Born on 11 May 1930 and christened Lawson Edward Brathwaite, he was the son of Hilton and Beryl Gill Brathwaite; he grew up in Bridgetown, Barbados, and attended Harrison College. With friends he started a school newspaper there in the late 1940s and wrote a column himself on jazz--a lifelong interest that has affected both the substance and the technique of his poetry. Several poems of his appeared in that paper, the Harrisonian, in 1949 and 1950. His first major publication was in Bim, the pioneering literary journal Frank Collymore had been publishing in Barbados since 1942. Bim was respected and read throughout the West Indies; George Lamming, Edgar Mittelholzer, A. J. Seymour, and Derek Walcott, among others, had published work in its pages by 1950, when Brathwaite's "Shadow Suite" was published (soon to be followed in Bim by "Fantasie in Blue and Silver," a sequence first printed in the Harrisonian).
"Shadow Suite" is typical of Brathwaite's early poetry. Most of his earliest work is in sequences of eight or ten lyrics, often quite different in form but integrated by diction or theme. The overwhelming influence in these poems is T. S. Eliot. In the case of "Shadow Suite," the shadows themselves, the High Church liturgical diction and decor, even the cats, all seem to come from Eliot. By contrast, only two of the poem's eight sections include recognizably Caribbean details, and these are stereotypical palm trees, sand, and surf. From such beginnings Brathwaite grows toward trilogies that pursue Eliot's interest in complex rhythms of structure, in the architectural possibilities (and problems) involved in making large poems of free-standing lyrics. Brathwaite himself has written that "The only 'European influence' I can detect and will acknowledge is that of T. S. Eliot. The tone, the cadence, and above all the organization of my long poems ... owe a great deal to him" (quoted by Gordon Rohlehr in Pathfinder, 1981).
Perhaps more importantly Brathwaite drew inspiration from a side of Eliot almost forgotten: the jazz poet, the explorer of the whole gamut of American voices and their rhythms, whose phonograph recordings of his work inspired Caribbean poets to shape their own speech into poetry. That model stands behind Brathwaite's early interest in recording his own work, often with musical accompaniment. His performance of his first trilogy, The Arrivants (1973), was released commercially between 1969 and 1973, and his criticism often reverts to the subject of preserving the voice in written verse. What a jazzman does with the old standards is for Brathwaite also a model for what the West Indian poet, indeed any postcolonial poet, can do with standard English. In The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820, (1971), Brathwaite historicizes the insight: "It was in language that the slave was perhaps most successfully imprisoned by his master, and it was in his (mis-) use of it that he perhaps most effectively rebelled." But as early as in "Shadow Suite" expressions such as "dyawning" and "splashtered" are the first isolated signs of what Brathwaite later called "Calibanisms."
Like his taste for Jazz, this aesthetic reveals the roots of Brathwaite's long search for an alternative to the undiluted British tradition so strong in the West Indies of his youth and especially in Barbados. He once described his goal in these revealing terms: "I'm trying to outline an alternative to the English Romantic/Victorian cultural tradition which still operates among us and on us, despite the 'colonial' breakthrough already achieved by Eliot, [Ezra] Pound, and [James] Joyce; and despite the presence among us of a folk tradition which in itself, it seems to me, is the basis of an alternative" ("Jazz and the West Indian Novel," Bim, July--December 1967).
At Harrison College in 1949 Brathwaite won the coveted Barbados Island Scholarship to Cambridge, in those days one of the few tickets to a metropolitan education. He read history and English at Pembroke College, earning an honors degree (a B.A.) in history in 1953 and a certificate in education the following year. He also continued to write. Brathwaite remembers his first snowstorm as the moment when he felt he was mentally possessing the English landscape, but his poem on the subject, "The Day the First Snow Fell" (Bim, 1951), despite traces of the style of Dylan Thomas, is a poem resolutely in black and white, incorporating sings of alienation. The Barbados Island Scholarship unavoidably linked recognition of intellectual prowess and promise with departure, even escape, from the Caribbean. Like many other West Indians, however, Brathwaite discovered that England was not home but a place of exile, that he was perceived as an alien, not a native son. Even at cambridge he found that the magazines were interested only in his exotically "West Indian" work. This experience planted the seeds of Brathwaite's masterpiece, The Arrivants. The earliest poem in the first volume, Rights of Passage (1967), is "A Caribbean Theme" (originally in the anthology Poetry from Cambridge 1947-50 )--pointedly identified by its title as one of the poems that met the expectations at Cambridge.
Brathwaite continued to produce sequences, too, during this period. Some were published in local magazines at Cambridge, but most were sent back home to appear in Bim. In May 1953 Brathwaite found a particularly congenial outlet for his work: between 1953 and 1958 more than fifty of his poems, some of them still not published, were broadcast by the BBC's Caribbean Voices program. In the mid 1950s Bim and the BBC between them also presented several of his stories. These might be called experimental; at least they suggest that Brathwaite was still searching for his medium. "The Professor" (BBC, 1954) is a fictionalized portrait of the critic F. R. Leavis. "The Black Angel" (Bim, June 1955) is a mysterious story about a camp of outcasts in which the characters have the names of Greek letters, and the "black angel" is a leather jacket. With two exceptions Brathwaite published no further fiction after that brief burst of activity until "The 4th Traveller" (Callaloo, 1989), a hallucinatory representation of grief, whose sinister atmosphere recalls the world of the Haitian painter Wilfredo Lam, or that of Franz Kafka. One exception is trivial: the story "Cricket" (in Caribbean Prose, 1967) is virtually identical to the poem "Rites," in Islands (1969). The other exception, however, reveals an important dimension of Brathwaite's development. "Christine" ( Bim, January--June 1961) is a chapter from "The Boy and the Sea," an unpublished novel dating from Brathwaite's Cambridge days. This story, two decades later, was transformed into poetry as "Return of the Sun" in Sun Poem (1982).
Brathwaite's alienation from England might plausibly have inspired him to undertake a novel or autobiography that could confirm for him his rootedness in Barbados. His turn away from fiction and the very long dormancy of this Barbadian material reflect the impact of a profoundly formative event: the publication in 1953 of In the Castle of My Skin, the autobiographical novel by his slightly older compatriot George Lamming. Brathwaite recounts his response to this novel: "everything was transformed. Here breathing to me from every pore of line and page was the Barbados I had lived" ("Timehri," Savacou, September 1970). Brathwaite's commitment as a writer owes much to the publication of In the Castle, and while critics routinely compare him with Walcott, his continuing rivalry with Lamming has been much more important for the shaping of Brathwaite's career. Lamming began as a poet, and the authority of his voice as a successful reader of his own work in England impressed Brathwaite very much, as Eliot's recorded voice had. Lamming's example as a novelist seems nearly to have deflected Brathwaite from the prose medium altogether and from any sustained attention to Barbadian subject matter until the writing of Mother Poem (1977). Much of Brathwaite's cultural criticism took its initial cue from Lamming's Pleasures of Exile (1960), in which the analysis of William Shakespeare's Tempest shaped Brathwaite's account of the "personality types" to be found in creole culture.
After graduating from Cambridge, Brathwaite worked from 1955 to 1962 in various capacities for the Ministry of Education in what is now Ghana, during the period of the country's transition to independence. The BBC continued to air Brathwaite's poems, including new sequences, such as "Poems from the Gold Coast" (1956), "Sappho Sakyi's Meditations" (1957), and "The Hopeful Journey" (1958). Gordon Rohlehr, the scholar to whom all the other readers of the poet's work are indebted, singles out "Sappho Sakyi's Meditations" as the first emergence of "the distinctive Brathwaite style and sound," and the work was printed as a book in 1989.
Henry Swanzy, founding editor of the Caribbean Voices program and a great supporter of Brathwaite's work, had also come to the Gold Coast in 1955 and had initiated for the Ghana Broadcasting System a program titled The Singing Net, based on the successful model of Caribbean Voices. Material from these broadcasts was duly published as Voices of Ghana (1958), and Brathwaite's review of the collection for Bim (January--June 1960) is revealing. It presents Brathwaite as a careful observer reporting back to the Caribbean with firsthand knowledge of Africa, and more specifically it identifies some explicit sources for his Masks (1968): Andrew Opoku's poem "Afram" and Joseph Nketia's essay "Poetry of Drums." He had not gone to Africa out of nostalgia but, as he sometimes puts it, "by accident," and through his work he came to know it at its most prosaic. But as he recounts in "Timehri," the experience of rural Africa is crucial to his sense of himself as an artist ("I was no longer a lonely individual talent") and to his subsequent understanding of West Indian culture. In a sense Africa made it possible for Brathwaite to recognize the Caribbean as home. So the moving poem "South" (Bim, January--June 1959), which was to mark a structurally important transition in Rights of Passage, preserves his first nostalgic look back from Africa to the Caribbean ("We who were born of the ocean can never seek solace / in rivers"). In 1960 Brathwaite began directing a children's theater group in Ghana. Several of the plays he wrote for this group were published; others--including "Pageant of Ghana" and "Edina"--later provided material for Masks. Also in 1960, while in Barbados on a long leave, Brathwaite met and married Doris Monica Welcome, a teacher and librarian. They had one child, Michael Kwesi Brathwaite.
It was during his years in Africa that Edward Kamau Brathwaite came to be recognized in the West Indies as an important critic, thanks again to Bim, which remained his sole line of print communication until the late 1960s. These early essays demonstrate his extensive knowledge of a wide range of West Indian writing, and in them his special authority as a critic takes shape, grounded in his close attention to details and his forthright judgment. Brathwaite's essays typically combine encouragement with critique, but they are most valuable for their extrapolation of trends, avenues of development, and occasional dead ends for individual authors or for West Indian literature as a whole. In short, Brathwaite used the critical survey as an occasion for shaping his thoughts about what he would come to call a West Indian aesthetic, about the function of the writer in the West Indies, and about his own objectives--and obligations--as a writer. Certainly one objective in these early essays is to establish a beachhead for his own reentry into the West Indian literary scene.
In "Sir Galahad and the Islands" (Bim, July--December 1957; collected in Iouanaloa, 1963), Brathwaite's theme is exile--"the desire (even the need) to migrate is at the heart of West Indian sensibility: whether that migration is in fact or by metaphor." There are the "Emigrants" (novelists such as Sam Selvon, Wilson Harris, and Lamming, who were living in England), but even among the "Islanders" there is the danger of withdrawal into "brilliant loneliness" because of the shortage in the islands of "material on which the spirit is sustained." Brathwaite sees this withdrawal as a problem particularly for middle-class writers (Roger Mais, Walcott), but even for the "folk" writer, "individual talent is not enough.... If he is to develop the richness and the promise which is his, he needs not 'luck,' but a whole living tradition." So the question is "can our [West Indian] society produce enough writers with the talent and insight to use folk material creatively; not as 'reporters,' but with a sufficient sweetness of maturity to establish a tradition?" Brathwaite's tentative answer lays out the terms for much of his criticism published in the 1960s and 1970s: "If [West Indian] society is in good health, our 'central' writers (those based on the 'folk') will continue to find nourishment from their soil. What is more, greater social intercommunication, and the understanding that would have to go with it, would give the 'middle class' writer (and possibly the majority of our writers are middle class) easier access not only into folk society, but would open up the surely untapped riches of their own environment."
"Sir Galahad" shows Brathwaite identifying writers as "middle class" or "folk" on the basis of their origins; four years later (in Bim, January--June 1961) in reviewing the West Indian issue of the Tamarack Review, Brathwaite initiated a distinction based more on a sense of audience, a distinction between what he calls "humanist" and "folk" artists, on the basis of for whom they write. This interest in the relationship between artist and audience was already developing in "The New West Indian Novelists" (Bim, July-December 1960). Mirroring his account of the impact of Lamming's In the Castle, he identifies the successful novelist as one "who names and seeks to give significance to our old familiar actions and thoughts." But perhaps in anticipation of Brathwaite's own return to the Caribbean, there is a new emphasis on the special relationship between the writer and his native public, on the principle that together they create the work: "We, the special audience ... have a special concern and responsibility in the matter." Such a statement takes on urgency, even pathos, in the light of his own situation: one of the most prominent West Indian readers of West Indian literature was then in Africa reading books that came from England.
Brathwaite's growing interest in the artist's relation to his social environment, to the people who provide both his subject matter and his audience, led to his many wide-ranging essays on rootedness and deracination. It is also a facet of his broader concern with how West Indians fit into their physical and metaphysical environment--what he sometimes calls the "geo-psychic environment." So, for example, he criticized Wilson Harris's early poetry because characters present in the landscape are not engaged with it.
Reflecting on his own return to West Indian society and landscape, Brathwaite in "Roots" ( Bim, July--December 1963; in Roots, 1986) elaborates the ideas set forth in "Sir Galahad." For him the impulse to migrate is not just economic but psychic. Writers at home who wrote of the islands but wished for exile, no less than writers in exile who embraced then recoiled from their foreign status, manifested a characteristic West Indian restlessness, which Brathwaite sees as an African heritage. Brathwaite writes that this feeling "expresses itself in the West Indian through a certain psychic tension, an excitability, a definite feeling of having no past, of not really belonging ... and finds relief in laughter and (more seriously) in movement--dance, cricket, carnival, emigration." He sees this characteristic enacted in both the form and the language of West Indian fiction, in the structure of novels that offer "the vernacular description of a world through which the writer moves unerringly to his inevitable 'escape,'" and in the poetic or picturesque vernacular typical of such fiction. (He has in mind In the Castle again and V.S. Naipaul's Miguel Street , 1959.) On the positive side, he notes that the inherent health of West Indian culture has produced Naipaul, whose work set new standards for fiction and so made significant progress toward establishing the kind of tradition Brathwaite had hoped for in "Sir Galahad." Brathwaite, who had just recently achieved for himself a Caribbean home and family, particularly praises A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) as the first West Indian novel whose basic theme is not rootlessness and the search for social identity; the first novel with a clearly defined character who is trying to get in, not out; and the first novel with clearly defined boundaries: a house, a district, and a family.
While Brathwaite was in Africa, the West Indian Federation had collapsed, opening the way to independence for Jamaica and Trinidad in 1962. In conjunction with these political events, the University of the West Indies (UWI) was established as an independent, degree-granting institution in April of that year. Brathwaite returned to the Caribbean in 1962 and served for a year as a resident tutor in Saint Lucia, also broadcasting and producing for the Windward Islands Broadcasting Service. In 1963 he took an appointment as a lecturer in history at the Jamaican campus of UWI at Mona.
During his year in Saint Lucia he wrote "The Role of the University in Developing Society" (in Iouanaloa), which argues strenuously that independence calls for greater intellectual investment in the region: "Is it not significant that the very purest forms of our self-expression--the poets--Walcott, Telemaque, Roach--have not written outside the Caribbean area?" The essay is also a kind of official announcement of his interest in "things African": "To say that things African are equal to things European and Asian is a more than reasonable premise, and needs to be stressed. To suggest that things African are probably better, is leaving the sphere of University thought for temporal propaganda." The creole context of Brathwaite's first statement of this theme is noteworthy because he was repeatedly criticized, especially during the 1970s, as a partisan Africanist.
Brathwaite's trilogy The Arrivants , which made his international reputation, incorporates some earlier poetry, but it is impressive, perhaps above all, because of the breadth and unity of its conception, and that conception, with all its implications for method and style throughout his career, took shape during 1964 and 1965--so quickly that when Brathwaite departed for graduate study in England in late summer 1965, the first volume, Rights of Passage , was already complete. Rights is a sustained poem of some eighty pages and at the same time a collection of nineteen discrete poems, gathered in a loosely narrative structure. There are four sections: "Work Song and Blues," "The Spades," "Islands and Exiles," and "The Return." The opening "Prelude" presents an evocative, lyric view of "the long story ... of the migrant African moving from the lower Nile across the desert to the Western ocean only to meet the Portuguese and a History that was to mean the middle passage, America, and a rootless sojourn in the Caribbean Sea." Thus Brathwaite sets the mythical/historical context for the entire trilogy. The central figure of the volume is Tom, the representative survivor of "the middle passage," who is at once the last African and the first "New World Negro"--a conduit of memory, blood, and soul. For the purposes of the poem he has one single cultural possession, a memory of the golden age of the Ashanti Empire under Osei Tutu, but it is a painful and apparently useless story he cannot pass on to his children. In "Didn't He Ramble," named for the traditional funeral tune, Tom, now dead, grieves over the rootlessness of his descendants--literally from the grave, where roots transfix his body. The two central sections, "the Spades" and "Islands and Exiles," present the diaspora as a series of masks, the stereotypical identities donned by those sons of Tom in response to the pressures of the world.
The fourth section turns to unmasked Caribbean realities, grounded in the lives of the common folk. Significantly readers first hear sustained female voices when in "The Dust" a group of women meeting in a shop try to understand the inexplicable blighting of their world by volcanic dust from a neighboring island. These are unmedicated Caribbean identities, and Brathwaite gives glimpses of the obscured history that leads back to Tom, whose decaying cabin (the allusion to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin  is intentional and provocative) "is all that's left of hopes, of hurt, of history ..." while around it the Caribbean is being transformed into a cheap imitation of the metropolises in steel and concrete.
The closing "Epilogue" repeats, sometimes literally, the opening poem of cyclical migration, but it also introduces a new figure, "Old Negro Noah," who, like Tom, steps into a new world, like him lives to be mocked by his own sons, and like him bears the responsibility to make choices for the descendants whose survival he has just assured: "Should you ... walk in the morning fully aware of the future to come?"
Rights functions as a prelude to the entire trilogy; it amounts to the elaborate articulation of a single question--which Brathwaite states as "Where then is the nigger's home?"--through a mythologized history. That was not yet apparent when the volume first appeared in isolation, but the critical response to Rights set the terms for subsequent reactions to the trilogy as a whole, and indeed to all of Brathwaite's work. Early critics noted his affinities with Eliot, Walt Whitman, and Hart Crane, as well as with Lamming and Mais, though North American critics tended to view the book as yet another articulation of black rage. But Edward Baugh, like several other Caribbean critics, was more impressed by the innovations of form and technique than by the subject, about which he concluded the poem says "nothing new" (Bim, July--December 1967). That the poem demanded public performance was clear from the start; Baugh also thought it "better heard than read." Derek Walcott, in his insightful review in the Sunday Guardian Magazine (19 March 1967), concurred: "the poem, read aloud, subdues and arrests the onrush of its subject, by the closely packed rhythms, by the tautness of its short stresses." Mervyn Morris, the critic who was the most attentive to the technical details in the poem, praised the varying rhythms set off against each other and the effectiveness of the puns and half-rhymes, though he voiced what would become a recurrent complaint when he confessed that Brathwaite's lineation presents "a puzzlement and an occasional irritation" (New World Quarterly , 1967). While some called the poem plain or thin, Walcott praised Brathwaite's economy and "modesty": "everything has been honed down to a sliverthin essential" by "a refined, anguished sensibility bent on achieving not power, but grace, not grandeur but sharp, piercing truths." All the critics who were themselves poets (Walcott, Baugh, and Velma Pollard) concurred with Morris's judgment that "The Dust" is "the most notable achievement in Rights," and in general nothing was more admired than the variety and immediacy of the voices in the poem, the successful use of colloquial Caribbean rhythms. Baugh is unequivocal: "no West Indian ... has used dialect more subtly, probingly, or suggestively."
The seventy pages of Masks include twenty-three poems, divided into six sections. The first three parts trace a migratory tribal history, while the latter three recount a modern poet's journey to Africa: his pilgrimage and visions, his disillusionment and its resolution. Masks starts again with the sun, but the image now represents the leavening heat of rhythm, not the whiplash of Rights. A prayer for fruitful harvest establishes the African setting. By the end of the first section, "Libation," which recounts the making of the drum and its accompanying instruments (and the making of the drummer), the scene is fully in Africa. Half the text of "Atumpan" is in Akan, and from this point on the rhythms of the verse are markedly different from those in Rights--steadier, more premeditated, and more "African," as the traditional drummer salutes his god and prays for success in his performance. In the next section, "Pathfinders," is the voice of the griot, who sings a series of relatively tight, nearly stanzaic, poems in very high diction, a series that depicts the emblematic migration from East to West Africa. This sequence of poems provides a focused, integral, even redemptive counterpart to the fragmented voices, faces, and places of the section of Rights titled "The Spades."
The third section of Masks, "Limits," traces the migration of a desert people across the savannas to their "final" settlement in the forests of West Africa. Brathwaite emphasizes the transformation of culture that results from the adjustment to radically new conditions, especially the transformation of religion from the monotheistic response to the sun in the desert to animism in the dense forest, where "leaf eyes shift, twigs creak, buds flutter, the stick becomes a snake." But the shore of the western ocean was, in spite of appearances, not the final destination; instead (as readers know from the early parts of Rights) it was the setting for the fateful encounter with Europe, slavery, and the forced migration of "the middle passage."
The second half of Masks begins with "The Return," the moment in the present when the speaker, reversing the Atlantic voyage, arrives for the first time in West Africa. But this journey is not like that in Alex Haley's Roots (1976); the traveler returns as a stranger, amid fear and mistrust. The poems of this section are unexpectedly dark, disappointing readers who expect a return to Africa that somehow fixes everything.
In "Crossing the River," the next section, the speaker begins his pilgrimage up-country to Kumasi (the old imperial capital of the Ashanti), which culminates in a vision of Osei Tutu and his court. Readers see enacted the events that Tom in Rights has compressed into a memory: Tutu's consolidation of the Ashanti Empire through the unifying symbol of the "Golden Stool," its heavenly origin attested to by the priest and adviser Anokye. But the vision discloses not only the glory of the imaginative victory but the expedient sacrifices; unexpectedly, the speaker sees his own people brought as captives to "this red town" and sold to slavers. Tom's treasured memory is revealed as a slave's memory of his master. African glory is itself a mask: "I wear this past I borrowed; history bleeds behind my hollowed eyes." As Rohlehr explained in his review of Islands (Caribbean Quarterly, December 1970), the powerful mask of Africa, "part of a process of personal incarnation and self-discovery, becomes for the New World Negro a shabby disguise to hide the fact that he lacks a true face," so it must be taken off, and home must be looked at unmasked.
Orphaned and alone, cut off from ancestry both in Africa and the Americas, the speaker travels along with the river god Tano into the night. From this low point, with the support of the god, the speaker, like a successful limbo dancer, rises again to his feet. In this night dry seeds split to sprout, the drums begin again, and, enlivened by the rhythm, dancers rise into motion like trees from split seeds. Like the possessed believer, the dancer and the drummer, too, are envisioned as conductors that ground the lightning of the god, and from that contact with the earth they produce music and movement for the community. The final poem of the volume, "The Awakening," is thus named after a traditional drummer's prelude. The poem ties together the major threads of Masks. The context is so dense that at this point the resonances of four very plain lines--"so slowly slowly / ever so slowly / I will rise / and stand on my feet"--associate the chastened, purified speaker with the rising dancer of "Tano," the drummer of "Atumpan," and Osei Tutu himself. Brathwaite ends Masks by personalizing the invocation first seen in "Atumpan": "let us succeed" has become "let me succeed." The poet explicitly identifies himself with the African drummer.
At the center of Masks is the oldest memory of the New World Negro Tom: his ideal vision of African kingship. But in his vision the speaker, a descendant of Tom, is imaginatively present at the event and sees not just the central ritual but its grimmer context. He is forced to accept the totality of African experience, not just the ideal, and to accept in addition the West Indian's severance from all that to which he can return only as a tourist or dreamer. The volume ends as the orphaned speaker returns to basics, to the earth, meaning not the African earth but the Caribbean. And the poet cannot be an African drummer. What he can aim to be is whatever in his West Indian society corresponds to the role of the drummer in African traditional society (and while the image is of a drummer, the concept for Brathwaite includes the functions of drummer, praise singer, and griot/historian). Every mask is an alienation from self that paradoxically allows participation in the activity of the group; for Brathwaite this mask of the drummer offers a point of entry into an integrated society, whereas the masks of "The Spades" are enforced constraints within which invisible men can function.
To date, two of the three critical books on Brathwaite are commentaries on Masks. This situation is interesting, since the book is his most "masked," most self-consciously written in a voice other than his own, and most unlike his other work; its unusually self-contained and "classical" form reflects the coherence of the traditional African culture that provides both its subject and its formal models. Indeed it was one of the first West Indian texts to present an accurate (because firsthand) view of Africa, and probably for that reason it has earned praise from African critics: Ama Ata Aidoo noted that Masks succeeds better than any previous work in "acceptance of Africa--our shame, our glories, past and present--not in defense or aggression, but quietly." In the Caribbean both Baugh and Jean D'Costa praised the unity of tone and conception, and Baugh added, "one is now better able to appreciate how the more strident tone of that book [Rights], the greater looseness of structure, the more violent shifts of tone express the dislocation, rootlessness and fragmentation of the New World Negro" (Bim, July-December 1968).
Islands is the longest of the three volumes in the trilogy, twenty-nine poems amounting to over one hundred pages. Rights asks its central question, "Where is the nigger's home?" And Masks seems to offer the predictable answer: "Africa"--until the speaker discovers what lies behind that answer. Islands then ventures another answer: "his home is where he is." "New World," the first of five sections, returns to the Caribbean, where "the gods have been forgotten or hidden." Bereft of mythology or native language, objects have no meanings, or remain the property of the European who names them. For that reason, "clinks of dew in the grass is the nearest we will get to god," and the choice of words calls to mind at once the vision of Africa that Tom glimpses in the dew in Rights. With eyes freshened by the experience of Africa, Brathwaite surveys the Caribbean for its repressed culture, its survivals from Africa, and its indigenous innovations--the psychic furniture that might make it a comfortable home. So in Islands he recognizes the gods who (sometimes disguised or distorted) have made the middle passage: Anansi, Legba, Ogun, and the rest. Eventually the speaker sees continuities in his own relatives, so in his uncle he recognizes Ogun, and out of the background Tom begins to emerge again. Brathwaite is equally concerned with acknowledging the living rites that the Caribbean has forged for itself out of its creole heritage: rituals as various in function and origin as "pocomania" (a Jamaican religion), limbo, cricket, and the carnival. The poem "Shepherd," for example, dramatizes the act of spirit possession in pocomania and contextualizes it in the trilogy by means of verbal echoes of the arrival of Osei Tutu, of the "Atumpan" drumbeat, and of the orphan's lament, all these traces of Africa (that is, of Masks) now audible in the Caribbean.
Most of Islands is taken up with various investigations of and reflections on the matters of cultural continuity, survival, recovery, and reconstruction. Throughout the book Brathwaite's faith in the Caribbean is figured in a group of paradoxical images--seed, egg, pebble, coral, fetus, and closed fist--all of which combine apparent imperviousness and sterility with growth.
Characteristically the final section of the entire trilogy is entitled "Beginning," and in the poem "Vévé," as so often in the trilogy, Brathwaite ends with a moment on the brink of vision--just before the carefully crafted net of the fisherman imposes its patterned order on the sea, just before the god is invited to walk among us in the body of the living, just before the poem itself effects the goal of transformation. After all, this poem exemplifies the active cultural role of poetry in a living society, and it ends with the empowering of its readers. By the success of his poem's articulation Brathwaite clearly hopes to make the idiom of his people admirable to them and at the same time to inspire West Indians to see and shape their own culture. As Islands concludes, he looks forward to a communal effort at making "here ... on his broken ground ... something torn and new."
Critics praised the final volume of the trilogy for its lucidity of construction and of imagery, though Kenneth Ramchand (in Tapia, 2 January 1977) rather curiously criticized Islands for its "rhetorical precision, the crafty appropriateness of writing with palpable designs upon us." As usual Morris spoke for many readers: "the fact is, the author of Islands is a better poet than the author of Rights of Passage" (New World Quarterly, 1969). With the publication of Islands, it was possible to address the trilogy as a whole, even before it appeared in a single volume as The Arrivants. Attention focused on the technical innovations, on the contribution to the exploration of Caribbean identity, and on the deft harmonization of personal and public objectives.
That last point was particularly prominent in Jamaica, where as Morris said, Brathwaite was seen as "a public figure arguing for particular kinds of social and cultural change," a highly visible cultural hero of such personal presence and authority that he was sometimes called a "guru." When critic Marina Maxwell (New World Quarterly , 1971) characterized him as "the central drum sounding the way home," she indicated how much the regional success of the poem and its author depended on its immediate, popular impact through live performances, beginning with a historic reading for the Jamaican P.E.N. Club in 1968 and continuing through recordings and radio presentations. Unlike much of Brathwaite's later work, The Arrivants is not difficult poetry, there is no great density of expression, and its apparent obscurities are more often cleared up by information than by interpretive skill. Indeed one of the effects, and perhaps one of the conscious objectives, of the trilogy is to make readers aware of African and Caribbean history, West Indian folk culture, and more--just as Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) made its first generation of readers aware of metaphysical poetry and Jacobean drama.
Many critics, of course, attempt to place Brathwaite's book according to the various literary traditions it evokes, and the significance of Eliot in particular is much disputed. Bruce King (in The New English Literatures, 1980) proposed a very close affinity: "Brathwaite's desire to establish a cultural tradition grounded in communal ritual and his concern with individual moments of escaping from the fragmented, chaotic present into an experience of oneness, in which the artist becomes the voice of a culture and its beliefs, show that he has profoundly understood Eliot." But in context King was arguing that Brathwaite's techniques are not so much revolutionary innovations as they are already "part of the accepted modern repertoire." At the other extreme Hayden Carruth, maintaining Brathwaite's originality, saw the influence of Eliot "almost entirely limited to matters of organization and structure ... and perhaps ... rhyming.... In texture, in verbal technique, in almost everything, nothing could be further from Eliot's poetry than Brathwaite's."
There is a similar critical dispute about the relation between Brathwaite and Walcott, which sometimes devolves into a quarrel about which is more politically correct, and there is a continuing debate, notably between Rohlehr and Ramchand, about the claims Brathwaite makes for "orature"--reliance on oral literature as a norm for West Indian poetry. A more rarified dispute, related to Marxist discussions about the role of voodoo in contemporary Haitian culture, centers on whether the upshot of the trilogy is the rebirth of African gods in the Caribbean, or a refusal of transcendence, a grounding in human society in the face of the failure of one's gods.
Generally, however, critics tend to address either the themes or the technical aspects of the poem. Morris, in a close and detailed reading of the poem, is the first to make good use of critical sources on African literature and culture, and while Rohlehr is the first critic to emphasize the need to read Brathwaite's poetry in the context of his historical research and cultural criticism, he has also established himself as Brathwaite's most devoted reader.
During the years when the volumes of The Arrivants were being published, Brathwaite was at the University of Sussex in England pursuing historical research that eventually resulted in a Ph.D. thesis, later published as The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 . Beginning in 1966 he served as an editor of Bim and as founding secretary of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM)--positions in which he encouraged the work of other West Indian writers and artists. In 1968 he obtained his Ph.D. Two important and lengthy essays by him came out of this period, both wide-ranging surveys of the state of West Indian fiction. Emerging from Brathwaite's increasingly articulate interest in the relations between writers and their society, "West Indian Prose Fiction in the Sixties" (Critical Survey, Winter 1967) emphasizes such encouraging developments as the return of writers from exile to an imaginative base in the islands and the new interest in indigenous Caribbean language and culture. It includes praise for Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas as "a novel that has come out of the structure and cultural awareness of a specific community."
"Jazz and the West Indian Novel" (presented at a CAM meeting and subsequently published in Bim, 1967-1968) records Brathwaite's own attempts (reflected in Islands) to identify the features of a Caribbean aesthetic. Rohlehr (Caribbean Quarterly, December 1970) describes this essay as seeking "a new and more relevant aesthetic for the assessment of West Indian writing," and that evaluative, even judgmental, element in Brathwaite's criticism has continued to generate opposition to what are perceived as ex cathedra pronouncements on West Indian literature. For that reason his extreme tentativeness at this early stage is noteworthy: "I am asking here whether we can, and if it is worthwhile attempting to, sketch out some kind of aesthetic whereby we may be helped to see West Indian literature in its (it seems to me) proper context of an expression both European and African at the same time. And if in this essay I stress the African aspects of this literature, it is not, I submit, because I am not aware of the other, but because in most of the critical work so far available on this subject 'Africa' has been neglected...." Though "there is no West Indian jazz," Brathwaite wants to treat jazz as the archetype of "the general movement of New World creative protest": unlike the blues and spirituals, jazz is not slave music at all but the music of the emancipated Negro--that is, of the rootless, truly expatriate Negro. To Brathwaite jazz was a good model because of its apparent bridging of the gap between artist and society, which preoccupied him at this time: "each successful improvisation is a true creation and is an expression not only of the individual artist or artists, but of the group of which the artists are part." Brathwaite, of course, thinks like a poet; for him word, image, and rhythm are the basic elements of a jazz aesthetic. But he defines a jazz novel as one that expresses the essence of a folk community through its form.
In the light of these observations, part 3 of his essay discusses Roger Mais's Brother Man (1954) and Andrew Salkey's A Quality of Violence (1959)--by Brathwaite's criteria, the only extant West Indian jazz novels. His account of Brother Man is a forerunner of the detailed analysis of the novel's "musical structure" in the essay "Brother Mais," his introduction to a 1974 edition of it. Brathwaite's admiration for the originality of this novel found expression again more than a dozen years later in "The Unborn Body of the Life of Fiction" (December 1987), where he argues that in Brother Man "the traditional social realism narrative form of the West Indian ghetto/yard novel has been transformed into a remarkable & careful pattern, based on ... jazz principles ... and over-all, informing the form, as it were, a strong sense, as in jazz, especially in 'small group' jazz, of the individual-within-the-community."
Brathwaite returned from England to his teaching job in Jamaica amid political turmoil on and off campus (which he later chronicled in "The Love Axe/1," 1976). His return was the beginning for him of an enormous project of cultural study, a great unearthing of Caribbean resources, which has been Brathwaite's primary mission ever since. The project grew most immediately out of the objectives in The Arrivants , but its roots are deep; in some sense it can be traced back to a brief student essay titled "A West Indian Culture?" in the Harrisonian in 1949. The direct recovery of submerged elements of the Caribbean past has been carried out during Brathwaite's work as a professional historian, in essays such as Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica (1970) and "Creative Literature of the British West Indies during the Period of Slavery" (June 1970), as well as in The Development of Creole Society. Brathwaite was equally concerned with the recognition and dissemination of contemporary Caribbean culture, and, in his position as one of the founding editors of Savacou, from 1970 on he devoted considerable energy to the publication of West Indian writers while he continued to write criticism.
The early 1970s also saw the further formulation of the fundamental themes of Brathwaite's criticism and, to a considerable extent, of his poetry. His effort to trace the lineaments of a "West Indian aesthetic" continued, nearly always in close conjunction with the search for "alternatives" to the European tradition--that is, for elements in Caribbean culture, high or low, that might serve as growing points for an indigenous aesthetic. Brathwaite's earliest essays touch on the relations between an artist and his society. The most compelling vision of the poet's place in society came to him in Ghana; having seen that model, he considered how to bring it about in Caribbean terms. Hence the function of the writer in Caribbean society became a central concern to him. In part because of his own public role as a performing artist in Jamaican society, this interest came into great prominence in the early 1970s, first in his objection that too much criticism of Caribbean literature treated each writer as an isolated individual and not as the "agent of his society." At the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) conference of 1971, with its theme of "the function of the writer," Brathwaite had the opportunity to develop his ideas in a confrontational atmosphere. While he was willing to grant, in the abstract, that some writers draw on the resources of self while others reveal the consciousness of the people, he insisted that West Indian writers "inhabit the fulcrum of our consciousness ... creating a continuum between elite and folk." In this insistence that the artist must forge a regional identity out of the fragments and buried resources of alternative traditions, Brathwaite was, of course, his own model for the West Indian writer. As he says in "Timehri," "In the Caribbean ... the recognition of an ancestral relationship with the folk or aboriginal culture involves the artist and participant in a journey into the past and hinterland which is at the same time a movement of possession into present and future. Through this movement of possession we become ourselves. ..." In his essay "Foreward" (Savacou, December 1970--March 1971) he claims, "We write out of--some of us as a result of--a fragmented society. True. But every artist's work tries to create a world and he writes towards what he conceives to be a common future of wholeness."
Brathwaite often discusses these issues by way of environmental or architectural analogies. Sometimes he develops these ideas on the largest possible scale, what he calls the "geo-psychic" scale, as is the case throughout his second trilogy but also in contemporaneous essays (such as "Caribbean Man in Space and Time," September 1975), when he speaks of the fragmentary Caribbean islands and the drowned sierra that is their "submarine unity," or alternatively when he speaks of "the inner plantation," "the outer plantation," and the isolation of escape or rebellion.
A problematic relation between house building and migration or diaspora is recurrent in The Arrivants, and Brathwaite from early in his career has commented on the rarity of established houses in West Indian fiction. Brathwaite himself seems to reject the comforts of the private house for the vitality of the barrack yard and balm yard. He ultimately identifies one particular exterior space, the vodun hounfort, as "the heart and signal of the African experience in the Caribbean/ New World," the ideal space for the manifestation of what he calls nam-which he has defined as "the African 'phenomenon,' continuously present, like a bomb, in the New World since the abduction of the first slaves ... [that] triggers itself into visibility at each moment of crisis in the hemisphere" ("The African Presence in Caribbean Literature," Daedalus, Spring 1974). Nam, a mysterious, multivalent concept, has become increasingly central to his thought, particularly in the second trilogy and in his essays of the early 1980s, where it is presented as an untheological way of conceiving a divine presence akin to the African orisha or the Haitian loa; it is generalized as the "atomic core" of a culture, the germ or seed of the group's identity.
Such a line of thought arises out of Brathwaite's lifelong study of the African cultural presence in the Caribbean, and since Caribbean culture is not "pure" African but "an adaptation carried out mainly in terms of African tradition," to study "Africa-in-the-Caribbean" is to study creolization. For Brathwaite this study began with his Sussex thesis, and he has repeatedly striven to define the concept more carefully in subsequent essays, notably Contradictory Omens (1974), which examines creolization up to the postemancipation period, Kumina (1982), "a sociological and linguistic study of Afrocreolization," and especially "Caliban, Ariel, and Unprospero in the Conflict of Creolization" (1977), in which he significantly develops and modifies his theory of the mechanisms of creolization. On the one hand, he concludes that "the idea of creolization as an a/culturative, even an interculturative process between 'black' and 'white,' with the (subordinate) black absorbing progressive ideas and technology from the white, has to be modified into a more complex vision in which appears the notion of negative or regressive creolization: a self-conscious refusal to borrow or be influenced by the Other, and a coincident desire to fall back upon, unearth, recognize elements in the maroon or ancestral culture that will preserve or apparently preserve the unique identity of the group." On the other hand, he also seeks to account for the ways in which blackness (for example) can, as a result of creolization, become a cultural element for all West Indians, regardless of race--a process most evident in Cuba and Puerto Rico, where white and mulatto writers turned to black-based literary expression as a form of protest, thereby remaking themselves as "authentic alter/natives."
For Brathwaite the mid 1970s were a period of self-fashioning, of both personal and cultural retrospection. The bibliography Our Ancestral Heritage (1977) assembles the results of years of research and constitutes an important resource for Caribbean studies, even though it amounts only to half of a projected bibliography documenting European, African, and other contributions to creole Caribbean culture. During the same period, Brathwaite was circulating the manuscript of his comprehensive "Bibliography of Caribbean Poetry in English," which amounts to a literary history; the complete text of this enormously valuable work has never been published, though compressed versions of the sections on Barbados and Jamaica were printed as pamphlets in 1979. The essay "The Love Axe/1," like much of Brathwaite's work since the 1970s, combines elements of chronicle, bibliography, and autobiography in a kind of grass-roots literary history. It looks back on the formative events of the late 1960s, which in Jamaica at least were closely associated with UWI in Mona (notably the expulsion of historian Walter Rodney and the student occupation of the Creative Arts Centre). The essay links those events to literary production: "perhaps for the first time in our history, our native protest movements had a considerable measure of organization, and their artistic/literary output was large and significant." In 1976 Brathwaite began regularly using a name given to him in Africa, so that his title pages thereafter identify him as Edward Kamau Brathwaite. (He had initially signed himself "L. E. Brathwaite," then occasionally "L. Edward"; "Edward Brathwaite" was the norm from the late 1960s until 1976.)
The mid 1970s was also a transitional period for Brathwaite's poetry. Other Exiles (1975), a collection of thirty poems from the years 1950 to 1975, presents personal poetry, in contrast to the public poetry of The Arrivants : there are several unusually intimate poems; portraits sketched from his travels as a student in Europe; and explorations of voices in West Indian "folk" poems as well as in poems that have jazz and the blues as either their subjects or their models. Pollard, in the best review of the collection (Caribbean Quarterly, 1977), characterizes the early poetry as a training ground for the first trilogy, though she notes that the 1975 book lacks the balancing hope for the future that is a feature of The Arrivants. "Conqueror," the most overtly political and complex poem in Other Exiles, anticipates the subjects and techniques of the second trilogy, but that forward-looking perspective is more characteristic of the complementary volume Black + Blues (1976), published after winning the Casa de las Américas prize for poetry. This set of twenty-three poems is an exploration of material that generated the second trilogy, and it also carries on Brathwaite's continuing study of the dramatic representation of Caribbean voices. The titles of the various sections--"Fragments," "Drought," and "Flowers"--reveal the central movements of the collection, sketching an argument that fragments can flower, that "out of the ruins / grass still presses," that drought in the West Indies is a season of flowers. As part of Brathwaite's search for submerged unities, Black + Blues shows him preoccupied with relics, totems, fetishes, ruins, and shards. There is a strong sense that these fragments are "survivals," the past alive in the present, though damaged or broken, and that attention to them can bring them to life. Both resurrection and revolution are key terms, sometimes as alternatives to one another. In the poem "Starvation" a revolutionary Jamaican voice hopes the high rises will "resurrect dem self back down to gravel." While there are desperate, revolutionary even incendiary voices in the book, the characteristic feeling is a kind of metaphysical optimism, familiar because of its appearance in The Arrivants. This optimism is clearest in "Harbour," with its movement from "islands floating" to a "cool harbour." The concluding image of the dried coconut making its own "middle passage," to take root and flourish in the Caribbean, contrasts eloquently with Brathwaite's first evocation of this image in "Shadow Suite": "The isolated islands / exchange only adventurous sea-coconuts / Antilles without tradition."
Brathwaite began concerted work on his second trilogy under the auspices of a Guggenheim Fellowships during 1972 and 1973. The first two volumes of this trilogy (with no collective title) gradually delineate a vast, mythic frame conceived on the scale of geologic time and inhabited by characters who have, in effect, both human and geologic (or astronomical) aspects. Thus Mother Poem focuses on women, beginning with the mother who is at the same time the speaker's native island, Barbados, set apart in the mothering sea. In contrast, Sun Poem elaborates on the linear career of the father, figured variously as the trajectory of the sun from dawn to dark, the sequential colors of the rainbow, and an African spirit swept westward from home to be cast up on the island's Atlantic shore. The mythic apparatus of the first two volumes becomes itself the subject of X/Self (1987), whose multiform eponymous hero is the "child" of that sun and mother.
The scale and organization of Mother Poem recall those of the earlier trilogy; there are twenty-five poems arranged in four sections. "My Mother, Barbados" is both the setting and the central character. She is a pool, but also the cloud that evaporates from the pool, and the porous limestone through which the falling rain "percolates"; she is the island, a stone shaped like a tear. In much the same way that Rights shows Brathwaite meditating on Tom by turning attention to his children, Mother Poem depicts the central figure by showing her relations with the men in her life (husband, parson, teacher, debt collector, and others). All of them are broken or distorted by the heritage of colonialism, so that she must somehow find ways to support them at the same time that she resists their demands on her. The bulk of the volume is occupied with this depiction and with glimpses of the risky expedients by which she survives. Even as it celebrates her strength, the book condemns the social conditions past and present that constrain her. As often happens in The Arrivants, the momentum leads to a final "beginning" through spirit possession, which is at once an escape, a grounding, an empowerment, and an act of resistance. Finally, through the "birth" that is her death, she is metamorphosed from natural to mythic mother. When the volume concludes, readers have learned how she became the pool/rain cloud of the opening: the flow of her words, which have dominated the book, fills the island's watercourses that had been dry so long, "travelling inwards under the limestone / widening outwards into the sunlight / towards the breaking of her flesh with foam."
The thirty-three poems in Sun Poem are arranged in twelve sections, the sequence of which maps a spectrum of light from infrared ("Red Rising") through ultraviolet ("Indigone") to full darkness. Further, in keeping with its title, the work as a whole is notable for extraordinary descriptions of light and its various effects. This volume complements the female landscape of its predecessor with the corresponding male history; the sun that rises and sets over the island, alternately warming and then abandoning it, enacts the male life cycle from child to husband to grandfather. The central character is a boy called Adam--whose name signals the allegorical dimensions of the work. Like Masks, the central volume of the first trilogy, Sun Poem has a relatively strong narrative thread. In the course of the story Adam moves from the west coast of Barbados to the east coast, measuring himself against beach boys on the more "public," tourist (west) side and against "Cattlewash boys" on the eastern shore, which is both wilder and more private. Within the symbolic framework of the poem the boy's eastward movement, contrary to the progress of the sun, is a movement back to origins. (Similarly Brathwaite's own notes to the poem describe the fifth section, "The Crossing," as "the Middle Passage in reverse.") Thus the book's visionary center (section 6, "Noom") recounts the story of how the African loa Legba once emerged from the Atlantic, at the end of his own "middle passage," on this coast of Barbados. As Brathwaite often reminds readers, it is the part of the Caribbean closest to Africa--and incidentally a part of the island particularly associated with Lamming.
Two other characters play significant roles in the poem: one is Bussa, leader of a nineteenth-century slave rebellion on the east coast, and the other is Batto, the beach bully of the west coast, who is mythologized by the admiration and fear of boys such as Adam. Sun Poem ends away from both coasts in the center of the island, at the country house where Adam witnesses his grandfather's funeral and as a result becomes conscious of the cycle of manhood, perceived in a cosmic context. The cycle of the poem ends in night, but it is a night full of stars, and the volume concludes with an extraordinary creation song that envisions a "nameless dark horse of devouring morning" arriving out of the East to bring the dawn: "out of that brass / that was beating its genesis genesis genesis genesis / out of the stammering world / ... my thrill- / dren are coming up coming up coming up coming up / and the sun / new."
The broad movement of The Arrivants is historical and dialectical, going back from the Caribbean to Africa, not in hopes of reentering a dream but in order to bring a meaningful Africa to bear on the experience of the Americas. The setting of Mother Poem and Sun Poem is again Caribbean, but X/Self stages a coup and turns to "Rome"--for once, Europe is treated as myth. If The Arrivants can be described as investigating the realities under the familiar myths of Africa as the "dark continent," symbolized by the jungle, X/Self correspondingly proposes that readers consider Europe using the figure of the Alps. Thus Mont Blanc is the center and central image of Europe, its hub and holy mountain. Its counterpart is Kilimanjaro, the African hub of histories. The human imitation of the first one is the Roman Empire and its successors; of the other, the kraal and the village compound. One is an industrial furnace, while the other is an agrarian center, surrounded by the diverse life of the savanna. X/Self presents an impressive array of such oppositions--male and female, aggressive and patient, stable and unstable, linear and circular, the continuing city versus the apocalyptic missile, and cultures of the "projectile" and of the circular "target." Brathwaite envisions history as a cycle of changing relations between these opposites--the kind of cycle he elsewhere calls "tidalectics," an ebb and flow of antithetical ideas or processes.
Midway between the two symbolic mountains, in the bowl of the Sahara, is Lake Chad. The lake is emotionally (though not structurally) significant in Masks, but in X/Self it functions as the source of dynamism for the entire figurative system. It is a manifestation of nam, and its effect is represented by the harmattan, the dry wind out of the desert that affects the weather even of the Caribbean. Yet, like other manifestations of nam, it is inherently ambivalent: the harmattan contributes to the trade winds that made possible the slave trade; and it is also associated with hurricanes, which since "The Cracked Mother" in Islands have symbolized European cultural aggression in Brathwaite's poetry. This symbolic system is one of many indications that Brathwaite is particularly interested in the complexities of revolution, creolization, and similar historical processes. The Arrivants shows a careful questioning of assumptions behind the idealization of Africa; the book is an exhaustive investigation of issues of origin. The pointed and provocative repositioning of Uncle Tom and the similar reevaluation of Tutu and glorified Africa have their counterparts, for example, in the complex rehabilitation of "Rome"--for the purposes of X/Self, in the vacuum left when Rome burns, slavery begins.
There is also ambivalence inherent in the central character of the volume. Altogether, this second trilogy focuses on ancestral/mythic figures; after mother/island and father/sun, the third volume presents X/Self as a crossing point of the others, a blend of the heroic/unheroic sons of those parents. The result is a small but intensely resonant pantheon. Some of its avatars are Prospero, Sycorax, and Caliban/Ariel. X/Self is, in a way, a tribe: all the resistant selves on the margins of the empire who together carry the multiple masks and "calibanizing" voices of The Arrivants beyond the American context of "The Spades" and "All God's Chillun" and out into the global village. They represent the creole presence both within and against the empire. Thus the volume starts with a letter from an inconsequential nephew of the emperor. But the emperor is Severus, and that choice initiates the play of centrality and marginality: he is the first African to become emperor, thereby bringing his marginality to the utmost center of Rome but in the end bringing his centrality to the margins, to die at York, a place that was then on the edge of the world. X/Self is the name for Severus, and his nephew, and all the obscure populations at the margins of the empire who were perceived as monkeys or savages, gorillas or guerrillas. Not surprisingly X/Self is a poem of things misheard, misspoken, and twisted to advantage. It is virtually about transmission, noise, and distortion. While the entire second trilogy is engaged in radically experimental play with language, X/Self especially shows Brathwaite in the exploration of "calibanisms"--Joycean wordplay forged under the pressure of exile and colonialism, the blue notes of language, the black-and-blue notes of people who have been battered by colonialism.
There have been several useful studies of the second trilogy's subversive language, but generally this trilogy has not received extensive critical response. It is not so vividly the long poem of a specific historical moment as The Arrivants is, and since it is more personal, more complex, and less public in expression, it may also be less immediately accessible. Sun Poem in particular has attracted surprisingly little attention, apart from Rohlehr's magisterial account of its themes and their interplay (Jamaica Journal, 1983). X/Self has fared better. Anthony Kellman, for example (in Callaloo, Summer 1988), considered it in conjunction with Harris's Palace of the Peacock (1960); Laurence A. Breiner discussed the conceptual framework (Partisan Review, 1989); and Edward Chamberlin (Carib , 1989) read the volume quite successfully as a spiritual autobiography (with illuminating comments on the meanings of X). Mother Poem, perhaps because it is the first of the series, has elicited more commentary, but some critics voice disappointment. King, focusing on the political dimension, concluded that "the protest style of Mother Poem is less interesting than the earlier poetry." Mark McWatt, approaching the work from a different angle, wrote: "The ring of authority and the sureness of rhythm and diction are missing from this poem, although the level of intellectual appreciation and involvement remains high" (Bim, 1978). To date only one aspect of the volume has generated significant controversy. Provocative feminist views presented by Bev E. L. Brown and Sue Thomas inspired an energetic response from Rohlehr, who asserted that Mother Poem constitutes "perhaps the most varied kaleidoscope of female experience that yet exists in West Indian literature" (from an unpublished paper he read at UWI, Mona, 1988).
Paradoxically the finest available commentaries on this trilogy are probably Brathwaite's own contemporaneous essays, particularly those that elaborate his thinking on metahistorical and "geopsychic" subjects: "Gods of the Middle Passage," "Metaphors of Underdevelopment," and "World Order Models--A Caribbean Perspective." These essays offer detailed accounts of his most essential terms, such as nam, missile, and capsule as metaphors for different kinds of cultures; at the same time, the essays explicate his fundamental ideas about the relation of individual and group to environment, and about the many facets of creolization, including the subtle interaction he calls "interculturation"--the process by which "the conquerors are conquered and the colonized colonize."
In the years coinciding with the publication of the second trilogy, Brathwaite was honored both abroad (winning Fulbright fellowships in 1982 and 1987) and in Jamaica, where in 1983 he was appointed professor of social and cultural history at the University of the West Indies. In the same year another volume of his poems was published. The twenty-three works in Third World Poems are nearly all reprinted from other published books, though "Kingston" and "Poem for Walter Rodney" are notable exceptions. Some variants in the details of the poems will be of interest to scholars: lineation and even spelling sometimes differ from other printed versions; and there is a tendency to reduce punctuation, as elsewhere in Brathwaite's work of the 1980s. The subtle implications and effects of this particular organization of the poems will be of interest to close readers of Brathwaite's work, but for most this collection functions merely as a convenient "selected poems."
During the 1980s Brathwaite continued to produce important literary criticism. In addition to studies of works by Roger Mais and René Depestre, his essays on the Guyanese poet Martin Carter are especially significant: they offer a revelatory account of the poet but at the same time register Brathwaite's fascination with a figure in whom he sees himself reflected. In "Martin Carter's Poetry of the Negative Yes" Brathwaite delineates the phases of Carter's poetic career in a way that strongly invites comparison with his own development. The same seems true in "Resistance Poems," when he writes that, in Carter's early poetry, one encounters "the voice of Revolution without the Revolution" and when he calls Carter "one of the few authentically optimistic English-writing Caribbean poets." The difference he emphasizes is also revealing: "My guess is ... that Carter's work has dealt little (directly) with his landscape: physical and socio-cultural. In formal terms there is no nation language (dialect), no 'nancy forms.' " Unlike Carter, Brathwaite has increasingly devoted his energy and authority to the recovery of indigenous linguistic and formal resources as media for poetry. In fact even his criticism since the mid 1970s often contains passages written in "nation language." He explains the practice in the following terms (in Contradictory Omens, 1974): "the Caribbean environment demands its own style, vocab, its own norms; and I'm saying that these demands (should) challenge the scholar/intellectual as deeply as they do the artist, and that this creole aesthetic cannot be adequately developed outside the Caribbean; not even by Caribbeans themselves." This concern with making the Caribbean voice audible is expressed in several articles, particularly "Creative Literature of the British West Indies during the Period of Slavery" and "The African Presence in Caribbean Literature," but it receives its fullest statement in History of the Voice (1984). In all of these instances Brathwaite links literary history directly with his cultural and anthropological concerns; he conceives the essential development of Caribbean literature as a progression from objective depiction of the "native" to subjective voicing, which approximates a kind of incarnation of the native in the text, analogous to the real presence of the loa in the possessed worshiper. Curiously Brathwaite has also been recasting the visual form of his reissued poetry, even as he insists on its oral basis.
The death of Brathwaite's wife, Doris, in 1986 marked a critical juncture in his career. The shock came in the midst of a series of publications that year: a retrospective collection of essays (Roots); a retrospective collection of poems (Jah Music); and Doris's own labor of love, the bibliography EKB: His Published Prose & Poetry 1948--1986 . There is an unavoidable sense of finality in that coincidence of events. Another blow came in 1988, when Hurricane Gilbert virtually destroyed Brathwaite's house and buried most of his library in mud, entombing an unequaled collection of Caribbean writing as well as Brathwaite's own papers.
In 1991 he left Jamaica to take a position at New York University. There have been rumors of a third trilogy in progress. Certainly Brathwaite has continued to write, and critical attention to his work has continued to increase--two recent studies have initiated the task of considering his literary and cultural essays in their own right. His influence on younger West Indian writers, both through the example of his work and through his personal support, continues to have a measurable effect on the literature of the entire region. As poet, critic, and historian, Brathwaite continues to pursue the objectives he described in 1977 in Wars of Respect , when he wrote that West Indians need poets and novelists "to restore our sense of an intimate, emotional connection with our past; to restore, in fact, our folk myths. But we also need to have a sense of connection and continuity--a sense of historicity--so that we may come to believe, in ourselves, in the credentials of our past. This is where our historians (should) come in; not with the practice, only, of Euro--classical archival 'discipline'; but with the kind of vision (the ability of the muse) which makes it possible to leap our discontinuities and connect our fragments."
From: Breiner, Laurence A. "Edward Kamau Brathwaite." Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers: Second Series, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, Gale, 1993. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 125.