Caribbean Poetry: Barbados

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Caribbean Poetry: Barbados--Caribbean:  Nation Language

One thing that Caribbean writers are beginning to use more and more is their own individual nation language.  Although English is the official national language of many islands in the Caribbean, the people who live in the Caribbean speak in something other than the standard norm.  While many may refer to this "other" language as simple dialect, people from the islands view their language as something much more unique.

Kamau Brathwaite, during his speech on the development of nation language in Anglophone Caribbean poetry, says:  "We in the Caribbean have a [. . .] kind of plurality:  we have English, which is the imposed language on much of the archipelago.  It is an imperial language, as are French, Dutch and Spanish.  We also have what we call creole English, which is a mixture of English and an adaptation that English took in the new environment of the Caribbean when it became mixed with the other imported languages.  We have also what is called nation language, which is the kind of English spoken by the people who were brought to the Caribbean, not the official English now, but the language of slaves and laborers, the servants who were brought in".

"Ashanti, Congo, Yoruba, all that mighty coast of western Africa was imported into the Caribbean.  And we had the arrival in our area of a new language structure.  It consisted of many languages but basically they had a common semantic and stylistic form.  What these languages had to do, however, was to submerge themselves, because officially the conquering peoples -- the Spaniards, the English, the French, and the Dutch -- insisted that the language of public discourse and conversation, of obedience, command and conception should be English, French, Spanish, or Dutch.  They did not wish to hear people speaking Ashanti or any of these Congolese languages.  Its status became one of inferiority.

Similarly, its speakers were slaves.  They were conceived of as inferiors -- non-human, in fact.  But this very submergence served an interesting interculturative purpose, because although people continued to speak English as it was spoken in Elizabethan times and on through the Romantic and Victorian ages, that English was, nonetheless, still being influenced by the underground language, the submerged language that the slaves had brought.  And that underground language was constantly transforming itself into new forms.  It was moving from a purely African form to a form which was African but which was adapted to the new environment and adapted to the cultural imperative of the European languages.  And it was influencing the way in which the English, French, Dutch, and Spaniards spoke their own languages.  So there was a very complex process taking place, which is now beginning to surface in our literature".

Brathwaite proceeds to talk about the colonial education system in the Caribbean and how it persists in teaching children about the history of the colonizers in that standardized language.  "People were forced to learn things which had no relevance to themselves.  Paradoxically, in the Caribbean (as in many other 'cultural disaster' areas), the people educated in this system came to know more, even today, about English kings and queens than they do about our own national heroes, our own slave rebels, the people who helped to build and to destroy our society.  We are more excited by their literary models, by the concept of, say, Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood than we are by Nanny of the Maroons, a name some of us didn't even know until a few years ago. 

Brathwaite defines nation language more specifically as "the language which is influenced very strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our New World/Caribbean heritage.  Brathwaite alludes to nation language as a form of revolution. Ultimately, nation language is one method that people from the Caribbean use to reclaim (or to form) their individual identity as a people.  Their identity has been influenced by colonial, European powers, by native Amerindian culture, by the imported culture of the African slaves.  But their own culture and identity is separate from all of these influences; it is something unique to the Caribbean.  Just as the islands threw off the shackles of slavery and colonialism, now they throw off the shackles of history to assert their true identity.

Kamau Brathwaite’s Calypso from Islands and Exiles

1 The stone had skidded arc'd and bloomed into islands:
Cuba and San Domingo
Jamaica and Puerto Rico
Grenada Guadeloupe Bonaire

curved stone hissed into reef

wave teeth fanged into clay
white splash flashed into spray
Bathsheba Montego Bay

2 The islands roared into green plantations

ruled by silver sugar cane
sweat and profit
islands ruled by sugar cane

And of course it was a wonderful time

a profitable hospitable well-worth-you-time
when captains carried receipts for rices
letters spices wigs
opera glasses swaggering asses
debtors vices pigs

3 But what of black Sam

with the big splayed toes
and the shoe black shiny skin?

He carries bucketfulls of water

'cause his Ma's just had another daughter.

And what of John with the European name

who went to school and dreamt of fame
his boss one day called him a fool
and the boss hadn't even been to school...

4 Steel drum steel drum

hit the hot calypso dancing
hot rum hot rum
who goin' stop this bacchanalling?

For we glance the banjoy

dance the limbo
grow our crops by maljo

perhaps when they come

with their cameras and straw
hats:  sacred pink tourists from the frozen Nawth

we should get down to those

white beaches
where if we don't wear breeches

it becomes an island dance

Some people doin' well
while others are catchin' hell

o the boss gave our Johnny the sack

though we beg him please
please to take 'im back

so now the boy nigratin' overseas...

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