Kamau Brathwaite: Poet, Historian, Honorary Fellow
Poet, historian and co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, Professor Kamau Brathwaite (1950) remains one of the leading producers of intellectual discourse on Caribbean literature and culture.
To celebrate his 88th birthday, this year’s Library Graduate Trainee, Emma Shapiro, has put together a selection of Brathwaite’s work to showcase his prolific achievements. The exhibition features material from the George Padmore Institute, Dr Anne Walmsley, BBC Written Archive Centre and the Cambridge English Faculty Library.
Born Lawson Edward Brathwaite in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1930, Brathwaite won a Barbados Island scholarship to read History at Pembroke in 1950. At Cambridge he began his association with the BBC Caribbean Voices radio programme, and published a number of poems, including ‘The Day the First Snow Fell’. Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s phonograph recordings, Brathwaite developed an early interest in recording his own poetry.
While at Cambridge, Brathwaite also attended lectures by the literary critic F.R. Leavis. He also became acquainted with fellow poet, Ted Hughes, and Bryan King, a Fellow of Law at Pembroke from St Kitts, with whom he maintained contact. After graduating, Brathwaite stayed on another year at Pembroke to complete a Certificate of Education before moving to Ghana to work as an Education Officer for 8 years. During this period he continued to publish poems, reviews and essays, and established a children’s theatre. While on home leave, he married Doris Monica Welcome of Guyana.
Brathwaite returned to Britain in 1966 to complete his PhD at the University of Sussex. Later that year he co-founded the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) in London with the Trinidadian poet, publisher, bookseller and activist, John La Rose, and the Jamaican writer Andrew Salkey. In 1967 Brathwaite received international recognition for his poetry when he published Rights of Passage with Oxford University Press; one of the first major sequences of poems to articulate the experience of West Indian immigrants in Britain. Rights of Passage was also ground-breaking in its departure from iambic pentameter, favouring rhythms which echoed jazz, blues and calypso to approximate the varied speech patterns of Caribbean people. The collection was later published with Masks (1968) and Islands (1969) as The Arrivants trilogy in 1973.
After his PhD Brathwaite took a post as lecturer in History at the University of the West Indies at Mona in Kingston, Jamaica, and founded Savacou, the journal of the Caribbean Artists Movement in 1971. That same year, Brathwaite received the name ‘Kamau’ from the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s grandmother, while on a visiting Fellowship at the University of Nairobi. In 1984 Brathwaite published The History of the Voice, his seminal study on the development of nation language in Anglophone Caribbean poetry.
Brathwaite’s later work is characterised by his signature ‘sycorax video style’, which combines innovative linguistic and typographic experimentation. This was exemplified in The Zea Mexican Diary, following the death of his wife Doris, in 1986. Some ten years later he married Beverly Reid of Jamaica.
Brathwaite was Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University, awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Sussex in 2002, and a long-standing member of UNESCO’s ‘History of Mankind’ project. His honours also include Casa de las Américas Prizes for Poetry and Literary Criticism, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Griffin International Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from the Fulbright, Ford, and Guggenheim Foundations. Brathwaite currently resides at his home in Cow Pasture, Barbados, and continues to write poetry.
Blog by Emma Shapiro, Graduate Trainee Librarian