Ancestors by Kamau Brathwaite
With the advent of postcolonial studies, the work of Caribbean authors has begun to impact the world of belles lettres. One of the most exciting recent works is Ancestors, a sweeping historical epic in the vein of Dante or Milton, by the Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite.
Brathwaite divides the poem into three sections, "Mother Poem," "Sun Poem," and "X/Self," and then smaller sections containing individual poems. This structure confirms the universality of the poem while creating an engaging intimacy. The relationships between three "voices," the mother, the narrator/son, and the father in relation to the Motherland (Barbados) overarch the theme of familial integration and separation.
"Alpha," the first poem in the collection, connects the narrator's mother to Barbados's majesty—a place where "my mother rains upon the island / w/her loud voices / w/her grey hairs / w/her green love." Brathwaite equates Barbados' landscape with his mother's indomitable spirit and endurance in the wake of colonial and postcolonial oppression. The first section ends with "Driftwood," culminating in the mother's death, as she becomes the pools of his "island / lime conch lobster flying / fish scales / closing her eyes." The mother "returns" to Barbados's natural setting, which "birthed" her; becoming a metaphor for the physical and spiritual ailment sustaining the narrator/poet.
"Sun Poem," begins with "Red Rising," a mythical evocation to the sun, the giver of life and death. The speaking sun is also metaphor for Barbadian fathers whose only hope for their children is "but that you may live / my fond retreating future." That is, that they may survive and live even as they inevitably move towards death. But in the poem "Son" the narrator believes in the resolute spirit of the Barbadian people when "they say / cerise and orange / and rise- / ing to gold- / en day- / light / they say / rising to blue . . . / and the sun / new." Just as surely as the sun/son rises, so will they.
The final section is titled "X/S" (excess)—subtitled "X/Self." The first poem, "Letter from Roma," is about a son, one of the narrator's ancestors, who has managed, despite racist attitudes, to be elected "the governor of the thirteen provinces." Ancestors then moves to the present day in which the narrator of "X/Self xth letter from the thirteen provinces," muses about the miracles of technology, and more importantly, his knowledge of how to use words as weapons, like Caliban, to curse Prospero: "Dear mumma / uh writin yu dis letter / wha? guess what! pun a computer O / kay?. . ." It is the Word which speaks for all of his ancestors, his people who in The Beginning, "from this cramped hand / cripple by candlelight / a crab scuttles / its mail'd dragonish swords / . . . and the grass flesh / and the flesh memory / and the memory nodding / . . . coming in with the birds and the wind and the steep stars" ("Carab").
Brathwaite pays homage to people of the African Diaspora who have struggled and continue to struggle against forces that would see them perish. For Brathwaite, as long as people remember those blacks—the seemingly insignificant, the Historically unaccounted for—who struggle(d), then people of African descent will continue to rise like the stars.