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East Indian Cane Cutter - Guyana - Photo by John Gimlette

East Indian Cane cutter – Guyana
Photo by John Gimlette (2013)

In honor of Guyana’s fiftieth Independence anniversary on May 26th, my Poetry Corner April 2016 features an excerpt from the poem “Sugar” by Guyanese poet and award-winning short story writer Ruel Johnson. His work largely focuses on social and political issues facing Guyana. In the long, multi-sectional featured poem, he addresses the legacy of colonialism on the enduring divide between the two major ethnic populations: the descendants of African slaves and East Indian indentured laborers.

In section 1—stalk, Johnson recalls his boyhood days growing up in the capital. Sugarcane was a sweet treat. His imagery of his mother whacking the stalk along the joints with her best knife takes us into the canefields. The sweet juice comes at a great price.

a boy’s soft teeth strip away
the fire-hardened skin to suck
the heat-sweetened blood beneath
of the sacrificial stalk

Cane Man in section 2—cane personifies the East Indian sugarcane worker struggling to survive a failing industry in the late 1980s. With his body broken after years of labor in the canefields, Cane Man wanders the streets of the capital selling sugarcane. After years of exposure to the sun, his burnt skin is almost as black as the Afro-Guyanese. In the harsh routines of his day-to-day life, Cane Man has long forgotten his own name.

one day a bold friend of mine
grew bolder still and asked his name
to hear him say, matter-of-fact,
me dun fugget am, lang time back

we simply thereafter
called him “Sugar”

To forget our name is to forget our origin; to lose our identity; to become worthless in the society.

During the struggle for independence, the enmity between blacks and East Indians—bitter fruit of the British colonial policy of divide and rule—came to a head in the 1960s racial disturbances. In section 3—kurukshetra, we learn that interracial marriages between blacks and East Indians don’t prevent them from killing each other. As the poet notes, the truth about those dark days remains hidden: whitened and made silent / age after age after age after age.

Ten years after independence, the Guyana government nationalized the sugar industry. Little changed in the lives of the sugarcane workers. As Johnson accounts in section 4—uitvlugt, violence persists among rural East Indian families. He uses the Creole language common among rural workers to relate the story of a boy in Uitvlugt who chopped off his brother’s head.

look deh, right suh
me hear a bai dah killee brudda
chap a bai head cleen cleen aff

Johnson observes in section 5—la jalousie that even religious leaders within the community are unable to change the fate sugar metes out on the landscape and its peoples.

the grand amnesiac Atlantic lashing all
its banishment’s fury against the seawall

Section 6—providence presents a critical look at the role of the Christian Church in converting early East Indian arrivals. In time, the reality of their lives on the sugar plantations led some to view their Christian faith as “righteous bitterness.” With brother murdering brother and daughters taking their own lives, the Christian god had brought only pain and grief.

In section 7—la penitence, Johnson brings together the endless pain and dying of sugar workers, both African and East Indian, across the centuries. As an Afro-Guyanese, he laments: my own brother’s blood cries out from the ground… where your housing scheme cottage sits… stood the tree in an open field where I tried to hang myself,  failing—I have been dying these past two hundred years.

Cane Man is finally laid to rest in section 8—le repentir, the cemetery in the nation’s capital. Before rebounding in 2002, the sugar industry collapsed in 1988. Johnson recalls:

few kites flew in the sky
that Easter season of 1989
the week after we boys laid
Sugar to rest…

Only a stygian trench separates the land of the sorrowful living in La Penitence from the land of the sorrowful dead in Le Repentir.

As Guyana commemorates its fiftieth anniversary of independence, its peoples at home and in the Diaspora should not forget the role of sugar in our nation’s birth and development, summed up so well in Johnson’s final section 9—le ressouvenir.

this is owed, in the recollection of things
the precarious accounting of confessions
and their alleged crimes—your graces,
I did not mean to murder my brother

With each harvest season, religious differences didn’t matter.

what mattered most was blood
and this sweetness hard-wrought
by bone and sharp, ringing steel
from the earth’s brown bosom.

Guyana’s sugar industry is bankrupt. Factory closures are on the horizon. Workers fear loss of income. After almost four centuries of holding onto Sugar’s pain and grief, perhaps the time has come for the nation to let go of Sugar. New opportunities await as the breadbasket of the Caribbean Region.

To read the complete excerpt of section 2—cane and learn more about the work of Ruel Johnson, go to my Poetry Corner April 2016.