Four Bajan Legends of Literature, revisited for Caribbean Literature Day 2022, by David Comissiong

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article, in observance of Caribbean Literature Day 2022, addresses the need to archive and to continually engage expressions and “resources” of the region’s Literature. In 2015, David Comissiong, as president of the Clement Payne Movement, wrote and released a longer version of this article, entitled “Four Bajan Living Legends of Literature.” It was reprinted in 2016, a few months before Barbados celebrated its 50th year of Independence. The legends cited have since passed on and like their legacies, the essential recommendation and proposals put forward in this writing remain relevant today to the region and its Diaspora.

I would like—at this time—to urge the people, organisations, and Government of Barbados to make an effort to identify and catalogue the various “resources” that Barbados possesses, and to resolve to fully deploy and utilize these “resources” for the development of our country.

One of the resources that I would like to identify and bring to the attention of the nation is the cultural and psychological power embedded in the collected works of Barbados’ four living legends of literature, George Lamming, Paule Marshall, Kamau Brathwaite, and Austin “Tom” Clarke.1

The ability to lay claim to these four cultural treasures is a relatively superficial thing! The real issue is, do we recognize the valuableness of the resource that lies in our hand, and are we putting it to good use?

The first and most senior of our four living legends of literature is 88-year-old George Lamming, who is considered to be the dean of Caribbean writers, an accolade bestowed upon him by C.L.R. James, the great literary critic, in the 1960s.

George Lamming is the author of six novels, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), The Emigrants (1954), Of Age and Innocence (1958), Seasons of Adventure (1960), Water with Berries (1971), Natives of My Person (1972), and of three books of critical essays, Pleasures of Exile (1960), Coming, Coming Home (1995), and Sovereignty of the Imagination (2009).

Lamming’s fellow legend, Kamau Brathwaite, explained the ground-breaking significance of Lamming’s first novel as follows: “Then in 1953, George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin appeared and everything was transformed. Here breathing to me from every pore of line and page was the Barbados I had lived. The words, the rhythms, the cadences, the scenes, the people, their predicament.”

In addition, C.L.R. James never spared any opportunity to bring to our attention the many profound and cutting-edge cultural/political critiques and perspectives contained in Lamming’s works. A couple examples from just one novel will suffice to prove the point: “Free is how you is from the start. An’ when it look different you got to move, just move! An’ when you moving say that it is a natural freedom that make you move.” (Season of Adventure, 1960)

Legendary Caribbean authors from Barbados, clockwise, George Lamming, Paule Marshall, Austin "Tom" Clarke, Kamau Brathwaite. ((c) HNP/Lamming/Brathwaite/Clarke. Paule Marshall/Wikipedia)

Legendary Caribbean authors from Barbados, clockwise, George Lamming, Paule Marshall, Austin “Tom” Clarke, Kamau Brathwaite. (©HNP/Lamming/Brathwaite/Clarke. Paule Marshall/Wikipedia)

“Until the age of ten, Powell and I had lived together, equal in the affection of two mothers… . Powell and I were taught at the same Primary school. And then the division came. I got a public scholarship which started my migration into the world of the educated … the elite … which now shut Powell and the whole village right out of my future… . I attached myself to that new privilege… . I believe that the mad impulse which drove Powell to his criminal defeat was largely my doing… . I am responsible for what happened to my brothers.” (Season of Adventure)

The second living legend in order of seniority is 86-year-old Paule Marshall, who was born in Brooklyn, New York City to Barbadian parents, and who not only grew up in a tightly knit Barbadian immigrant community, but also visited and lived in Barbados for varying periods of time.

The highly acclaimed Paule Marshall has produced five novels, four of which explore the history, culture, vernacular, predicament, and spirit of the Barbadian people “at home and abroad,” Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Daughters (1991), and The Fisher King (1998), and a Barbados-steeped memoir entitled Triangular Road (2009).

The novels of Paule Marshall are filled with Barbadian female characters who would resonate with and speak in a profound way to the current generation of Barbadian girls and women, if only these novels were made widely available in our country!

I refer to such characters as middle-aged Silla Boyce and her Brooklyn-born daughter, Selina, whose coming of age is explored in Brown Girl, Brownstones; racially conscious Merle Kinbona ,who defends the cultural integrity of the island in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People; and the sophisticated 1980s young professional, Ursa Mackenzie, who, out of a sense of love for her country and her politician-father, sabotages the latter’s election campaign and his Cahill-type plan to sell out the country, in Daughters.

Marshall’s novels also express what Kamau Brathwaite has described as the “literature of re-connection” with Africa. Thus, in describing several of the quintessentially Barbadian characters in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, Marshall reaches back to Africa: “A … strikingly tall, lean old man… . His face, his neck, his clean-shaven skull, had the elongated intentionally distorted look to them of a Benin mask or a sculpted thirteenth century Ife head.”

Whereas, Delbert, the shopkeeper “was huge with massive limbs… . He was the chief presiding over the palavering … the colourful shirt he had on was his robe of office; the battered Panama hat … his Chieftan’s umbrella, and the bottle of white rum he held, the palm wine with which he kept the palaver and made libation to the ancestral gods.”

Our third living legend is the 85-year-old Kamau Brathwaite, whose works of poetry, drama, history, literary criticism, and cultural analysis are far too numerous to list!

I will therefore satisfy myself with stating that Kamau Brathwaite is easily one of the world’s most outstanding intellectuals and scholars, and that he should have won the Nobel prize for literature many times over!

I will recommend that our educational authorities should deem at least three of Brathwaite’s works essential and mandatory texts for our secondary and tertiary curriculum: The Arrivants (Brathwaite’s first, Pan-African based, trilogy of poetical works); Ancestors (Brathwaite’s second, and Barbados-centred, trilogy); and Barabajan Poems (Brathwaite’s encyclopedic exploration of Barbadian poetry, history, landscapes, and culture).

The youngest of the four living legends is the 81-year-old Toronto-based Austin “Tom” Clarke, winner of such prestigious international awards as Canada’s W. O. Mitchell Prize, Cuba’s Casa de las Americas Prize, and the Martin Luther King Junior Award for excellence in writing. Tom Clarke’s body of work consists of ten novels, six short story collections and three memoirs, most of which are based either in Toronto or in Barbados.

In Clarke’s Toronto-based stories, we can more clearly discern the elements of the true Barbadian, portrayed as they are against a foreign backdrop. And, as Barbadian literary critic, John Wickham, has observed, Clarke brings to this act of re-creation a faithful ear for the accent and rhythms of our Barbadian nation-language, and a powerful visual memory.

The Barbados-based novels of Clarke, such as Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, The Prime Minister, and The Polished Hoe, help us to understand and to come to terms with the trauma of colonialism and the psychic damage that it inflicted.

David Comissiong (L), Barbados’ Ambassador to CARICOM and Lasana M. Sekou (R), founder of House of Nehesi Publishers (HNP)—at James Street Methodist Church following the funeral service for Kamau Brathwaite, Bridgetown, Barbados, 2020. HNP is the Caribbean publisher of George Lamming and Kamau Brathwaite; in 2020, the indie press launched Caribbean Literature Day. (© HNP photo)

David Comissiong (L), Barbados’ Ambassador to CARICOM and Lasana M. Sekou (R), founder of House of Nehesi Publishers (HNP)—at James Street Methodist Church following the funeral service for Kamau Brathwaite, Bridgetown, Barbados, 2020. HNP is the Caribbean publisher of George Lamming and Kamau Brathwaite; in 2020, the indie press launched Caribbean Literature Day. (© HNP photo)

Fellow Barbadians, we will not have the living legends with us forever! Let us, therefore, show them our appreciation, love, and respect now! And let us have the good sense to do ourselves a big favour by embracing, reading, and making full use of their invaluable works!

(David Comissiong is Barbados’ Ambassador to CARICOM. 1The legendary authors identified by Comissiong have passed on since the writing of “Four Bajan Living Legends of Literature.”) 

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