Last week we bade a sorrowful farewell to two giants of our Caribbean civilization –– Professor Norman Girvan of Jamaica and Archbishop Granville Williams of Barbados.
The 72-year-old Norman Girvan died in Cuba, where he had been taken for emergency medical treatment after suffering a devastating injury as a result of a fall during a mountain hiking exercise in Dominica. Archbishop Williams, on the other hand, had been ailing for some time, and died peacefully at his home in Ealing Grove in Barbados –– right next to his beloved Jerusalem Spiritual Baptist Cathedral. The Archbishop was 91 years old. I had the distinct privilege of knowing both of these gentlemen, and it is an understatement to say that I had nothing but the highest possible respect for both of them.
My connection with Archbishop Williams goes back to the early 1980s when I would attend the opening event of Barbados’ annual Crop Over Festival –– the Ceremonial Delivery Of The Last Canes –– at various plantations across Barbados, and witness the then Bishop Granville Williams leading members of his Sons Of God Apostolic Spiritual Baptist Church in the most riveting and soul-stirring sessions of prayer and choir singing imaginable.
I subsequently went in to get to know the archbishop personally; to participate in many memorable church services at Jerusalem Cathedral and Zion Church; and to share and collaborate with him in many public educational events relating to African Civilization Day, Black History Month, National Heroes Day, July 26, Emancipation Day, Kwaanza, and the list goes on.
When, therefore, in the year 2012, I published a book entitled The Wide Streets Of Tomorrow: Essays And Speeches On Barbados, The Caribbean And The African Diaspora, this is how I began the chapter on African Civilization:
“Most of the people of Barbados may not know it, but they owe a serious debt of gratitude to Archbishop Granville Williams and the members of the Sons Of God Apostolic Spiritual Baptist Church for so valiantly keeping the banner of African civilization held aloft in Barbados.
“Those of us who were fortunate enough to witness the Spiritual Baptist celebration of the United Nations-sanctioned African Civilization Day received a baptismal-like immersion in the spirit, values and creativity of the African-centred Spiritual Baptist faith.
“No doubt, some of you will ask: ‘Why is it so important to explore and nurture the culture and values of African civilization?’
“It is important because the classical culture and values of the world’s first and most seminal civilization provide the antidote to much of the cultural sickness, depravity and nihilism that has infected today’s world.”
For 57 years –– ever since “the Archbishop” brought the Spiritual Baptist faith to Barbados in 1957 –– Granville Williams has been the living embodiment in Barbados of the dignity, wisdom and humanity of Africa!
And, in that role, he and his Sons Of God Apostolic Spiritual Baptist Church have made a valuable and indelible imprint on the culture of Barbados. 57 years of tireless “wukkin” in the religious, cultural and social “fields” of Barbados, the imprint of “Granville” and the Spiritual Baptists is more than evident on the music, poetry, folklore, literature, dance, nation language, drama, visual arts, architecture and religion of Barbados.
Of course, Professor Norman Girvan would not have been as well known to Barbadians as Archbishop Granville Williams was. But I can assure all of my Barbadian brothers and sisters that the late Norman Girvan is ranked among the greatest sons that our Caribbean civilization has ever produced.
Simply put, he was the Caribbean “public intellectual” par excellence –– the brilliant academic who consistently put his specialized knowledge and intellectual training and capacity at the service of the broad masses of the people of the Caribbean, and who lived a life absolutely committed to the sacred mission of building a Caribbean nation and civilization.
Norman Girvan was born in Jamaica, and attended the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in economics, before going on to receive his PhD from the London School of Economics.
As a young economist, he became a member of the New World group of Caribbean intellectuals and participated in the New World’s ground-breaking, pioneering effort to create a Caribbean-centred system of analysis and theorizing.
Dr Girvan served his native Jamaica well as head of the government’s National Planning Agency, before going onto higher regional service as Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States. He also served as professor of development studies and director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social And Economic Studies, and at the time of his death, he was a professional research fellow at the University of the West Indies Graduate Institute of International Relations.
One of the last public duties that Professor Girvan performed was to virtually galvanize and lead the Caribbean civil society’s opposition to the anti-Haitian discriminatory measures that the government of the Dominican Republic imposed on black persons of Haitian ancestry. At 72 years of age, Norman Girvan led the charge for us all!
When I first received the terrible news about Professor Girvan’s accident in Dominica, I rushed off the following letter to his close family members:
“I recently received the devastating news about the tragedy that has befallen Dr Girvan. Is there anything that persons like myself can do to help?
“He has been in my thoughts since I heard the dreadful news . . . . If possible, please convey to him how much he means to the progressive activists and Caribbean nationalists of my generation, and let him know that my thoughts and prayers are with him.
“I live in Barbados and I shared the sad news with my elder Barbadian colleague Bobby Clarke. Please let us know if there is anything we can do.”
I share this private letter because it conveys in a graphic manner the utter respect and regard that younger Caribbean activists like myself had (and have) for Professor Girvan.
These two giants of the Caribbean may have fallen in this material realm, but they haven’t really died! How could they have died, when they have bestowed so much of their spirit and substance on the people, institutions and culture of our Caribbean region?
On behalf of the officers and members of the Clement Payne Movement of Barbados, I extend sincere condolences to the relatives and friends of the late Norman Girvan and Granville Williams.
(David Comissiong, an attorney-at-law, is president of the Clement Payne Movement.)