Barbados: Arts and Culture World Mourns the Late Edward Kamau Braithwaite

 By Sandy Deane | Barbados Today

Edward Kamau Braithwaite

The world of Caribbean arts and culture erupted in an outpouring of grief and tributes late Tuesday, 04 Feb 2020, with the death of iconic Barbadian man of letters and towering thinker, Edward Kamau Brathwaite. He would have turned 90 in May.

Brathwaite’s poetic trilogy The Arrivants – Rights of Passage, Masks and Islands, created between 1967 and 1969, was a landmark in the emergence of modern West Indies literature and established him as a unique voice from the postcolonial literature in English.

George Lamming remains the sole surviving Barbadian godfather of post-war Caribbean English literature with the passing of Braithwaite and last year’s passing of novelist Paule Marshall.       

Geoffrey Drayton, another contemporary, author of the 1959 novel Christopher, turns 96 next week.

Braithwaite coined the term ”nation language” and became an authority on creolisation in Caribbean culture. He is credited with extensive writing and thought in developing the concept of Creole identity, a predominantly Afrocentric theory drawing on the majority African heritage of Caribbean people.

Prime Minister Mia Mottley described Brathwaite as “easily one of the titans of post-colonial literature and the arts”.

She said: “His chronicling of our past through his magnificent works, shone a powerful light on the realities of our present and in turn, guided our sense of self and national identity.”

Chief Executive Officer Carol Roberts-Reifer who shared a deep friendship with the literary giant, lamented that while Brathwaite’s greatness was unparalleled, he never got the credit due in homeland, though it never diminished his stature as an icon.

She said; “It is a tremendous loss for Barbados, we have lost one of our foremost poets and academics, icons of literature and the arts and everything that it means to be a creative Barbadian.”

“Kamau’s legacy isn’t only pertinent to Barbadians and Barbados but to students of literature and arts the world over and as so often happens, he was revered more globally, some may argue than he was in his own place of birth but that in no way takes away from the power and magnitude and beauty of his collection of works which obviously is his lasting legacy.”

Ambassador to CARICOM David Comissiong, declaring he was particularly shaken by the news, said that only hours before he had written an email to Brathwaite’s sister Joan inquiring about the poet’s health.

Expressing regret that Brathwaite was not made a Nobel laureate, the prominent Pan-Africanist advocate said his legacy would forever live on, though he deserved more.

“I always thought of Kamau Brathwaite as our philosopher, our wise elder; I always envisage him as the wise shepherd who from his residence in Cow Pasture kept watch over our nation, kept watch over our people, kept watch over our culture, and it is sad to think that we no longer have this great man with us,” said Comissiong.

“I have always felt that we Barbadians have done ourselves a disservice by not making sufficient use of his tremendous body of work and I hope that his death will wake us up to the fact that even though he is no longer here with us in the flesh there is this tremendous body of work that he made for us  and it can enlighten us to know so much about ourselves.”

University of the West Indies at Cave Hill’s principal, the Most Honourable Professor Eudine Barriteau announced that the campus will mark his birthday on May 29 with the naming of a space that is to be called Golokwati, after one of the villages in Ghana, where he lived for a decade.

She said it would be a fitting honour for an intellectual whose erudite and often searing scholarship as an historian, literary artist, poet, teacher and critic, cemented his place in the Caribbean intellectual tradition and carved an indelible mark on the global cultural landscape.

She said: “He described [Golokwati] as one of the last human places where the “enslaves” rested on their trek from the interior (in this case the Volta Region) to the slave ships on the Ghanaian Coast.

“He said it was a place and concept found in his work [especially] the long poem MASKS and he would wish the Cave Hill recognition to be named within this history.”

“It is an undertaking that the UWI Cave Hill Campus intends to honour.” 

Lorna Goodison, Poet Laureate of Jamaica, said a “great light” has gone out of the world of poetry.

She told the Jamaica Observer: “I admired his refusal to play it safe.”

“He took chances and always exhorted younger poets to try new things…not to play it safe.”

“He was always exhorting the poets who came after him to launch out into the deep, take on the unknown.” 

“He was truly a poet of mystery and we will not see a light like his for a long, long time.”

Olive Senior, the Canadian-based Jamaican poet, novelist and short story writer posted on Facebook: “His legacy will never die.”

Also Read The Guardian UK report:

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 02/06/2020 at 1:26 am

    PAM SMITH wrote:

    Edward Kamau Brathwaite gave me yet another reason to be a proud Bajan. I would welcome a permanent memorial to the phenomenal Brathwaite. He was a thinker, philosopher, writer and artist of phenomenal magnitude. Brathwaite may have died but his legacy is that of a tremendous body of work.

    May he rest in peace to rise in glory.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 02/07/2020 at 3:17 am

    Eddie in the UK wrote:

    The passing of the old brigade whose work is done. Pity we do not acknowledge them and their contributions, until after they have left.

  • guyaneseonline  On 02/09/2020 at 1:56 am

    TWO REVIEWS /BY Cyril Dabydeen—published in World Literature Today (University of Oklahoma) in the early 90’s.

    Kamau Brathwaite, Middle Passages (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Bloodaxe Books, l992), pp.90.

    “Crabs snapped their claws/and scattered as he walked towards our shore,” says Kamau Brathwaite in his almost apocalyptically-wrought poem “Colombe” in Middle Passages: a collection that traces the disparate yet deliberate imperialistic elements that have combined to shape history of the so-called New World and Africa. Visionary at best but without vagueness that normally dissipates the aesthetic energy of such poetry, this present collection shows Brathwaite at the height of his powers. Of course, Brathwaite has always been a poet and thinker bent on refurbishing African identity in the Caribbean, not entirely unexpected in someone seeped in history (he teaches history at the University of the West Indies); moreover, Brathwaite’s famous trilogy on this theme, beginning with Arrivants (my own favorite), firmly established his reputation more than two decades ago and marked him as a literary icon in the region. His own reading style also augments this reputation: dramatic, with a remarkable lilt, cadenced throb and pound giving resonance and palpability through apt use of “nation language”. In the evocation of imagery, Brathwaite intertwines the demotic self with language, identity, and history; and through his increasing poetic maturity and sophistication, he continues to shape African and Caribbean history–all the disparate, fractured elements integrated into the whole where place and origins become symbiotic. Consequently, it is history’s impact on the self and the reclamation of it from the devastation brought about by slavery that Brathwaite focuses much of his energy.

    In Middle Passages, as in much of the earlier work, it is not unexpected that Brathwaite would see the loss of self as the X or unknown quotient of personality; thus, the poetic effort becomes the dramatic quest to reclaim that self as personhood. In the end the X self becomes the dynamic and positive other half of the individual in the resulting flux originally cast in the form of placelessness: the void then transformed through the sense of all the innate and inherent possibilities embedded in the human being as real self with one’s dignity intact. And perhaps in so powerfully identifying this aspect of his poetic drive, Brathwaite curtails the purely intuitive self as imaginative expression (often seen in Derek Walcott: the latter seems not patently locked in into the same shadow of space and history in shaping the self either as liberator or imprisoner of Caribbean man and woman).
    The various sections in Middle Passages attest to the range of history and ideas beginning with the acknowledgement of language in “Word Making Man” and continuing with “Colombe,” “Noon” (suggestive of African religion), “Duke” (Duke Wellington playing piano at 70), “Flute,” “Veridian,” “The Visibility Trigger,” “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” (a familiar theme), “Stone” (for Mickey Smith, the dub poet), “The Sahell of Donatello,” “Veridian,” “Soweto” (dedicated to the Mandellas), “Leopard,” “Letter Sycorax,”and “Irae.” While the sections are short, it is important to identify them as a way of tracing the organic-cum- poetic impulse as the images flow and intertwine to reveal their inner selves through naming history with the voice of acknowledgement and protest.
    Some of the strongest sections are: “Soweto,” where Brathwaite writes–“out of this dust they are coming/our eyes listen out of rhinoceros thunder/darkness of lion…”; “Veridian,” perhaps the most haunting poem here because of the driving power of the images coupled with incantation; and “Word Making Man,” with Caribbean Hispanic motifs and voice becoming integral with struggle and identification

    so that together we say wind
    & understand its history of ghosts

    together we say fire
    & again there is a future in those sparks
    together we say comrade friend

    we say this our land & know at last at last is our home….

    Kamau Brathwaite’s often stunning sweep and range accommodates an intense lyricism (not always fully acknowledged). The overall passion infused in his work and its unique sensibility are sufficient to put this poetry into a genre all by itself because of the invariably compelling nature of the voice where conventional syntax and orthography are reshaped (“mash up the language,” as Guyanese novelist Jan Carew describes it); as well as line-breaks, shape poetry, contractions, pastiche elements all creating their maximum effect through explosions of imagery coupled with an astonishing verbal tenderness which make Middle Passages the compelling and haunting book it is.

    By Cyril Dabydeen,

    Kamau Brathwaite, The Zea Mexican Diary: 7 Sept l926–7 Sept l986 (The University of Wisconsin Press, U.S. l993), pp.214.

    This is a departure from the usual Kamau Brathwaite fare: the vigour and pulse-beat of his unrelenting poetry dramatizing the unfortunate spoils of history and its impact on the African psyche in the so-called New World, and the reassertion of a people’s memory and vital presence. Here, in The Zea Mexican Diary, a sense of pathos, tenderness, is what pervades; we become witnesses to what is immensely personal, the passing of Brathwaite’s wife: “this irie dahta of Guyana,” as we are brought along in the journey over a sixty-year period of creation in Brathwaite’s depiction of the dimension of familial self (husband and lover), to share in the agony of loss of the woman the author fondly calls “Mexican.”
    This memoir-diary is not without distinctive elements of stream of consciousness and verbal pastiche, though not as deliberate or conventional technique. Here, as we observe the unique nature of organic form at work, we become aware of the intensely private and personal when Brathwaite recounts his late wife’s illness and final departure without the explosiveness of language we are sometimes accustomed to in his work.

    While I have met EKB (as Brathwaite is fondly known to those most familiar to him) on a few occasions in the Caribbean and elsewhere, I have never met Zea–and wished I did–a woman who has been with her husband since the early days: through Brathwaite’s years as a student in Britain and his travels and work in Africa before returning to the Caribbean (Brathwaite now teaches in New York). One gets the sense and unmistakeable impression that Zea was integral to his writing: perhaps a shaping, moulding force, the way one’s spouse or partner always is in a harmonious, supportive relationship; symbiotic even, until now fully acknowledged as Brathwaite gives testimony to his feelings and experience; and, perhaps: the creative act is never singular–we are told–but always dual, especially in the kind of poetry Brathwaite has written over the years–hardly self-reflexive, but representative of the community, often Afrocentric as is his overriding metaphor in the context of the colonized-imperialistic experience and the struggle or wrestle to salvage the self from the sense of the community’s loss or permanent void.
    Zea or “Mexican,” in this memoir of her “dying,” also brings out the fundamental image of Brathwaite as “BLACK ICON”: as she becomes a reason “for such a conscious honest woman to guard him and his seed.” An element of selfconsciousness, seen perhaps of passing on the black race is more than alluded to; but this is not always sustained. And overriding the feeling of loss is the sense that “words are not enough”: as if the book itself is speaking to the reader, echoing the words, with the memoir also speaking back to the author seen through shifting voices, spliced phrases, references to other writers’ and friends’ commentaries, phone messages, letters–all integrated: including words of solace from AJS (A.J.Seymour, the late Guyanese poet) who sends support in describing the loss he felt over his own wife’s death: all the “widowered images” that form and reform in the mind and imagination. This latter comprises the crux of Brathwaite’s style and presence, the unique way the words are printed on the page with the author’s indelible imprint and signature of X, and other self-indulgences of technique which to the average reader may become too intrusive, take away from the pathos, though it is distinctively–invariably and unequivocally–Brathwaite’s.


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