David Comissiong | Kamau Braithwaite – the quiet warrior
One of the striking features of Barbados’ famous public monument known as the ‘Bussa Statue’ – has a very powerful and moving inscription at its base …
“Let my children
in the path
of the morning
up and go forth
on the road
of the morning
run through the fields
in the sun
of the morning,
see the rainbow
These words were penned by Barbados’ most outstanding poet, historian and Culture scholar – Kamau Brathwaite – and taken from the poem Tom from his poetry collection The Arrivants.
It is fitting that Brathwaite’s work should be inscribed on the one piece of Barbadian public art that is dedicated to the quest of the African-Barbadian for liberation, for he is perhaps the most outstanding example of a Barbadian who has transcended the spiritual and psychological limitations and constraints of Barbados’ colonial heritage.
In Brathwaite, Barbadians possess the living example of an extremely creative and intellectually gifted son of the soil who has taken it upon himself to make that necessary inward journey towards the core of his being as a child of Africa transplanted in the New World and shaped by the powerful dialectical (or “tidelectical”) cultural currents of “Plantation America”.
And because of the magnitude and integrity of Kamau’s effort, Barbados has received the inestimable gift of a profound native philosopher and creative artist whose work has helped to clarify many of the critical cultural and other existential challenges that we face as a nation.
Who was Kamau
But who exactly was Kamau Brathwaite? The son of Barbados who lived at his Cow Pastor, Christ Church home, and whose shepherd-like spirit still watches over the country?
Born in 1930 into what was known in those days as a“coloured middle-class-oriented family”, and was christened “Edward Brathwaite” by his parents, Edward and Beryl Brathwaite.
(The African name of Kamau – which means Quiet Warrior – was bestowed upon him much later in life by the famous Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and other African soul-mates during a sojourn in Kenya.)
As a child, Edward Brathwaite grew up between Mile and a Quarter in St Peter and Bay Street (Brown’s Beach) in St Michael, and attended St Mathias, St Mary’s and Bay Street Primary.
His secondary schooling began at Combermere, where he spent two years and later got transferred to Harrison College.
“I went to a secondary school originally founded for children of the plantocracy, colonial civil servants, and white professionals; but by the time I got there, the social revolution of the ’30s was in full swing, and I was able to make friends with boys of stubbornly non-middle class origin,” recalled Brathwaite.
“I was fortunate, also, with my teachers … they were (with two or three exceptions) happily inefficient as teachers, and none of them seemed to have a stake or interest in our society. We were literally left alone.
We picked up what we could or what we wanted from each other and from the few books prescribed like Holy Scripture. With the help of my parents, I applied to do modern studies (history and english) in the sixth form... and succeeded, to everyone’s surprise, in winning one of the Island Scholarships that traditionally took the ex-planters’ sons ‘home’ to Oxbridge or London”.
Some twenty years later, Kamau explained the deeper significance of this upbringing in a very important essay entitled “Timheri” :-
“ … my education and background, though nominally “middle class”, is, on examination, not of this nature at all. I had spent most of my boyhood on the beach and in the sea with “beach-boys”, or in the country, at my grandfather’s with country boys and girls. I was therefore not in a position to make any serious intellectual investment in West Indian middle class values. But since I was not then consciously aware of any other West Indian alternative (though in fact I had been living that alternative), I found and felt myself “rootless” on arrival in England, and like so many other West Indians of the time, more than ready to accept and absorb the culture of the Mother Country. I was, in other words, a potential Afro-Saxon.”
Fortunately, two things saved him from degeneration into a colonial-minded “Afro-Saxon”. One was the appearance, in 1953, of George Lamming’s seminal Barbadian novel – In The Castle of My Skin and the other was getting a job as an Education Officer in the West African colony of the Gold Coast (Ghana). For Kamau this was spiritual homecoming – a notion that he expressed in his poem The New Ships.
“Takoradi was hot.
Green struggled through red
as we landed.
Laterite lanes drifted off
Mammies crowded with cloths,
flowered and laughed;
smooth voices like pebbles
moved by the sea of their language.
Akwaaba they smiled
akwaaba they called
well have you walked
have you journeyed
you who have come
back a stranger
after three hundred years
Kamau spent eight years in Ghana, where, with the help of his Guyana-born wife – Doris Welcome aka Zea Mexican – he developed a children’s theatre.
In 1962, Brathwaite came back to Barbados and landed a job at The University of the West Indies and but found himself face to face with the West Indian Independence Movement that saw Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago securing their independence in 1962, to be followed by Guyana and Barbados in 1966.
It was in this milieu, and with this new understanding of himself, that Kamau Brathwaite produced some of the most outstanding poetry of the 20th and 21st centuries. Some of his important volumes of poetry include Rights of Passage (1967); Masks (1968); Islands (1969); The Arrivants (1973); Mother Poem (1977) Sun Poem (1982); X-Self (1987); The Zea Mexican Diary (1993); Dream Stories (1994); Barabajan Poems (1994); Trench Town Rock (1999); Ancestors (2001); Magical Realism (2002); and Born To Slow Horses (2005).
What distinguishes Kamu Brathwaite’s body of work is that he consciously sought to use and valorise quintessential aspects of our Barbadian-Caribbean-Afro-American-Pan-African culture. Thus, the rhythmic structure of his poetry ranges from jazz to calypso, limbo, Rasta drumming, and to the rhythms and intonations of the Spirtual Baptists and the practitioners of the West African derived Orisha and Vodun religions.
Kamau also used his poetry as a vehicle to search for our “Nam” – or inner essence as a people – an exploration that caused him to lift up and explore our “Nation Language” (commonly condescendingly referred to as “dialect”), and to pierce beneath the surface of our Caribbean landscapes and culturescapes to discern ancestors, African orishas, and fecund and original creation myths and cultural insights.
Like the words on the Bussa Statue, Kamau’s spirit will forever be etched in Barbados and the Caribbean.
David Comissiong is the Ambassador of Barbados to CARICOM.