X/Self is a book-length work divided into five parts, which are further divided into individual, closely connected poems. The thematic and stylistic connection among these shorter poems is so strong that the work is best thought of as a single, unified poem. As such, it is also the final third of a larger sequence that Edward Brathwaite began with the publication of Mother Poem (1977), continued in Sun Poem (1982), and concluded in X/Self.
The title of the poem has a complex meaning. The figure of an “X” within the poem implies the crossing of cultures, such as the crossing of an imperialist European culture with African and Native American cultures, which is the collective legacy of the Caribbean peoples with whom Brathwaite, a native of Barbados, identifies. Because of the confusion that such a legacy can cause within an individual, the “X” also has a second meaning as the “X” in a mathematical formula, the unknown element that the mathematician—or in this case, the poet—is trying to identify. As a whole, the title X/Self implies that the self of the person born into a colonized state is, to an extent, an unknown element. Further, it becomes clear throughout the poem that Brathwaite is writing not only about Caribbean people but also about people from colonized and Third World nations throughout the world.
Two lines repeated throughout the poem are “Rome burns/ and our slavery begins.” By this, Brathwaite implies a connection between the fall of the Roman Empire and the enslavement of various peoples around the world. In his many references to such things as slave revolts against Rome, the re-enslavement of a Brazilian republic of ex-slaves by the Portuguese in 1696, and the slaughter of children by South African forces during the Soweto uprising of 1976, it becomes apparent that Brathwaite views the fall of the Roman Empire as an event that made future empires feel justified in resorting to slavery to suppress “others” whose independence might threaten the might of the empire. That is, the devaluation of women that Brathwaite writes about, as well as the...
(The entire section is 878 words.)