Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica (1971; revised edition 1981)

This book sets out in concise terms Brathwaite’s historical argument for the fundamental link between black African cultures and Caribbean folk culture. It makes the case for a productive, synthesised culture emerging from the depravity of transatlantic slavery, a thesis which has since been reiterated and developed widely in work by Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall and many others. Drawn from a chapter of Brathwaite’s PhD thesis, the book is a significant and polemical contribution to the flourishing research that has since surrounded the transatlantic slave trade and the middle passage. Its appearance at New Beacon Books is not insignificant in this regard. It confirms Brathwaite’s commitment to ensuring the widest possible access to his academic research. The complete thesis was published in the prestigious Clarendon Press series at Oxford University Press as The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (1971).
 
 
Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica (1971; revised edition 1981) by Edward Kamau Brathwaite. 56pp.

Content

 
The text provides a basis for informed discussions of creolization in Jamaica and the potential impact of that knowledge on post-independence Jamaican society. As Brathwaite states: “The psychological problem of the present-day Caribbean is that this crucial and basic African element has been for too long ignored” (7).
This social and political case for an African-centered political and cultural realignment has subsequently informed his influential work as a poet, historian, writer, and teacher.
 
Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica falls into fourteen short sections followed by the footnotes characteristic of academic prose, and a bibliography. The sections are titled as follows: The African Orientation of Jamaican Folk Culture; Slave Customs Connected With The Life Cycle; Religious Ideas; Religious Practice; The African Matrix of Jamaican/Caribbean Folk Religion; Nam (Man spelt backwards: a word/concept coined by Brathwaite to describe “man in disguise: man generally under pressure/oppression” as well as resonating with “name”, “nyam”, “yam”, “onyame” to suggest “grit, core, indestructible kernel” (39)); Music and Dance; Musical Instruments; Private Entertainments; Public Entertainments; Dress; Houses and Furniture; Language; Conclusion. These sections set out some of the persistance of rich elements of African folk culture in Jamaica, in opposition to imposed elements of European culture. There is relatively little analysis given the scope of examples covered, but this was a deliberate move. As Brathwaite noted in a letter: You will notice that it is in the form of an anthology. That’s how I wanted it and want it. Let the cats speak for themselves.” (EKB to JLR 6.2.69, LRA/01/0143/4).
 
 

Production

 
La Rose and Brathwaite were close friends as co-founders of the Caribbean Artists Movement, and remained in regular contact following the latter’s return to Jamaica. La Rose accepted the book promptly after reading it twice (24.2.69 JLR to EKB, LRA/01/0143/4). Brathwaite was teaching at Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies at the time and proposed including the book on the syllabus for a course on “Literature and Society” which would guarantee sales and an immediate sense of purpose for the publication (EKB to JLR 8.5.69, LRA/01/0143/4).
 
Initially La Rose believed he had exclusivity for this chapter from Brathwaite’s thesis (Clarendon Press initially wanted to cut it), but Brathwaite wrote apologetically when he realised that the chapter would appear in both publications. He explained that “whether Folk Culture appeared in Creole Society or not, I had intended to publish it separately, because, as I said, I was thinking of students and those of us who can’t afford the expensive book” (14.1.70, NBB/1/8).
 
Sarah White recalls that Brathwaite has always been a rigorous editor of his own work and would return proofs full of corrections (as was the case for History of the Voice (1984), also published by New Beacon in 1984). He made some changes to the proofs of his thesis chapter for New Beacon, including adding the following passage to drive home his argument:
It is the thesis of this paper […] that it is in the nature of the folk culture of the ex-African slave, still persisting today in the life of the contemporary ‘folk’, that we can discern that the ‘middle passage’ was not, as is popularly assumed, a traumatic, destructive experience, separating the black from Africa, dis-connecting his sense of history and tradition, but a pathway or channel between this tradition and what was being evolved, on new soil, in the Caribbean. (14.1.70, EKB to JLR, NBB/1/8)
 
Until this publication, Brathwaite’s poetry had been published by Oxford University Press where his work was judged “interesting by contemporary English standards” (Low, 114-117). According to readers’ reports, Rights of Passage was judged an “ambitious undertaking” despite what one reader referred to as its “slack and trivial patches” (cited in Low 114-117). Low describes how Brathwaite’s work was packaged as an extension of and contribution to African American and metropolitan currents of modernism, despite Brathwaite’s own articulation of the distinctiveness of Caribbean writing and its folk aesthetic.
 
The cover was based on a photograph by William Stafford. A revised edition was published in 1981, with some discussion over a new cover image. La Rose suggested “some new striking black black folk scene from the descendants of the slaves. Maybe a Rasta photography or painting from your collection” (14.12.78 JLR to EKB), while Sarah White suggested adding other illustrations inside the book.
 
Cover of the 1981 edition of Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica
 
His turn to New Beacon, alongside the prestigious Clarendon Press at Oxford University Press, to publish his non-fiction is significant in this regard, suggesting the book’s potential contribution was channelled to both radical and mainstream academic publishing spaces.
 
 

Reception

 
As anticipated, the book sold well on New Beacon’s modest scale, soon exhausting its first print run of 3000 copies. Further reprints appeared throughout the 1970s. As with other titles, distribution sometimes faced logistical limitations, since New Beacon opted to undertake its own distribution rather than depend on an established distribution company. Brathwaite wrote to La Rose in frustration:
John John, you Rasta Man,
I send an hax you from Carbondale to put some copy O’Folk Culture in de white people mail so de Black Studies cats dem cd see what we doin. I gone from USA since lass month end almost but nothin’ int come. I get back ere now, gettin’ read for new year wid de students, an NO BLOODY BOOK this side heither. What we goin’ do man? All I kin do now is show Sangster my one an only copy and tell he to order. But if you had send me the copies like you say you was goin to, even before I lef for US, they wud’a or shud’a been here by now, man. (EKB to JLR 20.9. (70?), LRA/01/0143/4)
 
Brathwaite’s correspondence with La Rose contains prolonged reference to the progress of Brathwaite’s other long-term writing projects in non-fiction and poetry: “Love Axe/1” and “Africa in the Caribbean”. Both of Brathwaite’s long-term projects were scheduled to appear with New Beacon. La Rose wrote:
[…] The essay Love Axe/1 is a brilliant sustained and vital tour de force, rooted in a deep and profound feeling. Congrats. Do you want us to publish it? If yes, say so and will put it on our 1978 list. We are increasing our publishing from now on. (9.11.77 JLR to EKB, LRA/01/0143/3)
 
Brathwaite and La Rose’s long, often moving, forceful, and poetic correspondence offers insight into their evolving discussion of class and race, as shaped by British and Caribbean cultural life. For example, La Rose wrote a long letter while reading an early manuscript of “Love Axe/1”. In it he expressed ambivalence regarding the role of written texts in contemporary working class youth culture in Britain:
The pop music here and now, the reggae and funk and punk rock which is a deeper layer of the working class unemployed and vibrant sawing at their chains expressing themselves more vehemently than in Reggae. White and Black youth from the stratum of police and school suppression revelled in reggae. Neither will read the written word with pleasure. The response is in the ear and heart and head not in the eyes. The longing resides there, and the tongue is the badge of honour whose power neither school nor BBC not the Times can diminish. (9.11.77 JLR to EKB, LRA/01/0143/3)
 
 

Further reading

 
Brathwaite, Kamau. “The Love Axe (1): Developing a Caribbean Aesthetic
1962-74”. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2002.
Campbell, Christian. “The Politics of ‘the Folk’ in Caribbean Discourse” in
Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature eds. Michael A. Bucknor and Alison Donnell. London: Routledge, 2011, 383-392.