Best known for his seminal novel Black Midas, Guyana-born Jan Carew helped shape the revolt against colonialism and racism in more ways than one, as a tribute event to him revealed
Novelist, poet, actor, scholar, artist, radical, polemicist – Jan Carew has been all of these during a long and fruitful life of what he himself describes as ‘endless journeyings’. His contribution to the development of Caribbean literature, to the understanding of colonialism and imperialism – from Christopher to Columbus to the invasion of Grenada – and to the fight for gender and racial equality, were among the achievements highlighted at a special tribute evening held to coincide with a rare visit to London in May (2009) from the 90-year-old sage himself.
Frail but serene looking, he listened as a long line of speakers stepped up to the podium to sing his praises. One of them, Colin Prescod referred to a 2002 edition of the journal Race and Class, which was wholly devoted to a celebration of the man it called ‘the gentle revolutionary’. Prescod himself summed him up thus: ‘Jan is a soldier, savant, statesman and Maroon.’
Carew rounded off the evening with an anecdote about one of his students who was late for a lecture because the road was icy. Every time he took one step forward he took two steps backwards and ended up back home. This was a metaphor for his own life on the political and cultural frontline: ‘I started going back home to go forward. Some times in our struggle we have to go home.’ His early novels Black Midas and Wild Coast, which examine the intricacies of Guyanese colonial society, and political works like Fulcrum of Change, in which Columbus’ genocide of the Caribbean’s indigenous peoples is laid bare, attest to this mindset.
Carew also talked of the primacy of women in the liberation struggle and the ‘fallacy’ that it is men who liberate women. He added, ‘Africa can never liberate itself until women are liberated – it is disgraceful that following the defeat of apartheid the South African President has three wives.’
Jan Carew was born in 1920 in the village of Agricola in Berbice, Guyana. After working briefly as a civil servant in Georgetown and Port of Spain, Trinidad, he left Guyana to pursue his further education, ending up at Howard and Western Reserve universities in the US, Charles University in Prague, Czechoslovakia and the Sorbonne in France, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Andre Gide, Picasso and Richard Wright. Moving to London he displayed another talent when he became an actor with the Lawrence Olivier Theatre Company alongside Cy Grant.
He wrote Black Midas, his first novel in 1958, followed two years later by Wild Coast. Out of print for a number of years, they have now been resurrected by Peepal Tree Press as part of its Caribbean Modern Classics series to provide a unique insight into Guyanese colonial society where race, ethnicity and class divided and ruled several times over.
In Black Midas Carew was one of the first to write about Guyana’s vast Amazonian interior, where “port-knockers”, gold and diamond prospectors, sought their fortune. This is how the protagonist, Aron Smart, manages to escape the poverty of his black forebears. But so ingrained are Guyana’s racial and class barriers that he remains forever trapped in their clutches, Carew’s warning, say commentators, of what might happen in the postcolonial era if the old order is not completely overturned.
In Wild Coast, Carew examined the country’s intricate social strata through the coming of age story of Hector Bradshaw, a scion of Guyana’s light skinned elite. Sent to live in the country – the wild coast of the title – he is changed by his exposure to its peasant inhabitants only a few generations away from slavery and to nature in the raw.
In both novels, Carew’s rich and exuberant imagery, and his insight into Guyana’s colonial past and autonomous future make them landmarks of Caribbean literature, emerging at a time when politics and culture merged in the ferment of the independence struggle.
Carew went on to live in Jamaica between 1962-66 moving to Canada for some years before settling in the US. He taught at Northwestern University and at Princeton and helped in the development of African American studies. He also spent time in Ghana in the early 1960s where he was an advisor to Kwame Nkrumah.
At a time when the US civil rights movement and the Africa’s anti colonial struggle were mutually reinforcible, he met Malcolm X and later wrote about him in Ghosts in our Blood (1994). A visit to the USSR in 1964, left him disillusioned, producing the book Moscow is not my Mecca. Grenada: the hour will strike again was published two years after the US’ 1983 invasion following the shortlived revolution. In it Carew once again returned to the source, revisiting not only the Fedon-led slave rebellion of 1795 but also the resistance of the Caribs the previous century.
Carew has written numerous essays, several books for children, a number of plays, and a collection of poems. In his retirement to Kentucky, he has resumed his old love of painting and two of them have been used to illustrate the cover of the republished Black Midas and Wild Coast. The tribute evening was organized with the help of Hansib publisher Arif Ari and the Institute of Race Relations
Black History 365/spring 2009/ www.black-history-month.co.uk