Professor Steven Alvarez
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”.
Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Scribner, 1972. Print.
Walcott, Derek. Omeros. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.