Looking Back towards Home: Clayton Goodwin Reports about an Initiative to Get the "Transplanted Africans" in the Caribbean to Build Bridges with Their African Home and Heritage. (Diaspora)

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"People within the African Diaspora must not be content with their hapless state", says Professor Rex Nettleford, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies. He was speaking in the 25th "Sir Winston Scott Memorial Lecture". His paper, titled: "The Caribbean, The African Diaspora And The Third Millennium", was given at the Frank Collymore Hall in Barbados towards the end of last year.

He told his audience that the people of the Caribbean should not continue to accept the notion of Africa "as a dark continent" which did not contribute to their region's historical development.

In his view, "the Diaspora in the new millennium needs to ask not just where one stands in matters of human dignity in pursuing these desired ends, but on issues of economic globalisation, crippling external debt of poor countries, the HIV/Aids pandemic affecting East and Southern Africa and the Caribbean".

This is high-powered advice. It is difficult to imagine anybody with greater academic "clout" in the Caribbean. Indeed an entire tome would be needed to set out even a precis of Nettleford's qualifications and credentials.

He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University (England), after which he founded the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, of which he is still artistic director and principal choreographer.

He has toured extensively as a lecturer with UNESCO, and holds numerous positions in education, the arts, the media, and in international research and studies. Even more important is the esteem in which he is held as an individual.

And his admonition could not be more timely. The fall-out from the recent death of the Nigerian schoolboy, Damilola Taylor in southeast London, has shown how communities deriving respectively from continental African and the Caribbean, though sharing the same deprivations and social conditions, can still turn against each other in emergency.

Their aspirations and sense of history are too often incompatible, due to an education and political system which have emphasised the relationship between each and the United Kingdom to the exclusion of that between each other.

Caribbean schools are proud of being based on the "British model" -- to the extent that Barbados, appropriately where Prof Nettleford delivered his lecture, is known regionally as "Little England" -- and, increasingly, of their links with the USA.

Of course, there have been Pan-African movements in the Caribbean, particularly in the late-1970s and early-1980s, but these have tended to be restricted to intellectuals, artists, entertainers and Rastafarians. Too many, too, have been hijacked by North Americans, whose agenda has been often different to that envisaged.

An increasingly number of Caribbean public figures have expressed their feelings for their African heritage. Actor Rudolph Walker, who spends his time between his family home in Trinidad and his professional home in London, has spoken of the intense feeling of coming "home" when he arrived first in Ghana and Nigeria -- so much so that he was obliged to touch the ground as he came from the aircraft.

That was something which came straight from the spirit, because, hitherto, he had been known to cherish little, if anything, about the historical and cultural ties between Africa and the region in which he had grown up.

Prof Nettleford commenced his address with stories of how the "savages" and "black asses" of the Caribbean islands had been denigrated and denied a sense of place and purpose in the world relevant to their historical experience.

He spoke of the "severance, suffering and survival that have characterised a half millennium of encounters between Africa and myriad cultures and civilisations on foreign soil", and referred to "that turbulent passage, much of it (crossed) without rights but always with the opportunity for testing the invincibility of the human spirit against all odds". …