Skip to Main Content

Caribbean Poetry - ENGL 733, Dr. Monifa Love

Towards an Understanding of Anglophone Caribbean Poetry

Miss Lou

Miss Louise Bennett- Fi Wi Language (Jamaican Patwah)

In this short skit by Miss Louise Bennett, she speaks to the notion of Jamaica corrupting the English language and how that cannot and is not true. It’s not a “no go so,” meaning Jamaica did not corrupt the English language.  All language is derived from African languages, and their ancestors taught them; meaning Jamaicans.  Words are derived from African languages, and we are all African. Jamaicans are not sure what to call the English language. Bennett tells Jamaicans not to be ashamed of the way they speak and know that they did not corrupt the English language. Jamaican language is not dirty. The ground is dirty! English is not perfect, and it is in itself a corruption; a corruption of the Latin, Spanish and Portuguese languages. English is not superior to their language and they should not believe it is.

The fact that some Americans feel comfortable in their superiority when it comes to language is dangerous to other groups. This creates bias towards an entire group of people which then turns into racism and hatred. Language can be used to separate one group from another and creates a divide that often times cannot be mended. We speak in the tongue of our  motherland to feel closer to that home especially if we no longer reside there.

Una Marson

Una Marson “Kinky Hair Blues” (1937)

“Kinky Hair Blues” by Una Marson is about a woman who is clearly struggling with not only her skin tone but also with the texture of her hair.  At the beginning of the poem she is happy or at least satisfied with her hair texture and her skin tone. The connection between hair, skin tone and finding and keeping a man is also explored. Straight hair and a lighter skin tone equal a family and happiness to the woman in the poem. There is a clear feeling of inadequacy based solely on one’s appearance and the notion of light skin being “better” or somehow superior to darker skin. The woman seems to believe she will be accepted by her male counterparts simply by turning away from who she really is, which is a dark skinned woman with natural hair. This notion that she is not beautiful or undeserving of a family because of her skin and hair appears to not be ingrained but an adaptation.

The black woman’s hair is her crowning glory and has taken on a life of its own. R&B artist Solange states very clearly in her song “Don’t Touch My Hair” that our hair has its own feeling; it’s part of the soul and it’s a crown on our heads. She goes on to state that, “they don’t understand what it means to be a black woman and that the hair on top of my head is mine!” A black woman’s hair is tied very closely to her identity. Our hair is something we as black women should be proud of and not ashamed of but more times than none we are forced to alter the appearance of our hair in order to safely maneuver through our workday; in effect, it is another form of code- switching. There is a perception in the workplace straight hair is seen as more “professional” and a natural look is seen as “unprofessional.” This is a clear bias in the workplace black woman deal with on a regular basis and shows no signs of slowing down.

The issue of skin bleaching is and has been on the rise in Jamaica but not in all Caribbean countries. In Jamaica skin bleaching has become a major occurrence since the early 2000’s. Jamaican’s started bleaching their skin because of the western images they saw on television and a desire to be seen as attractive. Many Jamaican’s are engaging in a dangerous practice by bleaching their skin because they are mixing different chemicals together and those chemicals are then absorbed into the skin.  Many fail to realize the melanin in their skin is needed to protect them from the harshness of the West African sunlight.

Una Marson - "Don't Touch My Hair"

To say women do not play a significant role in the arts sounds not only strange but problematic. This is sadly the case when speaking of the role women play in the arts in the Caribbean.  Women are placed in “traditional” roles in the Caribbean such as wives, mothers and homemakers but their counterparts are placed in the role of breadwinner. The role of the Caribbean woman has been steadily changing and evolving. Women are finding themselves increasingly in the role of head of the household. As more and more men find themselves connected to organized crime and imprisoned the role of the woman must evolve and cease being silent.

In today’s Caribbean countries women find themselves overwhelmingly filling roles in politics and the role of only homemaker or child bearer are no longer the primary role. When researching a list of female Caribbean poets the list consisted of under ten who have made a major impact in the world of poetry in the Caribbean, but when researching men the list is pretty lengthy. Why the disparity? In the United States, for every male poet there are at least two or three female poets. The bigger question is, “Are the arts in the Caribbean seen as a male dominated area?”  From the research I have completed, the answer to that question is  yes. This question then requires more questions to be asked, such as do men believe women have nothing to add to the world of the arts in the Caribbean? With the everyday experiences of women in general the answer is no but if the male poets do not consider female poets to be their equals than the answer is no. In the Caribbean there is a clear sense of men dominating women in areas such as economics and employment.

If we look more closely at poet, activist and writer Una Marson we will see a woman who at the age of twenty- five published her first collection of poems, which was titled Tropic Reveries.  Her poems centered on love, nature and feminism. These three topics are not only relatable today but will continue to be relatable to women and men for years to come. In her poem, "Kinky Hair Blues,” she touches on colorism and the bias black women face on a daily basis due to the texture of our hair and how it ultimately affects black women mentally and emotionally.  Marson shows us her contribution to the world of the Arts may have been some time ago but it is still relevant and she shows us why women played and continue to play such a major role in the world of Caribbean poetry.        

Women have been consistently interjecting themselves into areas of politics and there has been a surge of women coming out of the Caribbean in the past decade. Although this shows much promise, more needs to be done to showcase the contribution these women are clearly making in the world of the Arts.

Una Marson - “Brown Baby Blues”

“Brown Baby Blues” is a poem about perhaps the most important job a woman will ever have in her life and that is the job of motherhood and all it entails. The mother in this poem is faced with a type of dilemma only a small group of new mothers’ will ever face. That dilemma is explaining a world in which the child’s skin color will constantly come into question.  The mother feels compelled to apologize to her newborn daughter for something no one has any control over.  The brown skin which covers her beautiful baby girl will eventually, if not already be seen as a hindrance to her success in this world and her poor mother knows it. It’s as if she can see into the future and can dictate what the child’s life will consist of and it’s not pretty.

The fact that the child’s father is not there to help her explain the life she will eventually live is another source of pain for the mother. Yes, the father will eventually return but what is she to tell her un-named child now? How does she explain her skin and what it means to possess this skin?  When the author touches on the whether the child will question why her skin color is darker than her mother’s, we can only wonder if her mother is worried about the class system in the Caribbean and where her daughter will eventually fall once placed into it, and whether her child will be held back from achieving simply because she is labeled as black and not brown. Her mother clearly knows the significance of both.

At the end of the poem the words, “Your mama does love you and your colour is high” gives us a bit of reassurance in the mother’s ability to not only love her brown baby but to teach her to love herself and her brown or black skin. She must show her how to not dwell on the negative experiences she is sure to face as she grows into a woman but use those experiences to help her to navigate through the world. Even if the mother does not realize it she possesses many advantages in the way of helping her daughter in this world. She already understands being a black woman in the Caribbean has its own challenges but her mother is there to love her and help her see there is a place for her regardless of what the “norms” may be.

Jamila Lyiscott

Jamila Lyiscott: 3 Ways to Speak English

References/ Resources

Brizee, Allen, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, & Sebastian Williams. Purdue Owl: Literary Theory and School of Criticism. Purdue Owl, 2018, Accessed. Jan 2018.

Burnett, Paula. “The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English.” Penguin Books, 1986, pp.158-159. 

"Caribbean Poetry - Introduction," Critical Explorations in Poetry. Ed. Rosemary M. Canfield Reisman., Inc. 2011,, <>, Accessed Jan. 2018.