The Barbadian writer, scholar, and editor Kamau Brathwaite, who passed away on February 4th 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 Trinidad and Tobago’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.
Born on 11 May, 1930, Brathwaite studied at Harrison College in Barbados before winning a scholarship to read history at Cambridge University. After working in Ghana and St. Lucia, he joined the history department at UWI Mona in 1963. Four years later, he published his groundbreaking book of poems Rights of Passage (1967), which became the first volume in the trilogy later collected as The Arrivants: a formally inventive and intellectually provocative exploration of Caribbean history and culture and its ancestral roots in Africa, ranging from poetic litanies to extended passages of “nation language,” from the comic to the tragic, influenced by folk music and jazz — “making / with their // rhythms some- / thing torn // and new,” as the trilogy’s closing lines proclaim.
A prolific poet over the decades, Brathwaite developed in the 1990s what he called his “Sycorax video style” — “a use of computer fontage to visualise his sense of dream & morph & riddim drama,” as he described it. A rebellion against the convention of orderly verses and stanzas marching down the page, this aesthetic followed Brathwaite’s conviction that “the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.”
Parallel to his career as a poet, Brathwaite also published a broad-ranging corpus of essays on topics in Caribbean history, cultural studies, and literary criticism. In the 1960s, he was one of the founders of the Caribbean Artists Movement, which brought together dozens of Caribbean and Black British writers, artists, critics, musicians, and others. In 1970, he cofounded the groundbreaking intellectual journal Savacou, which fuelled intense debates about the nature and purpose of Caribbean literature.