Edward Brathwaite, was a Caribbean poet and historian also known as Kamau Brathwaite, praised for his dazzling inventive language, his tragic yet unquenchable vision, which made him one of the most compelling of late twentieth century poets.
Born in Barbados, he was educated at Harrison College in Barbados and Pembroke College, Cambridge University. He earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Sussex.
Using ‘nation language’ as well as linguistic and typographic innovation, Brathwaite composed poems that deftly parse the connected strands of postcolonial, historical, and personal inquiry. Soweto is a powerful poem, illustrating Kamau Braithwaite’s style. Published in 1993, at a time when apartheid in South Africa was drawing to the end and the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994.
Kamau Brathwaite is the author of numerous collections of poetry and is
co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, Brathwaite’s honors include the Casa de las Americas Prize for Literary Criticism, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Bussa Award, and the Charity Randall Prize for Performance and Written Poetry, as well as fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
For Brathwaite, oral performance and a listening community were vital. Moreover, he insisted, the language spoken by Caribbean peoples should be regarded not as a dialect, or subsidiary and inferior form of English, but as a “nation language”, capable of expressing the complexities of Caribbean culture and history.
Poet Kamau Brathwaite, originally from Barbados, reads selections from the poem “Kumina” from Born to Slow Horses, winner of the 2006 International Griffin Poetry Prize.
In later years, Brathwaite deployed a concept he termed “tide-alectic” or ‘tidalectic’, which he described as ‘the ripple and the two tide movement’. The term embodied his affirmation of a specific language and way of perceiving the world that rejected an analysis based in thesis, antithesis and synthesis, “the notion of dialectic, which is three – the resolution in the third”. It also connoted Brathwaite’s concern to move towards a sense of identity and continuity across oceans, rather than an identity grounded in one place or time.
After the 80s, Brathwaite’s publications featured his increasing interest in the use of different computer fonts and spacings to create strong visual effects on the page. He termed this form of concrete poetry Sycorax video style, and spoke of Sycorax (the silenced mother of Caliban) as the ghost who inhabited his machine. And whereas his early trilogies sought to express a collective Caribbean experience and identity, the later works became increasingly autobiographical, suggesting his own experience could be read as representative of contemporary African-Caribbean history.
Brathwaite’s concentration on the African elements of Caribbean poetry and history differentiated him from other major Caribbean writers.
It was a differentiation that at times became exaggerated and embroiled in the cultural and racial politics of the Caribbean islands. Brathwaite was a resolute nationalist: a sequel to The Arrivants is titled Mother Poem (1977), and declares Barbados as his motherland in opposition to England’s self definition as mother country to all her colonies.
Born in 1930, he died earlier this year aged 89.