Brathwaite, Kamau 1930–

views updated May 14 2018

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

Brathwaite, Edward Kamau

views updated May 17 2018

BRATHWAITE, Edward Kamau

Nationality: Barbadian. Born: Lawson Edward Brathwaite, Bridgetown, Barbados, 11 May 1930. Education: Harrison College, Barbados; Pembroke College, Cambridge (Barbados Scholar), 1950–54, B.A. (honors) in history 1953, Cert. Ed. 1954; University of Sussex, Falmer, 1965–68, D. Phil. 1968. Family: Married Doris Monica Welcome in 1960; one son. Career: Education officer, Ministry of Education, Ghana, 1955–62; tutor, University of the West Indies Extra Mural Department, St. Lucia, 1962–63. Lecturer, 1963–76, reader, 1976–82, and since 1982 professor of social and cultural history, University of the West Indies, Kingston. Visiting professor, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 1970; University of Nairobi, 1971, Boston University, 1975–76, University of Mysore, India, 1982, Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1983; and Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1988. Visiting fellow, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1987. Plebiscite officer in the Trans-Volta Togoland, United Nations, 1956–57. Founding secretary, Caribbean Artists Movement, 1966. Since 1970 editor, Savacou magazine, Mona. Awards: Arts Council of Great Britain bursary, 1967; Camden Arts Festival prize, London, 1967; Cholmondeley award, 1970; Guggenheim fellowship, 1972; City of Nairobi fellowship, 1972; Bussa award, 1973; Casa de las Américas prize, 1976; Fulbright fellowship, 1982–83, 1987–88; Institute of Jamaica Musgrave medal, 1983. Address: Department of History, University of the West Indies, Mona, Kingston 7, Jamaica.



Rights of Passage. London, Oxford University Press, 1967.

Masks. London, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Islands. London, Oxford University Press, 1969.

Penguin Modern Poets 15, with Alan Bold and Edwin Morgan. London, Penguin, 1969.

Panda No. 349. London, Royal Institute for the Blind, 1969.

The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1973.

Days and Nights. Mona, Jamaica, Caldwell Press, 1975.

Other Exiles. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Poetry '75 International. Rotterdam, Rotterdamse Kunststichting, 1975.

Black + Blues. Havana, Casa de las Américas, 1976; revised edition, New York, New Directions, 1995.

Mother Poem. London, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Soweto. Mona, Jamaica, Savacou, 1979.

Word Making Man: A Poem for Nicólas Guillèn, Mona, Jamaica, Savacou, 1979.

Sun Poem. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1982.

Third World Poems. London, Longman, 1983.

X-Self. London, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Sappho Sakyi's Meditations. Kingston, Jamaica, Savacou Publications, 1989.

Middle Passages. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1992.

Trench Town Rock. Providence, Rhode Island, Lost Roads, 1994. Recordings: The Poet Speaks 10, Argo, 1968; Rights of Passage, Argo, 1969; Masks, Argo, 1972; Islands, Argo, 1973; The Poetry of Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Casa de las Américas, 1976; Atumpan, Watershed, 1989.


Four Plays for Primary Schools (produced Saltpond, Ghana, 1961–62). London, Longman, 1964.

Odale's Choice (produced Saltpond, Ghana, 1962). London, Evans, 1967.


The People Who Came 1–3 (textbooks). London, Longman, 1968–72.

Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica. London, New Beacon, 1970; revised edition, 1981.

The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770–1820. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971.

Caribbean Man in Space and Time. Mona, Jamaica, Savacou, 1974.

Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean. Mona, Jamaica, Savacou, 1974.

Our Ancestral Heritage: A Bibliography of the Roots of Culture in the English-Speaking Caribbean. Kingston, Carifesta, 1976.

Wars of Respect: Nanny, Sam Sharpe, and the Struggle for People's Liberation. Kingston, API, 1977.

Jamaica Poetry: A Checklist 1686–1978. Kingston, Jamaica Library Service, 1979.

Barbados Poetry: A Checklist, Slavery to the Present. Mona, Jamaica, Savacou, 1979.

Kumina. Mona, Jamaica, Savacou, 1982.

Gods of the Middle Passage. Privately printed, 1982.

National Language Poetry. Privately printed, 1982.

The Colonial Encounter: Language. Mysore, University of Mysore, 1984.

History of the Voice: The Development of a National Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. London, New Beacon, 1984.

Jah Music. Mona, Jamaica, Savacou 1986.

Roots (essays). Havana, Casa de las Americas, 1986.

Barabajan Poems, 1492–1992. Kingston, Jamaica, Savacou, 1994.

Dream Stories. Essex, England, and White Plains, New York, Longman, 1994.

Editor, louanaloa: Recent Writing from St. Lucia. Castnies, University of the West Indies Department of Extra-Mural Studies, 1963.

Editor, New Poets from Jamaica. Mona, Jamaica, Savacou, 1979.

Editor, Dream Rock. Kingston, Jamaica Information Service, 1987.


Bibliography: Edward Kamau Brathwaite: His Published Prose and Poetry 1948–1986 by Doris Monica Brathwaite, Mona, Jamaica, Savacou, 1986; A Descriptive and Chronological Bibliography (1950–1982) of the Work of Edward Kamau Brathwaite by Doris Monica Brathwaite. London, New Beacon. 1988.

Critical Studies: "The Poetry of Edward Brathwaite" by Jean D'Costa, in Jamaica Journal (Kingston), September 1968; The Chosen Tongue by Gerald Moore, London, Longman, 1969; "Brathwaite's Song of Dispossession" by K.E. Senanu, in Universitas (Accra), March 1969; "The Poetry of Edward Brathwaite" by Damian Grant, in Critical Quarterly (London), Summer 1970; "Dimensions of Song" by Anne Walmsley, in Bim 51 (Bridgetown, Barbados), July-December 1970; "Three Caribbean Poets" by Maria K. Mootry, in Pan-Africanist, ii, 1, 1971; "This Broken Ground" by Mervyn Morris, in New World Quarterly (Kingston), v, 3, 1971; "Islands," in Caribbean Studies (Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico), January 1971, "Songs of the Skeleton: A Poetry of Fission," in Trinidad and Tobago Review (Port of Spain), 1980–81, and Pathfinder: Black Awakening in "The Arrivants" of Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Port of Spain, 1981, all by Gordon Rohlehr; "Walcott Versus Brathwaite" by Patricia Ismond, in Caribbean Quarterly 17 (Kingston), September-December 1971; "A Study of Some Ancestral Elements in Brathwaite's Trilogy" by Samuel Asein, in African Studies Association of the West Indies Bulletin 4 (Mona, Jamaica), December 1971; "Edward Brathwaite y el neoafricanismo antillano" by G.R. Coulthard, in Cuadernos Americanos (Mexico City), September/October 1972; "Odomankoma Kyerema se: A Study of Masks" by Maureen Warner, in Caribbean Quarterly (Kingston), June 1973; "E. Brathwaite y su poesia antillana" by Nancy Morejon, in Bohemia 22 (Havana), 3 June 1977; "The Cyclical Vision of Edward Kamau Brathwaite" by Lloyd W. Brown, in West Indian Poetry, Boston, Twayne, 1978, revised edition, London, Heinemann, 1984; "Edward Brathwaite" by J. Michael Dash, in West Indian Literature edited by Bruce King, London, Macmillan, 1979; "Brathwaite and Walcott Issue" of Caribbean Quarterly 26 (Mona, Jamaica), nos. 1–2, 1980; Robert Bensen, in Critical Survey of Poetry edited by Frank N. Magill, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Salem Press. 1983; "'Labyrinth of Past/Present/Future' in Some of Kamau Brathwaite's Recent Poems," in Crisis and Creativity in the New Literatures in English: Cross/Cultures, edited by Geoffrey V. Davis and Hena Maes-Jelinek, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1990, and "Kamau Brathwaite: A Voice Out of Bounds," in 'Union in Partition': Essays in Honour of Jeanne Delbaere, edited by Gilbert Debuscher and Marc Maufort, Liege, Belgium, L3, 1997, both by Christine Pagnoulle; The Recovery of Ancestry in the Poetry of Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott (dissertation) by June D. Bobb, City University of New York, 1992; Kamau Brathwaite issue of World Literature Today (Norman, Oklahoma), 68(4), Autumn 1994; The Art of Kamau Brathwaite edited by Stewart Brown, Bridgend, Wales, Seren, 1995; "The Word Becomes Nam: Self and Community in the Poetry of Kamau Brathwaite, and Its Relation to Caribbean Culture and Postmodern Theory" by Elaine Savory, in Writing the Nation: Self and Country in the Post-Colonial Imagination, edited by John C. Hawley, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1996; The Liberating Imagination: Politics of Vision in the Art of Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Henry Dumas (dissertation) by Paul Anderson Griffith, Pennsylvania State University, 1995; Caliban Takes Up His Pen: The Epic Poetry of Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, and Andrew Salkey (dissertation) by Michelle Diane Derose, University of Iowa, 1996.

Edward Kamau Brathwaite comments:

What caused the death of the amerindians: the holocaust of slavery: the birth of tom and caliban

in terms of my weltanschauung: my culture-view: it all began with the fall of the roman empire: this imperial achievement had created an equilibrium of material/spirit: metropole/province: law/chaos: which made possible a definition of values with the decline and fall of rome: flux appeared: movements of magic into the metropole: custom replaced statute: gargoyle replaced statue the vikings moved in from the north: the goths, huns, magyars came on from the east; the crescent of islam curved north, african and aztec civilizations began to prophesy disaster christianity (the holy roman empire) attempted to restore/retain the equilibrium but it was impossible: there were too many alternatives: there was mohamet: there were magi: there was the new science of copernicus, the natural philosophers, the medical school at salerno, there was a choice: galilee or galileo: emperor or pope: priest or politician

and then money became the center of this shattered universe: market, bourg, bourse: commerce, ship, merchant, bank: middle class, taxes, nations, mercantilism: travel to new lands: control of new markets: the shift of authority outwards: supported by bullet and bible: but no prayer: but purse: not custom anymore, but curse marco polo overland to china; the portuguese by stepping stone to africa; columbus to san salvador

moctezuma collapsed: chichen itza defeated: geronimo doomed: saskatchewa: mohican: esquimo and ewe whale-worshippers: timbucto, kumasi, ile-ife, benin city, zimbabwe caribs moving towards malaria and syphilis; cherokees moving towards the horse, the weston rifle, the waggon train; ibo and naga to slave ships; zulus towards the locomotive tank; masai towards the jumbo jet, caliban to new york, paris, london town, so that here in the caribbean we have people without (apparent) root: values of whip, of bomb, of bottle: the culture of materialism, not equilibrium

food, flesh, house, harbor: not stone, demon, wilderness, space: extermination of the arawaks

   first 10, then 20
   first 20, then 200
   first 200 then 200,000 africans: slaves, lukumi, tears
   200,000: 300,000: 400,000: a million: tears, lukumi
   1 million: 2 million: 3 Million: 4 Million: materialism
   buildings hotels, plantation houses 10 million: 20 million: lukumi: lukumi: tears
   30 million: 40 million: 50 million: we could go on counting: men: money: materialism:
   tears: tears: lukumi
   the spaniards drained the lake of mexico away: the modern city sited in the dust bowl
   where are the bison of the prairies: leviathan of the pacific indians
   where are those 50 million africans: without tongue, without mother, without god can you
   expect us to establish houses here?
   to build a nation here? where
   will the old men feed their flocks?
   where will we make our markets?
(Masks, p. 21)

the history of catastrophe requires such a literature to hold a broken mirror
up to broken

*  *  *

Edward Kamau Brathwaite's solid reputation as a major West Indian poet rests largely on the well-known trilogy Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands, reprinted in one volume as The Arrivants. But since the publication of the trilogy in 1973, he has produced other important volumes of poetry, including Other Exiles and Mother Poem.

Other Exiles spans a considerable period of Brathwaite's activity as a poet, more specifically, the twenty-five years before its publication. It is a varied collection reflecting the diversity of interests and techniques that is characteristic of Brathwaite's work as a whole but is often obscured by a prevailing tendency to see him, on the basis of The Arrivants, as the monolithic, collective voice of the black diaspora. The collection actually ranges from the exile's intense sense of personal isolation in Europe ("The Day the First Snow Fell") to the satirically detached portrait of the growth of an archetypal young colonial ("Journeys"). In "Conqueror" the personal voice shifts from that of the colonial governor in the Caribbean to the collective consciousness of an emerging Caribbean nationalism, one that has emerged with the West Indian's step from "slave to certain owner."

The collection is also Brathwaite's most uneven work, a reflection perhaps of the degree to which it spans his development from inexperienced writer to mature artist. The precisely drawn portrait of the colonial psyche in "Journeys" is therefore far superior to the self-indulgence and flabbiness of language that mar the word pictures of jazz artists in "Blues." Similarly "Conqueror" demonstrates an acute ear for the discriminating and the effectively appropriate use of language, a quality that is lacking in rather sentimental pieces like "At the Death of a Young Poet's Wife" and "Schooner." On the whole, Other Exiles is significant in that, at its best, it reflects those qualities that have become the hallmarks of Brathwaite's mature poetry—the enormous suppleness of language that facilitates a deceptive ease of transition from one viewpoint to the other ("Conqueror"), the complex sense of personality that allows the poet to develop his persona both as a distinctive individual and as the archetype of a collective experience ("Journeys"), and the imaginative handling of folk language as the expression of a distinctive West Indian culture.

These are the qualities that underlie the success of the trilogy. The ambiguity of Brathwaite's poetic "I" (as both private individual and collective archetype) is perfectly adapted to the poet's exploration of the Caribbean experience in both its private dimension and in its significance to an inclusive West Indian culture. And in turn this ambiguity pinpoints the role of the poet himself, voicing his vision in personal terms that are analogous to and comparable with those of musicians and other artists. At the same time the terms of the personal vision symbolize a group experience in which the creative energies of the culture—like the poetic imagination itself—represent and celebrate the vitality that has persisted in spite of slavery and colonialism.

Rights of Passage, the first section of the trilogy, concentrates on blacks in the Americas, moving from the West Indies to North America and back. In the process the poet discovers affinities between the songs, dances, and language forms through which blacks have responded to a common history, not only in the New World but also in Africa. The exploration of these connections in Rights of Passage amounts to a prelude of sorts to the themes of Masks, where the poet reverses the historical Middle Passage of slavery by returning from the New World to Africa.

Africa is the source of much that has been explored in Rights of Passage, and in Masks the poet expands upon the sense of a common source. The continent is simultaneously the historical root and the contemporary essence of a global black presence. The sense of affinities is not only geographical but also temporal. The New World black's return to West Africa is therefore described in terms that recall the forcible departure of the visitor's ancestors into New World slavery, and the sights and sounds of precolonial Africa are at times indistinguishable from those of both contemporary Africa and the modern Caribbean. The past and the present also coexist in Islands, where the poet returns to the contemporary West Indies after symbolically retracing the original voyages of enslavement. Here, for the purposes of dramatic contract, the images of slavery and colonialism are juxtaposed with symbols of the new West Indian nationalism.

Finally, the self-conscious use of a variety of language forms (West Indian and American Black English as well as West African) is fundamental to Brathwaite's themes throughout the trilogy. The variety in language enforces the poet's vision of West Indian culture as the diverse product of several sources—Africa, Europe, Asia, and the New World itself. In a similar vein the journey themes dominating the narrative design of the trilogy reinforce a sense of cultural and historical continuities as we move with the poet, through space and time, from one point of the black diaspora to another. And this impression of continuous movement also dramatizes the cultural and psychic progression that gradually culminates in the emergence of a national consciousness that displaces traditional self-hatred and entrenched colonial values.

Mother Poem is actually an intensified and detailed continuation of the themes of The Arrivants, for here the progression from a destructive past to a future of creative possibilities is concentrated in Barbados. The mother image that dominates the work, which is a long, continuous poem, is a dual one; it connotes a personal mother, and it reflects the perception of Barbados itself as a mother country, as a cultural source of the poet's perception of self and society. This duality intensifies the vision of growth and change, and the progression is simultaneously cultural in a broad social sense and deeply personal. In turn this sustained duality attests to the persistence of one of Brathwaite's most important assets as poet—his ability to integrate the personal and public voices into a complex poetic language that allows each voice to remain distinctive.

—Lloyd W. Brown

Brathwaite, Edward Kamau

views updated May 23 2018

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