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Kamau Brathwaite (b. 1930)


Poet, playwright, critic, and historian, whose works deal with the complex Caribbean heritage and its African roots. Brathwaite has been a major proponent of the use of "nation language," which is closely allied to the African experience in the Caribbean. It is not dialect or creole merely, but - as Brathwaite had defined - "the kind of English spoken by the people who were brought to the Caribbean, not the official English now, but the language of slaves and labourers, the servants who were brought in".

Never seen
a man
travel more
seen more lands
than this poor
less harbourless

(from Rights of Passage, 1967)

Edward Kamau Brathwaite was born Lawson Edward Brathwaite in Bridgetown, the son of Hilton Brathwaite, a warehouse clerk, and the former Beryl Gill. In many ways, his middle class background was similar to Derek Walcott's, both born on islands close to one another, and like Walcott he had a "sound colonial education." Brathwaite attended Harrison College, an elite school, and then went with a Barbados Scholarship to England, where he studied history at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

From 1950 Brathwaite started to publish short stories, literary criticism, and poetry in the West Indian magazine Bim, edited by Frank Collymore, one of the great men of West Indian letters. Much of his earliest poetry, influnced by jazz and T.S. Eliot, has been collected in Other Exiles (1975). George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin (1953) was for him a revelation that transformed his writing –  "Here breathing to me from every pore of line and page, was the Barbados I had lived. The words, the rhythms, the cadences, the scenes, their predicament. They all came back."

After graduating with honors in 1953, Brathwaite studied for a year for a teacher's certificate. In England he felt an outsider – stereotyped as a heathen he even was introduced to the Bible as if he was unaware of it. He attempted to obtain work elsewhere, such as in Israel, and eventually he entered the British colonial service, leaving in 1955 for the Gold Coast (then a part of the British Empire, now Ghana), where he worked at the textbook department of the Ministry of Education.

In 1957 a new nation, Ghana, was born, and became a model for other colonies struggling for independence. During these years Brathwaite familiarized himself with traditional verse and pre-colonial African myths, which were considered an essential part in building a new Ghanaian cultural identity."I want to submit that the desire (even the need) to migrate is at the heart of West Indian sensibility," wrote Brathwaite in 1957 in Bim, "whether that migration is in fact or by metaphor." Especially the work of Kwabena Nketia, the director of Ghana Institute for Study of African Culture, influenced Brathwaite. He established a children's theatre, and wrote children's books and plays, of which Odale's Choice was later produced by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop.

Brathwaite married in 1960 Doris Welcome; they had one son. With her he started a children's theatre in Salt Pond in Northern Ghana and wrote plays for the theatre. He returned to the West Indies in 1962 and was appointed a tutor in the department of Extra-Mural Studies of the University of the West Indies in St. Lucia. Next year he moved to the Mona campus of the university, in Kingston, Jamaica.Brathwaite produced programs for the Windward Island Broadcasting Service, was the founding secretary of the Caribbean Artists' Movement in 1966 and in 1970 started to edit its magazine Savacou. Deeply conscious of his social role both as poet and professional historian, he started after 1976 to use the culturally divided first names Edward Kamau.

Brathwaite received his Ph.D. from the University of Sussex in 1968. His dissertation was titled The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820 (1971). The years were to Brathwaite of crucial importance for the direction and limitation of Jamaican creole identity. To heal the traumas of colonialism, he has suggested that the denigrated Creole language should be introduced into the education system. Brathwaite's other notable scholar works include Jazz and the West Indian Novel, published in Bim in 1967 and The Folk Culture of Jamaican Slaves (1969).

In 1983 Brathwaite was appointed professor of social and cultural history at the University of the West Indies, where he worked until 1991. After retiring he spent some time as a visiting professor in America, and in 1993 he became professor of comparative literature at New York University. Among Brathwaite's several awards are the Cholmondely Award in 1970, Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships in 1983, and the Neustadt Prize from 1994.

In his poetry Brathwaite has infused European and African influences. He combines spoken word with modernist techniques, and new spellings, and uses rhythms from jazz and folk music. But in Brathwaite, play with words and linguistic inventions are not a manifestation of self-absorbed individualism or postmodern ironic attitude toward aesthetic practices. His poetry is a part of the collective search of Caribbean identity and racial wholeness. Feelings of rootlessness emerge often from Brathwaite's poems, and in an interview he has confessed that his travels have given him a sense of movement and restlessness.

Brathwaite made his breakthrough with the dazzling trilogy Rights of Passage (1967), written while he taught at the University of the West Indies, Masks (1968), and Islands (1969), reissued in one volume as The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (1973). Its central theme is a Dantesque spiritual journey in which the Paradise is lost, but eventually it leads to a recovery and rebirth into knowledge of the past. The Arrivants starts with an alienated voice saying: "To hell / with Af- / rica / to hell / with Eu- / rope too, / just call my blue / black bloody spade / a spade and kiss / my ass. O- / kay? So / let's begin." The journey continues as an examination of the black condition in America, heard through several voices. Masks is a dream and pilgrimage to the forest empire of Ashanti. "But the way lost / is a way to be found / again; / the moist / stones, warm / pebbles of rain, / move into tossed / leaves of darkness; round / my mud hut I hear again / the cry of the lost / swallows, horizons' halloos, found- / ationless voices, voyages.../" Islands moves from Africa to the Caribbean world, to its beauty, myths, and violent history.

Bratwaite normally uses the computer in his writing. In the poem 'Stone' from Middle Passages, dedicated to Mickey Smith, who was stoned to death on Stony Hill, Kingston, he combined basic word processing techniques with deliberate mispellings, onomatopoeia, graphic rendition of the rhythm and syntax of agitated everyday speech: "murderrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr / & i throat like dem tie. like dem tie. like dem tie a tight tie a. / round it. twist. in my name quick crick . quick crick . / & a nevva wear neck. tie yet ." (from Middle Passages, 1992) The term 'Middle Passages' refers to the trip across the Atlantic Ocean that slaves experienced before arriving in America.

In Black + Blues (1976), which earned Brathwaite a prize at the Cuban Casa de las Americas poetry competition, he plunged into the language and experience of Rastafarian and urban slum subculture. The Zea Mexican Diary (1993) was a tribute the poet's wife, Doris, written in 1986 when Brathwaite learned that she was dying of cancer. It was composed in "nation language" of Jamaica and Caribbean. Mother Poem (1977), Sun Poems (1982), and X/Self (1987) form a family trilogy with autobiographical elements, which tries to give a total picture of the Caribbean experience. The trilogy starts with the world of Caribbean women, and focuses then on fathers and following generations. The title of Elegguas (2010), a collection of poems, combined "elegy" and "Eleggua," the Yoruba deity of the threshold, doorway, and crossroads.

For further reading: Kamau Brathwaite and Christopher Okigbo by Curwen Best (2009); New World Modernisms: T.S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite by Charles W. Pollard (2004); Poetic Negotiation of Identity in the Works of Brathwaite, Harris, Senior and Dabydeen: Tropical Paradise Lost and Regained by Emily Allen Williams (1999); Beating a Restless Drum: The Poetics of Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott by June D. Bobb (1998); The Art of Kamau Brathwaite by Stewart Brown (1996); Come Back to Me My Language by J. Edward Chamberlain (1993); Edward Kamau Brathwaite's "Masks" : Essays and Annotations by Maureen Warner Lewis (1992); Edward Kamau Brathwaite: His Published Prose & Poetry 1948-1986 by D.M. Brathwaite (1986); West Indian Poetry by Lloyd W. Brown (1984); Pathfinder by G. Rohlehr (1981); World Authors, ed. by John Wakeman (1980); Notes to Masks by M.W. Lewis (1977) 

Selected works:

  • Iouanaloa: Recent Writing from Saint Lucia, 1963 (editor)
  • Four Plays for Schools, 1964
  • Odale's Choice, 1967
  • Rights of Passage, 1967
  • Masks, 1968
  • Islands, 1969
  • Panda No. 349, 1969
  • Penquin Modern Poets, 1969 (with A. Bold, E. Morgan)
  • Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica, 1970
  • The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820, 1971
  • The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, 1973 (Rights of Passage, Masks, Islands)
  • Caribbean Man in Space and Time, 1974
  • Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean, 1974
  • Other Exiles, 1975
  • Days & Nights, 1975
  • Black + Blues, 1976
  • Mother Poem, 1977
  • Our Ancestral Heritage, 1977
  • Wars of Respect: Nanny, Sam Sharpe and the Struggle for People's Liberation, 1977
  • Soweto, 1979
  • New Poets from Jamaica: An Anthology, 1979 (editor)
  • Barbados Poetry: A Checklist, 1979
  • Jamaica Poetry: A Checklist, 1979
  • World Making Man: A Poem for Nicolas Guillen, 1979
  • Sun Poem, 1982
  • Kumina, 1982
  • Third World Poems, 1983
  • History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry, 1984
  • Colonial Encounter: Language, 1984
  • Roots: Literary Criticism, 1986
  • Visibility, 1986
  • Jah Music, 1986
  • Dream Rock: A Collection of Poems, 1987 (editor)
  • X/Self, 1987
  • Sappho Sakyi's Meditations, 1989
  • Shar/Hurricane Poem, 1990
  • Middle Passages, 1992
  • Shar, 1992
  • The Zea Mexican Diary, 7 September 1926 - 7 September 1986, 1993 (with a foreword by Sandra Pouchet Paquet) 
  • Trench Town Rock, 1993
  • Roots, 1993
  • Dream Stories, 1994
  • Barabajan Poems, 1994
  • Words Need Love Too, 2000
  • LX the Love Axe/l: Developing a Caribbean Aesthetic, 2002
  • Born to Slow Horses, 2005
  • DS (2): Dreamstories, 2007
  • Elegguas, 2010  

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