The return to Africa
In The Development of Creole society in Jamaica, 1770-1820, Edward Kamau Brathwaite concludes that creolisation is “a cultural action —material, psychological and spiritual— based upon the stimulus/response of individuals within the society to their environment and —as white/black culturally discrete groups— to each other” (298). Brathwaite’s conclusion derives from his revision of Eurocentric historical sources and brings up the need for a recuperation of the African contribution to the Jamaican society, basically of the ‘folk’ culture derived from West Africa. His poetry undertakes a similar task. The poem Masks is the central book in his trilogy The Arrivants and it represents the ‘rediscovery’ of the poet’s African roots. His poetics engages in the recuperation of a black pride for the Caribbean people through the incorporation of the Akan tradition. However, his focus on Akan culture and history raises a question: to what extent can the Akan tradition help West Indians define their blackness in their current creolised conditions? The purpose of this paper is to analyse the Afrocentric construction of Masks and its limitations in terms of scope and gender. I intend to demonstrate that Brathwaite presents a narrow representation of Africa that pretends to africanise an already creolised African presence in the Caribbean and that his project has a male centered view. The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 and The Arrivants articulate Brathwaite’s response to the Anti-African view developed by writers like Orlando Patterson. Patterson’s theory of the slave’s social death implies that “the slaves had no philosophy, no military organization, no social life, no family structure, no arts, no sense of personal or civic responsibility”(ctd. en Brathwaite, Roots 192). Brathwaite attributes this ‘biased view’ among other reasons to ‘an almost’ total ignorance of Afro-American folk-culture’(Roots, 193). As a result, Brathwaite approaches the knowledge of African heritage as central to his project. Brathwaite affirms that “a study of African culture reveals almost without question that it is based upon religion” and, therefore, “[R]eligion is the form of kernel or core of the culture” (Roots, 194). Brathwaite therefore sees the post-emancipation missionary activity as a threat to the ex-slaves’ “most crucial elements of their culture”. Brathwaite highlights that Christian religions represent a continuation of the colonial discourse. After slavery, missionary activity was one of the most effective ways to accommodate communities of African descent to the Eurocentric order imposed on them over centuries. However, Brathwaite’s project lies in the assumption that in spite of the loss, there is some latent africanness in West Indian ‘folk’ culture that can be recovered in its essence. Brathwaite’s project is a response to the Eurocentric discourse on the Caribbean written over centuries and imposed on West Indians through the school system. In “The voice of African presence”, African writer and Brathwaite’s personal friend Ngugi Wa Thiong’O utters the unnatural connections to Europe by means of a colonial tradition. For instance, “children having to learn about daffodils and snow before they are able to name the flowers of their own land” (Ngugi, 677). He highlights the importance of works like Brathwaite’s as a breakaway from the centrality of English Literature in the Department of Literature at Nairobi University in Kenya. Ngugi affirms that “we were captives of the heritage we knew so well but from which our education had been alienating us” (677). However, in spite of the similar alienating consequences on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I do not think that their postcolonial search for self-affirmation can be achieved through the same means. I intend to prove that African blackness differs from Caribbean blackness and cannot be put in the same box as the African pride based syllabus seems to suggest. As a result of the post-emancipation loss of African values and an Eurocentered education, Brathwaite suggests that West Indians face a lack of a center that some might as well interpret as lack of culture or identity. In his essay “Roots”, his critique of some Caribbean works converges in a common point: “frustration, bewilderment, lack of a center, lack of faith in the society into which they were born or into which they find themselves” (36). As a result, Brathwaite undertakes a journey in time (back to the past) and in place (back to Africa) in search for this center. The journey as a theme is central to the structure of The Arrivants. Thus, Rights of Passage represents the starting point, the ‘centerless’ state of mind described above. According to Rohlehr, the first part of the trilogy represents a rootless wandering. The poem ‘New World A-comin’ suggests the idea of lack and search: Slavery has alienated Africans from their roots. The journey leads to exile. As a result, the West Indian black is a rootless and confused being wandering without a land or a home, precisely because he has lost Africa. In ‘The Journeys’, the black man wanders around Little Rock, Dallas, New Orleans, and Santiago de Cuba and the poetic voice concludes that: In the Trilogy, Masks represents the trip back to Africa to find the lost center. In The Development, Brathwaite affirms: “I grew out of a conviction that a study of the forms, institutions, and attitudes of West Indian society during the period of slavery is essential to an understanding of a present which is becoming increasingly concerned with racial and cultural identity and with the West Indian’s place in the world.” (Introduction vii) Moreover, ‘folk’ culture is the key for understanding this period. Brathwaite defines it as “[…] the habits, customs, and ways of life of the slaves in Jamaica, derived from West Africa” (212). Therefore, according to Brathwaite, understanding the West Indian society requires an understanding of West African culture. Consequently, Brathwaite undertakes Masks as the poetic expression of this view. One of the points in which Brathwaite’s historiography and poetry converge is in the West Indian’s need “to join history to a notion of ‘tradition’, where tradition is understood as what generates […] the sources and ‘dynamo’ of our historical and expressive imaginary” (Scott, 110). Brathwaite is thinking of what he calls the literature of reconnection, an “attempt to interpret or reconnect them [African survivals] with the great tradition of Africa” (Roots, 212). The main purpose is to articulate “an alternative or oppositional tradition” (Scott, 115). In other words, a tradition that can act as a counter response to the Eurocentric discourse imposed to the West Indians during centuries. This view implies a dichotomous response that might as well be limited to set the context for a contemporary Caribbean identity. Brathwaite’s view of a cultural project carried out through historical analysis and poetic creation is moved by a foundational attitude based on African tradition. It is a response to the colonial discourse. David Scott affirms that “[…] both these views, the one that seeks empirically to confirm continuity with Africa and the one that seeks empirically to deny or disconfirm it share or at least depend upon a single epistemic-ideological problem space, […]” (109). I believe that a polarized view of Africa is not an effective breakaway from Eurocentrism. It is based on the same epistemological idea that there can be a homogenized and solid reality for the Caribbean. I agree with Scott in that “[T]he cultural nationalist project of grounding [the raced] difference in the science of anthropology (or in any rationalist epistemology) ought to be put aside” (127). In Brathwaite, Africa, through Akan tradition, is the instrument to achieve a responsive national identity. For instance, in The Development, Brathwaite’s sources work as evidence of the racist nationalist white elite’s view of Jamaica (Long’s History of Jamaica among others). Therefore, what Brathwaite attempts to do is to create a counter discourse, basically through African theology, symbolism and language. This project demands verification and corroboration and to the “conceptual premise, namely that pasts […] can be identified in their authenticity and represented in their transparency” (Scott 108). In Masks, Brathwaite presents Akan tradition as that corroboration, that center which the West Indies are lacking. His main goal is to provide a new myth to fill in the loss of the ‘religious kernel’ during centuries under European control. The first part of the poem is called ‘Libation’, what suggests the idea of an offering to the gods. The second poem in ‘Libation’ is ‘The Making of the Drum’. It represents the creation of Mother Africa’s spirit. The poem is divided in five parts that describe the construction of the musical instrument: ‘the Skin’, ‘The Barrel of the Drum’, ‘The Two Curved Sticks of the Drummer”, ‘The Gourds and Rattles’ and ‘The Gong-gong’. In ‘The Skin’, the goat is sacrified as a symbol of a new beginning. The music of the resulting drum is a metaphore of West Indian’s new ‘authentic’ voice: further than heaven, that will reach deep down to our gods where the thin light cannot leak, where our stretched Odomankoma, the Sky-God-Creator of the Akan world, plays an important role in the poem. ‘The Gong-gong’ is the final stage of the creation. Here, the drum becomes the instrument through which the supreme being speaks: “the dumb/ blind drum/ where Odomankoma speaks:” (97). The colons at the end of the poem suggest that ‘Atumpam’, the next poem, is Odomankoma’s speech. ‘Atumpam’ is the third and last poem in ‘Libation’ and it means ‘talking drums’. The beginning of the poem is a free translation of a drum piece, the onomatopoeic music of the gong-gong (Warner-Lewis 46). Warner- Lewis concludes that it represents ‘the announcement of Brathwaite’s start of his musical/poetical performance” (47): ‘Atumpam’ moves on to an idea of awakening. As he listens to the ‘talking drums’, Odomankoma rises from his sleep: “that he has come from sleep/ and is rising/ and is rising”. The awakening is also related to the image of the ‘morning cock’: “like akoko the cock, like akoko the cock who clucks, who crows in the morning”. Warner-Lewis afirms that “[…] the image of the dawn cockcrow [is] an emblem of the awakening self-consciousness of the Caribbean peoples, and the drummer’s prayer for spiritual assistance to achieve a fitting level of performance for the festival becomes transformed into a people’s collective prayer for guidance in the difficult task of self-definition and self-assertion.” (46) Thus, ‘Libation’ represents a ceremonial beginnning or genesis: a new creational myth that might provide the possibility of success for West Indians in their quest for an identity. At the end of ‘Atumpam’, the poetic voice asks: However, the ‘cock’ is a symbol of masculinity. This fact raises a question: what defines the role of women in this new awakening? From my point of view, it seems to suggest that women’s roles can only be defined in relation to men’s. Thus, the African centred view is unable to give Caribbean women the opportunity to undertake their own projects. More examples of this homogenizing male view will be provided later in this paper. Brathwaite’s ‘musical/poetical performance’ in Masks is attempting to re-create Akan Tradition as a counter-response to Eurocentrism. Scott asserts that this anthropological assumption is a “profoundly oppositional Afro-Caribbean vision” (127). The conflict that this raises is the shift from one pole to the other, ignoring the in-between space where, from my point of view, the Creole society might exist. For instance, O. Nigel Bolland sees a limited view of obeah in Brathwaite’s Development. He asserts that Brathwaite “contrasts obeah with European religion, but makes no distinction between varieties in the practice of obeah in Africa and the Caribbean” (34). Brathwaite sees religion as an important key to recovering the lost African roots. As a result, he homogenizes obeah as an ‘effective’ counter response to European religions. Bolland concludes that “Brathwaite fails to note that obeah has taken on a whole new meaning in the societies of the Caribbean” (34). The inclusion of Masks in The Arrivants overlooks these new meanings. In the search for an authentic and transparent Africa, the tendency is to essencialise it through, for instance, a new static past for the Caribbean. O. Nigel Bolland also assesses Brathwaite’s view of ‘creolisation’ in The Development. His main point is that “the thesis of creolisation and the Creole society, as exemplified in the work of Brathwaite, is not dialectical enough” (18). Bolland proposes that: “[…] our understanding of creolisation as a central cultural process of Caribbean history should lead to a reconceptualisation of the nature of colonialism and colonial societies, as social forces and social systems that are characterised by conflicts and contradictions and that consequently give rise to their own transformation.” (19) In other words, Brathwaite’s definition of Creole society as anchored in slaves’ African heritage is too simple and reductionist. In Masks, this assumption reflects on its limitations in scope and gender. Bolland asserts that Brathwaite sees African culture as singular as he makes “no distinctions between the varieties of African cultures from which Jamaican ‘folk’ culture was derived” (24). In ‘Prelude’, the first poem in ‘Libation’, the poetic voice establishes the origin of the poem in the idea of Africa as a whole: is one, is whole, […] (The emphasis is mine) The result is a unified Africa that is expected to act as an ‘over-the-count’ prescription for West Indians’ illness (their lack of center). Moreover, Brathwaite equates the Akan community with Africa. Thus, Akan is Africa, and Africa is one. He creates a limited image of Africa through which he expects all West Indians to redefine their cultural identity. The slaves that came to America not only came from different communities but also came in contact with a different geography, a different social condition, etc. Their Africannness had to be redefined, especially as a means of resistance against colonialism; thus, inevitably transformed as Bolland suggests. I do not think that the scope of this complex process can be covered by a single African tradition. In addition, Masks is also limited by gender. The poetic voice is in first person and makes reference to an implied male poetic subject. In ‘Prelude’, the poetic voice is making offerings to Nana Firimpong, an Akan ancestor: take the blood of the fowl take the eto, mashed plantain, Women are portrayed as the poetic subject’s possession. Besides, their role in the poem is limited to cooking. In ‘Volta’, fifth poem in “Pathfinders”, this stereotyped representation of women is also present: where they can chatter and laugh. The man, on the contrary, is the one who speaks to the ancestors. This male poetic subject can be identified with the poet himself if we keep in mind that Brathwaite lived in Ghana where he came in contact with the Akan community and even learned the language. What I intend to say is that Masks is more a personal quest than an effective path to identity for all Caribbeans. His male project is unable to account for the varied individualities and roles that, for intance women’s, might exist in the Caribbean. I conclude that Masks is more an African (Akan) poem than a Caribbean one. My position is that this step in the quest for a Caribbean identity is not necessary and, therefore, it should not make part of the project of The Arrivants. I do not think that a solid Africa and the consequent idea of a homogeneous blackness can account for the Caribbean complex reality. I agree that the creolised blackness of West Indians can not be defined through a totalised and essentialised oppositional view of Africa.
Brathwaite urges his readers to go back to Africa to find the lost center of Caribbean peoples. However, Africa is already present in Caribbean identity. It is not a solid idea. It is mixed and transformed. Although Masks suggests to overlook this creolised blackness, it is inevitably present in Brathwaite’s project. For instance, in The Development, several chapters deal with the social layers existing in Jamaica between 1770 and 1820: whites (rich and poor), blacks (slaves), and free people of color. In chapter 15, Brathwaite defines ‘folk’ culture as “[…] the culture of the mass of ex-Africans who found themselves in a new environment and who were successfully adapting to it” (212). Words such as ‘ex-Africans’, ‘new environment’, and ‘adapting’ confirm what I have been discussing in this paper: a creolised society can only be defined in the light of its varied and complex process of formation and not based on a static past. Brathwaite fails to notice it. In The Arrivants, Rights of passage and Islands are full of examples of the creolised African presence. ‘Folkways’ (in Rights) represents the complexity of diasporic blackness without the essentialised African view. The poetic voice in the poem presents a negative image of the stereotyped black self: From my point of view, by presenting a stereotyped image of himself, the poetic voice seeks to deconstruct the ignorance and negative views about blacks which have kept them alienated for centuries. The poem also denounces the current social conditions of black Caribbean peoples. It reminds the reader that the exploitation of these communities did not end with slavery: Brathwaite ends the poem with a poetic construction that resembles the rhythmic aesthetics of Jazz: The musical aesthetics at the end of the poem reverse the negative image presented before and it asserts the black self with its spiritual performance. ‘Negus’, in Islands, readdresses the topic of slavery in a contemporary context. Once more, the abolition of slavery was not enough to end the struggles of the peoples of African descent, that today take the shape of unemployment and forced emigration: it is not enough to be free of the whips, principalities and powers where is your kingdom of the Word? […] to be able to fly to Miami, structure skycrapers, excavate the moon- The poem ends with another creolised form of African presence. Like Jazz, Voodoo affirms Creole blackness after the presentation of a negative situation: Legba or Attibon Legba is the Dahomean/Haitian god of the gateway and is the first to be invoked at a ceremony. The poetic voice is asking Legba to open the door, in other words, to listen to his/her prayer (the poetic voice in this poem is not gender specific). Voodoo represents what Bolland would call a dialectical form of creolisation. About Obeah, he asserts that many syncretic variants of West African culture existed in the earliest days of slavery in the Caribbean that reflected and promoted the identity of Africans vis-à-vis Europeans (34). He adds that “these practices took place in relation to new social structures”, and as a result, “they promoted new social identities, including that of ‘Creole’” (34). In other words, Voodoo is an example of what I have called a Creole black presence. As a conlusion, the representation of Africa in Masks is too limited to account for the complexity of Caribbean reality. The Akan imaginary that characterizes it produces a static and essencialized view of Africanness. An African centered view of the Caribbean leads up to a polarized response that does not articulate the contradictions and transformations undergone during centuries of conflictive social interactions. The Caribbean imaginary is not European nor African. In Brathwaite’s own verses: let’s begin. (‘Prelude’ of ‘The Spades’ in Rights) Bibliography:
Bolland, O. Nigel. “Creolisation and Creole Societies: A Cultural Nationalist View of Caribbean Social History.” in Questioning Creole: Creolisation discourses in Caribbean Culture. (eds), Sheperd, V., and Richards, G. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle; Oxford: James Currey, 2002.
Brathwaite, Edward. Roots. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.
-------------. The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
------------. The Development of Creole society in Jamaica. 1770-1820. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Lewis, Maureen Warner. E. Kamau Brathwaite’s Masks: essays & annotations. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of the West Indies, 1992.
Ngugi wa Thiong’O. “Kamau Brathwaite: The Voice of African Presence.” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 68:4 (1994): 677-679.
Rohlehr, Gordon. Pathfinder, Black awakening in The Arrivants of Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Tunapuna, Trinidad: G. Rohlehr, 1981.
Scott, David. Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999.
© Deicy Jiménez
LA CASA DE ASTERIÓN
ISSN: 0124 - 9282
Revista Trimestral de Estudios Literarios
Volumen VI – Número 24
Enero-Febrero-Marzo de 2006
DEPARTAMENTO DE IDIOMAS
FACULTAD DE CIENCIAS HUMANAS - FACULTAD DE EDUCACIÓN
UNIVERSIDAD DEL ATLÁNTICO
Barranquilla - Colombia
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