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For the Reckord | J'can Sylvia Wynter to be honoured by King's College - Part I

Published:Monday | August 20, 2018 | 12:00 AMMichael Reckord /Gleaner Writer
Sylvia Wynter
Antony Bayani Rodrigues holds up a sign from 1946 in the Emrie James Museum at St Andrew High School.

In a better-late-than-never sort of case, King's College London is honouring 90-year-old Jamaican alumnus Sylvia Wynter on three occasions this year. It refers to her as "one of the most important and influential thinkers and public intellectuals of our time".

In June, the college mounted a two-day conference - 'Genres of the Human: on Sylvia Wynter', the first ever of its kind in the United Kingdom. This summer, her profile is being added to the college's Hall of Fame; and in October, the institution will award her an honorary doctorate.

Wynter, who was awarded the Order of Jamaica in 2010 for her contribution to education, history and culture, and who is a University of Stanford professor emerita, went to King's College London in 1947 on a Jamaica Centenary Scholarship. She was awarded an MA in 1953. Over her long career, Wynter has been a novelist, playwright, dancer, actress, critic, educator, philosopher, and essayist.

I learnt much of this in an interview with Dr Anthony Bayani Rodriguez, scholar-in-residence (2017-18) at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, when he visited Jamaica last month to conduct research on Wynter for a biography.

Rodriguez said that the June conference was a "historic" one which attracted presenters and attendees who have been studying Wynter's writings her "very diverse oeuvre," he called it, over the past five decades.

In its call for papers for the conference, the college's Department of English had this to say about Wynter; "Wynter's oeuvre ... spans continents, genres and eras. She moved in her career from working in London as a playwright and BBC commentator in the 1950s and 1960s, to her service to the first Jamaican independent government as a writer and public intellectual in the 1960s and 1970s; to her groundbreaking research into the cultural history of decolonisation and the critical study of race and racism in the Americas and beyond - work which continues to be published to widespread acclaim in the present day."

Declaring that Wynter's research has become "an indispensable framework for a new generation of scholars working in postcolonial and critical race studies," the statement adds that during her stay in London, "Wynter wrote for the BBC, acted in radio dramas, was a member of the influential and visionary Boscoe Holder Dance Company, and completed several plays, including Under the Sun, which was written for the Royal Court Theatre. She also began work on her highly regarded novel - The Hills of Hebron (1962), an exploration of a Jamaican community shaped by both Christian revivalism and modes of spirituality associated with African heritage."

Rodriguez said that Wynter's profile is being added to the college's prestigious Hall of Fame after a rally was staged last year by faculty and students protesting the omission. Her son is expected to accept the honorary degree on her behalf in October.

The college's Hall of Fame is really a Walk of Fame, consisting of 50 head and shoulders captioned images up to two metres tall on the front windows of the college's Strand campus. It stretches 90 metres along the frontage of the college, on one of London's main thoroughfares.

The captions describe the contributions that the alumni of the 180-year-old college (a constituent of University of London) have made to science, politics and the arts. The characters include five of the college's nine Nobel laureates (among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu); as well as Lord Lister, the founder of antiseptic surgery; the Romantic poet John Keats; and Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement.

(Continued next week.)