Ian Boyne, Contributor
If Rex Nettleford did not exist, we would have had to invent him. For surely, as a people against whom there has been such a conspiracy to denude us of our worth and sense of historical belonging; a people against whom the forces of cultural genocide have been so relentless; a people who have been persistently seduced into racial amnesia; for a people with such ills, Rex Nettleford is the antidote.
"Like Toussaint, Rex was a gentle sage, an army in a man, whose mind filled and conquered the space he occupied ... . Generations grew up under the watch of his cultured eye. He spoke of freedom and urged (his people) to cultivate their senses and sensibilities. He planted the spirit of freedom within this Caribbean which cannot be washed away or drowned in foreign rivers of fear," to draw on the eloquence of that master stylist and historian, Sir Hilary Beckles, in a memorable tribute to Rex on his death.
Rex Nettleford was our Renaissance Man, the perfect embodiment of the textured individual he often talked about. In Rex Nettleford, you had the cultural icon, artiste, scholar, philosopher, historian of ideas, public servant par excellence, urbane gentleman and incomparable Caribbeanist. Rex, unlike many of his peers and pretenders, not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. All of us who were privileged to know him well can attest to the fact that Rex internalised all the values he extolled.
When he talked about the importance of respecting people for their humanity, rather than their race, class or creed, he modelled that by how he treated people. Those who worked with him at the University of the West Indies, in the theatre or on the multiple boards he served know he believed in the dignity of all persons.
And anyone who thinks that progressive people who talk about the horrors of plantation slavery, the inequities in the society, the lopsided distribution of wealth are really people who despise meritocracy and who loathe hard work and effort should have known Rex Nettleford. He was a man in his office at 5:30 in the mornings; did not recognise weekends and holidays as time away from work, and he never took vacations. He used to say to me that his greatest fear was unemployment. And he had a Teutonic dedication to work which mirrored that phobia.
But what really is closer to the truth is the fact that Rex recognised that we were as capable of success and excellence as any ethnic group; that we had the capacity for greatness and could achieve whatever we set our minds to - and were allowed to. Rex was a living laboratory of what black people were capable of. He did not believe that black people should be self-indulgent (one of his favourite words) and permit themselves the luxury of believing that they could bypass standards of excellence and premium performance under the guise of cultural specificity.
Rex would make no excuse for our underachievement at 50. For he would never countenance the view that we were not good enough to grow as fast as other societies have. He would reject any Jamaican exceptionalism in that regard. But Rex, you could count on him, would have a nuanced view of our status at 50.
He had a keen historical perspective which grounded his hope in the Jamaican people. When in the 1970s and the decades which followed he and I would talk about the problems afflicting Jamaica, and I would use certain crisis points to press home my pessimism about our prospects in a world dominated by the wealthy few globally and locally, he would always say, "I can't write off my people. We are always at the brink but we never quite fall over." He had an abiding faith in the Jamaican people. "The first thing which our economists and other decision takers must do is to trust and respect the people from below," he once wrote. That was what he did all his life. He was, after all, one of them.
And he never forgot where he came from as a poor boy from Trelawny who grew up without a father and in poverty. He never had a sense of entitlement and always used to say, "I don't think this country owes me anything." Indeed, his life was self-sacrificial. If many Jamaicans are self-centred, atomistic, materialistic and hedonistic, Rex Nettleford was the very opposite. His life was totally about service and uplifting his people. Whether as a scholar in demand all over the world and a speaker at every important conference on culture; as a dancer, writer, teacher, board or committee/commission member, Rex Nettleford was about his people's business. He was no angel or a saint, but he was certainly a humble servant.
His intellectual fecundity was simply dazzling. He has received more honorary doctorates from prestigious universities around the world than any other intellectual from this region. He was the intellectual's intellectual. John Maxwell was right when he wrote at Rex's death, "It is impossible to do justice to Rex Nettleford. It is, for instance, unprecedented and amazing that of Oxford's more than 7,000 Rhodes Scholars, Nettleford should be singled out for special centenary honour (one of only four) and even more extraordinary that the Rhodes Trust should create in his honour a special prize in cultural studies, a discipline almost unknown when he was at university."
Rex affirmed the best in us. He took our indigenous religious forms, Kumina, Revivalism, Pocomania and put them to memorable, penetrative dance. In 1960, he was appointed to go on an investigative trek to Africa and come back and report on Rastafari. Rex became one of the principal scholars helping this prejudiced society to understand and accept Rastafari as a legitimate religious form, with every right to exist and express its cosmology as Europeanised Christianity.
He founded his National Dance Theatre Company along with Eddie Thomas the very year Jamaica gained its Independence. It was significant and symbolic that he would do so at that time, for his work in the arts, as well as his total life's work, was all about Jamaican and Caribbean independence. It was about cultural authenticity and affirmation.
In the 1970s when many of his colleagues at the University of the West Indies (UWI) had gone on a Marxist binge, pronouncing matters such as culture as "bourgeois nationalist" concerns and philosophical idealism, Rex demonstrated the courage needed to hold his ground. He was pushing Marcus (Garvey) when many at the campuses were pushing (Karl) Marx. He was calling them to their cultural and intellectual roots, but they were on a frolic with Europe's ideas. History has absolved Rex Nettleford. Many of his former ideological combatants later came to make peace with him, their having been chastened by history.
We must celebrate Rex Nettleford at Jamaica 50. He was one of the greatest Jamaicans ever. Barry Chevannes, former Marxist hardliner, put it well in a moving tribute to Rex at a special commemoration in London: "His writings were always challenging because he searched for the right voice to express a reality that eluded expression through conventional language and categories of the social sciences ... ." Rex was a postmodernist before the postmodernists, a man ill-at-ease with dogmas of the Left as much as the Right. He is irreplaceable.EMBRACING OUR LANGUAGE
Another great Jamaican whom we must celebrate at this time is the most loved Jamaican of all time, Louise Bennett-Coverley. Miss Lou taught us to love ourselves and not to be ashamed of our language. Language is an index of power and identity. If we think our language is unworthy, we think ourselves unworthy. And don't come with any nonsense about whether we must choose Patois over English or whether we don't need to learn English. Both Rex Nettleford and Miss Lou were among our most crisp and polished speakers of the Queen's English!
Miss Lou brought our language to the paper of the elite, The Gleaner, from the 1960s. It was a coup when The Gleaner began publishing her dialect. But so commanding was she, so irresistible, that she had to be let through that important door. It again makes the point that excellence is excellence in whatever language. In drama, in poetry, in radio and television, and in film, Miss Lou was excellence personified. She could not only make us laugh at ourselves and appreciate our culture; she would deliver biting social commentary in such a disarming way that we would embrace it without offence. Miss Lou had a charm and a grace that was so compelling, so spellbinding.
SYMBOL OF UNITY
Today, Jamaica yearns for people who can pull us together. Miss Lou is precisely such a symbol. She is the one person I can think of who could be declared national hero without national controversy. No other Jamaican could be so declared with as little opposition as Louise Bennett-Coverley. None. When Miss Lou, OM, was given the honorary Doctorate in Literature by the UWI in 1982, the citation read fittingly:
"As a source of inspiration for the many poets who have acknowledged their debt to her; as a source of information for countless scholars and investigators into Jamaican folklore, in particular, Creole languages and in general as a source of artistic creativity in the field of music, dance and theatre, she stands as one of the major contributors to the expansion of knowledge that now informs a modern Jamaican nation and a dynamic Caribbean society on the road to self-definition and cultural purpose."
As Rex said of her in his eulogy, "For over five decades, Louise Bennett remained a soul-force of Jamaica's cultural development ... the great messenger of fundamental truths about the Jamaican and West Indian persona, of hope in the jaws of despair, of truths about the human condition, celebrating the invincibility of the human spirit ... . A great spirit, a living legend indeed!" We celebrate that Great Spirit, Miss Lou, at our Independence Jubilee.
We celebrate Miss Lou and Rex as Queen and King of Jamaican culture. Miss Lou has the last word:
"Independence wid a vengeance!
Independence raising cane
Jamaica start grow beard, ah hope
We chin can stan de strain."
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist.
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