The Poetry of Brathwaite

by Edward Kamau Brathwaite

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Caribbean Traditions and Caribbean Themes

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Edward Kamau Brathwaite, a major Caribbean writer of African descent, was born Lawson Edward Brathwaite in 1930 in Bridgetown, Barbados, a British colony until 1966. A prolific poet of international stature, he has received broad recognition for his work, including the 1976 Casa de las Américas Prize for Poetry for Black + Blues (1976), the 1994 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and the 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize for Born to Slow Horses (2005). Brathwaite employs Afro-Caribbean cultural forms such as myths, cults, rituals, music, dance, speech, and creolized expressions to explore themes ranging from the Middle Passage and exile to national identity and the anticolonial struggle for freedom. His poetic works are central to the emerging canon of West Indian literature. Also recognized as a scholar, critic, storywriter, playwright, editor, historian, professor, and educator, he has a long list of publications that reflect his efforts toward the establishment of a national cultural identity for the Caribbean.

Brathwaite started publishing poems during the 1950’s, when he was a student on scholarship at the University of Cambridge. While in England, Brathwaite realized that the Western culture that was imposed upon him as a black man in a British colony would be denied to him once he presumed to claim it as his own. The resulting sense of rootlessness led him on a quest for cultural identity in Africa, where he served as an education officer in Ghana (1955-1962) under Kwame Nkrumah. His African experience proved to be a turning point in his career. Reassuring him of a cultural home in Africa and inspiring him to unearth the African heritage of the Caribbean upon his return in 1962, it shaped his vision of a national culture. The encounter had a definite impact on his poetry, scholarship, and literary criticism. In particular, African cultural forms such as rituals and oral performances gave him insights into the type of holistic poetry he would need to write in order to overcome the problems of fragmentation with which West Indians were burdened.

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