Two years ago the University of the West Indies (U.W.I.) honoured Mary Noel Menezes, a former head of the Department of History at the University of Guyana, by awarding her an honorary Doctorate Degree for her invaluable contribution as an academic and philanthropist. About a month ago the St. Augustine, Trinidad, campus of this regional university accorded a special honour to another Guyanese, Daniel Frederick Gordon Rohlehr.
Rohlehr, Professor of West Indies Literature there, retired from the institution at the end of the last academic year after forty years of service. He now bears the title of Emeritus Professor of Literature in the Department of Liberal Arts of the Faculty of Humanities and Education at St. Augustine. His retirement was marked by three days of special celebration which was unprecedented in the long history of the campus for its duration, scale and grandeur. It was truly a unique remarkable occasion.
Rohlehr was born in 1942 in the middle of the Second World War in what was then British Guiana. His very distinguished academic career may be said to have really begun in 1953 when at the age of eleven he won a Government County Scholarship and entered Queen’s College, the country’s leading secondary school. Throughout his eight years at Queen’s Rohlehr was a successful student, excelling especially in English Language and English Literature. In the middle years of his career there Rohlehr was a prominent member of a class which in the view of some analysts is the most outstanding group of students in the long history of the school. Among the top students of that class were the late Walter Rodney, Vic Insanally, the owner of Guyenterprise, and Ewart Thomas, a renowned professor and the first black Dean of Stanford University in the United States.
In 1961, the final year of Rohlehr’s career at Queen’s, he won one of the six or seven very competitive and highly coveted undergraduate Open Scholarships which U.W.I, (then U.C.W.I., a college of London University) offered each year to Caribbean students based on a special entrance examination. Three years later he graduated from the University with a First-Class Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature, a rare achievement in a very challenging field of study.
This achievement enabled Rohlehr to win one of the university’s external postgraduate scholarships entitling the recipients to pursue graduate studies overseas. He enrolled in Birmingham University in England which three years later in 1967 awarded him a Doctorate Degree in English Literature for a Thesis entitled “Alienation and Commitment in the Works of Joseph Conrad”.
The University of Guyana missed a golden opportunity to recruit Rohlehr to its staff. As a result, he took up a teaching position in the Department of English at St. Augustine in 1968 as a lecturer. There he developed an awesome reputation as a teacher, researcher, thinker, mentor, consultant and expert in Caribbean culture. His productive work resulted in his promotion to Professor in 1985.
One of Rohlehr’s outstanding virtues is that he is a meticulous insightful researcher and a prolific writer. During his career at St. Augustine he wrote more than 100 essays on a variety of subjects, especially West Indian literature, oral poetry, the calypso and popular culture in the Caribbean. Some of these essays are readily available in four of the six major books which he has authored, including two published by Longman in 1992, namely, My Strangled City and Other Essays and The Shape of That Hurt and Other Essays.
His first book had appeared eleven years earlier in 1981. It was a penetrating analysis of the trilogy of the Barbadian writer, Edward Braithwaite, and was entitled Pathfinder: Black Awakening in the Arrivants of Edward Kamau Braithwaite.
Rohlehr’s most celebrated work, however, is his monumental study of Trinidadian calypso which he published in 1990 under the title, Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, and described as “a sort of social/cultural history of Trinidad through the lens of a popular oral and performed poetic and musical art-form.” This book has played a major role in creating respect and appreciation for calypso not only as folk entertainment but as fine art and poetry. It has located calypso in its social, political and historical context, examining its contribution to Trinidadian culture and the construction of Trinidad nationalism. It has been supplemented by a series of important additional essays which Rohlehr wrote on calypso between 1997 and 2003. These essays appeared in 2004 in a book entitled A Scuffling of Islands: Essays on Calypso.
Rohlehr was also coeditor of Voiceprint an anthology of oral and related poetry from the Caribbean which Longman published in 1988. All his publications reflect industry, a spirit of enquiry, thinking and rethinking, meticulous analysis, and though profound in thought, are presented in what one scholar has described as “elegant delightful and readable prose.”
These publications served to establish and enhance his reputation as a scholar and to result in numerous invitations to lecture in the Caribbean, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Rohlehr has served as Visiting Professor at several prestigious universities, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Tulane University in the United States and York University in Canada.
The high esteem with which he is held in Trinidad and elsewhere was clearly evident in the retirement celebrations that were organized in his honour by the Faculty of Humanities and Education of the St. Augustine campus from October 4-6 last under the title “From Apocalypse to Awakenings”. These were three days of varied activities, well-attended by university staff and students, the public, representatives of the government, members of Rohlehr’s family and some of his former school-mates at Queen’s College.
The celebrations began with a session organized by the Dean of the Faculty, Dr. Ian Robertson, a Guyanese who was a contemporary with Rohlehr as a student at Queen’s College. This session was entitled “The Memory of Burnt Out Days”, which was the title of the last of several short stories which Rohlehr wrote for the Queen’s College Annual School Magazine during his career there between 1953 and 1961.
In this session three of Rohlehr’s school-mates, namely, Alvin Thompson, who recently retired as Professor of History at the Cave Hill Campus of U.W.I., Arlington Chesney, the Director of CARDI, and this writer, presented reminiscences of Rohlehr at secondary school. We spoke not only of his academic achievements, but also of his extracurricular activities as a debater, cricketer, and writer. A tribute from Terry Holder, another of Rohlehr’s classmates, was read as well as a tape recording by Ewart Thomas. The session ended with the presentation to Rohlehr of a gift of memorabilia related to Queen’s College from Vic Insanally. It set the stage for the remainder of the three days’ proceedings.
The heart of the celebrations was in the form of a conference in which a number of academic papers were presented by university staff and graduate students, many of whom had been taught by Rohlehr. All the papers dealt with some aspect of Caribbean Literature, History or Culture. Many of them examined, analysed and evaluated Rohlehr’s contribution to scholarship in these fields. Among the titles of the papers presented were the following: “UWI, St. Augustine, Rohlehr and the Rehumanisation of History”, “Exorcising ‘History as -Duppy’: Rohlehr’s Perspectives on Trauma and Caribbean Society”, “Caribbean Intellectual Praxis: The Art of Gordon Rohlehr”, and “Ah Never Get Weary Yet: Rohlehr’s Forty Years in Calypso.” The papers were almost invariably informative and stimulating.
The celebrations also included the launching of Rohlehr’s most recent work which was specially prepared to mark the closure of his forty years of teaching at U.W.I. The book, entitled Transgression, Transition, Transformation. Essays in Caribbe
an Culture, consists of twelve essays and three addresses on ethnicity, racial and cultural hybridity, history, colonial education, carnival and cricket. It explores texts which appeared in the last ten years about the shaping of Caribbean identity.
The celebrations also included lunch-time invited readings of short stories, a calypso night, a jazz evening and two receptions. For some participants the highlight was the “Award Ceremony & Film Tribute” on the first evening. The film was put together by students who travelled to Guyana to interview Rohlehr’s family and to visit the areas where he grew up. He was presented with gifts by his Faculty, the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs, and a secondary school. Rohlehr was clearly moved by the celebrations which were phenomenal and reflected deep appreciation for his immense contribution as a scholar especially to West Indian literature, culture and education. This writer’s only regret was that the University of Guyana and the Guyanese nation have profited in only a limited way from the work of this outstanding Guyanese scholar. Guyana’s loss has clearly been Trinidad and Tobago’s gain.