On Icons Hill
“I gazed and gazed . . . but little thought what wealth to me the show had brought . . . .” – William Wordsworth
Recently, I was driving down University Hill from the junction with West Terrace.
As I took a cursory glance to my right after passing the clearing, I came upon a series of images that reminded me of that poem I learnt long ago – William Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely As A cloud.
Yes, “I wandered, though not lonely as the cloud”. “Floating over dale and hill?” Not quite, but I was driving down University Hill when all at once I saw, not quite a crowd or a host, but certainly a line of names of distinguished Caribbean icons. The experience was both inspirational and nostalgic.
The University of the West Indies (UWI) at Cave Hill established a research park which celebrates the lives and contribution of some of the region’s most distinguished sons. There are four buildings which carry the names of four men, who have emerged by virtue of their intellect, scholarship, vision, commitment to regionalism and their boldness in geopolitics as citizens of the world.
If I recall correctly, on the descent, the first named image is the former building which housed the Centre for Multi-Racial Studies. It now carries the name of Sir Alister McIntyre who is a former vice-chancellor of UWI.
Sir Alister has been described as “one of the best known Caribbean sons in academia and regional economic development”. His colleague Sir Shridath Ramphal describes him as “a Caribbean man in the truest sense”. In his 50 years of service to the region, the Grenadian-born Sir Alister distinguished himself as an economist, development planner, scholar and public servant.
Another image, which “flashed upon my inward eye”, was conjured up by the name Sir Shridath Ramphal, another outstanding Caribbean man and citizen of the world.
Born in Guyana, Sir Shridath attended London and Harvard universities. He was secretary general of the Commonwealth for 15 years during which he held firmly to the view that “the Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world, but it can help the world to negotiate”.
His tremendous skills of negotiation were evident as he featured prominently in arbitration on several international issues. Among these were disarmament and security, environment and development, and humanitarian issues.
He chaired the CARICOM-appointed West Indies Commission. The same body also appointed him as chief negotiator for international economic negotiations in Europe, the Americas and globally.
Sir Shridath, described as the quintessential Caribbean person, is widely regarded as the leading statesman and easily another citizen of the world.
His is an image which continues to “flutter and dance in the [Caribbean] breeze”.
As I continued my descent, the name of yet another Caribbean pillar hit me. There was no “bliss of solitude” as I pondered on the stellar contribution of the late Professor Ralston Milton ‘Rex’ Nettleford.
Bob Kenner dubbed him national patriot, cultural ambassador, international scholar, dancer, choreographer, teacher, orator, critic and mentor, and concluded that he was arguably the region’s most eminent intellectual whose birth takes him back to 1933 in the modest Bunkers Hill community of Trelawny, Jamaica.
Like his fellow icon, Sir Alister, this Rhodes Scholar also studied at Oxford before returning to head what was called the Extra-Mural Department, now the UWI Open Campus. Undoubtedly, the building which carries his name symbolizes the region’s psychological, social, cultural and intellectual edifices in whose cornerstones the name Rex Nettleford must be indelibly etched.
By the time I reached the junction, either to enter the Cave Hill campus or go straight downhill, I gazed at the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination. It was this last edifice that brought me back to earth and home.
This Father of Independence, as he is dubbed locally, is remembered for his querulous insights including: “What mirror image do you have of yourself?” It was this political giant and visionary who in his final address to CARICOM asked: “Who will buy my white sand? Who will buy my gray sand?”
In that same address, The Skipper or The Dipper as we called him, also spoke of the peoples of the region being linked “by the inestimable bonds of consanguinity”. He is accredited for calling the President of the United States Ronald Reagan a ‘cowboy’ and with equal panache reminded us that “we should not be found loitering on colonial premises after closing time”.
These four regional Goliaths loomed large for the greater part of the 20th century and their work and presence exude from the core pores of the Caribbean in ways that can inspire confidence at this time of regional economic and intellectual crises. Yes, the imagery conjured up by the memorials and accolades to Sir Alister, Sir Shridath, Professor Rex and the Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow “stretched in never-ending line along the [corridors] of my mind”. Driving by, “I could not but be gay in such ‘illustrious’ company”.
And now “my heart with pleasure fills” when’ere I drive on icons hill.
• Matthew D. Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum on Education, and social commentator. Email [email protected]