Rex Nettleford: a king among men

He was known throughout the region and beyond as a scholar, dancer, teacher, and a Caribbean man. Rex Nettleford remembered, by his friend and colleagues

  • Conducting a rehearsal in the 1980s. Photograph courtesy Maria LaYacona
  • A 1964 portrait. Photograph courtesy Maria LaYacona
  • Nettleford (centre) in a 1971 performance of Kumina. Photograph courtesy Maria LaYacona
  • NDTC dancers in Arsenio Andrade`s Afro-Cuban dance-work Congo Laye. Photograph courtesy Maria LaYacona
  • Rex Nettleford. Photograph courtesy Maria LaYacona
  • Nettleford in recent years. Photograph courtesy Maria LaYacona

An ordinary man of extraordinary accomplishments – that was Rex Nettleford. An extraordinary man of ordinary life and circumstances – that also was Rex Nettleford. Either way one thinks of him, he was both ordinary and extraordinary.

Trelawny, where he was born, was once a thriving sugar-plantation parish in western Jamaica, whose capital, Falmouth, was the island’s busiest shipping port when sugar was king. Trelawny was also the parish most renowned for Baptist activity in the pre- and post-Emancipation periods. The church, built by William Knibb, one of the anti-slavery preachers, is now a heritage site in Falmouth, itself also a Unesco-declared heritage town. And all over the parish are free villages first settled by the former slaves under Baptist sponsorship: Martha Brae, Kettering, Alps, Clarke’s Town, Granville.

Bunker’s Hill, where Rex was born in 1933, was not one of those, but the Baptist influence was strong, particularly its native variety, with its undisguised stamp of Africa in worship and beliefs. He would reminisce about his childhood experience of attending the Anglican Church on Sunday mornings and then accompanying his grandmother to the Revival meetings on Sunday nights, where he would see people “trump”. Here he would imitate the hyperventilating that they call “trumping” when labouring in the throes of spirit possession. Rex was proud of the fact that he came from out of the bowels of the people. It gave him authenticity, so that when in his speeches and writings he would refer to “those of us who came from the cane piece”, or to “the likes of us”, he was claiming not only connectedness with his audience and readership, but also the truth-power of whatever point he was making. He would be always making a point with such remarks, for he was never one to valorise the cane piece, or the melanin, for that matter. What mattered to Rex was what one made of the experience of the cane piece – whether one remained mired in it or summoned the strength and resilience to transcend it; and the same with the condition of being of black African descent – whether one made it a mark of inferiority or superiority or a mark of the equality in diversity of humanity.
So, taking the ordinariness of growing up in a hillside farming community, in a parish divided into cane pieces and great houses, Rex wove a tapestry of extraordinary texture (texture was another favourite word of his) that still baffles many of us. For one thing, he knew that the social division was at the same time a social integration; that the fate of one was inextricably linked to the fate of the other. No big insight, that, perhaps, but consequentially it made him see the act of Emancipation not from the point of view of the enslaved alone, but from the point of view of the enslaver as well. Emancipation, he would remark, freed both the jailed and the jailer. Again, to many this may seem a clever witticism and nothing more. But, when one thinks about it, if the condition of chattel slavery debased the humanity of the enslaved, it must have also debased the humanity of the enslaver. If, therefore, Emancipation gave the descendants of the Africans the opportunity for self-actualisation and empowerment as free agents, it must have also offered to the descendants of the Europeans the opportunity to realise the humanity denied them by their own act of dehumanising another part of that humanity. What they did with it is another matter.
By framing the discourse on slavery and Emancipation in this way, Rex resisted one-sidedness. He was neither pro-Africa and anti-Europe nor pro-Europe and anti-Africa. To him we were both Europe and Africa but at the same time neither. Recognising the role of Asia in the whole mix since post-Emancipation times, he loved to describe us as being part European, part African, part Asian, but totally Caribbean, or describe the Caribbean as that place where Europe met Africa and Asia on foreign soil. Sometimes he substituted “Amerindian” for “foreign”.

Again, some may see in this only another witticism, and thus fail to realise its import. Is our identity as Caribbean a goulash of ingredients from the three continents and chain of islands? What is it? How can we talk about a Caribbean identity in an environment laced with racial and colour prejudices and stereotypes?

The questions were not straightforward or simple. Neither were the answers that he sought. Of two things he was most convinced. One was the complexity of the issue and the other the centrality of culture in our identity. To him there was no escaping race and colour in how we think about ourselves, but the issue was what place to assign them. A keen student of Caribbean history, who studied under both Elsa Goveia and Roy Augier before leaving for Oxford in 1957, Nettleford’s first broad brushstroke was to insist on the African presence in the making and defining of the Caribbean. This was the starting point. That presence was not one of mere numbers, but one that gave shape and purpose to the kind of society we were building. He saw in those descendants of the Africans, including himself, a people too sophisticated to be racist, he would remark, but not so silly as not to be race-conscious. With such confidence in self, they knew how to and did make welcoming room for all others who were to come after, whether from Asia or the Middle East or from Africa itself.

That, however, was not the end of the matter. Europe remained a contending force in the shaping of the identity of the African in the Caribbean, but because Europe was white and Africa black, there was a particular challenge in understanding the terms on which a self-confident, non-racist and open people could embrace an identity that was part Europe. This was where he introduced the notion of ambiguity.

Late in the 1960s Nettleford wrote an essay which he titled “The Melody of Europe, the Rhythm of Africa: But Every John Crow Tink Him Pickney White”. It was published in 1970 in his first book, Mirror, Mirror: Race, Identity and Protest in Jamaica. I must confess to having read or referred to this particular essay many times before really grasping his central insight that in Jamaica back then, black racial identity was a fluid, negotiated affirmation of self within shifting contexts of colour and social status. In seeking to describe it, the scholar is thus confronted with contradictions, paradoxes and ambiguities, hence the need for deploying metaphors (as in the subtitle) and oxymoron (as in the first sentence of the essay: “The blurred focus of the Jamaican’s perception of himself frequently invites metaphors for description”).
Hence the need also for turning to the literary and performing arts, through which to grasp the ungraspable and catch the ambiguous. There is much, he argued, to learn from Caribbean literary artists like Claude McKay, Roger Mais, George Lamming, Louise Bennett, John Hearne and Kamau Brathwaite, who used their creative imagination to explore the ambiguity of an identity that is neither Europe nor Africa, but is both Europe and Africa, “the two together interacting into a powerful other dimension and reinforced by newer elements operating in the service of our present”.

The role of the arts in defining the culture and identity of a people who overcame the obscenities of slavery and were battling for their own space was to remain a central theme throughout his intellectual career, in his writings, speeches and representation in Paris, New York, London and Toronto, not to mention the Caribbean itself. In Caribbean Culture and Identity: The Case of Jamaica (1979) he emphasised the importance of building and nurturing cultural institutions that give form and purpose to the creative imagination. He then deepened the discussion in Inward Stretch, Outward Reach: A Voice from the Caribbean (1992), a collection of essays in which he clarified the open, crossroad nature of the Caribbean and the role of the arts in resisting the threats to our identity. And in between he moved dance onto the centre stage of intellectual discourse in Dance Jamaica: Cultural Definition and Artistic Discovery (1985), covering the first 20 years of the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), a remarkable national institution nurtured on volunteerism, artistic relevance and excellence.

Dancer and choreographer Monica Lawrence explains that Nettleford “like Legba, Eshu and Anansi, understands the complexity of all things human as he stands at the crossroads of Jamaica, Caribbean, African and European culture”. She describes him as mastering what Europe had to offer by way of education and language and using the prestige that these brought to gain legitimacy for the African song and dance aesthetic that he saw as central to a Jamaican national cultural identity. In his choreography he translated and presented to a national audience ancestral rituals of transition and mourning, mask and spiritual empowerment and celebration that reveal the cosmology of a people willing their communal survival and integrity and laying the foundations of national identity.

This is why Rex threw himself fully into the NDTC, which he co-founded with Eddie Thomas. He regarded the body, its feelings and expression as that aspect of the person over which one had ultimate personal control. Even under chattel slavery, the master lacked total control and could not prevent the body language, dance expressions and movements from becoming ways of self- and community-affirmation and rebellion.

The NDTC became Rex’s second home, the university being his first. Right up to the time of his death, when he wasn’t travelling he followed a predictable routine. His day, including holidays, began at his Mona campus office from as early as 5 or 6 am, researching, writing, making and answering calls, receiving visitors, including students; then home in the afternoon for lunch and rest before going to the dance studio, where he would be teaching or choreographing or rehearsing. He was the NDTC’s artistic director. By 9 or 10 pm he could be found in bed reading or going over a manuscript, while simultaneously listening to CNN (whence his famous “CNN-isation of consciousness”). By the time his day ended he would have put in 17 or 18 hours. He never took vacation, but once told me that he used travelling to rest. But I know for a fact that he also used travelling, whether on BWIA or Air Jamaica, on whose board he served for many years, to read. Both his bedroom and his office were strewn with books, journals and magazines. He subscribed to the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books and found time, when abroad, to clip and send newspaper articles that he thought of interest to many of his colleagues at Mona.
As Rex’s reputation grew both at home and abroad, he was constantly in demand, giving keynote speeches at conferences and convocations or eulogising some important leader. He drafted all his speeches himself on his old electric typewriter before editing and giving them to Miss Morgan, his personal assistant, to finalise. He was one of the Caribbean’s best examples of a “man of words”, mesmerising people with the trilling cascade of phrases and breathtaking Ciceronian sentences, for which, even if they did not fully comprehend, they loved him.

His audiences trusted him, because they could easily recognise the truth-power of his wit. Phrases of his like “the creative imagination” and “sense and sensibilities” have begun to creep into the vocabulary of many of those he influenced. Someone once objected to the superfluity of the former phrase, arguing that the imagination is already by its nature creative. But Rex, keenly aware of the power of that faculty to conjure up and promote destructive and retrogressive acts, wished to emphasise, instead, the role of the imagination in our survival as a people and the crafting of a new civilisation in an important crossroad of the modern world.

Two other vintage Rexonian phrases are “the coarsening of our sensibilities” and “those of us who tenant Planet Earth”. The first bemoans the loss of refinement in the way we treat one another and is linked to another favourite of his: “A butu in a Benz is still a butu” – “butu” being the Jamaican vernacular for someone uncouth and coarse. The second makes both a political and ecological point, namely that none of us, neither individual nor collective, own the earth – our tenancy is not eternal. A fourth, “We are all smaddy” [somebody], underscores the intrinsic worth of the individual, regardless of social or economic circumstance.

Rex, the man of words, used wit to convey truth. Here are some examples: “If we don’t hang together we will surely hang separately” – to express his deep conviction of the need for Caribbean co-operation and unity, and linked also to “We are all we have”; “You should always play to people’s strengths, not their weaknesses” – his way not only of learning to live with everyone, but also of bringing out the best in the worst of us; “We are good at sprinting but not so good at long-distance running” – his criticism of what he saw as a flaw in our national character. He detested what he called “minstrelsy”, that is, mindless performance; performance for mere show, and “weapons of mass distraction”, the perverse use of the international media to shift attention to all but the essential.
Few, if any, of his colleagues were taken by surprise when Oriel, his old college at Oxford, made him an honorary fellow in 1998; when Oxford University itself, in celebrating the centenary of the Rhodes scholarship, included Rex in a select group of four out of the hundreds of living Rhodes Scholars across the world on each of whom to bestow an honorary doctorate, introducing him as omnium Musarum homo (man of all the Muses) in 2003; and when the Rhodes Trust established a fellowship in cultural studies named in his honour and tenable at his own University of the West Indies, also in 2003.

It is really quite amazing to think that a man of such extraordinary accomplishments actually lived among us, walked barefoot as a boy; that his was the only gate on Marley Road in Kingston always wide open, day or night; that he became Vice Chancellor of the UWI and drove a red Toyota Camry; that he loved to cook saltfish and callaloo and addressed the United Nations; that he did his own shopping at Hi-Lo Supermarket in Liguanea and sat in the councils of Unesco in Paris; that he danced on the stage and received honorary degrees from 18 universities; that he drank chicken soup served by Mrs Warren and received regular calls from prime ministers; that he loved us all and is now an urn of ashes buried in the gardens of the university chapel at Mona.