Shards are the splinters that form when your big clay pot falls to the ground. How terrible! The pot you remember since your mother and father and great grandmother’s days. The pot you used to dip in for water when you were a child, store water, tote on your head to go down by the river to fetch water! What a pot! What a mess! You do not know if you can even find the thousand splinters. To mend and heal them again.
Thus did Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who passed away on February 4th at the age of 89. For African civilization had, for him, been smashed. The grand pot, the grand myth, the archetypal civilization of sound, and masks, and ceremony and Gods. Broken to bits, you would say. And he spent his life wandering, from Barbados, where he was born to the US, Britain, Africa, Jamaica, Haiti, trying to pick up the pieces. Put them back together again.
He decided to use sound. Sound was the integral element of these civilizations of Africa. Much of sub-Saharan Africa possessed no written word. Culture, civilization, ceremony was transmuted through history, through the power of the spoken word, song, mimesis, the drum. And what a nexus of sound Africa had made in the New World: jazz, the blues, ska, rock steady, hip-hop, reggae, dance hall, kaiso, soca, picong and ribaldry and jest, sans humanité. Sound was the thing to move the civilisation into wholeness/history again, to mend the vessel, to heal the people!
The syntax of his prose and poetry was African music and rhythms everywhere syncretized in the Old and New World. He wrote using the rhythm of the spoken word, the drum. “The hurricane does not roar in pentameter,” he declared. The pentameter, the old British/European meter, had to go.
It it it… it is the drum. Many times we hear this or that fete. Booming or blasting forth in the night. Riding the ancient valleys and hills of the Republic. Steelpan, carnival fetes, church music, the Baptist bells, Baptism and birthday parties. And some say, too loud, too loud. But this is not stoppable. This is too old, ancient to stop. These are the sounds which have peopled the Caribbean since the early 16th Century when the first Africans arrived on these shores. Primordial, archetypal links. Practiced unconsciously. But connected by the drum to history,
Brathwaite was a born subversive. Like Rastafari; he was perhaps a Rastafari too. He overturned English language. Understand is overstand. He morphed the language to dramatize what he wanted to say, to perform his ideas and philosophy. Here is part of his letter about a destructive highway in 2010:
“the road here is unethical because of this and because it is an
offence not only to the people who choose to live here, who are/were so
fortunate to live here to love here – and dispossessed of pristine coral;
thru no fault of their own, but via a willful remote control decision by
Authorities too arrogant & high & mighty to discuss plans that involve all
our futures fortunes w/us ‘out here’, who are still seen – MENTAL
PLANTATION MENTAL SLAVERY – as chattel anti-heroes have no voice – cannot
afford to be admitted to out voice
(6) even as I write this, therefore, destruction going on – this old
plantation well, the little Lake (or Pond) of Thorns – the natural water
catchment for this area – filled in and flattened – hence future floods.
And near the well, a fledgling BEARDED FIG-TREE (shrine of ancient African
& Amerindian spirits) its cinnamon beards just showing. a dear endangered
species. cruelly unethically soon to gone. i cd go on an gone. like all
the people of Thyme Bottom already gone gone gone. . .
(7) at 3 pm today, tractors break thru the last line of bush & duncks
between them and our house my yard. A noise as of bombing and a great
cloud of dust – FALOUJA – and now there’s nothing left between ourselves
and them – the slave well nxt, the bearded fig- tree nxt – today if not
tomorrow. My eyes are full of grit and helpless scars … (Sent to me by David Abdulah)
See how he uses his own vocabulary, syntax, his own idioms, his own spellings and shorthand language. This was he. He deliberately broke the language, symbolizing his dead resistance to Babylon. Since we do not make language, but language makes us, he strove with language to make new myths, new being. To revive the old Gods in the New World.
Brathwaite was born in Barbados in 1930. He was a traveller, poet and historian. He lectured at universities in the Caribbean and the United States. He has written over 40 books on History and many long poems. Here are a few: Rights of Passage (1967); Masks (1968); Islands (1969); Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica (1970); The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (1971); Black + Blues (1976); Mother Poem (1977); History of the Voice (1979); Third World Poems (1983); Barabajan Poems (1994); Ancestors (2001); The Lazarus Poems (2017).
Edward Kamau Brathwaite picked up shards from the New and Old World, from wherever, all the places where Africa had wandered, Brasilia, Harlem, Kingston, Port of Spain, Haiti, Trenchtown, and worked his whole craftsman’s life and soul to mend and heal it again.