Edward Kamau Brathwaite: Limbo

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Edward Kamau Brathwaite: Limbo

This poem tells the story of slavery in a rhyming, rhythmic dance. It is ambitious and complex. There are two narratives running in parallel:

  • the actions of the dance, and
  • The history of a people which is being enacted.

Going down and under the limbo stick is likened to the slaves' going down into the hold of the ship, which carries them into slavery. In Roman Catholic tradition, limbo is a place to which the souls of people go, if they are not good enough for Heaven or bad enough for Hell. More exactly, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, it is

"...the permanent place or state of those unbaptized children and others who, dying without grievous personal sin, are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone."

The Italian poet Dante, imagines Limbo to be in the first circle of Hell, and to contain the souls of both unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans. It has come to mean any unpleasant place, or a state (of mind or body) from which it is difficult to escape. The story of slavery told in the poem is very easy to follow, yet full of vivid detail and lively action.

The poem has a very strong beat, suggesting the dance it describes: where the word limbo appears as a complete line, it should be spoken slowly, the first syllable extended and both syllables stressed: Lím-bó. While the italics give the refrain (or chorus) which reminds us of the dance, the rest of the poem tells the story enacted in the dance: these lines are beautifully rhythmic, and almost every syllable is stressed, until the very last line, where the rhythm is broken, suggesting the completion of the dance, and the end of the narrative.

This poem is suited to dramatic performance - there is the dancing under the limbo pole (difficult for most Europeans) and the acting out of the voyage into slavery. The poem can be chanted or sung, with a rhythmic accompaniment to bring out the drama in it (percussion, generally, is appropriate but drums, specifically, are ideal: in fact, the text refers to the “drummer” and the “music”).

What do you find interesting in

  • the way the poem appears on the page
  • sound effects in the poem
  • repetition in the poem
  • the way the limbo dance tells the story of slavery

Is this a serious or comic poem? Is it optimistic or pessimistic?

Tatamkhulu Afrika: Nothing's Changed

This poem depicts a society where rich and poor are divided. In the apartheid era of racial segregation in South Africa, where the poem is set, laws, enforced by the police, kept apart black and white people. The poet looks at attempts to change this system, and shows how they are ineffective, making no real difference. Jackie Fielding writes:

“I had always assumed that the poem was written post-apartheid and reflected the bitterness that knowing “one's place” in society is so deeply ingrained that the I-persona can't bring him to accept his new-found freedom under Mandela. I also find it interesting that the poet is not South African and not black.”

“District Six” is the name of a poor area of Cape Town (one of South Africa's two capital cities; the other is Pretoria). This area was bulldozed as a slum in 1966, but never properly rebuilt. Although there is no sign there, the poet can feel that this is where he is: “...my feet know/and my hands.”

Similarly the “up-market” inn (“brash with glass” and the bright sign ,“flaring like a flag”, which shows its name) is meant for white customers only. There is no sign to show this (as there would have been under apartheid) but  people, being poor, will not be allowed past the “guard at the gatepost”. The “whites only inn” is elegant, with linen tablecloths and a “single rose” on each table. It is contrasted with the fast-food “working man's cafe” which sells the local snack (“bunny chows”). There is no tablecloth, just a plastic top, and there is nowhere to wash one's hands after eating: “wipe your fingers on your jeans”. In the third stanza the sense of contrast is most clear: the smart inn “squats” amid “grass and weeds”.

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Perhaps the most important image in the poem is that of the “glass” which shuts out the speaker in the poem. It is a symbol of the divisions of colour, and class - often the same thing in South Africa. As he backs away from it at the end of the poem, Afrika sees himself as a “boy again”, who has left the imprint of his “small, mean mouth” on the glass. He wants “a stone, a bomb” to break the glass - he may wish literally to break the window of this inn, but this is clearly meant in ...

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