Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Tuesday, May 29, 2007  

Jamaica’s Rex Nettleford is a well-known scholar, historian, and political analyst. His achievements and accolades in these fields over the many years of his career are numerous; and he is rightly considered one of the foremost intellectual figures of the Caribbean. Yet when I think of Professor Nettleford, it isn’t so much his mind that I consider, but rather his feet.

You see, in addition to his other achievements, Nettleford is also the founder, artistic director, and principal choreographer of the prestigious National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica. And although I was at the Central Bank Auditorium in Port of Spain last Friday evening to hear him speak--the first time I was to be so privileged--I’d be lying if I said a part of me didn’t wish to see the august professor do a few dance moves as well.

The occasion was the 21st Dr Eric Williams Memorial Lecture--Eric Williams, of course, was the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as an historian and scholar of note. Past speakers in the series have included Nobel Laureates Sir Arthur Lewis of St Lucia (in the inaugural year) and India’s Amartya Sen (in 2001--I’m still kicking myself for missing that one).

(An aside: only two out of the 21 speakers in the lecture series thus far have been women. I say nothing else here except that the organisers might want to have a look at that.)

Nettleford’s topic was “Slavery and Education in the Caribbean: Mask, Myth and Metaphor”. No doubt the first word of that title would have a few people shaking their heads and groaning, “What, again?” Yet it was the third word that held my interest. What would Nettleford have to say about how we have used that all-important tool of education in setting about to repair the almighty damage done by slavery and colonialism that was new, that was different?

Dressed elegantly in black--black trousers, black buttonless dress shirt with a rounded neck--Nettleford cut a noticeably different figure to the many dignitaries (including Prime Minister Patrick Manning) in their jackets and ties. He stood with both hands at either side of the lectern, as if in an act of balancing, and it appeared to me--my companion and I were sitting to the right of the stage, almost in line with the podium, so we could see his entire body--it appeared to me that he was swaying ever so gently, from side to side, rhythmically, as if to some silent metronome.

Nettleford isn’t the greatest rhetorician, yet he does possess a finely modulated voice, not especially Jamaican in its accent (I was reminded of V.S. Naipaul’s assertion that Jamaicans speak the “purest English” of all West Indians). He spoke as a man who has considered long and hard the question of the Caribbean, what exactly it is, and what has gone into making it what it is. His references ranged far and wide, from Jesus Christ to Jimmy Cliff, and more traditionally scholarly points.

Yet for all that, I came away with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. For a start, he limited his definition of education to the traditional forms of knowledge and experience passed down by the peoples, chiefly African, who came to populate these territories over the past five hundred years. There was no discussion of formal education, its uses and misuses, how well it has served us, and how far it has failed to take into account our Caribbean reality. This was interesting, considering formal schooling for the masses was one of the major concerns of Eric Williams (to whom Nettleford often referred).

One of Nettleford’s arguments--perhaps his main thesis, you might say--was that the knowledge passed down by our forebears--in oral storytelling, in music, traditional medicine and so on--have gone into creating our Caribbean culture, giving us our identity. Hardly a novel idea, and one that fails to take into account the contemporary challenges of identity being faced by the Caribbean by various forces, internal as well as external--though there was reference to globalisation and its effects.

There was, also, some talk of politics. Speaking on the issue of resistance, and the modes of resisting their condition the slaves engaged in that live on in today’s free society in various forms, Nettleford noted that Caribbean politicians (who, he hastened to add, have both his respect and sympathy) have great experience in “knowing how to make things not work”. This elicited some laughter from the audience, but not much.

It was undoubtedly a pleasure to hear from one of the few great Caribbean minds--with the recent passing of Lloyd Best, their numbers are even fewer now, and needed no less than ever. Yet it occurred to me, as we left the auditorium to repair for food and drinks, that these minds are almost to a person of an older generation. They came of age in that heady time of the promise of independence; their ideas, as revolutionary and important as they were then, are in need of being modified, added to, by those of the post-independence generation, to serve our contemporary Caribbean. Where are the great scholars and thinkers of today? Without them, the work of Rex Nettleford and others could well end up being for naught.

(Cross-posted at Antilles.)

posted by Jonathan | 11:57 AM 2 comments


He taught me for a couple class....and I hung on to his every word. He did not use notes. he just spoke, and spoke, and spoke.

by the way, amongst us Jamaicans, he is not considered the most competent male dancer!

By Blogger Yamfoot, at 11:39 PM  

I think you're addressing a really important point because the world now is so different to the heady post independence glory days. The minds that emerged were some of the best in the world.But as the generation that came after, I am no longer prepared to accept rhetoric as the easy way out. The pendulum always swings back and for the last 40 odd years, most intellectual thought has been reactionary and to be honest, both culturally and racially polarized. Until we as the younger ones can move out of the shadows of the giants, there will be a stagnation of the arts. Can we honestly say that there is anyone writing in the region that is conveying who we are today? Certainly Selvon and Naipaul did in the 40s and 50s. Earl Lovelace,Andre Tanker,Peter Minshall and Noble Douglas have kept the dialogue going so far but who is going to take over?

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