American Collections blog

10 February 2020

Edward Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020) – a mind of many talents

Blog by Dr Philip Abraham, Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

Edward Kamau Brathwaite, poet, activist and historian, was one of the towering figures of modern Caribbean literary and intellectual history, and a writer whose versatility and vigour was quite awe-inspiring. I first encountered Brathwaite the historian, reading his path-breaking study of The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (Shelfmark: X.809/11084.) when I was writing my PhD on a not completely dissimilar topic. It is a brilliant book, blending richly textured social history with a conceptually vigorous approach to the specificities of Caribbean (in this case, Jamaican) cultural formations. The Preface revealed that this was a lightly revised version of his own Sussex University doctoral thesis. “I’ll never write anything this good,” I thought. And looking at his original dissertation in EThoS, it’s very clear to me that I didn’t.

Eventually I connected Edward Brathwaite the historian with Kamau Brathwaite, a poet I’d heard of but didn’t know much about, and as I learned more about his life, it became clear why I’d found his work so humbling and impressive. Brathwaite is part of a tradition of academically trained historians from and of the colonial West Indies, whose energy and intelligence exploded beyond the confines of the dusty scholarship in which they were trained. Indeed, such historians as C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, Elsa Goveia and Walter Rodney, reframed historical research and writing as an urgent political and artistic act, as each not only made a substantial intellectual impact outside their discipline, but also enduring social, cultural and political legacies far beyond the academy.

In Brathwaite’s case, he was a cultural organiser and poet of the first importance. In 1966, whilst studying at Sussex, he founded the Caribbean Artists Movement with John La Rose and Andrew Salkey in London. As artist Errol Lloyd recalls, CAM was important for being “the first organised collaboration of artists from the Caribbean with the aim of celebrating a new sense of shared Caribbean ‘nationhood’.” Brathwaite was already a published poet at this time, Rights of Passage (Shelfmark: X.909/8978.) having appeared with Oxford University Press in 1967. He went on to publish dozens of volumes of his own poetry over the next fifty years, as well as championing other poets through anthologies, essays and teaching.

 

Edward Brathwaite  Rights of Passage. OUP  1967
Title page of Edward Brathwaite's 'Rights of Passage' (OUP, 1967)

The British Library is a great place to learn more about Kamau Brathwaite, and Anglo-Caribbean writing more generally. For instance, there are over a dozen recordings of Brathwaite reading his own poetry in our Sound Archive, as well as interviews and collaborations with other poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson. In our Manuscripts and Archives department, there are uncorrected proofs of some of his early volumes of poetry and publicity photographs in the Poetry Book Society archive. More significantly, in the archive of Andrew Salkey there are many letters and photographs illuminating their artistic and personal friendship, including the setting up of CAM. Those interested more broadly in Anglo-Caribbean writing will also find much of interest in the archives of James Berry and the recently acquired archive of Andrea Levy, which will be available to consult in late 2021.

And then there are the books themselves. From Rights of Passage in 1967 to the Lazarus poems (Shelfmark: YKL.2018.a.19802) in 2017, his full poetic career can be surveyed in the British Library’s collections, as well as his historical and literary writings (1974’s Contradictory Omens [Shelfmark: X:519/30919] is another must-read) and many books about him. One of the distinguishing aspects of Brathwaite’s later poetry is its embrace of the visuality of digital culture as a poetic strategy, creating some highly complex, experimental, and vibrantly contemporary work. It is thus fitting that a writer of Brathwaite’s versatility and imagination should have inhabited a career that was both deeply immersed in the past, and so keenly attuned to the forms and practices that are transforming today into tomorrow.

Kamau Brathwaite  Dream Haiti. Savacou North  1995. Cover
Cover for Brathwaite's 'Dream Haiti' (Savacou North, 1995)



Kamau Brathwaite  Dream Haiti. Savacou North  1995. Excerpt 1
Inside 'Dream Haiti' (Savacou North, 1995)



Kamau Brathwaite  Born to Slow Horses. WUP  2005.
Cover of 'Born to Slow Horses' (WUP, 2005 )



Kamau Brathwaite  The Lazarus Poems. WUC  2017. A Slave Ship Beloved
Inside 'The Lazarus Poems: A Slave Ship Beloved' (WUC, 2017)



Kamau Brathwaite  Middle Passages. Bloodaxe  1992. Cover
Cover for 'Middle Passages' (Bloodaxe, 1992)

Further reading:
Stuart B. Schwarz (ed.), West Indian Intellectuals in Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003) (Shelfmark: YC.2006.a.16834) – a guide to the milieu of the Caribbean intelligentsia in mid-twentieth century Britain, which did much to shape Brathwaite’s early intellectual and poetic achievements

Verene A. Shepherd and Glen L. Richards (eds.), Questioning Creole: Creolisation Discourses in Caribbean Culture (Kingston, JA: Ian Randle Publishers, 2002) (Shelfmark: YC.2002.a.6565) – a stimulating collection of essays taking Brathwaite’s historical and conceptual investigations of ‘creole’ as their starting point

Annie Paul (ed.), Caribbean Culture: Soundings on Kamau Brathwaite (Kingston, Jamaica University of the West Indies Press, 2007) (Shelfmark: YD.2008.a.8461) – another collection of essays on the author’s poetic and cultural leagacy

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