Nemesio Gil

Across Tempestuous Waters: The Colonial River in Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants

From the very first verse of Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s “Prelude” in The Arrivants, a fiercely organic sense of liquidness and fluid movement that starts in the last remains of a dried-up river in the African savannas into the tidal waves under the Atlantic bridge through which thousands of slaves were chained and transported as human cargo across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. Winds of slave trade swiftly drove the many ships through the violent waters of the Middle Passage, as the Barbadian author sings with lyric fluidity, emulating the movement of water itself. At the end of the journey, forced labor awaited the black prisoners in the form of sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton fields. The ocean flowing into rivers thus become a natural and psychological vehicle through which the many voices of the enslaved traveled against waves of racial intolerance and injustice. As a symbol of historical remembrance, trauma and new hope, Brathwaite’s river waters flow endlessly opening new paths for the upcoming generations and descendants of slaves whose stories and histories are still to be told. This paper will survey selected instances in Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants where the Barbadian lyricist articulates the slave’s journey through the continuously flowing rivers in and out of the New World, as an inevitably entangled locus for African and Caribbean renewed identities and, expectantly, redemption. The poet’s own visualization of an impending “tidal [-] dialectic,” as he coined it, will be explored under the theoretical framework established by theorists such as Elizabeth DeLoughrey who asserts that Brathwaite “draws upon the movement of the water backwards and forward as a kind of cyclic . . . motion rather than linear” (164). Therefore, I argue that, the natural process of the tempestuous ocean and river water’s course in which the sweet water turns into salt once it reaches the sea and then comes back to the river itself, matches the cyclical movement of history and remembrance in which Brathwaite seeks, though at times in agonizing lyric despair, hope for the Afro-Caribbean soul. The Barbadian poet/historian thus fosters an active reorganization and rewriting of a traumatic history never to be neglected and much less buried under the stagnant waters of postcolonial amnesia.