Edward Kamau Brathwaite

Rights of Passage


The following piece by Barbadian poet and historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite was first published in the November 1966 issue of The London Magazine, edited by Alan Ross. Kamau Brathwaite was a poet and historian, as well as a major voice in the Caribbean literary canon. A Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University, Kamau Brathwaite went on to the 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize for his collection Born to Slow Horses.

It will be a long long time before we see
this land again, these trees
again, drifting inland with the sound
of surf, smoke rising

It will be a long long time before we see
these farms again, soft wet slow green
again: Aburi, Akwamu,
mist rising

Watch now these hard men, cold
clear eye’d like the water we ride,
skilful with sail and the rope and the tackle

Watch now these hard men, bold
As the water banging the bow in a sudden wild tide,
indifferent it seems, to the battle

of wind in the water;
for our blood, mixed
soon with their passion in sport,

in indifference, in anger,
will create new soils, new souls, new
ancestors; will flow like this tide fixed

to the star by which this ship floats
to new worlds, new waters, new
harbours, the pride of our ancestors mixed

with the wind and the water
the flesh and the flies, the whips and the fixed
fear of pain in this chained and welcoming port.


in Af-

and brittle
hara, Tim-
buctu, Gao
the hills of
Ahafo, winds
Of the Ni-
ger, Kumasi
and Kiver
down the
coiled Congo
and down
that black river
that tides us to hell.

in the water
boys of Bushongo
drowned in the
blue and the bitter
salt of the wave-gullied

Ferdinand’s sea.
Soft winds
to San Salvador, Christoph-
er, Christ, and no Noah
or dove to promise us, grim
though it was, the simple sal-
vation of love. And so it was Little
Rock, Dall-
as, New Orleans, Santiago
De Cuba, the miles
of unfortunate islands: the
Saints and the Virgins, L’Ouverture’s Haiti
ruined by greed and the slow
growing green of its freedom; golden Guiana:
leaping in light liquid amber
in Makonaima’s perpetual falls. And as if
the exhaustion of this wasn’t all–Egypt,
Meroe, the Congo and all-
in the fall we reached De-
troit, Chicago and Den-
ver; and then it was New
York, selling news-
papers in Brooklyn and Harlem.
Then Capetown and Rio; remember how we
took Paris by storm: Sartre, Camus, Picasso and all?
But where are the dreams
of that bug happy, trash-
holstered tropical bed

when Uncle Tom lived
and we cursed him? This
the new deal for we black
grinning jacks? Lights
big like bubbies but we
still in shacks?


In a little shanty town
was on a night like this

Girls were sitting down
around the town
like this

Some were young
and some were brown
I even found
a miss

Who was black and brown
and really did
the twist

Watch her move her wrist
and feel your belly twist
Feel the hunger thunder
when her hip bones twist

Try to hold her, keep her under
while the juke box hiss
Twist the music out of hunger
on a night like this.


So you have seen them
with their cardboard grips,
felt hats, rain-
cloaks, the women
with their plain
or purple-tinted
coats hiding their fatten-
ed hips.

These are The Emigrants,
On sea-port quays
at air-ports
anywhere where there is ship
or train, swift
motor car, or jet
to travel faster than the breeze
you see them gathered:
passports stamped
their travel papers wrapped
in old disused news-
papers: lining their patient queues.

Where to?
They do not know.
Canada, the Panama
Canal, the Miss-
issippi painfields, Florida?
Or on to dock
at hissing smoke locked

Why do they go?
They do not know.
Seeking a job
they settle for the very best
the agent has to offer:
jabbing a neighbour
out of work for four bob
less a week.

What do they hope for
what find there
these New World mariners
Columbus coursing kaffirs
What Cathay shores
for them are gleaming golden
what magic keys they carry to unlock
what gold endragoned doors?


But today I recapture the islands’
bright beaches: blue mist from the ocean
rolling into the fishermen’s houses.
By these shores I was born: sound of the sea
came in at my window, life heaved and breathed in me then
with the strength of that turbulent soil.

Since then I have travelled: moved far from the beaches:
sojourned in stoniest cities, walking the lands of the north
in sharp slanting sleet and the hail,
crossed countless saltless savannas and come
to this house in the forest where the shadows oppress me
and the only water is rain and the tepid taste of the river.

We who are born of the ocean can never seek solace
in rivers: their flowing runs on like our longing,
reproves us our lack of endeavour and purpose,
proves that our striving will founder on that.
We resent them this wisdom, this freedom: passing us
toiling, waiting and watching their cunning declension down to
the sea.

But today I would join you, travelling river,
borne down the years of your patientest flowing,
past pains that would wreck us, sorrows arrest us,
hatred that washes us up on the flats;
and moving on through the plains that receive us,
processioned in tumult, come to the sea.

Bright waves splash up from the rocks to refresh us,
blue sea-shells shift in their wake
and there is the thatch of the fishermen’s houses, the path
made of pebbles, and look!
Small urchins combing the beaches
look up from their traps to salute us:
they remember us just as we left them.
The fisherman, hawking the surf on this side
of the reef, stands up in his boat
and halloos us: a starfish lies in its pool.
And gulls, white sails slanted seaward,
fly into the limitless morning before us.


So in this tilted alleyway
that rolls in debris to the sea
I kick my way among the wealth
of fish smells, fish bones,
to my father’s home. Around me,
children’s feet still walk to school
with swinging bag and nothing more.
No face, no features scrawled
upon the whirling disc
the needle gnawing into grooves of flesh and time.
Hot airless evenings and the night of dogs
the howling morning sun, prowling

among the rocks and fowls.
The world for us was billy-
goat smell drying on the wall;
was desks and benches regularly scrubbed
and scraped; was rags
wrapped tight to make a cricket ball;
the pain of waiting for the whip rope
tamarind lash, hurled by the thick
necked sweating God who ruled
our little school. We called these things
an Elementary School:
Head Heart and Hand
the motto, and the three R’s
taught: Reading, a little Riting,
and some Rural lust:
the immemorial legacies of dust.

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