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Tuesday, 29 May 2007

"Where are the thinkers of today?"

While I was having a ball last Friday night in Treasure Beach, back in Port of Spain, CRB contributor Jonathan Ali went to hear Rex Nettleford, vice-chancellor emeritus of the University of the West Indies, deliver the Eric Williams Memorial Lecture. He files this report on the event.

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 death 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.

-- JA

Rex Nettleford performing in 1965; photo by Maria LaYacona


Anonymous said...

Where are they indeed.

Many thanks for this account, Jonathan.

Anonymous said...

My Opinion
I totally loved your repaly of the lecture and was struck that really where are the thinkers. Recently i've decided that i will follow my dreams and become a writer so i have begun a small class with the WUTT(writers Union of Trinidad and Tobago) so far the the most valuabe lesson that i have learned from Ms Maxwell has been to write from a sense of place. Know your history and where you are from even if you have to take time out to do a tour of all things caribbean and literary but know where you are from this will revolutionanise a whole culture. This is right up that alley and i wished that more had come of the seminar but i guess us new upstarts must learn this lesson early on to ensure that Caribbean literature recieves the place it deserves.

Until i write again Marcia
Contact me at love_luidens@hotmail.com