Safiya Sinclair’s Poem, ‘The Word ‘Cannibal”

The Jamaican poet Safiya Sinclair.

Folks, I love poetry. I’m loving my venture into foreign poetry, and I love what poetry offers us: a way of seeing the world, describing the world, experiencing the world, and feeling the world, but also, saying something about the world. Of course poetry is trying to say something. All art is. Even art that isn’t ostensibly political or socially-minded or any of that. It’s impossible not to say something. I don’t think you can detach art from the social milieu in which it comes out of. Furthermore, in the case of the poem I’m about to talk about here, it makes me want to buy the entire collection of poems to read more, and gain the context of the poem.

The poem is from the Jamaican poet, Safiya Sinclair, who was born in Montego Bay. If you’re not familiar, Jamaica is about a 90-minute southern flight from Miami, Florida, and sits south of Cuba, and almost parallel to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. As I mentioned, the poem, “The Word ‘Cannibal,'” is part of her larger collection aptly titled, Cannibal, published by the University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, in 2016. Published to rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Buzzfeed Books, and so on. I mean, look how cool this book cover is, courtesy of her website:

Cannibal poetry collection by Safiya Sinclair.

It won all kinds of book/poetry awards, or was a finalist or was longlisted, and/or considered a best book of 2016. Just as I’m a sucker for Papa John’s double cheeseburger pizza advertising, I’m a sucker for a.) a poem that’s great on its own merits; and b.) then when I see that the collection in which it comes from is getting rave reviews from reputable sources. I’m intrigued, to say the least, and yes, it’s already in my Amazon cart.

Here is the poem, similar to the one I covered yesterday in that it’s also a prose poem:

The word ‘cannibal,’ the English variant of the Spanish word canibal, comes from the word caribal, a reference to the native Carib people in the West Indies, who Columbus thought ate human flesh, and from whom the word ‘Caribbean’ originated. By virtue of being Caribbean, all ‘West Indian’ people are already, in a purely linguistic sense, born savage.

Like I said, without the context of the overall collection and its themes, the takeaway I have with this poem is that it’s about colonialism. That is, the word itself being derivative of Spanish, and then put in English. And that the word itself was perhaps popularized in the nomenclature by Christopher Columbus, a colonizer, who observed a culture he didn’t understand, and labeled it a certain way, which then gave rise to another word, “Caribbean,” to describe all West Indian people, who are, thus, “in a purely linguistic sense, born savage.”

All of what Sinclair said checks out, by the way, if you look up the etymology of the word “cannibalism” or “cannibal.” As someone interested in language, obviously, I’ve always also been interested in the etymology of words. I’m not an expert or anything, but I do enjoy looking up how words, well, became words.

In fact, the very idea of painting West Indian people as cannibals, and therefore, savages, became a pretext for attacking and colonizing those areas. And to be clear, this isn’t to say cannibalism wasn’t happen anywhere, and it was among some indigenous groups, but the point is, the pretext is wrong.

Wrapped up in a lot of racism, white privilege, colonialism, and so forth is associating black people with savagery (to give rise to that aforementioned pretext), and I think that’s the succinct way of describing Sinclair’s poem. If I had to guess, this is probably the first poem of the collection. That would make sense to set the stage.

One last thought (literally, I almost hit publish and then it occurred to me): I love using “cannibal” as a framing device at all because it’s something taboo, so that adds another layer to the idea of wrestling with it, aesthetically, linguistically, and in a broader social construct.

What do you think of this poem?

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