The world of Caribbean arts and culture erupted in an outpouring of grief and tributes late Tuesday with the death of iconic Barbadian man of letters and towering thinker, Edward Kamau Brathwaite. He would have turned 90 in May.
Brathwaite’s poetic trilogy The Arrivants – Rights of Passage, Masks and Islands, created between 1967 and 1969, was a landmark in the emergence of modern West Indies literature and established him as a unique voice from the postcolonial literature in English.
With his death and last year’s passing of novelist Paule Marshall, George Lamming remains the sole surviving Barbadian godfather of post-war Caribbean English literature. Geoffrey Drayton, another contemporary, author of the 1959 novel Christopher, turns 96 next week.
He coined the term ”nation language” and became an authority on creolisation in Caribbean culture. He is credited with extensive writing and thought in developing the concept of Creole identity, a predominantly Afrocentric theory drawing on the majority African heritage of Caribbean people.
Prime Minister Mia Mottley described Brathwaite as “easily one of the titans of post-colonial literature and the arts”.
She said: “His chronicling of our past through his magnificent works, shone a powerful light on the realities of our present and in turn, guided our sense of self and national identity.”
Chief Executive Officer Carol Roberts-Reifer who shared a deep friendship with the literary giant, lamented that while Brathwaite’s greatness was his unparalleled, he never got the credit due in homeland, though it never diminished his stature as an icon.
She said; “It is a tremendous loss for Barbados we have lost one of our foremost poets and academics, icons of literature and the arts and everything that it means to be a creative Barbadian.
“Kamau’s legacy isn’t only pertinent to Barbadians and Barbados but to students of literature and the arts the world over and as so often happens, he was revered more globally, some may argue than he was in his own place of birth but that in no way takes away from the power and magnitude and beauty of his collection of works which obviously is his lasting legacy.”
Ambassador to CARICOM David Comissiong, declaring he was particularly shaken by the news, said that only hours before he had written an email to Brathwaite’s sister Joan inquiring about the poet’s health.
Expressing regret that Brathwaite was not made a Nobel laureate, the prominent Pan-Africanist advocate said his legacy would forever live on though he deserved more.
“I always thought of Kamau Brathwaite as our philosopher, our wise elder; I always envisage him as the wise shepherd who from his residence in Cow Pasture kept watch over our nation, kept watch over our people, kept watch over our culture, and it is sad to think that we no longer have this great man with us,” said Comissiong.
“I have always felt that we Barbadians have done ourselves a disservice by not making sufficient use of his tremendous body of work and I hope that his death will wake us up to the fact that even though he is no longer here with us in the flesh there is this tremendous body of work that he made for us and it can enlighten us to know so much about ourselves.”
University of the West Indies at Cave Hill’s principal, the Most Honourable Professor Eudine Barriteau announced that the campus will mark his birthday on May 29 with the naming of a space that is to be called Golokwati, after one of the villages in Ghana, where he lived for a decade.
She said it would be a fitting honour for an intellectual whose erudite and often searing scholarship as an historian, literary artist, poet, teacher and critic, cemented his place in the Caribbean intellectual tradition and carved an indelible mark on the global cultural landscape.
She said: “He described [Golokwati] as was one of the last human places where the “enslaves” rested on their trek from the interior (in this case the Volta Region) to the slave ships on the Ghanaian Coast.
“He said it was a place and concept found in his work [especially] the long poem MASKS and he would wish the Cave Hill recognition to be named within this history.
“It is an undertaking that the UWI Cave Hill Campus intends to honour.”
Lorna Goodison, Poet Laureate of Jamaica, said a “great light” has gone out of the world of poetry.
She told the Jamaica Observer: “I admired his refusal to play it safe.
“He took chances and always exhorted younger poets to try new things…not to play it safe.
“He was always exhorting the poets who came after him to launch out into the deep, take on the unknown.
“He was truly a poet of mystery and we will not see a light like his for a long, long time.”
Olive Senior, the Canadian-based Jamaican poet, novelist and short story writer posted on Facebook: “His legacy will never die.”