10 Classic Epic Poems from the Black Atlantic

The cultural production and literary history of epic poetry are almost one and the same—both owing their roots to oral storytelling and the documentation of history. What, then, distinguishes the epic genre from other literary forms is an interplay of verse, myth, history, and poetics. Epic poems often succumb to parochial, regional, and national isolationisms. The European canon of epic poetry cites its origins in the works of Homer and Virgil. But this is not without cultural and ideological implications, as the canonical gatekeeping of the epic omits adjacent literary cultures and canons of thought. 

The epics of the Black Atlantic have long existed and have now resurfaced. Epic poetry of this kind writes back to empire and eurocentrism, redressing the epistemic violence inflicted by the experience and inheritance of the African slave trade, colonialism, and modernity. Though there is a want of a comparative, or even, a collective grouping of British, American, African, and Caribbean vernaculars and cultures in a literary body politic, here is a list that traces the history of the African diaspora, and its literary styles, through the (middle) passage of both people and ideas. So begins the project of chronologising and mapping the epos of the Black Atlantic across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

10. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali by D. T. Niane (1960)

Keywords: griot, oral tradition, heroic poetry, Mali

The epic of Sundiata, first documented as an oral account, captures the histories and splendours of African kingship in the medieval era. It is a mytho-historical tale recounted by generations of griots, the guardians of African society, culture, history, and an oral tradition handed down from centuries past. This version of the epic of Sundiata is told by griot (storyteller and keeper of history) Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté. He begins with details of Sundiata’s ancestors before digressing to his travels and military campaigns as well as the eternal, supernatural force of history led by a man whose victory went on to create the Mali Empire. The griot ends the epic by praising Sundiata and his rule as synonymous with the golden age of the Mali Empire.

 

9. Song of Ocol and Song of Lawino by Okot p’Bitek (1966)

Keywords: colonialism, domestic affairs, African heritage, oral storytelling, Uganda

Okot p’Bitek is a significant literary figure for the degree to which he, along with his scholarly and literary works, critique European imperialism, ideas, and value systems on the African continent. His most famous works are in his native Acoli rather than in English, and his two epic poems are no different. Set in 1960s Uganda, Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol—translated and published in English in 1966—are verses concerned with the decline of the marriage of Lawino, a rural Acoli woman, and Ocol, her western-educated husband. Their marriage is a microcosm of a wider cultural and political struggle of post-colonial society between those committed to their indigenous culture and heritage versus those who place foreign, or modern, values before their own. p’Bitek asks: can two such people and ideologies co-exist in the same household, let alone in the same country? 

“So begins the project of chronologising and mapping the epos of the Black Atlantic across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.”

8. Return to my Native Land by Aime Cesaire (1969)

Keywords: francophone literature, Negritude, Martinique

First published as Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939) and translated into English as Return to My Native Land (1969)this book-length poem is Aimé Césaire’s magnum opus and the cornerstone of francophone Black literature. It is here that the word Negritude appeared for the first time. Negritude has come to mean the cultural, philosophical, and political movement of the francophone African diaspora. In this epic Césaire mixes poetry and prose, combining French with Martinican creole, colloquialisms, and new coinages to oppose the ideology of colonialist assimilation and express his thoughts on the cultural identity and liberation of black Africans in a colonial setting. The result is a challenging and deeply moving poem concerned with the future of the Black diaspora.

7. The Arrivants by Kamau Brathwaite (1973)

Keywords: Black Atlantic 

The Arrivants by critically-acclaimed Bajan poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite is a dazzling collection of poetry that highlights the social conditions and political predicament of “New World” Black identities. It is a kaleidoscopic tale recounting the forced migration of Africans across the Atlantic to the New World, their harrowing journey, subsequent enslavement and loss of identity, before “arriving” at the modern state of his Caribbean homeland. It is an ode to Barbados, its natural beauty, its turbulent history, its values, and its people, all woven into a poetic tapestry that is punctuated by folklore, rhythm, and historical flashbacks. 

6. Jamaica: An Epic Poem by Andrew Salkey (1973)

Keywords: colonial history, creole, Jamaica

Jamaica: An Epic Poem sets out to fill in the gaps in the historical development of Jamaica before, during, and in the aftermath of colonial rule. In a poem of four parts, the historical landscape of the island is further stripped back, citing events from the Maroon Uprising of 1796 to the Emancipation of 1833 and the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. It is within this macro history that Jamaica fulfils one of the primary functions of a traditional epic poem: didactic teaching of the nation’s history. Part one—titled “Caribbean”—contains the single poem “Xaymaca”, a praise poem dedicated to the island that focuses on Jamaica’s long history before the arrival of Europeans. The epic’s prologue, beginning with “I, into history, now,” poignantly asks what we—the diaspora—think we know about the past and even about our own selves. Written in Jamaican patois, the entire poem spans more than four hundred years of history, travelling across the Americas from Jamaica to Brazil.

5. Song for Almeyda and Song for Anninho by Gayl Jones (1981)

Keywords: lyric, Portuguese colonialism, African diaspora, Brazil

Like Song of Lawino and Song of OcolSong for Almeyda and Song for Anninho are two epic poems, or better yet the love songs of fugitive slaves set in 17th-century colonial Brazil. It begins with the destruction of Palmares, the last of seven runaway slave settlements, by Jorge Velho and his mob of Portuguese colonists, leading to the subsequent re-enslavement of Palmares’s inhabitants. Within this tumultuous tragedy emerges the love story of Almeyda and Anninho, two former African slaves. In Song for Anninho, Almeyda moves between a dark present in which she is once again enslaved and abused by her captor, and memories of her lover, Anninho, whom she believes to have been killed. Song for Almeyda is told in the voices of Anninho and his fellow warriors who are waging war against the Portuguese. The verses of these epic poems beam with intimacy, personal and communal history, resistance, and revolution, and serve as a declaration of undying love even in the darkest of times. 

You can read our full review of Gayl Jones’ latest installation in the saga of Almeyda and Anninho, Palmares, here.

“The epic’s prologue, beginning with “I, into history, now,” poignantly asks what we—the diaspora—think we know about the past and even about our own selves.”

4. Omeros by Derek Walcott (1990)

Keywords: Homer, postcolonial society, St. Lucia

Omeros is a critically-acclaimed epic poem by Saint Lucian writer Derek Walcott. This book-long poem is divided into seven “books” containing a total of 64 chapters and takes the Greek word for Homer as its title. The poem itself has a cyclical design, circumnavigating the routes to, and roots of, St. Lucian national identity, culture, and history. It charts two currents of history: the visceral desecration of indigenous communities, the brutality of African enslavement, and the internal suffering of the individual in exile. Readers are passengers in a historical journey of exile and homecoming as we read into the diasporic wanderings of Philoctetes and sojourn between continental Africa, the isle of St. Lucia, and Ancient Greece, all in Achilles’ canoe. Throughout Omeros, Caribbean “ex-isle” is at the forefront, exposing the cultural wounds of being uprooted and rootless in the New World. 

3. Limestone: An Epic Poem of Barbados by Anthony Kellmann (2008)

Keywords: Tuk Tuk, indigenous, creole, Barbados

The island of Barbados is the central character is this epic poem, a narrative that offers insight into the traditional folklore and history of the island from the time of the Arawaks to the present day. In a  poem of three parts, Anthony Kellman poeticises the interconnected experiences of colonialism, creolisation, and modern tourism in the age of the Anthropocene, along with the domestic spaces and geographical sites of Barbados’ past. Music is also at the heart of Limestone: the poem is a polyphonic cacophony of patois, rhyming couplets of Tuk verse, and drumming. These provide a cadence to each section of the poem, whose sound is organic to the people and cultures described. Legendary figures are also included, such as indigenous leader Samuel Jackman Prescod, alongside historical characters who illustrate both the suffering and achievement of Barbados’s unsung heroes.

2. The Children of Children Keep Coming: An Epic GriotSong by Russell L. Goings (2009)

Keywords: Slavery, liberation, music, myth, African American

The Children of Children Keep Coming is a ground-breaking epic poem and a unique work that chronicles the plight of African Americans in the United States. The dramatic odyssey begins with two anonymous slaves hoping to find liberation and hatch a plan to catch the Freedom Train. Throughout their entangled journey, they roam fields holding their dead, walk across flowerbeds with dangerous crows circling around them, all the while marching towards the horizon, towards freedom. Along the way they also meet imaginary and mythological characters, encountering fields of enslaved labourers ploughing and sowing seeds, singing work songs and hymn, toiling on under harsh sunlight, working night and day. But it is down by the riverside where the past meets the present as they meet figures such as Frederick Douglass, Billie Holiday, and Rosa Parks. The Children of Children Keep Coming is a harmony of poetry and prose, work songs and prayers, sounding the echoes of the cry for freedom and justice at a pitch that cannot be ignored.

The Children of Children Keep Coming is a harmony of poetry and prose, work songs and prayers, sounding the echoes of the cry for freedom and justice at a pitch that cannot be ignored.”

1. The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (2018)

Keywords: Migration, family, kinship, quest, Kenya

In his first attempt at the epic form, Ngũgĩ tells the origin story of the founding of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya from a strongly feminist perspective, a quest to craft an account of the social forces powering the historical migrations of Kenyan peoples. Blending folklore, mythology, and allegory into a verse narrative, The Perfect Nine chronicles how the original ancestors of the Gĩkũyũ clan found partners for their ten beautiful daughters and how those brave daughters went on to become the matriarchs of the clan. The epic has all the elements of adventure: suspense, danger, humour, and sacrifice, all demonstrated in the challenges Gikuyu and Mumbi set for the 99 suitors who seek their daughters’ hands in marriage. The ultimate treacherous quest is to find a magical cure for their youngest sister, Warigia, who cannot walk.

You can read our full-length review of The Perfect Nine here.

By Christina Vassell

CHRISTINA VASSELL a master’s student, writer, and interdisciplinary researcher. Her work centres African, Caribbean, and marginalised intellectual, cultural, and literary heritages, and has appeared in Bad Form Review, I AM History, Reclamation Magazine, and now bigblackbooks. Though writing on varied platforms, her mission and message are clear: to demystify knowledge and democratise the public humanities. Asides from studying the history of ideas, Christina is also an English educator. In the foreseeable future, she hopes to one day write and publish a collection of life-writing, essays, criticisms, and fiction, following the likes of Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Andrea Levy (her heroes). You can find her on Twitter @cjvasse.