A Black Example Of White Excellence?
In Teju Cole’s essay, Black Body, (in print in his new collection, Stranger And Known Things) he challenges James Baldwin’s disappointment that there is “no black Shakespeare or Bach” by diminishing the importance in the race of an artist, claiming these artists are “profoundly human” and that it is more aligned to our biological heritage than our cultural one. He goes on to say, “I can oppose white supremacy and still rejoice in Gothic architecture”. Jamaican poet Claude Mckay, renowned for his If We Must Die poem, in his 1914 autobiography had similar sentiments to Cole; “the colour of my friends, nor the colour of their money, nor the colour of their class has ever been much significance to me. It’s more the colour of their minds, the warmth and depth of their sensibility and affection that influenced me”.
Last Saturday I attended a lecture at Brixton library given by Dr Carolyn Cooper, professor of Literary And Cultural Studies at University of West Indies. The lecture was titled Submerged Narratives in Caribbean Literature and Popular Culture. It touched on popular Jamaican music icons; Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Tanya Stephens etc and how these voices help us understand the overlooked areas of Jamaican society and so called “low culture”. I had met Cooper at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica last May when she was hosting the open mic. An event graced by established Caribbean and British based poets like Malika Booker, Keith Jarrett and Khadija Ibrahim. Cooper is one of the rare figureheads to be highly respected by academia and also the grassroots of Jamaica’s creative communities.
I was struck by something she had said off the cuff in the lecture when someone in the audience asked her a question about the “canonised Caribbean voice”. “I blame Derek Walcott for so much, he’s part of a problem” she said, laughing, “but I won’t get into that”. Walcott is the most internationally recognised Caribbean poet. He writes mainly in sonnets and metered forms. A deep appreciation of Walcott’s poetry relies on an education in European “high culture” (from Dutch painters to Greek mythology). A fellow poet and friend of mine once called Walcott “a black example of white excellence”. I understood the point but disagreed.
If you read Walcott’s first published poems in 1948 (he was prodigal poet even as a teenager) up to his last 2013 collection; White Egrets, he has been loyal to the poetic sensibilities of the Caribbean.
“I seek / as climate seeks its style, to write / verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight / cold as the curled wave, ordinary / as a tumbler of island water”
Islands is a love poem published in 1965 and is dedicated to his second wife, but it also reveals how life on a Caribbean island (Saint Lucia) has an atmosphere we can capture with the ear. His verse evokes all the hard sounds (cold, curled, crisp etc) of a difficult but atmospheric Caribbean history. To call this a “black example of white excellence” is lazy and simplistic.
I tried to read Walcott when I first started writing poetry. I was 18 and found his verse cold and impenetrable. It felt like reading sheet music for an instrument I couldn’t play. My appreciation of Walcott came when I was teaching a precocious class of year 10 English Literature students (of mainly second generation African, Caribbean and Asian backgrounds) preparing for their GCSE’s. I showed them the poem ‘Sixty Years After’. It’s still one of the most memorable classroom experiences I’ve had. A bilingual student recognised the French word “Vieuxford”, which is a place in Saint Lucia but the student also explained that it meant “old fort”. Also the significance of the poem taking place in a “Virgin lounge” while Walcott is wheelchair bound and “hating time” when he see’s a woman he remembered from the “fire” of his “young life”. He leaves us with an image of approaching death as “silent knives” entering both, him and the woman in their fertile old age. It was this class that woke me to Walcott’s mastery. However, using the same poem with a less receptive class, Walcott’s “cold” verse left them fidgety (one student threw a piece of paper across the room halfway through the reading).
Walcott’s poetry is not entry level. On one hand he does represent an art form that has a history of being perceived as elite, (it’s important to note I’m talking about his poetry, not the man himself). But on the other hand, Shridath Ramphal, chairman of the ‘West Indian Commission’ speaks in a report on the views of people living in former British colonies about Walcott’s most popular work, ‘Omeros’ as an epic that traces the history of “the diverse people of scattered islands and presented the history of the Caribbean with an identity recognisable to itself and the wider world”.
In Cooper’s lecture she championed the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka, Louise Bennett (better known as Miss Lou) and controversially, Vybz Kartel, calling for the Jamaican voice not to be looked down upon. She claimed Miss Lou is often spoken of by academics as a “minstrel entertainer” rather than a significant voice of Jamaican folk culture. A few years back Cooper invited Vybz Kartel to speak at the University Of West Indies to a packed out lecture hall with thousands of Jamaicans pointing out in her lecture that it would be dangerous to overlook the significance of the “voice of the ghetto”, because it would be another snobbish failure on the part of the middle classes.
Walcott being “part of a problem” could be said of Chinua Achebe in the context of African literature or Zadie Smith in the Black British category. When Baldwin said, “I am not your nigger”, this is the kind of sword he was trying to keep away from his head. To become a canonised writer is to become a writer that Universities put on their syllabus to a) justify their tuition fees and b) continue the status quo. Does anyone want to be the kind of writer where people are forced to read your work or fail their exams? Surely that’s the bigger part of the problem.