Caribbean Beat Magazine

Kamau Brathwaite (1930–2020) | Icon

On his ninetieth birthday, 11 May, 2020, Kelly Baker Josephs explains the groundbreaking influence of the late Barbadian poet and scholar, perennially ahead of his time. An online exclusive

  • Kamau Brathwaite. Photo courtesy the George Padmore Institute

In trying to write this tribute to Kamau Brathwaite, I feel like the stammering speaker in his well-known, much-performed poem “Negus.”

He is
He is
He . . . was . . .

It is difficult to make that transition to the past tense. Perhaps starting at the beginning, with information we are used to as past, will help. He was born Lawson Edward Brathwaite in Barbados in 1930, attended prestigious Harrison College, and went on to win a coveted Barbados Island Scholarship to Cambridge University in 1949, where he earned a BA in history in 1953 and a diploma in education in 1954. Then came his years as an education officer in Ghana (from 1955 to 1962); his 1960 marriage to his first wife, Doris Wellcome, whom he called Zea Mexican; his return to London in 1965 for doctoral study in history at the University of Sussex; and his renaming as Kamau, circa 1972. All these events shaped him and his approach to the work to come. 

And that body of work — over fifty years of writing and editing — has remained central to the Caribbean literary and cultural canons, influencing generations of writers, from Brathwaite’s own contemporaries to young artists and scholars just beginning to find their voices today. I have tried, in my own work, to trace some of Brathwaite’s influence — his hand in many twentieth-century Caribbean happenings — but it is so large and wide that it constantly escapes my grasp. Brathwaite gave us the words for our theories, and the theories for our thoughts; but more than that, he gave us permission. By continuously breaking new ground with his poetry and scholarship, he gave us — poets, linguists, literary critics, historians, cultural studies theorists, and others — permission to think anew, to write ancient rhythms, to create the Caribbean differently.

must be given words to refashion futures
like a healer’s hand

(“Negus,” Islands)

Brathwaite began his signature innovativeness in the unprecedented Afro-Diasporic pulse of Rights of Passage, his first major collection of poetry, published in 1967. As part of the Caribbean Artists Movement in London, and later as professor at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica, Brathwaite gave memorable readings from Rights of Passage and the other two collections that soon followed, Masks in 1968 and Islands in 1969 (the three were collected and published as The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy in 1973). Those, like scholar Evelyn O’Callaghan, who were fortunate to hear these readings in person recall even now Brathwaite’s “trademark beard and tam, that deep and very Barbadian voice, beating out the rhythm on the podium as he chanted a very specific creation story.” Brathwaite, always conscious of the power of sound, recorded several of his mesmerising early readings, which we can now experience via the PennSound audio archives.

There is so much more that Brathwaite accomplished that will reverberate for decades to come. In a tribute to Brathwaite, Kenneth Ramchand — who in 1970 co-founded with Brathwaite the influential Caribbean studies journal Savacou— writes: “Kamau was versatile and always interesting. He wrote a most important book about Creolisation, discoursed extensively on ‘nation language’ which he demonstrated brilliantly in his poetry, and was the prime influence in the region’s eventual discovery of its potent folk and oral traditions.” Ramchand also mentions the “unceasing formal experimenting in his verse,” which included creative use of puns, broken words, and neologisms as well as a constant “remixing” of his creative and critical writings in his invented “Sycorax Video Style” — a robust usage of computer fonts and symbols to replicate patterns of speech and silence, the rhythmic Caribbean voice of the ever-poetic speaker. Voice, with all its varied meanings, is perhaps the most appropriate word for capturing Kamau and his contributions to the Caribbean. Not just the sound of him, or only the weight of his words, but also his insistence on how we should listen, to him and to ourselves. 

In 1970, Trinidadian playwright Marina Maxwell wrote that Brathwaite “is twenty years before his time but this is the essence of a poet, an artist — not only to mark yesterday and today but to hear the sound of tomorrow.” Fifty years later, upon his passing, it still feels as though Brathwaite was before his time. But he has left us so many beautiful words to sound our loss. 

it was all so sudden
it was all so very sudden
when your spirit said
I am going away
I am gone

may your journey now be straight going
may your road be a peaceful one

(“Wake,” Islands)