‘A Towering Figure’: Tribute to Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020)
Kamau Brathwaite, who passed away on February 4th 2020, is one of the Caribbean’s most influential and original poetic voices. A radical voice for decolonisation and poet, whose voice stretched its sounds across the mouth of the world, he leaves a huge gap in the world of Caribbean and world letters. A ‘towering’ literary figure, he was also a deeply compassionate and generous man, a writer whose vision connected the histories of the West Indian islands with the diasporic transatlantic world of the Middle Passage, the contemporary Caribbean, Africa, Britain and the US.
To mark our respect, Wasafiri has invited some close associates, friends and writers to offer short reflections on Brathwaite’s major contribution as poet, historian, public intellectual and activist. A life, which straddled several decades, from his initiation of the Caribbean Artists Movement in the late 1960s, to the ground-breaking, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (New Beacon Books, 1984) and subsequent publications challenging colonial and neo-colonial modes of thinking. Above all, it has encompassed, the expression of his unique and experimental poetic vision, highlighting orality and fusing the sounds and syncopated rhythm of jazz with the rigours of written verse and the idiom of West Indian speech patterns.
Active supporter of Wasafiri, we have been honoured to publish several poems, sometimes hot off the press, as well as urgent critical interventions. As a founder of Savacou (launched, Jamaica, 1970), but stemming from the Caribbean Artists Movement, he more than understood the fragility of small magazines and the need to sustain a loyal community of writers and readers.
One of the most memorable moments for Wasafiri was the arrival in 1994 of Brathwaite’s now renowned essay on Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, ‘A Post-Cautionary Tale of the Helen of our Wars’ (Wasafiri 22, 1995). Not only was this a passionate challenge to what he perceived to be the Eurocentric construction of the postcolonial canon, critiquing the discourse of the Western episteme, but it was written in a form and typographical font which literally interrupted the supposed seamless authority and linearity of its subject. A heated debate followed in the pages of the magazine raising questions, still ongoing, around race, gender, culture and the history of the Caribbean (Wasafiri 20, 21, 25, 28).
Author of numerous poetry volumes, Brathwaite’s distinctive voice and bold experimentalism remains a great inspiration for many contemporary Caribbean and international writers who have followed on.
Susheila Nasta, Founder, Wasafiri
Fred D’Aguiar is an award-winning writer of poetry, fiction, essays, and plays. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and his first novel was made into a film by Channel 4. His most recent collection, Translations from Memory (Carcanet, UK), appeared in 2018.
An abiding memory that is of some embarrassment to me is my loud laughter on television back in 1986 during a BBC 2 Arena Caribbean Nights broadcast, where Darcus Howe moderated a panel with Linton Kwesi Johnson, Derek Walcott and me. We watched a film of Kamau Brathwaite reading his seminal poem ‘It is Not’. Afterwards, the lights came up in the studio and Darcus asked Derek what he made of the poem. In a riff on Kamau’s incantatory repetition of It, It, It is not, that preceded each of his disquisitions on the disappointing politics of the region, Derek quipped, It, it, it is not a very good poem. The studio erupted in laughter. When I saw Kamau in Jamaica several years later he mentioned it as hurtful and wondered if I really found it so funny. I’ll hold off on my reply to him since some backstory is vital to understanding the times I spent with him.
I was in the sixth form when I first heard Kamau read. Tall, with the beard of a seer, hatted, as if shielding a nest of dreads, bespectacled, he cut a figure of mystery and charisma, regional specificity in his island look, and new world panache. I knew his seminal trilogy from the 1960s, The Arrivants, and wanted to hear how the long poems spread over several pages might be made airborne by the voice of their author. I wanted a confirmation of his majesty and greatness already declared by the work and in need of a final seal of approval from the maestro. That will teach me for being an atheist, that is, vulnerable to spiritual rituals, and therefore in dire need of secular variations on the theme of religiosity.
Kamau was more than that to me even back then. I saw him as linked to a tradition of Africa in Caribbean arts globally. I knew that he was indebted to the Negritude movement, and of course, the mighty Aime Cesaire. I found out that he loved what the Calypsonians like Sparrow, were up to in Trinidad (able to sign, sing and signal rhymes such as ‘boy I really glad/I from Trinidad’) and make their compositions sound like perfect measures of joy, satire, political critique, rampant desire, and a mnemonic—sometimes all at once.
Kamau was more than High Priest—an inspired figure who chants knowledge gained from mysterious sources and who acts as mediator between frail humanity and supreme beings of the spirit world. We know from Anne Walmsley’s careful chronicling of the 1960s and ‘70s that Kamau was foundational in establishing the Caribbean Artists Movement in the UK and elsewhere. In other words his poetry included a crucial activist component to it that tied it to a politics in his aesthetics. Kamau let his poems speak for themselves in true obedience to Archibald Macleish’s dictum that ‘poems should not mean, but be’. Listening to recordings of his readings the ears pick instructions on how Kamau wants his art to be understood. His poetry teaches us how to read them even as they work their magic of communicating before being understood, as T. S. Eliot said.
I met Kamau at close quarters in Jamaica in the late ‘80s. He taught at UWI and he owned a small coffee growing lot up in the blue hills of that drum and bass nation as I grew up in London thinking of Jamaica (though the image is tempered by the sonic charm of Miss Lou’s poetry). Kamau drove his four-wheeler with me riding shotgun and we meandered up along a perilous dirt track and into the blue. I conjured maroons, Paul Bogle (think of history lesson in song of Third World’s ‘96 degrees in the Shade’). We lunched and drank coffee and I confess to trying a warm Red Stripe – or two – after all I wasn’t driving.
I asked him about his theories of poetry: if the theory came before or independent of the poetry or whether his ideas were miles after the event of the poems. By now he had another trilogy under his belt: Mother Poem, Sun Poem and X-Self. His monograph on early Creole Society in Jamaica was cited as the place where the case was made for nation language, as he framed the use of a popular English vernacular, variously called patwa, broken English and creole, with roots words from West Africa, and therefore a language that was distinct from the English of the classroom instruction and the courts.
We continued these talks in the 1990s in two visits by me to see him and read and talk to his class while he taught at New York University. He extrapolated on the idea that a poetics resided in the rhythm of island life. That ‘the hurricane does not roar in pentameter’ as he famously said, signalled his ecological spirit in his poetry. I think he was determined to de-colonise not only his mind as Ngu’gi would it, but his spirit as well by coming up with an independent poetics, a poetry founded in preserved practices from Africa in coalition with a colonized island experience. The result is something not founded or indebted to the colonial masters, a poetics truly borne out of Marley’s Redemption Song that intones us to ‘emancipate yourselves from mental slavery’.
He launched a performance tradition with the voice as the chief principle for organizing a poem on the page. He took Gutenberg’s invention to new heights in his alignment of a poetics of the printed voice that was bound to make use of all the scribal inventions of type and hypertext. I tried to meet with him when I was in Barbados in 2017 but he was not feeling well. I wanted to refine what I said to him back in Jamaica and at NYU: that he should see the picong of Derek’s remark on Arena Nights in 1986 as just that, and not serious criticism; that his centrality in a politics of poetry had mentored a generation sorely in need of models for how to hone their voices to the instructional pressures by politics; that the rhythm of recall in that poem for a listener meant that composition was synonymous with a comprehension; that of the many poetries in the world, his had found a niche borne out of a colonised place whose centuries-long oppression has failed to colonise the rebellious spirit. Kamau, far from being hurt by the screening of his reading of ‘It Is Not’, instead it had cleared a path for his poetry of place in a politicised space.
Kamau can take solace from his forebears like Cesaire and his direct descendants: LKJ and his rhythmic philosophizing and politicizing. Jean Breeze, Mutabaruka, Okot p’Bitek. Gordon Rohler’s critical appraisal and deep drill into the phrasal delights of the work. I have not attended a single poetry slam without hearing Kamau’s influence. The sound of his sense will be around for as long as there is poetry in the world (if there’s a world left for poetry, or any of us for that matter). He made the sea a reliquary for recovery of the past and a talisman for understanding the present. His sense of play in his portrait of light reflected off the sea and splashed, as it were, across a boy’s bedroom wall confirms the print of a voice as not fixed in diction and syntax but liberated by the two.
Edward Baugh is Professor Emeritus of English, University of the West Indies. He holds degrees from the University of London (UCWI), Queen’s University, Ontario, and the University of Manchester. His publications include: Derek Walcott (2006), Derek Walcott (biography, 2017), Frank Collymore: a Biography (2009), and three collections of poetry, the most recent being Black Sand: New and Selected Poems (2013). He is an Honorary International Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Kamau Brathwaite made an outstanding contribution to the world of Anglophone Caribbean literature in respect of its decolonization, its emergence as a literature of its own groundings, rather than simply the progeny of the literature of England. This contribution manifested itself not only in the distinctive character of his poetry, both in subject matter and form, but also in his theoretical writings. He promoted and drew deeply on the African sources of Caribbean culture. This project involved, memorably, the beating out of a new, self-realising sound-base in Caribbean poetry, and the experience of the power of poetry as ritual. Then, alongside the arresting exploration of sound, there is the challenging visual experience and performance in the playing about with font size and shape, with the disposition of words on the page, with punctuation. Such features bespeak a principle of disruption which seems necessary to the re-thinking of self and the world. By virtue of his contribution to Caribbean literature, Brathwaite also contributed to world literature, widening its range of different but mutually interconnecting, mutually interrogating literatures. As for his theoretical writings, which are an integral part of his contribution to the creation of an authentic Caribbean literature, one would cite, for instance, outstandingly, his History of the Voice, Contradictory Omens, and “The Love Axe/l: Developing a Caribbean Aesthetic.”
Two moments have stayed with me. First, I felt highly privileged when, for the memorial service for his first wife, Doris, at the Chapel on the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, he asked me to read an extract from his Zea Mexican Diary, a tribute to her after her death in 1986. The other recollection is from a conference on Caribbean literature at UCLA in 1983. Kamau gave a reading of his poetry one night. At one point, in the hush of the auditorium, I realised that a woman sitting behind me, an African-American woman, was crying, not volubly, but she couldn’t hold back her tears.
Rights of Passage is the starting-point of the distinctive, poetry-changing Brathwaite and a good point at which to begin to explore his work. One can grasp the “newness” of the experience without being so challenged by the strangeness as one might feel in delving first into one of the more challengingly unconventional later works. The title itself immediately draws the reader into Brathwaite’s purposeful play on words, into the African-Caribbean connection and the informing principle of ritual, rites.
His most influential may well be the first trilogy, The Arrivants, but I’d like to indulge myself and call attention to the work that’s ringing in my head now, beginning with its intriguing title, Born To Slow Horses (2005). Various Brathwaite features are extended here, as for example the exploration of Caribbean identity in the context of postcolonialism, and the experimentation with language, form and style, including his “videolectics”. Here’s just one specific. In the epigraph to ‘Guanahani’, in such small font that one may easily overlook it, we are told that the poet-persona is flying over the Bahamas on an Air Jamaica flight on 12 October 1492. That was the date on which Columbus first landed in the New World, on Guanahani, the Taino name for one of the islands of the Bahamas, which he named San Salvador. Brathwaite’s restoration of the original, native name and his conflation of moments in time centuries apart are telling.
Jane Bryce is Professor Emerita of African Literature and Cinema at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill (Barbados). Born in Tanzania, she was educated there and in the UK and Nigeria, where she studied for her PhD at Obafemi Awolowo University and wrote for numerous journals and newspapers. She has published cultural and literary criticism in a range of academic journals and essay collections. Formerly a freelance journalist and fiction editor, she is also a creative writer and teacher. She was editor of Poui: Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writing from 1999-2016. She has published fiction and creative non-fiction and has recently completed a memoir of Tanzania.
Kamau was of course a global figure as well as professedly a Caribbean man; but he retained a special place in the hearts of Barbadians. Though he remained unseen in public in recent years, in the 1990s he was a regular presence on the University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus and in Barbados life more generally. His trademark tam could be seen crossing the Humanities Faculty quadrangle on his way to the library, or going towards the bookshop. As time went by sightings became scarcer and he became difficult to pin down. But he was writing. In the twenty years I served as a judge for the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award (Barbados’s leading literary prize), he entered twice. Though the entries were read blind by the committee, no-one was fooled when, in 2006, Kamau submitted Missa Solemnis, inspired by Beethoven’ s work of the same title, which he had first heard in Ghana. Even so, we kept our heads and waited to see if another entry would best it. None did, and nobody minded. By entering he not only bestowed a new gravitas on the competition, he sprinkled it with star-dust. In 2013, he won again with The Lazarus Poems, in which, with uncanny prescience and black humour, he dramatized his own funeral. (The ease with which he won forced the committee to recall the rule that you could only win twice.)
When we started publishing Poui: Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writing in 1997, it was only natural to ask Kamau to be a consultant editor. In 2010, for his 80th birthday, we dedicated Poui issue X1 in Kamau’s honour, publishing six interspersed sections of Missa Solemnis. We launched the birthday issue with a dramatised excerpt of Missa Solemnis, directed by Sonia Williams, a colleague, at the Centre for Creative Imagination on campus. In ‘Soundbites’ scattered throughout the issue, four leading Jamaican poets – Pam Mordecai, Kei Miller, Edward Baugh and Mervyn Morris – and two much-awarded Nigerians – Funso Aiyejina and Niyi Osundare – testified to Kamau’s influence on their own poetry. It wasn’t the first time. Niyi had visited Cave Hill ten years earlier, in 2000, and given an invited lecture on ‘Poetry and Orality’. With Kamau in the audience, he described how his generation of African poets learnt from Brathwaite, a Caribbean poet, that African oral forms had a place in written poetry in English. These lines of Niyi’s speak to that discovery: ‘We find in his many and varied songs/ Voices of his and other times.’
The week Kamau’s death was announced, a tribute evening was held on Cave Hill campus, in the same theatre where we had celebrated his 80th birthday. The gathering together at short notice of so many Barbadian and other locally-based writers and artists was testament in itself to his unique role as national poet, elder and mentor to many. The scholar and poet who popularised Nation Language started, after all, with Bajan dialect.
Evelyn O’Callaghan is retired Professor of West Indian Literature, University of the West Indies. Her publications include Woman Version: Theoretical Approaches to West Indian Fiction by Women, Women Writing the West Indies 1804-1939: A Hot Place, Belonging to Us and she co-edited Caribbean Irish Connections and Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature: On the Edge. She is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of West Indian Literature.
The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (1971) is still, for me, at the heart of Brathwaite’s entire oeuvre. The claim that something was created in the West Indies, a whole new people, language and culture, ‘making/with their/ rhythms some-/thing torn/and new’ was transformative and ultimately redemptive for my generation. His poetry, essays and literary commentaries have charted that creation, so the history seminally enriches the writing. And it was as a historian that I first met him. I had just won a Jamaican Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and one of my interviewing panel introduced me to him at the University of the West Indies. I planned to research the treatment of Creole (the language) in Caribbean writing, an interest which he shared. Alas, at Oxford the inevitable reaction to my thesis topic was incredulity: ‘Oh, is there one?’ Well yes, there are Creole languages, and yes, there is West Indian literature. I followed in Brathwaite’s path as an academic passionate in learning about both, and passing such knowledge on to generations of Caribbean students first in Jamaica, and then in Barbados.
How I felt vindicated when the poet himself read to a packed audience in Oxford. That trademark beard and tam, that deep and very Barbadian voice, beating out the rhythm on the podium as he chanted a very specific creation story: ‘The stone had skidded arc’d and bloomed into islands:/ Cuba and San Domingo/Jamaica and Puerto Rico/ Grenada Guadeloupe Bonaire’. Back in Jamaica as a temporary lecturer at UWI, I couldn’t afford padlocks for the burglar bars so my apartment was soon burgled; the cassette tape of Brathwaite reading from The Arrivants was the item I most regretted losing. The office I was given was beside Brathwaite’s and we shared a party line. He never seemed to answer the phone, so I ended up scribbling messages from people all over the world inviting him to speak, to read, to visit. Vicarious glamour!
When I moved to the Barbados campus of the University, I came to appreciate how much the island and the sea had shaped his imagination, and I could finally see what his poetry, had been painting. So Kamau will live on every time someone is able to ‘recapture the islands’/ bright beaches; blue mist from the ocean/rolling into the fishermen’s houses …. And gulls, white sails slanted seaward,/ fly into the limitless morning before us.’
Walk good, Kamau.
Louis James is Emeritus Professor of Victorian and Modern literature at the University of Kent, Canterbury. His academic appointments include lectureships at the Universities of The West Indies, Jamaica; Ibadan, Nigeria, and the National University, Singapore. His books include Jean Rhys (1978) and Caribbean Literature in English (1999). He has been associated with Wasafiri for thirty-five years.
Reflections of Kamau
‘Only a fool points at his origins with his left hand.’ The Akan proverb that prefaces Brathwaite’s Masks (1968) emphasises its author’s distinctive concern. While Derek Walcott, Wilson Harris and other Caribbean writers explored the cultural complexity of the area, Brathwaite focused on West Africa. Growing up in Bridgetown, Barbados, the first port of call for ships carrying slaves to the Caribbean, he experienced his epiphany after graduating from Cambridge University, while he was working as an Education Officer in Ghana. When he returned to England, he embarked on a doctoral thesis at Sussex on the African roots of Jamaica slave society, later changing his name from Lawson Edward to Kamau.
With two history degrees, he combined the introspective vision of a poet with an historian’s objective interest in the wider context. He launched the Caribbean Artists Movement in 1967 not only to bring together the artists of the region, but to create a new self-realisation among its peoples regardless of occupation, education or status. At CAM meetings, academics could rub shoulders with bus-drivers and nurses. His essay, ‘Jazz and the West Indian novel’ (in Bim, 1966-7), related literary aesthetics to Afro-American and Caribbean popular music; his study The History of the Voice (1984) affirmed that poetry should be rooted in the immediacy of the spoken word. In Mother Poem (1977) and X-Self (1978) he moved towards autobiography; his Middle Passages (1992) used computer-generated images to experiment with visual poetics. But across a widely varied oeuvre stood his passionate concern to root Caribbean arts in the life of its people, an ideal that had a liberating impact both within and beyond Afro-Caribbean literature.
I first met Kamau while lecturing at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, in 1963. My study stood immediately above his: our clicking typewriters sometimes echoed each other in the early morning quiet. He read me passages of a work in progress, which I was to hear him read again in London in I967, in the completed Rights of Passage. It was an occasion at which, with John la Rose and Andrew Salkey, Brathwaite launched the Caribbean Artists Movement. As a lecturer on Caribbean literature at the newly formed University of Kent, I helped this as an organiser, directing two CAM Conferences in Canterbury, and temporarily editing its Newsletter. CAM’S journal, Savacou (1970-9) was published when, as a movement, CAM was losing its impetus. But Brathwaite’s liberating inspiration survived and thrived. I will be forever in his debt.
Newcomers to Brathwaite’s work could not do better than begin with Rights of Passage (1967), ideally backed by his 1969 vibrant reading on Argos records. The Art of Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Stewart Brown (Seren, 1995), provides a useful survey of his many-sided achievements.
Elaine Savory has published widely on Caribbean and African literatures. Her most recent work is on Jean Rhys, but also in postcolonial environmental studies, focused on the Caribbean. Her new work in poetry, inspired by Kamau Brathwaite, is ‘The Miranda Journals’ presently in progress (an early poem sequence for this work appeared in Wasafiri). She has co-edited (with Erica Johnson) a new collection of essays, Wide Sargasso Sea At Fifty, is due out shortly (Palgrave). She teaches at The New School in New York City, in Literary Studies, and chairs Environmental Studies.
“it was all so sudden
it was all so very sudden
when your spirit said
I am going away
I am gone
may your journey now be straight going…
‘Wake’, The Arrivants, 208
For Kamau. Not addressed so out of familiarity but in deep respect for his adoption of this Kenyan name, bestowed upon him by the grandmother of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Colonisers rename people and places they claim. Decolonising means not only rethinking, reimagining, but renaming: his work taught us this.
He was a magician of words, cleansing and strengthening the good and writing powerfully against hatred, suspicion, oppression and fear. We so need him now. We witness in his work what we see in the world, suffering and death inflicted by relentless power and greed. But he insists that we hold to the radical defiance of love. His great elegy for 9/11, ‘Hawk’, marks many cruelties and disasters but affirms love. Coleman Hawkins plays ‘Body and Soul’ as the poem comes to a close, ‘even in the burn-/ing towers of this saxophone/o let me love you love you love you love you…’ (Born to Slow Horses)
After formative adult years in Ghana, he journeyed to discover Africa everywhere. He rightly addressed people of African descent first. But he was also inclusive. I directed Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’, in Barbados. A pale foreign woman. On opening night, he expressed his pleasure in the performance. Then he said, ‘I am just surprised that…’ And he stopped. I responded, ‘that someone like me would do something like this?’ We both laughed. The iconic writer, eminent and brilliant, had an unshakeable generosity of spirit. He didn’t judge books only by covers.
Where does a new reader begin, given his many works? First find a video of him reading (You Tube, if nothing else). To hear his gentle voice of authority was to be transformed, asked to lay down the protective armour of everyday life and embrace the imagination. Not to escape, rather to deepen and strengthen your own capacity for humanity. He might teach how to remember Anansi tricks to defeat power (there is something of Anansi in his character Caliban (X/Self)). Or as the griot historian, he made us know again the history and legacy of transatlantic slavery—a legacy of pain but also of endurance and survival, survival which is demonstrated in the creation of new cultures in the Caribbean and the United States
(The Arrivants). The famous poet of diaspora who lived most of his adult life away from Barbados (the UK, Ghana, Jamaica, New York), he always came home (Mother Poem, Sun Poem, Barabajan Poems) and he died there.
Remembering his voice and the sight of his hand keeping quiet tempo as he read, now go to the page. You might hear the heartbroken calm of the kidnapped, taken to the ships, ‘It will be a long long time before we see/this land again, these trees/again’ (‘New World A’Comin’). Or the clever tough voice of Caliban, recruiting the computer as his ally in subversion, ‘if you cyan beat prospero/whistle ….’ and ‘for nat one a we shd response if prospero get curse wid im own//curser’ ‘(Letter Sycorax’)
As a historian, Kamau demonstrated that the creolisation process brought influence from the oppressed to oppressor, not just the other way round: ‘(t)he friction created by this confrontation was cruel, but it was also creative.’ (Contradictory Omens). He was the environmentalist who saw everything in the world and the cosmos as one. In Barabajan Poems, he asked for concern for the non-human as well as the human world. As literary essayist, his ideas changed the way we read. He taught us to rename and reimagine what we thought we knew, with terms like “nation language” or his interpretation of “magical realism”. His comments have had powerful effects, as in impact on understanding Caribbean voices in poetry which came from the comment ‘the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.’ (‘History of the Voice’ in Roots).
His legacy? Attentive and open readers will be changed by the work. He taught us how to reimagine language itself. He made it fresh, strange, alive- he made it matter. He showed us how to strip the accretions of the world away (position, role, appearance) to attend critically to the core of ourselves. He changed the way we think of scribal and oral literature by the way he combined them. He made books which both remind of old illuminated manuscripts and reside in cyberspace, and he had us re-encounter hieroglyphics and words which shape-shift from expectation on the page but make, after his reader does a little work, profound new sense. So he changed how we think of crafting language.
Though he was so extraordinarily gifted, so achieved, his habitual tam and his loose dashiki shirt, and especially his manner, constantly reminded that the true mark of greatness is humility, that arrogance blocks creative energies. He taught us to understand ourselves in culture, on the earth, to remember the ancestors and to strive ourselves be worthy of becoming ancestors.
It is time for Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. Kamau’s poem ‘Jou’vert’ ends: ‘now waking/making//making/ with their//rhythms some-/thing torn//and new’. In this urgency of grief, let us try with all our energies to make something torn from habit, aware of and resistant to evil, and finding its newness in profound creation. Let us share his work, and show others how it changed us. The importance of his legacy is not only literary. It is also the never defeated hope of a just, more human world and the call to find community and to work to get there.