By David Austin
David Austin lives in Montreal and is the editor of the recently published book: ‘You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of CLR James.’ He recently spoke at an event celebrating Jan Carew’s 90th birthday sponsored by the Department of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He shared the platform with Eusi Kwayana.
Jan Carew, who celebrated his 90th birthday on September 24, has lived an extraordinary and itinerant life, or many overlapping lives, and seemingly many lifetimes. He begins in Guyana, but in many ways his life defies space and time. He is the quintessential diasporic persona, a happy wanderer whose presence helped to shape seminal moments in the lives of people of African and Caribbean descent.
Jan reported for the London Observer on the Cuban Missile Crisis from Havana; joined the Laurence Olivier Company in the 1950s and acted in several plays while simultaneously working for the BBC. He also studied dentistry at Charles University in Czechoslovakia and travelled to and wrote about Russia and people of African descent.
Jan worked alongside Claudia Jones and other notable Black and Caribbean figures as they attempted to humanize Britain, to liberate the decaying empire from itself and its legacy of colonialism and racism in the 1950s. He wrote several books of fiction, including Moscow is Not My Mecca, Black Midas, The Wild Coast and The Last Barbarian and several generations of West Indians were weaned on his children’s stories. He served as director of culture in Guyana in 1962 and an advisor to the Publicity Secretariat and editor of African Review in Ghana (1965-1966) and was detained when President Kwame Nkrumah was deposed in a military coup.
During his sojourn in Canada (1966-1969), Jan became the centre of a burgeoning literary scene, writing and mounting plays, including Behind God’s Back which, adapted from a short story by Austin Clarke, aired on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television in 1969. He started Cotopaxi, a literary journal that included poets and future University of the West Indies professor Cliff Lashley, Canadian poet Milton Acorn, and Jamaican Rudolph Murray, future editor of Black Images, arguably Canada’s first national Black arts and culture magazine. Still in Canada, he was active, and a voice of reason within, the Black Power movement, and later joined forces with Indigenous peoples in Canada’s Red Power movement. Continue reading