Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

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).








I consider Barbadian poet/historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite the greatest living poet in the western hemisphere. Period. In the early eighties I did a brief interview with Brathwaite. — Kalamu ya Salaam
            KALAMU YA SALAAM: What are you
trying to do with your poetry now?
             KAMAU BRATHWAITE: My poetry has been concerned, for a long time now, with the attempt to reconstruct, in verse, in metric and in rhythms, the nature of the culture of the people of the Caribbean. This involves not only discovering what I would call “new poetic forms” — a breakaway from the English pentameter — but also, and more importantly, discovering the nature of our folk culture, the myths, the legends, the speech rhythms, the way we express ourselves in words, the way we express ourselves in song. That has been my concern for about ten years and is increasingly so. One has to develop technical resources of a very complex nature and at the same time one has to get an increasing knowledge of who our people are, where they come from and the nature of their soul.
            SALAAM: What’s so important about that?
            BRATHWAITE: Well, what’s important is that until we can do that we remain “ex-selves,” we remain nobodies, we remain just imitations of those who had colonized us. Considering that the man in the street, our own people, the common man has always been himself, it is ridiculous that the artists have remained a shadow of that self. What we have to do now is to increasingly bring the artist and the people together. 
            SALAAM: Do you prefer working on the page or would you like to do more recordings?
             BRATHWAITE: Both. I wouldn’t separate them. My poems start off as rhythms in my head, as patterns of songs which also have an objective. The patterns of songs have to say something, address themselves to some problems or go through some dialectical process. From my head they have to be transferred onto the page, because that’s how I started, but then from the page I instinctively transfer it on to song. In other words, every time I write a poem I have to either have it read or read it myself to some kind of audience before I’m satisfied that it’s a real poem. The recordings are a necessary part of the whole process.
            SALAAM: What’s the importance of the audience in that process? 
            BRATHWAITE: The audience gives me feedback. The audience completes the circle. The audience are the people I’m writing about and for, and therefore, if they can’t understand what I’m saying it means that it might be that I’ve failed. There are some cases where I think I’m ahead of the audience but then I would know that and they would know it too, but you’ve got to start from a base that the audience and yourself agree on and move from there.


            SALAAM: Who is this audience that you speak of, obviously you don’t just mean people in general?
            BRATHWAITE: I start off with a Caribbean audience which is representative of the people who have been down-pressed. The audience is usually a mixed audience, moving in terms of class from college educated to middle class right up to the laboring class because that is how our society is composed.
            SALAAM: What immediate reactions do you find valuable as verification and what long range reactions do you find valuable as verification?
            BRATHWAITE: The immediate reactions are one of ascent or descent. You can tell from face and feeling, body movement, if you are saying the right thing. That is clear. but the long range reaction is very interesting. I’ll give you an example: I’m starting to use a lot of possession (religious) sequences in my work. Because the work is culturally accurate, instinctively when people come to it they want to perform it, they don’t just want to read it, nearly all my work in the Caribbean is done as a performance with groups. Now, a young group of actors recently came into contact with my latest poem which was essentially involved with religion, native religion, Afro-Caribbean religion. They were not themselves fully aware of what I was talking about but they could tell from the descriptions, the external aspects of the descriptions, the kinds of churches I was talking about. They went to those churches in order to experience for themselves what was happening and many of them have now become members of those churches. As artists they find themselves now being fulfilled as members of those people’s churches. I think that’s a very significant long term effect because it is really motivating people not just to talk about their culture but to become participants in its root basis. The Haitians have done it too. The Haitians are increasingly returning to vodun as a central experience. With the African person the religion is the center of the culture, therefore every artist, at some stage, must become rootedly involved in a religious complexity.
            SALAAM: How do you deal with the mystification inherent in much of the religion?
            BRATHWAITE: It is not mystification at all, that’s the thing about it. The religion is so natural, it is so vital, it is so socially oriented, so people oriented that there is no mysticism — mental mystification — in it al all. That is really the difference between an African oriented religion and a European one. Theirs is very mystified because they  are not dealing with a living god, they’re not dealing with man in relation to god in relation to community.
            SALAAM: They’re not people centered.

            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.