Citation for and Introduction of Kamau Brathwaite’s W.E.B. Dubois Award at The Tenth National Black Writers’ Conference, with Toni Morrison Nobel Prize Winning Author as Honorary Chair

Medgar Evers College, Saturday March 27, 2010

Nation Language!
The African Diaspora in the Caribbean!
“The African presence in Caribbean literature”!
Migration as a discourse!
Theory of Creolization!
The relevance of Haiti!
Limbo as a reenactment of the middle passage!
Middle Passages!

These are only some of the major theoretical and political contributions to Caribbean African discourse that mark the career of Kamau Brathwaite —  a massive literary output which underlines the history of the African diaspora at its every turn, in its myriad locations. This is how we want first of all to identify the Caribbean griot that is Kamau Brathwaite. Caribbean Griot yes but African Griot in the true sense of the word, combining history with art, poetry with performance, knowledge with community.

In one of the definitions of the griot or djele s/he is a “human link between past and present.” This is a function that retains its significance for the African griot, often at work at naming ceremonies, locates an individual in his/her history. A full knowledge of history then is critical to the griot. The griot is therefore also a historian, and a literary artist. In other words, he brings together some of these functions separated out in the Western academy: “a griot [can recount] for several hours the story of one of these heroes in a multigeneric narrative that includes genealogies, praises, songs, etymologies, incantations, oaths, and proverbs (Hale, 23).” The griot is also an adviser who uses his/her experience to recommend courses of action. More fundamentally, s/he is also a musician, creating sounds with words and instruments; a teacher and exhorter but also a warrior, exhorting his people to battle if necessary. By these means we are able to declare Kamau Brathwaite without a doubt is a Caribbean griot.

There is a wonderful summary in the Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora by June Bobb Bert which captures Kamau Brathwaite as critic, theorist and cultural historian, the Anglophone Caribbean poet whose work for her is most rooted in the cosmology and cosmography of Africa and its diaspora:

“Born in Barbados in 1930, the landscapes and seascapes of his island are etched into his consciousness. Brathwaite, deeply influenced by living and working in Ghana during the years of its early independence, is always reaching back to ancestral Africa even as he moves forward to encounter dread spaces in the African diaspora wherever they exist. The Caribbean is the epicenter of his visionary world. He acknowledges its emergence from a history of slavery and colonization, and recognizes the resulting legacy of psychic fragmentation and dispossession. Central to this project is his concept of tidalectics. Patterning the rhythms of his poetry after the ebb and flow of the waves of our islands, this movement mirrors his journey from the present historical moment back to sources and remembered places. He continues to locate the Caribbean as an ever-expanding universe.” (p. 224)

In a piece I recently wrote for the Cambridge Companion to Caribbean Literature, I suggest that perhaps the most substantial writing of the epic of the long migration is Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants. A New World Trilogy (1967). The doubly and triply diasporized Caribbean subject is shown as being created through a series of migrations. The poet takes us with him on difficult journeys from Africa to the Americas. We witness displacement and the im/possibility of return in, Masks, with all the histories of colonialism and its after-effects interrogated. Still he looks for family, for the meaning of the drum, of the roots of our selves in African places. While Brathwaite sees migration as part of the human condition, but particularly African migration as part of the whole narrative of human advancement through time, he is well aware of the current economic conditions under late capitalism which become triggers in this period. So early African migrations for climatic reasons, meet other harsher realities of slave trades (Arab and European) and colonialism and neo-colonialism. His Islands, the third in the trilogy provides numerous angles of explanation of the nature of existence in these incomplete island nations, colonies and semi-colonies. And even in the United States and Europe, there is a capturing of the pain of the black experience in “Didn’t He Ramble” (22) with its opening line: “So to New York London/I finally come/hope in my belly/hate smothered down/ to the bone/ to suit the part/I am playing (22).” Thus in the poem “The Emigrants” he captures all the facets of this migration – “to Canada, Panama Canal, Mississippi painfields, Florida, Glasgow” Moving from a discourse in which identity was located in the first level diaspora’s dispersal—largely India or Africa – Caribbean writers as even Kamau Brathwaite had begun to signal such a move, to a second level Caribbean and American diaspora identification as he does in Middle Passages (1992), the pluralizing of which captures the re-definition of a Caribbean diaspora identity in migration.

In another place, The Caribbean Woman Writer as Scholar. Creating, Imagining, Theorizing (2006), I found it critical to define the creative/theoretical in order to identify conceptually the artists who are able to do theoretical work in their creative work. Clearly Kamau is the leading exponent of this model of the creative intellectual. Kamau has had a very distinguished career as a poet, historian and cultural theorist: His historical work contributed greatly to the understanding of creolisation (“Contradictory Omens” before Glissant) as a process and his term “nation language” has been a critical naming of the wide range of African based languages in the Caribbean. But he has also been a critical intellectual and creative force in bringing subordinated African cultural elements to the fore in Caribbean culture.

Trained as a historian at the University of Sussex in England, Brathwaite then worked in Ghana from the mid-fifties until the early 1960s, an experience which made him conversant with West African history and cultures. This was central to his first major trilogy, The Arrivants (1973), an epic history of people of African descent from West Africa to the diaspora. This is demonstrated well in the second volume, Masks (1968) which establishes powerful metonyms for aspects of Ghanaian (particularly Akan-Ashanti). His glossary to the Arrivants for many provided the first encounter with some African and African diaspora concepts. And for many African scholars, like my friend Abena Busia, while many of us needed Maureen Warner-Lewis’s linguistic research on sources Notes to Masks, the “Masks” section of the trilogy is the most fruitful as they also teach their culture through these texts.

A range of diaspora figures people the Brathwaite universe: Uncle Tom of Harriet Beecher Stowe is revisited, in the American South, and he remembers Ashanti history, Yoruba god Ogun, vodoun rituals which keep African rituals alive, especially the identification of Legba as the god of the crossing, Shango, Erzulie, Haitian Veve, jou’vert, as well as the Akan trickster figure Anancy, who arrived in the New World as part of culture the enslaved Africans brought with them, Brother Man the Rasta man, “The Twist”, a range of Islands and New World references, Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad, Barbados, Jamaica, jazz folk forms like the sermon, the chant. And who can forget his version of “Caliban” with its limbo sequence and its Carnival steelband rhythm where Caliban becomes a pan man.





like to play


at the car-


Caribbean critics of poetry talk as well of a post-Brathwaite poetic style now accessible to a range of Caribbean poets, which brilliantly fused a wide variety of language usages by people of African descent in the continent and the diaspora and the language of the drum, and like Langston Hughes, the critical importance of jazz thus providing in his poetic work a demonstration of cultural process begun in Africa and continued during and after enslavement in the New World. It is Kamau who allowed them to dub it up.

For critics like Elaine Savory, his repetition and revision of poems also reflects such practices in African orature, translated to English and Caribbean or African-American culture, as in “Negus”, the classic lines of the stutter become on page: “it/it/it/it is not…It is not/it is not/it is not enough/to be pause, to be hole/to be void, to be silent/to be semicolon, to be semi-colony;”. For many of us who teach Kamau, it is always one of those gratifying moments when students realize they can do all that in a poem, which they had imagined before in terms of rigid structure.

In his prose work also Brathwaite, an amazing library of materials in its own right. Check our Contradictory Omens if you want to have a pretext for Glissant on creolization. His essay “The African presence in Caribbean literature” (1970-3, see Roots,1993), for me was a godsend as I began my own research as a graduate student in Nigeria. It is in this essay that Brathwaite makes the careful statement that Caribbean culture is not purely African, “but an adaptation carried out mainly in terms of African tradition” what I call re-elaboration as in jazz or a carnival mask — an elaboration on an elaboration — despite the strong attempt by planters to eradicate African survivals, recreations and inventions coming from the formerly enslaved: “Shango, cumfa, kaiso, tea-meeting, susu, jamette-carnival”.

In History of the Voice (1979/81, Roots 1993), he discusses the cultural complexities of Caribbean language, brought by “the peoples of Ashanti, Congo, Nigeria, from all that mighty coast of West Africa…imported into the Caribbean” and names “nation language.” Keep in mind that it was a spider’s web, containing a “glorious ananse” (Anancy), which first caught the poet’s attention.  Since then Kamau has been one of the leading voices in a generation, creating institutions like the Caribbean Artists Movement, underscoring the importance of African thought and culture in the New World.  Those who know his work best indicate that he has published over forty books. Here is a selection of some of the major ones.

Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return. Notes to Belonging (2001) which navigates for another generation the intersections of the two diaspora – African and Caribbean — on the one hand, the metaphor of the actual “door of no return” at the exit of the slave castles to the New World and the imaginative door that exists once one leaves and enters “diasporization”: “How to describe this mix of utter, hopeless pain and elation leaning against this door?” (41).  Dionne Brand’s semi-autobiographical/reflective work, Map to the Door of No Return offers a contemplation on the meaning of migration, loss, recovery, moving skillfully between island and metropolitan center, rural and urban, the sea and land, Africa and the Diaspora. It is never a happy ending for always it seems the contemplation of migration generates loss in an unhappy tension with im/possible recovery. The Caribbean identity that she recuperates is one which has to be ready for continuous self-invention.”

But, it is Kamau who demonstrated how to precisely work that self-invention, how to fracture the English language deliberately, to break up its words and sentences, to challenge its iambic pentameter with our own rhythms, to incorporate African words and phrasings, onomatopoeia, to capture the non verbal expressions of a Bob Marley: Oh Yoi! Oh Yoi yoi yoi!

Or the onamotopeia of an older Bajan woman: Brugadown!

And it is here that Kamau Brathwaite has to be acknowledged in that space of creative Caribbean re-invention, and re-elaboration, providing key components in the definition of a Caribbean aesthetic, being ready to build it all over again, as the recent experience of the Haitian earthquake demonstrates as we manage the fault lines on which we live.

Distinguished Elder; Caribbean Griot

You have articulated with clarity, creativity and elegance the Caribbean-/American experience, advanced our knowledge and respect for the dignity of the African Diaspora, giving voice to our migratory pathways. For this we honor you.

His Response:

3/29/10 2:06 A.M.


Subject: MEDGAR

My dear Carole, You Maroon Daughter who remain – perhaps as you shd! – so
distant & reserved, tho i observe the fire at the Conf Ryerson some years
ago now, and this time, as you immerse yrself in yr glorious citation for
Kb5 – as you say, even in the midst a mas, you tell dem YES) – i see more &
more the shape of the Trini – the tone, the way the head slant down & tilt
towards the txt – and i glimpse the poet there too – the dance in the words
and in yr body-language – all that so precious a gift to a person who don’t
receive many, even tho i still overwhelm this sudden unXpected DUBOIS AWARD
which, for all i kno, you might will have conspire . whether i not, i give
thanks yr generosity and the song you sing for me lass night and for so many
others thru the time

Now you will traVel for me too back to Ghana for Mama Busia funeral. How i
wish i cd have been there also! But pl my love & condolence to Abena. is
long time now me nvr see she/hear her voice. Hold her hand fe me please

and let’s try keep in touch, if this wd mean anything to you – but even b4
that, allow my vanity & love of archives to ask you for a copy of that
citation from the head & heart

Fly high fly safe – Yrs, Kb5

Select Bibliography:

Kamau Brathwaite, Ancestors, New York: New Directions, 2001.

…Barabajan Poems, New York: Savacou North, 1994.

Born to Slow Horses,Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.

ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey, New York: We Press & Xcp, 1999.

…Golokwati 2000, New York: Savacou North, 2002.

Kamau Brathwaite’s Middle Passages : A Lecture, (introduction Elaine Savory), Toronto: Sandberry Press, 2006 (CD).

Middle Passages, New York: New Directions, 1993.

…Mother Poem, (as Edward Kamau Brathwaite), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

…MR (2 volumes), New York: Savacou North, 2002.

…Odale’s Choice, Ibadan: Evans, 1967.

…Roots, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

…Sun Poem, (as Edward Kamau Brathwaite) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

…The Arrivants, (as Edward Brathwaite), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820, (introduction B.W.Higman), Kingston: Ian Randle, 2005.

Trench Town Rock, Providence: Lost Roads, 1994.

…X/Self, (as Edward Kamau Brathwaite), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Elegguas (2010)

Born to Slow Horses (2005)

Liviticus (2017)

Strange Fruit (2016)

And critical work on Kamau:

Curwen Best, Roots to Popular Culture: Barbadian Aesthetics: Kamau Brathwaite to Hardcore Styles, London: Macmillan, 2001.
June Bobb Bert, “Kamau Brathwaite,” Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora, v. 1 (Oxford, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008): 224-225.
June Bobb. Beating a Restless Drum. The Poetics of Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott. Trenton, New Jersey: African World Press, 1998.
Stewart Brown, The Art of Kamau Brathwaite, Bridgend:Seren Press, 1995.
Timothy Reiss, The Geography of a Soul: Emerging Perspectives on Kamau Brathwaite, Trenton: Africa World Press, 2001.
Gordon Rohlehr, Pathfinder: Black Awakening in The Arrivants of Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Port of Spain: Gordon Rohlehr, 1981.
Anne Walmsley, The Caribbean Artists Movement 1966-1972, London: New Beacon Books, 1992.
Emily Williams, The Critical Response to Kamau Brathwaite, Westport: Preager, 2004.
See also: Stephanie Hessler, ed. Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview through Art and Science. MIT Press, 2018.