In the latter part of the 1950s, his work firmly located in both locale and language, Jan Carew was signaling to the world that he had arrived, and along with him came a remarkable coterie of people and places to whom few had paid attention before. Over the many years of his writing and broadcasting career, he would tease out bits and pieces of the stories embedded in Black Midas and publish them in other formats.
He would also turn his novelist’s eye to the hidden in the many different global communities he inhabited over his long lifetime. This was not only in his fiction, but also in his essays and histories. For instance, there was his perceptive analysis of the itinerant handyman position being taken up by West Indian immigrants in the UK, in the piece, “The Odd Job Man.” Or, in his unrelenting quest to expose the true character of the explorer Christopher Columbus and the direct relationship of his incursions into the Americas with the origins of racism.
When Jan Carew passed away in early December 2012, the world lost a literary icon, often referred to as a “Renaissance Man” because of the breadth of his experiences and capabilities. He had also been an actor and playwright, broadcaster and journalist, and advisor to world leaders in many parts of the globe. Not only was he engaged in intellectual work, but also, he was very passionate about the role of sustainable agriculture to help rehabilitate Caribbean and other developing societies. And, in the last 40 years, he committed himself to working in Academia as he helped shaped the field of Black Studies in the United States, and worked to provide the kind of nurturing environment where students of color could thrive. In his ninth decade, he was lovingly referred to as “The Gentle Revolutionary” by Race & Class (Race & Class). His voice no longer had the booming quality of his youth, but his commitment to the people’s struggle was no less strong. The turnout for the double book launches of these two most recent posthumous works in London last year, and in Guyana this past March, was a testament to the esteem many still hold for him.
These two most recent works, the autobiography and the poetry collection, offer opportunities to view the world the way that Jan Carew did. The autobiography, which I was able to finish for Jan as his health failed him, also includes articles Jan wrote in the “heat of the moment” – in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, or in the UK struggling to make a living, or in the US at the height of the Black Power struggle. So readers have both his reflections looking back many decades, and examples of his writing published in those specific periods. For instance, he has a reflective section on Cuba and the Cuban Missile crisis written many decades later. And, I have included the three articles he published in the London Observer in 1962, at that very same point that this global drama was being played out. He was in Cuba at the time. It is an unusual, almost 3-D perspective.
The poetry collection, Return to Streets of Eternity, too, is a special retrospective. The title incorporates the title of his first collection, Streets of Eternity, published in British Guiana in 1953 when he was 33. It contains poems looking at the human condition, stretching from his earliest to some written in his early 90s. The expressions of solidarity with revolutionary leaders and struggles are particularly moving, such as in “Toussaint l’Overture,” “Ballad for a Revolution,” or “Letter to Agostino Neto.”
Paloma mia, corazon.
I had to write
and call you by the fondest names
the way Blacks of the Diaspora do
to greet a comrade, banish pain. . . .
Though Jan wrote prolifically and in many genres, he was a poet at heart. Jan always bragged that this made sense, coming from Guyana. For, the Guyanese people loved poetry and would turn out in the thousands to hear Martin Carter and others on the streets of Georgetown.