Recognising Rex Nettleford’s legacy

A little more than a year ago Jamaican-born Professor Rex Nettleford, scholar, social and cultural historian, political analyst and trade union educator, was making his way to Toronto to carry out an External Review of the Caribbean Studies Programme at the University of Toronto’s New College.

Following that, he was to play a major role in the very first University of the West Indies Benefit Gala in Toronto, which aimed to raise funds for the institution’s regional endowment scholarships.

Tragically, he suffered a massive heart attack in a Washington, DC, hotel and died five days later in hospital.

It was therefore particularly fitting for the Toronto Chapter of The University of the West Indies Alumni Association to host an event for the Canadian launch of The Rex Nettleford Foundation, and that it should have been held on U of T premises arranged by the Caribbean Studies Programme.

Toronto-based UWI graduates responded to an invitation by Alumni Association co-presidents Ferdinand Fortune and Michael Henville to attend the foundation’s launch, for which Sir Shridath Ramphal, chancellor emeritus of the UWI and chairman of the foundation, was on hand.

Created on May 28, 2010, the foundation was officially launched on September 17 at a ceremony on the Mona Campus in Jamaica, and the lofty Mission Statement promises that it “will support scholars and programmes that promote the strengthening of West Indian society in the areas of social and cultural development through research, community service and intellectual excellence”.

It is aimed at “young leaders who grasp the importance of public service based on integrity, who have a desire to protect the weak, and who will use their energies and talents for the betterment of humankind”.

Sir Shridath and Nettleford worked closely when they were, respectively, chancellor and vice chancellor of the UWI.

“All humanity, and within it Jamaica, the Caribbean, the world of dance and culture, academe in our region and beyond, have all lost in Rex Nettleford a rare incandescent eagle,” said Sir Shridath.

It is intended that a multi-discipline academic Chair should be established at Mona in the name of Rex Nettleford, and Professor Harris revealed that there are plans to erect a statue of him on the campus, an idea which came from the cultural icon’s lifelong friend and fellow educator, Maud Fuller, who has made a substantial donation to get the necessary fund-raising under way.

“I would like it to be of him robed in his academic gown, and poised to dance Kumina,” she said.

Fuller, who had a distinguished career at both the UWI and the U of T, was the founder of the Toronto Chapter of the UWI Alumni Association, which she headed for more than two decades, and Professor E Nigel Harris, the UWI’s vice chancellor, who made a presentation to her at the event, announced that one of the university’s regional endowment scholarships is being named in her honour.

Tax-deductible donations to The Rex Nettleford Foundation can be made through the UWI’s Institutional Advancement Division, with cheques being made payable to The University of the West Indies. For more information, visit

The UWI alumni event was also the occasion for the presentation of a Rex Nettleford Lecture, given by the U of T’s Bahamas-born Professor Christian Campbell, a former Rhodes Scholar and award-winning poet.

He called his lecture “The Shifting Ground: The Caribbean Elegy and The Diasporic Time of Mourning”. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines an elegy as “a mournful poem, typically a lament for someone who has died”.

“The Caribbean is a diaspora of Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas,” he said -a phrase which could have come from Nettleford himself.

Campbell also spoke of “sonic Afro-Modernity” and a “poetic manifesto of diaspora”, and in an interesting visual sidebar, showed video clips of Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul and Kumina dancers in Jamaica.

The poet and scholar mentioned a number of literary figures who have died relatively recently, referencing not only the death of Nettleford, but those of famed Martiniquan poet and novelist Aimé Césaire, who died in 2008 at the age of 94; Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone, who died in 2009, aged 69; Barry Chevannes, also a Jamaican, who died at 70 in November, 2010, and Martinique’s poet, essayist and literary critic Édouard Glissant, who died in February aged 82.

Ranging widely, he sprinkled his remarks with references to living Caribbean poets Derek Walcott of St Lucia, Lorna Goodison of Jamaica and Kamau Brathwaite of Barbados, among others.

Standing in for U of T Professor Alissa Trotz, the Guyana-born director of the Caribbean Studies Programme (who was out of the country), Barbados-born U of T professor and author Melanie Newton said that the UWI alumni event in a way “completed Professor Nettleford’s (intended) journey to Toronto” last year.

Colin Rickards is a British-born Canadian-based journalist and author.
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