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 enslavement of African and Native American peoples, have been politically justified throughout the ages as a means of maintaining political order.
Brathwaite conveys this idea through an astounding array of poetic techniques, among them, a facility with words that seems to decompose language even as it composes with it. Thus, many visual and verbal puns are apparent in his writing: “Cincinnati” becomes “sin/cinnati,” “hallelujah” becomes “hellelluia,” and in a pun that has to be read aloud to be appreciated, Christopher Columbus’s first name becomes a question when written as “Christ/opher who?”
Similarly, just as he tries to re-envision language by looking at it differently, so he tries to reimagine history and culture by looking at familiar figures in a new light. Christopher Columbus, for example, appears many times throughout the poem, not as the brave explorer of legend, but as the man who began the process of enslaving and destroying the people of the new world. Prospero, from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), also appears, but envisioned as a plantation owner rather than a benevolent magician, while Caliban, from the same play, appears as a native who has been enslaved and forced to speak his master’s tongue. Similarly, Richard Nixon appears as Augustus Caesar, while a character in a 1960’s television situation comedy, Julia, is compared with a daughter of Caesar, also named Julia.
These elaborate references and jokes are part of what Brathwaite himself, in notes that follow the poem, refers to as “magical montage.” Taken together, such images have a jazzy feel to them in that, much like jazz, they provide what seems to be a freshly improvised version of old tunes. More than simply a spirit of play, however, is being conveyed. Brathwaite is also deliberately trying to subvert traditional views of culture and history by...
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