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Carolyn Cooper | Kamau Brathwaite – our poet of history

Published:Sunday | February 9, 2020 | 12:00 AM

Another silk cotton tree has fallen. Kamau Brathwaite – historian, poet, literary critic, publisher, Caribbean man of myth and magic – has died.

Born in Barbados in 1930, Brathwaite described his upbringing as preparation for becoming an Afro-Saxon. The common delusion that the island was “little England” made it seem inevitable that Brathwaite would unquestioningly embrace the culture of the ‘motherland’ on his arrival in the UK.

But after completing his degree in History at Cambridge University in 1955, Brathwaite became an education officer in Ghana, then the Gold Coast. There, his sense of self was forever transformed beyond the spatial and psychological limitations of little England. Brathwaite discovered a continental identity. He was, as he put it, engaged in a process of “de-education”. Brathwaite later claimed the name Kamau, abandoning his birth name, Edward.

In his 1970 essay, ‘Timehri’, Brathwaite describes his cultural transformation in this way: “Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly; obscurely, slowly but surely, during the eight years I lived there, I was coming to an awareness and understanding of community, of cultural wholeness, of the place of the individual within the tribe, in society. Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, I came to a sense of identification of myself with these people, my living diviners. I came to connect my history with theirs, the bridge of my mind now linking Atlantic and ancestor, homeland and heartland.”


In 1962, Brathwaite returned to the Caribbean to teach at the University of the West Indies, first in St Lucia and then in Jamaica. In his academic writing, as in his poetry, he acknowledged the sturdy cultural bridges that join the islands of the Caribbean to the African continent. As he says of the islands themselves, “The unity is submarine”.

In 1971, Brathwaite’s Folk Culture of the Slaves of Jamaica was published. It was extracted from his doctoral dissertation for Sussex University, published that same year by the Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press: ‘The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820’.

Brathwaite persuasively argues that “… it is in the nature of the folk culture of the ex-African slave, still persisting today in the life of the contemporary ‘folk’, that we can discern that the ‘middle passage’ was not, as is popularly assumed, a destructive experience, separating the blacks from Africa, disconnecting their sense of history and tradition, but a pathway or channel between this tradition and what is being evolved on new soil.”

There was trauma, destruction, separation and disconnection. But Brathwaite reimagines the Middle Passage as a womb of creativity. In Jamaica, Brathwaite connected with practitioners of African-derived cultural traditions like Kumina Queen Imogene Kennedy. Her words are used as an epigraph to his Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, comprising his first three volumes of poetry, Rights of Passage, Masks and Islands.

This is how the Kumina Queen describes her lineage:

“Well, muh ol’ arrivance … is from Africa … That’s muh ol’ arrivants family. Muh gran’muddah an’ muh gran’faddah. Well they came out here as slavely …you unnerstan’?

“Well, when them came now, I doan belongs to Africa. I belongs to Jamaica. I born here.

“Well, muh gran’parents, she teach me some of the African languages an’ the rest I get it at the cotton-tree root … I take twenty-one days to get all the balance …

“So I just travel right up to hey, an’ gradually come up, an’ gradually come up, until I experience all about … the African set-up …”


It was Kamau Brathwaite who coined the term ‘nation language’ to describe new Caribbean languages like that of the Kumina Queen. In his extended essay, ‘History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language In Anglophone Caribbean Poetry’, published in 1984, Brathwaite elaborates the essence of ‘nation language’:

“Now I’d like to describe for you some of the characteristics of our nation language. First of all, it is from, as I’ve said, an oral tradition. The poetry, the culture itself, exists not in a dictionary but in the tradition of the spoken word. It is based as much on sound as it is on song. That is to say, the noise that it makes is part of the meaning, and if you ignore the noise (or what you would think of as noise, shall I say) then you lose part of the meaning. When it is written, you lose the sound or the noise, and therefore you lose part of the meaning.”

Brathwaite is certainly right about the ‘noise’ of language. Sound is lost on the page. But nation languages of the Caribbean also convey meaning as written texts. They are documented in dictionaries. The linguists Frederic Cassidy from Jamaica and Robert LePage from England collaborated to produce the ‘Dictionary of Jamaican English’, first published in 1967 by Cambridge University Press. The politics of the time determined that the Jamaican language was conceived as only a variant of English.

Jamaicans who routinely mock the local language and its speakers are victims of mental slavery. By contrast, Kamau Brathwaite’s legacy empowers all of us who claim the knowledge of the ancestors found under the towering silk cotton tree.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com