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Homeless Woman outside Parliament Buildings - Georgetown - GuyanaHomeless Woman outside Parliament Buildings – Georgetown – Guyana
Photo Credit: Mark Jacobs

 

My Poetry Corner January 2015 features the poem “I Come from the Nigger Yard” by Guyanese poet Martin Carter (1927-1997). Following the suspension of the British Guiana Constitution in 1953, the poet-politician composed this poem during his three-month detention, together with other political leaders, by the British Army.

For readers unfamiliar with the history of Guyana, a former British colony until May 1966, slavery ended in 1834. East Indian indentured laborers began arriving from India in 1838 and continued until 1917. Other immigrant workers came from Portuguese Madeira (1835-1882) and China (1853-1879).

In the 1890s, living conditions on the British-owned sugar plantations remained deplorable. Occupying a section of the plantation, the “nigger yard” consisted of crude huts built on low-lying, badly drained land. When the indentured East Indian workers arrived, they lived under similar conditions in logies, barrack-type mud-floor ranges in the “bound-coolie-yard” [Cheddi Jagan, The West on Trial: My Fight for Guyana’s Freedom, 2004, p.30].

The first three verses of Carter’s poem, “I Come from the Nigger Yard,” resound like a call to self-realization of the oppressed working class of 1950s British Guiana, comprising mostly of Blacks and East Indians.

I come from the nigger yard of yesterday
leaping from the oppressors’ hate
and the scorn of myself;

By writing in the first person, the poet – of mixed African, Amerindian, and Portuguese ancestry and of a middle-class family – identifies with the oppression and despair of the impoverished working class, relegated to the bottom of the colony’s social strata. Self-contempt for their lot comes…

from the agony of the dark hut in the shadow
and the hurt of things;
from the long days of cruelty and the long nights of pain…

Needy Family in Corentyne GuyanaNeedy Family in Corentyne – Guyana
Photo Credit: Arya Samaj Humanitarian Mission

The sixth stanza, describing living conditions in a city slum, evokes the current deprivation of marginalized urban populations in Guyana, the United States, and other urban regions worldwide.

So was I born again stubborn and fierce
screaming in a slum.
It was a city and coffin space for home
a river running, prisons, hospitals
men drunk and dying, judges full of scorn
priests and parsons fooling gods with words
and me, like a dog tangled in rags
spotted with sores powdered with dust
screaming with hunger, angry with life and men.

In spite of the hardships and pain of the oppressed working class of 1950s British Guiana and the blow dealt by the White ruling elite in suspending the British Guiana Constitution, the poet looks to the future with optimism in the closing two verses.

From the nigger yard of yesterday I come with my burden.
To the world of tomorrow I turn with my strength.

Amerindian lives matter. Black lives matter. East Indian lives matter. Brown lives matter. Across Guyana, the United States, and our planet, people are revolting against the oppressors’ hate.

leaping I come, who cannot see will hear.

Read “I Come from the Nigger Yard” and learn more about Martin Carter and his work at my Poetry Corner January 2015.

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