"Quashie to Buccra"

From Songs of Jamaica


You tas’e petater an’ you say it sweet,
But you no know how hard we wuk fe it;
You want a basketful fe quattiewut,
‘Cause you no know how ‘tiff de bush fe cut.

De cowitch under which we hab fe ‘toop,
De shamar lyin’ t’ick like pumpkin soup,
Is killin’ somet’ing for a naygur man;
Much less de cutlass workin’ in we han’.

De sun hot like when fire ketch a town;
Shade-tree look temptin’, yet we caan’ lie down,
Aldough we wouldn’ eben ef we could,
Causen we job must finish soon an’ good.

De bush cut done, de bank dem we deh dig,
But dem caan’ ‘tan’ sake o’ we naybor pig;
For so we moul’ it up he root it do’n,
An’ we caan’ ‘peak sake o’ we naybor tongue.

Aldough de vine is little, it can bear;
It wantin’ not’in’ but a little care:
You see petater tear up groun’, you run,
You laughin’ sir, you must be t’ink a fun.

De fiel’ pretty? It couldn’t less ‘an dat,
We wuk de bes’, an’ den de lan’ is fat;
We dig de row dem eben in a line,
An’ keep it clean—den so it mus’ look fine.

You tas’e petater an’ you say it sweet,
But you no know how hard we wuk fe it;
Yet still de hardship always melt away
Wheneber it come roun’ to reapin’ day.

In McKay’s “Quashie to Buccra,” a black peasant berates the buccra, (that is, the white man) for enjoying the fruits of Quashie’s labor without understanding and appreciating the labor required to produce a sweet potato. As Winston James remarks, “Quashie and buccra are antipodes of Jamaica’s social world: the black country bumpkin, the peasant, the subaltern, and the symbol of power, superordination, the oppressor, the white man” (James, 59). Yet in this poem, Quashie is able to speak out: “You tas’e petater an’ you say it sweet,/ But you no know how hard we wuk fe it.” The buccra even haggles for a lower price; he wants “a basketful fe quattiewut,” a quarter of a sixpence. But Quashie vocally objects to the trivialization of his race and his industry; “Quashie provides buccra (and us) with an overview of the lifecycle of this commodity…he outlines the value of labor in the enterprise and also how the peasants are cheated of their hard work through low prices” (James, 60). The buccra doesn’t respect the effort that produces the potato; rather, he tries to get as much as he can for as little as possible. The buccra “consume without a sense of the processes of production/creation” (James, 60).

Quashie relates the difficulty of tilling the soil, the blazing heat of the sun (“De sun hot like when fire ketch a town”), the unrelenting nature of the work, and the dedication and indomitable work ethic of himself and his fellow peasants. Quashie admits, “Shade-tree look temptin’, yet we caan’ lie down,/ Aldough we wouldn’ eben ef we could,/ Causen we job must finish soon an’ good.” Quashie offers himself and his industrious compatriots as a contrast to the buccra, who greedily enjoys without contributing, and who admires the pretty field without considering the effort required to keep the “row…eben in a line.”

“Quashie to Buccra” is a distinctive illustration of McKay’s pride in his peasant roots. As Wayne Cooper observes, “McKay’s uniqueness and importance lay in his intense celebration of his rural, specifically black, Jamaican origins” (Coooper, 37). McKay clearly displays that “uniqueness and importance” in “Quashie to Buccra.” In this poem, McKay gives voice and agency to the marginalized Jamaican peasant class. Cooper reminds us that, “Quashie is very much his own man…When writing of country life, [McKay] invariably took the point of view of the small, independent farmer who produced for both the local and the export markets” (Cooper, 38). In “Quashie to Buccra,” McKay gives the Jamaican peasant farmer his voice; we, and hopefully the buccra, are made to value and honor the work of the Quashie, before we devour his hard-won “petaters.”