One Region
February 5, 2010

Dancing to Caribbean Drums: An Appreciation of the life of Rex Nettleford

This commentary is being written in the first blush of the news that Rex Nettleford has died. A profound and deep sense of loss overcame me, and I have no doubt enveloped many throughout the Caribbean, including those who did not know him personally. What everyone understands – those who knew him personally and those who didn’t – is that he was a Caribbean champion; a man who fervently believed in the worth of the term, “Caribbean person” and gave it both intellectual meaning and depiction.{{more}}

The entire Caribbean knows, in the inner place that is our Caribbean soul, that, with Nettleford’s passing, the region has lost an essence – an essential ingredient of our own validation as a Caribbean civilization – that was unique and is irreplaceable.

Rex Nettleford simply made Caribbean people more assured of themselves; more comfortable in their skins of whatever colour; and more confident that, despite the fact that they are a transplanted people, they had established a unique cultural identity equal to any in the world.

Nettleford was a Jamaican, but he was Caribbean, too. As he said: “The typical West Indian is part-African, part-European, part-Asian, part-Native American, but totally Caribbean”. He developed the point by saying: “The texture of character and the sophistication of sense and sensibility engaging the Planet’s systemic contradictions were ironically colonialism’s benefits for a couple of generations in the West Indies. In dealing with the dilemma of difference manifested in the ability to assert without rancor, to draw on a sense of rightness without hubris, to remain human (e) in the face of persistent obscenities that plague the human condition, all such attributes in turn served to endow the Caribbean man with the conviction that Planet Earth is, in the end, one world to share”.

He drew on that reality and his fervent belief in it to serve not only multi-ethnic Jamaica, but the wider multi-ethnic, multi-religious Caribbean, and to be a respected regional representative on the world’s stage including on the Executive Board of the United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

All who knew him in his several incarnations at the University of the West Indies, as Professor, as Vice Chancellor and as emeritus Vice Chancellor, will testify to his great erudition; his capacity to argue passionately and convincingly; and to the breadth of his knowledge.

I recall well one such international outing when at a biennial meeting of foreign ministers from the UK and the Caribbean, he represented the University of the West Indies in a discussion of the role of education in Caribbean development. I led a delegation from Antigua and Barbuda that included the late Leonard Tim Hector, himself an educator and historian. The discussion on the role of education in development was dominated by Nettleford and Hector, and somewhere in the British archives of that meeting held in London is the verbatim record of their enthralling presentations. It was a discussion conducted without a note by the two main speakers, and none who heard it could fail to be impressed by the quality and force of the arguments. But, they did a major service to Caribbean scholars. The Chevening Scholarship resulted from it, and annually Caribbean students journey to the UK for post-graduate work.

From his overarching position as Vice Chancellor of UWI, Nettleford knew, in his own words, that “the world is changing as if in a contest with the speed of light” and UWI had to produce skills “so that its graduates can find firm place and sustained purpose in the ‘knowledge society’ of the third millennium, even while maintaining standards and delivering education of excellence”. “The challenges of politics, economics, social development in the new global situation”, he said, “demanded no less”.

It was a task to which he set his hand with determination as the University’s principal officer. But, he also knew, as he put it, that the University had “to place great emphasis on the exercise of the creative attributes of the mind”. The University had to produce the skills that would make the Caribbean competitive in the global economy, but it had the ongoing responsibility, too, of nurturing thinkers, ideas-people, innovators – Caribbean people who, from the richness of their own cohabitation and intermingling, could contribute to domestic and global thinking on religious tolerance, international relations, ending racism, and solving conflicts.

Students from every Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) country encountered Nettleford in one or other of his many roles in the University for decades. They were inspired and motivated by him, and they admired him greatly. Therefore, it is not surprising that Caribbean people – in their separate states with their national flags and national anthems – are united in their sense of loss – a sense that the essence of the region’s single Caribbean soul is yet again diminished.

Rex Nettleford is to Caribbean cultural identity what Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal, Alister McIntryre and the late William Demas are to the Caribbean’s political and economic identity as a region and in the region’s interaction with the global community. He belongs to a select group of Caribbean visionaries who the region’s people know without doubt championed them selflessly and faithfully and validated them in the world.

In the rebuilding of Haitian society – occasioned by the massive physical destruction of Haiti by last January’s earthquake – Rex Nettleford would have been a perfect resource for CARICOM’s P J Patterson, Jamaica’s former Prime Minister, as he leads the regional argument not only for the rebuilding of Haiti, but also for the restoration of Haitian society socially, culturally and politically.

Nettelford was a dancer and choreographer – two disciplines he personally enjoyed and in which his creativity gave enjoyment to audiences throughout the Caribbean. In these disciplines, he danced to many drums and he was spectacular in his performance. But, it is in the dance to the drums of his Caribbean life that he is a motivating force – Jamaican he was by birth and commitment, but Caribbean he also was by intellectual understanding, cultural recognition, and passionate embrace.

It would be to the Caribbean’s lasting benefit if from the shared sense of loss felt throughout the region, there could be a sustained revival of the drums of Caribbean union to which Rex Nettleford danced in his lifetime.

Sir Ronald Sanders is a business consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.
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