Content Analysis of Gladys Casely-Hayford’s “Nativity”

“Nativity” by Gladys Casely-Hayford is a twenty-nine poem that reimagines the birth of Jesus Christ within an African context.

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Analysis of Nativity
Analysis of Nativity
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About the Poet

Gladys Casely-Hayford was a prominent Sierra Leonean writer who lived from 1904 to 1950. She was born in Ghana (then Gold Coast) to a Fante mother and a Creole father from Sierra Leone. She received her early education in Sierra Leone and later studied in Wales.

Casely-Hayford was one of the earliest published female poets from West Africa. Take Um So (1948) is one of her several collections of poetry. Her works blended African and Western influences. They discuss themes of African identity, womanhood, and the natural beauty of Africa.

DID YOU KNOW?

Nativity refers to the birth of Jesus as described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Wiktionary.

Analysis of “Nativity”

“Nativity” by Gladys Casely-Hayford is a twenty-nine line poem that reimagines the birth of Jesus Christ within an African context. The poem attempts the invention of black Jesus in bid to heighten black consciousness and negate the evil of white racism in the sphere of religion. It draws attention to the odious idea that everything white is good, but everything black is bad, which prompted politically conscious African Christians to start their own church.

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The loving depiction of Christ’s birth from the lens of an African in the poem is a testament to the fact that Christianity is a religion founded on love. The poem depicts this universality of love, which some European merchants, slave traders and colonial administrators obviously did not show in their relationships with Africans. The poem thus recreates the birth of Jesus in an African setting to ingrain black consciousness and drive home the point that Christianity has nothing to do with racist pettiness of the some Europeans who think they are superior to precolonial and colonial Africans in the practice of the religion.

Gladys Casely-Hayford’s “Nativity” thus makes a bold statement to these supremacists that Jesus Christ is as much theirs as he is Africans’. It points to the universality of Jesus Christ, with its Africanization of his birth, and the depiction of the place, time and circumstances of his birth with the socio-cultural realities of Africa.

Nativity Story Reimagined
Nativity Story Reimagined

Line by Line Analysis

“Nativity” is structurally a poem of twenty-nine lines with end rhyme. The poem is composed of rhymed couplets. The structure is in agreement with the theme of unity and universal brotherhood, the message of peace brought by Jesus into the world of conflict.

Lines 1-5

The poem opens by setting the scene “within a native hut” (l. 1) where an infant is born to “the Pure One” (l. 2). The Pure One here is Virgin Mary while the infant is Christ. The new-born baby is wrapped in a blue lappah cloth dyed by His mother and laid on His father’s deerskin hide. These lines give the sacred biblical event of the birth of Jesus Christ the African flavour.

As it is apparent in the first five lines of the poem, the “native hut” is the cradle; the “blue lappah” is the swaddling-clothe; His “father’s home-tanned deerskin hide” is the bedsheet, from the biblical account of Jesus’s birth. These substitutions lend the nativity story the African cultural and geographical context. It gives us the impression that the said infant is born in an African village.

The use of the upper case for the infant Jesus is a pointer to the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity. The reverence for Mary in the Catholic Church is in respect of the Holy Conception: “Pure One” (l. 2).

Lines 6-15

The birth causes the “Spirits of black bards” (l. 6) to burst into joyful song of “Peace upon earth,” a portrayal of a universal message of peace that transcends racial and cultural boundaries. They sing “until the heavens rang.” The ringing of the heavens apparently convey the cosmic significance of the birth.

The “black babies” who have died gather around the newborn Christ, telling Him about the basics of infancy – the comfort of his mother’s breast, the sweetness of sleep. Their gift to him is “Love” from nature itself. All the dead black babies bring Him a message that sleep is “sweetest rest” in a life of stress and strife; and that God gives gifts of “tears and laughter,” an oxymoron that captures the sweet-bitter taste of life.

“Spirits of black bards” symbolise the angels that bring glad tidings of His birth. The poet effortlessly merges the African spirituality with the nativity story. “Spirits of black bards” and “black babies who from earth had fled” represent the ancestral presence which is a prominent feature of the African spirituality.

Lines 16-29

The “Wise Men of the past” (l. 16) come not only from the East but also from the three other corners of the world to bring a gift of wisdom to guide all mortals on their journey through the world. They fill the air and share with Christ the “joy that wisdom brings” to mortals. Here, it is implied that the infant should seek wisdom in his “earthly wanderings” (l. 19).

The children of the past adorn His brow with “frangipani blossoms,” put “pink lilies in His mother’s hand” and offer mother and child “the first fruits of the land.” The father cuts palm fronds to make a fan that will cause a gentle breeze to blow on the infant.

Birds sing their “hallelujahs”; the dew laughs and the Babe in response laughs too. All of Nature are joyful at the birth of Black Jesus whose mission in the world is rejuvenation of beings and things that are dead or dying. Black women bring their wise maternal love and stamp His mother’s eyes with it to make them glitter with radiance. An unmistakable sense of joy, music, and celebration pervades the air.

Analysis of Nativity
Analysis of Nativity

Figures of Speech in “Nativity”

Some of the figures of speech found in Gladys Casely-Hayford’s “Nativity” include personification, metaphor, hyperbole, allusion, alliteration, and oxymoron.

Personification

Personification is giving human characteristics to non-human objects or abstract ideas. Examples of personification abound in the poem.

Line 5
"The Babe still slept, by all things glorified"

Line 26
"Birds trilled their hallelujahs;"

Lines 26-27
". . . all the dew
Trembled with laughter . . ."

Metaphor

A metaphor is a direct comparison between two unlike things without using “like” or “as.” There is a good instance of metaphor in line 29, “Kissed their motherhood into His mother’s eyes,” where the poet metaphorically describes the transfer of maternal wisdom and love through a kiss.

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement not meant to be taken literally but used for emphasis. It is apparent in lines 6-7 in which instance the poet not only describes how the “spirits of black bards” break free of their shackles (which implies that they let out their voice without any impediment) but also exaggerates about the heavens’ response to acknowledge their songs:

Lines 6-7
"Spirits of black bards burst their bonds and sang
'Peace upon earth' until the heavens rang."

Another instance of hyperbole in the poem is in line 17, “Filling the air, East, West, and South and North,” which is an exaggerated way of saying the wise men came from all directions.

Allusion

Allusion is a literary device where an author makes an indirect reference to a person, place, event, or another piece of literature, assuming the reader will recognise the reference. “Nativity” in its entirety can be seen as an extended allusion to the biblical nativity story, reimagined in an African context.

Alliteration

black bards burst their bonds (l. 6)
black babies (l. 8)
comfort came from His black mother's breast (l. 13)
springing sod (l. 14)
first fruits (l. 23)

Oxymoron

Whilst tears and laughter were the gifts of God (l. 15)

Mood and Tone

The mood of the poem is joyous, as indicated by the jubilant actions of the spirits, the singing of birds, the laughter of the dew, and the communal acts of celebration. Nature and spirituality combine to celebrate the birth of black Jesus Christ.

The tone of the poem, on the other hand, is nostalgic and reverent. It is nostalgic because, apart from recreating the nativity story from a perspective that ensures the inclusivity of Africans, the poem also reminds the readers of a Biblical event they are all too familiar with and reminded of, every Christmas day. The tone is equally reverent in the sense of the veneration and glorification of the miraculous birth of an infant to Virgin Mary (“Pure One”).

Further Reading:

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