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Barbadian Poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite
Photo by Beverly Brathwaite

My Poetry Corner February 2021 features the poem “Islands” from the poetry collection, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, by the Caribbean poet and historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020). Born in Bridgetown, Barbados, into a middle-class family, he won a British scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge. There he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1953 and gained a diploma in education the following year.

Brathwaite’s illusions of regarding himself as a British citizen were shattered on arrival in the Mother Country. He felt “rootless” and, like other British colonial West Indians of the time, he was ready to become an “Afro-Saxon.” This changed when he took a job as an Education Officer in Ghana, then the West African colony of the Gold Coast. For him, it was a spiritual homecoming. The eight years (1955 to 1962) that he spent travelling to villages across the country also expanded his thinking about history, culture, and ways of perceiving the world.

On returning to the Caribbean, he held teaching posts at the University of the West Indies, first in St. Lucia, and then in Kingston, Jamaica. While working in Jamaica, he began writing Rights of Passage, his first poetry collection, later published in 1967. Set in the Caribbean, the collection traces the movement of the black people’s dispossession of their African homeland, the sufferings of the Middle Passage and slavery, and struggle to find their footing in the new world and beyond. The people lament in “New World A-Comin’”:

 It will be a long time before we see
 this land again, these trees
 again, drifting inland with the sound
 of surf, smoke rising
 It will be a long time before we see
 these farms again, soft wet slow green
 again: Aburi, Akwamu,
 mist rising 

The islands of their new world come into focus in “Calypso”:

 The stone had skidded arc’d and bloomed into islands
 Cuba and San Domingo
 Jamaica and Puerto Rico
 Grenada Guadeloupe Bonaire
 The islands roared into green plantations
 ruled by silver sugar cane
 sweat and profit
 cutlass profit
 islands ruled by sugar cane 

Those were the days of forced black labor. And of course it was a wonderful time / a profitable hospitable well-worth-your-time, the poet says with sarcasm.

Brathwaite began working on Masks in 1965 during his research scholarship at the University of Sussex where he earned his PhD in 1968. In Masks, published that year, Brathwaite goes to Africa to reconstruct the events leading to the enslavement of black people in the New World. The poems are filled with references to Africa: its empires, towns, personalities, gods, history, legends, myths, and more.

In the poem “Masks,” the people, split by a white axe / of lightning from God of the tree, implore the god / mask of dreamers:

 Will the tree, god
 of path-
 ways, still
 guide us? Will
 your wood lips speak
 so we see? 

In “The Awakening,” the poet calls on Asase Yaa, the Ghanaian Earth Goddess, for awakening if times send me / walking that dark / path again. Whatever the obstacle, he believes in his ability to overcome and triumph, if given the chance.

 I will rise
 and stand on my feet
 slowly slowly
 ever so slowly
 I am learning
 let me succeed 

Brathwaite’s third poetry collection, Islands, published in 1969, looks anew at the Afro-Caribbean people’s attempt to spiritually come to terms with their new world. The poet recognizes and affirms his African roots, leading to the creation of a new identity within the New World. In 1973, the three books were compiled into a single volume, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy.

In the first of three stanzas of the featured poem “Islands,” Brathwaite highlights the economic predicament of the islands, viewed as jewels by European and other tourists seeking escape to a tropical paradise.

 So looking through a map
 of the islands, you see
 rocks, history’s hot
 lies, rot-
 ting hulls, cannon
 wheels, the sun’s
 slums: if you hate
 us. Jewels,
 if there is delight
 in your eyes.
 The light
 shimmers on water,
 the cunning
 coral keeps it

In the second stanza, the poet and historian observes how time / has trapped / its humble servants in lives of poverty. But there is hope, the poet says, depending on the willingness to change their behavior and to fly higher / and higher before their hope dries / with endeavour. If not, he warns in the final stanza:

 Looking through a map
 of the islands, you see
 that history teaches
 that when hope
 splinters, when the pieces
 of broken glass lie
 in the sunlight,
 when only lust rules
 the night, when the dust
 is not swept out
 of houses,
 when men make noises
 louder than the sea’s
 voices; then the rope
 will never unravel
 its knots, the branding
 iron’s travelling flame that teaches
 us pain, will never be

To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the life and work of Edward Kamau Brathwaite, go to my Poetry Corner February 2021.