What I still call "The War" (WW II) started when I was 6 years old and living in Kingston, Jamaica. Already children were beginning to hear about Black persons who were legendary because of the high degree of their artistry or the scope and excellence of their achievements. Olympian sprinter Jesse Owens was one such. Later, the idols became Joe Louis (Barrow), whose prowess in the boxing ring was captured for us by radio and, after the bouts, on the newsreels at the cinema; Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole.
As I neared secondary school age, there came political awareness -- Jamaica got "universal adult suffrage" in 1944. So the significance of Marcus Garvey -- considered, it seemed, a somewhat subversive figure living in the U.S. but with many followers in Jamaica -- was not lost on me, and I was intrigued by the relationship between the nascent Rastafarian group and the members of the UNIA in Kingston.
By the teenage years, I wished I could sing like Billy Eckstine, especially when he crooned "Bewildered." But I later became particularly awestruck by the magnificence and beauty of the voices of contralto Marian Anderson and the Renaissance man Paul Robeson, both of whom had overcome tremendous odds. I also took pride in Ralph Bunche's receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace. The historical achievements of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Henri Christophe in the founding of the neighbouring Republic of Haiti impressed me as well. Young Harry Belafonte's rendition of "Hol(d) Him Joe" made an impact too: He seemed most promising. Eartha Kitt was beguiling.
As luck would have it, due to the enterprise and public spirit of impressario Stephen Hill of the great Hill family, I had the opportunity to hear Paul Robeson sing in a free, open-air concert at the Kingston Race Course, as it was called, in the late '40s. The Earth trembled on his last note in "Old Man River," his closing number. The pleasure was repeated not long afterwards when I listened to contralto Marian Anderson's sublime "Ave Maria" among other classics at the same venue. (I was one day to hear her do a program of German "lieder" in Ottawa at the Capitol theatre as part of her farewell world tour. The voice was still there.)
In the cycle of life, I was afforded the opportunity by the late Errol Hill, the resident tutor in drama, and Derek Walcott, to play the title role of Henri Christophe, in a 1954 production of Walcott's play by the Dramatic Society of the University College of the West Indies, directed brilliantly by the author, and again to appear in the pageant "Drums and Colours" which he wrote for the Festival of Arts with which the embryonic Federation of the West Indies was launched in 1958. (The pageant was fittingly directed by Errol Hill who also played a part in it.) By then I had had, by chance in the summer of 1954, the privilege to walk on the wall at the Citadelle which I had imagined when doing the famous "I shall build châteaux---" soliloquy while looking toward the south. Work with the genius author and the visit provided a deeper understanding of the high stature of those "Black Jacobins," as C.LR. James called them in his book.
I did not meet Joe Louis, but selection as Jamaica's delegate to the New York Mirror Youth Forum in 1951 afforded me the opportunity to sit between his victor Rocky Marciano and former president Hoover, the luncheon speaker at the Forum held at the Astor Hotel, where we are also privileged to hear the young prodigy pianist Philippa Schuyler, whom I had the honour to present to the assembly at my secondary school before she played at the beginning of 1952 when she visited Jamaica.
Chance and circumstance also gave me the opportunity to meet my hero Ralph Bunche: My thoughtful professor of international relations at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and former colleague of Bunche's at the UN, the late Alastair Taylor, took me for an introduction to him in his office there, as part of a trip to New York in 1962. His was a calm presence. Later in the '60s, I attended a Belafonte concert in Toronto and, of course, went backstage to get his autograph. He was by then an international sensation and very popular in Canada, especially adored by the ladies. I went to hear him again in Ottawa when he brought Miriam Makeba, graciously giving her the limelight. But more thrilling was the chance to speak to him at a gala reception in the late '70s when he came to do a concert to raise funds, again, for the National Arts Centre Orchestra Ottawa: He was so indulgent in our brief exchange that someone asked if we had been friends. His return as an octogenarian MC to raise funds once again in 2007 was another source of joy, although I followed my shy wife's advice and did not go to speak to him. I would have wanted to thank him for all that music, his philanthropy and advocacy for public funding of the arts, and the leadership in the civil rights struggle, supporting Martin Luther King Jr., and being, in an unclaimed way, his successor.
Fortunately, I heeded my own counsel and got Eartha Kitt's autograph when she also came to the National Arts Centre in 2007, still extremely seductive at 80. In the interim, I did hear Billy Eckstine sing "Bewildered" live in Ottawa as part of a concert which also featured trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie.
So, I did get glimpses, in the flesh, of some of the Black idols of my youth and a vicarious connection with others from the history books.