Caribbean Writers: Critical Essays (1968)

This volume of essays was based on a series of radio programmes and responded to New Beacon’s aim to promote an independent critical tradition. In line with the aims of the Caribbean Artists Movement and the earlier work of little magazines in the Caribbean, this focus on criticism “allowed us to validate for ourselves our own vision of the world” (JLR, interview in Race Today  June/July 1977: 83).
 
Caribbean Writers: Critical Essays is one of the earliest publications by the prominent Guyanese academic, Ivan Van Sertima (1935-2009). Van Sertima remains best-known for his book, They Came Before Columbus (Random House, 1976), which drew on analysis of prehistoric Olmec statues in Central America to claim much older African origins for Native American culture. He offered a version of this much-debated book to New Beacon as a pamphlet entitled “Africans in America before Columbus”, but the project did not materialise (2.11.71 IVS to JLR, LRA/01/0803 Pt1). Van Sertima later wrote to Sarah White, following the storm of response to the book:
It has been turned down by every British publisher you can think of – at least 15 that I know of. Random House refuses to bring it out in paperback. Its paperback company (Vintage) which agreed to bring it out when it was coming out first in 1977 withdrew from the offer when it was attacked by the New York Times. Yet it has had its own underground public. It won an international prize in 1981 it came out in French paperback (Editions Flammarion) in the same year and it is now in its eighth hardback printing. I sell more copies of it than my publisher and, although they have never publicized it and never send it on to bookstores, I keep up a running commentary in magazines, newspapers, radio and television interviews, lectures on campuses and in churches. It cannot die easily. It just keeps snowballing. (23.9.83 IVS to SW, LRA/01/0803 Pt1)
 
After studying in London during the 1960s and working as a journalist and broadcaster, Van Sertima emigrated to the United States to teach in Higher Education. He found the experience both enlightening and harrowing, as recounted in his correspondence with John La Rose. His letters describe black separatism and the dynamism and complexity of black political activity in the States. As he concludes in one letter, “What I may become after my exposure to AMERICA in this year I do not know, for Black Studies is the most sensitive area of the American educational system” (21.7.70 IVS to JLR, LRA/01/0803 Pt1). Van Sertima promoted New Beacon while in the States, acting as their unofficial agent (SW mixed correspondence - 22.7.68).
 

1st page of letter to John La Rose from Ivan Van Sertima, 22 July 1968. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/0803/1

 

 

Caribbean Writers: Critical Essays (1968) by Ivan Van Sertima. 67pp.

Content

 
The book is framed as the second publication in the “New Beacon Critical Series” (backcover). A brief introduction outlines the essays’ content, and Van Sertima’s views on them several years after they were first written for radio. In this introduction, Van Sertima suggests that George Lamming has yet to show “the full realisation of his promise” (4) and that that Andrew Salkey’s A Quality of Violence (1959) merits a better appraisal, while raising criticisms of V.S. Naipaul: “he has been overrated by English critics, whose sensibilities he insidiously flatters by his stock-in-trade: self contempt” (4). The 14 short essays cover the following topics: The Romantic Exiles; George Lamming; John Hearne; Andrew Salkey; Vic Reid; Roger Mais; Neville Dawes and Merrill Ferguson; Edgar Mittelholzer; Jan Carew; Wilson Harris; V.S. Naipaul; Sam Selvon; French African Poets; James Baldwin. Their brevity makes the collection a series of fleeting impressions and introductory statements rather than a sustained engagement with this wide range of writers.
 
 

Production

 
Van Sertima wrote to La Rose in 1966 outlining his book proposal and offering to arrange a radio interview for him to help advertise and promote the work of New Beacon (IVS to JLR, 19.11.66, LRA/01/0803 Pt2). The collection was to be based on two radio series: firstly a series of 14 “Caribbean Writers” radio programmes, each lasting thirty minutes, which had been commissioned by the Foreign Office for French West Africa through the Central Office of Information in London in 1961. These programmes had been translated and broadcast in French to French West African and French-speaking Canada, and across the British Commonwealth, excluding (for an unknown reason) the Caribbean. Secondly, Van Sertima had authored his own radio series of twelve programmes for the Transcription Centre on African and African-American writers. It is interesting to consider this extension of the productive relationship between literature and radio that had been so vital to the growth of a Caribbean literary tradition in the forties and fifties through the “Caribbean Voices” series at the BBC.
 
Van Sertima’s manuscript included a copy of an essay on Aimé Césaire and another on francophone African poets David Diop, Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo and Tchicaya U’Tamsi. The former was cut in the final publication (IVS to JLR 9.9.67, LRA/01/ 803 Pt2), as was a critical essay on Martin Carter and Derek Walcott, which reflected the jaded era of its composition:
Most of these poems, so blood-fresh and striking when they first appeared, have dated [...] there are lines, moreover, such as those written in tribute to the dead Stalin, which, revolutionary as they appeared then, now, in the light of the exposés of history, fall jarringly upon the ear as the rhetoric of the naive idealist or unwitting reactionary. (19.11.66 IVS to JLR, LRA/01/0803 Pt2)
 
Though disappointed in Carter’s apparent disjuncture with present struggles, Van Sertima shares La Rose’s enthusiasm for his poetry, singling out the landmark poems: “Poems of Shape and Motion” and “University of Hunger”. It is unclear why the essay was cut, though La Rose’s admiration for Carter’s work may have been a contributing factor.
 
Regarding the book’s cover design, Van Sertima wrote to La Rose in September 1967 from Hungary, where he was conducting research:
About the cover of the Caribbean Writers. I think an Explosion as the central image, featuring incandescent fragments of the continents or of masks/faces, African, European, American Indian, Asian, would be a good idea. An explosion would give both the sensation of fragmentation – the fragmentation of inheritance – as well as the brutal and disturbing vitality of place, the silent and shattering illumination of sensibility. (9.9.67, LRA/01/0803 Pt2)
 
The final cover design, by Art Derry was somewhat simpler: a black and white abstract drawing in a similar mode to the cover of Harris’s essay collection. As Derry explained in an accompanying letter to La Rose:
Sorry for the delay in sending you the enclosed design but as you can imagine, simple effective design is not quite the easiest thing to arrive at! The ideas we discussed in London looked like illustrations for a Geography lesson so I scrapped them upon completion.

Hoping that you will find the enclosed self explanatory (and satisfactory). (29.11.66 AD to JLR, LRA/01/0259)

 
 

Reception

 
The book was published on 30 May 1968 and sold 746 copies in the first three years after publication. It was not widely reviewed and not reprinted. Van Sertima admits in his letters that some of the essays were based on research using limited resources: “These things have to be done so carefully but sometimes one is rushed by the expediencies of producers and the whole thing suffers” (9.8.67, LRA/01/0803 Pt1). The book’s broad scope and the lack of overall coherence meant that although it was a further addition to growing body of criticism of Caribbean literature, it was soon eclipsed by more accomplished work by contemporary scholars.
 
 

Further reading

 
Van Sertima, Ivan. They Came Before Columbus. New York: Random House, 1976.
Moore, Gerald. “The Transcription Centre in the Sixties: Navigating in Narrow
Seas,” Research in African Literatures 33.3, 2002.
Pinto, Samantha “Africa and the Archive: Researching the Transcription Centre”.