By Emily Phillips
Derek Walcott’s ambitious epic poem, Omeros, is a love song for his homeland of St. Lucia (previously St. Helena). Loosely inspired by Homeric epics, Omeros focuses on love lost, how history is written/created, and how one comes to terms with cultural baggage, like that of Western colonialism. The poem continually probes at identity, which is bound up in history, place, and time. For the characters of Walcott’s epic, one can either become a phantom, without substance or meaning, or a person, with both a history and sense of self.
In what may be interpreted as a dream, experienced as a result of heatstroke, Achille is reprimanded by his ancestor, Afolabe, because of his ignorance regarding his name and identity. Afolabe states that,“if you’re content with not knowing what our names mean / then I am not Afolabe, your father, and you look through / my body as the light looks through a leaf. I am not here / or a shadow. And you, nameless son, are only the ghost / of a name" (138-9). If Achille exists then Afolabe existed, and if Afolabe existed, then Achille must have a history, and thus, a meaningful identity.
To choose to forget or to remain ignorant of heritage and meaning is to disregard both ancestry and one’s own identity, and in this scene, Walcott is casting off the apathy that accompanies colonial rule of culture and language, and instead highlights the need for knowledge, understanding, and, ultimately, creation of a hybrid self which recognizes ancestry, colonial rule, and present culture.
[Related Objectification in Pursuit of History in Derek Walcott's Omeros]
Emily Phillips, a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE, is currently pursuing her PhD in American Literature at Saint Louis University.