For the last quarter century, Wilfred Cartey has been at the forefront of the movement to study and recognize minority cultures. He feels he has found a particular power.
"For me politics and culture are inseparable in our heritage. So I study Papal bulls antislaevry novels and political notices, for an understanding of our influences," said Cartey, a native of Trinidad who has lived in the United States since 1955 when he received a Fulbright. "I have found that as black people we decry and loathe exploitation but we also celebrate life."
Though Cartey can sound mad, revengeful and befuddled, right now he is the celebrant. Last night Washington friends of Cartey read poems from his new book, "Suns and Shadows," at Toast and Strawberries. Cartey lost his sight 16 years ago after a massive hemorrhage.
Author of more than a dozen books, as well as editor of a quarterly periodical," African Forum," his best-known work is "Whispers From a Continent." an analytical anthology of black writing. "The commonality of all minority writers is an exploration of the political aspects of culture," said Cartey, before the reading.
Though he is not broadly known, he is not obscure. In 1966, PEN America asked Cartey, then a professor at Columbia University to recommend writers form Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America for an international writers conefrence.In the late 1960s, when students struck for black studies programs, City College of New York asked him to design its ethnic studies program. He is still at CCNY, where he is one of 20 professors, out of more than 10,000 at the college, to hold a distinguished professor chair. In addition to his academic influence, Cartey's apartment on the Upper West Side is a center for foreign politicians and writers.
"Suns and Shadows" is a pastoral love story, full of soft, adoring images. A symbolic female spirit, Watunga, knits the slim volume together. "I was playing with a word to symbolize the emotions, the landscapes, the moodscapes, the presence peculiar to women of African descent," said Cartey, whose soft vice is scrubbed of any distinctive accent.
"I was in Barbados, at Bathsheba, the point in the Caribeean closest to Africa. I was playing with sounds, especially vowels. I thought of Watunga, the 'u' is like a drum, it has a full resonance like an alive and vital woman."
He stops to smile, a devilish grin spreads over an angular face that is further elongated by a cottony goatee. "Oh, yes, there have been Watungas in my life, but the mood comes from people I know and those I don't know. But Watunga couldn't be just one woman."
At this point Cartey politely skips over discussions of live for ttalk of politics. "I call my analysis of blacks today,' 'Le Condition Negre.' The images blacks have of themselves today are very powerful ones, the results of the 1960s, which this country is trying to liquidate. Now the internal sense of self, the assertive confidence, has to work against enormous, abrasive racism.
"people look at the artistic circles and say everything is quiet, everything is so introspective. This socalled retreat is a move to make people invisible."
He waits, then offers a few examples. "Recently there was a gathering of 620 people on a Saturday afternoon for a memorial service for [poet] Leon Damus. And no one reported it. Publishers aren't creating the black market, they are promoting one black writer a year. The universities are trying to neutralize our study arenas, taking away the ethnic titles, cutting back on monies," says Cartey. At CCNY, he says, the black studies programs are strong, attracting 1,600 students each year for the last three years.
Some of the gains and momentum of the 1960s are preserved, Cartey believes, because of an acceptance of self. He has had that sense all his life. "Simply, no one in the world was better than I and I am no better than anyone else," explains Gartey.
His father was a shipbuilder who resisted racism. "He refused to let the European ship captains call his men 'boys.' And one day my father, who was 6 feet 2, knocked down a Norwegian captain, who was 6 feet 5. After that he found it hard to get meaningful work," recalled Cartey. His mother, a nurse, became a midwife and supported the six children. One brother is now Trinidad's minister of labor.
Fortunately Cartey won a string of scholarships and essay contests - One when he was 16 on French playwright Racine - that ensured his schooling. In 1952 he enrolled at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and three years later came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship.
In 1962, he was flying to New York from Trinidad when he had a massive hemorrhage. "I had had problems flying before. Now I am working with people from Ralph Nader's group just to get two seat set aside on the plane with stablized pressure," says Cartey. A month and a half after the incident, Cartey returned to the lecture circuit. "I would say the first experience was dramatic. I had to learn to lecture without notes. I didn't want to appear blind and I wanted to be as brillant as possible. But I could not give up, I owed it to my extended family."
The mechanics of writing are described with a slight laught. "I just finished a novel on tape. Now you can get very dramatic with your voice, you can get the stress you want. But then you wonder, how is that going to look? My poetry is written in script and I turn the paper backwards so I don't write over a line.
"And the responses to creativity," he says, chuckling at a secret thought, "Well they are just like everyone else's. You smile when you know you've hit it, you get all balled up when it isn't working."