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Rex, the king and I

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

In later years' Rex Nettleford would often say that he and his generation were in the departure lounge. He has now boarded a flight to Somewhere.

Ironically, Rex, who returned from Oxford with an honours master's degree in history, having studied with the great British historian Isaiah Berlin, to devote his entire life to Jamaica, the Caribbean and his beloved University of the West Indies (UWI), died abroad in a country that did not escape his critical appraisal when he was alive. Comfortingly, Rex was in the United States to throw his considerable weight behind fund-raising for the UWI.

I know about his studying with Isaiah Berlin from a long, elegant letter which he wrote me in reply to one of my criticisms in this column of some aspect of his copious work. Nettleford and I have crossed intellectual swords, but always respectfully.

an international man

Perhaps the highest accolade given to Rex Nettleford in life and in death was the label 'quintessential Caribbean man'. Both current Prime Minister Bruce Golding and former Prime Minister Edward Seaga used the magic phrase in their tributes. But Rex, in his education, professional and intellectual life, was an international man par excellence. Oxford MA, no less. Work with UNESCO and the Canadian IDRC. Honorary degrees from a dozen universities. And impeccable Oxonian English as his natural language register, even when he tried very hard to revert to being "a son of rural Jamaica", as leader of the Opposition, Portia Simpson Miller, described him in her tribute.

We had sharply different views on which person should come first in the education and intellectual formation of Jamaican and Caribbean people. As the leader of the mainstream position, Nettleford constantly emphasised the centrality of Caribbeanness in identity. As a minor voice among the minority, I was, and am, an advocate of the primacy of the international. Caribbean development is best served and individual aspirations best met, I think, by educating our people for the world on a platform of global common culture and knowledge. Caribbean people are, in any case, already among the most cosmopolitan and migratory in the world.

I have been critical of persons who, having themselves escaped the parochialism of small state history and culture, then turn around to prescribe this as the appropriate foundation for the education and world view formation of others. Culture is always dynamically becoming, not statically retaining the past. And Usain Bolt has it right in popularising the slogan "to di worl'" - and from the worl', too.

I wrote pieces on being a universal man and on the primacy of the universal in the formation of Caribbean identity and the Caribbean mind. And Nettleford wrote back in disagreement, both in the press and in personal correspondence.

enormous generosity

Professor Rex Nettleford

Like thousands of Jamaicans, I was privileged to be taught by the great man while a graduate student at his UWI. Professor Nettleford sort of shuffled into the room and just talked - in eloquent and riveting fashion. Instinctively sensing his enormous generosity of spirit and flexing my muscles as a columnist of several years standing at the time of studying with him, I gritted my teeth and decided to include a critique of some of his own ideas in a paper done for the course.

'In Mirror Mirror - Identity, Race and Protest in Jamaica', his 1970 classic, Nettleford had done his analysis around the neat "trinity of identity, race and protest" as the "three critical variables closely interacting in the social equation of contemporary Jamaica". Once one got past the "textured", but fuzzy, notion of "the social equation of contemporary Jamaica", I felt that Nettleford's trinity was a forced over-simplification of complex social reality and that Carl Stone's far less popular analysis of "race, class and colour in Jamaica", which included shadeism and economic gradations in a continuously variable creolised population, was a better match of the reality I observed on the ground. And with mighty trepidation I told the teacher so.

Furthermore, I advised the illustrious sage that 'race', as a part of his trinity, dissolves into meaninglessness when he wrote, "People are not black solely on the grounds of their colour. Such terms as 'black and 'white' still carry values of one sort or another tying the concept of race to a compound of variables ranging from place of origin and levels of cultural achievement to the occupations held by ancestors and the level of economic wealth and achievement".

So what good is the concept then, as an analytic tool, if we can't even figure out what it is, I asked with my natural science mind at work? Despite the challenge to the master, or perhaps on account of the challenge, the paper was awarded an A.

Perhaps the most famous dance role that the founder of the National Dance Theatre Company performed was that of the king in one of his kumina-based work, hence my title. I have never ceased to wonder how Nettleford reconciled his devotion to folk forms, and to some extent to Rastafarianism, with his secular, rationalistic side. When I was working more closely with Science and Technology, I found very useful a comment he made in his essay in cultural dynamics, 'Caribbean Cultural Identity: The Case of Jamaica' (1978). In it he wrote, "another cultural value to be developed and preserved is that of an understanding of science and technology, for the kind of world in which Caribbean people now find themselves makes this not only important but necessary". The cultural impact of science and technology is after all part of the drama of modernity everywhere" (part of my own argument for producing the universal Caribbean man). What Jamaica must do with science and technology is to use it and not be dominated by it," Nettleford argued.

'higher science'

All very fine. But then Nettleford couldn't help transposing into noting that, "In the popular imagination in Jamaica, 'science and 'higher science' carry cultural connotations of divine magic, ritual witchcraft and religious wonder (with which he was much more at home than Euro-centric Christianity of which he was highly sceptical). Many observers of the scene believe that this flourishing of sub-scientific folk culture populated with capricious spirits is a major hindrance to the flourishing of science". Here then is another Nettlefordian 'contradiction', one of his favourite words, rivaling the trinity of 'texture', 'tapestry' and 'tar brush' in frequency of use.

Where the king and I enjoyed far better concord was in mutual hostility to Marxism, but apparently for different reasons. At a time when his university and country were particularly accommodating of Marxist influence, the Caribbean man wrote in 'Caribbean Cultural Identity: The Case of Jamaica', "the coming of Socialism with its supportive literature from Marx through Lenin to Marcus could very well be seen as a deepening of that very cultural dependency on Europe".

As a universal man, my objections to Marxism/Socialism is its destructiveness of human freedoms, including cherished religious freedom, that it is shown in both theory and practice to not work as an economic system and can never, on account of its profound misunderstanding of human nature and of socio-economic dynamics, deliver on its utopian promises over which millions have been brutalised and destroyed. There is nothing particularly Caribbean about this.

Rex Nettleford revered his two most important mentors, Norman Manley and Sir Philip Sherlock. His attachment to the Manley family and to Sir Philip provided shelter from a great deal of the difficulties that could have confronted him on account of his jet black skin in a Jamaica in which even people tar-brushed the likes of him and me and give pride of place to the brown. In those and other choreographed attachments to the brown and the powerful, he also found a protective shield needed due to other circumstances of his life and a helpful ladder for the upward climb to fame.

In those classes, Rex spoke reverentially of the contributions of Sir Philip Sherlock to nation-building and the cultural liberation of the black Jamaican, noting that Sir Philip did not have a vote before being a middle-age man when Universal Adult Suffrage came. I owe Nettleford a big debt of gratitude for rescuing the Manley papers and organising them into the book, Manley and the New Jamaica: Selected speeches & writings, 1938-1968. I have often quoted from the book in this column and elsewhere in research.

Our last encounter was on the Breakfast Club a few months ago, untangling some aspect of the rich tapestry of Jamaican culture and identity.

And yes, we share the common wish and have given instructions for the termination of medical intervention and the removal of life support in the absence of any reasonable possibility of recovering meaningful life functions. Almost certainly, though, we would disagree about what happens after exiting the departure lounge for Somewhere.

Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Feedback may be sent to or