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Public affairs: Royal Black, A tribute to Rex

Published:Sunday | February 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Hilary Beckles, Contributor

Among the 'cargo' of eight million enchained Africans shipped to and sold in the Caribbean were some fiercely unwanted souls. Every effort was made by slave traders, their brokers and commission agents stationed along the West African coast, to carefully examine each consignment with a view to weed them out and set them free.

Those in charge of the management of the Caribbean did not wish to have these 'spirits' in their place. As parliamentarians and planters, they did not wish to have any black intellectual property on their physical property. They wanted Africans with brutal strength and breeding capacity to produce and reproduce. Their greatest nightmare was the presence of critical thinkers and courageous talkers. This condition bred the Caribbean incorporation of corporate fear, contempt and suspicion of the black mind that festered in the intestines of many with power, both political and economic.

Nettleford is relaxed in this standing collar light-blue shirt. - Contributed Photos

On the African coast, some called such souls 'griots' - men and women of words and reason. Others called them 'Obi men' - spirit leaders who drew magical, mystical strength from 'Obi', their god of survival. Many disguised themselves and 'volunteered' to enter slave ships in order to cross over to the Caribbean. They infiltrated and lived untouched within the inner halls and outer walls of plantation structures. In the slave yards they were called 'Royal blacks' and 'Myal men'. The great house stood in fear of these souls and branded them for death and denigration as 'obeah men'.

Such men and women were easily recognised by those who had called upon them and sought their vision of time and direction to destiny. In Caribbean trenches, these thinkers fought among the death and despair of the folk. There, they raised consciousness, strengthened the weak and weary, and laid the foundation for eruptions to freedom.

20th-century griot

Rex Nettleford with his Caribbean Luminary Award.

Rex was our 20th-century griot. He projected to all around him the importance of using the power of the mind. He dug beneath the surface of our suffering and foretold the future of things to come. He walked with the carriage of a carrier whose spine was unbent and unyielding. With focused eyes he spoke a soft, soulful tongue with words that called us to wage war upon the wicked and to rescue with reason our senses from the harshness of hate.

Our griots need not have made the crossing. They were exempt from captivity and enslavement, and were left alone. Many were detected, seized upon, and expelled from the slave dungeons and ships. Slave owners did not wish to import into their sugar world such persons who journeyed as eternal representatives of the salt of the earth.

'Royal blacks' disguised themselves; hid among the masses; took on the swag of their walk and the rhythm of their talk. They danced to the beat of the drum in our chests, and wrote in signs and with symbols the story of our journey. They knew how vital it was that they made the trip on the ship. Rex knew how much we needed him to make bearable the passage from plantation to salvation.

Rex made the crossing. The Caribbean cauldron did not consume him. Like the Jewish boys in Babylon who survived the fiery furnace, he walked out of the slave ship, stood tall and talked big. He was a shining star that guided generations to freedom and redemption.

Like Toussaint, Rex was a gentle sage, an army in a man, whose mind filled and conquered the space he occupied. There was never a doubt what he was about. He was the Jamaican myal man who accepted his allegiance to Obi, and who understood all too well that his fettered folk, scattered throughout the sugar, cotton, coffee and cocoa fields of a hostile hemisphere, were in his charge and that he had a spiritual duty to lead them.

Generations grew up under the watch of his cultured eye. He spoke of freedom and urged them to cultivate their sen-ses and sensibilities. He planted the spirit of freedom within this Caribbean, which cannot be washed away nor drowned in foreign rivers of fear. The ship on which he arrived followed the Santa Maria. From 1492 until today, the culture war has not gone away. These have been wars and rumours of war. Slavery has come and gone. Its legacies live on, but young soldiers are spawned, schooled on the text written by Rex.

Rex, then, has given us the tools. He has shown us how to take a stance in dance, and to move others in magnificent moment with the reach of poetic speech. Unmasked, he tore us away from the colonial scaffold. He summoned his soul and built a university for all, bottom up, to heal and harness the Caribbean mind. He nurtured a dynasty of dancers - top down - to unleash the power of splintered spirit within broken bodies. Our souls assembled and soothed, and shoulders straightened with regal rigour, we flew to old heights and danced in the trance of the Obi man.

The magic of the myal man crossed the Caribbean land and beyond. The mystery remains. Few really knew his name. The concept renamed 'Rex' became a reflex that said all we needed to know.



And so the sage has come of age. The pitching star in DC, you see, was a soul returning to source. The trail it blazed across a cold Washington sky high above a towering White House finally occupied by souls of black folks expressed the ultimate shot of class of a man whose mind mocked the slave ship that slipped him into a Jamaican bay.

He had made the crossing for us. He worked to save us and placed us on the right path through the pillars and temples of the inner plantation. Now he has booked his return passage. This time there will be no need for disguise and wearing of mask. He has returned in triumph across the passage to ancestral lands that await his landing. There, we know, he will give thanks, and pay nuff respect to those who preceded him and are assembled to greet him. But the Rex we recognised, will not be satisfied that he has done enough. Thank God for this, because we know he will be planning to wheel and come again. Generations to come still need the myal man from the hinterland of Montego Bay.

Sir Hilary Beckles, a historian, is pro-vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus. Feedback may be sent to