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Jan Carew, 92, first chair of African-American studies at NU

Jan Carew professor emeritus African American studies Northwestern University died December 6 2012 Louisville Kentucky.  He was 92.

Jan Carew, professor emeritus of African American studies at Northwestern University, died December 6, 2012 in Louisville, Kentucky. He was 92.

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:50AM

Jan Carew, the first person to chair the department of African-American studies at Northwestern University, was an esteemed writer in his homeland of Guyana, tackling issues of colonialism, class divisions and racism. He also knew Malcolm X, and performed in an acting company with a man considered one of the greatest thespians of all time: Sir Laurence Olivier.

Mr. Carew, 92, died Dec. 6 in Louisville, Ky.

His literary legacy “is quite considerable,” said Al Creighton, head of Amerindian Studies at the University of Guyana in Georgetown, Guyana, where his works have been taught. His most well-known novels were probably “Black Midas” and “The Wild Coast,” both published in 1958.

“Black Midas” resonated in Guyana because it told the story of “Shark,” one of the South American country’s tough, adventurous gold miners, known as “Pork Knockers.” Their mythology—independent and ruggedly resourceful — is comparable to that of the American cowboy.

“People recognized it, and it was also representative of a particular aspect of Guyanese life,” Creighton said.

The Pork Knockers are “men who have gone into the Guyanese interior to search for gold, and they tend to work individually,” Creighton said. “They would use crude, primitive methods of mining. They form a distinct, different group from the gold-mining companies.....they came before the big companies.”

“To a point, they can be representative of the Guyanese character,” Creighton said.

Mr. Carew’s writings were popular and well-reviewed, and reflected Guyana’s topography of rivers, waterfalls, mountains, forests and coastal regions, said Sir Wilson Harris, a U.K.-based Guyanese writer of 25 novels who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. “He was influenced by the landscape of Guyana, in his poetry and his novels, and he wrote along those lines,” said Harris.

When Mr. Carew was born in the town of Agricola, his homeland was known as “British Guiana.” He left the Caribbean to study at Howard University and Case Western Reserve University, before moving on to Charles University in Prague and the Sorbonne in Paris, according to Northwestern University.

Tall and elegantly handsome, he tried his hand at acting. A 1951 issue of Billboard magazine shows he appeared on Broadway in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” with Donald Pleasence, and the glamorous, glorious Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

In 1952, he socialized with writer Langston Hughes and other intellectuals in New York City, according to “The Life of Langston Hughes” by Arnold Rampersad.

His life intersected with Malcolm X in London in 1965, when the Black Muslim leader attended the reception for Magnet News, a newspaper for England’s black community that was edited by Mr. Carew. Days later, Malcolm X was assassinated.

Mr. Carew went on to pen “Ghosts in Our Blood,” which fleshed out the story of Malcolm X’s family, including his mother, who was born in Grenada in the British West Indies.

He also wrote about a heroic, mythical being, Amalivaca, who is said to have taught Amerindian people how to hunt and farm, Creighton said.

In 1969, he began teaching Third World Literature and creative writing at Princeton University, according to Northwestern.

Mr. Carew chaired Northwestern’s department of African American studies from 1973 to 1976, and taught in the department until 1987.

“The vitality of the African American studies department at Northwestern is due in no small part to Jan Carew’s leadership as the first chairperson,” said Celeste Watkins-Hayes, current head of the department.

“He helped to extend our understanding of the African Diaspora through his illuminating scholarship, teaching and service,” said Darlene Clark Hine, a Northwestern professor of history and African-American studies. “I will always treasure his wisdom, draw inspiration from his lifelong commitment to social justice, and relish his quiet dignity.”

Mr. Carew is survived by his wife, Joy Gleason Carew; his daughters, Lisa St. Aubin de Teran and Shantoba Eliza Carew; his son, David; his sister, Sheila Thorpe; three grandchildren, and one great-grandson.

A memorial service is planned Saturday at 11 a.m. at Northwestern’s Alice Millar Chapel, 1870 Sheridan Rd., Evanston.

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