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||Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020)|
Poet, playwright, critic, and historian, whose works deal with the complex Caribbean heritage and its African roots. Brathwaite was 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".
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. The years between 1956 and 1962 in Ghana were a new
beginning for him. Recalling this period he said: "I came to a sense of
identification of myself with these people, my living diviners. I came
to connect my history with theirs, the bridge of my mind was linking
Atlantic and the ancestor, homeland and heartland". ('Echoes of African Praise Songs in the Poetry of Kamau Brathwaite' by Michael Sharp, in Facts, Fiction, and African Creative Imaginations, edited by Toyin Falola and Fallou Ngom, 2010, p. 92)
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 from
1970 edited its magazine Savacou.
In 1968 Brathwaite received his Ph.D. from the University of Sussex. His dissertation Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica, 1776-1820 (1970) offered a lot of historical and ethnographic details of concerning the newcomers as they "adapt their African heritage to the new and changed conditions" of the New World. (The Poetics and Politics of Diaspora: Transatlantic Musings by Jerome C. Branche, 2015, p. 44) Brathwaite's other notable scholar works include Jazz and the West Indian Novel, published in Bim in 1967, The Folk Culture of Jamaican Slaves (1969), and the essay Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean (1974), in which he reflected upon the persistent quality of Afro-creole elements within West Indian society.
While doing a stint as visiting professor at the University of Nairobi in 1971, Brathwaite was renamed "Kamau" by the grandmother of the novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o in a ceremony in Limuru. Noteworthy, Brathwaite did think the ceremony and his new self-definition in religious terms; for him it was "an important statement of cultural position/commitment/orientation, as it were . . . to know the meaning of that name – yr name – to know that that name – the name has qualities in it which begin to affect you & your outlook. . . that's important. Do you think it was by 'accident'/for no good reasons – cultural, symbolic, himiliatory, instrument of control – that Kinta Kunte's name (in Roots) was beaten out of him . . . " ('Limuru and Kinta Kunte' by Kamau Brathwaite, in Ngũgĩ Wa Thiongʼo: Text and Contexts, edited by Charles Cantalupo, 1995, p. 3) Deeply conscious of his social role both as poet and professional historian, Brathwaite started after 1976 to use the culturally divided first names Edward Kamau.
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. Brathwaite died on February 4,
2020, at his home in Barbados.
In his poetry Brathwaite infused European and African influences. He combined spoken word with modernist techniques, and new spellings, and used 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 confessed that his travels have given him a sense of movement and restlessness. To heal the traumas of colonialism, Brathwaite once suggested that the denigrated Creole language should be introduced into the education system.
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 used 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: I and I: Epitaphs for the Self in the Work of V.S. Naipaul, Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott by Rhonda Cobham-Sander (2016); The Poetics and Politics of Diaspora: Transatlantic Musings by Jerome C. Branche (2015); 'Re-thinking the Critical Location of Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott' by Femi Osofisan, in Africa in the World & the World in Africa: Essays in Honor of Abiola Irele, edited by Biodun Jeyifo (2011); 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); Notes to Masks by M.W. Lewis (1977)