By Professor Richard A. Byron-Cox PhD
My admiration for Dr. Kenneth John hasn’t wavered in more than four decades. Even when he drew swords against me (his political jeu d’esprit) I never retaliated.
Au contraire; I celebrated him publicly for superlative contribution as a columnist, via his marathon, classic, wine-like-matured vintage, “This Week.” In that appreciation of his writings, -which in beauty, style, controversy and relevance approaches iconic-, I said little about his universal contribution to our Vincentian consciousness, without which true nationhood will remain elusive.
I now take a hurried-skeletal panoramic view of this human landmark who recorded some of the more important social and political moments, on our march from adult suffrage to this era of Gonsalves’ supremacy. Further, I shall make two confessions as to why our “first” real public intellectual is admired, respected and honoured by me, despite his imperfections, and the accusations of him being the personification of shameless political bias, so jaundiced that he hoped for an outbreak of political yellow fever that will return the NDP to power.
Until the advent of talk radio, to get “noticed,” politics had to be your profession.
My present subject having gained tertiary certification tiptoed into the political ranks, first sowing the seeds that sprung The Kingstown Study Group. He then engineered the Educational Forum of the People, and finally abandoned camouflaging with the creation of the Democratic Freedom Movement (DFM). These organizations’ chief goal was, our people discovering a sense of “somebodyness,” essential if independence and self-mastery are to be attained.
While Joshua used the labour movement, and others used the thirst of an illiterate mass for low bawdry to become master traitors of our nation, “selling we out every chance they get” to quote De Man Age; Dr. John was the first politician to place education at the centre of the development of a political movement and our pursuit of a democratic polity.
He was one of three visionaries who saw the importance of harnessing the energies of our youth to real useful purpose, and so helped to create the National Youth Council of which Jerry Scott and the incomparable, Honourable Justice Adrian Sanders are among former Presidents. Yours truly was once 1st VP. Another first was Dr. John’s Headship of what has now evolved to be the UWI School of Continuing Studies.
Dr. John was no working-class revolutionary. Indeed, underlining his intellectual class difference through a lifestyle heavily tinged with a petty-bourgeois ethos was most natural to his existence. Even so, his anticolonial credentials were confirmed by his practice. The DFM was a political vehicle committed to dismantling British yoke; and he played a key role in the defence of Junior “Spirit” Cottle after Attorney General Rawle was killed. In both instances he took on imperialism even if we weren’t cognisant of this fact. Then came the teachers’ strike!
Dr. John took on the Labour government and its colonial overlords on behalf of the strikers! His nephew -who once during a spat between them, published that Uncle Kenneth led him down the path of anti-colonialism-, was one of the “ring leaders.” But Mike Browne is not the only one Dr. John influenced in this way. From our present PM to the late QC, P.R. Campbell owe a debt of gratitude to him regardless of their differences. Indeed P.R. gave up his PhD studies and returned home to join the United People Movement on the behest of Dr. John, who wanted him to be the leader of this new party. Gonsalves had other ideas!!
Chairmanship of the Public and Police Services Commissions saw him being subjected to periodic public bashings by some who felt that he was instrumental in preventing their promotion, or in getting a training opportunity. I have deadly allergies to gossip, but many are those who uninvited, have filled my ear with stories of injustices suffered thanks to what they termed his political, class, and family biases and ties. I too had applied for a PhD scholarship and was interviewed by a panel which he chaired. Having inter alia, a university career littered with distinctions, a Masters, several foreign languages and impeccable recommendations were not enough. I was denied; but refused to blame him.
I first heard Dr. John speak as a boy of eight. While he spoke I loitered on the fringes of a conversation between grown men including my cousin Edward Griffith. I asked, “So he is a child doctor, an eye doctor,….? (Paediatrician and the like were words alien to my vocabulary). “No, he has a PhD in history. A doctorate degree,” assured Eddie, in a tone of reverence. A light went on in my head! Gaining a PhD became my mission.
Secondly, our friendship is no accident. This I planned in childhood and orchestrated in later years as I needed some guidance on how an impecunious boy could get a PhD. I went to see him when 15. After 30 minutes chatting, I left with him bemused, confused, irritated and in disbelief. But I had had my one-on-one with Dr. Kenneth John!! I was on my way. A score years later, I began holding my own public court via the press. I regularly requested his assistance with historical facts. I finally showed up at his office declaring, “I need your advice. As payment I offer lunch. “Accepted!” he beamed. My plan was fully implemented.
I salute Dr. John: patriot, writer, teacher, anti-colonialist, mentor; in short, an historic landmark. He was one of the inspirations that inter alia resulted in me lecturing at Oxford, sitting at decision-making tables around the world; and being a servant to all humanity. Yes, he did some good to me!
Condolences to those who share this loss!
- This article is an updated version of one first published in 2018.