When a star dies, the light emanating from the firmament is diminished. Especially dimmed are our abilities to determine, to distinguish, to discern what is really important; important in our physical and social environment; important in our workplaces, residencies, and recreational spaces; and, especially, important in our relationships and kindred responsibilities.
Edward Kamau Brathwaite (11 May 1930 – 4 February 2020) was truly a shinning star. Despite his physical transition to the after world, we can continue to be bathed in the illumination of his insightful body of literary work. Here is a short but comprehensive overview of Brathwaite’s career.
To me, he was a big brother, distant in location but always warm when we were in each other’s presence. Kamau was personally introduced to me by my “homie”, big brother Tom Dent.
The closer I became to Kamau, the more I admired him, learned from him, was amazed by him as a writer, a scholar, and a friend.
His theories about the caribbean were critical to my intellectual growth. The caribbean is an archipelago of fecund islands from which have issued many of our most valued intellectuals and warriors: think of Marcus Garvey, of Arturo Schomburg, of C.L.R. James, of Nicolas Guillien, of Raoul Peck, and so many more; not to mention all the revolutionaries and activists (most of whom are nameless to us but no less revered by us). Through their life long work, these people completely changed the social realities of Black life in the western hemisphere. Kamau dealt with all of that and more of that in his valuable work.
Although I am intrigued by his poetry and by the images and the intelligence that pour forth from the pages of his books, two of his books stand out for me as exemplar of critical contributions. One, History of the Voice, is about language and the other, Zea Mexican Diary is about relationships.
History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language (New Beacon Books – 1984)) is a major statement. Brathwaite investigates and projects the Anglo-Caribbean use of English as the basis for a distinctive linguistic development. Brathwaite dubs the new language “Nation Language”.
Nation Language is English but with a difference, analogous to, but even greater than, the difference between English in the United Kingdom, with its various subcategories, and the use of English in the United States. Brathwaite goes far beyond the vernacular and dialects, arguing that there is actually a philosophical difference.
Filled with numerous linguistic examples and quotes, the book is far from a dry read. Indeed, History of the Voice implicitly challenges African Americans to make a similar investigation of our culture. And notice that the emphasis is on “the voice” (i.e. on “sound/ing”–both the noun and the verb). Reading Brathwaite makes clear the importance of rhythm in the use of sound. Nation Language is an extremely important exegesis
Zea Mexican Diary: 7 September 1926 – 7 September 1986 (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography – 2003) is a literary tour de force. There is no other work comparable to this book that is a combination diary/memoir/treatise exploring in detail and depth the meaning and impact of life choices in the face of death. When Kamau’s wife was dying of cancer, he could not pass up the opportunity, indeed, could not forgo his obligation as a serious writer to reflect on the conflicts, contradictions, and the unresolved feelings he experienced during an ordeal that required him to recognize, confront, and ultimately, to accept the finality of death.
In one sense, through Zea Mexican Diary, both husband and wife transcend death. Zea is co-joined with the thoughts and feelings of her beloved husband; together they will live, will survive, as long as Brathwaite’s words find readers.
In the eighties I was blessed with opportunities to visit and talk with Kamau Brathwaite. He was a humble genius filled with a deep knowing concerning Afro-heritage origins as well as contemporary Caribbean expressions. The mature Kamau, although highly learned, seldom costumed himself in formal suit and tie, nor did he ostentatiously display his education. He favored the common tongue of his people.
Kamau was acutely aware that he was on to something both unique and valuable in his literary work, much of which was far, far beyond most of us mere mortal wordsmiths. I’ve known writers, lots of writers, more than a few of whom were certifiably literary giants, but I’ve never encountered anyone who was as deep in text, talk and intellect.
Fortunately there is a scholarly study that will help readers embrace and understand the work of Kamau Brathwaite: The Art of Kamau Brathwaite edited by Stuart Brown. Actually, this study is a veritable map to begin the journey through the thicket of words to get to the fruit of Brathwaite’s great body of work. Brown and cohorts are akin to expert guides who insure that we find our way, that we fully grasp and understand Kamau Brathwaite, that we marvel at Brathwaite’s massive and critical genius. Edward Kamau Brathwaite is a titan, a literary savant whom I consider the greatest poet/thinker of the new world (i.e. the western hemisphere).
trying to do with your poetry now?
BRATHWAITE: Right. In the African sense the religion is medicine, it is philosophy, it is martial arts, it is everything, holistic.
SALAAM: In that sense the work you are doing is people centered work as opposed to idea centered?
BRATHWAITE: Right. As opposed to art centered work, art for art’s sake.