Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

X/Self has two main themes unifying the poem. One involves an examination of how the imperialistic tradition of European civilization has led to a devaluation of those defined as “other”—blacks, Native Americans, women. The second involves an attempt to find a self-defined identity as an Other—as an “X.”

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An example of how the first of these themes is played out can be found in the section entitled “Phalos,” which discusses the plight of women in three Third World cities (Addis, Actium, and Kumas) that have been overrun by European powers by saying,

And since that day at addis at actium at kumasour women have forshook their herbs forshorn their naked savioursthey have straightened their nostrils where they would flare.

The reference to straightening nostrils is a reference to the type of cosmetic surgery that women of African descent can have to hide African features. More generally, though, the poem is concerned with the long-term distortion of sensibilities that has resulted from European imperialism. Local standards of beauty tend to be forcefully adapted to the European standards of beauty—standards to which women of the occupied race do not conform and which thus compel them and their descendants in modern times to resort to surgery and fashion so as not to be thought of as “ugly.”

If, however, the poem were nothing more than a critique, it might be a rather somber affair—which it is not. Much of the liveliness of the poem comes from its attempt to assert an identity based not only on the poet’s own African Caribbean identity but also on its relations (as, if nothing else, fellow outsiders) to other groups that have often been denied their cultural identity. Thus, for example, a footnote points out the “black, African, slave, brown, Creole, Latin, Asian, Alexandrine, or Byzantine” identity of figures who appear in the poem, such as Muhammad, Aesop, Herod, Moses, and Ho Chi Minh (among many others), not so much to posit a cultural identity common to all those various groups and people but to point out the diversity of the different cultural strands that constitute the weave of any kind of modern (or postmodern) cultural identity.

From this context, his references to such people as jazz great Sonny Rollins and reggae star Bob Marley have a strong thematic connection to his references to such things as Aananse, the West African and Caribbean spider trickster who appears briefly at the end of the section entitled “Citadel,” and his own style of magical montage poetry. In the music of Sonny Rollins he finds an artistic conscience dedicated to avoiding jazz cliches, and in the music of Bob Marley he finds a singer who can exhort his audience to “get up/ stand up/ stand up for your rights,” and in both a view of artistic creation which, like a spider, weaves something new from available materials. The poem emphasizes Third World, African, Latin, and black figures as if to say that these artistic traditions offer a technique of reworking common cultural elements in uncommon ways to create something new—especially a new, and potentially liberating, way of looking at the dominant culture.

Finally, then, the poem comments on its own style of artistic creativity through the allusions it makes. That is to say, the poem itself situates its magical montage writing (which Brathwaite also at one point refers to as “magical realism,” a term often used to describe the works of writers as diverse as Gabriel García Márquez and Gloria Naylor) within this discourse of what the French philosopher Michel Foucault called a counter-memory—cultural discourse that tries to re-envision the traditions and history that have influenced it, rather than simply maintaining or extending them.

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