Relating among identities: An interview with Rex Nettleford
Stabroek News
April 6, 2003

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Professor Rex Nettleford, Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, was in Guyana recently to address the second lecture in the Distinguished Lecture Series sponsored by Caricom in the George Walcott Lecture Theatre of the University of Guyana on March 22, 2003. Professor Nettleford’s lifelong struggle has been for the decolonisation of the Caribbean spirit and imagination. He co-founded the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, and has been its artistic director since 1963. He founded the Trade Union Education Institute, and, as professor of Extramural Studies at UWI (Mona) he has worked assiduously to bridge the divide between the social classes. Stabroek News invited Dr Joyce Jonas to interview Professor Nettleford. Their edited conversation follows:

Stabroek News: Professor Nettleford, anyone listening to you talk would immediately sense an enthusiasm about the vast potential that exists here in the Caribbean. Perhaps we could start with the fact of our multicultural nature. Do you see it as a problem or as part of that potential? Do we indeed have a Caribbean culture, or is Wilson Harris right when he says “It’s community, not identity, that we need to seek”?

Rex Nettleford: I can understand what Harris is saying, and as a writer I expect him to do a play on words. But I wouldn’t dismiss identity. Identity has to be entailed by community. And the truth of the matter is that we in this region have learned to live together rather than side by side. I rather like the term tapestry, because in a tapestry you have the interweaving of all the different strands. Each strand has its own identity, but each individual strand makes sense only when it is in relationship through the weave with another strand. The job we have is to bring all the disparate strands together. Edouard Glissant, the Martiniquan poet, put it this way: he said that the people of the Caribbean have no myth of origin. What they have is a myth of relations.

SN: That’s really profound, isn’t it?

RN: Absolutely. And the fact is that because of communications’ technology the entire world has now become Creole whether we want it or not. The heterogeneous principle is there and the job is relating among these various identities. Television brings those other cultures right into our living rooms, so we are forced to consider how other people live, move and have their being.

SN: Does the Caribbean person have an advantage in this area?

RN: Most certainly. And we have to educate our people around the positives of our heterogeneity. One of our skills is code switching. We are able to live on different levels at different times. And that’s why the Caribbean person is such a good migrant. Because we know how to adjust, how to be sensitive, how to code switch. Part of education has to be dealing with our heterogeneity, because, as you know, in God’s house there are many mansions.

SN: You paint a positive picture of the potential in heterogeneity, but even as we speak, they’re fighting in Iraq. Internationally, we don’t seem to have gone far along the road to genuine pluralism and mutual respect.

RN: Indeed. Saddam Hussein is one religious fanatic, and George Bush is another—if anything, even more fanatical. Religion, of course, is another critical cultural index. Every civilisation feels that it has a hotline to the Creator. In fact it’s a part of our humanity. Though it’s always a dangerous thing to hold the notion that God is on my side and against the other fellow. In the Caribbean there’s been a creolization of religious cultures: pocomania and cumina in Jamaica, cumfa here in Guyana, shango in Trinidad, condomble in Brazil.

There’s the urge for people to be at one with their Creator. For the slave it was particularly useful because he could appeal to ‘some authority’ beyond the reach of the oppressor. Rastafarians have taken this to a new level: they not only say that Haile Selassie is God - their own messiah on earth in their own image - but that each one of us is divine, a piece of God. Now that’s a wonderful point of departure for a whole range of values like personhood, tolerance, mutual respect. Only this afternoon, somebody asked me if the Rastafari are racist, and I answer this way: The Rastifarians have demonstrated a phenomenon about us Caribbean people. Not having ever had power, they’re not racist. They’re not that unsophisticated to be racist, but they’re not that silly as not to be race conscious.

And that’s another aspect of the Caribbean person - that delicate balancing of sensibility where race is concerned. You, as a European, could be black, and I could be white - I mean they’d be terribly against me if I were a ‘roast breadfruit’ as they say in Jamaica - black on the outside and white on the inside. It all has to do with how you respect me, how you think. We’ve attained a level of sophistication that is uncanny. The Rastafarian movement has helped tremendously. In fact when I did work among the Rastafari back in the ‘60s, the two most popular people among them were two white gentlemen - an English barrister, Peter Evans was his name - and the other a white Jamaican - oh yes, because they were the people who believed in equality, whereas a black Monsignor was thrown out of their camp because he regarded them as heathen. It has taken on such a universalism because it is concerned with universal values - the brotherhood of man, respect, dignity and so on. Of course now you have a lot of designer dreads as I call them, and I’m not sure where they stand, but the fundamentals of the movement are very fine values indeed.

SN: Much of your life has been devoted to trade unionism and the education of working people. And you are also Chancellor of the University of the West Indies. What is your vision for a Caribbean university - not an ‘ivory tower,’ I’m sure.

RN: The only place I know where things come out of the void is in the book of Genesis. If we have a Caribbean university it must use all the best programmes and modalities of intellectual empowerment in the interest of the people it serves. For me, labour education comes naturally in the university. Remember that many of the subjects that are now taught at universities weren’t taught there until recently. So it’s the same process of change, and it’s a wonderful challenge. Think about it: the exploitation of labour - that’s a history that is capable of explanation and theory, and so for the university to engage in this is not a contradiction in terms.

SN: Mastery of Standard English is often a problem for our students. Should educators relax their insistence on Standard English?

RN: Look: I come from the cane fields, and my forebears were slaves. Until the age of 10 I spoke a very deep Jamaican dialect, among my peers and in my family. However, when I was speaking to someone in authority or in a formal situation, I spoke Standard English: I was bi-lingual, and English was taught me properly - not as my own language, but as another language to be learned. And that’s what missing. Kids are not being taught properly. I had a teacher at secondary school, who would go into the yard, pick up a sentence in Creolese, then he would render it in Standard English, and proceed to translate it first into French and then into Latin.

We don’t have teachers like that any more, and that’s part of the problem. It’s a worldwide problem. After all, Standard English is not the first language of the Cockney. I think we make too much of it. If you look at it more positively, language is just another example of our skill in code-switching. Like all of us, if I find that Standard English is not adequate for what I want to say, I switch to the basilect. Language presents a difficulty only because of the identity crisis. If you are Italian you speak Italian, if you are Spanish you speak Spanish, but to the Caribbean peoples there’s no Caribbean thing.

The truth of the matter, though, is that that in itself is an indication of how the world has changed. Any monolingual person now is at a disadvantage. Despite the fact that English is the language of international discourse, it pays to be multilingual. And, you know, a people will always create their own language. The Caribbean is a living laboratory of Creole languages. The important thing is not for Papiamento or Jamaica talk or French Creole or Taki-Taki to be officially recognized, but for each of us to become multilingual - that is what we should be pushing.

SN: I recall that West Indian writers of the ‘60s had a serious quarrel with having to use ‘Massa’s’ language - I’m thinking of Lamming primarily. And the early Walcott seemed to struggle over the agonizing fact that language ‘always/already’ contained and defined him in certain ways, but that paradoxically it also offered him release.

RN: Yes, language imprisons you, but it also liberates you. The remarkable thing is how our creative writers have been able to use the master’s language. They extend the language - they may mangle it, but they extend it and do all sorts of fantastic things with it. That’s the thing of the malleability of language. We can use parts of a language and invest it with other things: for example, we use our creativity to get a distinctive language with which we can communicate. And in fact we use the master’s language to conceal even as well as to elucidate! Language is not a problem. It’s an agenda item in the quest for self-discovery.

SN: You speak often of the need to be aware of the local culture, not just to import and impose alien development models.

RN: There are lots of things in industrial relations where you have to take into consideration the cultural background. Because of our own history of slavery, we are very individualistic; we commend a sense of personhood. You come as my boss, and if my spirit takes you, if you make me feel I’m somebody - I’ll do anything for you. We have this way of wanting to deal with the man at the top - and that too is rooted in Massa day. But it need not be bad. The employer has to organize another kind of system in which he delegates a little responsibility.

SN: It’s funny that our conversation has taken this turn. Before I came here to meet you, we were talking about the games children play. Kids in England play ‘Kings and Queens,’ kids in America play ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ When I asked if there was a Caribbean game that similarly expresses our cultural history, my daughter jokingly suggested ‘Police and T’ief.’

RN: But she’s right, she’s absolutely right. It’s good to know that because you can then deal with it. If you are the weak, pitted against the strong, then you feel you are justified in wrongdoing because there is a law for the Medes and one for the Persians. The Jamaican Minister of Education is now onto something called attitudes and values. Five years ago they laughed him out of court, but not now. Relationships are very personalized, and when a relationship hasn’t been built on trust, it will go nowhere. We’re very mistrustful, you know. Even in normal relationships there’s no trust. My grandmother used to tell me, “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” But that’s all wrong: both hands need to know because otherwise there will be no co-ordination. Similarly, society has to find modalities to deal with that mistrust - co-operatives for instance. Those are the kinds of structures that we need. You come together for a project and then you move on.

SN: You have been very much involved in Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company over the years. How important is art?

RN: Art was tremendously important to the slave. It took him beyond the reach of the oppressor. Giving rein to his creative imagination was in itself a kind of freedom. And it’s true in any society, let alone in one where freedom was actually denied. Personally I find it very interesting that dance and music have been such necessary art forms for us, because those two are really the product of instruments over which you have total control. The writers now use the master’s language, but even there it’s about control: they manipulate it. I may be using your language, but the tone, the accent, the rhythm are mine.

SN: Could you name one Caribbean person whom you hold in great esteem, and say why.

RN: There are so many. I don’t think I could single out just one. But there’s a type of Caribbean man or woman. Your Shridath Ramphal comes to mind, and Philip Sherlock, Nita Barrow in Barbados - those are the sort of icons that I see. The two Manleys in Jamaica, and I think CLR James’s greatness was because he was moulded in the Caribbean. He couldn’t be trapped in those narrow confines of Marxism. All those individuals are somehow larger than life. There’s a magnanimity of spirit, a capacity to cope with complexity. Multifaceted, textured, that’s the real Caribbean person.

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