Roots, rock revisited

In 1996, Kamau Brathwaite brought a group of students from New York to Barbados for a week to experience first-hand his Mother Poem. ArtsEtc editor Linda M. Deane was at that time an arts and features writer at the Nation newspaper, and was one of two journalists invited to accompany the poet and his students on an island tour. Below is a condensed version of her story that appeared in the Nation’s Sunday Sun of April 28, 1996.

IN CHURCH VILLAGE, St Philip, a man is stoned half to death by a vengeful mob; in the City, men with guns create more insanity; in St Andrew, villagers bemoan the continued water shortage. Elsewhere on this rock, Sam Lord’s Castle became locally owned for the first time in its 170-year history; and Sherwin Campbell’s monumental double century at Kensington was a reminder of Bajan batting prowess.

As Barbadians were attempting to make sense of this, and the individual trials and triumphs of their daily lives, a poet and his pupils were attempting to make sense of the whole. The poet? Kamau Brathwaite. Barbadian. Full of remembrance, lamentation and hope. The pupils? Six doctoral students from New York University who accompanied him here to better grasp the roots of his book Mother Poem—a living, breathing epic tribute to the Mother, which is Barbados, this piece of “porous limestone” on which we live.

The students laugh away the notion of themselves as disciples seated at the feet of their master. But as they retraced their tutor’s childhood footsteps—their eagerness to drink in Barbados through his every word is unmistakable. Notepads, pens and cameras at the ready, they willingly submit to Kamau’s whims, bend their ears the better to hear his explanations and exclamations, and to join in his jokes and verbal jousting.

History tour

Actress Cicely Spencer-Cross (one of two hosts for the week—the other is poet Margaret Gill) is shepherding today. We travel in two vehicles, one of which is a bright yellow Moke, driven by Kamau himself and from which he conducts his fact-finding, magical history tour.

And what, in Barbados’ 166 square miles, would cause a poet to brake unexpectedly, take that unscheduled left turn off the beaten track or attempt a highly questionable U-turn? A mechanical cane harvester, Barbadian by invention and lying sad and idle in the noonday sun, is one reason. St Andrew cane-cutters with aspirations of winning King and Queen of the Crop provide another. A third is the desire to reap and savour the cane itself.

Throughout the day we would also stop, suddenly, to mourn a row of three slave (era) huts falling further into disrepair in St Lucy; to raid a tamarind tree; to lime among the fishing boats along the fast disappearing coastline at Six Men’s, St Peter; and to debate whether we had stumbled, yes or no, across the historic bearded fig tree.

The first major destination is Chalky Mount, St Joseph. We are, supposedly, in the country but, as Kamau has written, and remarks once more: “the garbage has stretched its thick lips from the city / it kisses the village with litter…” It appears to us that not only the City’s litter has encroached, but its traffic and tourists, too.


“What do you do with garbage and over-production in an over-civilized nation such as Barbados?” he asks, before striding into the bush, stick of cane before him like a staff, to conduct an impromptu reading from “Woo/Dove.”

It is at once enlightening and intoxicating to read the printed words on the page one minute and to look up the next, and see the precariously balanced chattel house, the self same cracks in the land, the actual shrubs and goats “nibbling grass to the very edge of disaster,” as Kamau described.

It is a “live” seminar most students would die for, yes; but more than that—a rare opportunity to study the way our land lies and the way it is changing.  Evidence is in abundance at River Bay, St Lucy. Kamau immortalized the popular picnic spot in the section of the poem called “Pig Mornin.”

We arrive to find the stepping stones (“childhood steps across the river…”) intact, just as the poet remembered them, but he holds his head in his hands at the sight of the 200 feet or so of what’s left of the river itself: brown, dirty-looking, littered with garbage. He mourns, too, that those of more recent generations are growing up not knowing the glory of the Bay in bygone days—and that they seem generally not anxious to know.

“There’s a new poem since I came here,” says Kamau. “I admit all the new poem can be is a lament of the failure of an island to recognize its own beauty.”


In the midst of lamenting Barbados, however, there is hope, or as Kamau describes it—“Oya” which is his symbol of renewal and the title of a section of a new work in progress, Rwanda. The collection deals with what Kamau calls “tidalectics”—which, as the name suggests, is about the ins and outs, the loss and recovery, the destruction and creation that life brings. It is inspired by a four-year period of tragedy and transformation, of ebb and flow in Kamau’s personal life and in world politics.

Thus, Kamau also holds out hope for Barbados, the Mother of his poem, and the people who inhabit it today.

His footsteps tour also takes us to, among other places, his birth home in Bay Street, the home of his sisters and aunts in Mile and a Quarter, St Peter, a cricket match, through the streets of Bridgetown, and to the Public Library for an emotional reading and sharing of Mother Poem.

The students’ courses require them to study Mother Poem with a similarly themed epic work of one other writer. They return to New York hoping that, in seven brief days, they would have been able adequately to record and understand all that we live, breathe and take for granted—365 days a year.


Linda M. Deane is a British-Barbadian writer and a founding editor with Robert Edison Sandiford of ArtsEtc. She gave up her job in newspaper journalism, partly as a result of Kamau’s advice following his tour that she should pursue Truth and Beauty in her writing. Link here for full bio.