These Two Worlds: Brathwaite's search for Cultural and Historical Wholeness.
In his trilogy, The Arrivants, Brathwaite's persona sets out on a journey of rediscover which takes him through the Caribbean, the United States of America, England, Africa, and back to Barbados, his starting point. This quest is significant for the poet-persona, for it is associated with myth-making which is an essential element in his poetry. The journey motif is also integrally linked with the presentation of art as memory. Memory determines historical, cultural and biological survivability. It has an integrative function in Brathwaite's poetry and serves as a link between the African past, the slave passage and the present state of West Indian man.
In Rights of Passage the poem "Prelude" examines the function of memory in the condition of slavery. To the slave the whiplash on his body is equated with the tonal rhythms of the drumbeat in Africa. This connection to this "home" helps him to endure the constant floggings, the sun's intensity and the other tortures inflicted upon his person. In all of this suffering, the slave hopes for freedom and a return to his motherland, for he has no attachment to this alien land.
In another poem, "New World A-Comin", the journey through the remembered past continues with a demonstration of how physical confinement and spiritual strangulation, the fate of the slave during the middle passage, has stripped him of his essential humanity and self-hood. To the slave, good and evil seem to fuse and conspire against his movement and therefore mock his will to survive. Pain and anguish are expressed through sound imagery. Throughout "Rights of Passage (1)," there are tonal and rhythmical disjunctions that set up the prevailing pain and anguish that memory calls forth. I concur with Professor New that
Rights of Passage emphasizes its consciousness of deracination and various kinds of dislocation by the way it characteristically uses the rhythmic movement of the poetic line. (1)
Returning to the framework of the remembered past one can argue that Brathwaite's themes of rejection and alienation develop within it. In "All God's Chillun," for example, the persona records the severity of the laceration suffered when an oppressed person tends to forget the struggles for freedom:
Yes, I remember ... But what good Is recollection now My own mock Me; my own seed, Ruined on this rock Of God, struggle to strike me ... They call me Uncle Tom and mock me They laugh Laugh loud Laugh loud at me From the barrels Of their bellies swishing loud with liquor. They laugh and the white Man laughs: Each Wishing for mercy, each Fearful of mercy, teaching Their children to hate Their skin to its bitter root in the bone. (2)
'All God's Chillun' is an ironic title for this poem since Tom's children reject that he, like the Jews, is one of God's elect. The children are not caught up in the dream or illusion of racial equality and democracy that that Tom believes in. Again, in 'Wings of a Dove", memory contributes to the reaffirmation of identity by revitalizing the ritual quality of the ska in which a Rastafarian stands at the centre. The poem works at the level of an appeal to the ancestral past for confirmation of the wanderer's identity:
Down down white Man, con Man, brown Man, down Down, full Man frowning fat Man, that White black Man that Lives in the town, (pg 43)
The persona destroys any notion of the superiority of men other than the Black man. He also derides those who cannot see that he is proud of being "a fuckin" negro, (pg.30)
At this point in the discussion we can clearly state that Brathwaite blends national West Indian pride with religious and historical-cultural elements, inherited from Africa and Europe, into a unique blend of folklore that indicate the importance of history as memory, in the sense that it is the remembered past.
The state of exile is another theme that predominates West Indian writing, and it certainly permeates Brathwaite's poetry. In the poem "Postlude/Home", the poet poses a series of questions about the Black man's place in the African diaspora. These questions link the theme of exile to those of dispossession and deracination:
What guilt now drives him on? Will exile never end? The memories are cold, (pg 77 & 78)
The questions are answered later in a very subdued way, a characteristic of lost memory or those that have grown cold:
What we can't touch will never be enough for us to shout about, who live with God- less rock the shock of dis possession. For we who have crea- ted nothing, must exist On nothing ... (pg.79)
Brathwaite's poetry resounds with polytonal sounds and rhythms which create particular moods or physical states, and which reinforce the various thematic strands in his poetry. Patricia Ismond, a profound critic of Brathwaite and Walcott, informs us that Brathwaite uses language and various rhythms to create something new:
The rhythms are accordingly chosen to convey the qualities of suffering and the type of sensibility that unites the Black race. To mention a few at random: the plaintive blues of the Southern negro; the frenzied jazz of his urban brother; the powerful pulsation of limbo therapy; the resonances of the dark mystery of African religious ritual. (3)
The second book of the trilogy, Masks, , corroborates Ismond's analysis here. This book utilizes Akan mythology, art and religious ritual. It examines the poet's journey to Africa, his encounter with the ancestral past, and his psychogenesis there, which begins with a religio-mythical transformation, in the form of a sacrifice-ritual, in the poem 'Prelude':
Take the blood of the fowl drink take the eto, mashed plantain, that many women have cooked eat and be happy drink May you rest for the year has come round again. (T.A.pg 91)
of Africa to the initiate. Patricia Ismond sees this form of ritual as: To me, this ritual is one of initiation and is intended to merge the internal and external realities of the persona. The ritual begins the communion with the ancestors and introduces the traditions and customs:
The African Imagination in search of a more precipitate contact with evil ...In the Western imagination the thrust is upwards; in the African downwards. (4)
I would argue, however, that both good and evil for the African moves downwards. In African cosmology good and evil are vital forces within nature and do affect man. That is why in this undifferentiated world any aberrations that upset the tenuous balance, must be dealt with through purification rituals, atonement rituals, appeasement rituals or through sacrifices to the appropriate gods or ancestors.
It is within this religious framework that the blood ritual is celebratory and not a "precipitate contact with evil," for it signals a rebirth for the poet as he begins his sojourn in the motherland. New perceptions emerge of his ancestral home and he begins to slough off and discard Western misconceptions of Africa. The persona's movement is towards merging his two worlds, West Indian and African, not without difficulty, however. There are certain tensions that arise between these two worlds, and which show Brathwaite's concerns "with the pollutions of both Akan and Christian rituals of expiation and sanctification." (5) In the West Indies and Africa it is not uncommon to find African religious practices existing alongside or being incorporated into Christian worship as Walcott demonstrates in Another Life and Chinua Achebe in .No Longer at Ease. In many of the African religious ceremonies the drum plays a vital part in the celebrations.
In Masks, the primal drum is an archetypal image. The drum is the codifier of man's life and it joins the cosmic, ritual and dance elements that are found in West Indian folk dances and art, and eventually it connects them with those of their West African source. Drinking the blood of the fowl, for example, has its origin in the Vodun cult of Dahomey which persists in Haiti. The ritual sacrifice of the fowl is also connected with the Shango cult in Trinidad and Obeah in Barbados, both of which are connected to religious forms found in West Africa. This vestigial ritual links the soul of the West Indies to Africa and is a testament to the function of memory in maintaining cultural survivability. In the West Indies the ritual is linked to the fertility rites and the warding off of evil spirits
'Tano' is one of the poems in Masks that deals with the evocation of the past and present cycles in the West African's psychological development. The drum beat in this poem echoes the sound of mourning. It also activates memory in three dimensions-past, present and future. To the West Indian traveller mourning is significant, for it signals the passing of the age of isolation and total ignorance of his ancestral traditions:
I am an orphan and when I recall the death of my father water from eyes from my eyes falls upon me (pg. 151)
The tears bring back memories of the past when the West Indian knew his identity; knew the landscape of his native Africa; knew that he was part of the land. Dispossession has since obscured this vision and, as an orphan, he is destined to roam the earth in search of "home". "Tano" is suffused with universal energy which fuels the mythic and psychic forces in the invocation and prayer.
Lloyd Brown notes that in the trilogy there is a circular movement which is derived from the energy of poems in their relation to art and memory. He acknowledges that Islands, the third book of the trilogy, brings back the wandering poet-persona to his starting point. Brown posits that this return is the centripetal focus of this final book. (6)
Several poems in this section concentrate on the new consciousness of the West Indian as he returns with full memories of Africa. This deep-rooted sense and commitment to cultural regeneration is expressed in "Homecoming";
And so without my cloth; shoulders uncovered to this new doubt And desert I return, expecting nothing; my name burnt out, a cinder on my shoulder. No clan or kinsman turns my self respect into a claw, a tooth, a dagger; even my skin now sheds its shame (pg. 177)
The traveller undergoes an attitudinal change which now permits him to accept himself. His skin colour no longer becomes a hindrance, but is identified as a positive reinforcement of "self'. This feeling of delight is expressed in the poem "Shepherd" where the vitality of the West Indian's strength shines through the dark harshness of slavery;
I am water I am blood I am hot rum leaking from green from the clanking of iron I bleed with the field's sweat with the sweet backs of labour my steps take root in the worn shadows where the moon has burnt a harbour. (T.A., pg 187)
The poem recalls the endurance of the slave and demonstrates some of the elusive qualities associated with the figure of the limbo dancer. The limbo dance exudes a passion for survival. Further, its physical and cosmic nature suggest the re-awakening of the West Indian from his imposed sleep during the days of slavery. Caliban, in the carnival, is able to escape into the world of joy and revelry and thus abate temporarily his pain and suffering. In the limbo dance the stick, the symbol which characterizes the floggings and ultimate control of the slave, is replaced by the rhythms of the drum:
Limbo limbo like me Sun coming up and the drummers praising me Out of the dark and the dumb gods are raising me up up up and the music is saving me hot slow step on the burning ground (T. A., pg 195)
The poem ends with a movement towards a recreation of the past and a shaping of the present. The celebration in the dance assumes mytho-poetic proportions which extend into the realm of the spiritual when the limbo dancer becomes a saviour.
The limbo dance and dancer are dominant in the West Indian folk art. Calypsos and other forms of poetry make allusion to these archetypes and their function in the growth of the West Indian collective consciousness. Beside Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, in Joker of Seville, makes reference to the dance:
Catalinion of Negroes, coon and bimbo, who screamed the blues, when they were not up practising el limbo. (Slaves do a limbo dance, and are beaten) (7)
Here Walcott points to the origin of the limbo dance which developed in the holds of the slave ships from the cramped conditions. The dance symbolizes spiritual strength amidst physical decay. This same feeling is echoed in the section "Limbo" of Brathwaite's trilogy.
The limbo dance symbolizes spiritual and physical strength amidst all that is harsh and delimiting in the lives of West Indians. The folk dance itself has come to represent an escape from psychological burdens and the economic hardships faced by the people.
The poet's concern with the themes of escape, imprisonment, redemption and dispossession, has some religious overtones. In "Jou Vert", in Islands, there is a Pauline notion of casting off the old man and assuming the new, where "rhythms" become "something tom and new", (pg. 269) The paradox is evident and points to the difficulty in totally connecting two disparate worlds and two different "selves", without inherent tensions.
Brathwaite's academic discipline is history and he is able to make historical connections between the Black man in the New World and with Africa, in a way that few West Indian writers can. His persona comes away with a better sense of historical cohesion in this life; he is a more informed person because of his sojourn in Africa, but the pull of his native island and its familiar sounds presents the question, whom should he look to for motherhood? Certainly, his self-discovery and the memory of the ancestral past created that ontological wholeness that identify which fits him for life anywhere.
(1.) William H. New, "New Language, New World," in Awakened Conscience: Studies in Commonwealth Literature, ed., C.D. Narasimhaiah (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers PVT Ltd., 1978), pg 372.
(2.) Edward Kamau Brathwaite, The Arrivants (London: Oxford University Press, 1973; rpt, 1978, 1981), pg 18-20. (Hereafter cited as T. A)
(3.) Patricia Ismond, "Walcott versus Brathwaite," Caribbean Quarterly, Sept-Dec., Vol. 17, Nos. 3 and 4 (1971), pg 56
(4.) Ibid., pg.63
(5.) Gordon Rohlehr, "Bridges of Sound; An Approach to Edward Brathwaite's Jah," Caribbean Quarterly, March-June. Vol. 26, Nos 1 and 2 (1980), pg.19
(6.) Lloyd Brown, West Indian Poetry (Boston: Twayne Publisher, 1978)
(7) Derek Walcott. The Joker of Seville and O Babylon. (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1978), pg. 32.
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|Title Annotation:||Literary Criticism|
|Author:||Goddard, Horace I.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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