Bestowing an honour on a Barbadian literary legend was made into a dramatist’s delight as artistes from across the island, young and old, descended on the Independence Square amphitheatre to pay tribute in performance.
The occasion was a presentation of the Clement Payne Cultural Achievement Award 2014, which is annually presented on the eve of National Heroes Day to someone who exemplifies the spirit and commitment of the Barbadian National Hero to whose credit the decoration is named.
On Saturday, it went to an octogenarian who has been making the world richer for thought through his poetry and prose, beginning with publications since 1950 in Bim magazine as a launch pad to reaching across the globe.
Born Lawson Edward Brathwaite, he became recognized as Kamau, “the quiet warrior” by no less a peer than Kenyan writer, freedom fighter, and professor at Yale and New York universities, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
Clement Payment Movement president David Comissiong described Kamau as an “outstanding son of our pan-Caribbean, pan-African civilisation who had shown us over a career spanning 60 years or more, our worth, our valuableness, our inherent dignity”.
Comissiong spoke of Kamau’s work as revealing “the worth, the dignity of our culture, our history, our inner selves, of our historical experience”.
Some of that voluminous work was brought to life through readings and dramatisations in the twilight glow at the amphitheatre of Independence Square by such performers as Allison Sealy Smith, Winston Ras I Farrell, Janice Whittle, Icil Phillips, Margaret Gill, Cecily Spencer-Cross, Ayesha Gibson Gill, and Onkphra Wells. The Richard Stoute Teen Talent Chorale sang, and Elombe Mottley spoke of the early days with the Barbados icon.
Together, they conjured images of the man, his life, vision and impact on our society, providing an enthralling evening of free entertainment that could have otherwise been a costly affair, if seeing and hearing these professional thespians and musicians in performance at a concert requiring paid admission.
Of outlandish coincidence, tribute in passing had circumstance to be paid to Kamau within the same weekend at a service to observe the life of another person who has also placed an indelible mark on Barbados’ cultural landscape, the late Archbishop Granville Williams.
Speaking at the Jerusalem Apostolic Cathedral on Sunday morning on how the late Williams’ work has caused Barbadians today to take for granted a form of religious expression that is indigenous to the island, Opposition Leader Mia Mottley said: “I have likened him in the evolution of Barbadian religious expression to that of Kamau Brathwaite with respect of the evolution of nation language as part of our acceptable expression of literature.”
Brathwaite, who was not well enough to attend the tribute, has now added the Clement Payne Cultural Achievement Award to a list of such other prizes on home soil, across the Americas and farther afield.
When in January his The Lazarus Poems, a collection that leans heavily on elegy, earned him the first prize for the 16th Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Awards, FCLE Committee member DeCarla Applewhaite cited the writings as “a courageous philosophical meditation of death and mortality that takes the form of a cycle of poems and also pays tribute to other writers from T.S. Elliott to Tony Morrison. Written out of a palpable fear, the powerful, complex emotional writer ultimately transcends the thread of death, making the words themselves a form of resurrection”.
Beyond that, Kamau’s prize-winning Born To Slow Horses attracted the Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, 2006, judge’s citation: “To read Kamau Brathwaite is to enter into an entire world of human histories and natural histories, beautiful landscapes and their destruction, children street songs, high lyricism, court documents, personal letters, literary criticism, sacred rites, eroticism and violence, the dead and the undead, confession and reportage.”
A selection from the collection Born To Slow Horses is Kumina, a wrenching ode to the fallen son of his wife.
After a public reading of this, Brathwaite commented: “Poetry sometimes forgets about relationships because it tries to deal with too much abstraction and in the end it’s the relationships which are so important, especially in a world like today where there is so much disaster and so much fragmentation.”
An irony to his many awards and worldwide eminence is the apparent challenge to current and future generations of Barbadians wanting to know more of this man.
Janice Whittle noted at the end of her tribute Saturday: “On Friday, I phoned six local bookstores to find out what books of Kamau’s work were in stock. Only two had any books by him, and the number of copies was small. The work of writers cannot live on for generations in their own country if it is not available to be read.”