The power to create and innovate remains the greatest guarantee of respect and recognition. (Nettleford Mirror 227)

Biography: The Formation of a Caribbean Intellectual

Image by Geoffrey_Philp/CC Licensed
Image by Geoffrey_Philp/CC Licensed

Rex Nettleford, a leading Caribbean intellectual visionary and renaissance figure, was born on February 3rd, 1933 in the rural town of Falmouth, Jamaica. Enveloped by the folklore of of Jamaica and the natural integration of music and movement in life, Nettleford cultivated an acute sensibility for the creative ingenuity and resilience evidenced in the collective intellect of the black rural community. His creative imagination was fostered by an immersion in the daily rhythms of country life. He also cultivated a keen appreciation for the dynamic process of creolisation as witnessed in diverse religious practices, eclectic music traditions, and resistant speech patterns. It is this quality of cultural tenacity on the part of the Afro-creolised populations that Nettleford holds in great esteem and which serves as the nodal point through which he formulates his ideas concerning Caribbean identity in its postcolonial formations.

Nettleford was educated in British schools in Jamaica. Trained first at the Cornwall College in Montego Bay, he went on to pursue 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 at Oxford University. After this, Nettleford returned to Jamaica because he never lost sight of his commitment to his native home and the promotion of its national vernacular culture (See also Ngugi wa Thiong’o). At a time when the country’s most talented and educated peoples were being siphoned off to fill the ivory towers and corporate offices in the metropolis, Nettleford returned to his island home and launched a public intellectual and artistic career whose effects reverberated throughout the Caribbean and its diasporic communities.

Many have argued that Rex Nettleford’s location as a “third-world”scholar, operating from the periphery of the Western academy, has hindered the international readership and acclaim of his works. But for Nettleford, the work of the “organic intellectual” begins at home, and thus his commitment is first and foremost “to the preparation of a citizenry ready for participation in the political, social and economic processes of its country” (Mirror 229). One of the tasks of the Caribbean and/or “third-world” postcolonial intellectual is to counter the judgment that indigenous creative works of art are not the equal of Western masterpieces (See Postcolonial Performance and Installation Art). The first means of accomplishing this task requires artists and writers to work in their native tongue and and to use indigenous epistemologies to examine cultural phenomena and processes that are the lived reality of Caribbean citizens. Nettleford’s Caribbean compatriots, Stuart Hall and Derek Walcott, also opened spaces for critical scholarship on the Caribbean and contributed significantly to the intellectual climate of diverse communities. However, their location in the metropolitan centers of North America and Britain afforded them access to a broader community of transnational postcolonial subjects, but it has also moved them away from the local articulations of nationhood, identity, and cultural development as experienced and negotiated in the Caribbean territories. Nettleford thus provides a voice from within the region that later became the source of dialogue for those in the metropolis.

Nettleford’s importance to the Caribbean and Caribbean nationals living across the globe derives from the fact that his master project has been the decolonization of the Caribbean spirit and imagination. His writings, lectures, and choreography reflect a profound conviction in the creative power of the peoples of the region, a power struggling to unleash itself from the conjunction of historical and neocolonial forces. In 1962, the year Jamaica gained independence from Britain, Nettleford co-founded the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC) in order to promote and create indigenous dance forms. As former professor of Extramural Studies at the University of the West Indies Mona, Jamaica, Nettleford directed the University’s Adult Education Programme, which afforded thousands of men and women throughout the Anglophone Caribbean access to higher education. As founder of the Trade Union Education Institute, through which factory and estate workers collaborated with academic scholars, Nettleford aimed to bridge the divide between the classes and bring theory in closer proximity to praxis. Nettleford’s scholastic achievements culminated with his 1998 appointment as Chancellor of the University of the West Indies.

In February, 2010, while in New York in order to participate in a United Nations meeting about the state of global racial discrimination, Nettleford died of a heart attack.

The hidden history of Jamaica is here seen as the history of the struggle of the African component to emerge from the subterranean caverns into which it has been forced.

(Nettleford, Mirror 194)

The Poetics and Politics of Caribbean Cultural Identity — The Works of Rex Nettleford

The centrality of the experiences of Caribbean peoples and their struggles for intellectual, cultural, and political independence has remained pivotal to Nettleford’s intellectual and artistic engagements over the past forty years. The seeds of his future articulations on Caribbean cultural identity were sown in his first acclaimed publication, Mirror, Mirror: Race, Identity and Protest in Jamaica (1970). Set in the turbulent context of the newly independent Jamaica of the 1960s, Nettleford holds a mirror up to Jamaican society and reveals the schizophrenic and ambivalent relation black Jamaicans have towards their identities as national subjects (See Frantz Fanon). Nettleford argued that the three critical variables of race, identity, and protest constitute a trinity that “closely interact[s] in the social evolution of contemporary Jamaica” (10), which he situates along a trajectory of lessons and legacies acquired from the time of Emancipation. The quest for identity forms a critical nexus around which the newly independent citizenry has tried to come to terms with the legacies of colonialism and the anxieties of self-governance. At the center of the anxiety is a psychic split between the cultural traces of a fragmentary African heritage that the overwhelming black majority inherited, and the simultaneous desire to renounce that heritage and identify with the cultural symbols of the white/brown ruling elite. The multiracial nationalist ethic is thus predicated on this dissonant state of inbetweenness and half-identification (21) and serves to keep the new nation in a constant state of schizophrenia. For Nettleford, Caribbean nationalisms all fall victim to this splintered sense of self because for the most part newly independent Caribbean countries have all bought into a hybrid, creolisation model that valorizes assimilation into a Euro-Creolized New World heritage and away from a historical antecedent of slavery and Africa (See Paul Gilroy). The mimicry of European cultural values and aesthetics is therefore a day-to-day reality for postcolonial subjects who are heirs to an ideology of creolisation manifested in a valorization of Europe. Thus, in his critical examination of postcolonial Caribbean societies and artistic endeavors, Nettleford aims to unearth and hone an Afro-creolised aesthetics towards emancipatory ends (Inward Stretch 30-70).

During this volatile time of self-definition, Nettleford expressed a commitment to articulating and making accessible the cause of minority groups in the face of what he calls “the underlying lack of social conscience among the more fortunate classes in Jamaica” (54). In an attempt to deflect the nation’s prominent preoccupation with European aesthetics and cultural attributes, Nettleford turned towards an intellectual engagement with the social pariah of Jamaican and Caribbean society at the time — the Rastafarian. According to Rastafarian beliefs, the growing of locks, the creation of an indigenized creole lexicon, and pride in their regal African ancestors were all modalities of protest and self-definition. The significance of their presence in the pivotal moment of Jamaica’s independence cannot be underestimated as Nettleford has indicated:

Inward Stretch, Outward Reach, 1995
Inward Stretch, Outward Reach, 1995

More generally the role of the Rastafarians has been to bring to the attention of the Jamaican society the urgent need to root identity and national cohesion in a recognition of the origins of its black majority and to redress the imbalance of history’s systematic weakening of any claim to achievement which descendants of Africans would otherwise make in the New World. In this they have been a revitalizing force, albeit a discomforting and disturbing one. (Inward Stretch 110)

These qualities of defiance and self-determination are what illustrate the resilience and creative ingenuity of the Jamaican people and it is what Nettleford seeks to express, make accessible, and foster among the masses.

Nettleford’s subsequent work on Caribbean culture includes Caribbean Cultural Identity (1978) and his 1995 collection of essays, Inward Stretch, Outward Reach: A Voice from the Caribbean. Both of these works begin with the premise that culture constructed from the lived experiences and realities of Caribbean peoples serves as the principle means of constructing a cohesive national and regional identity and also the prime vehicle for economic development.

The Creative Imagination and Creative Intellect — Nettleford as Artist

In discussing Rex Nettleford’s intellectual achievements and contributions to the cultural and sociopolitical landscape of the Caribbean we must also acknowledge his longstanding active role in artistic productions throughout the Caribbean, specifically with the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC). Three years after the start of Walcott’s Trinidad Theatre Workshop, the historical experiences of Caribbean struggle and survival and the condition of postcoloniality found expression in the rhythmic kinesthetic vocabulary formulated in the organic choreography of NDTC. In the wake of Jamaica’s independence, August 6, 1962, Rex Nettleford and Eddy Thomas founded a company of unpaid dancers, musicians, designers, and technicians who were to become the cultural ambassadors of not only Jamaica, but also the Caribbean. As artistic director, principal choreographer, and former lead dancer of the NDTC, Nettleford introduced the Jamaican masses to the indigenous practices of Kumina (an ancestral veneration religion), Pocomania (an Afro-Christian syncretic religious expression), and the rich folk music traditions from across the island. Thus, he catapulted these secretive cultural expressions into venerated national icons of ingenuity and survival. The theatrical stage became the forum in which the movement vocabulary and aesthetics found in the indigenous rituals and dances of rural Jamaica were visibly asserted, reformulated, and reinterpreted by performers and audiences alike. Moreover, their continued presence in the company’s repertoire speaks of the centrality of an Afro-creolised sensibility in the Caribbean ethos.

Nettleford’s belief in the organic connection between the arts of a people, their everyday life, and their historical experiences is continuously given voice in choreography that affirms the varied cultural symbols the Jamaican people have acquired and reformulated. For Nettleford, the arts are a great source of cultural survival and resistance and should be cultivated to promote awareness of self and social change because “the creative imagination lies beyond the reach of the vilest oppressor” (Dance Jamaica 15).

Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.

(Fanon, 206)

International Organizations and Honors

Nettleford’s intellectual and artistic contributions to the issues of black identity in the Western world as well as his understanding of the role of culture and development, has earned him great respect throughout the Americas, Europe, and Africa. He was chairman of London’s Commonwealth Arts Organization, a member of the Executive Board of UNESCO, chairman of the International Council on the University Adult Education, and founding and longest-serving Governor of the International Development Research Council (Ottawa). Professor Nettleford has also served as a consultant on cultural development to the Organization of American States.

Rex Nettleford has received many honours and awards for his work. His compatriots honoured him in 1975 with the national honor of Order of Merit( O.M.). He was the recipient of the Gold Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica, and the Living Legend Award for the Black Arts Festival, Atlanta U.S.A. The Institute of Jamaica named him a Fellow in 1991, the fourth time it has awarded this honor in its more than 100-year history, and the University he serves has recognized his extraordinary talent by presenting him with the coveted Pelican Award. In 1994, he received the Zora Neale Hurston-Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Scholarly Achievement from the National Council for Black Studies, U.S.A. In 2003, the Rhodes Trust established the Rex Nettleford Fellowship in Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies.

Works by Rex Nettleford

  • Caribbean Cultural IdentityLos Angeles: UCLA IOB, 1978.
  • Dance Jamaica: Cultural Definition and Artistic DiscoveryNew York: Grove Press, 1985.
  • Inward Stretch Outward Reach: A Voice from the CaribbeanNew York: Caribbean Diasporic Press Inc. Medgar Evers College CUNY, 1995.
  • Jamaica in Independence: The Early Years. (Editor). Kingston: Heinemann, 1988.
  • Manley and the New JamaicaJamaica: Longman Caribbean, 1971.
  • Mirror, Mirror: Identity, Race and Protest in JamaicaKingston: William Collins and Sangster Jamaica Ltd, 1970.
  • Race, Discourse and the Origins of the Americas. (Co-edited with Vera Hyatt). Washington D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.
  • The Rastafarians in Kingston Jamaica (with M.G. Smith & F.R. Augier). Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 1967.
  • The University of the West Indies: A Caribbean Response to the Challenge of Change (with Phillip Sherlock). Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 1987.

Works Cited

  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press Inc, 1963.
  • Nettleford, Rex. Mirror, Mirror: Identity, Race and Protest in Jamaica. Kingston: William Collins and Sangster Jamaica Ltd, 1970.
  • Dance Jamaica: Cultural Definition and Artistic Discovery. New York: Grove Press, 1985.
  • Inward Stretch Outward Reach: A Voice from the Caribbean. New York: Caribbean Diasporic Press Inc. Medgar Evers College CUNY, 1995.

Related Works on Creolisation and Rastafari

  • Bolland, Nigel, O. “Creolization and Creole Societies: A Cultural Nationalist View of Caribbean Social History.” Intellectuals in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean, vol. 1, Spectre of the New Class: The Commonwealth Caribbean, ed Alistar Hennesey, 50-79. London: Macmillan, 1992.
  • Braithwaite, Kamau, E. The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • Burton, Richard D.E. Afro-Creole: Power, Opposition and Play in the Caribbean. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.
  • Chevannes, Barry. Rastafari Roots and Ideology. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Related Sites

Who’s Who in Jamaica

Nettleford’s obituaries

Author: Yanique Hume, Spring 2000

Last edited: July 2017

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