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Jan Carew, Leader in Black Studies, Dies at 92

African American studies scholar described as the “quintessential Renaissance man”

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January 10, 2013 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso
Jan Carew
Jan Carew

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Jan Carew, professor emeritus of African American studies at Northwestern University, died Dec. 6 in Louisville, Ky. He was 92.

Professor of African American studies from 1973 to 1987, Carew was described as the “quintessential Renaissance man -- an author, historian, internationalist, public intellectual, social justice activist and pioneer in experimenting with sustainable lifestyles for people of color.”

Darlene Clark Hine, Board of Trustees Professor of African American studies and professor of history at Northwestern, said Carew was an important leader of black studies.

“He helped to extend our understanding of the African diaspora through his illuminating scholarship, teaching and service,” Hine said. “I will always treasure his wisdom, draw inspiration from his lifelong commitment to social justice, and relish his quiet dignity."

Born in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1920, Carew set his first two novels “Black Midas” and “The Wild Coast,” both published in 1958, in Guyana. A prolific writer, he set most of his books in the Caribbean, chronicling the struggle of colonized West Indians to define their own identity whether at home or in exile. His nonfiction books also focused on similar themes, including a study of Indian and African presence in the Americas and a history of Grenada. 

Although Carew spent some of the early years of his childhood in Harlem, he left the Caribbean in 1944 to return to the United States to continue his education, where he attended Howard University and Case Western Reserve University. He then went to Europe where he attended Charles University in Prague and the Sorbonne in Paris. After living in Paris, he lived briefly in Holland and toured as an actor with the Laurence Olivier Company before moving to London. There he worked at the University of London as a lecturer on race relations and then as a broadcaster, writer and editor with the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Carew’s later books would reflect his extensive travels and experiences, such as “The Last Barbarian” (1960) set in Harlem; “Moscow Is Not My Mecca” (1964), set in the former Soviet Union; and “Save the Last Dance for Me” (1976), set in England. After meeting Malcolm X in 1965 when Carew was editor of Magnet News, he would later write about those experiences and conversations in the 1994 book “Ghosts in Our Blood.”

Carew joined the faculty of Princeton University as a lecturer in Third World Literature and creative writing in 1969. He joined Northwestern in 1973 as a professor of African American and Third World studies, chairing the department from 1973 to 1976. He had been professor emeritus since 1987.

Colleagues say teaching never disrupted his prodigious writing pace. He had been honored with numerous awards including the Walter Rodney Award from the Association of Caribbean Studies, 1985; the London HANSIB Publication Award, 1990; the Paul Robeson Award for “living a life of art and politics,” 1998; the Clark-Atlanta University Nkyinkyim Award, 2002; and the Caribbean-Canadian Lifetime Creative Award from the Caribbean Canadian Literary exposition, 2003.

“His intellectual brilliance, collaborative spirit and commitment to diasporic and interdisciplinary scholarship that transcends boundaries have inspired a number of us in the field,” said Celeste Watkins-Hayes, chair of African American studies at Northwestern. “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."  

Carew is survived by his wife, Joy Gleason Carew, daughters Lisa St. Aubin de Teran and Shantoba Eliza Carew, son David Christopher Carew, a sister Sheila Thorpe and a host of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, at Alice Millar Chapel, 1870 Sheridan Road on Northwestern's Evanston campus. A reception will follow in the John Evans Alumni Center, 1800 Sheridan Road.

Topics: People