Wed | Dec 19, 2018

Professor Carolyn Cooper | From Shakespeare to Shabba Ranks: Revising Literary Studies

Published:Monday | September 3, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Top-ranking Shakespeare, don of the English theatre, is traditionally taught in universities as the master of high culture. In his own time, his plays were popular culture, written for mass consumption.

'Rough & Ready' Shabba Ranks, international superstar of Jamaican dancehall culture, is usually excluded from conventional literary studies. The prepositions 'from' and 'to' do not signify rejection of Shakespeare for Shabba. Instead, they acknowledge the potential range of literary texts in the academy.

When I entered The University of the West Indies, Mona, in 1968 to study literature, my department was named 'English'. By the time I was retiring as a professor of literary and cultural studies in 2016, the department had been transformed into 'Literatures in English'. The literature of England is no longer the singular subject of study. The plurality of literature from the former colonies of England is represented in the curriculum.

The revised name of the department is not entirely accurate. Various Creole languages are deployed in the literature. In fact, Caribbean Creole Linguistics originated in the Department of English. The British linguist, Robert Le Page, a former Head, established a solid academic base for the study of Caribbean creoles. Furthermore, oral texts are included as well.

In the 1969-1970 academic year, Professor Kenneth Ramchand introduced a course on West Indian literature. One of his British colleagues sceptically asked, "Is there a West Indian Literature?" Ramchand paid him no mind.

I was fortunate to have been a student in that inaugural class, which included Louise Bennett among the writers studied. Professor Mervyn Morris was invited to lecture on her work. In 1963, he had written the classic essay, "On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously", which was published in The Gleaner in four installments in 1964. Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis expanded the curriculum with courses on 'Introduction to Orature', 'Folktale and Proverb', and 'Myth, Epic and the Hero'. I designed courses on popular culture: 'Reggae Poetry' and 'Reggae Narratives'.

The Department also offers courses on film, a development pioneered by Dr Rachel Moseley Wood. In the 2018-2019 academic year, a BA in Film Studies will be introduced.

Dr Connor Ryan played a major role in designing the programme.

The colonial Department of English at Mona has undergone revolutionary ideological transformation into the post-colonial Department of Literatures in English (and Creole and Film Studies).

Its name will eventually catch up.