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Edward Kamau Brathwaite


- Contributed

Kamau Brathwaite, (left), and Nathaniel Mackey, W. 3rd St., NYC, March 2001. The two collaborated in "Conversations with Nathaniel Mackey", a combination of elements of biography and autobiography with poetic discourse on Caribbean literary history.

With this reed I make music, With this pen I remember the word, With these lips I can remember, The beginning of the world

- Kamau Brathwaite, from 'Kingston in the Kingdom of World' 1975

EDWARD Kamau Brathwaite, Caribbean poet and historian, will be honoured at the second conference on Caribbean Culture organised by the University of the West Indies, slated to take place from January 9 to 12, 2002. In the three-day international conference cultural aficionados will discuss and celebrate one of the foremost aspects of the region's history ­ the word.

Concurrent panels will examine themes relating to the work of Kamau Brathwaite, politics, religion and the word in the Caribbean; Caribbean popular music and the word as resistance.

Brathwaite is reputed to be the father of dub, melding music and the drum beat with verse. He is one of the foremost writers and intellectuals to emerge from the Caribbean. The native of Barbados has taught at the University of the West Indies, Harvard and Yale and is at present Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University. Brathwaite is the founder of the Caribbean Artists' Movement and has been actively involved with such Caribbean magazines as Savacou, Bim, Caliban, and Okike.

The year was 1930 when the wordsmith made his way into the world. A rebel in high school who, along with others, unilaterally went and did subjects not offered in the classical curriculum: he always felt that he had an inalienable right to self-expression. He and his fellow rebels did well. The teenager also formed a cultural and drama group. The magazine Bim was the first outlet for his early work.

The quest for self-expression was soon followed by another ­ that for self-knowledge. According to Kamau (so renamed, later, in recognition of his African ancestry), speaking in an interview from New York recently, said he only realised how much he did not know about himself and Caribbean culture when he began to mix with other ethnic groups at university in London.

Brathwaite did studies at Pembroke College, Cambridge and the University of Sussex in England. "I became acutely conscious of what I did not know," he recalls. "I began to learn what I could, meeting with other Caribbean peoples. Then I went to live and work in Ghana for 10 years." This last was to gain further self-knowledge.

"My work is the constant discovery of who I am," he says.

Right there in Ghana, working as an education officer he learnt a lot about himself. He then came to Jamaica to share some of the developed understanding with students and graduates starting the decades-long career in writing, teaching and publishing.

His numerous book publications include Mother Poem, Sun Poem, X-Self, and The Arrivants, Middle Passages and Dream Stories, among others. As a historian, he is the author of The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica. Brathwaite is also author of History of the Voice, a seminal text in Caribbean language discourse.

The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (Oxford University Press) is regarded as a landmark in Caribbean poetry.

In the book, The Development of Creole Society ­ 1770-1820, Brathwaite notes, "It is in the language that the slave was most successfully imprisoned by his master."

Barely turned 20, as a youngster in Barbados, he had already declared to those who were taking notice that language ­ the Word ­ would be his instrument of self- liberation. Kamau also developed an affection for indigenous music, his early work showing jazz influences and later segueing through reggae-Rasta, calypso ­ rhythms combined with reasoning. The ease with which he has embraced all Caribbean cultural forms is a testimony to the truth that we are one. This is Brathwaite's vision ­ that we would know ourselves and receive liberation in that knowledge. We have a culture which does not need integration. It is already one. Brathwaite told Outlook, "Each island is unique in its expression of self, but at the same time it is also part of an archipelago. We share the same beautiful space. It is in this sharing that we are unique. We have so much in common."

The recognition and rewards for his work have been unsought and overwhelming at times. Recently honoured at the opening of Caribbean Centre for Thought, he said that was such an overwhelming experience. "To be honoured was humbling and overwhelming."

Brathwaite's major awards include the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Casa de las Amricas Premio, the Charity Randall Award the Guggenheim Fellowship, The Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Fulbright Fellowship. Words Need Love Too, his latest collection of verse appeared in 2000.

The lover of the word has also produced two new works, Ancestors (poetry) and Magical Realism (literary criticism). He is looking forward with great expectancy to the sharing of thought in the coming Cultural Conference. "Let's get together and celebrate something great. It is an opportunity to continue learning about ourselves. Growing up, there was none of this. Now we are so certain about what we have that we can have conferences and celebrate it."

The writer feels that we in the Caribbean do not suffer from a lack of creativity. "The new voices get stifled because they cannot get publication, cannot get to be heard. How can we get more publishing houses, magazines, newspapers, radio and TV programmes share these new voices, new painters, new sculptors?"

Yet, "I feel very optimistic about the future," he says. "I've always been. As long as we are people who are living we will develop. We will produce. (With regards to) My own role in that movement. I am just one little part of that firmament. I contribute what I can to the constellation. As Caribbean peoples, I have no doubt about our place in the overall universe."

Avia Ustanny

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