The poet and Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott passed away today at the age of 87 leaving behind a corpus of verses about the Caribbean, the sea, and love. The prolific writer not only described the alluring and ever changing landscape of the Caribbean present but the horrific tragedy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. His poetry gave breathe to a place where Indigenous people were massacred, Africans brought to work endlessly, and where European tourists have begun to use as their playground. His poetry brought life to a region who's archive was living amongst the population, i.e., saturated in the West African syncretic religions of Santeria & Voodoo and the Creole languages that persist on the Anglophone, Francophone and Dutch Islands. Not only do the people from Jamaica, Haiti, Aruba, and St. Lucia hold on to these members, Walcott managed to show how the sea--in its contours, waves, and dimensions--provide a glimpse into the history. As he noted in the poem, "The Sea is History":
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
In The Haitian Trilogy, he captured the revolutionary spirit of the Black slave uprising on the Island of Hispanola. Not only was this text a testament to a revolution that is so often overlooked by historians, it also pointed to the political tensions and concerns in the aftermath of liberation. Where should power lie? How does one transition to freedom? Jean Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe appear as the main figures who appear flawed in their political squabbles but also humane in their attempt to make a country anew. Religious figures and aristocratically hungry people are the villains while the mostly slightly Black majority are being rooted for. The Haitian Trilogy picks up from the lively fervor of C.L.R. James The Black Jacobins yet it often comes across as more sanitized and less political. Yet, what Walcott provided in his capacity as a poet and playwright is the flexibility to add dimension to these characters.
Literature has the capacity to provide strength and reprieve when the world is harrowing. Walcott's legacy will live on because he provided hope and beauty for a region whose resilience lays in the aftermath of force migration and enslavement. As a Haitian-American woman, Black Caribbean writers such as Aimé Cesaire, Audre Lorde, Claudia Jones, and Frantz Fanon were part of my upbringing and tradition. They were the fore bearers who gave me hope in internationalism and radical politics. Derek Walcott was part of a generation of writers who used their craft to bring light to the world--while also witnessing the Civil Rights movement from afar. May his legacy and those who are fighting for internationalism, beauty, and the sea continue honor his works.