‘Can the world without anguish accept itself as part this, part that, part the other but totally human without one part of it trying to dominate the other? The idea of the Caribbean person being part-African, part-European, part-Asian, part-Native American but totally Caribbean is still a mystery to many in the North Atlantic which has been spoiled by the very hegemonic control it has had over empires and far-away real estate for half a millennium – and with the indulgences of a trade in slaves, slavery and colonialism acting in tandem.’ Nettleford- Speech to the United Nations, March 26, 2007- on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
‘For all of us who tenant the Americas are the creatures of that awesome process of ‘becoming’ consequent on the historic encounters between diverse cultures from both sides of the Atlantic in circumstances that, for all their negative manifestations, have forged tolerance out of hate and suspicion, unity within diversity, and peace out of conflict and hostility. The ongoing struggle by those who seek recognition and status in human terms demands from all with the gift of knowledge and insight, the commitment of self in the continuing development of humankind. For stronger than war, which dehumanizes, humiliates and destroys, is indeed the love of life.’ Nettleford.
The power to create and innovate remains the greatest guarantee of respect and recognition. Nettleford.
The first of August was celebrated as Emancipation Day in many former British colonies. Emancipation day is also celebrated in some areas of the United States though on different dates.
For the more historically conscious Caribbean person it is time of reflection.
Certain historical moments require us to look back in order to look forward, to understand the past in order to shape the future more consciously. And no one knew this more and sought to impress on us all the need to understand historical continuities in order to create a more just and democratic society than Professor Rex Nettleford.
The Anglophone Caribbean was merely a small piece of what was later referred to as the ‘New World’ but was initially tenanted by indigenous peoples dating back to the times of Ancient Egypt in many instances. Later, it became a significant part of the Spanish Empire and an even more important part of the British Empire in the Europeanization project which began in 1492 and culminated with its most consequential event, the some ‘four centuries of obscenities perpetrated in the pursuit of material gain, fueled by greed and the lust for power, and often under the guise of carrying out a civilizing mission said to be divinely ordained and even earlier sanctified by Papal edict’ to quote Nettleford in his speech to the UN on the 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade.
It is difficult to find a person who understood the effects of past obscenities on the Caribbean psyche, the general consequences of the historic encounters between diverse cultures from both sides of the Atlantic, the struggle of Caribbean peoples for intellectual and cultural independence and identity and who has done more about it than Professor Rex Nettleford. The past and the present are always intertwined, the past interfacing with the present in both good and bad ways.
Nettleford, born in February 1933 was educated in British schools in Jamaica, pursued a history degree at the University College of the West Indies (London University) before moving on to postgraduate studies in politics as a Rhodes Scholar, He returned to his country where he launched a public intellectual and artistic career whose effects reverberated throughout the Caribbean and its diasporas' communities. He died in February 2011 of a massive heart attack while in New York in order to participate in a United Nations meeting about the state of global racial discrimination.
Nettleford was a man of big ideas and one who was always rooted in the Caribbean experience and indigenous epistemologies. Because of this, he was able to use his cultural and scholarly achievements to make nonsense of those who harbor the belief that indigenous creative works of art are not the equal of western masterpieces.
His work as a dancer, choreographer and the arts generally were used to promote awareness of self, of social change and to celebrate the African presence in the shaping of the Caribbean ethos.
He always insisted that the ‘creative imagination lies beyond the reach of the vilest oppressor.’
Nettleford used the theatre as a tool of empowerment of the cultural expressions of the ordinary people of the Caribbean. He found meaning in the movement, vocabulary and aesthetics of the Afro-Caribbean syncretic religious expression. This explains why the Dance Company he formed, the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, has such worldwide acclaim.
His brilliance was known universally. Oxford University honored him on the Rhodes Centenary in 2003 as one of the four Rhodes Scholars worldwide to be so honored.
The loss, some eight years ago, of this colossal Caribbean cultural icon, genius of a dancer appropriately described as incandescent eagle, orator, critic, intellectual, academic leader, unapologetic regionalist, consultant to Caribbean governments and to numerous international agencies including the World Bank and OAS is no reason for us to forget his stalwart contributions and his lasting, unending legacy.
‘Man, you have seen a great tree put to the flame
How it roars up red as blood above the land
And nothing will stop the red and fiery tree
Until the red flames eat the tree-heart out
And then it dies, the good fire dies
But no dying can put the glory out.’ Ian McDonald