Edward Kamau Brathwaite Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s aim, as he has described it, is to “transcend and heal” the fragmented culture of his dispossessed people through his poetry, reexamining the whole history of the black diaspora in a search for cultural wholeness in contemporary Caribbean life. Brathwaite offers his poetry as a corrective to the twin problems of the West Indian: dispossession of history and of language. The West Indian writer labors in a culture whose history has been distorted by prejudice and malice, the modern version of which is the commonplace notion, after James Anthony Froude and V. S. Naipaul, that nothing was created or achieved in the West Indies. The Afro-Caribbean’s history is the record of being uprooted, displaced, enslaved, dominated, and finally abandoned. Brathwaite’s reclamation of racial pride centers on rectifying the significance of the Middle Passage not as the destroyer but as the transmitter of culture.

The second problem that the writer confronts, that of language, is an aspect of cultural dispossession. The diversity of Creole languages, hybrids of many African and European tongues, reinforces the insularity of the individual and devalues the expressively rich languages that the people use in their nonofficial, personal, most intimate lives. Brathwaite’s poems in Bajun dialect extend the folk traditions of Claude McKay and Louise Bennett and ground his work in the lives of the people for and about whom he writes.

The problem of language, however, is not a matter of choosing the Creole over the metropolitan language. It is a deeply political and spiritual problem, since, as Brathwaite writes, it was with language that the slave was “most successfully imprisoned by the master, and through his (mis)use of it that he most effectively rebelled.” With nearly all other means of attaining personal liberty denied, the slave’s last, irrevocable instrument of resistance and rebellion was language. For Brathwaite, a West Indian writer, Caliban in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611), written at the beginning of England’s experiment in empire, is the archetype of the slave who turns his borrowed language against his master. To turn his instrument of rebellion into one of creation is Brathwaite’s task.


Accordingly, in his poem “Caliban” (from The Arrivants), Brathwaite’s persona begins by celebrating the morning of December 2, 1956, the start of the Cuban Revolution, which remains a symbol of self-determination in the region. In the second section of the poem, Brathwaite adapts Shakespeare’s “’Ban Ban Caliban,’/ Has a new master” curse-chant to the hold of a slave ship, articulating a spirit of resistance that turns in the final section to an assertion of endurance. At the end of the poem, the slaves’ nightly limbo on deck becomes the religious ceremony—the seed of African culture carried to the New World—of the assembled tribes, who are able to raise their ancestral gods and be for the moment a whole people.

Nation language

What he achieves in “Caliban,” Brathwaite achieves in his poetry at large: He uses his languages, both Creole and metropolitan English, to define the selfhood of the group in positive terms, contrary to the negations of the colonizers. “Within the folk tradition,” Brathwaite writes, “language was (and is) a creative act in itself; the word was held to contain a secret power.” His term “nation language” (defined in History of the Voice) for the language of the people brought to the Caribbean, as opposed to the official language of the colonial power, has profoundly influenced the theory and criticism of African American literature. Brathwaite continues in Mother Poem and Sun Poem to explore the resources of both his native Bajun dialect and contemporary standard English. In his poetry, the power of the word is to conjure, to evoke, to punish, to celebrate, to mourn, and to love. He uses language boldly as one who seeks its deepest power: to reveal and heal the wounds of history.

Brathwaite’s early poetry in Bim, collected later in Other Exiles, with its themes of anxiety and alienation, changed under the search for racial and cultural identity while in exile. Brathwaite became surer of his European heritage while he was a student in England and recovered the remnants of his African heritage while working in Ghana. Those two great cultures, in conflict in the New World for the last four centuries, are the forces that shape Brathwaite’s personal and racial history and the poetics through which he renders his quest for wholeness.

He is equally indebted to the Euro-American literary tradition through the work of T. S. Eliot and to the Afro-West Indian tradition through the work of Aimé Césaire. Brathwaite draws upon Eliot’s musical form in Four Quartets (1943) for his own use of musical forms developed in stages of the black diaspora—work song, shanto, shango hymn, spiritual, blues, jazz, calypso, ska, and reggae—for his poetic rendering of historic and lyric moments. He also draws his aesthetic for rendering modern industrial and mercantile society in the United States and the Caribbean from Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). From Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1968; Notebook of the Return to My Native Land, 1995), Brathwaite derives the epic and dialectical structure of his trilogy as well as the surrealistic heightening of language that propels the movement from the reality of the Caribbean as wasteland to the vision of the Caribbean as promised land.

The Arrivants

That change in visions of the Caribbean can be discerned in the three books of The Arrivants through the poet’s reconstruction of racial history and his tracing of his personal history. Rights of Passage, the first book of the trilogy, contains the restless isolation of Brathwaite’s early life in Barbados that sends him into exile in England and Africa, as well as a recollection of the first phase of the black diaspora, the advent of the slave trade and the Middle Passage. The original dispersal of tribes from Ethiopia to West Africa, as well as his own search for his African origins, is the subject of Masks. In Islands, racial and personal history merge in the exile’s return to the West Indies. The fruits of that return would become manifest in his second trilogy, Ancestors.

Readers of The Arrivants who focus on its historical dimension figure Brathwaite as the epic poet of the black diaspora, while those who focus on the autobiography make him the hero of the poem. Taking both approaches as valid, with the binocular vision that the poem requires, one can see that the central figure of the rootless, alienated West Indian in exile and in search of home is the only possible kind of hero for a West Indian epic. That questing poet’s voice is, however, often transformed into the voice of a precolonial African being fired on by a white slaver; the Rastafarian Brother Man; Uncle Tom; a houngan invoking Legba; or some other historic or mythic figure. Brathwaite’s use of personas, or masks, derives equally from the traditions of Greek drama (dramatic monologue) and African religious practice (chant or invocation). One communal soul speaks in a multiplicity of guises, and the poet thereby re-creates not only his own quest as victim and hero but also the larger racial consciousness in which he participates. The poet’s many masks enable him to reconstruct his own life and the brutal history that created “new soil, new souls, new ancestors” out of the ashes of the past.

Combining racial history and personal quest in The Arrivants, Brathwaite has fashioned a contemporary West Indian myth. It is not the myth of history petrified into “progress” but that of a people’s endurance through cycles of brutal oppression. Across centuries, across the ocean, and across the three books of this poem, images, characters, and events overlie one another to defy the myth of progress, leading in the poem only to heaven swaying in the reinforced girders of New York, and to the God of capitalism floating in a soundless, airtight glass bubble of an office, a prisoner of his own creation. For the “gods” who tread the earth below, myth is cyclical, and it attaches them to the earth through the “souls” of their feet in repetitions of exodus and arrival.

The trilogy begins with one tribe’s ancient crossing of the Sahara desert, their wagons and camels left where they had fallen, and their arrival at a place where “cool/ dew falls/ in the evening.” They build villages, but the cattle towns breed flies and flies breed plague, and another journey begins, for across the “dried out gut” of the riverbed, a mirage shimmers where

trees are cool, there leaves are green, there burns the dream of a fountain, garden of odours, soft alleyways.

This is the repeated pattern of their history: exodus across desert, savanna, ocean; in caravan, ship, or jet plane; visitations of plague, pestilence, famine, slavery, poverty, ignorance, volcanoes, flood. The promised land is always elsewhere, across the parched riverbed (“Prelude”) or in the bountiful fields of England, not in Barbados (“The Cracked Mother”).

The connections between history and biography and the difficult process of destroying the colonial heritage in favor of a more creative mode of life are evident in the six poems that constitute the “Limbo” section of Islands. In “The Cracked Mother,” the first poem of “Limbo,” the dissociation of the West Indian’s sensibility—regarding attitudes toward self, race, and country—threatens to paralyze the poet’s dialectical movement toward a sustaining vision. The poet’s rejection of his native land in favor of England is an acceptance of the colonial’s position of inferiority. That attitude is instilled in young West Indians, such historians as Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, and Brathwaite have argued, by the system of colonial education that taught an alien and alienating value system. The debilitating effects of such an education are the subject of “The Cracked Mother.” The three nuns who take the child from his mother to school appear as “black specks . . ./ Santa Marias with black silk sails.” The metaphor equates the nuns’ coming with that of Columbus and anticipates the violence that followed, especially in the image of the nuns’ habits as the sails of death ships. With her child gone, the mother speaks in the second part of the poem as a broken (“cracked”) woman reduced to muttering children’s word games that serve as the vehicle for her pain:

See? She saw the sea . . . I saw you take my children . . . You gave your beads, you took my children . . . Christ on the Cross your cruel laws teach only to divide us and we are lost.

History provides the useful equation of nuns’ habits with sails and the nuns’ rosary with the beads that Columbus gave to the inhabitants of his “discovered” lands, but it is Brathwaite’s own biography that turns metaphor into revelation in the last two parts of the poem, showing how ruinous the colonial mentality is, even to the point of rejecting the earth under one’s feet (another “cracked mother”) because it is not England.

Brathwaite’s corrective begins in “Shepherd,” the second poem of the “Limbo” section. Having recalled the damage of his early education and having felt again some of the old abhorrence of the colonial for himself, the poet returns to the African drumbeats of Masks to chant a service of possession or reconnection with the gods of his ancestors. The poet then addresses his peers in proverbs, as would an elder to his tribe:

But you do not understand. For there is an absence of truth like a good tooth drawn from the tight skull like the wave’s tune gone from the ship’s hull there is sand but no desert where water can learn of its loveliness.

The people have gifts for the gods but do not give them, yet the gods are everywhere and waiting. Moving in Islands toward the regeneration promised in Masks, Brathwaite continues with “Caliban” to explore the potential for liberty inherent in the Cuban Revolution, then moves at the moment of triumph back into the slave ship and the limbo that contained the seeds of African religion and identity.

The “Limbo” section ends with the beautiful poem “Islands,” which proposes the alternatives that are always present in every moment of Caribbean history: “So looking through a map/ of the islands, you see/ . . . the sun’s/ slums: if you hate/ us. Jewels,/ if there is delight/ in your eyes.” The same dichotomy of vision has surrounded every event and personage in the poem, all folded in upon the crucial event of the Middle Passage: Did it destroy a people or create one? Brathwaite’s account of the voyage in “New World A-Comin”...

(The entire section is 5801 words.)