Childhood in African and Caribbean Literature
1. Locate one passage in Walcott that you particularly like.
2. What questions did this passage raise?
3. What sources did you look at?
4. How has looking at these sources helped deepen your understanding of the passage?
At nineteen, an elate, exuberant poet madly in love with English, but in the dialect-loud dusk of water-buckets and fish-sellers, conscious of the naked, voluble poverty around me, I felt a fear of that darkness which had swallowed up all fathers[E1] . Full of precocious rage, I was drawn like a child’s mind to fire, to the Manichaean[IT2] conflicts of Haiti’s history[E3] . The parallels were there in my own island[E4] , but not the heroes: a black French island somnolent in its Catholicism and black magic, blind faith[E5] and blinder overbreeding, a society which triangulated itself medievally into land-baron, serf and cleric, with a vapid, high-brown bourgeoisie[E6] . The fire’s shadows, magnified into myth, were those of the black Jacobins of Haiti[E7] . (11)
B. FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS
1. Author Biography
Derek Walcott is from St. Lucia. Walcott was born January 23, 1930 in Castries, Saint Lucia, with a twin brother and a sister. Walcott’s family was part of a minority Methodist community overshadowed by the dominant Catholic culture. Walcott’s writing is influenced by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
2. Walcott and his Writing (excerpted from The Paris Review)
On the importance of art in Caribbean culture:
I come from a place that likes grandeur; it likes large gestures; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a rhetorical society; it is a society of physical performance; it is a society of style. The highest achievement of style is rhetoric, as it is in speech and performance. It isn’t a modest society. A performer in the Caribbean has to perform with the right flourish. A calypsonian performer is equivalent to a bullfighter in the ring[IT8] ... He can write the wittiest calypso, but if he’s going to deliver it, he has to deliver it well, and he has to hit the audience with whatever technique he has... And literature is like that, I mean theatrical literature is like that[E9] , whether it’s Greek or whatever. The recitation element in poetry is one I hope I never lose because it’s an essential part of the voice being asked to perform.
On seeing himself in relation to the traditions of the English language:
I don’t. I am primarily, absolutely a Caribbean writer. The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination; it is the property of the language itself. I have never felt inhibited in trying to write as well as the greatest English poets. Now that has led to a lot of provincial criticism—the Caribbean critic may say, You are trying to be English, and the English critic may say, Welcome to the club. [IT10] These are two provincial statements at either end of the spectrum. It’s not a matter of trying to be English. I am obviously a Caribbean poet. I yearn for the company of better Caribbean poets, quite frankly. I feel a little lonely. I don’t see what I thought might have happened—a stronger energy, a stronger discipline, and a stronger drive in Caribbean poetry. That may be because the Caribbean is more musical: every culture has its particular emphasis and obviously the Caribbean’s poetry, talent, and genius is in its music. But then again the modern Caribbean is a very young thing. I consider myself at the beginning, rather than at the end, of a tradition.
On culture in the Caribbean:
A lot of the apathy in the Caribbean is based on this historical sullenness. It is based on the feeling of “Look what you did to me.” Well, “Look what you did to me,” is juvenile, right? And also, “Look what I’m going to do to you,” is wrong. Think about illegitimacy in the Caribbean! Few people can claim to find their ancestry in the linear way. The whole situation in the Caribbean is an illegitimate situation. If we admit that from the beginning that there is no shame in that historical bastardy, then we can be men. But if we continue to sulk and say, Look at what the slave-owner did, and so forth, we will never mature. While we sit moping or writing morose poems and novels that glorify a nonexistent past, then time passes us by. [E11] We continue in one mood, which is in too much of Caribbean writing: that sort of chafing and rubbing of an old sore. It is not because one wishes to forget; on the contrary, you accept it as much as anybody accepts a wound as being a part of his body. But this doesn’t mean that you nurse it all your life.
[E11]Here Walcott argues that true art will have to take into account a dual lineage in order to move the culture, the people, and the country forward.
3. Information about Saint-Lucia (excerpted from the CIA World Fact Book)
The island, with its fine natural harbor at Castries, was contested between England and France throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries (changing possession 14 times); it was finally ceded to the UK in 1814. Even after the abolition of slavery on its plantations in 1834, Saint Lucia remained an agricultural island, dedicated to producing tropical commodity crops. Self-government was granted in 1967 and independence in 1979.
Religions: Roman Catholic 67.5%, Protestant 18.2% (Seventh-Day Adventist 8.5%, Pentecostal 5.7%, Anglican 2%, Evangelical 2%), other Christian 5.1%, Rastafarian 2.1%, other 1.1%, unspecified 1.5%, none 4.5% (2001 census)
Vernacular Languages: Saint Lucian creole and French
Ethnic Groups (according to 2002 census): Black 82.5%, Mixed 11.9%, East Indian 2.4%, Unspecified 3.1%
4. Information about Haiti and Toussaint L’Ouverture (the “Black Jacobins”) (excerpted from the CIA World Fact Book)
The native Taino Amerindians – who inhabited the island of Hispaniola when it was discovered by Columbus in 1492 – were virtually annihilated by Spanish settlers within 25 years. In the early 17th century, the French established a presence on Hispaniola. In 1697, Spain ceded to the French the western third of the island, which later became Haiti. The French colony, based on forestry and sugar-related industries, became one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean but only thought the heavy importation of African slaves and considerable environmental degradation. The late 18th century, Haiti’s nearly half million slaves revolted under Toussaint L’ouverture. After a prolonged struggle, Haiti became the first black republic to declare independence in 1804. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has been plagued by political violence for most of its history.
5. Religions in the Caribbean
The European colonization of the Caribbean, particularly by the Spanish and the French, instated Catholicism as the majority religion. African slaves brought in their own traditions and beliefs as well, which spawned new religions. Later waves of immigration also brought religions like Protestantism and Judaism.
6. Post-colonial Black Nationalism
Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is one of the most important works published on the topic of post-colonial nationalism. In his book, Fanon writes about violence, education and consciousness-raising of the masses, national culture, and colonial war. His chapter on national culture is particularly relevant to the discourse in which Walcott takes part, as it raises the question of what constitutes true art. While the passage I chose does not explicitly deal with post-colonial nationalism, it does highlight Walcott’s isolation as an “exuberant poet” in a society in which a large segment of the population is still uneducated and his attempt to forge a true path as a revolutionary artist.
7. C.L.R. James
In the passage above, Walcott mentions both Haiti’s history and the Black Jacobins, two possible references to C.L.R. James’ famous work on Haitian history The Black Jacobins. Although I had difficulty determining James and Walcott’s relationship, it is evident that Walcott and James maintained some sort of contact over the years, as Walcott writes a tribute for James in Selwyn R. Cudjoe and William E. Cain’s C.L.R. James: His Intellectual Legacies. As a post-colonial writer, James also weathered many of the criticisms aimed at Walcott – of selling out or of being exclusively Caribbean – which he rejected on the grounds that the Caribbean was as indebted to European as African culture and history.
Although Walcott is an influential Caribbean writer, he stands as an outsider in many ways. First, he grew up in an educated household (his mother was a teacher) in a mostly impoverished area, and received an education in the arts that was quite rare for the time. He was also Methodist in a primarily Catholic area, and the fact that he wanted to be a writer – a profession of luxury in most underdeveloped areas – already demarcated him as different.
In researching the many questions his passage raised for me, I realized more and more how his perspective as an outsider informed his interests. This may, to some extent, reflect my own feelings of being on the fringe of things, but it is evident that Walcott is wrestling with questions of identity, nationalism, and culture. His references to the Black Jacobins, for one, seemed to represent the search for a history with a prominent black revolutionary that Saint-Lucia simply did not possess. It is possible that in exploring this history and its “Manichaean conflicts,” Walcott was in actuality trying to understand how he could use his own art – literature – to elevate his country.
F. SOURCES FOR FURTHER READING