Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Dragon Can’t Dance is primarily about the ability of the poor black people of the Hill to survive and, in the process of surviving, to create cultural traditions as a guarantee of their existence. Surviving, enduring, and producing, just like the plum tree that has “battled its way up through the tough red dirt and stands now, its roots spread out like claws, gripping the earth,” these people represent a race that has resisted slavery, colonialism, and the continuing dehumanization of the present system.

Out of this struggle for survival and resistance to oppression come the cultural forms and institutions that give these poor people a measure of identity and establish their personhood. Primary among these is Carnival, which reaches “back centuries for its beginnings, back across the Middle Passage, back to Mali and to Guinea and Dahomey and Congo, back to Africa when Maskers were sacred and revered.” This memory, according to Lovelace, remains “if not in the brain, certainly in the blood,” because it has endured up to the present. Carnival allows it to be made manifest in the dragon costume of Aldrick Prospect.

The music, the dance, the calypso, and the costumes, which intensify at Carnival time, are all products of the people’s endurance and existence. These are all aspects of the people’s culture, fashioned both out of the past and out of their present environment. This is an environment of deprivation and stagnation, where children lose their innocence as soon as they are born; this is the environment that produces the bad johns such as Fisheye and the dragon Aldrick. Both are products of the same will which in the past produced “Maroons,” “Bush Negroes,” and “Rebels.” It is also the environment that has led the people to “cultivate again with no less fervor the religion with its Trinity of Idleness, Laziness and Waste.”

Whatever form the strategy for survival and resistance has taken, at the center is the desire to reclaim the self, to assert the presence of a basic self. Everyone wants to be seen and acknowledged. Fisheye struggles against the new direction that the steel bands are taking because it...

(The entire section is 894 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The novel’s title suggests its principal theme: the paralysis of the people’s self-assertion by the apparent hopelessness of poverty, against which the traditional roles for men and women alike are ineffective.

Aldrick’s attraction to Sylvia upsets his solitary complacency, and he feels emasculated by his inability to provide for her material well-being. He cannot reconcile his ethos of nonpossession with what he thinks Sylvia will demand of him as a provider. Fisheye’s manhood derives from his own sweat and toil, but when he realizes that his coworkers are slacking off in amusement at his energy, he stops working and starts fighting. His warriorhood is ineffective, since it is directed against his peers and not against the system that is oppressing all of them. Yet when he tries to fight by taking over the police van with Aldrick and the others, that gesture also fails, and Fisheye in prison loses his spirit entirely, barely managing a halfhearted game of Ping-Pong.

Pariag, the East Indian, having come to Port of Spain after leaving his family’s rural village, makes various attempts to establish his manhood with the residents of the hill. As a shopkeeper, a peddler, a card-player, a family man, he is equally successful, but he fails to gain acceptance from the people of the hill. Philo, the calypsonian, on the other hand, once a member of the hill community, becomes less and less acceptable the more successful he becomes. Once he...

(The entire section is 437 words.)