Some people take on the vital project of defending the national identity of their countries and invest all of their creative energy in building a legacy that inspires generations to come. Such was the case with thinker, professor, dancer, choreographer and intellectual Ralston Milton “Rex” Nettleford, who dedicated his life to extolling, studying and spreading the Jamaican culture from multiple bases of civic action.
Nettleford was born February 3, 1933, in the rural region of Falmouth, part of the Trelawny district located on the north coast of Jamaica. He grew up in a poor home under the care of his mother and his grandmother, who inculcated in him the deep love he felt for his roots and his community. He began his studies at Bunker’s HillSchool and Cornwall College in Montego Bay, and later earned a history degree at the University College of the West Indies. After finishing his first years of college, he won a Rhodes scholarship in 1957 that enabled him to attend Oxford University in England to study political science. Almost 50 years later, the Rhodes Trust established the Rex Nettleford Fellowship to support candidates for the cultural studies program at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.
Nettleford’s concern for the development of Jamaican society and validation of his national identity led him to return to his home country in the 1960s to work as dean of the Extramural Studies Department of the University of the West Indies. In the same era, he was also called on by then Prime Minister of Jamaica, Norman Washington Manley, to conduct a thorough study of the Rastafarian movement. This research, done with support from his colleagues M.G. Smith and Roger Augier, began a rediscovery of this cultural current, which until then had been marginalized. He later published his first book about Caribbean identity, Mirror, Mirror: Race, Identity and Protest in Jamaica (1969), which promoted the spread of Rastafarian music around the world during the 1970s. He was also the author of Manley and the New Jamaica (1971), Caribbean Cultural Identity: The Case of Jamaica (1978) and Inward Stretch, Outward Reach: A Voice from the Caribbean (1995).
Shortly after Jamaica gained its independence from Britain in 1962, Nettleford and Eddy Thomas cofounded the National Dance Theater Company of Jamaica to promote awareness of the traditional and emerging dances of his country. Nettleford also was artistic director of the organization. He also served as vice rector of the University of the West Indies from 1998 to 2004 and became the first graduate of that institution to achieve that post, which he continued to hold with emeritus status until the end of his life. He also worked as an advisor on cultural affairs for various figures in Jamaican government and politics. He represented Jamaica in international forums such as the UNESCO Inter-American Committee on Culture, the Caribbean Community Secretariat of CARICOM, the World Bank, the Organization of American States, the International Labour Organization and the government of Ghana, to mention only a few entities. He also was awarded numerous prizes and honors, including the Order of Merit granted by the government of France in 1975.
Rex Nettleford died on February 2, 2010, at age 76 in Washington, D.C., following a stroke.
Author: Alfredo Nieves Moreno
Published: April 14, 2012.
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