Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763
The prolific and acclaimed Caribbean poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite was born Lawson Edward Brathwaite (BRATH-wayt) to Hilton and Beryl Gill Brathwaite. Raised in Bridgetown, Barbados, Brathwaite pursued an interest in both literature and jazz during his years at Harrison College in the late 1940’s. Brathwaite’s first significant publication, “Shadow Suite,” appeared in Bim, the Barbadian literary journal. His early poetry shows the influence of T. S. Eliot. Awarded the Barbados Island Scholarship to Cambridge University in 1949, Brathwaite continued his education at Pembroke College, where he received a history degree in 1953. During the mid-1950’s, he often read his poetry on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) program Caribbean Voices.
Brathwaite’s search for cultural roots led him to Ghana, where he worked for the Ministry of Education between 1955 and 1962. His poetry of this period was aired on the Ghana Broadcasting System, and in 1958 many of these pieces were published in Voices from Ghana. In Ghana, Brathwaite also wrote and directed plays intended primarily for children’s theater. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, he published literary criticism in Bim. He married Doris Welcome in 1960.
Brathwaite returned to the West Indies in 1962 and a year later joined the faculty of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. He journeyed to England for graduate work in 1965, shortly thereafter becoming editor of Bim and secretary of the Caribbean Arts Movement. He received his doctoral degree in history in 1968 for a thesis entitled “The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820.”
Brathwaite’s work of the late 1960’s explores the African diaspora. His extended poem Rights of Passage uses the journey motif to reveal the African American experience, ancient African civilization, and the African encounter with Europe. The work contains emblems of resistance and traces through “memory” the middle passage, slavery, and colonization. In 1967, Brathwaite published Odale’s Choice, a play based on Sophocles’ Antigone (441 b.c.e.) and set in Africa.
African language and ritual are evident in Masks, another extended poem, which presents traditional Ghanaian culture and the Akan worldview. Spiritual quest is an element of this collection, and the drum a central symbol. Islands ultimately suggests a reawakening of consciousness in its treatment of themes found in Rights of Passage and Masks. Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands form The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, perhaps Brathwaite’s most important poetic achievement. He also recorded oral presentations of these pieces and documented Caribbean life in prose works such as Contradictory Omens, which espouses “nation language,” and Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica. He explores exile, the African homeland, and jazz in Other Exiles.
In 1972, Brathwaite visited Kenya, where he was given the name Kamau. During the 1970’s, he continued to investigate island sources in Mother Poem, an extended work that relies on the Barbadian experience, Caribbean vernacular, and the mother trope. Black + Blues evokes such jazz figures as John Coltrane.
In the 1980’s, Brathwaite compiled New Poets from Jamaica and furthered his development of Caribbean and diasporan themes in Sun Poem and Third World Poems. In 1986, he suffered the loss of his wife Doris, a tragedy he documents in later writing. Themes of slavery are contained in X/Self, which uses an epistolary motif and historical references to Europe, the Americas, and Africa. X/Self, Mother Poem, and Sun Poem make up a second trilogy; they were published together in 2001 as Ancestors. In X/Self, word sculpting—creative arrangements of text—represents a departure from conventional formats. In the innovative Sappho Sakyi’s Meditations, derived from the Koforidua manuscripts of the 1950’s, he presents a series of folk sayings.
In 1990, Brathwaite published Shar, a poetic retelling of his response to the destruction of his library during Hurricane Gilbert. In 1991, Brathwaite began teaching at New York University in the Department of Comparative Literature. He also republished a number of earlier writings. Middle Passages deconstructs the Columbus myth and contains tributes to Nelson Mandela and Duke Ellington. Roots: Essays in Caribbean Literature contains material from the 1950’s through the 1980’s.
Another document of personal tragedy is The Zea Mexican Diary, a mixture of journalistic entries and epistolary structures chronicling the painful loss of Brathwaite’s wife. This is a complex work that uses word sculpting, a technique he also uses in Barabajan Poems. In 1994, Brathwaite published DreamStories, a fictional collection containing word sculpting, personal experience, and journey motifs. In all of his works, Brathwaite uses nation language, the ancestral past, and personal experience to present in verse a complex history of the African diaspora. In 1994, Brathwaite was the recipient of the Neustadt Prize for Literature.
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