Jan Carew: the gentle revolutionary
Arts on Sunday
by Al Creigton
May 5, 2002
Articles on the arts
Jan Carew is a novelist, anti-colonial activist and thinker who has been described as "the founding father of Britain's black power movement." In this capacity, he edited and published the paper Magnet. Carew has published works of fiction with a notable focus on the Guyanese heritage. He is best known for the novel Black Midas, but has other publications including The Wild Coast, the Amerindian tales Children of the Sun and Amalivaca, as well as a number of poems.
In January, 2002, the Guyanese-born Jan Carew was bonoured by the Institute of Race Relations in London, who published a book, The Gentle Revolutionary: Essays in Honour of Jan Carew, edited by Joy Gleason Carew and Hazel Waters. Although he has lived for a long time in the USA where he was a member of North Western University, the Institute recognizes his contribution to race relations, his activities in Britain and his work generally. Although not as acclaimed as CLR James, the nature of his thoughts and writings makes him a kindred spirit to that great Trinidadian, who has previously been similarly honoured by other institutions.
The Gentle Revolutionary is a special issue of the Race Relations Institute's journal, Race and Class, January, 2002, entirely dedicated to Carew. It includes articles, essays and tributes from writers and others described by the journal as having been "influenced by Carew's contribution to movements in Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, the US and Europe." Among the contributors are well known novelists Dennis Brutus, 1989 Guyana Prize Winner, Roy Heath, leading critics, Ken Ramchand and Frank Birbalsingh, who have both been Guyana Prize judges, and others including Cecil Foster, Clinton Cox, and Nancy Singham. These writers, in their contributions, emphasize the part played by Carew, which some of them see as "unique," in the literature of different regions. According to them, he has helped to create "an indigenous Caribbean literature;" he has also contributed to "the construction of black identity in Canada;" and has been involved in "chronicling the history of pre-Colombian America." There is also a major tribute written by the Director of the Institute, A Sivanandan, who writes of Carew as a "Renaissance man." His citation sums up the author's major preoccupations, a focus of his writing and activities and why the Institute felt that he deserves to be honoured.
"Once in a while, a man or woman comes along who epitomises the best of the worst of times - and shines out like a beacon to signal us to the further shores of hope. Jan Carew is one of them. Born at a time when empire was at its height and growing up when the pus of racism was seeping out from the sores of capital, Jan heralded and helped to shape the cultural revolution against colonialism and racism in poetry, painting, polemic and play. A wandering minstrel uprooted and cast abroad by the imperial imperative, he rooted himself wherever he was in the struggles of the people around him. And he was in many places, wearing many faces, but always in the same cause: freedom for the oppressed and downtrodden - teaching, writing, broadcasting, engaging with mighty men and women such as Malcolm X and Claudia Jones, Cheddi Jagan and Kwame Nkrumah, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes."
It is a brief summary of Carew's career, which took him, like so many other writers, to the UK, to Canada, to the USA and elsewhere. The dramatic role he played in the "same cause" of liberation for the disadvantaged is put over by Sivanandan as "a wandering minstrel uprooted and cast abroad by the imperial imperative." He sometimes travelled to places because he was moved to do so by the commitment he had to resist imperialism. For example, he visited Grenada to work with the Maurice Bishop administration after the ousting of Eric Gairy in 1979. This same sensibility endeared him to Marxism and black liberation. Yet Carew's career has been little different from those of other writers of his generation. Involved in their concerns are the issues of migration along with the concept of 'exile' in Caribbean literature, and the many revisits to the native lands of the writers through the preoccupations in their fiction and poetry. Carew immortalizes the great legends of the Guyanese porkknockers in the novel for which he is best known, Black Midas, reprinted by the Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series. He has most recently been rewriting in his own way, Amerindian mythology as contained in legends published by the Guyana Book Foundation and distributed to schools in a project led by Leila Jagdeo.
In both the novel and the Amerindian tales, this author exhibits the way history may become legend or folklore and both may become myth. It also happens that mythology expresses itself in legends and in folklore. This kind of passage made by history is demonstrated in Black Midas which fictionalizes the story of Ocean Shark, the legendary porkknocker who strikes it rich in the gold fields only to squander all in grandiose displays of ostentatious excesses when he returns to Georgetown. It is the way of all porkknockers, also dramatized by Harold Bascom in Makantali, the 1996 winner of the Guyana Prize for Drama. The novel is narrated by a persona who is able to look back at the folly of this behaviour of the past, thus allowing a certain amount of moralizing and mature reflection. The Amerindian tales treated by Carew have been told many times before, but he puts them into his own brand of fiction and is not faithful to any one version. My own research into his sources reveals two things: that he mixes them and adds his own inventions; and that somewhere there is a notion that we are confronting not myth, but history. Children of the Sun is a mixed version of the story of Pia, the good influence concerned about his people's welfare, and his self-seeking twin brother, Makunaima, perpetrator of evil and destruction. Amalivaca is the tale of another benevolent demi-deity, leader and teacher of his people, but there is evidence that in some localities (the Pomeroon and the Rupununi) his actual existence as a man on earth is recorded. The honour to Jan Carew recalls similar tributes to other Guyanese writers. His compatriot Wilson Harris' 80th birthday was widely celebrated in international conferences in Europe and in a book edited by Hena Maes Jelinek in 2001. This followed previous books including one edited by Michael Gilkes and a special issue of the journal Callalou. Roy Heath was also recently honoured, as was David Dabydeen in a publication on The Art of David Dabydeen, and Martin Carter in Stewart Brown's All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter.
The Gentle Revolutionary: Essays in honour of Jan Carew is available from The Institute of Race Relations, 2 Leeke Street, London, WC1X 9HS, UK at US$9 or 6 pounds sterling.