HIS BROKEN GROUND: Edward Brathwaite’s trilogy of Poems
Masks falls neatly into halves, the experience of Rights of Passage fitting in between. In the second half a New World Negro returns to Africa to rediscover his origins. But he is welcomed as “a stranger/after three hundred years.” There were other strangers, the poem suggests, white traders whom. we made the error of trusting in spite of prophetic warnings. Our women were “will-/ ing to sell/ gold, fleshes’/ thighs for tin/ trinkets.” So the Europeans were in. Their influence attacked old values. The God of the pathway had his tree “split/ by a white axe/ of lightning.” Nyame’s tree yielded to the Christian tree, fell before “the/Nazarene’s cross.” Cultural disintegration followed.
When the worm’s knife cuts
the throat of a tree, what will happen?
It will die.
The society failed to cope with the challenge, the country became “sick at heart, to its bitter clay.” States made war against each other. As for the returning New World Negro, he cannot find his parents, he cannot hear the drum. He searches for his navel-string which should have been buried according to African custom.
But my spade’s hope,
receives dumbness back
for its echo.
Beginnings end here
in this ghetto.
“Ghetto” and “spade ” (in its secondary sense of “Black man”) recall us to Rights which had suggested the need to rediscover the lost African connection. In the second half of Masks the poem has subtly kept shifting between the present experience of the returning New World Negro and the examination, further back in lime, of cultural failure m Africa. Here, towards the end, some of the questions are directly asked:
Why did the god’s
stool you gave us, Anokye,
not save us from pride,
foreign tribes’ bibles,
the Christian god’s hunger
eating the good of our tree;
flesh of my brothers’ flesh
torn to feed ships
(Brathwaite has nodded, allowing an initial ‘s’ to follow awkwardly on a possessive ‘s’ in the same line.]’ The tentative answers go unconfirmed. “The years remain/ silent: the dust learns nothing/ with listening.” Yet in spite of the failures his honesty has uncovered, the New World Negro has been revived by the contact with Africa, strengthened in his resolve to rise and stand on his feet. Masks ends with a traditional Akan form:
I am learning
let me succeed …
As explained by Kwahena Nketia , the traditional form of the drum prelude called the Awakening ends/ addressing the god Tano:
The drummer of the Talking Orum says
He. is kneeling before you.
He prays you, he is about to drum on
the Talking Drum.
When he drums, let his drumming be
smooth and steady.
Do not let him falter.
I am learning, let me succeed.
So the lines in Masks are not only indicating a stage in the re-learning of self; but are also a poet’s invocation for divine help, that in Islands his drumming may be smooth and steady.
In Islands the opening subsection “Jah” (Cod, in Rasta usage) draws elements from Masks and Rights into a single vision. It alludes to jazz and Negro spiritual. Nairobi’s male elephants (”Mnemson” in Masks?) fuse into jazz trumpets. God now is not wood but glass “with type-writer teeth”, he looks out not on a landscape of desert or forest but over the “yellow mix of the neon lights.” God (capital G) floats in heaven, having “no ground to keep him down near the gods.” “We” are floating too, “without hope of the hook,/ of the fisherman’s tugging-m root.” The urban New World Negro has lost contact with his grounded gods. The Christian God – relentless Villain of this trilogy has cut him loose. “The gods have been forgotten or hidden ” Ananse who once had the powers of African creator-gods is diminished: he is now a “dry stony world-maker, word-breaker.” Meanings have shrunk: what was significant to our African ancestors (or to our Arawak predecessors) is flat to us., Meanwhile, social conditions are as terrible as ever and the politicians are self-seeking.