February 3, 1933
Rex Nettleford is one of the most esteemed and versatile intellectuals in the Caribbean. Born in the rural town of Falmouth, Jamaica, he attended Cornwall College in Montego Bay and gained a B.A. degree in history at the University College of the West Indies (London University). He stayed on for a year as resident tutor in the extramural department before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he was a postgraduate in politics at Oriel College in 1957 and received an M.Phil. He returned to Jamaica, holding various university posts in extramural (later continuing) studies at what became the independent University of the West Indies in 1962. He was appointed director of the School of Continuing Studies in 1971, professor of continuing studies in 1976, pro vice chancellor (Outreach and Institutional Relations) from 1988 to 1996, deputy vice chancellor from 1996 to 1998, and vice chancellor in 1998. He became editor of the Caribbean Quarterly, the first journal dedicated to the study of the culture of the Caribbean, in 1967. He has lectured and toured throughout the world with UNESCO, the Organization of American States (OAS), and other agencies in London and Canada.
Nettleford has had a multifaceted career not only as an academic but also as an artist. In 1962 he cofounded with Eddy Thomas the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica. He became the artistic director of the company the following year and principal choreographer. He has also engaged in civic activities both at home and abroad, principally in education and the arts. He founded the Trade Union Education Institute, which attempted to bridge the gulf between classes and to encourage exchanges between scholars and laborers, and he headed the National Council on Education. He has also served in Jamaica as chairman of the Workforce Development Commission, director of the National Commercial Bank, director of the Norman Manley Awards and Memorial Foundation, and cultural advisor to the Government of Jamaica.
He has participated in many capacities in international organizations: the founding governor of the Canadian-based International Development Research Council (IDRC); the international trustee of the AFS Intercultural based in the United States; chairman of the Commonwealth Arts Organization; chairman of London's Commonwealth Arts Organization; member of the executive board of UNESCO; and chairman of the International Council on the University Adult Education. He has acted as a consultant on cultural development to UNESCO and the OAS. He serves as a board member of the Gemini News Agency; rapporteur of the International Scientific Committee of UNESCO's Slave Route Project as well as regional coordinator for the Caribbean; a member of Caricom Cultural Foundation; and a founding member and trustee of Caribbean Universities and Research Institutes.
Nettleford's writings reflect the diversity of his interests. His many books include Mirror, Mirror: Race, Identity, and Protest in Jamaica (1970), Manley and the New Jamaica (1971), Caribbean Cultural Identity (1978), Dance Jamaica: Cultural Definition and Artistic Discovery (1985), and Inward Stretch, Outward Reach: A Voice from the Caribbean (1995). He has also coauthored, with Maria La Yacona, Roots and Rhythms: Jamaica's National Dance Theatre (1969), with Slim Aarons and Arnold Newman, Rose Hall, Jamaica: Story of a People, a Legend, and a Legacy (1973), with Philip Sherlock, The University of the West Indies: A Caribbean Response to the Challenge of Change (1987), and, with M. G. Smith and Roy Augier, The Rastafarians in Kingston, Jamaica (1960). He edited Jamaica in Independence; The Early Years (1988); he coedited, with Norman Manley, Norman Washington Manley and the New Jamaica; Selected speeches and Writings, 1938-1968 (1971); he coedited, with Vera Hyatt, Jamaica in Independence: The Early Years (1991) and Race, Discourse and the Origins of the Americas, a publication for the Smithsonian (1995). He is also the author of major national reports on cultural policy, worker participation, reform of government structure in Jamaica, and national symbols and national observances.
Nettleford has received numerous honors including the Order of Merit (OM) from Jamaica in 1975; the Gold Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica; the Living Legend Award from the Black Arts Festival, Atlanta, Georgia; and the Pelican Award from the University of the West Indies Guild of Graduates. In 1991, he became one of only four people in over a hundred years to be named a fellow of the Institute of Jamaica; in 1994 he received the Zora Neale Hurston/Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Scholarly Achievements from the National Council for Black Studies in the United States. He was received the Pinnacle Award from the National Coalition on Caribbean Affairs (NCOCA) and the Second Annual Honor Award from the Jamaican-American Chamber of Commerce in 1999. He has been awarded honorary doctorates and degrees on both sides of the Atlantic, including a D. Litt from St. John's University in 1994; an LHD from the University of Hartford and a Presidential Medal from Brooklyn College in 1995; an LHD from City University of New York and John Jay College in 1996; a D. Litt. from the University of Connecticut and an LLD from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1997; an LLD by Queens University (Canada) in 1999; an LHD by Emory University and D.Litt. from Grand Valley State University and Sheffield University (England) in 2000; an LLD from the University of Toronto (Canada) in 2001; a DCL from Oxford University (England), an honor shared by only two other West Indians, Eric Williams and Sir Shridath Ramphal, in 2003; a D.Litt. from the University of Technology (Jamaica) in 2004; and a DFA from the State University of New York, Brockport in 2005. In 2003, the Rhodes Trust of Oxford University established the Rex Nettleford Prize in Cultural Studies and the Government of Jamaica made him an ambassador-at-large in 2004. He was made an honorary fellow of Oriel College, Oxford University, in 1998; a distinguished fellow in the UWI School of Graduate Studies; and an honorary (life) fellow of the Center for Caribbean Thought. In 2004 he was made an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government and received the Pablo Neruda Centenary Medal from the Government of Chile.
The principal focus of Nettleford's wide-ranging interests and writings is the identity and culture of the peoples of the postindependence Caribbean. He anticipated the development of modern cultural studies with his inter-disciplinary approach to understanding how the dynamic process of creolization melded a people who were part African, part European, part Asian, part Native American but totally Caribbean. He was a pioneer in attempting to rediscover the African elements of the Jamaican identity and to give it expression in his National Dance Theatre Company. He was sympathetic in his treatment of the Rastafarians at a time when they were often treated as pariahs in the Caribbean. However, Nettleford was never wholly Afrocentric, because he was always too committed to inclusiveness and to recognizing the rich elements that made up the Caribbean. He is essentially antiparochial in his efforts to traverse different academic disciplines, different classes, different races, and different nations.
Warner, Maureen, and Albertina Jefferson. Rex Nettleford and His Works: An Annotated Bibliography. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1997.
andrew jackson o'shaughnessy (2005)