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Recommended Reading: MiddlePassages by Kamau Brathwaite

We're about halfway through Black History Month and I wanted to shine a spotlight on one of my favorite authors; Kamau Brathwaite. Brathwaite was the subject of one of my final college essays and he's long been a poet I admire for his unique uses of typeface, language and spatial formatting as a way of writing against Eurocentric structures and narratives.

My favorite collection of his is MiddlePassages, a volume of poetry, which explores the African Diasporas across the Atlantic. MiddlePassages takes its name from the forced journey African slaves undertook after they were sold and shipped to the Americas. The empty space, the vast expanse of water, between black peoples in the Caribbean and Africa, their ‘motherland,’ looms large throughout the book. The title also represents a journey through the spaces carved out by colored people in a postcolonial world. 

A poet of the "Black Atlantic," a term coined by Paul Gilroy in reference to the four corners of the African Diaspora, Brathwaite writes in a "nation language." He created this term in opposition to the pejorative "dialect" often making a language less that it's forebears. His "nation language" allows him to speak across space and time to the collective histories of black people living in the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and the Americas. The Black Atlantic is a map, both literal and figurative, of the subsequent migration of slaves and their ancestors. Important points on this map include Harlem, Kingston, Liberia, and London. All of these locations hold metaphorical and spiritual significance in Brathwaite's poetry. He celebrates these locations as crucial flash points in the history of his narrative.

Harlem's jazz and the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance inform the rhythms of his poems. The Dreadtalk of the Rasta's in Kingston and the multiple englishes of the Caribbean are explored in Brathwaite's radical lyrical language. He writes of voices that call to him across the ocean, the voices of leaders like Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Patrice Lumumba inform a nostalgia for a homeland lost, a homeland that never was. 

The poem "Word Making Man" from MiddlePassages explores how the connections between languages lessen the distance between those scattered across the map of the African Diaspora; 

& yr voice rises like the moon
above the day of pigs . above the choruses of

who is it? who is it not?
the negro

who is it? who is it not?
my hunger

who is it? who is it not?
i&i talkin to ya

& the sea between us yields its secrets
silver into pellables into sheets of sound
that bear out our pain & spume & salt & coltrane

Brathwaite’s poems embrace the itinerancy of the African Diasporas cultural melee. His use of language and typography create a collage like narrative for black peoples that encompass their submerged African heritage and their imposed European heritage.

You can learn more about Brathwaite, and read some of his poems, here. We highly recommend  MiddlePassages and his other poetry collections. If you are interested in learning more about Nation Languages a good summary can be found here, or you can read Brathwaite's A History of the Voice.


Image via New Directions Press

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