To be a poet one needs the six P’s – the pencil, the paper, the perception, the passion, the persistence and the unshakable persuasion that the poem is in fact possible and attainable. - Grace Perry

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Poems I have Read - Taint by Grace Nicholls

Henry Louis Gates discusses the use of ‘Black’ vernacular in postcolonial literature as an act of reclaiming language and aligning the speaker with their black heritage, separate from the ‘white’ colonists (1989). ‘Black’ vernacular is used to create a ‘black’/ ‘white’ schism and is often used to highlight the different roles that ‘black’ and ‘white’ played in the process of colonialism and in the slave trade. The title of Grace Nicholls' poetry collection is written in this ‘Black’ vernacular, I is a Long Memoried Woman (1983).

However, Nicholls' poem 'Taint' is not written in this ‘Black’ vernacular. This is possibly to strengthen the theme of the poem, being ‘stolen’ for the slave trade. The speaker has been ‘stolen’ from where they belong. Language is a powerful tool in post-colonial studies, for the reasons that Henry Louis Gates explores, it is used to reclaim culture and heritage. The development of pigeon English and the handing down of this dialect through generations to form a Creole language is an important process to separate the victims of the slave trade from ‘White’ colonial powers and reclaim a cultural distinction.

On looking closer at the poem the theme of being ‘stolen’ for the slave trade becomes more complex. The speaker states that they were ‘stolen’ and ‘traded’ “by men the colour of my own skin”. The use of repetition here, as Nicholls repeats the line “by men the colour of my own skin”, emphasizes the anger the speaker has for this history of being ‘stolen’ by African slave traders. The anger is not being aimed at the ‘white’ slave owners, but at the men of the same "skin" as the speaker. The use of Western phonetics in this poem can be interpreted as a rejection of a connection to the speaker’s African heritage.
But I was stolen by men
the colour of my own skin...

But I was traded by men
the colour of my own skin
traded like a fowl like a goat
like a sack of kernels I was
Kwabena Akurang-Parry, states that some African states were involved in the trading of African’s from other states in the Atlantic slave Trade (2010). However, in his critique of Henry Louis Gates, he stresses that it is important to not except the viewpoint that “Africans” enslaved “Africans” (Akurang-Parry, K 2010). Akurang-Parry discusses the deployment of “African”, observing that in African history there is a tendency to coalesce into obscurantist (conservative/traditionalist) constructions of identities that allow scholars, for instance, to subtly call into question the humanity of “all” Africans. Whenever Asante rulers sold non-Asantes into slavery, they did not construct it in terms of Africans selling fellow Africans. They saw the victims for what they were, for instance, as Akuapems, without categorizing them as fellow Africans. Equally, when Christian Scandinavians and Russians sold war captives to the Islamic people of the Abbasid Empire, they didn’t think that they were placing fellow Europeans into slavery. This lazy categorizing homogenizes Africans and has become a part of the methodology of African history. It is through this history that Afro-Americans search for, or rebel against an African identity.

The similes in the second stanza illustrate how undervalued the speaker feels as the men trade him/her “for trinkets”. Indeed, African slaves were traded for goods such as glass beads. The use of the punctuation in this stanza, the question mark, creates a tone of disbelief and resentment, disbelief that anyone could trade her life for such little value and resentment at the middle man, who traded lives for trinkets.
But I was traded by men
the colour of my own skin
traded like a fowl like a goat
like a sack of kernels I was
for beads for pans
for trinkets?
Alliteration is also used in this stanza to again highlight that the speaker’s life was reduced to the value of a ‘trinket’. The ‘K’ sound is repeated throughout the stanza: "...traded ‘like’… ‘like’ a ‘sack’ of ‘kernels’… for ‘trinkets’". The line spacing in this stanza is also important in demonstrating the emotion the speaker feels for being traded for something as little as a ‘trinket’. The word ‘traded’ is placed on a line by itself not only to focus the readers to the act of trade that has occurred, but also to symbolise the trade, separating the objects to be traded from the objects they are traded for. The space between “like a fowl like a goat” emphasises the simile of the speaker to these animals. The spacing in the items the speaker was traded for is used to slow that part of the stanza down and draw attention to the simplicity of the items and the resentment that the speaker feels.
What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. ... A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave. A cotton-spinning machine is a machine for spinning cotton. Only under certain conditions does it become capital. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold is itself money, or sugar is the price of sugar. - Marx, Wage Labour and Capital (1847)
Nicholls has used a lot of alliteration in this poem. I have already shown how the letter ‘k’ is repeated to demonstrate the undervaluing of the speaker’s life that happened through the slave trade. Throughout the entire poem there is alliteration of the letter ‘t’. The letter ‘t’ appears to be dictating the themes of the poem as being ‘stolen’ and ‘traded’ by men who are not human, who do not value life, hands ‘turned talons’, the undervaluing of life, being ‘traded’ for ‘trinkets’. The letter ‘t’ takes us down the ‘trail’, the path of the trade, or of the memory of the trade and walks us to the present. ‘It’, the stealing and trading, we cannot ‘forget’, what we refuse to acknowledge in history is still there, it still happened. Finally the ‘t’ brings the reader to the end of the journey as the speaker rinses the ‘taint of treachery’, the history of betrayal and the speaker’s racial heritage. The poem moves away from an Afro-diasporic identity, allowing the speaker to create their own individual identity, which is still dictated by the past.

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