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Thoughtful Thursday: Kamau Braithwaite on “Columbus Day”

Monday is Columbus Day. While many of us were taught in elementary school that “Columbus discovered America” in 1492, we now know that Christopher Columbus never set foot on what we know as the United States. Moreover, when he and his Spanish army got to the Caribbean islands in 1492 they found settlers already there– indigenous people from the American mainland– so there was no “discovery” involved. Columbus and his men plundered the islands and murdered or enslaved the inhabitants.

So it’s safe to say that history has been whitewashed in the creation of this celebration. In an effort to correct this, more than 50 cities across the United States have renamed the holiday “Indigenous Peoples Day”. Today’s Thoughtful Thursday honors Indigenous People’s Day by featuring poetry about Columbus by Caribbean poet Edward “Kamau” Braitwaite.

Born in Barbados in 1930, Braitwaite attended Harrison College in Barbados and graduated with honors from Pembroke College, Cambridge, England, in 1953. He earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Sussex. Co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, Brathwaite is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Elegguas (2010), the Griffin International Poetry Prize winner Slow Horses (2005), Ancestors (2001), Middle Passages (1992), and Black + Blues (1976).

Brathwaite’s honors include the Casa de las Americas Prize for Literary Criticism, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Bussa Award, and the Charity Randall Prize for Performance and Written Poetry, as well as fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2018, he received the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. He is a professor of comparative literature at New York University and divides his time between Barbados and New York.

His poetry traces historical links and events that have contributed to the development of the black population in the Caribbean. Share his poems “Colombe” and “The Visiting Trigger” with your sons and daughters on Indigenous People’s Day. Enjoy.

Colombe

Columbus from his after-
deck watched stars, absorbed in water,
melt in liquid amber drifting

through my summer air.
Now with morning, shadows lifting,
beaches stretched before him cold and clear.

Birds circled flapping flag and mizzen
mast: birds harshly hawking, without fear.
Discovery he sailed for was so near.

Columbus from his after-
deck watched heights he hoped for,
rocks he dreamed, rise solid from my simple
water.

Parrots screamed. Soon he would touch
our land, his charted mind’s desire.
The blue sky blessed the morning with its fire

But did his vision
fashion, as he watched the shore,
the slaughter that his soldiers

furthered here? Pike
point and musket butt,
hot splintered courage, bones

cracked with bullet shot,
tipped black boot in my belly, the
whip’s uncurled desire?

Columbus from his after-
deck saw bearded fig trees, yellow pouis
blazed like pollen and thin

waterfalls supended in the green
as his eyes climbed towards the highest
ridges
where our farms were hidden.

Now he was sure
he heard soft voices mocking in the leaves.
What did this journey mean, this
new world mean: dis-
covery? Or a return to terrors
he had sailed from, known before?

I watched him pause.
Then he was splashing silence.
Crabs snapped their claws
and scattered as he walked towards our shore.

Kamau Braithwaite

The Visibility Trigger

and so they came up over the reefs

up the creeks & rivers
oar prong put-put
hack tramp silence

and i was dreaming near morning

i offered you a kola nut
your fingers huge & smooth & red
and you took it your dress makola blue

and you broke it into gunfire

the metal was hot & jagged
it was as if the master of bronze
had poured anger into his cauldron

and let it spit spit sputter

and it was black spark green in my face
it was as if a maggot had slapped me in the belly
and i had gone soft like the kneed of my wife’s bread

i could hear salt leaking out of the black hole of kaneshie

i could hear grass growing around the edges of the green lake
i could hear stalactites ringing in my cave of vision
bats batting my eyes shut

their own eyes howling like owls in the dead dark

and they marched into the village
and our five unready virginal elders met them
bowl calabash oil carafe of fire silence

and unprepared & venerable I was dreaming mighty wind in trees

out circles talismans round hut round village cooking pots
yam cassava groundnut sweetpea bush
and then it was yams again

birth child hunter warrior

and the breath
that is no more

which is birth which is child which is hunter which is warrior
which is breath
that is no more

and they brought sticks rods roads bullets straight objects

birth was not breath
but gaping wound

hunter was not animal
but market sale

warrior was child
that is no more

and I beheld the cotton tree
guardian of graves rise upward from its monument of grass

crying aloud in its vertical hull
calling for crashes of branches vibrations of leaves

there was a lull of silver

and then the great grandfather gnashing upwards from its teeth
of roots. split down its central thunder

the stripped violated wood crying aloud its murder, the
leaves’
frontier signals alive with lamentations

and our great odoum
triggered at last by the ancestors into your visibility

crashed

into history

Kamau Brathwaite

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