Vaneisa: The Shape of that Hurt—remembering Gordon Rohlehr

It is one of those rare occasions when every praise song being sung is true. Not one word has been misspent—generous, gentle, erudite, kind, gracious, pioneering—it is easy to endorse them sincerely.

Since his passing, Gordon Rohlehr has invoked the kind of gratitude and love that truly befits the colossal space he occupied so unassumingly in his lifetime.

Professor Gordon Rohlehr (Emeritus) at the University of the West Indies St Augustine Campus was awarded the Chaconia Medal SILVER in the Spheres of Literature, Culture, History and Education at the National Awards 2022.
(via Office of the President)

I dare not try to chronicle his astonishingly prolific accomplishments. I leave that to someone like Prof Kenneth Ramchand, who shared many of his ideals, and who has also had to watch the degeneration of much that they held dear.

Decades ago, when they were optimistically visualising the role of West Indian literature in the development of Caribbean civilisation, they faced many obstacles; yet Gordon taught the first course at The UWI on West Indian literature in 1970.

His unwavering commitment to showing the nexus between our history, our culture, and the psychological state of contemporary society was based on detailed study of its innards. Cultural studies had not yet found a place within The UWI.

Gordon’s approach was scoffed at, notably by one of its current bigwigs, who saw the fact that most of his books were self-published as a sign of a lack of academic rigour. It is the plague of academia, where those uncertain of the validity of their ideas, believe they have to seek endorsement by citing every so-called expert.

Late UWI Professor Gordon Rohlehr.

But how, in the case of cultural studies—where, in the case of the study of calypso would Gordon have sought endorsers? His work did not lack rigour; it was simply ground-breaking.

Gordon was my supervisor when I did my MPhil in cultural studies, specifically on West Indian cricket autobiographies and biographies. He never took it as a supervisory role; instead our conversations were long, rambling ones on cricket, society and literature.

When he retired from The UWI in 2007, there was a three-day conference in his honour and he was very touched by it. However, in no time he was reminded of the churlish nature of the place itself. He had told me about it, the hurt unconcealed. But he wrote about it in a document he called, “The Chronicles of Daniel; Book: The First: Six Parables of Disconnection,” which he had given to me.

It is a marvellous tale, which I would happily quote at length, but space denies it. In the sixth parable: “Rotten and Forgotten,” he tells the story.

Students at The UWI Campus.
(via The UWI)

“Last October – Monday 14th October 2008, to be precise – when the Campus Security, doing their duty with extraordinary efficiency, clamped my car, my first reaction was one of anger mixed with unbelief and hurt pride.

I walked over to their headquarters next to the car park where I had been parking for the last three decades, to explain to them that they themselves had taken away the expired 2007-2008 parking permit, but had issued no interim permit for the two or three weeks it had taken them to fork out the 2008-2009 permit. But they acted as if they didn’t know I-and-I-and-I…”

He goes on to describe how they attempted to humiliate him, and his subsequent process of disconnection.

Around then he had sent me an email in response to my enquiry about his mobility (he had had hip replacement surgery the year before).

A clamped car.

“I’ve been slowly disconnecting from most things. I am moving much more freely than last year this time. I am still in the process of reading and destroying dead files and of trying to create space in my clogged study for garbage accumulated during my 40 years at UWI.

“A terrible indifference and tiredness of spirit informs most of the things I do—an inability to feel one way or another. This acedia had been there for many years, but was kept in control by the fact of grinding work and routine and deadlines, which, more often than not, I simply allowed to die.”

He’d begun the sixth parable (Rotten and Forgotten) this way:

“Is not to say I didn’t know, I Daniel, I Frederick, I Gordon, now beyond epiphanies. Is not to say I didn’t know. For I have known since that morning six decades ago when Ashy Mack, headmaster of St Jude the Obscure Anglican school, asked by my mother, his Deputy Sheriff: ‘How are you this morning, Mr Mack?’ replied: ‘One day nearer to the grave, Mrs Lyons-Denne, one day nearer the grave.’

The late Gordon Rohlehr.

“I understood since seven that living was dying, and to counter the pain of constant loss I adopted a strategy of erasing names, faces and situations; of numbing memory and voiding experience. For to remember is to grieve for what can never be retrieved or restored; to forget is to open up a possibility of moving into the emptiness of a new and strange space.

“So is not to say I didn’t know. Is only that sometimes these fundamental truths—decay and obsolescence, that is, life’s ultimate verities—are brought home to one with extra-special force and farce and gleaming clarity, as old epiphanies implode with the force of new ones.”

Despite this overwhelming disillusionment, he continued to write and think and talk, and if he could see how profoundly he changed our world, I am sure it would bring his infectious grin back to life.

Rest in Peace, Bookman.

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One comment

  1. “Disconnected”…”Rotten and Fotgotten”…….I fear this may be the lament of many of our patriots. They serve with compassion, love and determinatio, on a mission to unveil our greatness. For love of WEself………… We reap the benefits, oblivious to their sacrifices. Pay them no mind while we stand on their shoulders. I am a honoured to have had a glimpse of his greatness, as a student in Professor Rohlehr’s Calypso History class. His passion for the Artform was infectious. His perspective was refreshing and respectful of the Intellectual prowess of our Griots …chosen by the ancestors. He has gone to join the greats and would never be forgotten by those blessed to have immersed in his greatness. Thank you Professor Gordon Rohlehr. May our stories continue to be told through Kaiso…….

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