An essay by Alan Riach for Scotland’s National.
EDWARD Kamau Brathwaite was born on May 11, 1930, and died on February 4, 2020. I met him once, in 1990, at the University of Kent in Canterbury, where he gave the TS Eliot memorial lecture entitled “Caliban’s Garden” and read some of his poems.
As I recall, he described his own entry into the literary world as part of the rise of Caribbean and other “postcolonial” literatures in the Anglophone culture hitherto dominated by English, or Anglo-American English-language writing. He described it as though it were a West Indian dance coming in at the end of the Trooping of the Colour.
I remember his description of the stately pomp and circumstance he saw in the British ceremonial tradition, as if a royal procession led by the Queen in a horse-drawn golden carriage were followed by cavalry and infantry in line, and how he conjured the image of the whole troop moving across the front of the stage as he left the formal lectern to illustrate the vision by his body’s actions and military marching.
And then he said he could imagine himself at the end of this line following the troops in his own way, not marching in line but in a calypso rhythm, dancing, and he moved his limbs and torso in such a way that the imaginary troop of British soldiers and the over-inflated stuffed-up self-important royals at their head were almost actually visible in their utter absurdity. He had created a vision and then altered it completely, never to be forgotten, never to be seen in the same way again.
Brathwaite (above) was acting in a way that from another point of view might have made him seem like a caricature but in the magical production of his words and images, his physicality and sheer enthusiasm emanating freely, this was not only a demonstration of his own joyful presence but infected the preceding troops and royals with a flavour of absurdity and good humour.
This was not a violent confrontation by the oppressed of the oppressor, it was satire working at a high level of theatricality, an entire revisioning. He lifted you and carried you with him on a journey towards a new design.
Afterwards, I was talking to him, and he signed two of his books for me, commenting how nice the pen was I’d lent him. I said: “Keep it, it’s yours.” His eyebrows raised and he smiled: “Really?” I nodded: “Yes, you’ve given me so much this evening, your lecture, your poems – keep the pen. It’s a gift.”
A few months later he contributed a poem to a magazine I was editing in New Zealand, a special number of Landfall, and wrote to me to say thanks again for my own first book of poems, which he said he was enjoying – and for the pen, which he was still writing with.
Brathwaite died aged 89. I’ve been reading his poems again since Barbados became a republic on November 30, 2021. His first and most famous work is The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (1973), written when he was teaching and studying history in Jamaica and Britain. It’s about the migration from the African continent, through the Middle Passage of slave ships crossing the Atlantic, into slavery and on into 20th-century voyages to the UK, France, and back to the US, a quest for survival and the recovery of economic and psychic stability.
The Arrivants took a new Caribbean poetic form, a celebration of voices, language and movement. Last week, I quoted a poem by Theodore Roethke, where he says, “I measure time by how a body sways”. Music and song, dance and movement, these are the laws of independence. For Brathwaite, Ghanaian talking drums, calypso, reggae, jazz and blues all come together, come and go, turn, elaborate, turn and counter-turn and counterpoint. In poetry, for Brathwaite, the iambic pentameter embodied Britishness and could not speak of hurricanes and slavery, the Africa within us all. Is it because our Home Secretary knows without understanding her own deep connectedness to the world the lives of migrants come from that she is so intent on trying to lock them out?
In History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1984), Brathwaite explained his idea that the language of Caribbean descendants of slaves embodied an African identity deep down, that only emerged through the voice, in words and phrases making idioms of speech and musical sound like nothing else.
THIS new emergence is not a “dialect of English” as if it were something inferior. Brathwaite termed it “nation language”. Something uniquely capable of giving voice to the West Indian experience. We might see this as analogous to the language we call Scots. Scots has a far longer history and a much broader literature, yet both forms of language possess their idioms and dignity distinct from the imperium of English.
Brathwaite went further. He described an idea he called “tide-alectic” or “tidalectic”, explaining it as “the ripple and the two tide movement” as opposed to the three-part dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis: one statement, one opposition, one outcome, a fusion. No, Brathwaite said, there’s another model in the movement towards identity (which is always dependent upon position and power). There’s a connectivity and continuity across oceans. Another way of thinking about this is as an archipelagic identity, engaging with islands and the currents and tides that confer identities distinct from each other while also connecting them and their people with each other. This is about movement, rather than something grounded, earthed and isolated in just one place or time.
In her Guardian obituary, Lyn Innes wrote: “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.”
This sets us an example of the intricate, sensitive, meticulous yet determined ways by which to extricate ourselves from the ethos of British imperialism.
From his birthplace of Bridgetown, Barbados, he studied at Cambridge University and was appointed in 1955 as an education officer in what was then the Gold Coast. He witnessed Ghana become the first African state to gain independence. In 1960 he married Doris Welcome, a teacher and librarian originally from Guyana. When she died of cancer in 1986, Brathwaite wrote The Zea Mexican Diary (1993) in her tribute It was the grandmother of the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o who suggested he should re-instate Kamau as his first name. He was professor of social and cultural history at the University of the West Indies (1982-91), becoming professor of comparative literature at New York University in 1992 and a director of Unesco’s History of Mankind project for more than 30 years.
In 1998 Brathwaite married Beverly Reid and she survives him, along with his son with Doris, Michael, his granddaughter, Ayisha, and a sister, Joan. But let’s go back to his poem “Harbour”:
sing dance drum limbo
the chains have not been shucked
the shackles are not off
their links tinkle with money
the tight collar of history chokes on blue dollars
the eyes blaze back into their history…
so the sick skin must be peeled
the canefields of pain must be cut-
…here in the cup of my word
on the lip of my eyelid of light…
it is a cool harbour…
the sea’s drummers
softly softly on sound: fire of starlight
blazed by white bellows; the black bulk heaving to starboard
it is a beginning…
Kamau Brathwaite did not live to see the Republic of Barbados but everything he wrote makes it a better place. And in Scotland, in this first week of 2022, his poetry helps us renew that sense of what we need most: a new beginning, and once again, a new beginning: independence.