Jan Carew interview by Joy Carew

December was a busy month for me. I had a writing project to complete that occupied much of my time and curtailed my posting to Ourstorian. But I am now able to get back on track, and have decided to kick off the New Year with a link to a recently-published  interview with the Guyana-born scholar-activist, Jan Carew, conducted last summer by his wife, Joy Carew.

Jan Carew defies easy description. The term “Renaissance Man” has been used quite frequently, but given the scope and impact of his scholarly-activism and literary oeuvre— which span seven decades and four continents—it still seems insufficient for the task at hand. Perhaps I can place in context the difficulties of encapsulating the life of this living international treasure by listing a few notable individuals with whom he has interacted, collaborated, or associated during his stellar career as a writer, activist, educator, and artist: W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X., Indira Ghandi, Martin Luther King, C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Claudia Jones, Cheikh Ana Diop, Ivan Van Sertima, Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Andrew Salkey, Edward Scobie, Felix Topolsky, Jorge Amado, Abdias Nascimento, Toni Morrison, Laurence Olivier, Eric Williams, Tom Feelings, Julian Mayfield, Ana Livia Cordero, Kenneth Kaunda, Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Maurice Bishop, Walter Rodney, Denis Williams, A. Sivanandan, Langston Hughes, Dennis Brutus, Richard Wright, Andre Gide, Pablo Picasso, Cicely Tyson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Austin Clarke, Maurice Bazin, Sylvia Wynter, Derek Walcott … I could go on but by now I hope a picture is emerging of a man who has spent his lifetime at the center of the most significant artistic movements and liberation and human rights struggles of the Third World and African Diaspora. At 91 years of age he is both a pioneer and a living link to the other trailblazers who established traditions of leadership that have inspired, educated, and guided subsequent generations of artists, scholars, and revolutionaries.

Okay, at the risk of giving the false impression it is exhaustive, here is a list of labels that also help to delineate the portrait of the man—poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, painter, historian, critic, journalist, educator, editor, publisher, cook. I threw that last one in because anyone who knows Jan appreciates his skills in the kitchen. It is yet another attribute that is part of the Carew mystique and charm. Undoubtedly, such talents and abilities make for an extraordinary individual by any measure. Yet it is Jan’s personal characteristics and qualities—his warmth, humility, generosity and courage—that have made him a man who is respected, admired, and beloved by all.

In the interview linked below, Joy Carew focuses the discussion mainly on “Moscow Is Not My Mecca,” a controversial book Jan published in 1965 to expose the problems of antiblack racism in the Soviet Union. I want to use this opportunity, however, to mention several other of his outstanding books. I highly recommend “Ghosts in Our Blood: With Malcolm X in Africa, England, and the Caribbean (1994). This nuanced exploration of the Caribbean roots of Malcolm’s family also chronicles Jan’s encounter with him in London shortly before his assassination, and offers a fascinating glimpse into Malcolm’s thoughts and feelings in the weeks before his death. Jan also has done outstanding research on the legacy of Christopher Columbus and his so-called “discovery of the New World.” “Rape of Paradise: Columbus and the birth of racism in the Americas” (1994) traces key aspects of the ideology that fueled the ethnocide of Amerindians and the development of antiblack racism to the Reconquista, the reconquest of the Spain from the Moors by King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, which ended in 1492. The novel “Black Midas” (1958), which has been reissued with a new cover featuring a painting by Jan Carew, is a modern classic of Caribbean literature that has been translated into a half-dozen languages. A rousing adventure tale set mainly in the primeval Amazonian forests of his beloved homeland, the novel explores themes of race, color and class in colonial Guyana.

It is also important to mention that Joy Gleason Carew, Jan’s wife and the author of the interview, is a noted scholar in her own right. Her recent book “Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise” (2008) examines the stories of African Americans who sought freedom and opportunity in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.

Over the last decade, I have had the privilege and honor of assisting Jan Carew on various projects and participating in events commemorating and celebrating his life and career. I also have conducted several interviews with him that I hope to make available here in the near future. On the acknowledgement page of my thesis for my M.A. degree in Pan African Studies I wrote the following:

Finally, to my mentor, Jan R. Carew, I owe a debt that can never be repaid. I can think of no other human being whose life and scholarship better exemplifies the discipline of Pan African Studies and its centrality in the struggle for human rights worldwide. Nor can I think of any educator who is more generous with his time, advice, and guidance for students. His genius inspired this research project. His scholarship and writing skills provided an illuminating example for me throughout the planning and writing of this thesis. I am truly grateful for his guidance and assistance.

Jan & Joy Carew

Click on the following link to Small Axe Salon to access and read: Interviews » Blog Archive » Black Midas in Moscow.

See also this tribute written by Canadian scholar David Austin in commemoration of Jan’s 90th birthday in 2010: The Gentle Revolutionary.

6 thoughts on “Jan Carew interview by Joy Carew

  1. Many years ago I had the privilege of sharing a dream and a garden plot with the Carew family in our small enclave in Grenada, West Indies. My heartfelt thanks to Jan and Joy for convincing me to join them – my life was blessed forever by the revolution experience! With warmest regards, Jean Miller Corrigan (former neighbor and gardener of The Gap, St. David’s Parish, Grenada, WI) “Forward Ever, Backward Never!”

  2. Dear Ourstorian

    Since I wrote some posts about Louise Little on my blog last year,

    http://makemeadiva.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/malcolm-xs-mother/

    http://makemeadiva.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/louise-little-malcolm-x/

    I have become aware of Jan Carew’s book ‘Ghosts in the Blood’. Jan Carew is credited with writing about Louise in more detail, and with more insight that any other books out there. I am currently trying to get my hands on a copy of the book and in the meantime I have read that which I have found online.

    Malcolm X’s Mother in Montreal: A Pioneering Educator – Jan Carew – from Re/visioning Canadian Perspectives on the Education of Africans by Vincent D’Oyley and Carl James 1998

    It would seem to me that Jan has key insights into Louise’s experience as an emigrant to Canada, and then to the US, from his own heritage and from conversations with her oldest son Wilfred Little, who has now sadly passed on. I wonder if you would be so very kind as to pass on the message to Jan, if that is at all possible without causing intrusion, that I am trying to piece together Louise Little’s life to do some justice to the ‘epic story of her life’ that Wilfred referred to in conversation with Jan. Of course, if everything there is to say about it is all there in ‘Ghosts in the Blood’, then I will get it, but if there is anything Jan would wish to add to the experience of a Grenadian woman emigrating to Montreal and becoming an activist for Black liberation I would be very grateful. I was interested in the idea that coming from Grenada (or indeed other parts of the Caribbean) Louise Little would be steeped in magic and folklore. I have experience of a Jamaican mother-in-law who has precognitions to do with my own children and it would be useful to know more about these traditions that Louise Little grew up with.

    I also understand Jan’s father also undertook a similar journey and became an artist and I have read the very moving account of how the political struggle crushed both his father and Louise Little, in different ways. Jan has the ability to put himself in that moment in time when he writes and I would like to ‘resurrect’ Louise Little’s story in that vein, rather than assemble cold facts with yet another interpretation of events.

    I am sorry to leave such a long comment on your blog, but I am very much hoping to faithfully serve the story of these brave emigrants from the Caribbean and will try every door in that quest.

    With very best wishes

    Jessica Russell

  3. Ms. Russell,

    I am pleased to hear of your interest in Jan Carew’s work on Louise Little. Jan’s book “Ghosts in Our Blood” is noted for his groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of Malcolm’s Grenadian roots and his maternal parentage. Those who know Jan are not in the least surprised by this. When writing about prominent historical figures he has devoted considerable attention to their maternal upbringing. His work on Christopher Columbus in “Rape of Paradise: Columbus and the birth of racism in the Americas” (1994) uses a similar approach to create a unique portrait of his subject. In the case of Louise Little, Jan benefited from conversations with her oldest son Wilfred Little, and from having lived in Grenada for a brief time, which provided the opportunity to discuss the Little family with local elders. Jan also lived in Canada for a number of years and, as a prototypical Caribbean wanderer, could easily understand the Little family’s Canadian experiences. These experiences and contacts, and Jan’s many other skills as a researcher and writer, contributed to the brief portrait of Louise Little that emerges in the book.

    I will pass your message on to Joy Carew, Jan’s wife. However, for health reasons, I do not believe Jan will be able to respond to your inquiry. He has Parkinson’s disease, which has made it somewhat difficult for him to communicate. He is “bearing up,” as he likes to say when asked about his health, but is marshaling and focusing his strength on completing his memoirs. I do encourage you to read “Ghosts.” It probably won’t answer all your questions, but it may point you to other avenues for exploration and inquiry.

    Best regards,

    John

  4. Dear John

    Thank you for your reply, it is much appreciated. Since I posted my comment I have got a copy of ‘Ghosts’ and I have read it with great interest, particularly the conversations with Tanta Bess.

    I am sorry to hear of Jan’s ill health, my Grandfather suffered with the same condition, so I very much understand and would not wish to intrude. Please, if you get the opportunity, pass on my sincere respects and thanks to him for writing ‘Ghosts’ which I have found eye-opening in many ways; not least because it gives me a better understanding of what life might’ve been like for my own children’s grandparents as immigrants from the Caribbean to Britain in the 50s.

    With best wishes

    Jessica

  5. Pingback: Netizens “Bow Farewell” to Guyanese Writer Jan Carew · Global Voices

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