Rex Nettleford – Representing the Complexity of Jamaican Culture

rexWhen I mention that I’m from Jamaica, most Americans either tell me about the last time their cruise ship docked there, or do some kind of Rasta imitation. But there’s more to Jamaican culture than straw markets and Bob Marley.

There’s Rex Nettleford – Professor Rex Nettleford OM.

The professor (photo at right) died Tuesday night in a Washington DC hospital. He would have been 77 years old on Wednesday.

He was visiting the U.S. capital for a fund raising gala to benefit the University of the West Indies when he was struck down by a heart attack.

If he were looking over my shoulder (and he might be), he would probably shake his head in exasperation at my attempt to separate him from Bob Marley. I think of him as being schooled in the British tradition, a sociologist, dancer and choreographer cast in an international – even classical – mold. But he was a populist – a trade union educator, as well as vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies. And he was a Rasta sympathizer.

“Everywhere in the world the (Rastafarian) movement means liberation,” he told the Miami Herald in an interview a few years ago.

Still, the Rex Nettleford I remember would have looked really weird in dreadlocks.

He was educated, as were most budding scholars of my generation, in the local version of British culture. A Cornwall College graduate, he went on to the University College of the West Indies (as it was then – a part of the University of London), where he earned a degree in history.

He completed his post graduate studies as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

But although he was schooled in the mores and language of the British Empire, Rex Nettleford was dedicated to the promotion of popular Jamaican culture.

“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,” he is quoted as saying.

He was right, of course. But, to me anyway, his special contribution to the culture of the Caribbean also owes much to the colonial tradition in which he was raised. Like all Jamaicans, I revere Bob Marley. But I will not let the Rastas alone define my heritage. I embrace the entirety of Jamaica – African, Chinese, Indian, Jewish, Syrian, Lebanese, Spanish… And, yes, European.

Being Jamaican is more than Bob Marley. It is also Rex Nettleford. And that makes it more complex – whether the professor would agree with me or not.