Today is World Poetry Day and in celebration of the life of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who died last week at the age of 87, we present some clips from his 1988 interview with Bill Moyers for the series A World of Ideas.
Walcott sat down with Bill Moyers for a conversation that ranged from Plato’s Republic to Robinson Crusoe’s desert island and matters of race and empire. Walcott tells Bill, “I think that one of the things that America has to face is the reality that it is an empire, and that it’s very difficult for Americans to accept that.”
DEREK WALCOTT: I think that one of the things that America has to face is the reality that it is an empire, and that it’s very difficult for Americans to accept that.
BILL MOYERS: We don’t think of ourselves as an empire.
DEREK WALCOTT: The thing is that this country is. The inevitability of history has made America an empire, and therefore the responsibility of empire does rest on America’s shoulders. Now how can you be that contradiction, the opposite of the Founding Fathers? How can you be a democratic empire? It is possible, I imagine, that you could have such a thing as a democratic empire, provided the empire realizes that culturally, spiritually, America could be enriched by Nicaragua, you know, or any other country — could be enriched by the Middle East. The democracy, if it takes in the culture, [the] racial complexity of those outer provinces, that those outer provinces can fertilize and recreate the idea of the republic and not be driven apart by barriers of race or of history or the conventional idea.
For the other countries of the world who know that America is an empire and who see how lousy so much of the foreign policy is, and how hostile, you know, and just stubborn it can be — there’s another America that they come to as immigrants which they still believe in very firmly, not only by contrast, but they believe it — that is a contradiction of the America that they know. It isn’t hard for them to accept the power of America, but when they see an America that pretends not to have power but does things that are a complete contradiction of denying their own power, then it gets very baffling or hypocritical.
BILL MOYERS: By empire you mean what?
DEREK WALCOTT: By empire I mean any very, very large cultural and, if you wish, political —
BILL MOYERS: — and certainly economic.
DEREK WALCOTT: — yes, force, country or territory that has influence over not only its border, but even beyond its borders. An empire need not necessarily have a need to expand its frontiers. You see what I’m saying? America has no real need to expand its land.
BILL MOYERS: We don’t need land, territory, turf.
DEREK WALCOTT: But what is in America is — there is no country in the history of the world that has practiced as hard as it could, and here’s a black man talking, about slavery. In a way, these can be relegated to historical experiences. I’m going into a larger experience. Because I come from the Caribbean, I can look at American history differently. It may appear to be identical, that the Caribbean experience of slavery would be the same as the American experience of slavery. But when I come here and I pass the ghettos of 125th Street, I’m appalled at the condition that exists of a colony existing within an empire.
BILL MOYERS: Is the black man’s dream different from the American dream.
DEREK WALCOTT: It is made to be different.
BILL MOYERS: By?
DEREK WALCOTT: By forces that want to keep him in his place. By limits that are set on his endeavors, I think.
BILL MOYERS: If blacks from the rest of the world know that there are two dreams — the American dream and the black man’s dream, as you say — and the black man’s dream is not allowed to become the American dream, why do they keep coming? What draws them to this place of such stark contradiction?
DEREK WALCOTT: Even when it was stark, people came. Because there’s a lot visible that was possible even then. Because it is an ideal. Because there’s no other country in the history of the world that people have wanted to go to so much, in their hearts. Not because of the money, but because of what the ideal said.
BILL MOYERS: The ideal said what?
DEREK WALCOTT: The ideal said what the Constitution said. Everybody’s created equal.
BILL MOYERS: We the people?
DEREK WALCOTT: Yes, right.