by Opal Palmer Adisa
He was man. He was historian. He was poet who stripped the truth, rubbed it like aloe on his skin, worshipped at the river of what we should be to each other and shed tears that caused the waves to crescendo at how low we have descended, going down into the bowels of Babylon, down into the rupture of our wounds, going down until we no longer know who we are, going down.
He was historian. He was man. He was a poet, an old bard who used words to shine the wooden floor with a dry coconut bough and Bismarck, shined and shined until we could make out our faces, recognize ourselves without fear or dread and not want to kill what we see in each other anymore — the hatred that we have been taught for years and which we now nyam.
He was a poet. He was a historian. He was a man who loves like a cool breeze coming in the evening after sunset, coming through the floorboards, coming with arms ripe and fragrant as jasmine to wrap you tight and say, man is me, and me love you; woman is me, and me love you; people is me and lawd-lawd, me know the weight of history that has shackled your feet and placed tons of burden on your back, but me love you as quenching as coconut water, hardy as yam, and fulfilling as pumpkin in your soup. Is me, and me love you, love us, love what we were and what we need to remember so we can become.
Kamau [Edward] Brathwaite, a Bajan man as sweet as a Julie mango with soft edges and no strings, lived and taught at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona from 1963 to 1990. He taught history, and he guided poets to finding and proclaiming their voices. His ear was always glued to the society, and he was scribe, priest and diviner, tossing the cowrie shells again and again, hoping to discover a different meaning that was light and stars, that burst as joy from children’s mouths and that shimmered real diamonds when hearts meet and sing.
For many years, Kamau Brathwaite, along with Mervyn Morris, oversaw, selected and gave recognition to numerous emerging poets during the mid-70s and 80s in the Sunday Poetry section of The Sunday Gleaner, and many of those poets, myself included, are now established, recognized internationally. I count myself fortunate to have known, be mentored by and count Kamau as a friend.
His unspoken philosophy as a poet was hemmed in the very fabric of the people, and he took our stories and the events of the day and made connections that glimmered and swelled with the heat like zinc under the noon day sun.
He writes, “17 Aug is Marcus Garvey Birthday/ the same day (1983) that poet Mikey Smith was stoned/to death on Stony Hill” in Trench Town Rock (1994/2007), which is the text for me that marks his ascension into what is termed experimental poetry or what Brathwaite himself called Sycorax. As a historpoet, Brathwaite makes connections like the above as he documented that day-to-day reality of our lives and finds the parallels with history.
He spoke with me at length (a 40-page interview, and an excerpt of which appeared in The Caribbean Writer, Volume 23, 2009) in 1999 in New York, where he had moved and was then teaching at New York University, about his disappointment with how we had taken on violence as if it was food, that had become normalized, how he was seeking to represent what he was seeing and hearing in a typography that spoke its own language, and how much work there was to be done, and how much love was needed, how Words Need Love Too, (2000), the collection of poems that invites us to look beyond what appears as, to what produced the appearance as in the poem, Vulture from the collection.
She’s black but prefers to be brown
it’s as simple as that
just like you
turning old would prefer to be young
her eyes are dark but he dreams them blue (p.10)
Brathwaite’s poetry is blunt but also complex and layered with meaning. Often circular, but never linear, the poems take the reader on a hill-and-gully ride traversing many different terrains and being pelted by a myriad of historical stones that form the building block of our history. Committed to African cosmology and concerned about African Diasporic people, from his tenure in Ghana and being witness to Kwame Nkrumah’s presidency and Ghana, the first African country to gain independence, Brathwaite’s trilogy, The Arrivants (1973), comprising Rights of Passage, Masks and Islands firmly established him as a seminal poet to follow.
While completing his doctorate in England, Brathwaite co-founded the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) along with Andrew Salkey and John LaRose. Then upon his return to Jamaica he launched Savacou, a journal of CAM, at the UWI, Mona in 1971. This turned out to be a personal as well as literary vibrant year for Brathwaite, who was donned Kamau, Quiet Warrior, by none other than Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s grandmother, while on a fellowship at the University of Nairobi. He was recognized as a man who was a word warrior.
Perhaps this poem from his Barabajan Poems (1994), written often with large and various size fonts, as well as words spelt in his own unique way, appropriately conveys Brathwaite’s quest as well as intention as a poet-historian.
“The song you
want to sing
can’t sing /un
til you know
how it will
Multiple times awarded, in 1983 Brathwaite garnered both the Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships; in 1994, he walked away with the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Bussa Award, and the Casa de las Américas Prize for poetry. In 1999, he was recognized by the International Poetry Forum for Performance and Written Poetry and in 2006, he was the International Winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, for his volume of poetry Born to Slow Horses.
Prolific and political, historical and culturally committed to Caribbean aesthetics, his voice is as prominent and widely known as the late Derek Walcott and his fellow country man, George Lamming. However, his historical work was also celebrated and his central volume, History of the Voice (1984), established him as the preeminent authority on nation language.
He is man, a historpoet whose feet moved slowly and carefully. A historculturalist, he walked with a mirror that he handed to anyone who had forgotten what her/his face looked like. He was a two-foot human who loved that words loved him more than people because he believed in them as ardently as they believed in him. He was just a man, just a poet, just a historian, whose words fall like leaves from the almond tree and nestle in your hair, brush your skin, caress your feet and whisper just before they land on the ground, remember, beware, love costs nothing.
The recipient of the Musgrave Gold Medal by the Institute of Jamaica, in 2006, Kamau Brathwaite, born on May 11, 1930, died 4 February 2020 at his Barbadian residence, CowPastor, and is survived by his Jamaican wife, Beverly Reid, along with Michael, (his son with Doris, his first wife), his granddaughter, Ayisha, and a sister, Joan.
Author of many volumes of poems, plays and historical, scholarly works, Brathwaite trademark tam, soft-almost whisper spoken voice, his patient and dogged insistence on the word having a voice, his legacy and influence is global, and all over the world for 40 days, beginning on May 11 of what would have been his 90th birthday, he is being celebrated in numerous ways by poets, writers, activists and historians for his formidable contribution to literary production coming out of this region. Although not from this soil, we claim him, UWI claims him as its son and brother.
Thus, it seems most fitting that these should be the last words that he bequeathed us, and almost prophetic too. So I bow to this man, my mentor who made me understand that loving words would be the hardest thing I would ever do, harder even than giving birth. I release him to the wind and the ancestors and I murmur Asé Asé oh as Kamau saunters to meet the great spirits. I hear your voice and will always hear your voice drumming and strong from your collection, elegguas, (2009).
“It is as if you dead and I hear yr voice at the door of the next/ room. up front the street. along the path of the stone/ Park. Loitering on Mona stream in a small boat. in a canoe…(p.102)”
Opal Palmer Adisa, poet and writer, is the University Director of The Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Regional Coordinating Office at the UWI, Mona, and the author of 20 books.
Tel: 876 391 3895
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