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Tributes to Kamau Brathwaite

We were sad to hear of the passing of Kamau Brathwaite, but we were pleased to see so many tributes online. We have collected as many as we could find here, for posterity. (If you think there's anything we've missed, please email Adam Lowe on adam@peepaltreepress.com to get them added to the list.)

Jeremy Poynting, Managing Editor, Peepal Tree Press

Kamau Brathwaite made an incalculable contribution as a poet, an historian, a publisher and thinker. He straddled Europe (he went to university at Cambridge), Africa (he spent many years as an education officer in Ghana), the Caribbean (he taught at the university in Jamaica for many years) and the USA where he taught in New York before retiring to his native Barbados. He wrote around 30 collections of poetry, including the two great sequences of the Arrivants in the late 1960s and Ancestors in the 1970s and 1980s. Peepal Tree published one of his last collections, Strange Fruit in 2015. He wrote a foundational history, The Development of Creole Culture in Jamaica 1770-1820 that established clearly that Caribbean culture was formed of the unequal meeting between Africa and Europe. He was a great performer of his poetry and his A History of the Voice is a profound work of criticism that has shaped ideas about the oral qualities of Caribbean poetry ever since it came out in 1979. He was an important publisher with his Savacou Press and his role in the Caribbean Artists Movement. He invented ingenious ways to find visual analogies for the sound of Caribbean poetry in the graphic play of what he called Sycorax style, named after Caliban’s mother in The Tempest. Perhaps, above all, Kamau Brathwaite reminded the Caribbean that it has an African mother, in language, in family culture, in religious observance and in ways of thinking about the world. One of his famous contrasts was that between the missile and the capsule, between the linear thrust of European mercantile expansion that involved slavery, empire and colonialism, and the roundness of the capsule, like the hold of the slave ship that brought Africans with their minds and culture to the islands.

Kamau was always a great supporter of Peepal Tree’s efforts and was always eager to hear news of what we were planning. We kept up a pretty regular correspondence. One of the last emails I received from him was sad but it also displayed the sharp wit that was always part of his work. He wished us well for the future but added, “me say HELLO before i go, being now like in the WAITING ROOM - and not Harris' neetha” (a reference to Wilson Harris’s novel of that name). Maybe there’s a room somewhere where Kamau, Derek and Wilson are talking together. Now wouldn’t that be some conversation to hear?

Tributes from the literary world

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton Kwesi Johnson made a musical tribute to Kamau. Check out the video on YouTube.

Brenda Flanagan

 You came

        You wrote…a body sayin things ‘bout us

            And spoke…givin voice to our situa-tion

               And conquered our hearts & minds

                    And now you leave us that radiance which

                You told us “has nothing to do with the ‘light at the end of the tunnels or religious conversion.

Vladimir Lucien

May we all live such lives. He did what he came to do, and then some. He was blessed and he blessed. He was humble and continued to listen ardently and sympathetically and hopefully to the young. He remained young in many ways too. He goes back to where he came from having done his work magnificently. Now he is an Orisha and his name will be known by generations yet unborn. May we all live such lives, aligned with our purpose.

Ase, Kamau! Ase!

Velma Pollard

What can I say?

"A great tree has fallen"?

Yet this tree can never fall for all the reasons others have already listed. He it was who made of these "rhythms".

"something torn and new"

He will forever be a spirit hovering over us. May his after-life be calm and sweet.

Goodbye Kamau.

Esther Phillips

NEGUS 2

  -for Kamau Brathwaite

 

It is

It is

how you slash and burn an entire lexicon

to rule among the harbingers of language;

how you trust yourself to the trance of words,

yet sound your oumfô for the dispossessed,

the voiceless.

 

It is

            evening

 

                        now.

 

If only for a while,

come to this Kingdom

where crows

do not fly;

the woo-dove builds

her nest in olive branches.

 

Here the plumed basilisk

finds no entrance,

for in these streams, forests, rivers,

webbed feet do not walk on water;

            only the wounded

                        pierced by love.

 

Come to this Kingdom

            where dry bones sing,

            and graveyards spring

fresh flowers everywhere.

 

Summon Esu, if you will,

bring Namsetoura,

black Sycorax.

Call the Orissa from the vévé

All are welcome to this place,

for here are fountains

            and fountains of grace.

 

 

You who were born to slow the pale horses/

white deaths of our freedoms,

take your laurels now:

            leaves of the evergreen tree

            ginger lillies,

            Pride of Barbados,

            bright red hibiscus.

 

Look how fireflies glow

amidst this foliage

and how they dance

to the song on the night wind:

KamauKamau,

your name lives on

in the mouths of our children.

 

                                                                                    ©Esther Phillips

Kamau made it possible, not only for us as Caribbean people to believe that we could be poets, but the world had to sit up and take notice as well. We Barbadians are proud of the legacy he has left us. May he rest in peace.

Kenneth Ramchand

For decades,the names of Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott have signified West Indian poetry. Now both are gone. Kamau's first volume Rights of Passage, with which students were thrilled when I presented it to them in 1969 in the first full course on West Indian Literature at the UWI, set the tone for his perennial concern: the rites of passage of the people who came to the Caribbean from many places usually in oppressive circumstances.

We had our literary disagreements, but we worked closely at Mona to establish the magazine Savacou of which we were founding Editors, a journal that we linked with the Caribbean Artists Movement whose centre of gravity we hoped to shift from London to the West Indies. Un-progressive spirits at the University spoke with misgivings about the Ramchand-Brathwaite axis. We were united about the need for shaping the University of the West Indies away from its identity (and some of its values) as a college of a British University. (Read the obituary in full)

Richard Drayton

Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020) has gone to join the ancestors in his 90th year of life. His *Development of Creole Society in Jamaica* remains a landmark of Caribbean history writing, but it was as a poet/shaman that his name will be forever resonant whenever Caribbean try to make sense of themselves. (Read the obituary on Facebook)

Bocas Lit Fest

The Barbadian writer, scholar, and editor Kamau Brathwaite, who passed away today at the age of 89, was a towering figure in Caribbean letters and culture for half a century. Dozens of contemporary Caribbean writers — of both poetry and prose — acknowledge him as an influence and a mentor. (Read the statement in full)

Marina Salandy-Brown

Although the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award is not usually given posthumously, as it was offered and accepted by Professor Brathwaite shortly before he died, we will present the award as already planned at a ceremony in Barbados in March. It now seems even more significant to honour him, and in this time of mourning it is a small consolation to know that news of the award brought Professor Brathwaite pleasure in his final days. (Read the statement in full)

This statement was also quoted in the Newsday article covering Kamau's passing.

Candace Ward

I never had the chance to meet Kamau Brathwaite in person, but his influence on my work as a Caribbeanist was profound. When he graciously penned a prefatory note to "Hamel, the Obeah Man," a nineteenth-century novel I co-edited with my friend Tiim Watson, I felt more than honored. The coming days will, I'm sure, be marked by numerous memorials. (Read the obituary on Facebook)

Bartosz Wójcik

Saddened by the passing of Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020), a towering (Bajan-born) figure of world literature, as I am, I feel privileged to remember the kindness he practiced. In early 2007, I sat mesmerised listening to his reading, among others to his performative eulogy to the late John La Rose, at the South Bank Centre. Afterwards, I somewhat sheepishly approached him and we exchanged a few words, which led to a handful of emails over the next couple of years, another meeting in 2008 in Jamaica, and his subsequent insightful commentary on my fledgling forays into Caribbean literary studies. We, as he inimitably wrote in light, were "keepin w/the connXion", for which I remain grateful. (Read the obituary on Facebook)

The FRC

The Monsignor Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre (FRC) joins the world in mourning the loss of an irreplaceable Caribbean Icon, Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Brathwaite is the acclaimed father of ‘nation language’, who in all his work – creative, critical, historical -  instilled in his people a sense of dignity and pride to walk upright. 

Teacher, Historian, Caribbean Nationalist and International poet, Kamau blazed the trail along with such other notables as George Lamming, Austin Clarke, Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, Martin Carter, Wilson Harris, Jean Rhys, Roger Mais, Earl Lovelace, Una Marson, Paule Marshall, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, Elma Napier, Louise Bennet, to place the literature of this region on its pedestal where it sits today.  In addition, Brathwaite’s work on nation languages gave some additional legitimacy to Kwéyòl as the Saint Lucian nation language, which stands side by side with other nation languages such as Jamaican Patwa, Bajan, and Sranan Tongo.

As a poet, Kamau was an adventurer in the classic sense who broke down established structures in syntax and barriers to our mother tongues to expose a unique colour of saying that is Caribbean in texture. He disjoined the present from past and weaved them back seamlessly together again. From his first collection “Rights of Passage” (Oxford University Press 1967) he displayed the dexterity of seeing the world in two lights; 1) through the colonizer’s educational style and 2), through the eyes of his island people.

Brathwaite also served as Resident Tutor of UWI Extra Mural Department, Saint Lucia from 1962-1963. While there he edited the journal Iouanaloa: recent writing from St. Lucia (June 1963) which was dedicated to Sir Arthur Lewis. It contained articles by Harold Simmons, Dunstan St. Omer, Fr. Charles Jesse, Patricia Charles, Denis Dabreo and Brathwaite himself. Simmons’ seminal article “Notes on folklore in St. Lucia” was first published there.

The FRC also pays tribute to Brathwaite’s work on the survival of African cultural forms in the Caribbean which has continued to inspire the work the Caribbean creative, artistic and academic community as well as organizations like the Msgr. Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre. Kamau Brathwaite supported and encouraged the work of the FRC and made frequent enquiries about our progress. He was saddened by the 2018 fire that destroyed the headquarters at Mount Pleasant and its library holdings.

Along with our other Caribbean groups and nations, in particular Barbados, the FRC extends heartfelt sympathies to the wife and family of Mr. Brathwaite.

Kamau Brathwaite 1930-2020

Lasana M. Sekou

<<alaase>>*

hail him, iroko,
done gone gwaan Legba la<<shhhh>>
tongue lash
Xangô X/Self
Egun gun gun/Ogun la
nuestro río bajan <<está subiendo>>
submarino

then he is rising, the great houses are rejoicing
<<in the many mansions of i&i fathers&mothers>>
weeping joy like a bussa free full sun come out
n’ he Ka nommo rise, aah! tout gwo kay ap rèjwi
n’ becausin, oui, we know this
we inna this nine-nights moment, we wake
for him wave to wash back a tide to say aaaaaah
reach at last ... o dushi, o ras, o guinea,
o kongo, o itiopia, osirian, ohhhhhh!
in this way we are so like old children
Kamau [Brathwaite], high priest
our poetry.

— © Lasana M. Sekou 2.4.20

*In the philosophical concept of ashe or àṣẹ, “a person who, through training, experience,
and initiation, learns how to use the essential life force of things to willfully effect change
is called an ‘alaase.’” [wiki]

In his own words

John Robert Lee also quoted some of Kamau's own words quite elegantly:

"Here on the pavement lies its stump its grave its epitaph
all in one turrible neglected  jumble moment of activity
& silence & forgetfulness -
 
Those who come now - walk here - stumble a foot. step on the trunk -
wd nvr know that it once stood -w/tall & spread-out branches leaves
& sparkle shade & night-time dark & star-light peace & some-
times sorrow - and how it miss the Quick birds now
 
and how the Quick birds miss it where it was - "
 
-Kamau Brathwaite. Beech tree fallen among dreams. Strange Fruit, Peepal Tree, 2016.
 
"Asase Yaa,
You, Mother of Earth,
on whose soil
I have placed my tools
on whose soil
I will hoe
I will work
the year has come round
again;
thirsty mouth of the dust
is ready for water
for seed;"
 
Kamau Brathwaite. Prelude/Libation. Masks. in The Arrivants: a New World Trilogy. Oxford University Press, 1973.

Tributes in the media

Lyn Innes, The Guardian

For Brathwaite, oral performance and a listening community were vital. Moreover, he insisted, the language spoken by Caribbean peoples should be regarded not as a dialect, or subsidiary and inferior form of English, but as a “nation language”, capable of expressing the complexities of Caribbean culture and history. (Read the obituary in full)

The New York Times

Neil Genzlinger has written an obituary for Kamau in the NYT(Read the obiturary in full)

Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, Nation News

Kamau’s legacy and timeless gift to us all is his powerfully poignant body of work.  From “Odale’s Choice” and “The Arrivants” to “Mother Poem” and “Born to Slow Horses”, he leaves us priceless literary treasures that will delight and shape our minds for generations to come.

The numerous stellar awards for his work are testament to the global acclaim and respect earned for decades of exceptional literary craftsmanship.

Kamau Brathwaite espoused the very best of the Barbadian personality and I wish him safe journey to the next realm. (Read the statement in full)

Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley's comments were also quoted in The Express Tribune.

UWI Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Jamaica Observer

We came to know and love Kamau Brathwaite as the keeper of the 'abeng', the African-inspired use of the conch shell to spread manifesto messages among mountain maroons and their fellow forest freedom fighters.

The 'abeng man' grew a barberless beard, wore a roster of Rasta tams, sliding across our campuses, feet unchained in leathery slippers, and could never speak at a table without his thumb throbbing to the inner sound...the sound...the sound!

Our abeng blower took his task more seriously than many contemporaries were willing to admit. This was not Kamau's thing; this was our war, our daily battles for justice, rights, and reasonableness.

When we worked together in the Department of History at The UWI, Mona, he chose to live in a village on the edge of the Blue Mountains in eavesdropping reach of the maroons that still hold in sacred trust, life-giving terrain. He would come and go, the 'mountain man' with his abeng, but always writing, speaking, blowing, publishing, and calling! (Read the tribute in full)

The same article also appeared behind a paywall in the Trinidad Daily Express, and is available at their website if you register or have a subscription; at Enterno Inteligente; and at Stabroek News.

Everton Price, Jamaica Observer

Barbados and the wider African Caribbean Diaspora lost one of its most outstanding and widely acclaimed literary giants, poets, and historians of the role of African civilisation in the shaping of the Caribbean's encounter with the New World upon the recent death of the late Kamau Brathwaite. (Read the obituary in full)

Janine Mendes-Franco, Global Voices

In a region where, decades later, there is still a debate over the use of “proper” English versus the loaded phrase “dialect”, Brathwaite coined the term “nation language”, which he defined as “the kind of English spoken by the people who were brought to the Caribbean, not the official English now, but the language of slaves and labourers, the servants who were brought in.”

His intelligent and loving defence of this hybrid as not just valid in terms of language, but integral to Caribbean identity, inspired many other West Indian writers, including Sam Selvon and Louise Bennett. What it also did was place stock in the value of the region's oral tradition, through which many African customs were upheld and passed on over the course of the transatlantic slave trade. (Read the obituary in full)

Robert Edison Sandiford, Reuters

Internationally acclaimed Barbadian poet, essayist and historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite, whose prolific writings sought to assert the identity of Caribbean peoples and their African roots, died at his home in Barbados on Tuesday. He was 89. (Read the obituary in full)

This obituary also appears at Yahoo News and Stabroek News, and in modified form at the St Kitts & Nevis Observer.

Sandy Deane, Barbados Today

The world of Caribbean arts and culture erupted in an outpouring of grief and tributes late Tuesday with the death of iconic Barbadian man of letters and towering thinker, Edward Kamau Brathwaite. He would have turned 90 in May. (Read the obituary in full)

Carolyn Cooper, Jamaica Gleaner

Another silk cotton tree has fallen. Kamau Brathwaite – historian, poet, literary critic, publisher, Caribbean man of myth and magic – has died.

Born in Barbados in 1930, Brathwaite described his upbringing as preparation for becoming an Afro-Saxon. The common delusion that the island was “little England” made it seem inevitable that Brathwaite would unquestioningly embrace the culture of the ‘motherland’ on his arrival in the UK. (Read the obituary in full)

 

Wayne Kublalsingh, Barbados Today

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. (Read the obituary in full)

Michael Chepkwony, Standard Digital 

Ngugi [wa Thiong’o] writes fondly of his first encounter with Brathwaite in his essay Kamau Brathwaite: The Voice of African Presence that the poet attended a City of Nairobi fellowship in 1972 when he was then known as Edward. 

“As a lecturer, he proved a great teacher. He saw no barriers between geography, history and literature. What formed the African and Caribbean sensibility could not be forced from the landscape and the historical experience,” writes Ngugi. 

It was after his second visit in the 1980s when he stayed in Limuru with Ngugi’s family that he earned himself a Kenyan and for that matter, an African name, Kamau. A name from the Gikuyu ethnic community. (Read the obituary in full)

Hubert Devonish, Stabroek News

Today’s diaspora column on Caribbean nation languages, is dedicated to the memory and life’s loving work of Kamau Brathwaite, who died last week in Barbados, aged 89, and who is described by Jamaican Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies, Carolyn Cooper, as a “silk cotton tree”, “historian, poet, literary critic, publisher, Caribbean man of myth and magic “. (Read the column in full)

Poets.org

His poetry traces historical links and events that have contributed to the development of the black population in the Caribbean and is distinguished by its experimental linguistic (and often multilingual) explorations of African identity in the West Indies. Brathwaite has received the Neustadt International Award for Literature, the Casa de Las Americas Prize for poetry and for literary criticism, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. In 2018, he received the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. He was a professor of comparative literature at New York University and divided his time between Barbados and New York. He died on February 4, 2020. (Read the obituary in full)

Barbados Today

Acclaimed poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite, one of the godfathers of modern West Indian literature, who coined the term ” nation language” in championing creolisation in Caribbean culture and thought has died, four months short of his 90th  birthday.

He is credited with extensive writing and thought in developing the concept of Creole identity, a predominantly Afrocentric mindset. (Read the obituary in full)

There is also a libation to Kamau on the same website.

Loop

The acclaimed poet left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of Barbados and across the entire literary world. [...] Loop extends condolences to the loved ones of Lawson Edward Brathwaite. (Read the obituary in full)

The news site also mentions the UWI Cave Hill Campus memorial, which included Yvonne Weekes, Adrian Green and The “Mighty” Gabby. (Read the article in full)

Caribbean National Weekly

Noted Barbadian poet and historian, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, died on Tuesday, February 4. He was 89 years old.

Brathwaite, widely considered as one of the major voices in the Caribbean literary, was a professor of Comparative Literature at New York University. (Read the obituary in full)

T&T Guardian

Bar­ba­di­an writer, schol­ar, and ed­i­tor Ka­mau Brath­waite, who passed away yes­ter­day at the age of 89, was a tow­er­ing fig­ure in Caribbean let­ters and cul­ture for half a cen­tu­ry. Dozens of con­tem­po­rary Caribbean writ­ers — of both po­et­ry and prose — ac­knowl­edge him as an in­flu­ence and a men­tor.

Just days be­fore he died, Brath­waite agreed to ac­cept the 2020 Bo­cas Hen­ry Swanzy Award for Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice to Caribbean Let­ters, pre­sent­ed an­nu­al­ly by T&T’s Bo­cas Lit Fest. The award pays trib­ute to Brath­waite’s land­mark work as a crit­ic — the au­thor of many sem­i­nal es­says on Caribbean lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture — lit­er­ary ac­tivist, and ed­i­tor, and was al­so in­tend­ed to ho­n­our him in the year of what would have been his nineti­eth birth­day. (Read the obituary in full)

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