Response #2

Alicia O’Connor

Professor Steven Alvarez

English 391W

6 March 2011

The Power of Literary and Artistic Work: Writing and Art as a Means of Capturing Identity and Culture in Derek Walcott’s Omeros and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo

Derek Walcott’s Omeros reveals how the power of writing preserves identity and cultural history, allowing for it to be passed down to future generations. Walcott’s story acknowledges that the people in St. Lucia do not have a complete sense of personal identity due to their lack of history. Without any remnants of a past familial society or connection to their ancestors, the people of St. Lucia would have no way of ever discovering this long lost historical element of themselves. Through writing, history can flourish in modern civilization. In his work, Walcott purposely has his father, one of his own deceased ancestors, present the importance and value of writing in order to figuratively illustrate how writing can give past nations and people a voice. Walcott gives his father a voice using his novel just as he gives all departed or enslaved African people a voice. Walcott writes:

They walk, you write;

keep to that narrow causeway without looking down,

climbing in their footsteps, that slow, ancestral beat

of those used to climbing roads; your own work owes them

because the couplet of those multiplying feet

made your first rhymes. Look, they climb, and no one knows them;

they take their copper pittances, and your duty

from the time you watched them from your grandmother’s house

as a child wounded by their power and beauty

is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice. (75-76)

Walcott writes this passage in the form of a speech from the ghost of his father, essentially summarizing the motivation and purpose behind this epic novel. The novel as a whole works to create a distinct narrative as well as an otherwise absent ancestral connection for the marginalized people of postcolonial St. Lucia. By writing a story that includes the present circumstances of the people of St. Lucia intertwined with encounters with the past, Walcott successfully constructs a story and history for his people. His father’s ghost describes the African women that Walcott used to watch as a boy who were working under colonial rule. The women “keep to that narrow causeway without looking down”. They climb the roads and trade in the contents of their basket for “copper pittances,” an unsubstantial compensation for their labor. These women do not need to look down because they know their work all too well, but also because they refuse to bow their heads to their oppressors. In this way, these African women display their “power and beauty,” presenting the proud ancestry they have to offer their family line. The fact that “no one knows them” explains the true problem. However, Walcott’s role as writer can change this. “They walk” and he can “write”. These women and their history provide the “ancestral beat” that has become a lost part of the identity of the St. Lucian people.  The women’s “couplet” of “multiplying feet” provided Walcott with his first rhymes. He owes the basis of his writing to the history and poetry that comes out of a passion for the “beat” and story of his ancestral past. Through the power of writing, Walcott has taken the opportunity to “give those feet a voice” and provide the St. Lucian people with a history that contributes to their identity.

Just as Omeros displays how the power of writing conserves identity and cultural history, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo sends this same message through the use of all artistic forms. In Mumbo Jumbo, the dominant white society attempts to control the African American people and repress their cultural background. Their ancestral traditions, works, and ways of life remain out of their reach, held in confinement by Western civilization. By denying African Americans access to these pieces of their identity, the empowered whites of society strive to force American ways upon blacks and maintain the status quo. Reed utilizes the idea of an historical text that embodies African American culture as a way to show how writing and all art forms allow culture and identity to thrive. Reed describes this when he states:

Jes Grew has no end and no beginning. [ . . . ] We will miss it for a while but it will come back, and when it returns we will see that it never left. You see, life will never end; there is really no end to life, if anything goes it will be death. Jew Grew is life. [ . . . ] They will try to depress Jes Grew but it will only spring back and prosper. We will make our own future Text. A future generation of young artists will accomplish this. (204)

Reed recognizes that Jes Grew, which represents African American culture and identity, has “no end and no beginning”. The term “Jes Grew” suggests more than one specific cultural movement in time, but signifies a constant existence of African American customs and influence. Even if oppressing populations try to “depress” Jes Grew and destroy individual movements, the culture behind the movements will have “never left”. Jes Grew can “spring back and prosper” through the artistic endeavor of making a “future Text”. Like the Book of Toth (which held the historical traditions of cultural minorities in the United States), a newly compiled text will surface and stimulate an awakening of the suppressed messages within the Jes Grew movement.  A “future generation of young artists” will capture African American culture in their writing, music, and artwork. All of this artistic work will build the basis for keeping African American culture and identity alive in discriminatory American society. This culture compares to “life”, an existing part of African American identity, and with the power behind the creation of a new text, this life has “no end”.

Works Cited

Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Scribner, 1972. Print.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.

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One Response to Response #2

  1. salvarez says:

    Nice title. That’s the first thing to say. They’re an art, are they not? I hope you’re using these for any Lit essays you’re writing.

    This piece is pretty cool: Derek Walcott’s Omeros reveals how the power of writing preserves identity and cultural history, allowing for it to be passed down to future generations. Walcott’s story acknowledges that the people in St. Lucia do not have a complete sense of personal identity due to their lack of history. Without any remnants of a past familial society or connection to their ancestors, the people of St. Lucia would have no way of ever discovering this long lost historical element of themselves. Through writing, history can flourish in modern civilization. In his work, Walcott purposely has his father, one of his own deceased ancestors, present the importance and value of writing in order to figuratively illustrate how writing can give past nations and people a voice. Walcott gives his father a voice using his novel just as he gives all departed or enslaved African people a voice.

    Already I was thinking of connections between this and Paterson. Williams and Walcott do pretty much the same thing, but in different ways. And they both do poetry? The more I think of Paterson, the more I think Williams was writing some kind of hybrid of history and mythology, which of course Walcott does as well.

    I add my ideas for interpretation with the first quote you offer:
    They walk, you write; NOTE USE OF YOU

    keep to that narrow causeway without looking down,
    WHO KEEPS? THE WRITER OR THE WOMEN? OR THE WRITER IMAGINING THE WOMEN?
    climbing in their footsteps, that slow, ancestral beat
    MUSIC, RHYTHM, WORK, MAYBE COLONIAL, OR CONNECTION TO AFRICAN RHYTHMS, BEATS IN CARIBBEAN
    of those used to climbing roads; your own work owes them
    WALCOTT GETS HIS CHECK BECAUSE OF THEIR WORK, HE DESCRIBES THEIR WORK AND GETS PAID AS A WRITER, AS INTELLECTUAL–HIS WORK IS LABORIOUS THAN THEIRS
    because the couplet of those multiplying feet

    made your first rhymes. Look, they climb, and no one knows them;
    NO ONE KNOWS THEM, NAMELESS, MAYBE FACELESS, INVISIBLE
    they take their copper pittances, and your duty

    from the time you watched them from your grandmother’s house

    as a child wounded by their power and beauty
    POWER AND BEAUTY: AND THAT’S WHY HE USES THEM AS IMAGES? THAT’S WHY HE MUST WRITE THEM?
    is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice.” (75-76)
    THE WRITER SPEAKS FOR THEM? THE WRITER WRITES THEM INTO EXISTENCE. MAYBE INTO HISTORY, OR AS HISTORY. THE EVERYDAY INTO THE EPIC.
    _________
    You hit on all those points in your E section–great close-reads there. I would add something, though, about Walcott feeling some kind of ethical duty to write, or to struggle as a writer to make that feeling and image speak through poetry, which is something of a struggle with craft and truth. Think of Frida’s ideas of art, and how these also relate to what Harrison says about his writing. Artists always have intense ideas about art. I wonder if you might consider the political parts of art: for example, Bill Musclewhite and his art police, or maybe how Harrison gets in trouble for the politics in his art (politics which actually existed more for audiences than for the art itself).

    I commented on the following in CAPS:

    Reed recognizes that Jes Grew, which represents African American culture and identity, has “no end and no beginning”. The term “Jes Grew” suggests more than one specific cultural movement in time, but signifies a constant existence of African American customs and influence. ACROSS SPACE AND TIME, ALWAYS EXISTING? OR JUST ALWAYS IN THE PRESENT? DIFFERENT CONCEPTION THAN ‘WESTERN’ TIME? Even if oppressing populations try to “depress” Jes Grew and destroy individual movements, the culture behind the movements will have “never left”. MAYBE IT’S A RESPONSE TO CULTURES ALWAYS CLASHING? Jes Grew can “spring back and prosper” through the artistic endeavor of making a “future Text”. THAT MAKES ME THINK: THAT GREAT WORKS COME OUT OF STRUGGLES OR TRAGIC STRUGGLES, AND THAT SORT OF GOES BACK TO WHAT FRIDA SAYS TO HARRISON, THAT HE HAD TO EXPERIENCE SOME OF THOSE STRUGGLES IN ORDER TO REALLY BE A WRITER Like the Book of Toth (which held the historical traditions of cultural minorities in the United States), a newly compiled text will surface and stimulate an awakening of the suppressed messages within the Jes Grew movement. RIGHT A SACRED TEXT, LIKE A RELIGIOUS TEXT A “future generation of young artists” will capture African American culture in their writing, music, and artwork. All of this artistic work will build the basis for keeping African American culture and identity alive in discriminatory American society. This culture compares to “life”, an existing part of African American identity, and with the power behind the creation of a new text, this life has “no end”. COOL. NICE JOB WITH THE E IN THIS SECTION. SO HOW DOES AFRICAN AMERICAN ART DIFFER FROM DIFFERENT ART FORMS? WHAT GETS CLASSIFIED AS ART IN THE NOVEL? REMEMBER, THE MUTA’FIKAH ARE ART THEORISTS TOO, AND THEY TRY TO STEAL THINGS FROM MUSEUMS. MUSEUMS ARE POWERFUL SPACES OF ART, OR A CERTAIN FORM OF ‘LEGITIMATE’ ART, OR ‘HIGH’ ART. JES GREW ISN’T IN MUSEUMS, IT COMES FROM ‘THE PEOPLE’ SO TO SPEAK. OR FROM THE BOTTOM-UP, INSTEAD FROM THE TOP-DOWN.

    In both your block quotes, you end with quotation marks before the page numbers. I think this is a typo. Great job on the works cited. I’m seeing more authority behind your interpretations, that’s cool. PIE would never do you wrong.
    5 out of 5 points.

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