriginal peoples of America – a history too of broken words and dislocation peoples, just like the story of slavery; and no account of the American can ignore the connection between them. Walcott makes the passage from the old world to the new with a seafarer’s sense of similarities and a poet’s sense of differences. Land is land, and love is love; but always with a difference. Achilles and Hector and Helen play their parts; but they do so differently in the West Indies…just as the Mediterranean is different from the Caribbean, with different conventions of life and literature. And yet similar, too. The poem opens with a fisherman from St Lucia named Philoctete. He has been wounded in the leg by a rusted anchor, is in pain from the swelling that “he believed…came from the chained ankles of his grandfathers,” and if finally cured by the healing power of grandmothers. And like the aboriginal inhabitants of the West Indies, he smiles or the tourists “who try taking his soul with their cameras”. The image of the dispossession merges with the distortions of those first tourist, beginning with Columbus, whose ways of seeing and saying – and of taking – started the shadowy story of the West Indies and the mistaken naming of Indians throughout the Americans. (The use of the terms West Indies and West Indians throughout this book reflects the ironies of colonial representation, and the ways in which both classical names and European languages have been appropriated into he everyday life of the region).

Omeros is the Greek word for Homer and a pun on the English word for home; and at the end of the poem Walcott comes full circle, back to the ways in which literature embodies the differences and the similarities between experiences, especially the experiences of departure and homecoming, of loss and love. A local fisherman named Achille recalls Hector his rival (who died driving his taxi cab Comet); and then he puts a wedge of dolphin aside for Helen, who in Walcott’s poem is both a black St Lucian woman of extraordinary beauty and the island of St Lucian itself – which in a familiar imperial script was “discovered”, named Helen, and fought over by European rivals. In this final moment of grace and love “a full moon shone like slice of raw onion” A Romance of the onion after all.

Which brings us right back to the earliest accounts of the West Indies by European adventurers, taking souls and souvenirs. Making memories. Those who sailed west across the Atlantic on their voyages of discovery brought little with them, not even slaves at first. But two things they did bring made all the difference: their ways of seeing, uniquely European and centered in their stubborn sense of themselves; and their ways of talking about what they have seen, ordered according to a strict set of European habits and desires.

In some respects they were wonderfully straightforward. They certainly recognized land when they saw it, and they wrote about their landings with adventurous naiveté. But they missed some other things, or construed them in way that were blatantly convenient. They did not see, for example, that the new world to which they had come was as old as their own. And they chose to see the aboriginal societies as primitive and haphazard, rather than as civilizations organized much like their own into tribal units and confederations, within a complex network of sacred and secular affiliations.

Invention became part of discovery. Reality reflected their imaginations. Columbus based his description of his first encounter with native people more upon his fancy than upon any accurate observation. “They all go naked as their mothers bore them,” he wrote, “and the women also, although I saw only one very young girl”. If Columbus had founded his navigation on that kind of fanciful generalization about the women of the new world, he would have ended up in Tierra del Fuego or Constantinople. Nothing encourages a sailor’s imagination like being on dry land.

Distortions and deceptions were part of the settlement of the new world from the very beginning. Slavery followed soon after. It came naturally to Columbus, who had moved from Genoa to Lisbon twenty years earlier, just as the Portuguese city was developing not only as a leading center of navigation and cartography but also as the base for the recently established trade in African slaves. So slavery was on his mind, along with speculation about savages and their salvation. “They should be good servants,” he said of the native people he encountered. “And I believe that they would easily be made Christians, for it appeared to me that they had no creed”. Slaves by nature; Christians by nurture.

Europeans brought their hopes with them and imitated in the new world all that they prized in the world they left behind. Mostly they prized order and opportunity. They bought with them their fears as well. For European colonists, the choice seemed stark. The alternative to a civil society was a barbaric one. And with their old-world eyes they saw barbaric ways all around them in the new world. Th simple meaning of barbarism was – and still is – what other people do, those who are different, Them who are not like Us. The word barbarian originally meant “one who does not speak Greek” …to the Greeks, of course. But it soon came to mean all those people there, beyond the walls of the city.

The ravaging of the aboriginal societies of the new world by the representatives of European civilization is closely related to the story of slavery and to the brutal dispossession and despair that are its legacy. Five hundred years later, we are still trying to come to terms with its causes and effects; but there is widening agreement that the presumptions and preoccupations that conditioned first contact with aboriginal peoples also determined the circumstances of slavery and settlement. This a prominent theme in contemporary poetry, and indeed in all contemporary literature, in the West Indies; and it has a lot to do with the repossession of tis languages.

An extract from “Come Back to me my Language by J. Edward Chamberlain

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