Tribute to Jan Carew

Once in a while, a man or a woman comes along who epitomises the best of the worst of times – and shines out like a beacon to signal us to the further shores of hope. Jan Carew is one of them. Born at a time when empire was at its height and growing up when the pus of racism was seeping out from the sores of capital, Jan heralded and helped to shape the cultural revolution against colonialism and racism in poetry, painting, polemic and play. A wandering minstrel uprooted and cast abroad by the imperial imperative, he rooted himself wherever he was in the struggles of the people around him. And he was in many places, wearing many faces, but always in the same cause: freedom for the oppressed and downtrodden – teaching, writing, broadcasting, engaging with mighty men and women such as Malcolm X and Claudia Jones, Cheddi Jagan and Kwame Nkrumah, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes.

In 1943, he is a customs officer in Georgetown, writing for the Christmas Annual, and devoting his leisure time to drawing and painting. Five years later, his paintings are being exhibited at the Cleveland Public Library. One year on, he is back home in Guyana, publishing Streets of Eternity, his first collection of poetry. In the same year, on his way to Prague to take up a scholarship at Charles University, he dallies in Paris and meets up with Picasso and Gide and Richard Wright. In 1950, he writes his first novel, Rivers of his Night (as yet unpublished). In 1951, he is in Amsterdam, guest-editing a multi-lingual literary journal, de Kim. In 1952, he returns to England to serve as a columnist on the Kensington Post and, between 1953 and 1959, as a member of the Lawrence Olivier company, appears in plays in London, Liverpool and New York, does regular broadcasts on the BBC on art, literature and current affairs and lectures in race relations at London University’s Extra-Mural Department. In the meantime, he writes his first published novels, Black Midas and The Wild Coast, followed by The Last Barbarian.

In 1962, Jan returns to Guyana to serve as Director of Culture in Cheddi Jagan’s government and, as Latin American correspondent for the London Observer, reports from Cuba on the missile crisis. In 1963, he is back in England acting as art critic for the Art News and Review and broadcasting on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices, Home Service and Third Programme. In 1964, he travels to the USSR as guest of the Writers’ Union and, on his return, publishes Moscow is not my Mecca. Soon afterwards he is editing the radical black fortnightly, Magnet, in London – and talking long into the night with Malcolm X. The following year, he is in Ghana, as adviser to the Publicity Secretariat in the Nkrumah government and editing the Africa Review. Two years later, he moves to Toronto, working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and producing plays for television.

At last, in 1969, he comes to rest (sort of) in the United States – teaching at various universities, but not necessarily in any one campus or at any one time – and not just teaching alone, but writing (children’s books, too, this time), exhorting, activating – serving, serving all the time as a soldier in the people’s army. Which of course takes him to Grenada in 1982. And, when the revolution fails and the Third World laments, he lifts up our spirits with Grenada: the hour will strike again.

A renaissance man in the most deathly of times. A black renaissance man in the whitest of times. A griot tracing us back to the ghosts in our blood. And a presence, a persona – tall, elegant, majestic – to go with it all.

In the course of one revolving moon

He was soldier, savant, statesman

And Maroon.