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Brathwaite, Edward Kamau

Brathwaite, Edward Kamau

May 11, 1930

The poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite was born to Hilton Edward and Beryl (Gill) Brathwaite in Barbados. He attended Harrison College and earned degrees from Cambridge University (B.A., 1953; Diploma of Education, 1954), and the University of Sussex (Ph.D., 1968). From 1955 to 1962 he was an officer in the Ministry of Education of Ghana, and he later balanced his teaching duties at the University of the West Indies (St. Lucia, Jamaica) with travel and work in England and the United States. In 1994 he was a visiting professor at New York University.

Brathwaite's earliest poetry collectionsRights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968), and Islands (1969)established him as a major talent. This autobiographical trilogy, collected as The Arrivants (1973), reflects the poet's contact with white cultures and Africa and explores the shaping of racial identities. In the volumes that followed, such as Other Exiles (1975), Sun Poem (1982), X/Self (1987), Middle Passages (1992), Trenchtown Rock (1993), Words Need Love Too (2000), and Ancestors (2001), he highlights global concerns from a remarkable array of African, European, and Caribbean perspectives. His poetry is characterized by a deft interweaving of voices, innovative fonts, and vivid renderings of black speech and music, particularly jazz.

In addition to more than ten volumes of poetry, Brathwaite has worked as a playwright (Odale's Choice, 1967), essayist (Caribbean Man in Space and Time, 1974), editor (New Poets from Jamaica, 1979), and contributor to periodicals. Roots, a 1986 history of Caribbean literature and culture, won the Casa de las Americas Prize for Literary Criticism. The Zea Mexican Diary (1993) is a memoir chronicling his wife's illness and death from cancer.

Brathwaite's other honors include Guggenheim (1972) and Fulbright fellowships and the Institute of Jamaica Musgrave Medal (1983). In 1994 he received the $40,000 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Sponsored by World Literature Today and the University of Oklahoma, the award recognized Brathwaite for being what the Ghanian author Kofi Awoonor called "a poet of the total African consciousness."

See also Literature


Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. The Zea Mexican Diary. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Breines, Laurence A. "Edward Kamau Brathwaite." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 125, Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers. 2nd series. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1993.

"Kamau Brathwaite." In Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 36, edited by Ashyia Henderson. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2002.

Salkey, Andrew. "Barbados." World Literature Today (Summer 1983): 500.

dekker dare (1996)
Updated bibliography

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Brathwaite, Kamau 1930–

Kamau Brathwaite 1930

Poet and scholar

At a Glance

Selected works


Among the many writers of the African diaspora who have attempted to incorporate the speech patterns of African-descended peoples into modern literary forms, the Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite stands out for the variety and experimentation displayed in his work. Brathwaite has lived in the Caribbean, in Britain, in Africa, and in the United States over his four-decade career, and his creative output has displayed a similar restlessness; his poetry has attempted to find a new language in which to describe the West Indian identity and its roots in the experiences of slavery and colonialism. In addition to his vigorous production of poetry, Brathwaite has penned writings in other forms ranging from the scholarly monograph to the childrens book.

Kamau Brathwaite was born Lawson Edward Brathwaite in Bridgetown, the capital city of Barbados, on May 11, 1930. It was in 1976, after he had begun to publish his linguistically original fusions of Afro-Caribbean dialect and modern poetry, that he took the name Edward Kamau Brathwaite, and from the 1990s onward he has called himself simply Kamau Brathwaite. His father was a warehouse clerk. Brathwaites writing career began with his attendance at a top Barbadian private school, Harrison College. By 1950 he was publishing stories, poetry, and nonfiction in the literary magazine Bim, a periodical that nurtured the early careers of several important Caribbean writers.

Winning a Barbados Scholarship for study in England, Brathwaite attended top-flight Cambridge University. He graduated with an honors degree in history in 1953 and earned a teaching certificate the following year. In an autobiographical essay quoted in the British Observer newspaper, Brathwaite wrote, I found and felt myself rootless on arrival in England and, like so many other West Indians of the time, more than ready to accept and absorb the culture of the mother country. I was, in other words, a potential Afro-Saxon. Nevertheless, Brathwaite soon changed direction. Inspired by the coming nationhood of Britains West African colonies, he took a job as a school inspector in Ghana just as that country was approaching independence.

He traveled through Ghanas small villages and absorbed its traditional cultures. It was wonderful, he told the Washington Post. The word I use is de-education. All the apparatus of my upbringing was decentered when I got to Ghana. Other values, other histories, other ways of perceiving the universe became available to me, and they all made a great difference to a would-be poet. While in Ghana Brathwaite wrote childrens books and plays, and studied with the African musicologist J. H. Kwabena Nketia; musical rhythms of various kinds would later appear in his poetry.

Newly married, Brathwaite returned to the Caribbean in 1962 and took a faculty position at the St. Lucia campus of the University of the West Indies, moving to the universitys main branch in Mona, Jamaica, the following year. He became involved with the rapidly rising tide of Caribbean writing in the 1960s, created programming for the Windward Islands radio network of the British Broadcasting Service (BBC), and worked toward his Ph.D. degree at Britains University of Sussex, receiving his doctorate in 1968. His dissertation examined the development of Creolemixed-racesociety in Jamaica between 1770 and 1820,

At a Glance

Born Lawson Edward Brathwaite on May 11, 1930, in Bridgetown, Barbados; son of Hilton Brathwaite, a warehouse clerk, and Beryl Gill Brathwaite; married Doris Monica Welcome, a teacher and librarian, March 26, 1960 (deceased); children: one son. Education: Pembroke College, Cambridge University, B.A; University of Sussex, doctoral degree, 1968.

Career: Ministry of Education of Ghana, education officer, 1955-62; University of the West Indies, St. Lucia campus, tutor, 1962-63; University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica campus, lecturer 1963-72, senior lecturer in history, 1972, reader in history, 1976, full professor of social and cultural history, 1982; published first book of poetry, Rights of Passage, 1967; guest professorships at Harvard University, Yale University; ongoing guest appointment, New York University.

Selected memberships: Founding member, Caribbean Artists Movement, 1966.

Selected awards: Casa de las Americas Prize for Poetry, 1976; Fulbright fellowship, 1982; Neustadt International Prize for Literature, 1994.

Addresses: Office Department of Comparative Literature, New York University, 19 University Pl., New York, NY 10003.

and he has argued that West Indian creole dialects, the so-called nation languages of the Caribbean which mix African and English features, should be incorporated into the regions educational systems.

Brathwaite has continued to win high regard for his scholarly writings, which have dealt with literature, Caribbean history, and postcolonial identity. But his most important activity of the late 1960s was his forging of an entirely original poetic language. His breakthrough volumes, Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968), and Islands (1969) were well-known enough by 1973 to be issued in a single volume, entitled The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. Brathwaites style is, as many observers have noted, difficult to reproduce on the conventional printed page or even to illustrate with quotations. He often employs Caribbean dialect or other black speech patterns in short, broken-up fragments. Thematically Brathwaites poetry tends to have a historical aspect; his poems are populated with a variety of figures who illustrate the ways that the horrors of the Middle Passage and the experiences of slavery shaped the modern Caribbean region.

Brathwaites poetry is strongly rhythmic and tends to come alive most of all when read aloud. Nevertheless, it is tied to the printed page in another of its most characteristic aspects: Brathwaite tends to cast his poems in unusual visual designs. He experiments with fonts and unorthodox page layouts, attempting to capture the qualities of Caribbean speech and to question the image of authority possessed by print in its conventional look. The advent of personal computing and word processing proved highly congenial for Brathwaite, who works on a computer and has rewritten some of his earlier poems to bring them in line with his continually evolving style.

Continuing to publish academic studies such as Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica (1972) and The Colonial Encounter: Language (1984), Brathwaite has made a living largely as an educator. He rose through the academic hierarchy at the University of the West Indies, becoming senior lecturer in history in 1972, reader in 1976, and a full professor of social and cultural history in 1982. Brathwaite has served as a visiting professor at Harvard and Yale universities, and in the 1990s became professor of comparative literature at New York University. Brathwaites work began to receive greater attention in the United States after he received the 1994 Neustadt Prize, a literary honor of international significance whose previous winners included the Latin American novelist Octavio Paz.

Brathwaites production of poetry was consistent throughout his career and never slowed down even as he approached senior-citizen status. His work always moved fluidly between the personal and the social, and his explorations of Caribbean history were also excavations of his own individual past; the trilogy of Mother Poem (1977), Sun Poems (1982), and X/Self (1987) situated Brathwaites own family in his countrys history, and The Zea Mexican Diary (1986; published 1993) was dedicated to the poets wife, Doris, who was stricken with terminal cancer.

A traveler even into old age, Brathwaite continued to divide his time between New York and the Caribbean. He found that the deepening exploration of Caribbean language in his poetry required the nourishment of island roots. The language changes so rapidly, and the kind of work I do is sensitive to that, he told the Washington Post. If you leave the Caribbean for a year you already begin to feel out of touch. Brathwaites continuing interest in Caribbean life was manifested in such works as the reggae-themed poetry collection Trenchtown Rock (1993) and LX the Love Axe/l: Developing a Caribbean Aesthetic (2002). Indeed, future chroniclers of Caribbean creativity will certainly have to acquaint themselves with the work of Kamau Brathwaite.

Selected works

Rights of Passage, 1967.

Masks, 1968.

Islands, 1969.

The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, 1973.

Other Exiles, 1975.

Days and Nights, 1975.

Black and Blues, 1976.

Mother Poem, 1977.

Soweto, 1979.

World Making Man: A Poem for Nicolas Guillen, 1979.

Sun Poem, 1982.

Third World Poems, 1983.

X/Self, 1987.

The Zea Mexican Diary, 1986, pub. 1993.

Trenchtown Rock, 1993.

Roots, 1993.



Contemporary Poets, 7th ed., St. James, 2001.


Booklist, October 1, 1995, p. 246.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 4, 1999, p. B4.

The Observer (London, England), November 24, 1996, p. Review-2.

Publishers Weekly, January 1, 2001, p. 89.

Washington Post, March 23, 1997, p. X15.

World Literature Today, Autumn 1994, p. 750.


Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale Group, 2002,

James M. Manheim

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