Professor Rex Nettleford was Jamaica’s equivalent of a Nobel laureate, an extraordinary man who led an exceptional life and someone who had a remarkable impact on his fellow human beings, Jamaica’s High Commissioner in Canada, Sheila Sealy-Monteith, said at a memorial and cultural tribute to the Caribbean icon last Sunday at Revivaltime Tabernacle.
The eminent Caribbean scholar and cultural historian died in a Washington hospital last February six days after suffering a massive heart attack while in the American capital for a University of the West Indies (UWI) fundraising gala.
Nettleford had been associated with the university for nearly six decades and was vice-chancellor emeritus at the time of his death on the eve of his 77th birthday. He dedicated much of his life to the university and the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) which he co-founded with Eddie Thomas in 1962, and was renowned for his intellectual brilliance, artistic creativity and oratorical skills.
“He utilized his oratory, creativity, sensitivity and perceptiveness to help us understand the philosophical and psycho-social needs of a society in the process of developing its culture, structures and institutions from a past that was in many respects unpleasant, but nonetheless the foundation from which we had to build,” said Sealy-Monteith, a UWI graduate.
“He understood the importance of being conscious of each phase through which we are passing and taking hold of our past in order to inform our present and future actions. That his life was one which was grounded in excellence and service, there is no doubt. He found common cause with those who seek to harness the good there is in ourselves and used it for the improvement of self and country.”
Consul General George Ramocan noted that Nettleford emerged from the canefields of Trelawny in rural Jamaica to become an intellectual giant and lead a victorious life.
“The life of Professor Nettleford defied the status quo which defined people according to their socio-economic circumstances,” Ramocan said. “He has left a legacy of courage for children born in less fortunate circumstances to discover the greatness that lies within them. He represented the best in us and his life and memory will always be immortalized in our hearts and minds.”
Following his Washington visit, Nettleford was scheduled to come to Toronto to review the University of Toronto’s Caribbean Studies program before flying home to celebrate his birthday the same week.
“As a Guyanese woman, when I think of Professor Nettleford, I think of someone who stood firmly in Jamaica, but who refused to be confined by that island,” said U of T Caribbean Studies program director, Dr. Alissa Trotz. “Instead, he reached out generously to encourage us all and to tirelessly create a sense of ourselves that was certainly and non-negotiably Caribbean.
“It’s not enough to be saddened by the loss of this great son of the Caribbean and it’s not enough to come here this afternoon to simply celebrate his life. Professor Nettleford has left us an incredible example of passion, commitment, discipline and, above all, excellence and it’s nothing less than an injunction to action to continue to boldly paint on that brilliant canvas to which he dedicated his life’s work.”
Former Peel District School Board principal Elizabeth Parchment paid tribute to Nettleford on behalf of the UWI Alumni Association.
Like most Jamaicans, she identified him through his signature dance piece, Kumina, which she saw him perform at the Little Theatre in Kingston, Jamaica.
“He dominated the stage with his performance and it was clear that he had mesmerized the audience, not only to his dancing, but also to the power of his creativity,” said Parchment. “I always marvelled at his creative genius and his ability to inspire, demand and sometimes even command the best from his colleagues and friends.
“It was difficult to believe that Rex was not a full-time choreographer and dancer. Dance became redefined in the hearts and minds of Jamaicans, especially those who always thought of dance in European terms.”
Jamaica Diaspora Canadian Foundation president Sharon Ffolkes-Abrahams and Denise Jones also paid tributes while longtime friend Maud Fuller, the driving force behind the UWI local chapter who attended his funeral in Jamaica, read two pieces of scripture and the Heritage Singers performed a medley of songs.
Karl Gordon paid tribute with a poem, Glenda Roy-Hamilton and Marie Critchlow-English performed solos and Bishop Dr. Audley James did the homily and benediction.