Brathwaite, Edward Kamau 1930–

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Edward Kamau Brathwaite 1930-

(Born Lawson Edward Brathwaite) Barbadian poet, essayist, historian, and critic.

For additional information on Brathwaite's career, see Black Literature Criticism Supplement.


Counted among the most significant West Indian poets, Brathwaite is also a highly regarded historical and literary-historical scholar. His works explore the nature of Caribbean identity and the dichotomies inherent in the search for cultural selfhood. Brathwaite's poetry and essays freqeuntly juxtapose the African heritage of West Indians with the effects of European colonization. Despite the complex ambiguities of West Indian national identity and a past steeped in the oppression of colonization and slavery, critics have asserted that Brathwaite approaches such themes with little angst or pessimism. His works consistently seek to expose elements of the Caribbean cultural past that have previously been repressed as a result of European domination. Brathwaite's verse demonstrates his love of jazz and his affinity for Caribbean vernacular. Reviewers extol both his poetry and prose, maintaining his work exhibits a thorough understanding of historical subtleties coupled with an earnestness and sophistication.


Born in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1930, Brathwaite is part of a population of Caribbean islanders of African descent. At the time, the island was under British colonial rule. At the elite Harrison College, where Brathwaite was enrolled in the late 1940s, he and some friends started a school newspaper. He contributed mainly jazz-related essays, and he also began publishing poetry in the paper and in a literary journal (Bim.) In 1949, Brathwaite was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge. There he studied history and English and graduated with honors in 1953. From 1955 to 1962, Brathwaite worked as a member of the British colonial service on the Gold Cost, which became Ghana. The British Broadcasting Corporation aired over fifty of his poems between 1953 and 1958 on the program Caribbean Voices. On a leave of absence from his post in Ghana, Brathwaite met teacher and librarian Doris Monica Welcome, whom he married in 1960. They had one child together, a son. In England again, Brathwaite began work on his doctoral degree at the University of Sussex in 1965; he was awarded his Ph.D. in history in 1968 for research on slave and Creole culture in the Caribbean. During this time he created a portion of the poetry trilogy, The Arrivants (1973). He also was pivotal in the creation of the Caribbean Arts Movement in 1966 and became the founding editor of the movement's journal, Savacou, which was established in 1970. After receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, Brathwaite began composing another trilogy of poems: Mother Poem (1977), Sun Poem (1982), and X/Self (1987). During the 1970s Brathwaite began using the name Kamau, which was given to him in Ghana. In 1991 he moved to the United States to work in the Comparative Literature Department at New York University. In addition to the Guggenheim fellowship, Brathwaite was also awarded a Fulbright fellowship and, in 1994, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.


Although his historical analyses and works of literary criticism are highly regarded, Brathwaite has earned his reputation as a writer through his poetry. The two trilogies and other poetry collections including Black and Blues (1976) all recount a cultural history of the African heritage of Caribbean people. The works also demonstrate the deeply personal nature of Brathwaite's search for belonging and his striving toward an understanding of his cultural identity. The poems in The Arrivants traverse both space and time, allowing Brathwaite the opportunity to portray the alienation of African slaves who traveled to the West Indies as well as to North America. The second poetic trilogy extends the exploration of the themes of selfhood, exile, and redemption, but it focuses more intently on Barbados. Throughout these poems, Brathwaite draws on the rhythms of native Caribbean speech patterns as well as those of jazz music. He produces unique experiments in language and form through assonance and wordplay and varying line formations. In 2001 Brathwaite presented the trilogy of older poems (Mother Poem, Sun Poem, and X/Self) in a new format as Ancestors, with passages from newspapers and historical texts adding another layer to the presentation of his work. Words Need Love Too (2000) is a collection of newer verse presented in a more conventional form. The individual poems interface with one another like dialogue and retain Brathwaite's characteristic experiments with sound and voice.


Reflecting Brathwaite's search for cultural identity, his poetry is filled with the same complexities and ambiguities as his prose. He explores the interplay between the experiences of a black West Indian whose perspective shifted after his time in Africa and those of a man seeking to shed the influences of colonialism and excavate the true spirit of Caribbean culture and nationalism. In the past, critics have focused on the natural imagery in Brathwaite's poems as well as the influence of jazz rhythms and the cadence of Caribbean folk speech patterns. More recently, critics have offered fresh appraisals of the influence of Brathwaite's study of the African heritage of West Indians on his poetry. Glyne A. Griffith has emphasized that following Brathwaite's return from his many years in Ghana as an education officer, the poet was able to contextualize, both historically and artistically, his exile to and return from Africa. Griffith has contended that as a cultural observer and critic Brathwaite excels at exploring the subtle ambiguities of being a black West Indian. The critic has further noted the deeply hopeful nature of Brathwaite's attitude and has found his work imbued with a characteristically West Indian survival instinct. Emily Allen Williams has observed in Brathwaite's poetry a journey, complete with historical, social, and psychological components, through the experience of European colonization. Identifying in Brathwaite's poems a resistance to both his African and his Caribbean heritage, Williams has also explored the poet's apparent frustration with his divided self. Despite the complexities of his emotional response to his heritage, and in spite of the current of frustration and anger in Brathwaite's poetry, Williams has maintained that Brathwaite's work is not pessimistic and that he embraces his roots and the history of his country as an avenue toward an understanding of selfhood.


Four Plays for Primary Schools (play) 1964

"Jazz and the West Indian Novel" (essay) 1967

Rights of Passage (poetry) 1967

Masks (poetry) 1968

Islands (poetry) 1969

Creative Literature of the British West Indies during the Period of Slavery (criticism) 1970

*The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (poetry) 1973

Contradictory Omens (history) 1974

Days and Nights (poetry) 1975

Other Exiles (poetry) 1975

Black and Blues (poetry) 1976

Mother Poem (poetry) 1977

Wars of Respect: Nanny, Sam Sharpe, and the Struggle for People's Liberation (history) 1977

Barbados Poetry, 1661-1979 (history) 1979

Kumina (poetry) 1982

Sun Poem (poetry) 1982

Third World Poems (poetry) 1983

History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (history) 1984

X/Self (poetry) 1987

Middle Passages (poetry) 1992

Trenchtown Rock (poetry) 1993

The Zea Mexican Diary, 7 Sept 1926-7 Sept 1986 (poetry) 1993

Barabajan Poems, 1942-1992 (poetry) 1994

DreamStories (fiction) 1994

Words Need Love Too (poetry) 2000

Ancestors (poetry) 2001

Ark (poetry) 2004

Born to Slow Horses (poetry) 2005

*Contains Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands.

Contains X/Self, Mother Poem, and Sun Poem.


Glyne A. Griffith (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Griffith, Glyne A. "Kamau Brathwaite as Cultural Critic." In The Art of Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Stewart Brown, pp. 75-85. Mid Glamorgan, Wales: Seren, 1995.

[In the following essay, Griffith identifies in Brathwaite's essays an undercurrent of cultural criticism that is informed by Brathwaite's sense of optimism in the face of the struggles and ambiguities inherent in the black West Indian experience.]

The critical and creative writing of Kamau Brathwaite forges a connection and foregrounds the idea of a continuum between African and West Indian "folk" culture. Brathwaite's work emphasizes the strength and resilience of West Indian "folk" culture in its relentless struggle against those ideologies which seek to banish ex-African cultural vestiges in the West Indies to the margins of Western cosmology. Brathwaite's nine year sojourn in Ghana as an education officer provided him with the exposure which facilitated his recognition of African cultural elements in his West Indian homeland. Thus upon his return to the West Indies he was able to locate his exile and return in its historical as well as its artistic context. Brathwaite indicates that:

I had, at that moment of return, completed the triangular trade of my historical origins. West Africa had given me a sense of place, of belonging; and that place and belonging, I knew, was the West Indies. My absence and travels, at the same time, had given me a sense of movement and restlessness-rootlessness. It was, I recognised, particularly the condition of the Negro in the West Indies and the New World.1

Restlessness and a feeling of rootlessness precipitate the quest for a sense of belonging, a belonging with its source in Africa and its urgency of recognition in the West Indies. Brathwaite is at pains to explore an aesthetic which takes full account of the particularities of West Indian experience. He eschews a theory of the aesthetic which purports ahistoricism, and recognizes the political implications of all hermeneutic structures. Locating the raw material of West Indian experience in the tragedy of human and material exploitation, and more importantly in the survival strategies of the oppressed, Brathwaite places the "folk" or common sensibility at the centre of his theoretical explorations.

The use of "common" to characterise what Brathwaite refers to as "folk" sensibility is useful because of its ambiguous nature. The "folk" sensibility as an artistic resource is "common" because it is the collective discourse of West Indian communities in their struggle to assert their West Indianness. However, the sensibility of the "folk" is also regarded as "common" from the vantage point of a bourgeois sensibility which characterises the response of the masses as variously untutored and philistine. It is this implicitly problematic idea of a "folk" sensibility which Brathwaite engages in order to explore the possibility of a Caribbean aesthetic.

As cultural critic, Brathwaite seizes on the ambiguities and paradoxes of the Black West Indian experience to reveal a deep-rooted sense of hope and an irrepressible spirit of survival. Brathwaite's mission, as defined by Gordon Rohlehr in his critique of Rites of Passage 2 (but which is certainly applicable to the thrust of Brathwaite's polemic in many of his critical essays) may be understood as contrapuntal to the kind of nihilism and pessimism represented in some West Indian writing (for example, much of the despair and alienation in the fiction of V. S. Naipaul or the type of existentialist despair in Orlando Patterson's The Children of Sisyphus (1964). In this sense, Brathwaite's critical stance may be understood as anti-Modernist. It is as though for Brathwaite, the West Indian writer has to acknowledge the positives of West Indian tradition, grounded in "folk" sensibility, before exhausting the potential of Modernism's rejection of tradition. Indeed in the concluding arguments of ‘Jazz and the West Indian Novel’ Brathwaite indicates that the sort of West Indian novel which he would view as progressive would probably be defined by its contrast to typical Modernist concerns:

… The conflicts which give this kind of novel [the West Indian novel] meaning will not be Faustian conflicts of self-seeking knowledge or the Existentialist stoicism of alienation.3

The emphasis is placed on a sensibility and a tradition which is communal rather than individualistic. Brathwaite's focus is not on the 'I' of the Freudian ego but on the ‘I’ & ‘I’ of communality, such as is represented by Rastafarian consciousness. Indeed, in his espousal of a ‘Jazz’ theory as literary critique, Brathwaite has highest praise for Roger Mais' second published novel Brother Man (1954). In this novel, Mais' protagonist is the Rastafarian Brother Man, and Brathwaite highlights the novel's emphasis on community. In an attempt to elucidate his theory of the ‘Jazz’ novel, Brathwaite links sections of the novel which foreground community with the dialectic between improvisation and stated theme in Jazz compositions. Although the idea of examining prose fiction in the context of Jazz performance is difficult to promote as praxis, Brathwaite's thesis has merit.

Just as Jazz functioned in North America and elsewhere as a form of cultural resistance and aesthetic counterpoint to mainstream Anglo-American music and the European Classical tradition, the West Indian novel, Brathwaite argues, functioned (and still functions) as an important means of resistance to the hegemonic force of Colonial imperatives in the West Indies. Strategies of resistance, specifically African-American resistance to mainstream ideology in music, and Afro-Caribbean resistance to mainstream cultural ideology in literature, draw these entirely different modes of expression together in Brathwaite's thesis. The correspondence made between Jazz and the West Indian novel might be understood in one sense as an application of the Pan-African theme to forge a link between disparate artistic genres. Such a correspondence which, as indicated above, is problematic as literary praxis is nevertheless coherent at the level of ideology. Just as Jazz may be understood as having grown out of the Black struggle to assert identity in the face of a repressive sociopolitical reality which denied Black selfhood, so too the ‘Jazz’ novel may be seen as an assertion of Afrocentricity in the West Indies. This is the ideologically valid correspondence which Brathwaite establishes in ‘Jazz and the West Indian Novel’.

Gordon Rohlehr recounts an incident in Pathfinder in which the young Brathwaite was upbraided by Thelma Hackett for playing avant-garde Jazz on a Rediffusion programme in Barbados. Brathwaite was visiting with Frank Collymore who was the editor of Bim for many years, and Thelma Hackett, also Collymore's friend, criticized Brathwaite's choice of music for the local radio programme organized by the latter. As Rohlehr comments:

Brathwaite's interest in jazz certainly did survive the disapproval of the culture élite, just as [Derek] Walcott's passion for drama survived the denunciation of St Lucia's Roman Catholic clergy in the same era.4

Interestingly, in the resistance encountered by Brathwaite and Walcott we get a glimpse of the two main resistances to the rise of Afrocentric culture in the West Indies; petit bourgeois elitism and Eurocentric religious practice. Brathwaite's effort in his critical explorations may be characterised as a re-evaluation of those ex-African cultural vestiges in the West Indies which have been degraded by Eurocentric ideology and consequently repressed or rejected by mainstream thought and practice in the West Indies. Thus Gordon Rohlehr's comment on the aim and purpose of The Arrivants is also true of Brathwaite's criticism; indeed Brathwaite's entire body of critical and creative writing "… can therefore be seen as a work involving the slow reclamation of spiritual ground through the re-education of a Black mind towards the acceptance of its past, its face, and its ground".5

The reclamation of this spiritual and ideological ground can provide the West Indian artist with a valuable resource to challenge and overcome his "poetic precursors", recalling Harold Bloom's phrase, and offer some resolution to his "anxiety of influence". The reassertion of African cultural influence in the West Indies destabilizes Eurocentric representations of West Indian ontology and provides the possibility of artistically mediating European hegemony in the region. This is the valuable artistic and ultimately political potential which Brathwaite recognizes in the reclamation process. Without accepting the value of and need for such spiritual and ideological reclamation, the West Indian is doomed to exist in a perpetual twilight zone of ‘invisibility’ reminiscent of the victimized protagonist in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Gordon Rohlehr acknowledges the political and ontological intent of Brathwaite's polemic when he states that:

The entire point of Rights of Passage has been that void and a sense of "nothing" in Black history have been the result of a failure on the part of Black people, including creative writers who function as historians of the sensibility, to place positive value on what has been created. The [Black] remains "invisible" so long as he refuses his own tradition of both pain and craftsmanship.6

Thus Brathwaite's continuing emphasis is on the apocalyptic vision, the revelation that in fact refutes V. S. Naipaul's claim7 and asserts unabashedly that much was created in the West Indies by marginalized peoples, mis-represented in Eurocentric discourse as lack and void.

Rohlehr's characterisation of West Indian creative writers as "historians of the sensibility" is an important point which Brathwaite himself examines in ‘Metaphors of Underdevelopment: A Proem for Hernan Cortez’. In this syncretic narrative combining poetry and prose, Brathwaite addresses, among other issues, the question of the West Indian critic's relevance and responsibility to West Indian society. He argues that:

… [O]ur literary criticism is really meaningless unless it is grounded in historical psycho-analysis; because what our writers are witnesses of—thanks to their especial sensibilities and powers of expression—is the effect of cultural catastrophe on the west indian mind and action … and the point of our literature is that we are describing spectres on a scale of value/movement, without being aware of the total graph or plan. it is this which accounts for our-persisting literary characteristic (which is also our persisting cultural characteristic), the contradiction, the dichotomy, the paradox … so we have lyric slavery, romantic violence, rape as survival rhythm, peace as a hollow silence, howl's opposite. so that as writers, supposedly objective perceivers of the probe and problem, we remain trapped in the maelstrom of frustration, trapped and imprisoned within the detonations of our own fragmented worlds.

          ‘Metaphors of Underdevelopment: A Proem for
          Hernan Cortez’

I have quoted Brathwaite at length here because the ideas expressed in this section of ‘Metaphors of Underdevelopment’ reveal his sense of the necessary connectedness of the literary and the historical; Brathwaite, as indicated earlier, eschews ahistorical criticism. Additionally, this excerpt undermines the reification of historical tragedy as trope. In other words, the creative and critical transformation of oppression and marginalization into a signification system that foregrounds its own autonomy through historical disinterestedness, tends to promote the word as fetish. Such creative and critical practice reifies the word as signifier without responsibility to a signified, and represents the word as of the world but not in it.

As Brathwaite argues, in the West Indies, the persisting literary characteristic of contradiction, dichotomy and paradox becomes the persisting cultural characteristic. The ambiguity and paradox promoted by the New Criticism ironically becomes a modus vivendi for the people of the putative New World, and a poetics of indecisiveness seeks to diffuse cultural confrontation with the cool detachment of formalism.

Derek Walcott, for example, examines the cultural and ontological schizophrenia of West Indian personality in ‘A Far Cry from Africa’. The persona in the poem, trapped metaphysically between Africa and Europe comments:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?8

Significantly, the choice is represented as one between a physical Africa and a metaphysical English Language. This New World Caliban curses the Prospero of colonial rule but is unable to motivate himself beyond invective. He thus remains spiritually and epistemologically, a far cry from Africa. Indeed, as long as the historical inter-relationship of Europe and Africa is dichotomized in this way, the West Indian personality will always be spiritually and culturally distanced from Africa and from self-awareness. Brathwaite's theoretical arguments seem to indicate the need within the West Indian personality to view its complex ontology as an aspect of wholeness, rather than fragmentation. Brathwaite's position implies that the fetishization of "schizophrenia" as West Indian literary and cultural trope is in fact a methodological and ontological cul-desac. He states:

what i am saying within this tidal metaphor of historical and cultural equilibrium/disequilibrium, is that the nature of our catastrophe, the effects we feel, have ancient, subterranean but identifiable sources; that our condition: frustration, exploitation, underdevelopment, slavery, colonialism; our very sense of self and literature itself; stems from the original empire on which we impinge, from which the metaphors of our public and official language flow.

          ‘Metaphors of Underdevelopment: A Proem for
          Hernan Cortez’

Brathwaite sets the West Indian struggle for self-awareness in its psycho-historical context. His argument indicates that there is no progress to be made by privileging fragmentary and "schizophrenic" notions of West Indian selfhood. The persona represented in Walcott's ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ will always be spiritually and politically paralysed by divided notions of selfhood and misguided notions of impossible choice until he reintegrates the physical world with the metaphysical, and the public with the private. His grounding of selfhood demands recognition of a correspondence between the historical nature of his love for the English tongue and the historical nature of failure in Africa, a failure from which he would turn if he could. The language which Walcott's persona loves cannot be sanitized of its ideological and cultural imperatives for aesthetic purposes. As an aspect of cultural hegemony in colonial Africa it is implicated in the ‘horror’ of the Continent. Thus the dilemma of the persona in Walcott's poem is not precipitated by the impossibility of choosing between Africa and the English language; it is produced by an unwillingness to acknowledge that Africa's underdevelopment lives in the linguistic unconscious of the English language which he wants to oppose to the tragedy of Africa. He is unwilling to recognize the interrelatedness of politics and aesthetics, and wishes instead to represent them as thesis and antithesis rather than synthesis.

Brathwaite's emphasis on the historical grounding of literary and cultural criticism leads him to an understanding of West Indian ontology as part of an Old World as well as a New World tradition. Recognising that Africa has been misrepresented as a passive rather than active participant in both traditions, Brathwaite's work attempts to redress the imbalance. Indeed, the process of reconnecting contemporary West Indian social and cultural expressions with their African past undermines the putative "newness" of West Indian "folk" culture. Brathwaite's methodological approach may be seen to parallel Michel Foucault's genealogical studies.9

The difference however is that where Foucault's genealogical analyses are concerned with Western epistemologies and the history of Western thought, Brathwaite's studies are concerned with the genealogy of West Indian ontology, the coming into being of West Indian peoples. Since Brathwaite's approach is genealogical, he does not represent the West Indian personality as fragmentary and disconnected. The "schizophrenic" West Indian psyche does not hold the creative promise for Brathwaite that it has held for some other critics.10 As indicated already, Brathwaite sees the notion of creative "schizophrenia" as problematic at best, if not finally as the debilitating force which it is recognised to be in clinical psychology. Brathwaite states that:

in the end, the final joke and paradox, (no wonder, then, that some of us begin to emulate the literature of the existentialist absurd), our themes and style become a celebration of the broken word and world; cul de sac indulgences; lacking in historical perspective and therefore lacking in a cultural shape and hope … we accommodate ourselves, therefore, to our own catastrophe; and so we reinforce, not force our psyches out of it.
          ‘Metaphors of Underdevelopment: A Proem for
          Hernan Cortez’

For this reason there is little hope in the notion of a West Indian creative "schizophrenia". This "schizophrenia" is a symptom of the unwillingness and finally the inability to reconcile colonial atrocity with the English (or for that matter French, Spanish, Dutch or Portu- guese) tongue which the Caribbean persona loves. The "schizophrenic" West Indian psyche, unwilling and unable to reconcile conflicting personalities eventually destroys and/or self-destructs.

Brathwaite recognises that the history of cultural conflict between Africa and Europe demands a far more politicized literary response from the West Indian critic than the shibboleth of creative "schizophrenia" provides. Diagrammatically he represents European culture in phallic terms:

… i characterise that particular kind of culture, a missile culture: its symbols are the castle, spear, arrow, gothic cathedral spire.
          ‘Metaphors of Underdevelopment: A Proem for
          Hernan Cortez’

African culture and indeed all "subsistence" cultures as Brathwaite calls them, exploited by "missile" culture are represented as "circle, hole or target" (‘Metaphors of Underdevelopment’, 473). The sexual imagery is obvious, and Brathwaite characterizes the context in which phallus penetrates circle as an "… obscure but fatal built-in attraction between the two fields or forces" (‘Metaphors of Underdevelopment’, 473).

Representing European and African (or indeed ‘Third World’) culture in this manner may seem to invite the indictment that Brathwaite has oversimplified a complex relationship and resorted to the same stereotypes which were perpetuated by colonialist and imperialist ideology. However, the pejorative connotations attributable to Brathwaite's metaphors derive from a history of abuse of distinctive masculine and feminine characteristics; the characteristic traits are not themselves intrinsically problematic. Thus it is not that Brathwaite has fallen victim to imperialist stereotypes, but rather that a historically overdetermined masculinity and repressed femininity have exploited characteristics which have the potential to be mutually beneficial and supportive. Brathwaite's diagrammatic representation traces historical abuse and exploitation, calcified into stereotype. Indeed Brathwaite's metaphor echoes Rex Nettleford's assessment of a European domination predicated upon science. Nettleford states that:

… [I]t was out of this [overdetermined science] that emanated that spirit which sent Europeans into the colonies which were seen as objects to be explored, penetrated, assaulted with impunity and mastered. The notion that Nature (the analogy of colonies) could be approached on its own terms, embraced and respected rather than brutalized and dominated, was foreign to that spirit of conquest. That spirit became entrapped in a determinism which all but negated that other side of the scientific tradition which sees exploration of observable data as a liberating influence through the further doubts such exploration creates and the ignorance it reveals.11

Brathwaite's analyses as cultural and literary critic are intended to offer the possibility of release for both dominated and dominating spirit, although his emphasis is justifiably on the dominated and repressed forces of Afrocentric culture in the West Indies.

Concentrating on cultural traits, mythologies and memories which were marginalized by Eurocentric expediency, Brathwaite's critiques often privilege the voice. In ‘Jazz and the West Indian Novel’, the integration of politics and aesthetics in the essay is supported by the essay's deference to the sound of the ‘Jazz’ novel. In other words, Brathwaite's analysis of Roger Mais' Brother Man for example, emphasizes the sound sense of passages in the novel as the essay explores the correspondence between Jazz and this West Indian novel. This concentration on sound, the voice and orality, often marginalized by the efficacy of the literate, is given more detailed treatment in History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry.

History of the Voice addresses the concept of "nation language", an oral/scribal configuration in West Indian poetry, characterized as Brathwaite argues, by a conversational mode of expression which seeks to break out of the pentameter. "Nation Language" as a concept, attempts to redress the imbalance precipitated by Western emphasis on the scribal. Brathwaite's attempt to overcome the imbalance between the scribal and oral may be examined in the context of Frantz Fanon's discussion of native resistance strategies leading up to and following decolonization. Significantly, Brathwaite's concept is grounded in the idea of a ‘nation’ or national mode of expression; as Fanon argues, the native intellectual must be careful not to obscure national cultural expression in the attempt to subvert colonialist ideology. The tendency to do so results from the particular nature of colonial cultural imposition. Fanon indicates that colonial hegemony did not denigrate individual cultures as it widened its geographical grip, but worked to devalue pre-colonial history on an international scale. Thus, all African culture, or the pre-colonial history of Islam for example, was distorted rather than the individual cultural values of particular colonized nations.12 Therefore the native intellectual who seeks to redress colonial cultural imbalance by concentrating on an all-embracing African, Islamic or Indian culture for example, runs the risk of being oblivious to the cultural particularities of his own nation and people.

Brathwaite's concept of "nation language" surmounts this difficulty by locating the particularity of "nation language" in the complexity of West Indian registers and dialects, and fixing the commonality of it in re- gional resistance to colonialism's imperatives. He concentrates on the orality and other cultural practices of the "folk", drawing upon the ex-African cultural vestiges which infuse their West Indian reality.

Although he emphasizes orality in his "nation language" model, Brathwaite is cognisant of criticism's need to find a balance between the oral and scribal. He does not merely reverse the configuration which privileges the scribal over the oral, by fetishizing orality, but argues for a balanced approach:

To confine our definitions of literature to written contexts in a culture that remains ital in most of its people proceedings, is as limiting as its opposite: trying to define Caribbean literature as essentially orature.

          History of the Voice, 49

Furthermore, Brathwaite moves beyond purely formal considerations of "nation language" to assert the sociopolitical nature and revolutionary potential of the model:

The word becomes a pebble stone or bomb and dub makes sense (or non-senseness) of politics demanding of it life not death.

          History of the Voice, 50

Thus "nation language" as a literary concept continues Brathwaite's tradition of grounding literary theory and criticism in the socio-historical and cultural reality of the West Indian context.

Brathwaite's role as cultural critic places him in the tradition of Caribbean thinkers such as Walter Rodney, George Lamming, C. L. R. James and Frantz Fanon. He recognizes that the role of literature in the process of cultural de-colonization is of primary importance. Literature, far from being the scrupulously apolitical organism described by the New Critics and the Structuralists, has always been impregnated with the ‘taint’ of politics. Brathwaite's work as literary and cultural critic details the importance of the Black voice as structural and thematic force in West Indian literature. In addition, his work illustrates the significance of West Indian literature and orature as a catalyst in the formidable task of psychic and cultural de-colonization in the West Indies.


1. Gordon Rohlehr, Pathfinder: Black Awakening in The Arrivants of Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Port of Spain, Trinidad: private publication, 1981), 12-13.

2. See Rohlehr, Pathfinder, 53-54.

3. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, ‘Jazz and the West Indian Novel’, Bim 12: 46, January-June 1968, 124.

4. Rohlehr, Pathfinder, 5.

5. Rohlehr, Pathfinder, 2.

6. Rohlehr, Pathfinder, 54.

7. The reference is to V. S. Naipaul's "infamous" claim that "nothing was created in the West Indies". See V. S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America (1962; New York: Vintage, 1981), 29.

8. Derek Walcott, ‘A Far Cry from Africa’, Collected Poems 1948-1984 (New York: The Noonday Press, 1986), 18.

9. See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1966; New York: Vintage, 1970); Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961; London; New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1971); Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975; London: Peregrine, 1979).

10. See for example, Michael Gilkes, Creative Schizophrenia: The Caribbean Cultural Challenge (Conventry: Centre for Caribbean Studies, Warwick University, 1987).

11. Rex Nettleford, Caribbean Cultural Identity: The Case of Jamaica (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1978), 77.

12. See Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1968), chapter 4.

Select Bibliography

Primary Sources

For a full account of Brathwaite's published prose and poetry, 1948-1986, with details of sites of first publication, variant and/or ammended versions, recordings, reviews, editing etc, the reader is directed to EKB: His Published Prose & Poetry 1948-1986 by Doris Monica Brathwaite, (Savacou Cooperative, Jamaica, 1986), and her A descriptive and chronological bibliography of the work of Edward Kamau Brathwaite, published by New Beacon in 1988. The Primary Sources section of this Select Bibliography draws considerably on those sources.

Collections of Poetry:

Rights of Passage (London: OUP, 1967)

The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (London, OUP, 1973)

History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London; Port of Spain: New Beacon, 1984)

Literary/Cultural Criticism—major essays

‘Jazz and the West Indian Novel’, Bim 44, 1967, 275-284 [part I]; 45, 1967, 39-51 [part II] and 46, 1968, 115-126 [part III]

‘Metaphors of Underdevelopment: A Proem for Hernan Cortez’, New England Review 7:4, 1985, 453-476

Secondary Materials

Rohlehr, Gordon, Pathfinder: Black Awakening in The Arrivants of Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Port of Spain, Trinidad: private publication, 1981)

Emily Allen Williams (essay date September 1996)

SOURCE: Williams, Emily Allen. "Whose Words are These?: Lost Heritage and Search for Self in Edward Brathwaite's Poetry." CLA Journal 40, no. 1 (September 1996): 104-08.

[In the following essay, Williams studies the dichotomies found in Brathwaite's poetry—dichotomies typical of the black West Indian search for cultural identity—and maintains that Brathwaite looks to the past as an integral part of his search for selfhood.]

Born in Barbados in 1930, Edward Kamau Brathwaite is well known as a poet having received a number of prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, for his poetic efforts. He remains, perhaps, the most important person in Caribbean literary studies to promote a scholarly approach to the Caribbean poetic tradition with a methodical look at the importance of the oral and scribal traditions; his poetry is illustrative of his comfort with the use of Caribbean dialect and standard English as well as a creative mingling of the two.

Brathwaite's poetry is particularly evocative to the literary scholar in that it moves the reader historically, socially, and psychologically through a world of dichotomized existence brought on by the ravages of European colonization. In his book The Colonial Legacy in Caribbean Literature Amon Saba Saakana offers a perspective of the colonization of Caribbean peoples:

A society which educates its people away from its own history and environment is a colonial society. The Caribbean has been a basin of colonialism since the traumatic adventure of Columbus in search of a new route to Asia. The Spaniards, the Dutch, the French, the English, have all invaded the region, meticulously depopulated the aboriginal settlers, transformed a self-sustaining economy to that of a sugar economy for export to Europe, and consequently instituted the gravest holocaust that history has ever known. The removal of millions of Africans under the threat of the gun, the brutality that was experienced by the African under the lash, the whip, the hot iron, the chain, the rack, was all for one purpose: the prosperity of individual Europeans, the mercantilists and the monarchy. When slavery was abolished, under the persistent ravaging destruction of rebellion, a new form of control was instituted: education. Creole-speaking Caribbeans were told that their ancestors were Gauls: the British were subtler, they simply removed any historical record of the existence of African society before the period of colonization. In its stead, they taught English history, English language (with an emphasis on English literature), French, Spanish, Latin, etc., which had the desired effect of inculcating into the consciousness of the emerging Afro and Indo-Caribbean intelligentsia the belief that the world was centred in Europe. This psychological programming was responsible for the schizophrenic attitudes, neurosis, mental trauma, and double consciousness of the Caribbean writer.1

Brathwaite's poetic language moves pursuant to a search for self in his attempt to make sense of the past in terms of living in the present. His work is painfully illustrative of the double consciousness and dichotomy present in many Caribbean writers' work. His work simultaneously shows a detachment from curiosity about his African and Caribbean heritage along with an affinity for European values and ideals. Brathwaite, however, exhibits a vehement frustration with both sides of his "self" as he searches for identity:

To hell
with Af-
To hell
with Eu-
rope too,
just call my blue
black bloody spade
a spade.2

Brathwaite's anger stemming from his lack of knowledge about his heritage is directed to the institution of colonization and its devastating effects on the Caribbean people in the here and now. In "Starvation and Blues," the speaker laments:

This is no white man lan'
an yet we have ghetto here
we have place where man cyaan live good
we have place where man have to sweat shit
we have place where man die wid im eye-water dry
where he cyaan even cry tribulation
where de dry river rocks clog im in
i did swim into dis worl' from a was a small bwoy
an i never see harbour yet
ship cyaan spot no pilot light
i burnin through dis wall o silence
wid me dread.3

Brathwaite's poetry examines the longevity of the devastation of colonization and the wasted souls left behind in its wake. Many of the people lacked (and still lack) the spirit, energy, and passion to forge a new relationship with themselves and their land; such disassociation with the source of pain, for many, culminated (and still does) in flight to Europe or America. J. Edward Chamberlin in Come Back to Me My Language talks about Brathwaite's trilogy, The Arrivants, which deals with this sociopsychological "baggage" which many Caribbeans constantly carry:

The first of the books of the trilogy, Rights of Passage, appeared in 1967. It chronicled the generations from slavery to the years of desperation in the grim factories and slum cities and lonesome roads of freedom in the new world, and on to a time when the question "where then is the nigger's home?" expressed the spirit of restlessness epitomized in what Brathwaite called "great nigration" of the 1950's, when West Indians went on the move.4

Brathwaite's "Starvation and Blues" does not simply mirror the historic displacement of the Caribbeans; it presents an inside view of the "modern face" of colonization—the commercialization of the Caribbean with few economically meaningful opportunities for the Caribbeans. The speaker in the poem prophesies an end to the pillaging of the foreign power-brokers:

i waitin here:
one day de grass going green,
de tyre dem goin shred thru to de rim
de sheraton hotel goin flash
out all it light,
it money-makin room goin resurrect dem
self back down to gravel
an babylon gwine hear an
crash down to de groun'.5

The constant yearning for "home" pervades Brathwaite's work, whether he looks back to the past or forward to the future; the duality of dispossession and dislocation are ever present as in "Red Rising" :

So that for centuries now have i fought against these
how i am sucked from water into air
how the air surrounds me blue all the way
  from ocean to the other shore
  from halleluja to the black hole of hell
  from this white furnace where i burn
  to those green sandy ant-hills where you grow your
you would think that i would hate eclipses
  my power powdered over as it were.6

Yet Brathwaite does not emerge as a pessimistic poet prophesying an endless dichotomized existence; he suggests that selfhood can be retrieved from the ashes of the past. He successfully utilizes poetic language to impart a sense of order to a life he presents in his poetry as dichotomized yet manageable. His poem "Miss Own" is illustrative of the dauntless resolve of many Caribbeans:

Selling calico cloth on the mercantile shame-
rock, was one way of keeping her body and soul-seam
surrounded by round-shouldered backras on broad
  street by
cold-shouldered jews on milk.7

Through an intricate weaving of words, Brathwaite works through a fragmented existence as he sheds light on a past that cannot be rectified in moving toward a present and future that must be made manageable through knowledge of the past. In the Dark Ancestor, Dathorne asserts:

Brathwaite's world is secure, even with its uncertain-
ties, as in "Islands"
The Word Becomes
again a god and walks among us
look, here are his rags,
here is his crutch and his satchel
of dreams, here is his love and his
     rude implements
on this ground
on this broken ground.8

Brathwaite's poetry is a bitter-sweet looking back to a cloudy history. It is also a song for the disenfranchised and dispossessed to take forth in their hearts and minds and on their tongues in coming to terms with the past in creating and shedding light on the present as the journey is made into the future. In so doing, Brathwaite's "words" help make the transition less painful:

i will never i now know make it over the atlantic of
but that you may live my fond retreating future
i will accept i will accept the bonds that blind me
turning my face down/wards to my approaching past
morning chill/dren.9


1. Amon Saba Saakana, The Colonial Legacy in Caribbean Literature (New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1987) 102.

2. Edward Brathwaite, "Prelude," Rights of Passage (London: [N.P.], 1967) 27.

3. Edward Brathwaite, "Starvation and Blues," The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English, ed. Paula Burnett (London: Penguin, 1986) 257.

4. J. Edward Chamberlin, Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies (Urbana: U. of Illinois P., 1993) 181.

5. Brathwaite, in Penguin 258-59.

6. Edward Brathwaite, "Red Rising," The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry, ed. Ian McDonald and Stewart Brown (London: Heinemann, 1992) 30.

7. Brathwaite, in Heinemann 21.

8. O. R. Dathorne, Dark Ancestor: The Literature of the Black Man in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1981) 237.

9. Brathwaite, in Heinemann 31.

Kwame Dawes (essay date winter 2002)

SOURCE: Dawes, Kwame. Review of Words Need Love Too, by Edward Kamau Brathwaite. World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 118-19.

[In the following essay, Dawes offers a brief overview of the themes of Brathwaite's poetry and praises the poet's ambition as well as the sophistication and lyricism of his work.]

There is in the work of Kamau Brathwaite a narrative that reveals the complicated journey of a man in search of a sense of cultural identity and home. It is not a pessimistic search, a search rooted in hopelessness and angst. On the contrary, it is rooted in a dogged belief in the power of culture and inventiveness that belongs to the Caribbean. Unlike the journey embarked upon by V. S. Naipaul, whose model of flight and exquisite denial represents another uniquely Caribbean sensibility. Brathwaite's movement is toward home, an embracing of home. Derek Walcott, the other massive imagination from this same region, roots his engagement with the Caribbean in a peculiar tension of the romantic and the harsh realism that comes from it. It is not that Brathwaite's vision is romantic and void of a critical core, but unlike Walcott or Naipaul, Brathwaite is constantly naming home and asserting it as his.

Naipaul left the West Indies and has constructed a genius for extricating himself from it. This quest to move away, to deny connection represents his most articulate confession of being West Indian. Walcott, on the other hand, stayed at home. He worked in Trinidad for many years while his counterparts were living the life of rootless, harborless spades traversing the globe and writing trenchant verses that work hard at warding off the tempting romanticism of nostalgia. Walcott does not go to Africa to find Africa in the Caribbean. He always knew it was there and was never entirely comfortable with that fact. Brathwaite discovers his Caribbean while in exile. Naipaul's journey is one of moving away—trying to find ways to speak of home through the language of negation. Brathwaite, on the other hand, embarks on a process of naming. He names the language of the Caribbean "Nation Language," and this becomes a norm of definition. He establishes a thesis of Caribbean esthetics which seeks to retrieve a sense of worth that is not borrowed, that is not haunted by the legacy of colonialism.

From early in his career as a poet, Brathwaite managed to combine his fascination with theoretical conceptualizations of identity with the desire to create great art. His first major work, The Arrivants, is a triumph not merely for its poetic range and grace, nor for its historical breadth and ambitiousness, but for what it attempts to suggest about how a poet might mine the cultures of the Caribbean, the popular culture and the traditional culture to shape something "torn and new." Brathwaite's legacy is a complex one. His writing has, no doubt, spawned many imitators and in many ways has opened the way for poetry as a popular form in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, there is a deceptive accessibility to Brathwaite's verse. His meter, even though at an early stage honed by the iambic, begins to find its shape around drumbeats and the rhythms of popular music. The effect is a wonderfully improvisational quality that belies the sophistication of his choices and his commitment to understanding the possibilities available to him. His imitators have called on Africa without the conflicted sense of alienation and acceptance that has shaped Brathwaite's own voice. In the easy cultural politics of race and color in the Caribbean, it is clear that Walcott is viewed as the European, the poet who has capitalized on the colonial experience and creolized it for his own ends. Brathwaite has represented Africa—the black man, the progressive advocate of black identity. The truth is far more complex. Sure, these simplistic demarcations are based on a slight truth, but what is truer is that Brathwaite has always been as much engaged with the European arm of his cultural identity as has been Walcott.

In time, this will be understood better. We are helped, however, by Brathwaite's prolific output, which has not abated in all these years. In the late eighties, he experienced a range of terrible and real tragedies which gave birth to a new experiment that he has dubbed the Sycorax writing style. His introduction to the computer has led him to play not merely with language but with the technology of typology and design. Where in the late sixties and seventies he was seeking ways to script language—to find a context in which he could feed his verse with esthetics rooted in popular and folk culture, in the eighties and nineties he chose to explore ways in which he could manipulate typography, font styles, lineation, and layout to create a new avenue for the articulation of idea and sound. His battles with publishers over new formats for his books have become quite famous. He himself has published several texts that reflect his concern with the structuring of words on the page. His books are markedly larger and unconventional in their shape. And Brathwaite demonstrates that what he is embarked upon is a very new way of casting his texts by re-presenting some of his earlier writing in the new Sycorax format. Most recently, his latest trilogy, Ancestors (containing X-Self, Mother Poem, and Sun Poem ), has been published by New Directions. The changes are striking. Brathwaite has added passages of text drawn from newspapers, invented narratives, and historical texts to form a sort of metatext or hypertext around the original work. He is one of the few Caribbean writers doing this.

Which is why a more recent collection of verse, Words Need Love Too, is so striking for its peculiar conventionality. I have never seen as many iambic lines in a Kamau Brathwaite collection. Indeed, there are several poems that seem quite old, as if this were a retrospective of Brathwaite's juvenilia. I have no way of knowing if that is the case. True or not, at least in the narrative we like to draw of Caribbean poets moving away from mimicry of the colonial model to a break from that model, these formal set pieces seem anachronistic, and particularly so because one does not sense in Brathwaite a quest for irony. We are better off recognizing that he is encaping a chronological movement which does end in a more typically experimental use of meter and form in the bracing final poem, "Agoue," a piece that reminds us of the best stretches of Masks. Yes, this new collection contains some of Brathwaite's most lyrical and sophisticated verse. It is different. For one, it is not a single long poem. It is a collection of individual poems that, although they dialogue with each other, stand on their own as carefully wrought lyrics. And there are some striking, moderately long pieces in which Brathwaite shows his ability to shape a wonderful image: "Slowly the white dream wrestles to life / hands shapen the salt and the foreign cornfields / the cold flesh kneaded by fingers / is ready for the charcoal for the black wife // of heat the years of green sleeping in the volcano."

In the title poem we see the kind of lyric grace that seems unusual for its indulgence in simply painting the landscape that is fascinating Brathwaite. Here he declares that the art of making poems is an act of love and that words also need love. The appeal is a simple one, yet the sheer pleasure in language that we observe here is compelling: "Words need love too // brown head of the raingrass lies down w/the rain / easing the pain of all this all this all-night lashing rain / & the steel electric white-lake fork-eyes of the lightning / under the nameless guava tree / the rain-grass settles down into a perfect circle / pale pale green pool in its dispassion." And as much as this is a book about Brathwaite's pleasure in language, it is a book about what he sees as the history of naming in the Caribbean. Throughout he names the great writers of the region, the ones who have given shape to the Caribbean landscape. Like Walcott, Brathwaite sees language as a means of making real the world in which the Caribbean person lives.

Words need love too
own their own valleys vowels
in-holdings choices chalices
A taking back the anger anguish at this
of peace
E bringing showers' blessing on this place
George Lamming's novels. Walcott's carafes
of poetry like Dominica river water. Deep
of Gabby songs like waterfall, his voice of
aubade. Amkalaclava Kalëteur
Dunns River Falls. Lost Lovers Leap
the mill at Bascobell
the long eternal sea-sound cliffs of ruin
ancestors along the East Coast road
Words need love too

Later, using school children's unintentional pun on the word ship in speaking it as "sheep," Brathwaite borrows quietly from Walcott: "soft skin of pastures / agave, rain-grass, fern, the goat-foot ipomea lambs / wool, black belly sheep, ships / in the harbour, reflections in the water." Everything rests on a Walcottian pun about the "sheep" in the famous Castries harbor, a pun that ironizes the slavish behavior of the colonized.

Brathwaite enjoys drawing on what he clearly sees as a rich and evocative tradition; there is in this a creative generosity that is quite gratifying.

In "Agoue" Brathwaite continues his homage to Caribbean artists. "Agoue" is described as a piece for "voice, choral, chorus, music & vodounistas," and the dedication is really an acknowledgment: "the music is lm Brooks. The vision is Temne Callender. The painting is Gerard Valsin." These three elements—music, the visionary/prophetic, and the visual—are central to Brathwaite's art. In each moment of his verse, you encounter this desire to draw on all the senses. Brathwaite, then, is a poet who is never satisfied with suggestions that his art is limited. His work, particularly in Words Need Love Too, points to his conviction that art is a striving for ways to speak the impossible.

This is a pleasant book full of sounds and experimentation that give delight and offer us a wonderful insight into the range of voices of which Brathwaite is capable. Equally enjoyable is the production behind the book. While the introduction by Fabian Adekunle Badejo does not really introduce us to the poet, but reads as a somewhat hurried defense of Brathwaite against Michael Dash's 1995 essay on him, the rest is an impressive piece of bookcraft. The illustrations are all fittingly computer-generated. Angelo Rombley, the young artist, works with a daring series of collages to create very lively images that are scattered throughout the text. The House of Nehesi should be congratulated for their good work in producing this well-edited and beautifully designed volume of poems.



Otto, Melanie. "The Other Side of the Mirror: Utopian and Heterotopian Space in Kamau Brathwaite's DreamStories." Utopian Studies 16, no. 1 (2005): 27-44.

Analyzes Brathwaite's fictionalization of three personal traumatic experiences in DreamStories, attempting to discern whether or not his efforts at personal healing in the stories transcend the individual realm and become a blueprint for a broader, social utopian vision.

Williams, Emily Allen. The Critical Response to Kamau Brathwaite. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004, 319 p.

Collection of reviews and critical essays on Brathwaite's poetry, including an interview with Brathwaite.

Additional coverage of Brathwaite's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Literature Criticism Supplement; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 12; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 11, 26, 47, 107; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 11; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 125; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 56.