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Out of many, one Rex

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

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor


The last time I chatted with Professor Nettleford was three weeks ago when he telephoned to talk about my column on Haiti. He was that kind of person. He always took time to give feedback, support and, occasionally, words of reproach to his junior colleagues. At Wycliffe Bennett's funeral, he almost apologetically said he'd meant to call about my 'University fi Stone Dog' column but didn't get around to it. He'd had to go off to New York for his mother's funeral.

Believe it or not, Professor Nettleford provided a most valuable newspaper- and journal-clipping service for many of us at the University of the West Indies. Even as vice-chancellor, he kept up the tradition. He'd send a little note with an article he thought you'd find useful. I got lots and lots of material on reggae. I just came across a 1999 story on 'The Rhythm Kings', Sly and Robbie, published in London's The Independent.

Professor Nettleford once sent me an article on the Sudanese model Alek Wek, with an astringent comment on how some black people just couldn't see the beauty in this magnificent young woman. It was a theme he had painstakingly explored in his provocative book, Mirror Mirror: Identity, Race and Protest in Jamaica, first published in 1970.

The title, taken from the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, highlights the ways in which our notions of beauty are shaped by Eurocentric narratives that simply fail to reflect our own reality. Many of us are still desperately trying to get skin 'white as snow'.

Race and mental illness

I recently had a revealing exchange with a young man who wipes windscreens in Half-Way Tree. His face was well on the way to looking like Snow White's. With my usual 'fast' self I asked him, "My yute, why yu a bleach?" His impatient response made it clear that he considered my question idiotic: "Mi a bleach like everybody else!" He might just as well have added: "A wa? Wa wrong wid me, mek me can't bleach too?"

For this young man, bleaching is the default position. And whose fault is it? The answer lies in Mirror Mirror. Our society is delusional. One of the telling ways in which our collective paranoia is vividly expressed is in our national motto, 'out of many, one people'. All evidence to the contrary, Jamaica is not really a predominantly black society. We're 'multiracial'. If you have any doubts, just look at this year's Scotiabank calendar.

Beauty contests of the 1960s revealed the racial prejudice at the heart of the motto. That's why Jimmy Cliff had to serenade his own 'Miss Jamaica'. Professor Nettleford observed that: "Indeed, it can probably be said that the objective norm in the minds of many Jamaicans (both black and coloured) who choose beauty queens is the hybrid or miscegenated person."

Moving beyond cautious probability, Nettleford laments the disturbing consequences of this state of mind: "The trouble with this solution to our race differentiation problems is that if the hybrid is the norm, then the vast majority of pure blacks must be the aberration."

The word 'aberration' comes from the Latin 'aberrationem' meaning, literally, 'the action of wandering away'. Used symbolically, it means 'deviation from the normal type'. So if you don't want to wander down the path of abnormality, you bleach. That's a wicked story to tell in our national motto. Pure madness.

As a black boy from deep rural Jamaica, Ralston Nettleford wasn't supposed to know he was royal. As he says in Mirror Mirror, the vast majority of the Jamaican people "happen to wear that colour of skin long associated with poverty, manual labour, low status and ignorance".

Wearing his black skin with pride, Rex chose a path that led him away from the aberration of self-hatred. Though he rose above poverty, ignorance and low social status, he certainly did not disdain manual labour. As artistic director and choreo-grapher for his beloved National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), Rex Nettleford engaged the entire body - hands, feet, muscle, bone, head and heart - to tell his version of the story of the Jamaican people: Inward Stretch, Outward Reach.

Big trouble

I once got into big trouble for overreaching to write a newspaper article in which I reported the off-the-cuff remark of a visiting Jamaican academic living in the United States, who thought the NDTC should really be called the MDTC: the Mulatto Dance Theatre Company. It's so ironic that each generation often thinks that our elders are not quite as radical as they ought to be.

Given Nettleford's critique of the politics of 'mix up and blender' in Mirror Mirror, he was not amused by this 'mulatto' business. His stinging letter started by drawing the age card: "You could not have been out of high school in 1962 (two years after the Rasta Report) when those of us young adults who felt passionately about this country embarked on paths that would mean something (at last?) to the vast majority of the people who tenant these shores. You yourself have been a fairly recent recruit to the quest and for that I applaud you and once again say 'welcome aboard'."

With the foolhardiness of relative youth, I wrote an unrepentant follow-up column. Rex eventually forgave me.

Over the years, I often went to him when I needed advice about negotiating the minefield of university politics. In fact, I had made an appointment to meet with him last Friday at 9:00. But, of course, it was not to be.

Like the Kumina king he so often invoked on stage with such magisterial authority, Rex has gone to join the ancestors. His spirit will continue to possess those of us who choose to claim the cultural legacy bequeathed by our African progenitors.

Carolyn Cooper is professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Send feedback to: or