Beloved Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite, whose unique voice was universally recognized as an integral part of the postwar West Indies literature canon, died on February 4, 2020 at the age of 89.
Born as Lawson Edward Brathwaite, his evolution to Kamau Brathwaite – the deliberate union of his chosen African name and his British surname – is representative of the space he created for the coexistence of both. His work, recognized by the innovative “criollization” of language, was essential to help forge a sense of regional identity after the painful aftermath of slavery and colonization. Together with writers like Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul, Brathwaite helped raise the Caribbean voice so that it reaches everyone's ears.
It began in the bold Bim literary magazine of Frank Collymore, which resulted in the work of emerging writers along with other more established and published authors from West India. Memo from the blog La-La Land suggested:
But if it was (Frank) Collymore's encouragement that kept alive the poetic vein in Brathwaite, it was his time in the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) from 1955 to 1962 that built the vivid image in his mind of the close relation between the African and the Caribbean experiences. In my view, Brathwaite's lifelong quest rests upon the premise that Caribbean culture is intrinsically connected to African culture, not by means of an ethereal or genetic connection, but through an active transformation of the social norms that took place over more than three centuries of slavery (…)
But if (Frank) Collymore's breath kept the poetic vein alive in Brathwaite, his time on the Costa Dorada (now Ghana) from 1955 to 1962 was what built the vivid image in his mind of the close relationship between Africans and Caribbean experiences In my opinion, Brathwaite's lifelong search is based on the premise that Caribbean culture is intrinsically connected to African culture, not through an ethereal or genetic connection, but through an active transformation of social norms that took place during more than three centuries of slavery (…)
In a region where decades later there is still a debate about the use of “adequate” versus “dialectal” English, Brathwaite coined the term “language of the nation,” which he defined as “the type of English spoken by people who were taken to the Caribbean, not the current official English, but the language of the slaves and workers, the servants who were transferred. ”
His intelligent and loving defense of this hybrid is not only valid in terms of language, but is an integral part of the Caribbean identity that inspired many other writers in West India, including Sam Selvon and Louise Bennett. He also managed to add value to the oral tradition of the region, through which many African customs were maintained and transmitted in the course of the transatlantic slave trade.
As user Tara Inniss-Gibbs expressed on Facebook:
Reading Kamau is the closest you can feel to putting the intense emotion of both trauma and love for a language that is not your own on to the page…
Reading to Kamau is the closest thing to feeling on one page the intense emotion of trauma and love for a language that is not yours…
Memo from the blog La-La Land explained in more detail:
Brathwaite claims through his poetry that orality – speech – is king. (…) For instance, in 1992 Brathwaite published a selection of poems, mostly from his first two trilogies, 'The Arrivants,' (1972) and 'Other Exiles', (1975), except at this stage he had discovered the advantages of working on a computer. This led to the development of his ‘Syncorax video style’ texts, which is another way of describing the usage of various font styles and sizes throughout the book. The changes occur both within a poem and from poem to poem and the spectacular graphic effect lends itself to being discarded as an aesthetic caprice, or an ode to the wonders of technology. Upon second scrutiny, however, it becomes evident that the graphic innovations are, in fact, included to highlight, to reproduce, the natural emphasis and modulation that pertain to Caribbean speech.
Brathwaite affirms through his poetry that oral speech is king. (…) For example, in 1992 Brathwaite published a selection of poems, mainly from his first two trilogies, 'The Arrivants' ('The Newcomers', 1972) and 'Other Exiles' (“Other Exiles”, 1975), in This stage had discovered the advantages of working on a computer, which led him to develop the 'Sycorax video style' texts, another way of describing the use of various font styles and sizes throughout the book. Changes occur both within a poem and from one poem to another, and the spectacular graphic effect lends itself to being discarded as an aesthetic fad, or an ode to the wonders of technology. However, after a second scrutiny, it becomes clear that graphic innovations are actually included to highlight and reproduce the natural emphasis and modulation pertaining to Caribbean discourse.
The first three poetry collections of Brathwaite – “Rights of Passage” (“Rights of Passage”), “Masks” (“Masks”) and “Islands” (“Islands”) – published in rapid succession in 1967, 1968 and 1969 , earned him world recognition and acclaim criticism. Subsequently, they were republished as “The Arrivants”. His later trilogy – “Mother Poem” (“Mother Poem”, 1977), “Sun Poem” (“Poem Sun”, 1982) and “X / Self” (“Ser / X”, 1987) – also delved into questions of identity.
Once he communicated his death in social networks, local Internet users began to share their memories. In publishing the words of his poem “Calypso” (“Calypso”), the Barbadian multimedia and conservative artist Annalee Davis wrote on Facebook:
I remember his lecture at Frank Collymore Hall many years ago – that very beautiful lilt in his voice, a rhythm that could only have come from Barbados, and a most unique way of using his very own tongue that honored who we are. (…)
His use of nation language and the breadth of work he produced leaves an indelible mark on us all and I know that people around the Caribbean and its diaspora will mourn his passing as we will in Barbados.
I remember his conference at Frank Collymore Hall many years ago: that beautiful intonation in his voice, a cadence that could only be from Barbados, and a unique way of using his own language that honored our identity. (…)
The use he made of the language of the nation and the magnitude of the work he produced leaves us an indelible mark and I know that the inhabitants of the entire Caribbean and those who live abroad will mourn his death as we will in Barbados.
The country's prime minister, Mia Mottley, paid tribute to Brathwaite defining him as “easily, one of the titans of post-colonial literature and arts.” While the George Padmore Institute described him as the “third in a trio of Caribbean-born founders of the Caribbean Artists Movement seminar” (the other two are Trinidadian John La Rose and Andrew Salkey, from Jamaica).
On Facebook, Candace Ward wrote that “as a caribenist, Brathwaite's influence on (his) work was profound,” while academic Bartosz Wójcik recalled him for his kindness and Professor Kenneth Ramchand highlighted Brathwaite's great contribution:
Kamau was versatile and always interesting. He wrote a most important book about Creolisation, discoursed extensively on ‘nation language’ which he demonstrated brilliantly in his poetry, and was the prime influence in the region's eventual discovery of its potent folk and oral traditions. His work and his theories fed on the subterranean links between the Caribbean, Africa and the African diaspora, and it was especially sensitive to the music, rhythms and imagery of African-American culture. (…) I have never wavered in my admiration for his passionate interest in our culture and society, his revelation of his native Barbados as root and bright symbol and the unceasing formal experimenting in his verse. It is consoling that like Walcott and (Wilson) Harris he is not lost to us, since he has passed into the consciousness of our civilization.
Kamau was versatile and always interesting. He wrote a very important book on cryolization, gave a broad discourse on the “language of the nation” that showed brilliantly in his poetry, and was the main influence on the eventual discovery of the region about powerful popular and oral traditions. His work and his theories were fueled by the underground links between the Caribbean, Africa and African expansion, and he was especially sensitive to the music, rhythms and images of African-American culture. (…) I have never hesitated in my admiration for his passionate interest in our culture and society, the revelation of his native Barbados as a root and shining symbol, added to the ceaseless formal experimentation in his verse. It is a comfort to know that, like Walcott and (Wilson) Harris, we will not forget him, because he has become aware of our civilization.
Kamau Brathwaite was also a respected academic educator; He studied at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge and earned a doctorate from the University of Sussex. He received the Guggenheim and Fulbright scholarships and published many books on African culture and identity.
The time he spent in Ghana as an official in the area of education had a great impact on his understanding of the experience of blacks. Some of his important academic works include “Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica” (1970), “Afternoon of the Status Crow” (1982) and “History of the Voice” (1984) in which he presented his theories about the language of the nation. He also had periods as a professor at the University of New York and the University of the West Indies.
Well-known in the literary world, Brathwaite was the international winner of the 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize thanks to his “Born to Slow Horses” collection. He also won the Neustadt International Poetry Award (1994), the Musgrave Gold Medal of Literature from the Institute of Jamaica (2006), the Robert Frost Medal of the American Poetry Society (2015) and the PEN / Voelcker Poetry Award (2018 ).
However, as much as his academic writings related the Caribbean experience after colonization, it is Brathwaite's poetry that captures the imagination of the region and the world. In words that Richard Drayton posted on Facebook:
(I) t was as a poet / shaman that his name will be forever resonant whenever Caribbean (people) try to make sense of themselves.
(He was) a poet or shaman, his name will resonate forever whenever the Caribbean tries to understand their sense of self.