Figueroa, John J. 1920–1999
John J. Figueroa 1920–1999
Poet, educator, broadcaster
A multi-talented figure who did much to shape modern Caribbean literature, John J. Figueroa taught and wrote in the Caribbean as well as in Africa and England, in a career that spanned more than five decades. Figueroa was notable for the breadth of his interests: his poetry drew on sources as diverse as Greek and Latin classical literature and Jamaican speech patterns, and he wrote books on education and on the sport of cricket. Above all, Figueroa was a teacher who nourished the roots of culture. Wherever he went, he inspired young writers and put in place educational programs that deepened the popular understanding of Caribbean cultures. He was the first Caribbean-born educator to become a full professor at Jamaica’s University College of the West Indies (later the University of the West Indies).
Figueroa was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on August 4, 1920. His family had settled in Jamaica after his grandfather escaped political unrest in Cuba by fleeing on a ship with his family. Figueroa’s father, Rupert, was an insurance salesman. He and Figueroa did not get along well; Figueroa later told The Caribbean Writer that he avoided writing his autobiography because “I had a very bad relationship with my father. He was a good man in many ways, but if I wrote, I would really have to write against him.” Figueroa’s mother, Isclena, on the other hand, took the time to critique her son’s writing. By the time he was 12 or 13, Figueroa was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets and trying to write some of his own.
Figueroa’s first poems were published in a student magazine at St. George’s Catholic school in Jamaica, from which he graduated in 1937. After working for a year as a clerk in Kingston’s water department he enrolled at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, on a scholarship that covered room and board. With little spending money beyond that, Figueroa avoided the usual round of college parties and dances, but he was able to earn a few dollars publishing poems in Worcester newspapers. He graduated from Holy Cross with an honors degree in English and philosophy in 1942 and returned to teach at St. George’s and at Wolmer Boys’ College in Jamaica for several years. His first book of poems, Blue Mountain Peak, was published in 1943.
After marrying his wife Dorothy in 1944 (the couple raised a family of seven children), Figueroa went to London on a British Council scholarship, earning a teaching certificate in 1947 and a master’s degree in 1950 at the University of London. He taught for several years at schools in the poor neighborhoods of London and then took a job at the university’s Institute of Education as a lecturer in English and philosophy. Figueroa wrote poems and completed a play called Jephthah’s Daughter during these years, but he was best known as the on-air announcer of a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio program called Caribbean Voices. He was also known as a BBC radio commentator for broadcasts of cricket games. His work at the BBC continued until 1960.
Figueroa’s writing developed somewhat apart from the mainstream of Caribbean literature, which at the time was centered on the Jamaica-based magazine Bim. He later met George Lamming and other leading Caribbean
Born on August 4, 1920, in Kingston, Jamaica; died on March 5, 1999, in England; son of Rupert Figueroa (an insurance salesman); married Dorothy Grace Murray Alexander, 1944; seven children. Education: Graduated from St. George’s College, Kingston, 1937; College of Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, BA (cum laude), English and philosophy, 1942; University of London, teacher’s diploma, 1947, MA, education, 1950, Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Wrote poetry and prose, 1940s-99; Jamaican high school teacher, 1942-46; London high school teacher, 1946-48; University of London, lecturer, 1948-57; University College of West Indies, Jamaica, professor and dean of faculty of education, 1957-71; professor and adviser at various institutions in Puerto Rico, Nigeria, and Britain, 1970s and 1980s.
Selected awards: Honorary doctorate, College of Holy Cross, 1960; Guggenheim fellowship, 1964; Lilly Foundation grant, 1973; Institute of Jamaica medal, 1980; Musgrave Silver Medal for contribution to literature, 1993; Rockefeller Fellowship for study in Italy, 1993.
writers in London, and began to consider how Caribbean literature might relate to the literary classics taught by the British educational system.
In 1953 Figueroa returned to Jamaica and took a job teaching at the University College of the West Indies. He became professor of education in 1957 and wrote prolifically on the subject of education in the Caribbean. Figueroa favored a strong education in the arts; his own poetry had a distinctive Jamaican flavor but also drew on the classics of ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration—he could read both Latin and ancient Greek, as well as French and Spanish. He cared little for black nationalism and was quoted in Contemporary Authors as saying that “people are much too quick to look for something they call identity, and to disown anyone who does not abjectly follow the tribe on the grounds that right or wrong doesn’t matter—all that matters is whether it’s ‘one of us’ who is involved.”
On the other hand, Figueroa felt that Caribbean writers stood at the crossroads of a variety of world cultures and had something unique to transmit to the world. He influenced younger Jamaicans in both the literary and political spheres. The roster of students who passed through his classes at the University of the West Indies was an impressive one, including writer Derek Walcott and Edward Seaga, who later became Jamaica’s prime minister. Figueroa’s book Society, Schools, and Progress in the West Indies was published in 1971, but he also continued to write poetry and to be involved with literature and the arts. Caribbean Voices: An Anthology of West Indian Poetry, published in 1966, was the first in a long series of collections he edited or co-edited.
Figueroa felt that the arts were a basic part of education, and as Jamaica’s economy hit a low point during the economic recession of the 1970s, budgetary infighting at the University of the West Indies began to wear on him. He resigned from the school’s faculty in 1973 and embarked on a remarkable multinational odyssey, teaching humanities for three years at the Centro Caribeño in Puerto Rico and then taught education for three years at the University of Jos in Nigeria. He returned to England in 1980 and founded the Caribbean Studies program at Bradford College, also teaching at England’s Open University and Manchester University, where he was an adviser on multicultural programs.
Retirement didn’t slow Figueroa’s activities, and he became a familiar figure on the British arts scene, with his remarkable flowing white beard. He wrote poetry and translated Latin classics into English; his final book of poems, The Chase, appeared in 1992. He also remained active as a literary critic, focusing especially on the work of his student Derek Walcott and collaborating on various studies with other authors. In 1991 he published a book on cricket, West Indies in England: The Great Post-War Tours. It was a fitting retirement for a man whose splendid variety of interests had made him one of the Caribbean’s most inspiring educators. He worked on his memoirs at the end of his life, and London’s Guardian newspaper remarked that “an enterprising publisher with an eye to a fund of good stories should snap [them] up swiftly.” John J. Figueroa died in England on March 5, 1999.
Blue Mountain Peak (poetry and prose), Gleaner, 1944.
Love Leaps Here (poetry), privately printed, 1962.
Society, Schools, and Progress in the West Indies, Franklin Book Co., 1971.
Ignoring Hurts: Poems, Three Continents Press, 1976.
Editor, with Donald E. Herdeck and others, Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Encyclopedia, Three Continents, 1979.
Editor, An Anthology of African and Caribbean Writing in English, Heinemann, 1982.
The Chase (poetry), Peepal Tree Press, 1991.
West Indies in England: The Great Post-War Tours, Kingswood, 1991.
Contemporary Poets, 6th ed., St. James, 1996.
Guardian (London, England), March 16, 1999, p. 18.
Independent (London, England), March 11, 1999, p. 6.
“Interview with John J.M. Figueroa,” Caribbean Writer On Line, www.thecaribbeanwriter.com/volume6/v6p69.html (June 9, 2003).
“John J. Figueroa” (obituary), College of the Holy Cross, www.holycross.edu/departments/publicaffairs/hcm/summer99,memorium.html (June 9, 2003).
“John J(oseph Maria) Figueroa,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (June 9, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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