A Poetics Against Fragmentation

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Throughout his career, Brathwaite has developed a series of cultural concepts that shed important light on his poetry. The most important is the notion of fragmentation, by which he refers to the geographical, historical, cultural, political, ethnic, and linguistic realities of the West Indies. To deal with fragmentation, Brathwaite believes, a West Indian writer’s mission is to establish political and ethnic unification by helping forge a national culture.

Connected to fragmentation is the idea of “the submerged,” by which Brathwaite refers to the “base” of the fragments preserved in the racial memory of Amerindians and Afro-Caribbeans. This submerged culture, similar to the geographical formation that connects the individual Caribbean islands at the base of the ocean, is a potential force for the sea change of unification. Brathwaite sometimes personifies the submerged as the untamable and uncolonizable Sycorax, the mother of the colonized subject Caliban in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623). On other occasions, he calls it nam, which he defines as “secret name, soul-source, connected with nyam (eat), yam (root food), nyame (name of god)”; nam is “the heart of our nation-language which comes into conflict with the cultural imperial authority.” As the “core” inside the protective mask, nam represents the survivability and spirituality of the Afro-Caribbean.

In literary terms, to overcome fragmentation by means of the submerged entails a conscious effort to develop what...

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The Arrivants

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Brathwaite started working on his first trilogy upon his return to the Caribbean in 1962. The individual works of the trilogy were published in England while he was pursuing a doctoral degree in history at the University of Sussex (1965-1968). The three parts—Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968), and Islands (1969)—were republished collectively in 1973 as The Arrivants. This new edition was preceded by a quotation from the Kumina Queen of Jamaica, in Creole, about the “arrivance” of her ancestors as “arrivants” from Africa. The epigraph sums up concisely the theme of the trilogy, in that the narrator not only acknowledges her African heritage but also asserts her West Indian identity in the present. This discourse of acknowledgment and assertion constitutes a double movement between past and present, between Africa and the West Indies, between personal experience and communal history, and between dispossession and possession.

The double movement of The Arrivants is immediately evident from the title of the first book, Rights of Passage. “Passage” refers not only to the Middle Passage of African slaves in the past but also to the exile of West Indians in the present. “Rights,” a pun on “rites,” refers not only to the “rites of passage” marking the growth of a person and a people through ritualistic ordeals but also to the “rights” of “possession” to be gained through such rituals. The title hence encapsulates the main theme of the collection, the individual poems of which deal with major aspects of the double movement and the rights/rites of passage of the Afro-Caribbean. The double movement is also structured into the four divisions of Rights of Passage, the overall action of which begins in Africa, shifts to the Americas, and then bounces circuitously through Europe, back to Africa, and once more to the New World.

Masks, the second part of the trilogy, continues the double movement, but the action lingers at the pivotal point of Africa, particularly Ghana, home of the Akan. The title, Masks, also implies nam, or the core behind the mask. The collection opens with an Akan proverb, “Only the...

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The Bajan Trilogy

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Brathwaite’s New World trilogy has demonstrated eloquently to skeptics, including his Caribbean compatriots, that it is possible to create something out of the apparent nothingness of West Indian culture. Because the mythmaking project he began in The Arrivants offers promises of a national culture that Afro-Caribbeans can call their own, that trilogy came to be regarded as a prelude of sorts to the second, or Bajan, trilogy, which attracted attention even before it was completed. Comprising Mother Poem (1977), Sun Poem (1982), and X/Self (1987), the Bajan trilogy was revised, expanded, and republished as a single volume titled Ancestors in 2001. It focuses on the national character of black Bajans as it is shaped by the social, historical, cultural, and anthropological forces of the Caribbean, Africa, and the West. As “Bajan” means “Barbadian,” the trilogy is apparently meant to have national significance.

Barbados as the mother-island is epitomized by the figure of the subjugated woman in the text, in which readers see her conduct daily chores, undergo various ordeals, and harbor uncertain hopes with regard to the future of herself and her children. The futility of most of her efforts is symbolized by the “rock seed” that fails to germinate. The reason Brathwaite focuses on such a downtrodden figure is that slavery had extremely debilitating effects on what he calls “the manscape,” the character of the Caribbean men who, while victims of slavery and colonialism, also contribute to the victimization of black women. These women survive in spite of their hardships because of their nam, thus making it possible for the new generation to emerge.

As a counterpoint to the geological symbolism and feminine realism of Mother Poem, the focus in Sun Poem is astronomical and masculine. The figure of the black male is rendered as the sun, which is both the son of creation (Adam) and the father-sun, as opposed to the mother-island. The sun is also connected with the rainbow, the agent that joins the earth and the sky. The poem is ingeniously organized so that the action is structured according to the...

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The Tripartite Structure of Other Works

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Many of Brathwaite’s short poetry books are offshoots of the two designated trilogies, and the use of the tripartite structure as a literary form appears to have an important place in his poetics. Beside Arrivants and Ancestors, one could also considered a trilogy to be constituted by Black + Blues (1976), Third World Poems (1983), and Middle Passages (1992).The tripartite structure is also often used within a single volume, as for instance in Black + Blues, which consists of three sections (“Fragments,” “Drought,” and “Flowers”) suggestive of a progression.

In the case of Third World Poems, the tripartite division represents a movement in reversal of the slaves’ journey across the Atlantic, taking readers from the Caribbean (the section “L’Ouverture” alludes to the Haitian revolution and includes a poem about the slave rebel Bussa), through colonial Africa (the section “Ashanty Town” alludes to Ghana), to the independence of African and other developing nations. The section “Irie” includes “The Visibility Trigger,” a tribute to preeminent African leader Kwame Nkrumah, and “Poem for Walter Rodney” in honor of the Caribbean pan-Africanist. The indications are that trilogies and tripartite structures represent Brathwaite’s attempt, as a “black Atlantic” writer, to reconstitute the Middle Passage experienced by African slaves. In the volume Middle Passages, the...

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Formal and Generic Experimentation

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

During his later career, especially during the Time of Salt, Brathwaite has employed two signature styles in the writing and publication of his work. The first is the “transboundary” style, or mixed use of genres including documents (letters, diaries, and so forth) and creative writing (in prose and in verse). Brathwaite’s second signature style is the printing of his work using the “Sycorax Video Style”—typographic fonts of various sizes and shapes generated by computer. Brathwaite has been fascinated by computer technology due to its associations with memory-ghosts in the machine, which the poet relates to Sycorax and accordingly invokes as his muse.

These aesthetic experiments have led to a proliferation...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Breiner, Laurence. “The Other West Indian Poet.” In Partisan Review 56 (Spring, 1989): 316-320. A review of X/Self.

Dash, Michael. “Edward Brathwaite.” In West Indian Literature, edited by Bruce King. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979. One of the best earlier studies of Brathwaite’s poetry.

Gowda, H. H. Anniah. “Edward Kamau Brathwaite: A Profile.” In Literary Half-Yearly 23 (July, 1982): 40-46. Encapsulates the most important aspects of Brathwaite’s career.

Martini, Jürgen. “Literary Criticism and Aesthetics in the Caribbean, I: E. K. Brathwaite.” In World Literature Written in English 24 (Autumn, 1984): 373-383. Discusses the major aspects of Brathwaite’s cultural position.

Pattanayak, Chandrabhanu. “Brathwaite: Metaphors of Emergence.” In The Literary Criterion 17, no. 3 (1982): 60-68. A report based on Brathwaite’s lectures given at the University of Mysore. Concise and excellent introduction to his poetry.

Thomas, Sue. “Sexual Politics in Edward Brathwaite’s Mother Poem and Sun Poem.” In Kunapipi 9, no. 1 (1987): 33-43. A feminist critique of the visionary voice in the two poems.