The King is dead! Long live the King! Rex Nettleford 1933-2010

Issa Scholar, later Rhodes Scholar, 1957

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 aliveall 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 matrilocalmatrilocal 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 schoolbut 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 grandmotherher motherin 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 storythe devil is in the detailsof 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, thisbright 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 were 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, youre 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 thats 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 dont even know if they assumed it, but in the Nesfield Grammar textbooks, thats 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 wasnt there, he was gone to practicewhich of course meant the rehearsal, leading up to the showsbecause 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 youre 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 Im 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.

Author: ap

writer, editor and avid tweeter

17 thoughts on “The King is dead! Long live the King! Rex Nettleford 1933-2010”

  1. Rex’s commitment to scholarship and creativity (and to scholarly creativity,puts him right up with Sherlock, Lewis, Williams, and the rest of the founding generation of West Indian scholar-activists who were before him. He deserves to be remembered not just with our good thoughts, but with the sort of sound,engaged scholarship, cultural criticism, and artistic endeavour that were the work of his life.

  2. Love the images Annie! This was definitely one of those interviews that I needed to cuddle up with, when I got the SX issue. Although I know some of the bio info in bits and pieces, it was really lovely to get a full picture of him. I’ve read most of his work, heard him talk, conversed with him, watched him dance, all of which he is brilliant at. But my favourite thing to do was to look at him, and to admire the way he always exuded what must be the perfect marriage of physicality, intellect and sensuality, and which seems so rare among men these days. Cultivated yes, but he was a master of that art, and embodied it so beautifully. He definitely brought a certain something to the world that really can’t be reproduced. I’ll also miss his deft ways of putting people in their place without them even knowing it. PJ must be an emotional mess right now; his compadres are transitioning, one after the other.

  3. Gelede,

    I believe i’m beginning to figure out who you are…welcome!

    Wow, never made the link to PJ, he did look distraught when he was interviewed today.

    Isn’t it interesting that there is still no discussion of his sexuality?

  4. i didn’t mean to ignore your remarks about his physical presence. yes, he was a handsome man, wasn’t he? You could easily overlook him, his clothes never called out to you, but once you noticed him he certainly was striking.

  5. I found this an enlightening interview and it raised a few questions in my mind as well. I liked the comment about the way he thought English should be taught in Jamaica. I am now left to wonder why his influence didn’t carry on this discussion since the current mode does not have that emphasis.

    Notwithstanding, his contribution to our region is not diminished. No one can do everything and he did point out that it could have been worse. We are grateful for his life.

    I wonder though Annie, why would you expect a discussion on his sexuality? I don’t think it merits a discussion particularly since it was not his line of work.

  6. Kam’au,

    Sexuality would be important simply because in what appears to be a profoundly homophobic society someone who may have been gay was held in the highest regard. What does this mean? Why should we not discuss this? Isn’t it interesting that Golding lavished praise on RN but would not have admitted him to his cabinet?
    it’s important for the same reason that Obama’s ‘race’ becomes important in discussions about race relations in the US.

    In fact being a member of any minority group becomes important in discussions about discrimination against that group. Isn’t that obvious?

  7. Hail Annie Paul, nice interview piece Annie. Gelede summed it up beautifully… “[I]…admire the way he always exuded what must be the perfect marriage of physicality, intellect and sensuality, and which seems so rare among men these days.” Admittedly, this is what I liked most about REX and will always remember him as a distinguished ‘fellow’. Even as I read the interview excerpt I could hear is distinct voice and pronunciation of certain words. Maybe it’s all the REX related interviews and programs that have been on Local cable channels recently that has caused his voice to be stuck in my head.

    I always admired the man’s physique too…he was a manly man yet not a brute. Damn REX was the man!

    I remember watching a feature recently about Kappo. In the documentary they interviewed several persons including Edward Seaga and Rex. As I watched both Eddie and Rex speak on matters relating to Jamaican culture and revivalism I saw two men who were composed, well spoken, masculine and in touch with the realities of Jamaican culture. Young Jamaican males are currently short on such role models.

    Annie, the reason many persons look past the fact that REX may have been a ‘fairy’ is because he didn’t wear that persona as a badge and try to bully everyone into a particular way of thinking. REX was too deep, too complex, too smart to let himself be defined by only one aspect of his multifaceted existence. REX’s sexuality (a private matter) is consumed by his public work. This did not involve a denial of self but rather a harmonious coexistence with others while holding to his convictions, beliefs and preferences. He said, “… 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.” He really seems to have understood something that has been lost on many of us. That is, there is space for every person within Jamaican culture even those who differ. I think REX understood this because he observed and helped to influence the multiplicity of ideas, doctrines and opinions which float about within our cultural space.

    Annie Paul, this is why I take offense to your repeated ’mindless’ labeling of Jamaican society as homophobic. No one word can truly define this culture/country whether that word be homophobic, violent, Christian, Rasta or other. Jamaica is much more than we often see or hear about.

    That said; REX’s legacy is shaping up to be GREAT. He really was a symbol of a strong Jamaican black man. May he dance his way through eternity.

    Peace and love, Stero

    Ps. Damn, just got a phone call from my mom…my grandfather died this morning. They say deaths come in 3s so I’ll be looking out for another one…hope it isn’t me.

  8. “Sexuality would be important simply because in what appears to be a profoundly homophobic society someone who may have been gay was held in the highest regard. What does this mean? Why should we not discuss this? Isn’t it interesting that Golding lavished praise on RN but would not have admitted him to his cabinet?
    it’s important for the same reason that Obama’s ‘race’ becomes important in discussions about race relations in the US.

    In fact being a member of any minority group becomes important in discussions about discrimination against that group. Isn’t that obvious?”
    Annie Paul,

    One cannot compare homosexuality to race and talk about ‘any minority groups’ being discriminated against. Brown skin is a physical trait that is unchangeable, and there is nothing evil about skin colour. Homosexuality on the other hand, is a perverted sexual practice, that can be changed. what benefit is there in a man plunging his dick in another man’s ass. Or a woman’s ass? He likes bacteria and viruses? Same goes for two women grinding their vaginas together, and tongue licking each other’s anus. Except for perverted lust and eroticism, what benefit is in it? Can procreation come from this? Immoral, perverted and evil. That’s what it is.

    Are you going to also say the ‘minority group’ of pedophiles in the society should be celebrated and accepted as normal folks? And what about people who have sex with animals?.. Homosexuality is a warped evil-minded practice, by sick people. And, if scientists can make viara to boost one’s sexual potency, then they can also make pills to re-balance sexual attraction and set the sick ones ‘straight’, as they should be. Lobby for that!

  9. Your blog is littered with writings about gay this and that. Are you gay Annie Paul? Your name sounds gay! lol. Since you want to talk about Nettleford’s sexuality, why don’t we begin with yours?

  10. Annie,

    I think that sexuality has not been a part of the Nettleford discussions because he never really articulated a position on this matter. Rumors aside, what can anyone say definitively about the Professor’s sexuality? I have absolutely no evidence on which to make an argument either way. On the other hand, his race is obvious and his writings on race aplenty.

    Therefore, your statement, “being a member of a minority group becomes important in discussions about discrimination against that group”, would be valid if the Professor admitted to being a part of that minority group (because it would only be through an admission that we could be certain). I am not aware that the Prof. made any such admission, so it would be very presumptuous of me to assume, and use his name in a public discussion on this subject.

    I want to agree with Stero that labeling Jamaica homophobic is much of a stretch. While I admit that there has been a thrust led my our dancehall fraternity, I really don’t think they reflect the sentiments of the majority of Jamaicans. It gave them ‘forwards’ and they rode it for what it was worth. They are now being forced to re-think those practices.

    In the end Stero is right, “his sexuality is consumed by his public work”. Few Jamaicans, and certainly non-Jamaicans, really cared what he did with his private life. His is not the life to be used in a public discussion on sexuality in Jamaica.

  11. You know i think there’s a bit of misunderstanding going on here. Kam-au i am not in the least bit interested in discussing Rex’s sexuality in terms of whether he was or wasn’t gay. i am interested in the fact that he was widely believed to be gay and that this did not hold him back from reaching the highest positions in this supposedly homophobic land.

    Perception is very important. and i don’t see why we can’t discuss the fact that someone almost universally accepted as gay, and perceived to be gay could be the VC, could be such a beloved national figure, and could be mourned in the way that people seem to be mourning his abrupt departure.

    So it’s not the details of his private life i’m interested in, he was intensely private and we should respect that. its the fact that he certainly in the public view represented this supposedly despised minority, and he felt no need to pretend otherwise by pretending to marry a woman etc as others have. I’m sure he was aware of how he was perceived but he clearly didn’t feel threatened or otherwise obliged to kowtow to public morality. He didn’t unlike PJ feel he had to go on public radio and declare that his credentials as a heterosexual were impeccable and so on.

    i think these are very pertinent to any discussion of Ja as a ‘homophobic’ country (I’m deferring to you here Stero) which the other Anonymous’s comment certainly underscores–

  12. Annie, this is a very enlightening interview. I particularly liked the photographs, especially the one taken in 1967. That was Rex as I first saw him dancing at Ward Theatre in Ivy Baxter’s dance group.

    Thanks for sharing this invaluable information.


  13. Yvonne,

    Welcome to my blog! and thanks, yes, the photos are so lovely, the young Rex…

    so he was in Baxter’s group then? we don’t hear enough about that period. you must tell me more…or write about it.

  14. Yes, Rex was in Ivy Baxter’s group along with Eddy Thomas, Clive Thompson, and Joyce Campbell by my recollection.

    When I was growing up, I wanted to attend dance classes very badly. For years I regretted being sent to music lessons instead, but I now realise that I would probably not have fitted in so well in the available dance classes of the era. These classes were held at Madame Soohih’s studio in Half-Way Tree – close to where we now have the bus park. She was Russian, and I think her husband Anatoly Soohih(also a dancer) had died by the time I knew about her. Madame Soohih taught classical ballet, and her students were generally the more affluent and light skinned.

    The only formal dance classes open to me at the time were at St Hilda’s, my boarding school. In those colonial days we were offered Scottish jigs, Irish reels, and English country dancing. So watching the Ivy Baxter dance group was an unimaginable treat for me in the 1950s. Miss Ivy fused the classical forms with Jamaican folk dances.

    Interestingly, another of my sharp memories of Rex also links him to dance. He visited Ghana when I lived there, and we met at a durbar festival in Aburi. Rex was noting the drumming and the dancing that I recognised when I saw it over many seasons as part of the NDTC repertoire.

    Yes, I need to write about some of the history of that period. Thanks for the suggestion.

  15. Professor Rex Nettleford, former UWI vice-chancellor believed too much time was being spent on an issue which ran the risk of detracting from productive endeavours in the society.

    “I think there are far more things to worry about in this country in terms of mutual respect, and self-respect and finding a place and a purpose rather than spending so much time on this,” he said.

    Nettleford added: “A great many productive people throughout the world are supposed to have that (homosexual) preference. What is the big thing? The wasting of time on the discussion is what will deflect us from (other important issues)… We certainly don’t stone our adulterers—and we have them aplenty.”

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