Authors: Edward Kamau Brathwaite

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

West Indian poet

Identity: African descent

Author Works


Rights of Passage, 1967

Masks, 1968

Islands, 1969

The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, 1973 (includes Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands)

Other Exiles, 1975

Days and Nights, 1975

Black + Blues, 1977

Mother Poem, 1977

Word Making Man: A Poem for Nicólas Guillèn, 1979

Sun Poem, 1982

Third World Poems, 1983

Jah Music, 1986

X/Self, 1987

Sappho Sakyi’s Meditations, 1989

Shar, 1990

Middle Passages, 1992

Words Need Love Too, 2000

Ancestors: A Reinvention of “Mother Poem,” “Sun Poem,” and “X/Self,” 2001

Short Fiction:

Dream Stories, 1994


Four Plays for Primary Schools, pr. 1961

Odale’s Choice, pr. 1962


Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica, 1970

The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820, 1971

Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean, 1974

Caribbean Man in Space and Time, 1974

Our Ancestral Heritage: A Bibliography of the Roots of Culture in the English-Speaking Caribbean, 1976

Wars of Respect: Nanny, Sam Sharpe, and the Struggle for People’s Liberation, 1977

Barbados Poetry, 1661-1979: A Checklist, 1979

Jamaica Poetry: A Checklist, 1979

The Colonial Encounter: Language, 1984

History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry, 1984

Roots: Essays in Caribbean Literature, 1993

The Zea Mexican Diary, 1993

Edited Text:

New Poets from Jamaica: An Anthology, 1979


The prolific and acclaimed Caribbean poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite was born Lawson Edward Brathwaite (BRATH-wayt) to Hilton and Beryl Gill Brathwaite. Raised in Bridgetown, Barbados, Brathwaite pursued an interest in both literature and jazz during his years at Harrison College in the late 1940’s. Brathwaite’s first significant publication, “Shadow Suite,” appeared in Bim, the Barbadian literary journal. His early poetry shows the influence of T. S. Eliot. Awarded the Barbados Island Scholarship to Cambridge University in 1949, Brathwaite continued his education at Pembroke College, where he received a history degree in 1953. During the mid-1950’s, he often read his poetry on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) program Caribbean Voices.{$I[AN]9810002036}{$I[A]Brathwaite, Edward Kamau}{$I[geo]WEST INDIES;Brathwaite, Edward Kamau}{$I[geo]BARBADOS;Brathwaite, Edward Kamau}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Brathwaite, Edward Kamau}{$I[tim]1930;Brathwaite, Edward Kamau}

Edward Kamau Brathwaite

Brathwaite’s search for cultural roots led him to Ghana, where he worked for the Ministry of Education between 1955 and 1962. His poetry of this period was aired on the Ghana Broadcasting System, and in 1958 many of these pieces were published in Voices from Ghana. In Ghana, Brathwaite also wrote and directed plays intended primarily for children’s theater. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, he published literary criticism in Bim. He married Doris Welcome in 1960.

Brathwaite returned to the West Indies in 1962 and a year later joined the faculty of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. He journeyed to England for graduate work in 1965, shortly thereafter becoming editor of Bim and secretary of the Caribbean Arts Movement. He received his doctoral degree in history in 1968 for a thesis entitled “The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820.”

Brathwaite’s work of the late 1960’s explores the African diaspora. His extended poem Rights of Passage uses the journey motif to reveal the African American experience, ancient African civilization, and the African encounter with Europe. The work contains emblems of resistance and traces through “memory” the middle passage, slavery, and colonization. In 1967, Brathwaite published Odale’s Choice, a play based on Sophocles’ Antigone (441 b.c.e.) and set in Africa.

African language and ritual are evident in Masks, another extended poem, which presents traditional Ghanaian culture and the Akan worldview. Spiritual quest is an element of this collection, and the drum a central symbol. Islands ultimately suggests a reawakening of consciousness in its treatment of themes found in Rights of Passage and Masks. Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands form The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, perhaps Brathwaite’s most important poetic achievement. He also recorded oral presentations of these pieces and documented Caribbean life in prose works such as Contradictory Omens, which espouses “nation language,” and Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica. He explores exile, the African homeland, and jazz in Other Exiles.

In 1972, Brathwaite visited Kenya, where he was given the name Kamau. During the 1970’s, he continued to investigate island sources in Mother Poem, an extended work that relies on the Barbadian experience, Caribbean vernacular, and the mother trope. Black + Blues evokes such jazz figures as John Coltrane.

In the 1980’s, Brathwaite compiled New Poets from Jamaica and furthered his development of Caribbean and diasporan themes in Sun Poem and Third World Poems. In 1986, he suffered the loss of his wife Doris, a tragedy he documents in later writing. Themes of slavery are contained in X/Self, which uses an epistolary motif and historical references to Europe, the Americas, and Africa. X/Self, Mother Poem, and Sun Poem make up a second trilogy; they were published together in 2001 as Ancestors. In X/Self, word sculpting–creative arrangements of text–represents a departure from conventional formats. In the innovative Sappho Sakyi’s Meditations, derived from the Koforidua manuscripts of the 1950’s, he presents a series of folk sayings.

In 1990, Brathwaite published Shar, a poetic retelling of his response to the destruction of his library during Hurricane Gilbert. In 1991, Brathwaite began teaching at New York University in the Department of Comparative Literature. He also republished a number of earlier writings. Middle Passages deconstructs the Columbus myth and contains tributes to Nelson Mandela and Duke Ellington. Roots: Essays in Caribbean Literature contains material from the 1950’s through the 1980’s.

Another document of personal tragedy is The Zea Mexican Diary, a mixture of journalistic entries and epistolary structures chronicling the painful loss of Brathwaite’s wife. This is a complex work that uses word sculpting, a technique he also uses in Barabajan Poems. In 1994, Brathwaite published DreamStories, a fictional collection containing word sculpting, personal experience, and journey motifs. In all of his works, Brathwaite uses nation language, the ancestral past, and personal experience to present in verse a complex history of the African diaspora. In 1994, Brathwaite was the recipient of the Neustadt Prize for Literature.

BibliographyBrown, Stuart. The Art of Kamau Brathwaite. Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan, Wales: Seren, 1995. A book of critical essays that includes some of the most informed and cogent ways to approach Brathwaite’s varied body of work. It also has the distinction of looking at most of that corpus, allowing the reader to discover Brathwaite the critic, the historian, the poet, and the essayist.Gowda, H. H. Anniah. “Creation in the Poetic Development of Kamau Brathwaite.” World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (Autumn, 1994): 691. The poetry of Kamau Brathwaite is examined. He insists on the sense and value of the inheritance of the West Indies and is keen on discovering the West Indian Voice in creative arts.McWatt, Mark A. “Edward Kamau Brathwaite.” In Fifty Caribbean Writers, edited by Daryl Cumber Dance. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. While this study traces the shift of the West Indies from “wasteland” to “promised land” in Brathwaite’s poetry, it more importantly recounts the critical debate over the relative merits of the poetry of Brathwaite and Derek A. Walcott in relation to West Indian society.Povey, John. “The Search for Identity in Edward Brathwaite’s The Arrivants.” World Literature Written in English 27 (1987): 275-289. Povey details both the historical causes of the lack of a coherent regional identity and Brathwaite’s exploration of European and African elements that have shaped the region. Povey studies autobiographical aspects of The Arrivants, in particular the reversal of the route of the slave trade that Brathwaite’s own career has made.Rohlehr, Gordon. Pathfinder: Black Awakening in “The Arrivants” of Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Tunapuna, Trinidad: Gordon Rohlehr, 1981. This lengthy work is an indispensable companion to The Arrivants. Rohlehr’s commentary is compendious and meticulous. It clarifies what the poem’s language and syntax leave obscure to a non-West-Indian reader, and it identifies the poem’s references unfailingly, including the many musical references that are essential to Brathwaite’s technique. Lack of an index, however, hampers efforts to locate specific topics.Ten Kortenaar, Neil. “Where the Atlantic Meets the Caribbean: Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants and T. S. Elliot’s The Waste Land.” Research in African Literatures 27, no. 4 (Winter, 1996): 15-27. Brathwaite has acknowledged T. S. Eliot as a poetic precursor. Parallels between Brathwaite’s trilogy The Arrivants and Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) are examined.Thomas, Sue. “Sexual Politics in Edward Brathwaite’s Mother Poem and Sun Poem.” Kunapipi 9 (1987): 33-43. In her seminal feminist reading, Thomas analyzes the sexual politics inherent in the poet’s portrayal of, and commentary on, racial and sexual stereotypes. She finds Brathwaite’s ideology to be patriarchal, with the liberated husband supplanting the colonizer in a continuing subordination of the West Indian woman.Torres-Saillant, Silvio. Caribbean Poetic: Towards an Aesthetic of West Indian Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. The author advocates a new system of canon formation and argues that Caribbean discourse in European languages is a discrete entity. Offers scholarly, in-depth studies of Brathwaite, René Depestre, and Pedro Mir.Williams, Emily Allen. “Whose Words Are These? Lost Heritage and Search for Self in Edward Brathwaite’s Poetry.” CLA Journal 40 (September, 1996): 104-108. Williams examines the search for identity in Braithwaite’s work. She asserts that Brathwaite’s poetry moves readers through a world of dichotomized existence brought on by the ravages of European colonization and acts as a song for the disenfranchized.World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (Autumn, 1994). An entire issue is devoted to an examination of Brathwaite’s contribution to the literary world and to West Indian studies.
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