This blossoming in Caribbean production was largely the consequence of two discrete, though equally important, initiatives to disseminate and encourage the creation of literature in the British Caribbean: one of them was the BBC’s radio programme Caribbean Voices, a show broadcast to the Caribbean colonies from London since the early days of World War II. It is hard to overestimate the relevance of the BBC in the Caribbean, even today, but dramatically more back in the days when it represented one of the few direct links between the far-flung edges of the Empire and its metropolitan centre. Similarly, it is hard to overemphasise the tremendous influence which Henry Swanzy, editor to Caribbean Voices from 1946 onwards, would exert in the development of a literary tradition that was in its earliest stages. The other initiative in question corresponds, of course, to the emergence of Frank Collymore’s audacious magazine, BIM. Launched in Barbados in 1942, BIM encouraged young local writers to put forward their work and quickly established a fruitful rapport with the literary findings uncovered by Swanzy’s Caribbean Voices, establishing a cultural infrastructure of sorts that had its local nucleus in Collymore’s magazine and its international outlet in the BBC.
It was precisely in BIM that the young Brathwaite (at the time still Edward) found a suitable outlet to voice his first poetic exploits from 1950 onwards; and while Brathwaite himself has acknowledged that there is little of his mature style in his early BIM pieces, he has also admitted that had it not been for Frank Collymore’s support he would have dried up long before he had even started. But if it was Collymore’s encouragement that kept alive the poetic vein in Brathwaite, it was his time in the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) from 1955 to 1962 that built the vivid image in his mind of the close relation between the African and the Caribbean experiences. In my view, Brathwaite’s lifelong quest rests upon the premise that Caribbean culture is intrinsically connected to African culture, not by means of an ethereal or genetic connection, but through an active transformation of the social norms that took place over more than three centuries of slavery, which, nevertheless, has remained undocumented precisely because it did not conform to the stipulations of the white elite that was dominant throughout this period.
Like most Caribbean literature of the past half-century, or so, Brathwaite’s poetry deals with exile and the question of identity. It is the latter which becomes the central issue of his concern, and the cunning,Like most Caribbean literature of the past half-century, Brathwaite’s poetry deals with exile and the question of identity. challenging conclusions he reaches are what make his poetry both unique and indispensable. From his first poetry trilogy, The Arrivants (1973) (incorporating Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968) and Islands (1969)) to his latest collection of poems Born to Slow Horses (2005), Brathwaite consistently embarks on the exploration of familiar subjects from an idiosyncratic perspective to develop new concepts that can appropriately map the nature of Caribbean culture – of Caribbean-ness. In this sense, Brathwaite’s efforts share a common purpose with Glissant’s formulation of the notion of ‘creolité’, a concept the latter uses to denote the set of characteristics that shape Caribbean societies where African and European traditions permeate a reality that is unlike either of the two. Brathwaite’s poetry alone gives us enough indications to believe that, loosely speaking, he would endorse such statement, and even in a gesture as symbolical as the adoption of an African name and the permanence of his Western surname, we could read a conciliatory attitude of the kind eked above.
Nevertheless, I would venture to assert that a dialectic interpretation of Brathwaite’s notion of Caribbeanness, whereby Caribbean culture might be understood as a hodge-podge of ‘original’ traditions which combine to create a third, somewhat contaminated, culture would be completely off the mark. So much is evident from a careful reading of The Arrivants, the first of Brathwaite’s ‘New World Trilogies’. The Arrivants could be seen as a unitary work in which he maps the evolution of the Caribbean essence by looking at the consequences of the European discovery of America, including the African Diaspora, in Rights of Passage, then providing a detailed account of the African heritage left behind by the slaves in Masks, and finally linking the two through a thorough description of Caribbean society in Islands, which blends together elements of the previous two sections. Nevertheless, this simplistic reading of Brathwaite’s most celebrated collection of poems would ignore the subtle nuances that point the book in a completely different direction.