Edward Kamau Brathwaite Analysis

Start Your Free Trial

Download Edward Kamau Brathwaite Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Edward Kamau Brathwaite Analysis

(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:...

(The entire section is 5,801 words.)