Edward Kamau Brathwaite Brathwaite, Edward Kamau - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Rights of Passage 1967

Masks 1968

Islands 1969

The Arrivants 1973

Other Exiles 1975

Days and Nights 1975

Black and Blues 1976

Mother Poem 1977

Soweto 1979

Word Making Man: A Poem for Nicolas Guillen 1979

Sun Poem 1982

Third World Poems 1983

Jah Music 1986

X/Self 1987

Shar 1990

Middle Passages 1992

Trenchtown Rock 1993

The Zea Mexican Diary 1993

Barabajan Poems, 1942-1992 1994

Words Need Love Too 2000

Ancestors 2001

Odale's Choice (play) 1967

Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica (history) 1970 revised edition, 1981

The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (history) 1971

Caribbean Man in Space and Time (history) 1974

Contradictory Omens (history) 1974

National Language Poetry (essays) 1982

History of the Voice (history) 1984

Roots (essays) 1986

Jean D'Costa (essay date September 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: D'Costa, Jean. “Poetry Review.” Jamaica Journal 2, no. 3 (September 1968): 24-8.

[In the following essay, the author compares Brathwaite to Virgil and focuses on themes of exile.]

It is significant that before Brathwaite the poet comes Brathwaite the historian. Only a historian could create so intimately and fully the world of Rights of Passage and Masks. This world is one we know well: that of the negro in the western hemisphere. But while others like Cesaire and Baldwin have treated this world fragment by fragment, Edward Brathwaite attempts a synthesis of a splintered, shattered area of experience, and manages to bind together in a single...

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Patricia Ismond (essay date September-December 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ismond, Patricia. “Walcott Versus Brathwaite.” Caribbean Quarterly 17, nos. 3-4 (September-December 1971): 54-71.

[In the following essay, Ismond revisits and reconsiders a once-common comparison between Brathwaite and Derek Walcott. She finds Walcott by far the better craftsman.]

Since Edward Lucie-Smith's pronouncement that the West Indies must choose between Walcott and Brathwaite, there has arisen something of a controversy about these two figures. There is a sense in which this kind of quarrel was inevitable in the present atmosphere of liberation, and one of the first things that needs to be established is that it is not an irrelevant question within...

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Lloyd Wellesley Brown (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Lloyd Wellesley. “The Cyclical Vision of Edward Brathwaite.” In West Indian Poetry, pp. 139-58. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1978.

[In the following essay, Brown traces a communal voice through Brathwaite's collections Rights of Passage, Masks and Islands, which the author claims demonstrates “the cycles of black New World culture in time and space.”]

It has become a custom in West Indian criticism to discuss Walcott and Brathwaite as opposites.1 Walcott himself ventured some scepticism about the Walcott-versus-Brathwaite debate, preferring (as he did during a visit to the University of Southern California in...

(The entire section is 6969 words.)

John Povey (essay date autumn 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Povey, John. “The Search for Identity in Edward Brathwaite's The Arrivants.World Literature Written in English 27, no. 2 (autumn 1987): 274-89.

[In the following essay, Povey characterizes The Arrivants as a description of Brathwaite's personal search for identity that resonates with an overarching quest for a Caribbean identity.]

Once when we went to Europe, a rich old lady asked:
Have you no language of your own
no way of doing things
did you spend all those holidays
at England's apron strings?(1)

A central theme in Caribbean literature is the absence of a national or regional identity. History denied the residents of these...

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Gordon Rohlehr and E. A. Markham (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rohlehr, Gordon, and E. A. Markham. “Rohlehr on Brathwaite.” In Hinterland: Caribbean Poetry from the West Indies & Britain, edited by E. A. Markham, pp. 109-16. Newcastle on Tyne, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 1995.

[In the following interview, Rohlehr, an authority on Brathwaite's poetry, expresses admiration for Brathwaite's growth as an artist and reflects on the critical reaction to Brathwaite's work, especially among Caribbean writers.]

There are a number of possible ways I might have gone about it. I could have selected a number of concerns in the Trilogy [The Arrivants], for example, spoken about imagery. I felt that as a first exploratory work on...

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Simon Gikandi (essay date summer 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gikandi, Simon. “E. K. Brathwaite and the Poetics of the Voice: The Allegory of History in ‘Rights of Passage.’” Callaloo 14, no. 3 (summer 1991): 727-36.

[In the following essay, the author examines “Rights of Passage” as an example of a poem “in which oral languages take revenge against institutionalized poetic forms.”]

At the beginning was the shout—the beginning is, for us, the time when Creole was created as a means of communication between the master and his slaves. It was then that the peculiar syntax of the shout took hold. To the Antillean the word is first and foremost a sound. Noise is a speech. Din is a...

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Mary E. Morgan (essay date autumn 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Morgan, Mary E. “Highway to Vision: This Sea Our Nexus.” World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 663-68.

[In the following essay, Brathwaite's sister reflects on the importance of the Caribbean Sea as an influence on her brother's poetry. She attempts to show how the movements of the sea are reflected in the rhythms of Brathwaite's work.]

1. We were brought up by the sea. I do not mean merely that as island people we saw the sea always there, but that our home was actually by the sea; the Round House where we grew up looked out on Brown's Beach and Carlisle Bay. And we came to appreciate, and to learn, the movement of the sea, which forms so...

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H. H. Anniah Gowda (essay date autumn 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gowda, H. H. Anniah. “Creation in the Poetic Development of Kamau Brathwaite.” World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 691-96.

[In the following essay, Gowda praises Brathwaite for creating a national language and for moving “from the margins of language and history, from the peripheral realm of ‘the other exiles,’ to the center of civilization, effecting a renaissance of oral poetry and remaking the poetic world.”]

dry stony world-maker, word-breaker,
creator …

Edward Brathwaite, “Ananse”1

There are not many historians who have distinguished themselves as poets and prose writers, who can recite...

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Norman Weinstein (essay date autumn 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Weinstein, Norman. “Jazz in the Caribbean Air.” World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 715-18.

[In the following essay, the author, a noted jazz critic, provides examples of poems showing how Brathwaite's love of jazz is a strong influence on his poetry, a claim made by Brathwaite himself. In particular, the author finds the influence of such jazz geniuses as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins.]

If one could assemble in imagination an ultimate jazz band to honor the literary achievement of Kamau Brathwaite, one could not do better than to choose the four musicians his poetry heralds: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Albert...

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Timothy J. Reiss (essay date autumn 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Reiss, Timothy J. “Reclaiming the Soul: Poetry, Autobiography, and the Voice of History.” World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 883-90.

[In the following essay, Reiss links the structure of Brathwaite's poetry to seventeenth-century England by positing that the poet's work often has an underlying structure derived from iambic pentameter, a meter that Brathwaite has tweaked to reflect the historical changes that have led to the postcolonial culture of Barbados.]

Through Kamau Brathwaite's work run three favorite metaphors. The earliest uses the iambic pentameter that had become a norm in English poetry from roughly the seventeenth century. The...

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J. Michael Dash (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Dash, J. Michael. “Edward Kamau Brathwaite.” In West Indian Literature, 2nd Edition, edited by Bruce King, pp. 194-208. London, UK: McMillian Education Ltd., 1995.

[In the following essay, the author claims that Brathwaite views himself through the Modernist assumption of the poet as divine interpreter, an individual with the power to give one voice to multiple identities and histories. In the case of Brathwaite, this power is used to give voice to the Islands' African ancestry and colonial history.]

Probably the best introduction to the poetry of Edward Kamau Brathwaite is his largely autobiographical essay entitled ‘Timehri’. In this account of his...

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Mervyn Morris (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Morris, Mervyn. “Overlapping Journeys: The Arrivants.” In The Art of Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Stewart Brown, pp. 117-31. Melksham, UK: Cromwell Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, a poet praises The Arrivants as “a major document of African reconnection” that “draws attention to Caribbean continuities out of Africa.”]

Of the many useful and interesting discussions of The Arrivants1 or of individual books in the trilogy, there are two I am anxious to recommend. Maureen Warner-Lewis' Masks: Essays & Annotations2 and Gordon Rohlehr's Pathfinder3 are of value not only for their...

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Silvio Torres-Saillant (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Torres-Saillant, Silvio. “Kamau Brathwaite and the Caribbean Word.” In Caribbean Poetics: Towards an Aesthetic of West Indian Culture, pp. 93-122. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, examples of the Caribbean language, religion, and culture are teased out of Brathwaite's poems, leading to the conclusion that “Brathwaite insists on a theory of language, culture, and on a philosophy of history that have strong political implications insofar as they aim to liberate the Caribbean mind from the throes of a colonial heritage.”]

… isn't it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is...

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Velma Pollard (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Pollard, Velma. “Francina and the Turtle and All the Others: Women in EKB.” In For the Geography of the Soul: Emerging Perspectives on Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Timothy J. Reiss, pp. 43-50. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Pollard examines the allusions and rhythms of Brathwaite poems that depict women as rescuers.]


He chooses Francina, a simple woman. She who “used to scale / fish in the market.” He makes her save the “humpbacked turtle with the shell-fish eyes …” (IS [Islands] 215).

Brathwaite, railing against the destruction of a park, something...

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Mark A. McWatt (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McWatt, Mark A. “Looking Back at The Arrivants.” In For the Geography of the Soul: Emerging Perspectives on Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Timothy J. Reiss, pp. 59-65. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, the author looks back at The Arrivants, in which one can detect “subtle displacements and perturbations caused by the gravitational tug of the author's academic discipline.”]

My first publication after arriving at Cave Hill as a very green Assistant Lecturer in the mid-70s was a review of Kamau Brathwaite's Mother Poem in Bim magazine. The first paragraph of that review was not lacking in...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Asein, Samuel Omo. “Symbol and Meaning in the Poetry of Edward Brathwaite.” World Literature Written in English 20, no. 1 (spring 1981): 94-104.

Examines symbols in Brathwaite's poems, especially symbols of circularity in individuals and civilizations.

Brown, Stewart. “Sun Poem: The Rainbow Sign?” In The Art of Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Stewart Brown, pp. 152-62. Melksham, UK: Cromwell Press, 1995.

Sun Poem is given a close reading to reveal Brathwaite's use of rainbows as symbols and metaphors of healing.

Chukwu, Augustine. “Bridging the Gulf: The Ancestral Mask and...

(The entire section is 612 words.)