Eminent Caribbean scholar and cultural historian Rex Nettleford is dead.
The distinguished Jamaican professor and University of the West Indies (UWI) vice-chancellor emeritus passed away last Tuesday night in a Washington hospital six days after suffering a massive heart attack while in the American capital for a UWI fund-raising gala. He was taken off life support after failing to come out of a coma.
Renowned for his intellectual brilliance, oratorical skills and artistic creativity, Nettleford would have celebrated his 77th birthday yesterday.
He was booked to come to Toronto from Washington last weekend to review the University of Toronto’s Caribbean Studies program.
“We were delighted when he graciously accepted to be the external reviewer,” said program director Dr. Alissa Trotz. “He was going to do that last Monday and then return to Jamaica on Tuesday to celebrate his birthday yesterday. That was the plan and now he’s no longer with us.
“As a child growing up in Guyana, I feel as if I grew up with him. You knew about him and you knew of him and that is the greatest gift he has left. He will be remembered for building a Caribbean identity through the arts that brought people together and forged a sense of ourselves as something that was bigger than a Caribbean nation. And he did it all with class, style and dignity.”
Longtime friend Maud Fuller, a driving force behind the UWI Toronto alumni chapter, is reeling from the death of her close ally. He was scheduled to have dinner at her home last Sunday.
“I just removed the plates from the table,” the grieving Fuller told Share yesterday. “He has gone home and I know he would not have wanted it any other way than how it happened because he would not have liked to be in a bed lying in pain and having people pity him.”
Fuller met Nettleford when he came from Trelawny to attend the UWI at age 19.
“He has been with the university ever since,” she said. “He dedicated his life to the UWI and the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC).
Nettleford was listed to read Fuller’s citation at the UWI inaugural Toronto gala on February 27. She’s among several UWI graduates and outstanding Canadians that will be honored at the event.
Jamaican playwright, scholar and poet Honor Ford-Smith said Nettleford’s death is an enormous loss to the Caribbean.
“He believed strongly that culture could be a unifying force to bring together people with divergent views and interests,” she said.
Former Ontario Minister Mary Anne Chambers met Nettleford last November at a United Nations Forum on Minority Political Participation in Geneva.
“He was as vibrant and sharp-witted as always,” she recalled. “This is a huge loss not only for Jamaica.”
Nine years after staging his first choreographed dance production – Boonguzu – at Cornwall College, Nettleford and Eddie Thomas co-founded the NDTC to coincide with Jamaica’s independence in 1962. Almost five decades later, the company’s popularity regionally and in the Diaspora emanates from its grounding in the cultural heritage to which Nettleford – as its artistic director – never lost his commitment.
A Rhodes Scholar and recipient of myriad honours and awards, including the Order of the Caribbean Community – CARICOM’s highest award – and the UWI’s Chancellor’s Medal, he played a leading role in introducing the Mona campus Cultural Studies program that has attracted several post-graduate scholars since its inception in 1996.
Nettleford, in 1975, was made a member of the Order of Merit – the highest non-political national honour of his native Jamaica – and he is one of only four Fellows of the Institute of Jamaica which is the institutional repository of the island’s cultural heritage.
When he was selected to be UWI’s Vice Chancellor in 1996, he became the first graduate to head the region’s premier tertiary level institution. The largest Hall of Residence on the university’s Mona Campus is named after him.
To commemorate the centenary of Rhodes scholarships in the Caribbean in 2003, the Rhodes Trust established the Rex Nettleford Fellowship in Cultural Studies to be awarded annually in recognition of his cultural pre-eminence and enormous contribution to Caribbean regional cultural wholeness.
Nettleford, who was scheduled to be one of the co-chairs of the UWI Institute of Caribbean Studies’ inaugural Rastafari Studies conference in Jamaica in August, was awarded 14 honorary degrees by European and North American universities, including the U of T and Queen’s University.
“Rex was an intellectual and cultural giant who made a great impact on the world,” said Jamaica’s Consul General George Ramocan. “His passing marks the end of an era in a sense that several of our political, cultural and entrepreneurial giants have departed in the past decade.”
Nettleford’s mother, Labertha Palmer, died last September in a Bronx nursing home at the age of 100.