Communicating with ourselves: The Caribbean artist and his society -- Rex Nettleford, December 1985 address at the Guyana Prize for Literature Awards Ceremony

EXCERPT from the Address:

Leon Botstein, the young President of Bard College in New York recently wrote the following: …no one in America writes except from necessity. Our ease of movement and access to the telephone have made most of our exchanges not written but rather oral, distance notwithstanding. Good news is brought in person or by voice; bad news in writing. We tell someone we love them, and we write the proverbial ‘Dear John’ letter. Bills, warnings, eviction notices and refusals come in writing…The relatives we wish not to see are those to whom we write. In this world, it is little wonder that no American child sees any need to become literate.

And yet the need to become literate remains a sine qua non of place and purpose in the modern world. The computer revolution will not obliterate in one fell swoop the consequences of Gutenberg. Those of us who proudly use, and disingenuously abuse, the myth of the ‘oral tradition’ will not escape the tenacity of the scribal imperative. Writing is not antonym to speaking. Both will continue hand in hand for a long time to come since societies like ours in the Caribbean cannot afford the neglect of any of the skills and modalities of communication with ourselves and with the rest of the world if we are to find form and purpose in sharing the human condition….

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Comment by Michael O'Neal on March 30, 2010 at 12:21am
Thanks for those observations, Keith.

Your raise some issues on which it would have been interesting to have been able to have Rex's perspective as well....
Comment by Keith Hart on March 29, 2010 at 11:16am
I have spent about ten years in the US and more than that in France and what strikes me about the academic classes in both places is how much more literate they are than the British universities. Certainly the culture of my alma mater, Cambridge, was much more oral than any other the great American universities I taught in. We bright boys were trained to think fast on our feet, to be what I call "confident ignoramuses". Any American graduate student knows that somewhere in that vast country there are a handful of others doing much the same thing. The need to cover the literature there is oppressive. Rex was a graduate of Oxbridge himself, a wonderful oral performer (and dancer!) who probably would have found it hard to meet the rigorous standards of an American training. But then putting down the Yanks is one of the few compensations left for graduates of the old universities, along with mystifying the sources of their own power.


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