Few Caribbean intellectuals have been able to combine their public, social and academic roles with their cultural and spiritual awareness as effectively as Alston Barrington Chevannes. A university professor and musician, he is considered one of the most distinguished figures of contemporary Jamaican society. He is known for his research into Caribbean cultures and identities, family relationships, sexuality and gender, as well as the dynamics of social integration, violence and crime, indigenous and religious forms such as revivalism and Rastafarianism, and others that are socio-political in nature, such as Garveyism.
Barrington Chevannes was born in Saint Catherine, Jamaica, on January 7, 1940. His parents were Herbert and Doris Chevannes, business people in the Glengoffe area. They encouraged his interest in music, culture and spirituality from an early age. He attended high school at St. Georges Academyin Kingston, the capital city, where he learned Latin and developed his Catholic faith. He later became a priest in the Shadowbrook Jesuit seminary in Massachusetts. During that time, in 1965 and 1966, he also earned his bachelor’s degree in Philosphy and the Classics at Boston College.
Barrington Chevannes returned to Jamaica in 1966 and found a scene of social tension to which the Catholic Church was not responding proactively. These circumstances, and his recent contact with the civil rights struggles taking place in the United States in the 1960s, along with other philosophical issues, led him to become disillusioned with the priesthood. In those years Barrington Chevannes also realized that his interest in African values and his desire to contribute to Jamaican society through political activism were not compatible with his role as a Catholic priest. In 1968, he married his wife, Pauletta, and they had two daughters, Abena and Amba.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Barrington Chevannes earned a master’s degree in sociology at the University of the West Indies and, eventually, a doctoral degree in anthropology from ColumbiaUniversity in New York. At that point, he became deeply involved in studies of the Rastafarian culture and discovered, according to his colleague J. Peter Figueroa, that the Rasta philosophy “represented a fundamental rejection of racist colonialism and a profound reaffirmation of African roots.” He was also one of the leaders of the Workers Party of Jamaica, founded the organization Fathers Inc., contributed to the Peace Management Initiative, and was president of the Institute of Jamaica.
Barrington Chevannes wrote numerous essays and books on cultural and anthropological topics, including Betwixt and Between: Explorations in an African-Caribbean Mindscape, published in 2006, Learning to be a Man: Culture, Socialization and Gender Identity in Five Caribbean Communities, from 2001, and Rastafari: Roots and Ideology, which appeared in 1994, just to mention a few.
Also, he has been widely recognized as a composer of spiritual and folk music. Among his most popular pieces is Black Up, a hymn dedicated to the importance and presence of black culture in the world.
Alston Barrington Chevannes died in Jamaica on November 5, 2010, at 70 years of age.
Author: Alfredo Nieves Moreno
Published: May 24, 2012.
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