Edward Kamau Brathwaite 1930-
Contemporary Barbadian poet, playwright, literary critic, and scholar.
The following entry presents criticism of Brathwaite's poetry from 1968 through 2001.
Brathwaite is one of the Caribbean's most honored writers. He is known chiefly for The Arrivants (1973), a trilogy of poetry volumes in which a uniquely Caribbean identity is set forth, incorporating ties to Africa and the lasting effects of slavery. Born in Barbados, Brathwaite has long been compared to another famous Caribbean poet, the Nobel Prize-winning Derek Walcott. Brathwaite was strongly influenced by the works of T. S. Eliot but his penchant for jazz, rhythmic experimentation, and his love of Caribbean vernacular are the most evident features of his poetry. His emphasis on the oral tradition in poetry has led him to produce several sound recordings. Holding positions at universities in the West Indies, England, and the United States, Brathwaite has had a distinguished academic career during which he has written and edited several highly respected works of criticism, essays, and scholarly histories of the Caribbean.
Brathwaite was born on May 11, 1930, in Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. He attended the island's elite Harrison College, where he started a school newspaper to which he contributed essays about jazz. While at Harrison he also began publishing stories in Bim, an influential literary journal published in Barbados in which his writings would continue to appear for many years. In 1949 Brathwaite was awarded the Barbados Island Scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied history and English. He graduated with honors in 1953. After taking an additional year to earn a teaching certificate, in 1955 he joined the British colonial service and was posted on the Gold Coast, where he lived until 1962. While on the Gold Coast—which became Ghana during his time there—he held several civil service posts that put him into regular contact with the everyday people of West Africa, an experience that inspired his poetry and informed much of his scholarly work. During his journeys to England and Africa, many of his poems and stories were broadcast on the BBC's Caribbean Voices.
On one visit home he met Doris Welcome, and in 1960 they were married. In 1962 Brathwaite left Ghana with his wife and infant son to take a position with the University of the West Indies. His return to the West Indies made him aware of many continuities between the cultures of rural Africa and the contemporary Caribbean. He began exploring these links in poems and chronicling them in scholarly writings. In 1965 he went to England to study at the University of Sussex, and in 1968 he was awarded a Ph.D. in history for research on slave and Creole culture in the Caribbean. As he embarked on his scholarly work, he also began to publish the poetry volumes eventually collected as The Arrivants. Published individually between 1967 and 1969, the three volumes of the The Arrivants garnered Brathwaite tremendous attention and praise. Brathwaite began taking guest appointments at prestigious universities such as Harvard and Yale while receiving honors such as Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, and, in 1994, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Whereas Brathwaite's first trilogy celebrated what he termed “nation language,” his second trilogy of poems, written in the 1970s, presents fragments of speech, society, and culture that reflect the folk culture brought to the West Indies by the African slaves. It was also in the 1970s that Brathwaite began publishing under the name Kamau, given to him in Ghana.
Since the 1980s Brathwaite has been engaged in a project to bring to light the cultural, linguistic, and historical links between Africa and the Caribbean. The mid- and late 1980s proved a very difficult time for Brathwaite, as his wife died in 1986 and in 1988 Hurricane Gilbert destroyed his home and buried almost all his papers in mud. Two years later he was robbed and beaten in Jamaica. These traumas contributed to his decision to leave the West Indies in 1991 and take his current position at New York University.
Brathwaite's poetry has been a continued examination and celebration of the cultural and linguistic continuities between Africa and the Caribbean. Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968) and Islands (1969), which were published in 1973 as The Arrivants, remain Brathwaite's most lauded and discussed works. The poems move from Africa and the myths of the Ashanti empire to the Caribbean. John Povey interprets them as descriptions of a search for identity by both Brathwaite individually and the peoples of the Caribbean collectively. The Jamaican poet and critic Mervyn Morris sees The Arrivants as “a major document of African reconnection” that “draws attention to Caribbean continuities out of Africa.” Other Exiles (1975), which includes poems written from 1950 to the collection's release in 1975, is more personal and introspective than Brathwaite's “national language” poetry. In the 1970s and 1980s Brathwaite published Mother Poem (1977), Sun Poem (1982) and X/Self (1987), all of which comprise an unnamed trilogy that seeks to reveal the fragmentary, historical links between Africa and the Caribbean. More disjointed and reliant on puns and wordplay, these poems reveal Brathwaite's debt to jazz masters such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. His most recent works have become more abstract, as is his The Zea Mexican Diary (1993), written in response to the death of his wife.
Early in his career, Brathwaite was repeatedly compared with another famous Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott. Patrica Ismond concludes that Walcott is the better craftsman, a type of “poet's poet,” but she praised Brathwaite for taking on the role of representative figure for the people of the West Indies, and for representing “their collective destiny.” Indeed, most criticism of Brathwaite focuses on themes such as the continuities between Africa and the Caribbean or Brathwaite's cyclical theory of history and culture. Many critics do close readings of Brathwaite's poems to unearth the shards of African culture Brathwaite includes in his works. Simon Gikandi and others conclude that “oral languages take revenge against institutionalized poetic forms,” and Norman Weinstein traces the influence of jazz in Brathwaite's work. Nana Wilson-Tagoe describes Brathwaite's poetry as a “mode of apprehension, in which the writer seeks community and image through a drama of consciousness.” The vast majority of Brathwaite's critics celebrate his poetry for its rhythms and evocations of the African past in the Caribbean present.