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.

The MG Smith Conference etc

Well, the ACS 2008 Crossroads conference has finally come and gone like a tsunami that rolled ashore, lifting us off our feet and depositing us back on terra firma gasping for air as it eventually receded this Monday. At its peak the Cultural Studies conference featured 20 concurrent panels or sessions, and you had to be the most dedicated, strategic, panel surfer to experience more than a smidgeon of the entire programme.

The packed few days of the conference, from July 3-7, brought more than 400 academics from all over the world to the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI). And UWI, caught like a matron in the middle of an elaborate facial while preparing for her main event–the university’s 60th anniversary celebrations that kick off on July 12th—was her charming, gracious self, wowing visitors with her flamboyant natural beauty now enhanced by the brilliant new colours the buildings are being painted.

I view the repainting of the campus as a significant step in the repositioning of the University in the 21st century. Perhaps I’m oversensitive to colours, perhaps its my coolietude, but I don’t see why we should be so committed to what I think of as boring, institutional colours like off-white, beige and gray. UWI Press was the first to buck this trend a few years ago when it painted its new building burnt sienna. I’m told the University Buildings Committee had a collective apoplectic fit but was effectively faced down by Linda Speth, the no-nonsense director of the Press.

The Buildings Committee must have undergone a transfusion of new members since then because the Main Library has just been painted shades of turquoise. I absolutely love it but seem to be in the minority—I’m told that one colleague who otherwise champions the people dem culture demanded to know why the library was being painted “inner city blue”. I sincerely hope those responsible will remain steadfast and not water down the new colour scheme; the turquoise library nestled in the lap of the green hills beyond it looks like a gem. Look at this picture and decide for yourselves.


Back to the theme of this blog which is conferences. Academic conferences to be precise. I’ve been on a conference rollercoaster since February this year. The most memorable one was the collaboration between the University of Technology (UTech) and the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in producing a conference on “Caribbean Modernist Architecture”. Held at the magnificent Jamaica Conference Centre downtown the symposium brought together architects, curators and historians of architecture from fourteen countries. The fees were steep and I wasn’t able to attend more than one or two sessions but it was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended locally.

To hear architects from the region talking about the trajectory modern architecture took in their respective countries was stimulating. In Venezuela interdisciplinary design and research were important and modern art—the work of artists such as Vassarely, Calder and Jean Arp—was used to complement the built environment. In Mexico architects were preoccupied with a series of responses to the question of how to come up with a Mexican nationalist architecture. In Puerto Rico there was “no history but a monumental void” and so military bases became the first sites of modernist architecture and aesthetic advancement.


In June the Centre for Caribbean Thought organized a small conference in honour of MG Smith, which started off with a no-holds barred address by Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University. MG was an eminent Jamaican sociologist and poet who taught at UWI, Yale University, UCLA and University College in London during the course of his lifetime. Smith gained a reputation for his work on corporation theory, pluralism and plural societies (of which he thought Jamaica was one). As a poet Smith was a member of the ‘Drumblair’ group of writers, poets and dramatists who revolved around the Manley household. Smith was particularly close to Edna Manley who ran what amounted to a ‘salon’ in pre-independence Jamaica.

Patterson, who had worked at UWI with MG in the early days openly stated his differences with Smith declaring that as a social theorist he had been a failure. There was he recalled “endless bickering” over pluralism and the taxonomy Smith employed was patently inadequate. In any case according to Patterson “West Indian societies are clearly heterogeneous,” something that would not have been obvious to Smith whose problem was that he viewed West Indian society from an “upper class perspective.”

According to Patterson Smith “should have checked out more carefully those of us who were upwardly mobile…25 years after being born in the bush I was teaching at the London School of Economics. Thirty years later I was offered a position at Harvard.” So “it simply wasn’t true that there were core institutional divisions” between Blacks, Whites and Browns as Smith’s plural society thesis posited.

Incidentally there are scholars who disagree with this view; In an article titled “The Permanence of Pluralism” Columbia University-based postcolonial theorist David Scott (also Jamaican) argued in the wake of the 1998 Zekes Riots that “the ghost of MG Smith is haunting the landscape of the Jamaican political modern”. Meaning that the total breakdown of any pretence at social cohesion, leading to the profound crisis Jamaican society finds itself in today, could have been predicted by MG Smith with his thesis that the population of Jamaica “constituted a plural society, that is a society divided into sections, each of which practiced different cultures.”


Patterson looked to Smith’s personal life for clues to the inadequacies of his social theory. Born to a white English-born father and a ‘coloured’ mother who died in childbirth (a pity, Patterson pointed out, as MG would have benefited from knowing her family and perhaps even produced different, better informed work) Smith was sent to JC as a child where he was subjected to ‘sadistic canings’. “Smith in fact was brought up by a corporation—I think this has major implications later on” said Patterson going on to talk of MG’s unusual relationship with Edna Manley, the mother of his schoolmate Michael, whom he was “immediately smitten by.”

This was the part where the prim and proper audience, completely unused to such candid disclosures, especially in the august enclave of UWI’s undercroft, started to squirm in its seats, as Patterson dwelt at length on the putative “consummation” of this unorthodox relationship between a young man and an older woman. If Mark (“In Praise of Younger Women”) Wignall thought that having a younger lover was a privilege reserved for older males he better think again. Many a woman could write paeans in praise of younger men too.

Having delivered himself of MG’s various shortcomings Patterson acknowledged that despite this there was a “great deal that was justifiable about this conference”. Smith had been a world-class historical sociologist whose early work on the Fulanis of Nigeria and his study of community organizations in rural Jamaica were timeless classics. MG was a meticulous fieldworker whose ethnohistories were “meticulous excavations”. His best work according to Patterson was done when he wasn’t obsessed with theorizing; the problem arose when he imposed corporatist theory on his findings.

Patterson’s thorough and honest examination of MG Smith’s work and life may have raised a few hackles but it set off several impassioned, contentious and useful conversations over the next couple of days among the social and cultural theorists gathered at Mona. The highlight though was Rachel Manley’s talk (at the opening of the library exhibit on MG Smith) called “The Mike Smith I Knew” which turned out in effect to be a gracefully executed rescue of her grandmother Edna (or Mardi as she called her) and Mike, someone who had nurtured in Rachel a love of poetry.

Consummation and consumption were preoccupations of the present said Rachel, but not of the 50s and 60s, when the friendship between her grandmother and Mike would have been at its height. She had no idea whether they had had an affair or not; if it had happened it was without her knowledge and frankly she didn’t care. What she did know was that that was “a time when you consummated independence for an island…that was the romance of the time.”

Mardi, she declared, was a magnetic woman. She flirted with everything, she flirted with Jamaica. All the young poets and artists of the Drumblair group were in love with her. But Mike’s poems and Mardi’s art—those were the consummations.

It was a consummate performance on Rachel’s part, casually delivered, without a hint of the agitation that must have been behind it. Her talk illuminated the enigmatic man in whose honour this conference was being held and brought him to life for us. The next day we went back to the tendentious business of dissecting the body of his work. One thing is for sure–whether MG Smith’s framework of social and cultural pluralism has any validity today or not, he was integrally involved in the labour of building theory, of developing conceptual frameworks, valuable academic tasks that alas, seem to have been jettisoned from the agenda of social sciences at UWI over the years.

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