Lawson Edward Kamau Brathwaite was born Lawson Edward Brathwaite in Bridgetown, Barbados, on May 11, 1930, the son of Hilton Brathwaite and Beryl Gill Brathwaite. He enrolled at Harrison College in Barbados, then in 1949, he won the Barbados Scholarship, enabling him to read history at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, in 1950. He received an honors degree in 1953 and the certificate of education in 1955.
His earliest published poems appeared in the literary journal Bim, beginning in 1950. The poems of that decade, some of which are collected in Other Exiles and, in revised form, in The Arrivants, portray an estranged world fallen from grace, a world that can be redeemed through poetic vision—a creative faith that sustains the more complex fashionings of his later work. Brathwaite shared with other West Indian writers of his generation a strong sense of the impossibility of a creative life in the Caribbean and the equal impossibility of maintaining identity in exile in England or North America. He understood this crisis of the present as a product of his island’s cultural heritage being fragmented among its sources: European, African, Amerindian, and Asian.
His reading of history at Cambridge heightened both his sense of the European culture that had been the dominant official culture of the West Indies and his need to understand the African culture that had come with the slaves on the Middle Passage. His search led him to Africa, where he served as an education officer in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana from 1955 to 1962. His career in Ghana (and in Togoland in 1956-1957 as United Nations Plebiscite Officer) provided the historical and local images that became Masks, the pivotal book of The Arrivants. In Ghana, he established a children’s theater and wrote several plays for children (Four Plays for Primary Schools, pr. 1961, and Odale’s Choice, pr. 1962). He married Doris Monica Wellcome in 1960, and he has a son, Michael Kwesi Brathwaite.
Brathwaite returned to the West Indies after an exile of twelve years to assume a post as resident tutor at the University of the West Indies in St. Lucia (1962-1963) and to produce programs for the Windward Islands Broadcasting Service. His return to the Caribbean supplied the “center” that his poetry had lacked:I had, at that moment of return, completed the triangular trade of my historical origins. West Africa had given me a sense of place, of belonging; and that place . . . was the West Indies. My absence and travels, at the same time, had given me a sense of movement and restlessness—rootlessness. It was, I recognized, particularly the condition of the Negro of the West Indies and the New World.
The exploration of that sense of belonging and rootlessness in personal and historic terms is the motive for Brathwaite’s subsequent work in poetry, history, and literary criticism. He began in 1963 as lecturer in history at the University of the West Indies at Kingston, Jamaica; he became a professor of social and cultural history there. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Sussex in England (1965-1968). His dissertation became The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820, a study of the assimilation of cultures by various groups within the colonial hierarchy. In 1971, in Kingston, he launched Savacou, the journal for the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), which he cofounded in 1966 in London.
His poetry continues to explore the cultural heritage of the West Indies in historical and personal terms. During the 1980’s, Brathwaite continued to produce important literary criticism and poetry collections. The death of Brathwaite’s wife, Doris, in 1986 marked a critical juncture in his career. The shock came in the midst of a publishing a retrospective collection of poems (Jah Music) and Doris’s own labor of love, the bibliography EKB: His Published Prose and Poetry, 1948-1986 . Another blow came in 1988, when Hurricane Gilbert virtually destroyed Brathwaite’s house and buried...
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