Michael La Rose writes on representing the GPI and New Beacon Books at the funeral of Kamau Brathwaite

Representation at the funeral of Edward Kamau Brathwaite 21st February 

2020 Bridgetown, Barbados   

 

Michael La Rose 

 

 

I first heard of the death of Kamau Brathwaite in a message from a friend in the Caribbean. It was a devastating double blow as I was grappling that day with  my mother’s birthday on 4th February following  her death in April the previous year.  

 

It felt like the end of an era Kamau – major poet, historian, academic  and brilliant cultural thinker was gone.  

Kamau, the last of the powerful three who created and led the influential Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) and its journal Savacou, had passed. The founders of CAM John La Rose (Trinidad & Tobago) , Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Barbados)  and Andrew Salkey (Jamaica) were the dream team for the groundbreaking  CAM project which included all the arts framed by a historical , radical and Pan-Africanist cultural perspective with events and meetings starting in 1966.  The first public reading of Kamau’s epic poetry in “Rights of Passage” was at a CAM event in 1967.  

 

Then there was Kamau’s special relationship with John La Rose at New 

Beacon Books publishing house. In 1970 New Beacon published Kamau’s 

“Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica”. Then in 1984 the brilliant  “History of the Voice; The development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean poetry”. Then came ” A descriptive chronological bibliography of the work of Edward Kamau Brathaite” by his first wife Doris Brathwaite in 1988. Complementary to all of these were  AnneWalmsley’s invaluable and definitive “Caribbean Artists Movement 1966 -1972 ; A literary and cultural history” published  in 1992. Kamau supported John’s initiatives and performed and contributed to events of the International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books, New Beacon Books and George Padmore Institute (GPI). 

 

It was only natural that trustees of the GPI and members of the New Beacon 

Books management team would contact me about our representation at 

Kamau’s  funeral in Barbados on the 21st February. At a meeting of New Beacon Books we agreed on a proposal to send me to Barbados and pay for half of the costs if  the GPI trustees could raise the other half. We were able collectively to raise the money along with a welcome additional contribution from Dr Aggrey Burke.  

 

I arrived at Grantley Adams airport on the Wednesday before the funeral . I was blessed by a sudden rain downpour that lasted a matter of minutes as I stepped off the jet. This was an auspicious start.  I stayed in Barbados with the family of Monic Haynes and must take the opportunity to thank her for her endless hospitality.  I contacted Kamau’s widow Beverly and made arrangements to see Kamau’s body with her the next day at the funeral home before the public viewing. Just before I left London I was graciously invited by David Comissiong to be part of a radio discussion panel on CBC 100.7 FM  in the morning to discuss Kamau’s contribution.  

 

The radio panel at CBC the next day lasted two hours. It was a powerful  and exciting exchange between cultural activists and academics who had an intimate appreciation and knowledge of Kamau’s work and struggles. I joined the live broadcast. The panel included; Tony Thompson (CBC and moderator), Icil Phillips (Poet and Educator). Aaron Kamugisha (Lecturer, 

University of the West Indies UWI), David Comissiong (Barbados ‘ 

Ambassador to CARICOM), and Sonia Williams (Poet, Author and Choreographer) . The radio broadcast was wide ranging and lively. 

 

We discussed the range and appreciation of  Kamau’s work, his intellectual legacy , the impact of CAM and Kamau’s contribution to the formation of Carifesta recorded in the diary “Georgetown Journal”  by Andrew Salkey and published by New Beacon Books. The really exciting and creative part of the exchange was how to make Kamau’s legacy real and accessible . The list of proposals included: conferences to explore his work and ideas. There had been a conference planned before his death “Kamau at 90”. Other proposals included a residential institute for multi-disciplined artists to explore art, culture and politics, academic courses in UWI and universities in the USA and Africa especially Ghana to enhance and complement the course on Kamau organised in UWI. What the panel agreed was that there had to be a multiple of levels and approaches to the legacy of Kamau Brathwaite. These should  include  an institution of his archive , interventions with young people in the community, teaching in the Caribbean education system, academic conferences and  courses along with public cultural performance events. At the end of the programme each of us did an interview with the Television News. This was shown that night on CBC and ran along TV inserts with details of the funeral the next day. Kamau’s funeral was going to be a national event to be televised live on Barbados television 

 

After the broadcast I met with Beverly Brathwaite and her  granddaughter. We went first for a short discussion with Kaisonian and activist the “Mighty Gabby” Anthony Carter, a good friend of Kamau who lived close to the CBC studios.  We then headed for the funeral home in Top Rock, Christ Church to view 

Kamau’s body. Beverly chose the music for the viewing and funeral service. Kamau loved Jazz and had a large collection. He looked regal and very natural in his casket . It was a very emotional moment for all of us. Clyde R. Jones Funeral Home were very professional and paid a lot of attention to detail. Family from the UK , friends and some of the public started to arrive  to view his  body. We left with Jazz playing gently in the background. After the funeral home we went to Kamau’s house in the serene high land of Cow Pastor, Wilcox , Christ Church. This was a house and land that Kamau had talked about in the past with love, bitterness and sadness after his struggle with the Barbados government.     

 

Kamau’s funeral was on a sunny Friday morning in downtown Bridgetown at the James Street Methodist Church. I got there early and saw Gordon Rohlehr who was to give the eulogy. We spoke for a while about Kamau and his memories of him and the letters they exchanged. The drummers played as people arrived. Kamau’s funeral in Babados was going to be a formal state funeral beamed live to the nation and the world on TV. Kamau’s casket entered the church with female family members and friends as pallbearers. The male family members were used to exit the church. Tributes were given by Cicely Spencer, David Comissiong, Margaret Gill and Esther Phillips poet laureate of Barbados. The major tributes, after the religious rituals, were given by UWI Professor Eudine Barriteau,  Michael Kwesi Brathwaite son and Ruel Adams nephew, Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Amor Mottley and finally Anthony “Gabby” Carter. A brilliant eulogy was given by Professor Emeritus Gordon Rohlehr. The service ended with drumming. Outside the church, crowds filled the churchyard and lined James Street. I spoke to new and old friends in the churchyard. I reconnected with Michael who I had not seen since his days in Jamaica. We all said farewell to Kamau Brathwaite as his hearst silently glided out of the churchyard. I could not face the internment at the Coral Ridge Memorial Gardens and got a lift home from Icil Phillips.  

 

Kamau was given the name “silent warrior” by the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo’s grandmother. Fittingly, there had been a battle to get to Barbados in time for Kamau’s funeral.  Our collective efforts had been successful to have a representation of the strong personal, literary, political  and cultural connections in the UK at the funeral of Edward Kamau Brathwaite.  

 

R.I.P Kamau “Silent Warrior” your legacy must live on and inform future generations.  

 

Michael La Rose April 2020