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  • Literature Nobel laureate Derek Walcott sits inside the library of Oviedo

    Literature Nobel laureate Derek Walcott sits inside the library of Oviedo's University, March 2006. | Photo: Reuters

Published 19 March 2017
There was once a time in the Caribbean where children were religiously raised on reading Shakespeare. Today, we read Walcott.

“I know these islands from Monos to Nassau,   

a rusty head sailor with sea-green eyes   

that they nickname Shabine, the patois for   

any red nigger, and I, Shabine, saw   

when these slums of empire was paradise.   

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,   

I had a sound colonial education,

I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,   

and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation,”

- Derek Walcott, The Schooner Flight

Derek Alton Walcott was a St. Lucian poet, playwright and painter. In his lifetime, Walcott’s work was widely received in the West. He was one of the leading Third World poets describing the scope and scars of European colonialism and the challenges underpinning the project of postcolonial development. Walcott established a pan-Caribbean consciousness, what may have been referred to as a “West Indian Identity” early on in his development. As a youth, he attended The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus in Jamaica. Later, his playwriting was widely staged in Trinidad and Tobago. He was a founding director of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop with his brother Roderick. Unlike many artists, especially Caribbean-born writers based in the Global North who deploy “strategic” connections between their "Caribbean home" and metropolitan locations (abundant in career opportunities, invitations for keynote addresses and publishing houses), Walcott was not an isolated poet separate from his native St. Lucia and wider Caribbean. In a 2009 interview, he shared, “The society I come from demands meaning, demands understanding, and that’s pass for some cultures…Whatever is fashionable in New York is supposed to be fashionable all over the world, and that’s the arrogance that irritates me. But I don’t have to go by that New York thinking. In fact, I have to go by a culture that demands understanding of what it’s looking at or reading.” Walcott’s death on March 17, 2017, leaves not just a space but also an emptiness of a Caribbean presence in the world.

Derek Wallcott, Caribbean's Bright Literary Mind, Dies at 87

It may be argued that his international peak was in 1990 with the publication of the Homeric epic in Omeros. By 1992, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for his poetry. Walcott would eventually become a distinguished artist in residence and beneficiary of a number of fellowships to teach in universities, namely in the United States of America. In 2009, in an ugly turn of events during his consideration for the prestigious post of Oxford Poetry Professor, allegations of sexual harassment claims resurfaced as the race heated on between Walcott and Ruth Padel. Yet no amount of accolades or years of travel and residencies abroad challenged Walcott’s love for life in St. Lucia.

While Walcott was one of European colonialism’s greatest critics; he was also one of its greatest admirers as he valued the English language and thought of European civilization as his inheritance. While I do not share a similar sense or sensibility to his, many poets and radical thinkers of his time, beneficiaries of a “sound colonial education” and trained to master knowledge of empire were intellectually and emotionally invested in such a worldview. Walcott’s politics was less centered with breaking down colonial structures materially, he was much more committed to building a philosophy that challenged the subjugation of colonial rule with the use of the creative imagination. He was an important Caribbean thinker and liberator of the mind who made an effort to show that humanity was central to the project of Caribbean freedom. Also, being Caribbean was enough to be human.

Walcott frequently weighed in on political matters of the day in his writing. He was weary of the disgraceful nature and corruption of colonialism but equally concerned with post-colonial nationalisms that sought to replace the monolith of colonial knowledge and symbols for another hegemonic ‘black’ monolith of knowledge and symbols. He refused to configure the Caribbean in purely racial terms, as locked between the choices of a Eurocentric pride in colonial civilization or an Afrocentric pride in an African civilization. Walcott felt that forging a Caribbean identity required an originality which emerged from drawing on multiple sources of culture and practices to make our society our own and relevant to our history. Decolonization for him required a level of “coherence.”

Independent nations and even revolutionary governments had to come to terms with challenges fraught in nation-building the hard way. Statist overreaches in individual expression, patronizing and political funding of folk culture and unimaginative economic planning and their bureaucracies have stifled the prospect of development in the Caribbean. The artist, poet, storyteller and visionaries are central to Caribbean development because they draw on the mood and feelings of the people, shaped by deeper historical and social forces, that five-year election cycles do not create room for. These creative tensions need to be looked at more closely in our Caribbean societies that are still defining themselves, not always on their own terms. Movements need institutions to reflect their ideals; and, institutions need movements to give them an imperative to determine the direction of their work. Márquez’s political activism matched his political messaging in his novels; Walcott was no Márquez in that regard but his poetry violently overthrew colonial constructions of Caribbeanness in a battle of metaphors. For Walcott, “You cannot separate culture from politics and therefore decolonization of the culture must also mean a decolonization of the politics.”

Derek Walcott’s work is seen as the highest form of poetry in the Caribbean canon. In bourgeois literary circles, his work continues to be a site of debate and interrogations. Young radicals who live for a radical Caribbean imagination need to reclaim Walcott. We need to read Walcott’s poetry, criticize his politics and prescriptions and teach a new generation of the story about Walcott the institution builder and committed artist to his homeland. George Lamming, the Barbadian novelist and poet,  explained to us the role of the artist when he wrote, “…it is the function of the writer to return a society to itself; and in this respect, your writers have been the major historians of the feeling of your people.” Walcott returned Caribbean society to itself.

There was once a time in the Caribbean where children were religiously raised on reading Shakespeare as the highest form of literary achievement. Today, we read Walcott in primary schools and universities to begin our journey in cultural criticism, poetry and the arts.

Travel well, shabine, sir, Derek Walcott.

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