Illustration by Yaz Serrano
By Hannah McGurk
Kenneth Ramchand wrote his PhD on Caribbean literature between 1959 and 1963. He was a scholarship student from Trindad (Kayalis & Natsina, 2011).
Ramchand was born in 1939 and studied literature as an undergraduate and Masters student, before gaining a Mackenzie Scholarship to study English at the University of Edinburgh for his doctorate (Ramchand, 1965).
Ramchand wrote about his experiences in Edinburgh in a book of collected essays called Disappointed Guests. He claimed the intense racial categorisation by British people, in a way many international students had not experienced at home, led to the forming of groups such as the West Indian Association. This gave them a kind of recognition as West Indians, despite being forced into such groups that might not have existed before (Clover, 2005).
In the tradition of Du Bois’ ‘double consciousness’, Ramchand describes ‘an amazing double vision’ found in the West Indian students – “the West Indian consciousness suspends, in equipoise, considerations of racial origin and considerations of degrees of blackness. In looking at the complex construct that is colonial society, it blends elements from these categories with rare flexibility.” (Ramchand, 1965, p27). He also emphasises how divides were created in British society between students of Caribbean, African and Indian descent, though the face of racism was largely the same – ‘This special form of blindness manifests itself in an insensitivity to racial discriminations and variant shades within the category ‘black’. It registers two crude categories, black and white.’ (Ramchand, 1965, p28).
In this essay, Ramchand also talks about how the stereotypes from the British helped him understand the colonial dynamics of racism back home, and his own ambivalence before coming to Britain. He recalls an encounter in Waterloo station where he deliberately selects an English porter over a Jamaican, calling him ‘my coolie’ (Ramchand, 1965).
Racism, loneliness and isolation
Of the actual racism experienced, Ramchand hints at wide-ranging experiences from violence “one can always avoid violence by not walking too late at night” to the emotional and sexual. He describes how there was a “total absence of relationships between white men and coloured women”. There were, however a small ‘tribe’ of local women who offered emotional, and sometimes sexual, support, though these were mutually beneficial transactions which resembled financial agreements rather than emotionally involved relationships. At one point in the essay he describes being initiated into this world by a friend who set up a meeting on the phone, and believing they were arranging to meet a sex worker (Ramchand, 1965).
Overall, Ramchand describes feelings of loneliness and isolation dominating his time at Edinburgh. As well as a lack of romantic relationships, platonic friendships with whites were seen as taboo, so he spent the majority of his time, particularly in first year, “stuck firmly to the group”, meaning the West Indian association, despite making only a few good friends and not having much in common with the rest of the group (Ramchand, 1965). Furthermore, he describes the Caribbean student as being forced into a role of performer, either calypso virtuosos, expert DJs or star cricketers. He recalls an interaction with a fellow white student who was visibly disappointed to find that he did not play calypso or cricket, making him difficult to comprehend. He called this ‘‘a fragmentation which is a steady refusal to see the black man as a whole individual.” (Ramchand, 1965, p26).
In terms of his studies, Edinburgh was one of the earliest universities to teach what would later be called postcolonial literature. Ramchand was an early student of the final years honours optional course, Caribbean and West African literature, along with Paul Edwards who would later edit works of Oloudah Equiano, making the two of them the first to put colonial writing in the mainstream curricula (Clover, 2005). Ramchand’s technique was to analyse as texts first, then pick out themes of history, language, voice, migration – these ideas were later taken up more explicitly by writers like Salman Rushdie and Chinua Achebe (Clover, 2005).
Read about other Caribbean alumni:
Publishing his first book and his University career
Following his PhD on West Indian literature, Ramchand published his first book, The West Indian novel and its background in 1970. This was a hugely influential book, spurring the postgraduate study of West Indian literature at the University of the West Indies, now part of the Department of Literatures in English. He went on to become the UWI’s first Professor of West Indian Literature, and was Head of the Department of Liberal Arts at St. Augustine for several years. He has also been affiliated to the universities of Yale, Tulsa, Indiana and Colgate in various scholar and visiting professor positions, as well as a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (University of Trinidad and Tobago, 2010).
Kenneth Ramchand clearly has a respected place in the postcolonial literary world, and wrote VS Naipual’s obituary in The Guardian when he died in August 2018. He writes with authority about the body of Caribbean literature, referencing all of Naipaul’s work in close analytical detail. In The Mimic Men, a miscellaneous collection of misfits and refugees with whom Singh associates for a time were soon to become a conscious part of Naipaul’s vision of a restless world of people cut off from the landscapes of their brith and not able to find purchase somewhere else. He was the first writer to stumble upon this theme and he took it further than anybody else (Ramchand, 2018).
Back in Trinidad, (now Trinidad and Tobago), Ramchand served as Associate Provost of the University of Trinidad and Tobago; a post which he held until his departure in 2009.
He served as an independent member of the Senate of Trinidad and Tobago 1987-2006 and is currently Professor Emeritus of West Indian Literature at UWI and at Colgate.
Clover, D, 2005, ‘Dispersed or Destroyed: Archives, the West Indian Students’ Association, and Public Memory’, The Society for Caribbean Studies Annual Conference Papers (6)
Kayalis, T & Natsina, A., 2011, Teaching Literature at a Distance: Open, Online and Blended Learning
Ramchand, K. 1965, The Colour Problem at the University: A West Indian’s Changing Attitudes, in Disappointed Guests: Essay by African Asian and West Indian Students, edited by Henri Tajfel & John Lewis Dawson