The University of the West Indies (The UWI) community is saddened by the passing of Professor Emeritus Gordon Rohlehr on January 29.
Professor Emeritus Rohlehr arrived at the St Augustine at a moment of change in the 1960s as the Caribbean began its course to transform the way in which it saw and positioned itself in the world. For him, these changes were manifested in culture and shaped by culture. The calypso and the literature of the West Indies were, for him, transformative and reflected the apocalyptic nature of our history and our history making. He became part of an international movement that reflected on the traumatic nature of New World history and who saw the literature that emerged as rich in contradictions and promise. The multifaceted nature of that history of enslavement, indentureship and European incursion shaped Caribbean scholarship and literature, and shaped him. In that regard, He initiated and taught the first course on West Indian Literature in 1970. That scholarship and his charismatic lecturing fuelled generations of Caribbean scholars, many of whom have gone on to teach the courses he created or inspired in the Literatures in English section at The UWI.
He was one of a band of intellectuals who used words to fashion ideas and to change the course of politics and the future. He wrote in small journals, in newspapers such as Tapia and spoke on radio and television. He connected with and interpreted the writings of the literary giants of the day, including Kamau Brathwaite with whom he had a particular relationship, Derek Walcott whose “mulatto aesthetic” evidenced the ambivalence of a memory of Africa and Europe; George Lamming, Wilson Harris, Roger Mais and Martin Carter whose work he brought into the mainstream.
But it is his pioneering academic work on the oral tradition and in particular on the calypso that many will remember. Calypso was a repository of the submerged past and the weapon used to chronicle the present. His work was and is masterly. A scholar and a critic, he was noted for his study of calypso, oral poetry, and cricket in the Caribbean region. As recently as 2015, Professor Rohlehr published a book about calypsonian the Mighty Sparrow, ‘My Whole Life is Calypso’, in which he stated that he set out to look at whatever might have been taking place in the 40-45 years beyond the early music.
In a tribute to Professor Emeritus Rohlehr, Vice-Chancellor of The UWI, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles said, “The Calypso Chronicler has gone to rest. His resonant, distinctive Guyanese tones have fallen silent. From Bourda to Sabina through Queens’ Park Oval, the region mourns a gentle giant. He served The UWI, his alma mater with distinction. Students and colleagues across the region and beyond have benefitted tremendously from him. Sleep well colleague and friend. Innings well played.”
Pro Vice-Chancellor and Campus Principal at The UWI St Augustine Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, remarked, “His legacy is carried in the students he nurtured at the Campus, through conversation and intense enquiry. His former students and those who thronged his lecture rooms, as well as the many scholars and intellectuals who have benefitted from his pioneering and intense and thorough research, share a deep sense of loss and gratitude. We extend condolences on behalf of the Campus community to his family.”
The University of the West Indies extends heartfelt condolences to his widow Dr. Betty Ann Rohlehr, their children and entire family.