Toward a Native Humanism

February 2023

Cliff Lashley and the Radical Practice of Memory

The first time I heard the name Cliff Lashley I was a teenager living in Port Antonio, Jamaica. In February 1993, his name was news. First there were the headlines about the missing university lecturer and the island-wide police search for him.1 Then there was the news of his death. The story of his murder in Kingston “raced / like rumour through our town, scattering / stray dogs and chickens, old rumheads / slid from bar-stools, lurched through swing-doors / blinking into sunlight.”2 The news was on people’s lips as they inquired about it with interest, yet at the same time the murder was mentioned and discussed mostly in hushed and conspiratorial tones. There was a sense of scandal about it, but not just the scandal of murder, which was gruesome enough, with the accounts of Lashley’s dismembered body, or as the poet Kamau Brathwaite describes it, the “immoral & immemorial mal- / ice . . . of my friends’ part-body in the gully—his arms, his / thighs, his head—his skull, that is, in a crocus bag full up of maggots / maggots maggots—the maggots that we ate as slaves.”3 No, it was not just that. There was also the scandal of homosexuality that became associated with this killing and that has marked its retellings. The newspaper columnist H. G. Helps, for example, would later recall, in his article linking Lashley’s murder specifically to a series of other violent deaths of gay men in Jamaica: “Lashley’s young lover was convicted of non-capital murder for the crime.”4 Helps’s mention of a young lover, as well as his precise accounting of severed limbs, frame the killing in terms of lust, sex, and sensationalism. Lashley’s tragic and untimely death was recounted as spectacle and talked about as a kind of tragic comeuppance comingled with sin.

By contrast, Frank Birbalsingh, in his reflections on Lashley’s life and death, asks us to think about both in the wider sociohistorical context of a Caribbean society shaped through an “inseparable legacy of exploitation, abuse and degradation inherited not only by Jamaica but by other former British Caribbean plantation colonies.” Birbalsingh, while not neglecting or normalizing the brutality of Lashley’s murder, urges us not to view it as singularly sensational. Instead, he situates it within a long history of conquest and genocide with brutal and lasting outcomes for and across the region. Foregrounding the ways in which violence has characterized the colonial enterprise, Birbalsingh argues, “In life as in his death, Cliff remains Caribbean to the core. . . . The grim, gory and gruesome details of his most inglorious passing reflect not only the sadness of tragedy in his personal life, but the shock, horror and brutality of slavery and indenture, inescapable, foundation pillars of our shared Caribbean history.”5

We also see a violent, visceral representation of the historical time and place that marked Lashley’s passing in Kamau Brathwaite’s long poem Trench Town Rock, which offers what Nadi Edwards reads as a “representation of Kingston as dystopia, a city of bare life.” Brathwaite’s book-length documentary poem “bears witness to the personal and social traumas engendered by criminal and state violence over the period of seventeen months, from 16 July 1990 to 17 December 1991.” Set at the beginning of the decade in which Lashley died, the poem “delineates . . . literal and metaphorical states of emergency” that marked the time “in terms of regimes of violence and incarceration.”6 In part of the first movement of the poem (pictured below), Brathwaite offers a remarkable accounting of lives lost in Jamaica to murder in the year 1990.

"Page from Kamau Brathwaite's poem Trench Town Rock; the top of the page reads, 'By the end of October 1990/622 violent deaths'""

Figure 1. Page 19 from Kamau Brathwaite’s book-length documentary poem Trench Town Rock (1994).

Here, the quotation marks at the start of each section on this page identify this as found text. Brathwaite lifts sentences from the daily newspapers, asking us to reengage with them in the poem as one way of bringing us face-to-face with the violent in/securities of the time.7 Indeed, as the poet reminds us in the fourth movement, titled “My Turn,” he too was a victim of the violence that stalked the streets of Kingston. His home was invaded, and he was held at gunpoint:

"two-gunman break-in (actually one gun/one knife—one of my sharpest kitchen knives is  missing.../& were they more outside? lookhouts, get-away or  back-up drivers, duppies, warriors, drones?])"

Figure 2. Excerpt, page 53 from Brathwaite, Trench Town Rock.8

A keen sense of insecurity can be heard in the series of questions that follow Brathwaite’s declaration that “two-gunman break-in.” The sense of panic and the potential for further violence is also symbolized through the reference to the missing sharp kitchen knife. Indeed, we might note how this symbol connects Brathwaite’s experience of violence to Lashley’s death and dismemberment a few years later. Brathwaite ends the opening movement of the poem with these harrowing lines that capture the complex relationship between life and death in the post/colony in “the wake of the plantation”:9

"So that these crimes we all embrace the victim & the violate the duppy & the gunman so close on these plantations still so intimate the dead/undead"

Figure 3. Excerpt, page 22 from Brathwaite, Trench Town Rock.10

This 2023 issue of sx salon appears thirty years after Lashley’s murder, and although I begin with the mention of his death, it is important to also say that the discussions in the issue are meant to re-center and reflect on Lashley’s life and work that have often been overshadowed by the gruesome details of his killing. In fact, the impetus for this issue perhaps emerges from my own long-held desire to learn more about Lashley. While he is a figure who is still mentioned, his contributions and critical positions have for several reasons remained largely unexamined and demand further exploration. It is hoped that the discussions and interviews gathered here will inspire further reflection and reexamination of Lashley as a presence in Caribbean discourse and prompt a recalling and reassessment of some of his critical positions and legacies.

My own curiosity about Lashley has deepened since 1993. At the end of the 1990s, I began a degree at the University of the West Indies, Mona. There I would hear his name uttered again and again by colleagues in the Department of Literatures in English. However, this time, notably, it was not whispered in scandalous terms but recalled with different degrees of fondness. He was often referred to as “Cliff Lashley of blessed memory.” The repetition of this phrase almost served as a refutation of any sense of shame or scandal. At UWI he was recalled as a memorable colleague and critical thinker, as well as a creative presence and force. Edward Baugh, who was head of the Department of Literatures in English when I entered the university, would later write about Lashley as part of a wave of “new developments” in West Indian literature in the pivotal decade of the 1950s.11 This period, Baugh argues, was integral to the shaping of a regional sense of a literary culture and writing. While discussions of the emergence of Caribbean literature have often centered on developments in London—the literary and colonial metropole, where, as George Lamming asserts, “the category West Indian, formerly understood as a geographical term, now assume[d] cultural significance”12—Baugh attends to the ways in which on the very campus of the University College of the West Indies a cultural identity was also being shaped through the coming together of young people from different regional territories to study together.13 Baugh also importantly notes how some of these developments coincided with “the idea of a West Indian Federation which was to become a reality though short lived in 1958.” He asserts that “this mood contributed to the sense of the emergence of West Indian literature.”14

In their reflections here, Velma Pollard and Anthony MacFarlane offer us vivid snapshots of some of their time with Lashley as students at the University College of the West Indies. They also offer a sense of the energy and vitality of the time and the cultures of care generated on the Mona campus by the meeting of students from across the region. Baugh too was a student at the university with Lashley, and they all were part of a new generation that would not only write West Indian literature but also write about this literature. The UCWI literature department, which opened in 1950, contributed to the training of this generation of writers who would also become important scholars. Baugh documents the dynamism of this group in his essay “Coming of Age in the Fifties”:

My sense of being close to significant new developments in literature also owed something to the proximity of fellow undergraduates, in addition to [Garth] St. Omer, whose literary talents showed great promise, I think particularly of Mervyn Morris, Slade (later Abdul-Rahman Slade) Hopkinson, Cliff Lashley, Aston Mullings, and Jean D’Costa (then Creary). Lashley published only a sprinkling of poems, but there is reason to believe that at his death he left behind a fair-sized collection.15

Baugh is keen to name Lashley among this group. However, Lashley’s simultaneous presence and absence from the general historiography of the emergence of the field of Caribbean literary studies is perhaps best symbolized by Baugh’s reference to Lashley’s missing poetry manuscript. This work is known about but so far not available for analysis or close scrutiny. Notably, in her essay here Velma Pollard also talks about the missing poems. Like Lashley himself, the manuscript has become a kind of legendary ghost-presence that haunts the field and that one hopes might be recuperated for further examination.

It was only late in my undergraduate studies that I encountered Lashley’s writing as part of my university curriculum. In my final year I took a special author seminar that focused on the life and work of the Jamaican writer Claude McKay. There I first read Lashley’s essay “Like a Strong Tree,” which celebrates McKay’s pioneering literary work, and it offered me an introduction to Lashley’s profound thinking toward what we might call a “native humanism.” I name Lashley’s critical project as one of native humanism to highlight the multiple ways and moments in which he returns to the concept and vocabulary of “native” to articulate a contestation of Euro-American cultural norms and aesthetics and to investigate ideas of a grounded Caribbean cultural aesthetic. Lashley uses “native” to challenge “disputed terms such as culture and civilization,”16 and he notably subtitled the essay “A Native Reading.” Much like Gordon Rohlehr does with his better-known “Literature and the Folk,” Lashley uses “Like a Strong Tree” to intervene in questions about the place and politics of “peasant life” in Caribbean literature.17 We might also situate Lashley’s and Rohlehr’s reflections on the significance of the “peasant” in Caribbean writing alongside George Lamming’s assertion in The Pleasures of Exile that “it is the West Indian novel that has restored the West Indian peasant to his true and original status of personality.”18 In particular, Lashley focuses on how village life and the working poor are represented in McKay’s writing. He moves beyond this, however, to argue that what is in fact offered in McKay’s writings about Jamaica (in his early poetry and in his novel Banana Bottom) is a sense of “deep-rootedness” in which a cultural consciousness might be recognized—one that potentially offers a socially aware vision and “thoughtful ideals for a better Jamaican way of life.”19

Lashley’s examination of McKay’s poetics of the peasantry advances ideas proposed in an earlier published essay titled “The Quashie Aesthetics, etc.” There Lashley examines a number of Caribbean literary volumes published during the decade of the 1970s, reading these as providing a fundamental challenge to the stereotypes of the region founded in exotic mythologizings of island life. (These exoticizing visions, he argues, are evident not only in White colonial narratives but also in some African American cultural texts, as well as in the values and visions that inform tourist narratives espoused in some regional contexts). The 1970s, Lashley suggests, was a period of both creative and critical work committed to “making it possible to find out what West Indians think of their culture.”20 But what Lashley calls for is more than “recognition and identification.” He expresses a more radical desire for what might be understood as a form of “redemption”21— the cultivation of a cultural ground of expression for “the Quashie universe of the spirit.” Lashley calls for writers to “move beyond the limit of the merely aesthetic [transformations] to the edges of belief and cosmology.” He outlines this as a necessary and even logical progression of our regional literary project: “[These concerns] are aesthetic because they are matters of taste, manners, lifestyle and, persued [sic] far enough, they are matters of basic belief and cosmology.” He importantly notes how “a sexually repressive, vulgar, fundamentalist Christianity” often restricts more radical forms of expression. The potential of “the Quashie universe of the spirit,” in contrast, offers more narrative and expressive possibilities. For Lashley, this aesthetic revisioning makes space for “vulgarity” and the “pornographic, sometimes scatalogical [sic], outrageous, witty” yet culturally debased forms of expressions and knowledge.22 We see one development of this critical project in Carolyn Cooper’s work and in her attention in Noises in the Blood (first published in 1993, the year of Lashley’s passing) to the “vulgar body of Jamaican popular culture.”23


Language for Lashley was also a critical part of the terrain of struggle. In his theorization of the Quashie aesthetic, language is seen not just as a container for narrative expression but also as integral to cultural worldview and worldmaking. The language of Caribbean literature, then, could not be just “speakey-spokey” or one shaped by “kris gentility.” Instead, Lashley remains attuned to how the linguistic and rhetorical norms and performances of spaces like the rum shop or the lime might offer models for Caribbean literary expression. He reads Sam Selvon’s The Housing Lark, for instance, as one “long lime of a novel.” The discussion essay by Vincent O. Cooper in this issue offers what might be read as further notes regarding Lashley’s views on Caribbean language and its relationship to forms of cultural production. Cooper reflects on Lashley’s theorizations of Jamaican Creole language and foregrounds how Lashley also insisted on the importance of, as he argues in “The Quashie Aesthetics, etc.,” the “separate study of the West Indian language situation or of West Indian oral culture.”24 For Lashley, it was important that we should understand the cultural situation as well as the literary implications of a Caribbean language continuum. Cooper notably frames this as an unfinished conversation, suggesting that Lashley might have developed these ideas further to offer a more expansive cultural and linguistic theory.

It is little wonder, therefore, that in Lashley’s analysis of McKay’s work he pays special attention to McKay’s dialect verse. In “Like a Strong Tree,” Lashley’s discussion is grounded in and through a particularly inspired reading of McKay’s poem “Quashie to Buccra,” in which the “consciousness of a peasant farmer” is centered in “the colonial world of literacy and writing” that is the poem. The figure Quashie, Lashley reminds us, is “regarded as hardly human and the very antithesis of the white European—who portrayed himself as the epitome of what man should become.”25 Lashley’s close reading of the poem importantly locates McKay as offering us both an additional framework and an extension of the politics of Calibanesque contestation of the imperial position and narrative that is outlined by George Lamming in his essay collection The Pleasures of Exile. However, what is notable here, and is foregrounded by Lashley’s reading, is that McKay sought to offer us a model emerging from within both a peasant consciousness and an African cultural view, as opposed to one drawn from the Shakespearean paradigm. Attending to the long history of colonial regimes and their regulating ideological structures, Lashley notes,

By the time the native culture was formed under the pressures of slavery and colonialism about the mid-eighteenth century, Quashie was no longer an Ashan/Ashanti/Twi Day name for a boy born on the first day of the week but had been devalued to ‘a name typifying any male negro; a peasant; a country bumpkin; a stupid person; a fool; a backward person who refuses improvement.26

Lashley argues that what McKay provided was in fact “a positive native point of view, self-consciously aware of native skill.” In McKay’s poem, Quashie becomes a central embodiment of a project of native humanism—offering an alter/native poetics lodged in the culture from below—a rooted culture. This culture was significantly also a relational cultural paradigm of multiple roots, as Lashley notes, “whose foundation is in the African/Indian heritage of the masses.”27


Returning to my undergraduate studies and my introduction to Lashley’s reading of McKay’s work in “Like a Strong Tree,” from the vantage point of the present it is clear to me that what I was encountering in that moment was a queer Jamaican genealogy (one that I did not read in that way then). Of Lashley’s and McKay’s mutual mapping of a space of counter-aesthetics and values and their claims to and assertion of a more inclusive vision of Caribbean cultural discourse and society with different aesthetic and political possibilities, one must consider how much this was rooted in a sense of queerness. To put this another way, I would argue that theirs was a cultural sensibility shaped through a radical politics of otherness. Read in this manner, one can recognize the queer sensibilities, for instance, in Lashley’s recognition of “the vulgar body” and of the “pornographic, . . . scatalogical [sic], outrageous, witty” (or what we might in another register call “camp aesthetics”28) as radical cultural sites of possibility. My understanding of Lashley as a pioneering queer presence in the Caribbean literary archive is not one shaped only through specific attention to sex or sexual orientation. As Jack Halberstam reminds us, “Not all gay, lesbian and transgender people live their lives in radically different ways from their heterosexual counterparts.”29 I read Lashley as queer in that he defied easy categories and categorizations, and as part of his own practice of self-making, he engaged in a number of pursuits, some of them incommensurable with each other outside the immediate context of his life. Even in the discussions collected here, we grasp myriad interests and pursuits. Velma Pollard writes about Lashley as a friend and writer; Anthony MacFarlane remembers him as a book collector, librarian, and art collector; Vincent O. Cooper writes about him as a cultural scholar and linguist; Leachim Semaj, in the interview with Isis Semaj-Hall, remembers him as a mentor and teacher and public intellectual; Anna Kasafi Perkins, Sonia Mills, and Patrick S. Dallas remember him as a cultural entrepreneur; and Linzey Corridon and I write about him as a librarian. Each of the pieces in this special issue also track the itinerancy of Lashley’s life-worlds, mapping him in relation to different locations. Pollard, for instance, talks about him in relation to Jamaica, New York, and the US Virgin Islands; this is further extended by Cooper’s narration of him in the context of the Virgin Islands, while MacFarlane adds to this a consideration of his time in Ontario, Canada. Both the interview between Leachim Semaj and Isis Semaj-Hall and the conversation among Anna Kasafi Perkins, Sonia Mills, and Patrick S. Dallas consider Lashley in relation to the New York tri-state region and Jamaica. The attention to his publication history offered in “The Cliff Lashley Bibliography,” compiled by Linzey Corridon and me, also traces further connections with places like Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Nigeria. Lashley himself notes this itinerancy of life-worlds and its production of a queer melancholy in his own description of himself as “a Jamaican man of letters who lives regularly and unhappily abroad and regularly and sorrowfully at home in our oral society.”30


In some ways my journey toward curating and editing this special issue emerges from my attempt to grapple with the contending visions of Cliff Lashley that I have encountered in the thirty years since his death. However, Lashley’s life narrative and various professional pursuits remind me that the expectation of a straightforward chronology of development can inhibit different forms of exploration and self-fashioning. His narrative instead offers an itinerary for a life emplotted outside the “temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety and inheritance.”31 Perhaps a project of recalling this life demands the kind of collective work offered here, not least because of the risks and promises of a life so richly transnational. As the pieces throughout this special issue remind us, Lashley came of age in a period of West Indies Federation and lived a life not only in Jamaica but also in the wider Caribbean region and beyond, including stints in England, Canada, the United States, the US Virgin Islands, and Barbados. Perhaps in this way Lashley’s life might undeniably be understood as “Caribbean to the core,” as Birbalsingh asserts. It was as variable and complex as these islands and diasporas that we, as Caribbean people, inhabit and traverse.


Ronald Cummings is an associate professor of Caribbean literature and Black diaspora studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. He is the coeditor of three critical volumes, including, with Alison Donnell, Caribbean Literature in Transition, 1970–2020 (Cambridge University Press, 2021), and the editor of Make the World New: The Poetry of Lillian Allen (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2021). He is also an affiliated member of the Centre for the Study of Race, Gender, and Class (RGC) at the University of Johannesburg. 

[1] The Gleaner front page headline for 11 February 1993: “UWI Professor Missing: Mystery Shrouds Dr. Cliff Lashley’s Disappearance.”

[2] Edward Baugh, “The Town That Had Known Better Days,” in It Was the Singing (Toronto: Sandberry, 2000), 15. I reference Baugh’s poem here to suggest a history of rumor as part of the sociality of small-town life in Jamaica. As he narrates 1950s Port Antonio, Baugh also gives us a keen sense of the technology of rumor, or what he calls the “bush telegraph’s frenzy” (15), and how it not only operates as part of the relations of community but also complements and augments urban-based news networks.

[3] Kamau Brathwaite, “Ghana, South, Bajan Poets,” part 3, in Barabajan Poems, 1492–1992 (Kingston: Savacou North, 1994), 80.

[4] H. G. Helps, “Spilling Homosexual Blood,” Jamaica Observer, 9 November 2009;

[5] Frank Birbalsingh, “Man I Pass That Stage’: Remembering Cliff Lashley,” Caribbean Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2020): 538, 548.

[6] Nadi Edwards, “Notes on the Age of Dis: Reading Kingston through Agamben,” Small Axe, no. 25 (February 2008): 2. Kamau Brathwaite, Trench Town Rock (Providence, RI: Lost Road, 1994).

[7] For a further discussion of the concept of “in/securities,” see Patricia Noxolo, “Caribbean In/SecuritiesAn Introduction,” Small Axe, no. 57 (November 2018): 37–46;

[8] Image used in order to preserve Brathwaite’s formatting in the original.

[9] My use of this phrase echoes Deborah Thomas’s work in Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).

[10] Image used in order to preserve Brathwaite’s formatting in the original.

[11] Edward Baugh, “Coming of Age in the Fifties,” epilogue to J. Dillon Brown and Leah Reade Rosenberg, eds., Beyond Windrush: Rethinking Postwar Anglophone Caribbean Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015), 241.

[12] George Lamming, “Journey to an Expectation,” in The Pleasures of Exile (1960; repr., London: Allison and Busby, 1984), 214.

[13] See Nalini Mohabir and Ronald Cummings, “‘An Archive of Loose Leaves’: An Interview with Frank Birbalsingh,” Small Axe, no. 60 (November 2019): 104–18.

[14] Baugh, “Coming of Age,” 240. 

[15] Ibid., 246.

[16] Cliff Lashley, “Rethinking Development: A Native/Humanistic Perspective,” lecture at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, Kingston, 19 October 1989.

[17] Cliff Lashley, “Like a Strong Tree: Claude McKay, 1889–1944, Jamaican Writer; A Native Reading, Jamaica Journal 22, no. 4 (1990): 48; Gordon Rohlehr, “Literature and the Folk,” in My Strangled City, and Other Essays (1992; repr., Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2019), 52–80.

[18] George Lamming, “The Occasion for Speaking,” in The Pleasures of Exile (1960; repr., London: Allison and Busby, 1984), 39.

[19] Lashley, “Like a Strong Tree”, 48.

[20] Cliff Lashley, “The Quashie Aesthetics, etc.,” Caribe 4, no. 4 (1980): 21. 

[21] Ibid., 22.

[22] Ibid., 23.

[23] Carolyn Cooper, Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1993).

[24] Lashley, “The Quashie Aesthetics, etc.,” 23. The term kris that Lashley uses might be read as Jamaican for “crisp.”

[25] Lashley, “Like a Strong Tree,” 48.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Lashley, “The Quashie Aesthetics, etc.,” 21.

[28] See Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Partisan Review 31, no. 4 (1964): 515–30; and Esther Newton, Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).

[29] J. Jack Halberstam, In A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press 2005), 1.

[30] Lashley, “Like a Strong Tree”, 50.

[31] Ibid., 5.


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