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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 27-44

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Walcott, Homer, and the "Black Atlantic"

Isidore Okpewho


In exploring Derek Walcott's abiding recourse to Homer in his creative writing, I have chosen to invoke the discursive paradigm recently advertised by Paul Gilroy in his book because whatever problems we may agree it creates in its analysis of the condition of blacks in Western society, the book has at any rate invited us to rethink familiar assumptions about questions of self-apprehension created by centuries of stressful relations between peoples of African and European descent. In formulating his concept of a "black Atlantic," Gilroy abjures all obsessive attachment to an African racial antecedence, embracing in the process a modernist consciousness that entails, as he puts it (following Habermas), "a rift between secular and sacred spheres of action" whereby contemporary artists feel "a sense of artistic practice as an autonomous domain either reluctantly or happily divorced from the everyday life-world" (50, 73). Gilroy especially celebrates the "rhizomorphic, fractal structure" (4) of this unique formation because in "[transcending] both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity" (19), it enables us "to construct an intercultural and anti-ethnocentric account of modern black history and political culture" (4). In this project, he adopts the image of "ships" as a guiding metaphor in their signification far less of "the triangular trade" (16-17) than of "the unfinished history of blacks in the modern world" (80).

Gilroy's book provides us a point of departure here because it foregrounds the interplay of issues of history and identity that characterize Caribbean discourse generally. This discourse may be reduced to two main strands. The first of these is represented by European travel accounts and histories (Columbus, Trollope, Froude, etc.) that present a uniformly negative portrait of minority American peoples. This imperialist outlook, designed to support planter/mercantile adventurism and the exploitation of Caribbean society and economy, poses a denial of Caribbean history and culture and makes no concessions whatever to the innate humanity of the people. "There has been splendour and luxurious living," says Froude, "and there have been crimes and horrors, and revolts and massacres. There has been romance, but it has been the romance of pirates and outlaws. The natural graces of life do not show themselves under these conditions [. . .]. There are no people in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own" (305-06). Have they made any contributions to science and technology? "Rocks and trees and flowers remain as they always were, and Nature is constant to herself; but the traveller whose heart is with his land, and cares only to see his brother mortals making their corner of the planet an orderly and rational home, had better choose some other object for his pilgrimage" (306). Needless to say, the [End Page 27] more humane interventions of contemporary writers (de las Casas, Sewell) did little to dent the image enshrined by this dominant imperialist discourse.

The second strand of Caribbean discourse involves responses by native Caribbean artists and intellectuals to the above position. Between the two strands, however, lies an intermediate position represented by a writer like V. S. Naipaul who, in castigating (from his British exile) the failures of Caribbean society, has not hesitated to preface his portraits of it with passages such as those quoted above from the likes of Froude and Trollope. We may call this the tough love of someone saddened by the wasted promise of his native land; but nothing excuses the readiness with which he echoes the imperialist sneer. "How can the history of this West Indian futility be written?" he asks in The Middle Passage, then answers: "The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies" (28-29).

Most of the prominent Caribbean writers are, unlike Naipaul, of part-African descent and, though they have often condemned some of the shortcomings of...


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