Though Jan Carew has been known primarily for his work in the creative arts, he made a dramatic turn into Academia in the late 1960s and into agricultural projects in the 1970s and 1980s. These may seem quite distinct, one from the other, but Carew’s overriding goals — no matter the specific program or project– has always been to empower people so that they could liberate themselves. Whether it was to work with first-generation Black, Latino, and working class students at elitist US universities, or with local farmers in the Caribbean.
Jan Carew was powerfully drawn towards the Black Power movement. He was living in Canada at the time that the Black Power movement took off in the US. Black Power had begun to assert itself in Canada to a lesser degree, and the Canadians were worried. So, Carew had pitched the idea of doing a program for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to learn more about it. In particular, he wanted to focus on the cultural explosion occurring around it. That 1968 journey to the US proved faithful. Recounting this in a 1993 essay, he wrote, “I walked the streets of Detroit, Cleveland, Newark and Washington DC immediately after the Black rebellions in the late 1960s. These became euphemistically labelled ‘The Martin Luther King Riots,’ [King had been assassinated earlier in the year] but it was Malcolm X who had warned [that] rebellions would, inevitably, erupt in inner cities . . . . The culture of the streets then burst out of a hummus of decay like exquisite wild flowers flourishing in a dung heap. The poetry, songs, drama, music – plus new creative infusions of words, images and rhythms into the everyday language of the street – were an organic part. . . .” (“Culture & Rebellion”).
Invited to teach first at Princeton and Rutgers universities on the east coast of the US, he was committed to developing programs to help young Blacks and other first-generation students take full advantage of the universities that were now opening their doors to them. He then moved to Northwestern University in the Midwest, where he was the first Chair of the newly-minted African American Studies department. When he retired from Northwestern 14 years later, in 1987, he was accorded Emeritus Professor of African American Studies. I met Jan at Northwestern in 1974 and we married a year later.
Bridging the perspectives of his homeland, its villages and what he termed “its landscapes within,” with a larger world, Jan Carew wrestled with his own challenges of longing and belonging. But, ever adapting as he made his way into larger circles of experience, he never lost sight of the roots of home and the voices of his ancestors.