Africana Studies and Comparative Literature Professor Brings Expertise Beyond Walls of Academe

August 10, 2012

Selwyn Cudjoe is the Margaret E. Deffenbaugh and LeRoy T. Carlson Professor in Comparative Literature and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. He was born in Trinidad and Tobago and spent the first 19 years of his life there, but since then has lived mainly in the United States. The island nation remains close to his heart and thoughts; indeed he writes a weekly column for the Trinidad & Tobago Mirror, and is deeply knowledgeable about the history and politics of the place. He is also the author of Caribbean Visionary: A.R.F. Webber and the Making of the Guyanese Nation; The Role of Resistance in Caribbean Literature; and Beyond Boundaries: The Intellectual Tradition of Trinidad and Tobago in the Nineteenth Century; and has written, co-authored, and edited many others. We spoke to Professor Cudjoe about his life and work at Wellesley and beyond.

How often do you get back to Trinidad and Tobago?
I am able to spend much time there. For the past nine years I was a director of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago, which took me back there often. We met 10 times during the year so I was there nearly on a monthly basis. I am also involved in the political life there somewhat.

What’s the best source for news on the Caribbean, and Trinidad and Tobago in particular?
The website [A news aggregator that also contains critical essays on social issues and historical information on Trinidad and Tobago and the wider world. ed.]

How often do you contribute columns to the press?
I write a weekly column for the TnT Mirror, a Trinidad newspaper, which is posted weekly. [And included in]

Your columns are full of deep historic context, very current happenings, and strong opinions. What is your usual starting point when you sit down to write?
When I sit down to write, I want to know how current ideas affect the society; what context better allows one to explain/understand an idea/incident; and what are the historical underpinnings of such ideas/incidents. As a colonial man and a black person, history matters. It helps to explain a lot. It demands that we dig into the dark/hidden places of our lives to discover what it means to be. I am concerned also about cultural and political matters. I read the Financial Times daily (except Sundays, when it’s not printed). It is the best source of information and is so well written. It has gone ahead of the New York Times in my book.

Have any books especially inspired you, as scholar, author, or citizen?
Several books shaped my life: Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed; Walter Rodney’s How Europe Under-Developed Africa; E.H. Carr’s What Is History?; Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro. Eric Williams (author of Capitalism and Slavery) and C.L.R. James (Black Jacobins) also opened up my world. Coming from a colonial country where so much of our education (Woodson would call it miseducation) is meant to dull the memory and deny self, these books were instrumental in helping to shape the self that I am and still becoming.

What do you wish more North Americans knew about the Caribbean?
That we are very much a cosmopolitan people who helped to shape the New World. Sugar changed us and thrust us into the modern world. Hence, we are also a modern people. We were there long before the U.S.A., which is one reason why the Dutch sold New York (then Neew Amsterdam) and kept its Caribbean countries. In those early years it was more advanced and lucrative than New York and many parts of the U.S.A. Size is not always the most important factor in the creation of a civilization.

Would you recommend a book for them? Maybe a good summer read?
A good summer read: V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas. Or any of Jamaica Kincaid’s early novels.

How has being part of the Wellesley community influenced your work?
Wellesley taught me to be a feminist or, as Alice Walker says, a womanist. It turned me on to the value of women's education and the particular gifts that a woman student brings to the table. It also made me a different and I hope a more effective teacher.

Is there a course, new or otherwise, you are particularly excited about teaching in coming years?
My seminar on W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the greatest American intellectuals. Examining his ideas was important; it taught me a few things about intellectual discipline and what being an original thinker means. For my students, it introduced them to a world they did not know or knew only vaguely.

In addition to teaching, are you working on a book or other big project now?
I grew up on a sugar estate in Trinidad. The owner was William H. Burnley, the biggest slaveholder in the island but very much an enlightened man as perhaps Thomas Jefferson was. My great-great-grandfather also worked on that estate. I am trying to integrate those two lives. Just how it would work out, I don't know. I keep at it each day.