The following is excerpted from “To be Liberated from the Obscurity of Themselves: An Interview with Rex Nettleford” by David Scott which was published in Small Axe Number 20 in June 2006. A quote from David’s preface to the interview is used here to locate Nettleford for readers not from the region who may not know who he was. For me the extraordinary thing about T Rex, as i privately thought of him, was that he was both an intellectual and a dancer at once, ingeniously harnessing mind and body. I am extremely glad that i had the opportunity to see Rex dance his signature role of Kumina King at least once…
Born in Falmouth, Jamaica, on 3 February 1933, Rex Nettleford [was] vice chancellor emeritus
of the University of the West Indies. His achievements are too many to list and in any case too
well known to require listing. Recently, Oxford University, where he pursued postgraduate studies in politics as a Rhodes Scholar, awarded him both a Fellowship of Oriel College as well as an honorary Doctor of Civil Laws, and the Rhodes Trust established a Rex Nettleford Fellowship
in Cultural Studies to be awarded in perpetuity. He is the author of many books, including
Mirror Mirror: Identity, Race, and Protest in Jamaica (1970), Caribbean Cultural Identity (1978), Dance Jamaica: Cultural Definition and Artistic Discovery (1985), Inward Stretch, Outward Reach: A Voice from the Caribbean (1993), and (with Philip Sherlock) The University of the West Indies: A Caribbean Response to the Challenge of Change (1990); and editor of Manley and the New Jamaica (1971), Jamaica In Independence: Essays on the Early Years (1989), and Race, Discourse, and the Origin of the Americas (1995), as well as of Caribbean Quarterly, the University of the West Indies journal of cultural studies.
David Scott: I want to begin, Rex, with the early years. I imagine you have told this story more than once. But tell me where you were born, where you grew up, and also, tell me what your earliest memories of childhood are.
Rex Nettleford: Well, I was born in Falmouth, Trelawny, and I grew up there for a while with my mother Lebertha Palmer, who is still alive—all of ninety-seven years old! I am a typical member of the so-called 70 percent clan, that legendary 70 percent of the Jamaican population who were born to a mother who did not have the benefit of confetti. And therefore what they would now grandly call a single-parent household was for me matriarchal and matrilocal—matrilocal in the sense that my brother and my two sisters by my mother all grew up for a short while together; matriarchal in that she certainly ruled the roost, absolutely. No doubt at all about that. I remember that, from very young, traipsing about on my own, finding my way, for some strange reason, I just had an interest in reading. And she encouraged it. I remember that at about three years old she sent me to what they now call basic school—but we didn’t call it that in those days. It was just a little place which was in somebody’s yard. And we were taught the very basic three Rs. And she felt that I should go; maybe it was to keep me out of trouble, or to give her free time to go and do whatever she wanted to do, but she was very strong about protecting her children. I remember that very, very clearly; she was very, very loyal to us.
But obviously things got hard. With the advantage of hindsight, I can see this. She decided to migrate to Montego Bay. She took the youngest one of us with her. The boy was sent off to his father in Sherwood Content and I was sent to my grandmother—her mother—in Bunker’s Hill, which is in the hinterland of Falmouth. This was typical. I didn’t feel that I was disadvantaged because of it; I guess I was too young to even think in those terms. But I went to Bunker’s Hill and had a very rural upbringing. And again, from early, not just with the advantage of hindsight now, but from very early I understood the importance, or the significance, of that particular exposure.
Sixth former at Cornwall College, Montego Bay, 1950
My grandmother, Florence Reid, got married to a gentleman who [in consequence] was my step-grandfather, and who in fact made me understand that I was an outsider when I got there [to Bunker’s Hill]. She protected me, really. She too was very strong on education. And I suppose because I chatted a lot, she said, “Well, this little boy is bright, you know. I better send him to school.” And the school was really a haven. I went to school, while my young uncles and aunts had to stop from school, particularly on Fridays as was the custom in rural Jamaica at the time. I gather it still holds today. School is kept for half a day to release the children to go and work in the fields. She never stopped me from going to school.
DS: …I want to get a sense of this involvement of yours in theatre in Montego Bay. So tell me about this vaudeville group.
RN: Well, the thing is I was very conscious of the need for me to be comfortable in my own skin in order to exist. But I couldn’t do it without relating to other people. So I found myself anywhere there was some kind of collective communal kind of work. And there is a story—the devil is in the details—of Worm Chambers as he was called, who was illiterate, couldn’t read or write. He wanted a letter written. And he saw me, this little boy, this“bright boy from Cornwall College one morning on my way to school and asked me if I could write a letter for him. I used to write letters for lots of people, like a scribe. And it’s interesting, when I went to Africa I remembered those scribes on old imperial typewriters typing away. They were the scribes for people who wanted letters written. And this is very important in a way, because we’re back to my elementary school thing. We were taught to write letters of application for jobs, as well as telegrams. Remember in elementary school, once you finish sixth standard, you’re going out to look for a job. So how you write a letter was very, very important. All of this we learnt in elementary school in those days.
Undergraduate in the first Carnival celebrations at the University College of the West Indies, Mona, 1955
And then of course English was taught marvelously, in the way that I think English ought to be taught, as another language for people like ourselves. Not as our language. And that’s how I was taught, using that good old Nesfield Grammar text.
DS: You mean that the assumption of teachers was that you did not speak English?
RN: That English was not our first language. I don’t even know if they assumed it, but in the Nesfield Grammar textbooks, that’s how you were taught English. In grammar, you were taught the parsing, the different figures of speech, and all the rest of it, oh yes. So in fact I got a good grounding in that up to age nine, ten, eleven. I spoke a very heavy dialect to my peers and my family, and when speaking to people in authority I would speak something approaching standard English. And I would certainly write my compositions in standard English.
Director of Extramural Studies
DS: Let’s go back to your meeting with Worm Chambers.
RN: Ok, so I wrote the letter for him and when I brought it back his partner told me that he wasn’t there, he was gone to practice—which of course meant the rehearsal, leading up to the shows—because they had an August Morning concert and a Christmas Morning concert. So I went to the theatre and there he was with his crew.
DS: Now you’re a boy of eleven.
RN: Eleven, twelve. They were doing the usual thing, because they were greatly influenced by the cinema. Buzz [Busby] Berkley and so on, that kind of musical. You could see [what they were up to]: “Who threw the whiskey in the well?” And they used sort of blackface, Al Jolson and all the rest of it. So they were doing this number and I asked could I show them something? And he [Worm] said yes, and that was the beginning. The rest is history. I did it every year from then until 1953.
Addressing National Savings
Committee, Savanna-la-Mar, 1973
DS: What did you show them?
RN: Movements to the music that they were singing. Because I had been doing things like that. And then I took over. And I appeared on one or two of the shows doing dialect poems, because I wrote several dialect poems.
DS: . . . One very central theme in Inward Stretch, Outward Reach, is the idea of what you call “global learning,” a form of education that will, as you say, ensure intellectual plasticity, flexibility, adaptability, an education for creativity, not narrow technical training is what you’re after. But isn’t the latter precisely what your very beloved UWI had become mired in?
Rex Nettleford as vice chancellor,
University of the West Indies
RN: Yes, my beloved UWI, UCWI. Let me hasten to say that I’m the first to criticize it for becoming that or being on the verge of becoming that. We have to guard against just being a degree factory, [and become] a community where learning is treasured, where in fact free discourse is encouraged. And if we become a degree factory, which in fact we are being asked to become, we are in for trouble. This place should be preparing its graduates to cope with the texture and diversity of human existence. And I don’t think we have altogether succeeded, particularly in more recent years, with the increase in the student population, also with the massification of education, which I’m not against, but we have to find the ways and means to cope with it.
DS: As usual, your criticism is very gentle. But I read Inward Stretch, Outward Reach as a sharp critique of the University of the West Indies, of the decline in the commitment to the creation of what you just referred to as spaces for the cultivation of . . .
RN: . . . the Kingdom of the Mind!
DS: Yes, indeed, the Kingdom of the Mind. And I wonder whether or to what extent Inward Stretch, Outward Reach was read as a critique of the university; but I wonder also whether people at the university appreciated the attempt in Inward Stretch to subvert the increasing orthodoxy of the idea that this should be a degree-awarding factory.
RN: No, I don’t think many did. And let me hasten to say, I will not fool myself into thinking that many of my colleagues even read my work, and that’s one of the things that I find in this university, we don’t read each other’s work. So probably that hasn’t occurred at all to lots of people.
But those who know me well enough would know that I am critical of many of the things that we do. But we have come a far way, because it could have been worse.