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.
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.