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Rex N

FULL TITLE: Rex N – Selected Speeches, Rex Nettleford

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Social and cultural historian, political analyst, trade union educator, artist, expert on development and cultural dynamics, man of letters – these represent only a few of the areas of expertise of Rex Nettleford, one of the Caribbean’s finest scholars. This carefully selected collection of forty-two of Nettleford’s speeches can only provide a mere glimpse of his formidable intellect and his contribution to the search for and validation of a Caribbean cultural identity.

Known affectionately in academic, cultural, literary and artistic circles the world over, simply as REX, this informal and unpretentious designation is used as the title of this collection to capture the essence of the man whose ideas and speeches can be said to collectively represent the Triumph of the Caribbean Spirit and Imagination.

Readers who have had the privilege of hearing one or more of Rex Nettleford’s speeches will agree with Barry Chevannes that ‘Reading Rex Nettleford is not quite the same as hearing him…..even when the ideas are the same.’ ‘To hear Rex Nettleford address an audience is to be treated to a performance.’ of Nettleford. Chevannes writes:

“As a Caribbean man, Nettleford himself embodies the multilayered complexity which he insists is characteristic of the region, a five-foot eleven black man with rhythm in his steps and intertextuality in his living, who exercises the powers of his creative imagination to help his fellow tenants hold on to their legacy of a sense of self, for which monumental work his is much revered, much appreciated voice teaching lessons for life on all the continents tenanted by homo sapiens.”

Sir Kenneth Hall ON, GCMG, OJ is the former Governor-General of Jamaica. He has served as Pro-Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus as well as Deputy Secretary General Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
Excerpts from Rex N

Multiculturalism, the Arts and Nation Building

It is clear that colonialism, racism and class warfare did not serve too well the millions of souls on Planet Earth. Humankind, however, was not deprived of its sense of intrinsic decency. It is the faculties of imagination, intellect and spirit that must now be mobilized in the interest of shaping a new social order and in building a nation worthy of its place in the democratic family of nations. But this will have to be done in the face of persistent poverty and the stubborn realities of ethnic and cultural differences. This, indeed, has been the nature of the Caribbean experience for centuries fuelled by both the greed and exploratory zeal of colonial conquest. In the wake of such expansionism came myriad encounters between cultures, producing ‘crossroads’ civilizations mistakenly deemed to be inferior to the conquerors. No group of people understands this better than those who now inhabit the Americas — said to have been discovered by Christopher Columbus, the Genoan wandered, on his way to the east. (He actually thought he was in Japan when he landed in the Caribbean.) And among the people of the Americas who understand the phenomenon of cultural texture, as well as the dynamics and dynamism of becoming, are those who literally good for the soul.

There are also the disinherited indigenous people (Native Americans) who, supposedly without the gift of God’s grace, were deemed ready for Christianization, including the loss of the Bishop of Rome. A Similar development followed in South Africa where land was involuntarily swapped for the Bible, and false assumptions of sociological, political and psychocultural attributes were used to justify a hierarchy of existence which ensured that people could live side by side, but not together.

Multiculturalism — cultural pluralism or creolization — is the phenomenon which, following Furnival in his observation of social organization in south-east Asia, M.G. Smith, the noted Caribbean social anthropologist, made the heart of his study of British West Indian society under colonialism in the period following emancipation. In turning to cultural pluralism, one is tempted to see parallels with a place like post-apartheid South Africa, which is itself a celebration of a new social order in which erstwhile jailers and jailed are no longer in jail and the walls that, by political as well as legal provision, once incarcerated both, have been dismantled. As in the case of the Caribbean, however, South Africans must now expect both the consolidation of liberation and the refinement of the freedoms that offered the mass of the populations the possibility of new designs in social living. We have come a mighty long way, admittedly, but it has been, and still is, a hard road to travel. The paths are made not simply by walking side by side, but by walking together.

But before we look at a particular aspect of how this awesome, challenging journey has been made, not only in the Caribbean but in other progressive communities throughout the Americas, it is necessary to consider a perception of the society that has persisted stubbornly even to this day. The persistence finds expression in such designations as ‘melting pot’, ‘mixed-blood ideal’, or ‘Métissage’, ‘multiracial’ and, of late, following on the migration of different people into situations of new cultural encounters, ‘multicultural’. So ‘multicultural’ has crept into the vocabulary of redemption and liberation. The designation is common currency in certain nations of the northern hemisphere, particularly Canada and the United States. But what does it mean?
Multiculturalism could easily deteriorate into the old cultural pluralism, albeit decked out in modern dress. For the ‘multi-’ in the designation could ensure the maintenance of the status quo, with the already powerful at the top, while others, presumably of different cultures, remain at the bottom.

The hierarchy that locates white at the top, brown in the middle and black at the bottom was a feature of plantation slave societies in the Americas and persists with a vengeance wherever Africa has met Europe. But multicultural does not speak in quite the same way in Atlantic societies that are to be found in the Americas, nor in parts of Western Europe nor dating back, along the western littoral of Africa including South Africa. It is in the ‘Atlantic’ sense that the Caribbean may have something useful to say through the prism of its experience. Scholars have settled for the term ‘creolization’ to describe the process in the Caribbean of seeking an identity.

The struggle is not over, of course, since native-born, native-bred products of the process still strive to gain recognition in the face of denigration. Nonetheless, the encounters, even clashes, of cultures in geographical spaces later to be designated nations, may be seen as a ‘Caribbean’ concern, subsuming preoccupations of transculturation and acculturation. The indigenization process in the Caribbean involves a symbiotic interaction between people and cultures in their separate encounters. By contrast, multiculturalism seems to me to be concerned more with mechanical encounters affording ready retreats to the base of the original culture as expressed in language, religion, kinship patterns and artistic manifestations. It is an activity that impoverishes the consciousness of millions caught up in western society’s binary syndrome, according to which, reality is constituted as ‘either/or’ and prefers the single dimension to the textures of ordered complexity. People live side by side but not together: people from the master culture, as in the white United States, find it difficult, for example, to comprehend or accept that they are as Negrified as their African-American counterparts are Europeanized.

As Paul Gilroy has put it in his study The Black Atlantic (1993), it is the challenge of Atlantic creolization that produces the sense and the sensibility of the native-born and native-bred in the struggle against the cultural dominance of the self-acclaimed superior race. And as Edouard Glissant, the Martiniquan writer, adds: creolization is not an uprooting, a loss of sight, a suspension of being. Transience is not wandering, diversity is not dilution. When we speak about creolization, we do not mean only métissage, cross-breeding, because creolization adds something new to the components that participate in it. Creolization is unpredictable, whereas the immediate results of crossbreeding are more or less predictable. Furthermore, creolization opens up a radically new dimension of reality, not a mechanical combination of components characterized by value percentages. Therefore creolization, which overlaps with linguistic production, does not produce direct synthesis but, as Glissant concludes, ‘résultants’, results: something else, another way.

Success in achieving a new social reality that is native-born and native-bred cannot be accomplished by political decree alone, even though the rule of law can push-start and help sustain the process. But it is the people who must invest in the two cultural faculties that are basically human, whatever one’s cultural, racial or class origin. I refer to the intellect and the imagination. It is the creative exercise of these faculties which will result in the true empowerment of both the individuals and the society. What is genuinely, unmistakably and distinctively ‘Caribbean’ is to be found in the exercise of creativity in the field of the arts. It involves the appeal to the intellect and imagination as features of human development by people in situations of marginalization or oppression-created belief systems, languages, and alternative designs for social living and artistic expression that survived because they were beyond the reach of the oppressors. Finding one’s own god(s) to worship has bequeathed us such indigenous religions as the voodoo of Haiti, the Santeria of Cuba, the pukkuminna of Jamaica, the shango of Trinidad, the candomble of Brazil and the Zion revivalism to be found throughout the region. Latter-day expressions of the Zionist phenomenon are to be found among the Rastafarians of Jamaica, with the Caribbean diaspora in the North Atlantic declaring its own Son of Man in the personage of HIM Haile Selassie the First of Ethiopia in particular. In a powerful exercise of intellect and imagination, Caribbean Man (man and woman) is recreated in Jah’s image and the claim of freedom, equality, personhood and human dignity is legitimized. It is a claim that power structures throughout the west have found difficult to suppress; a claim that has caught the imagination of many young people in Africa, south of the Sahara. Bob Marley’s ‘Stand up, stand up for your rights’ meant a great deal to many who struggled against apartheid, but also to those young Germans who used it as a work song while they dismantled the Berlin wall.

Such is the power of the arts in providing those who would be dehumanized with ammunition to realize the redefining and self-defining activity that is engendered by the search for centrality in a civilized social order. Again, this is demonstrated in the Caribbean: indeed, it has been demonstrated in a large part of the Americas over the past half-millennium. There are the popular festival arts of jonkonnu, masquerade to Kittitians and the people of the Leewards, which date back to slavery, and the pre-Lenten carnival developed in Trinidad and now extended to the West Indian diaspora in Britain, Canada and the United States. There is hosay, the basically Mohammedan West Indian ritual brought by indentured East Indians to Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica. Counterparts are to be found in Cuba, New Orleans, Brazil, parts of Central America and the southern United States where for centuries Africa met Europe in hostile encounters. Such secular rituals — like religious ones — were to become the nurseries of artistic output by individuals and groups in the quest for survival and spiritual reclamation, and areas that have found quickest and easiest mobilization are music and dance. This has led to the myth in the Americas and the rest of the world that music and dance come easily to black people and that Africans have ‘rhythm’. This was to mean the downgrading of African-driven expression with what is termed classical at the apex and at the base things African or non-European labeled ‘ethnic’ or ‘folk’.

Jazz, the invention of creole America, found form and purpose seemingly only after the Europeans themselves decided to take this great music seriously, even as white Americans persisted in the mistaken view that their classical music was that of Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. It took 50 years for the American classic Porgy and Bess to reach the Metropolitan Opera House which is regarded as the temple of high musical art. Happily, Basin Street continued to prosper as did the other lowly venues which encouraged the genius of the Coltranes, the Count Basies and the great American classicist Duke Ellington. Today the arts of the Americas are beginning to find their place in the definition of self and society. The citizens of the United States are arguably held together less by the might of their nation’s fire power and more by their country’s achievements in the cinema (the significant artistic invention of the twentieth century), in jazz and all its related forms (including a way of living in the world), and in the aesthetic energy manifest in a vibrant language and literature that have had such an impact on the English language. Indeed, American English is an example of what happens when diverse cultures interact dynamically and involve all in the encounters.

In the Caribbean, the influence of its music on world popular music is by no means disregarded in the sense of ‘self’ which self-government, self-determination, and independence have inspired among those engaged in nation building and the shaping of new societies. The Cuban rumba and mambo, the Haitian méringué, the Brazilian samba, Trinidad’s calypso, Jamaica’s reggae and the zouk from the Francophone Caribbean are the most renowned artistic inventions deriving from the dialectics of cultural diversity in the praxis of the societies. The wider world has been fascinated and enriched by the diversity. The phenomenon is nothing new, despite the fact that the world since 1492 has refused to acknowledge the key contributions to human development by so-called lesser races. Nonetheless, the world has been the beneficiary of encounters such as the meeting of Africa and southern Europe in the Iberian Peninsula when Moors, Jews and Europeans worked and lived together, and gave Spain a golden age of great artistic achievements about which it can still be proud. The fall of Granada all but put an end to this particular possibility of cultural creolization.

The creative imagination, then, has long been an instrument of empowerment both to individuals and societies. It has also served as an antidote to the poison of cultural and spiritual intolerance. The arts, mediated as they are by social reality, can offer persons in multicultural situations the opportunity for self-definition and action.

For the arts are a form of action. An early self-government leader in Jamaica, Norman Manley, implicitly understood this. He and his artist wife, Edna, took to the centre of the struggle for self determination the exercise of the creative imagination. The practicing artist became a symbol of the new national consciousness in the struggle, whether he/she was involved in painting or sculpture, literature, theatre, dance or music. A cultural policy was seen as part of development strategy. Institutions of growth in the field of culture were established. Those who sought to celebrate and give expression to the new national reality were publicly acknowledged. Manley, the nation builder, saw the politician himself as an artist molding the clay of the old order into new forms that could have new purpose. What popular artists were saying in their music and lyrics, carried weight with those who sought accreditation through the ballot box, from the mass of the population.