Dr. Fraser- Point of View
February 12, 2010
Professor the Hon Rex Nettleford, O.M., OCC, F.I.J – Vice Chancellor Emeritus (UWI) – an Appreciation

The Funeral service for the late Professor Nettleford will be held at the Mona Chapel, Jamaica, next Tuesday, February 16. Although this location will pose challenges in light of the number of persons from throughout the Caribbean who would like to attend, it is fitting that he should be buried at the University Chapel, having spent most of his life at the University as student and lecturer/administrator.{{more}}

Nettleford is Jamaican but very much a Caribbean man, described by most as a ‘Quintessential Caribbean Man’. He was a well rounded man who as former Minister of Education in Jamaica, Maxine Henry – Wilson, described him,”…covered a span of experiences and intellectual fields”. He was scholar, social and cultural historian, political analyst, choreographer, adviser. He served on a multitude of international bodies contributing in the area of development and intercultural learning among others.

He was a founding Governor of the International Development and Research Centre (Canada); a former member of the Executive Board of UNESCO; served as consultant to UNESCO and the OAS on cultural development. He was one of a group of experts who monitored the implementation of sanctions against Apartheid. I can continue naming other international bodies that he served but have listed a few to provide an idea of the range of his involvements. He also received Honorary doctorates and other awards from Universities and other bodies throughout the world, (when I last counted them in 2008, they were seventeen), among them Oxford University, the University of Toronto, Queens University (Canada), the Universite des Antilles et de la Guyane (UAG-French West Indies and Oriel College Oxford. He also received the Order of the Caribbean Community in 2008.

I indicated earlier that most of his adult life was associated with the University of the West Indies. His only period away from UWI was the time he spent at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and Oxford gave him the signal honour in 2004 of establishing the Rex Nettleford Prize in Cultural Studies tenable at the University of the West Indies. This was in honour of the Centenary celebrations of the Rhodes Trust.

I first met Rex Nettleford when I assumed the position of Resident Tutor at the Extra Mural Studies Department. Rex was then Director of Extra Mural Studies and my boss. We established then a relationship which continued until his death. He was invited to SVG to deliver the 10th Annual Independence Anniversary Lecture in 2008. It was the second time he had delivered Anniversary Independence Lectures, but he had been a frequent visitor to St.Vincent. In the period 1991 to 1997, as Director of Extra Mural Studies/ School of Continuing Studies he made annual visits to the countries which fell under his jurisdiction in order to lend support to the Resident Tutors and to develop an understanding of the work they were doing. I also had occasion to communicate with him at our Annual Staff meetings in Jamaica. He was an extraordinary individual who started work quite often at 4:30 am. In fact, during our visits to Jamaica we often had individual appointments with him when we discussed what was happening at our Centres and what our plans were. These appointments could start as early as 5 am.

Sometimes they were delayed because he had an appointment with some government official. In an article carried in the Jamaica Gleaner on the occasion of his receipt of the Caribbean Community award, mention was made of his love for Jamaican food, from mackerel, ackee and saltfish, stew peas, oxtail and callaloo. In a recent interview, one of his close friends, Professor Barry Chevannes spoke about his love for cooking. When I introduced him at his public lecture in 2008, I made note of the fact that he was a lover of our golden apples and on his frequent trips to this country always went to the market to purchase golden apples.

In the citation for his Caribbean Community Award the following was said about him, “The Region has shaped this extraordinary person. In turn he has helped to shape and project the Region so profoundly, as a professor, a dancer, a writer, a manager, an orator, a mentor, a critic, a household name, an international icon, a true Ambassador of the Caribbean, a quintessential Caribbean Man. For all these reasons and more, the Caribbean Community can do no less than to bestow on him, with its gratitude, the Order of the Caribbean Community…” In a recent article, “Royal Black: A tribute to Rex Nettleford,” Sir Hilary Beckles referred to him as an African Girot. Beckles wrote, “Rex made the crossing. The Caribbean cauldron did not consume him. Like the Jewish boys in Bablyon who survived the fiery furnace, he walked out the slave ship, stood tall and talked big. He was a shining star that guided generations to freedom and redemption. Like Toussaint, Rex was a gentle sage, an army in a man, whose mind filled and conquered the space he occupied. There was never a doubt what he was about. He was the jamaican myal man who accepted his allegiance to Obi, and who understood all too well that this fettered folk, scattered throughout the sugar cotton, coffee, and cocoa fields of a hostile hemisphere, were in his charge and that he had a spiritual duty to lead them.”

One cannot pay tribute to Rex without mention of his position as founder and Artistic Director of the Jamaican National Dance Theatre which has received international acclaim since its inception at the time of the independence of Jamaica in 1962. He was also closely involved with the University Singers of Jamaica, acting as Adviser. Rex is perhaps best recognised or remembered as an Orator. Those who have not read any of his many books and articles would no doubt have heard him speak, which he was called on to do in almost every Caribbean country and in other areas of the world. With reference to his oratorical skills the 2008 citation at the Caribbean Community award makes the following observation: “Few, very few indeed are endowed with Rex’ oratorical skills. We all marvel at the way he choreographs ideas as if they were a symphony of movement that, in his words, elevate ‘the creative imagination’ and our ‘sense and sensibilities.’ Who else can create an alliteration of the ‘uncultured’ by visioning that a ‘Bhutto in a Benz is still a bhuto.’”Rex Nettleford was truly an amazing man and the void that has been created by his death will be hard to fill. May his soul rest in peace!

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.