"The Apple Woman's Complaint"

From Constab Ballads

Apple Tray

While me deh walk ‘long in de street,
Policeman’s yawnin’ on his beat;
An’ dis de wud him chiefta’n say—
Me mus’n car’ me apple-tray.

Ef me no wuk, me boun’ fe tief ;
S’pose dat will please de police chief!
De prison dem mus’ be wan’ full,
Mek dem’s ‘pon we like ravin’ bull.

Black nigger wukin’ laka cow
An’ wipin’ sweat-drops from him brow,
Dough him is dyin’ sake o’ need,
P’lice an’ dem headman boun’ fe feed.

P’lice an’ dem headman gamble too,
Dey shuffle card an’ bet fe true;
Yet ef me Charlie gamble,—well,
Dem try fe ‘queeze him laka hell.

De headman fe de town police
Mind neber know a little peace,
‘Cep’ when him an’ him heartless ban’
Hab sufferinn’ nigger in dem han’.

Ah son-son! dough you’re bastard, yah,
An’ dere’s no one you can call pa,
Jes’ try to ha’ you’ mudder’s min’
An’ Police Force you’ll neber jine.

But how judge believe policemen,
Dem dutty mout’ wid lyin’ stain’?
While we go batterin’ along
Dem doin’ we all sort o’ wrong.

We hab fe barter-out we soul
To lib t’rough dis ungodly wul’;—
O massa Jesus! don't you see
How police is oppressin’ we?

Dem wan’ fe see we in de street
Dah foller dem all ‘pon dem beat;
An’ after, ‘dout a drop o’ shame,
Say we be’n dah solicit dem.

Ah massa Jesus! in you’ love
Jes’ look do’n from you’ t’rone above,
An’ show me how a poo’ weak gal
Can lib good life in dis ya wul’.

Wayne Cooper writes, ““McKay’s best dialect poems by far are those that vividly portray the island’s poor and the difficulties under which they lived” (Cooper, 42). “The Apple Woman’s Complaint” accomplishes exactly that. In the poem, a policeman insists that a woman selling apples must carry her apple tray, instead of resting it on the ground. This causes the apple woman to vehemently protest: “she complains about the fundamental injustice of the situation, about the rank hypocrisy of the constabulary, and about the perverse pleasure that the head of the Kingston police gets from the gratuitous persecution of poor black people” (James, 107). She objects,

Ef me no wuk, me boun’ fe tief;
S’pose dat will please de police chief!
De prison dem mus’ be wan’ full,
Mek dem’s ‘pon we like ravin’ bull.

The apple woman argues that she cannot carry her apple tray. If she cannot carry her tray, she cannot work. If she cannot work, she “boun’ fe tief,” that is, she is bound to turn to thievery. She reveals the inescapably cyclical nature of the relationship between the constabulary and the peasantry; the police enforce laws that lead to conditions that foster lawlessness. As Winston James notes, “It is the complaint of the powerless, the heedless voice of one of the little people, the wailing of the condemned. And she feels doomed. She is desperate” (James, 108). The apple woman “feels doomed” because she is doomed; she, like the policeman, is caught in this cyclic pattern.

James claims, “In these eighty-eight poems [of Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads], McKay’s lifelong concern with race, color, class, justice and injustice, oppression and revolt are all given expression” (James, 56). These concerns are reflected in “The Apple Woman’s Complaint.” The apple woman rails,

We hab fe barter-out we soul
To lib t’rough dis ungodly wul’;—
O massa Jesus! don’t you see
How police is oppressinn’ we?

She cries out to Jesus for help, because she knows she cannot turn to any authority figures. McKay, who was at once a poet and a constable, is uniquely qualified to comment on Jamaican social injustice. Cooper remarks, “McKay’s stint with the constabulary had brought him face to face with the injustices of Jamaican social life and the daily tensions, frustrations, and pain they engendered” (Cooper, 42). This perspective enables McKay to write earnestly about the Jamaican peasantry. Like “The Midnight Woman to the Bobby,” the speaker and central figure of this poem is a woman of the Jamaican peasant class, and the addressee is a constable. Both womens’ “rapier wit, iconic awareness, and telling phrases conveyed the real vitality of the Jamaican dialect and the Jamaican common folk” (Cooper, 43). In many of the poems in Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads McKay adopts the persona of a member of the Jamaican peasantry. Cooper notes, “McKay wrote from the perspective of a black Jamaican of rural, peasant origins. To a greater degree than prior West Indian poets, he clearly revealed in his dialect poetry the intellectual, social, and cultural contradictions that faced a perceptive black artist in British colonial Jamaica” (Cooper, 36). McKay’s “The Apple Woman’s Complaint” at once expresses these concerns, and reveals McKay’s gift for vital and authentic representations of “Jamaican common folk.”

No comments: