I FIRST MET Edward Kamau Brathwaite in the flesh in Toronto in 2005. I was attending a conference on the Caribbean at Ryerson University. I arrived to see my good friend and mentor Austin Clarke standing and talking to a tall man with a whitish beard, wearing a multicoloured tam.

“Kamau, this is Foster,” Austin said in his imitable Bajan, a way of speaking that never permits Clarkie to ever call me by my first name.  This is a way of familiarity that perhaps only a Bajan high school can instill, where everyone answers only to a surname. “Foster, this is Brathwaite.”

We acknowledged each other. Clarkie knew that I had not met Kamau before. I must have mentioned it to him in one of our many conversations. Perhaps it was when Clarkie was so exultant over his high school friend’s recent winning of the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize for Born to Slow Horses. But what struck me in the introduction was that it was obvious Kamau must have indicated that he, too, had not met me. Austin Clarke knows everybody of letters, of course, and he seems to enjoy nothing better than bringing together writers that he likes. More than that, he was introducing two Bajan writers.

Kamau and I talked briefly. He told me he was looking for a work on early life in Barbados for a course he was offering at New York University, and I recommended to him my memoir Island Wings, available only in Canada. He promised to get the university’s bookstore people to source it. These people are good, he said. They can find any book.

The conference was about to be called into session. I had certain duties. Kamau and I promised to remain in touch. We promised to hook up whenever I was back home. He was easy to find in the telephone book, he said. Plus everybody in Barbados knows that he lives on the cow pasture near the airport.

That was the only time that I met Kamau Brathwaite in the flesh. The times I’ve returned home he has always been off the island. Perhaps that is a sign I do not return often enough, not that he is not at home. And when I telephoned I heard the voice on the answering machine confirming that I had in fact reached Kamau at CowPastor.

I make the distinction between meeting Kamau in the flesh and meeting him in spirit. In the 1970s, when I went to the University of the West Indies’ Mona campus to study Mass Communication, I arrived just in time to miss Kamau in person. Everybody talked about him and how he had left the university for the United States. I was not yet a published author, but a Bajan journalist earning my wings. Everyone indicated that Kamau was a great loss to UWI and that people like me were unfortunate not to have arrived at Mona while he was still there. Plus as a Bajan, they said, he would have been a good guide for how to adapt to living in Jamaica. So I met Kamau through his absence.

When I relocated to Toronto in the late 1970s, I found myself among writers searching for recognition and a means to tell their stories as part of the Canadian Mosaic. We were all for the Caribbean trying to solidify the gains made by Austin Clarke. We were having long and hard discussions on such important questions as whether we should we write in standard (whatever that is) English or Caribbean patois. Would Canadians understand—or even care to read—us writing as pure West Indians. I remember Clifton Joseph, a dub poet originally from Antigua, arguing that there was no such thing as Caribbean patois. “As your countryman Kamau Brathwaite says, it is nation language.” That settled the argument somewhat and most of us set off trying to produce works that allowed all of us to maintain our nation languages but in a way that still made our writings accessible to Canadians.        

So I had met Kamau Brathwaite long before we shook hands at that conference in Toronto. Whether it was from my early readings of works like The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, X/Self and Middle Passages, or talk of him, Kamau has always spoken to me as an intellectual, as a writer/creator, and as a Bajan writer; and the last was (and still is) special to me. Indeed, wasn’t his CowPastor the cow pasture where I used to fly kites at Easter and play bat and ball and firms cricket, even if I no longer claim such as my address?          

But there is another area of overlap most meaningful to me. It is when I am wearing the hat of an academic and doctoral students come to me with plans for dissertations based on “Brathwaite’s tidalectics,” as they call it. This is the idea that “progress,” especially in the Americas, can be mapped similar to the way tides wash up against and recede from the shore. Everyone from the Caribbean knows of this movement, of the sound of such rhythms, of high-tide and -ide marks, of the impermanence of what is permanent in a movement. Other Caribbean writers talk about the sea and the ocean as essentially Caribbean or the other way around, as the Caribbean as essentially ocean and tides. Kamau named it—just like Adam in the Garden of Eden giving meaning and a name to seemingly natural phenomena—for some the beginning of cognition and epistemology.        

I always smile at the mention of tidalectics, if only because I like to think of myself as academically a Hegelian, and essential to Hegel is dialectics. I am also a Hegelian who disputes the commonly held notion that Hegel’s dialectics—the movements in time—are based on the Popperian notion of thesis, antithesis, synthesis: the idea of a natural progression of one stage in history leading inexorably to another and finally to some pre-ordained totalizing outcome. I disagree: for me, Hegel makes sense only when a brand of tidalectics is understood—the idea that history’s progress does not move in a straight line—ask any slave or descendent of slaves who always has had to fight and refight for freedom—towards some totalizing ending, rather is a struggle of back and forth between antithetical forces. Again ask any West Indian shouting, “Forward ever, backward never,” or simply proclaiming Independence. If we are not careful or vigilant, tomorrow can be worse than today: there is always the likelihood of a low tide for every high tide. Life is not in a thesis-antithesis-synthesis of one high tide after another. That is what Kamau teaches and that is the (hi/her)story of the world, the Americas, Caribbean, and Barbados.

So, yes, it is true that I have met only once in the flesh this great Barbadian. But we are a people of ideas and of standing on one another’s shoulders. And in that regard I can say I certainly have been meeting Edward Kamau Brathwaite in our homeland, as they say, even before I did know myself, even before I came fully into consciousness as the writer I want to be.

Happy birthday, Kamau. I look forward to one day sitting and really reasoning with you: there is so much I would like to ask you.


Cecil Foster is a critically acclaimed Barbadian journalist, novelist and academic based in Toronto.  His books include Island Wings: A Memoir (1998), Blackness and Modernity: The Colour of Humanity and the Quest for Freedom (2007) and Independence (2014).  He currently teaches at the State University of New York, Buffalo.