Brathwaites poem 'Limbo' conveys strong ideas and is open to a number of interpretations, not just the ones obvious to the reader at first. This poem tells the story of slavery in a rhyming, rhythmic, almost dance style. I think it is quite a complex poem. Throughout the poem Brathwaite makes references to his personal cultures and traditions. He reveals slowly the dark side of Africa's history and uses language to make the reader aware of the oppression and cruelty which his ancestors suffered. During the poem my interpretation of the term limbo changed many times.
After reading the title of the poem I expected a poem about the West Indian dance I knew of called Limbo. Although after reading on I began to realise this poem was about much more than that. In the first stanza the poet writes about a ship. This changed my opinion and first introduced me to the idea of slavery in the poem. The poem evoked images of slaves on their journeys to their new owners.
Another meaning of limbo is a place where the souls of people go, if they are not good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell; limbo has come to mean any unpleasant place, or state of mind or body which is difficult to escape from. In the poem, this limbo is the lives of the slaves, they are in an unpleasant state and place and they cannot escape. Brathwaite has used a metaphor to add to his picture, this is 'dark deck is slavery'. This is what adds to the interpretation of slavery on the ship. A final idea of interpretation that I found was that the poem could be about slavery itself, over many generations. The feeling of 'up, up, up' at the end of misery, maybe the end of slavery.
All the above interpretations allow you to feel the passion of the way Brathwaite feels about his origins, cultures and traditions. The poem shows that Brathwaite clearly has strong feelings about the history of slavery in his past. The poem begins innocently as a playful game but as Brathwaites continues he reveals another side to this game, a darker side, as we discover the situation in which it was performed. Brathwaite focuses on the darker side of the tradition to make the reader aware of the cruelty his people suffered. He puts himself in the position of a slave to show us his feelings and thoughts. He shows how even an innocent game can start off in terrible, frightening conditions.
Brathwaite has chosen to use repetition to portray his feelings. He repeats the chorus 'limbo, limbo like me'. Although the same word is repeated it seems as though it means different things throughout. In some places it seems to simply mean the dance 'Limbo'. However further through the poem it seems almost sarcastic, as if he is saying would you like to do what I do? Would you like to 'limbo like me'? He is mocking the white people who did this to his people. This adds to the feeling of hopelessness and frustration you feel the slaves have.
Brathwaite uses a strong, drum beat throughout, this drum beat is a part of his culture. It is the sound of Africa. It is as though the feeling of Africa is apparent throughout the poem. It could be that he is saying that they are proud to be African and even through slavery they still have the sound of Africa with them.
The harshness of the drum beats also adds to the sense of cruelty the Africans suffered. The help him describe in a drum like way he has used onomatopoeia and alliteration 'dark deck' and 'stick is the whip'. The 'stick is the whip' phrase shows the pain and torment that is part of Brathwaites history and culture. The slaves 'owners' made the slaves abandon their language and religion. They had to learn their own form of English.
What they did for religion is puzzling. Brathwaite mentions gods but it is a question of whether they let themselves be converted to Christianity as they were forced to pretend to do, or did they stay true to their African gods. This is very important in terms of culture and traditions as traditions were lost as the slaves could not do things that they did in their native country. They had to do as their 'owners's aid. This must have severely angered Brathwaite. As you read the last few stanzas, the poem suddenly doesn't seem so gloomy.
You believe the suffering can end. One interpretation of the last few stanzas is that Brathwaite believes the way to escape slavery is the die, you feel as though he thinks it is worth giving up life to end the suffering of slavery. 'Up, up, up' escaping the torture they have endured. Brathwaite obviously feels very strongly about this and clearly hates the thought of his ancestors suffering. Another interpretation is that this is the abolishment of slavery. The poem gets happier as the slavery that darkened the beginning is gone.
The emotional way in which it is written shows Brathwaite really cares about his past. Brathwaite uses many methods to show his feelings throughout the poem. I think what makes his writing more touching is how personal it feels. He puts himself in the position of a slave 'surrounding me' to let us relate to his experiences and feelings. He opens the reader up to the slaves helplessness and venerability.
After the reading and studying the poem I have concluded that the poem is a comparison. It compares slavery to the dance of Limbo and he uses phrases such as 'up, up, up' and down, down, down' to run a parallel between Limbo and the lives of the slaves. By the end of the poem I knew that Brathwaite felt extremely strongly about his cultures and traditions. He uses different uses of language and hidden messages to encourage the reader to feel for his people. He cleverly lets the reader form an opinion without realising how much he has influenced that opinion. As I said previously 'Limbo' is a complex poem that needs to be studies before you can really understand it..