January 24, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Independence

On the night of August 6, 1962, when the Union Jack was lowered and the Jamaican flag was raised, many people woke up the next morning looking at the auction blocks of the slave trade from slightly different perspectives. Not all whites were on the European side, and not all blacks were on the African side. And within the region, the status of so-called “brown” people, who were always held suspect by both sides, brought to the fore the idea of “hybridity.” The political climate was changing and by the late sixties, and the relationship between blacks and whites was beginning to fray despite the fact that multiracial coalitions had fought for independence in many Caribbean nations.

During this period, the work of Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott dominated the literary discussions of the relationship of Europe and Africa in the Caribbean. Although both poets used imagery that was drawn from the Caribbean landscape and they were consciously involved in restoring the value of the local, they held differing views on the question of "hybridity." For whereas Brathwaite’s poetry made a direct link between the Africa and the Caribbean--the Atlantic as "bridge" rather than barrier--Walcott preferred the ambiguity inherent in the question, is a West Indian black or white?

The signature poem of Walcott that illustrated his uneasiness with a monolithic racial identity was “A Far Cry from Africa,” with the confessional line, “How choose/between this Africa and the English tongue I love?" which Heather M. Bradley discusses in “Conflicting Loyalties in "A Far Cry from Africa." For Walcott, the question of a fixed racial identity in a multiracial region could never be resolved. This is not to say that the question was resolved in Brathwaite’s work. In “New World A Coming” the speaker asks, “Whose/ brother now, am I?...Whose ancestor am I?”. 

It seems obvious now, but at that time when many academicians were spouting theories about the Middle Passage and the deep "amnesiac blow" to the consciousness of New World Africans, Brathwaite staked his reputation as a poet, scholar, and historian on the connection between the Caribbean and Africa. Because of the racial tensions surrounding these writers, and what Maureen Warner-Lewis in “Africa: Submerged Mother” describes as “negrophobia,” Brathwaite’s work in “re-integrating Africa into the paradigm of Caribbean history, culture, and academic concern," was regarded as the polar opposite of Walcott's. And although both writers were involved in the issues of exploitation, resistance, control and their relationship with the community, Brathwaite was seen as more Afro-centric and "relevant." Nothing could have been further from the truth. The work of Brathwaite and Walcott exists in a continuum within the body of Caribbean literature and viewed against the writings of their contemporaries such as Eric Roach or Andrew Salkey, the patterns become clearer. 

But there are also distinct differences. Brathwaite’s experimental use of African history, myth and Jazz rhythms in The Arrivants was groundbreaking and markedly different from Walcott’s more formal explorations. But Walcott’s, Another Life which explored the birth of an artistic career, the relationship of the writer and the community, and his metaphorical use of the “amber light” of the Caribbean had its own grandeur. The similarities between their works can be seen now, but at that time, the relationship of Africa and Europe to the West Indies was perceived as a binary opposites and poets, politicians, members of the intelligentsia and the populace were taking sides.

Yet while the heady literary and racial battles of the late sixties were being raged, a Jamaican poet, Mervyn Morris, was steadily putting together a remarkable body of work. In the poem, “To An Expatriate Friend,” he describes the tensions that surrounded relationships across the racial divide.

To An Expatriate Friend

Colour meant nothing. Anyone
who wanted help, had humour or was kind
was brother to you; categories of skin
were foreign; you were colour-blind.

And then the revolution. Black
and loud the horns of anger blew
against the long oppressions; sufferers
cast of the precious values of the few.

New powers re-enslaved us all:
each person manacled in skin, in race.
You could not wear your paid up dues:
the keen discriminators typed your face.

The future darkening, you thought it time
to say good-bye. It may be you were right.
It hurt to see you go; but, more,
it hurt to see you slowly going white.

Certainly, there is humor, and ambiguity in Morris’ poem. But here is also a sense of integrity which pervades Morris’ poetry. In both tone and style, Mervyn Morris’ poetry displays a sense of fairness and authenticity and his was a much-needed voice when others it seemed were ready to plunge headlong into racial warfare.

The poetry and fiction that came out of Jamaica and the Caribbean during the late sixties/early seventies reframed identity in the context of race and many of the other concerns were subsumed into this paradigm. The question of identity was becoming more complex and the binary oppositions of white vs. black which had also alienated many Indo-Caribbean writers would be further complicated in the revolutionary seventies.

Next post: “A Terrible Beauty is Born: Jamaica in the Seventies.”



Stephen A. Bess said...

Brother Geoffrey,
Thanks for this history lesson. I'm looking forward the next post to learn more. By the way, how is life?

Geoffrey Philp said...

I'm working on the next post even as I write this.

Everything is irie. Busy, but irie.


FSJL said...

I think Walcott's best comment on identity is in a much later poem, The Schooner Flight:

I'm just a red nigger that love the sea,
I have a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I'm nobody or I'm a nation.

Geoffrey Philp said...

True. I wanted to stay within the heat of the battle of the sixties.

Maria said...

I love your quality of life. Great blog.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Maria, welcome and give thanks!


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