Kamau Brathwaite was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, as Lawson Edward Brathwaite, later adopting Kamau as his forename. His father was a warehouse clerk and his mother a clerical worker and a talented painter. He was educated at Harrison College in Bridgetown and won the prestigious Island scholarship to attend Cambridge University. He studied English and history at Pembroke College, graduating in 1953 and receiving his Diploma in Education there a year later.
After working briefly for the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme in London, he took a job in The Gold Coast (now Ghana) as an education officer with the Ministry of Education. In 1960, whilst on a home leave, he married Doris Monica Wellcome, a Guyanese graduate of Leicester University, with whom he had a son. He wrote the play Odale’s Choice during his time in Ghana which had gained its independence from Britain in 1957.
In 1962 he returned to the Caribbean as a tutor in the Department of Extra-Mural Studies in Saint Lucia and the following year moved to Kingston, Jamaica to teach history at the University of West Indies. In 1965 he commenced a PhD at the University of Sussex, writing his dissertation on the development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820, which was published in 1971. Two years later he published what is generally regarded as his best work, The Arrivants: A New World Tragedy, comprising three earlier volumes, Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968) and Islands (1969). These works explore the harrowing experiences of African negroes abducted for slavery from Africa to America and the Caribbean and the West Indian search for cultural identity. In 1986 his wife produced EKB His Published Prose and Poetry 1948-1986 shortly before her death later that year.
In 1992 he took up the position of Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University, dividing his time between Barbados and New York. In 1998 he married Beverley Reid, a Jamaican. He died in 2020, aged 89, having received numerous awards during his lifetime, including the Order of Barbados in 1987, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1994 and the Robert Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America in 2015.
Kamau Brathwaite published several volumes of poetry, written in a distinctive Caribbean style to celebrate the region’s voices and language. He also published a number of cultural, historical, and literary studies and is justly regarded as one one of the Caribbean’s greatest writers.