Caribbean Identity and Nation Language in Kamau Brathwaite’s Poetry

Within Caribbean literary circles, Kamau Brathwaite (née Lawson Edward Brathwaite, Bridgetown, Barbados, 1930) stands among the most important, influential, prolific and respected names, alongside, for instance, Derek Walcott and V S Naipaul and George Lamming – all members of the same remarkable generation of writers, who, quite suddenly, put Caribbean literature ‘on the map’ towards the end of the decade of the fifties and through the nineteen-sixties.

This blossoming in Caribbean production was largely the consequence of two discrete, though equally important, initiatives to disseminate and encourage the creation of literature in the British Caribbean: one of them was the BBC’s radio programme Caribbean Voices, a show broadcast to the Caribbean colonies from London since the early days of World War II. It is hard to overestimate the relevance of the BBC in the Caribbean, even today, but dramatically more back in the days when it represented one of the few direct links between the far-flung edges of the Empire and its metropolitan centre. Similarly, it is hard to overemphasise the tremendous influence which Henry Swanzy, editor to Caribbean Voices from 1946 onwards, would exert in the development of a literary tradition that was in its earliest stages. The other initiative in question corresponds, of course, to the emergence of Frank Collymore’s audacious magazine, BIM. Launched in Barbados in 1942, BIM encouraged young local writers to put forward their work and quickly established a fruitful rapport with the literary findings uncovered by Swanzy’s Caribbean Voices, establishing a cultural infrastructure of sorts that had its local nucleus in Collymore’s magazine and its international outlet in the BBC.

Henry Swanzy. Photo: Flickr.

It was precisely in BIM that the young Brathwaite (at the time still Edward) found a suitable outlet to voice his first poetic exploits from 1950 onwards; and while Brathwaite himself has acknowledged that there is little of his mature style in his early BIM pieces, he has also admitted that had it not been for Frank Collymore’s support he would have dried up long before he had even started. But if it was Collymore’s encouragement that kept alive the poetic vein in Brathwaite, it was his time in the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) from 1955 to 1962 that built the vivid image in his mind of the close relation between the African and the Caribbean experiences. In my view, Brathwaite’s lifelong quest rests upon the premise that Caribbean culture is intrinsically connected to African culture, not by means of an ethereal or genetic connection, but through an active transformation of the social norms that took place over more than three centuries of slavery, which, nevertheless, has remained undocumented precisely because it did not conform to the stipulations of the white elite that was dominant throughout this period.

George Lamming and Frank Collymore. Photo:

Like most Caribbean literature of the past half-century, or so, Brathwaite’s poetry deals with exile and the question of identity. It is the latter which becomes the central issue of his concern, and the cunning, challenging conclusions he reaches are what make his poetry both unique and indispensable. From his first poetry trilogy, The Arrivants (1973) (incorporating Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968) and Islands (1969)) to his latest collection of poems Born to Slow Horses (2005), Brathwaite consistently embarks on the exploration of familiar subjects from an idiosyncratic perspective to develop new concepts that can appropriately map the nature of Caribbean culture – of Caribbean-ness. In this sense, Brathwaite’s efforts share a common purpose with Glissant’s formulation of the notion of ‘creolité’, a concept the latter uses to denote the set of characteristics that shape Caribbean societies where African and European traditions permeate a reality that is unlike either of the two. Brathwaite’s poetry alone gives us enough indications to believe that, loosely speaking, he would endorse such statement, and even in a gesture as symbolical as the adoption of an African name and the permanence of his Western surname, we could read a conciliatory attitude of the kind eked above. Nevertheless, I would venture to assert that a dialectic interpretation of Brathwaite’s notion of Caribbeanness, whereby Caribbean culture might be understood as a hodge-podge of ‘original’ traditions which combine to create a third, somewhat contaminated, culture would be completely off the mark. So much is evident from a careful reading of The Arrivants, the first of Brathwaite’s ‘New World Trilogies’. The Arrivants could be seen as a unitary work in which he maps the evolution of the Caribbean essence by looking at the consequences of the European discovery of America, including the African Diaspora, in Rights of Passage, then providing a detailed account of the African heritage left behind by the slaves in Masks, and finally linking the two through a thorough description of Caribbean society in Islands, which blends together elements of the previous two sections. Nevertheless, this simplistic reading of Brathwaite’s most celebrated collection of poems would ignore the subtle nuances that point the book in a completely different direction.

The Arrivants is, indeed, informed with an acute historical awareness which, in Rights of Passage, acknowledges, as much as condemns, the European influence in the region in poems such as ‘New World A-Comin’ or ‘The Emigrants’. However, the collection is not organised in a strict chronological order, adopting instead a fluid shape which allows the reader to make connections between past (both remote and relatively recent) and the present with great ease. Such is the case, for instance, with Uncle Tom, a recurring image which figures prominently in the construction of the world of The Arrivants. Described as ‘father / founder / flounderer’, he remembers nothing of the ancient African tradition to which he or his ancestors belonged and yet he is unable to create or build anything of his own because ‘this new deal for we black / grinning jacks…’ has left them ‘still in shacks’.[1] Somehow, though, while ‘No one / knows Tom now, no one cares’ (‘The Cabin’, p. 70), we still get a sense that Brathwaite is talking about a more urgent, more relevant issue than Uncle Tom’s generation when he says his children are ‘leaderless’.

Because there is enormous importance placed upon history and the understanding of such history in The Arrivants, but only as a tool to face the challenges that come with the independence of many of the islands in the atoll, to assume responsibility – a key issue in the collection – and redress the circumstances that have led to the bleeding of Demarara and Anguilla, to the breeding of felons in Kingston, to policemen collecting tribute in gambling houses in Havana. ‘So build build / again the new / villages’ cries Brathwaite in Rights of Passage (‘Prelude’, p. 7) because ‘we / who have cre- / ated nothing / must exist / on nothing (‘Postlude/Home’, p. 78) and ‘when only lust rules / the night […] / the branding / iron’s travelling flame that teaches / us pain, will never be / extinguished’ (‘Islands’, p. 205). These new villages are, of course, influenced by the African essence, beautifully described in Masks, which cannot be recalled consciously, for ‘The land has lost the memory of the most secret places’ (‘Jah’, p. 164) and after three hundred years, those who come back do it as strangers (‘The New Ships’, pp. 124-9), but which is evoked by the instinct of the various voices who mistrust strangers (‘The New Ships’; ‘Ananse’ pp. 165-7), or become ‘warrior and queen and keeper of the tribe’ (‘Littoral’, p. 171). And yet, this internal bondage fails to be restricting, because ultimately we are the architects of our own destiny and ‘To hell / with Af- / rica / to hell / with Eu / rope too’ (‘Prelude’, p. 29).

Brathwaite’s literature is highly experimental, and, as with all such kind of writing, the result is often less important than the process necessary to get there. In this respect, Brathwaite in concerned with questions that he views as fundamental to a shared Caribbean experience. Among those issues count the idea of a ‘nation language’, a language quite distinct from English, which follows different rules of enunciation (rules that are inflected, one would suppose, by African languages, rather than by English) and that forms the basic foundation of the different versions (dialects) spoken throughout the English-speaking (although this name is incompatible with Brathwaite’s argument) Caribbean. Examples of Brathwaite collapsing, integrating or phonetically spelling words abound in all his poetry, but what becomes striking is that this is not the exclusive form he chooses to give his work. Consequently, one is forced to believe that the distinction he makes between English and ‘nation language’ when choosing how to write his poems bears a conceptual relevance that goes beyond the aesthetic, that entails more than just a tribute to the layman’s form of expression.

Because Brathwaite claims through his poetry that orality – speech – is king. Also this is a notion that emerges time and time again in his work – not only in his different poems, but in his continuous reproductions – iterations – of his older poems, each time slightly modified to convey different meanings, or perhaps to best convey their original meanings – if such thing exists. For instance, in 1992 Brathwaite published a selection of poems, mostly from his first two trilogies, The Arrivants (1972) and Other Exiles (1975), except at this stage he had discovered the advantages of working on a computer. This led to the development of his ‘Syncorax video style’ texts, which is another way of describing the usage of various font styles and sizes throughout the book. The changes occur both within a poem and from poem to poem and the spectacular graphic effect lends itself to being discarded as an aesthetic caprice, or an ode to the wonders of technology. Upon second scrutiny, however, it becomes evident that the graphic innovations are, in fact, included to highlight, to reproduce, the natural emphasis and modulation that pertain to Caribbean speech.

A quick flick through Middle Passages leaves you with the impression that Kamau Brathwaite discovered in the early nineties the art of early European modernists, the Futurist treatises of Marinetti or the Vorticist manifestos of Wyndham Lewis. But soon it becomes obvious that Brathwaite attempts to elevate the status of intonation, from an accident dependent on the person who speaks, to an essential quality that belongs to a ‘nation language’ that no longer is viewed as inferior (‘pigeon’) to English. It turns out that the ‘Syncorax video style’ simultaneously exposes the deficiencies of traditional Western typescript to fully express Caribbean speech, and the essential differences between English and such ‘nation language’.

Finally, Brathwaite’s poetry is deeply concerned with the development of rhythm in his verses. In this sense he shares a fascination for blues with the influential American poet, Amiri Baraka. But blues is just one of the influences that shape his work, with African and Caribbean sounds clearly dominant in his cadences. And yet, while musicality is sometimes almost forced into the reader through pauses and repetitions that do not bear to be read in any other way, sometimes the same pauses and repetitions create a stuttering sensation that burdens the reader with anxiety until the moment when the content is finally released. There are numberless examples of both instances, but just to illustrate I submit the final three verses of the poem ‘Bread’, included in the collection Words Need Love Too (House of Nehesi Publishers, Sint Maarten, 2000):

rolled into night into night w/out morning
rolled into dead into dead w/out vision
rolled into life into life w/out dream

Despite the fact that there is no punctuation in these verses, and a very subtle version of the ‘nation language’ is used in the construction of ‘dead’, the musicality of the whole is such that it would be difficult not to read this with an even, neutral tone. Compare these lines from the poem ‘Stone’, included in Middle Passages (Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1992):

like she up. side down up a tree like she was scream.
like she was scream. like she was scream. ing no & no.
body i could hear could hear a word i say. ing. . even though
there were so many poems left & the tape was switched on &

The poem is highly emotional, and the sentiment transpires through (I am tempted to say even ‘despite’) the pauses; however, I would be interested to know how many people got a clear picture of the situation after one silent reading of the stanza. Not many, would be my guess.

I will not venture to provide an appraisal of the reasons why Brathwaite might be inclined to make the reading of some (sections of some of) his poems so difficult. Nevertheless, in the light of what I have discussed so far I will suggest that part of his motivation might be related to the notion of the (Caribbean) poem as an oral form of expression, which ought to be spoken, not written. If, for Brathwaite, ‘nation language’ is a defining and common characteristic of Caribbean people, and the intonation of such language is part of its essence, then it would be natural for him to expect his readers to read out loud – to perform – the poems he writes. Nevertheless, the experience of a reader who is first confronted with the pauses and repetitions that build the cadence of Brathwaite’s poems must, perforce, include a sequence of readings and re-readings until the right rhythm is found. Consequently, in the rehearsal of the performance of Brathwaite’s poems, the reader is forced to go through the same lines several times, thus enacting the stammering, the inability to read out loud what he is meant to speak, that shapes the form of the actual poems. Pause and repetition become, then, active elements in the communication – in the stressing – of the final message.

Brathwaite is all but an easy poet to read. After all, he is an intellectual mind of the highest calibre who has been celebrated repeatedly in the region for his achievements both in terms of his poetry and his non-fictional work. That he has not achieved the praise or reputation of other members of his generation in the Western world is nothing short of an indictment on the criteria of the academies. This, remains so quite independently of the final valuation of his critical ideas. Whether there really is one ‘nation language’ underlying the speech of the myriad peoples of the Caribbean, and whether the performance of this language really is an essential characteristic that binds in concrete terms cultures that at times seem so distant from each other are questions that can only be answered (if at all) once the sizeable material put forward by Brathwaite is carefully studied. By the end of it, you might not agree – but, I guarantee you, you will respect the mind that came up with the idea.


[1] ‘Tom’ and ‘The Journeys’ in Brathwaite, Kamau, The Arrivants, Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 15, 36. All subsequent references will be taken from this edition.






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