7 minute read

Wilfred Cartey Biography

Selected writings


Educator, author, poet

Wilfred George Onslow Cartey is remembered for his work as an author, editor, compiler, and critic of African and Caribbean literature. Blind since he was a young adult, Cartey had a distinguished career as a scholar and lecturer, spending the majority of his career as a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and publishing extensively.

Cartey was born on July 19, 1931 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, British West Indies, to Samuel and Ada Cartey. He grew up in the West Indies. After graduating with a bachelor's degree from the University of the West Indies, in St. Augustine, in 1955, Cartey was awarded a fellowship from the Bernard Van Leer Foundation and a Fulbright travel grant for 1955 to 1959. He moved to New York and enrolled in Columbia University, earning his master's degree there in 1956. The following year he became an instructor in Spanish at Columbia University, a position he held from 1957 to 1962. During the summer of 1959 Cartey taught at the University of Puerto Rico as a visiting scholar and lecturer.

In 1963 Cartey was awarded a position as an associate professor of comparative literature at Columbia. There, he began his long career as a leading lecturer, educator, and literary critic of African and Caribbean literature. While fulfilling his teaching duties, he also continued his postgraduate studies and was awarded his doctoral degree in 1964 from Columbia University. His dissertation, which analyzed the writings of three black poets of the West Indies, was entitled "Three Antillian Poets: Emilio Ballagas, Luis Pales Matos, and Nicolas Guillen: Literary Development of the Negro Theme in Relation to the Making of Modern Afro-Antillian Poetry and the Historic Evolution of the Negro." In that same year, Cartey published his first work, Some Aspects of African Literature, put out by the University of Vermont after Cartey had spent the summer at the university as a visiting professor. He spent the following summer as a visiting professor at his alma mater, the University of the West Indies. In 1967 he published a children's book, The West Indies: Islands in the Sun, before once again turning his attention to literary criticism. During the 1967-68 academic year, Cartey taught at the University of Ghana as a visiting professor.

In 1969 Cartey became an adjunct professor at Columbia University and joined the faculty of the City College of CUNY as a professor of comparative literature. He maintained a professional and academic relationship with both universities until his death in 1992. Also in 1969 Cartey published his most widely acclaimed work, Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa. Not only was Cartey's analysis of African literature well-received, but the book was published at a time when interest in African cultural themes was emerging in the United States and the critical literary response had not yet caught up to the growing interest. As a result, Whispers from a Continent was seen as an important, groundbreaking introduction to African literature.

Throughout his career Cartey published extensively. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he contributed to, edited, compiled, and wrote an impressive amount of material. In 1970, with the support of an urban center grant, he contributed to The Human Uses of the University: Planning a Curriculum in Urban and Ethnic Affairs at Columbia University, co-edited by Joseph Colmen and Barbara Wheeler. He also partnered with Marlin Kilson to publish the two-volume African Reader. This documentary-style reader presented selections from an array of writers, including African political leaders, authors, civil servants, historians, journalists, as well as selections from African and European governmental documents. The first volume covered colonial Africa, from the last third of the eighteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century, and the second volume addressed independent Africa. He edited an anthology of African literature titled Palaver and compiled a selection of poetry as Black Images, which had the comprehensive subtitle of The Evolution of the Image of the Black Man in the Poetry of Spanish-English-French-Speaking Caribbean, the United States, Latin America, and West Africa. He also published the journal article "The Reality of Four Negro Writers," a critique of Ezekiel Mphahlele, George Lamming, Carolina Maria de Jesus, and James Baldwin, which appeared in Roots, one of numerous contributions he made to academic journals.

During the 1972-73 school year Cartey served as the Martin Luther King Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Brooklyn College of CUNY. In 1973 he was elevated to the position of distinguished professor at CUNY and spent a second summer that year as a visiting professor at the University of the West Indies. He also served as a visiting professor at Howard University in 1976 and at the University of California at Berkeley in 1979. In 1979 he was awarded the title of distinguished professor of black studies by CUNY, a position which he held until his death.

During the last half of the 1970s and into the 1980s Cartey continued to write extensively. Some of Cartey's works, including his poetry, were self-published, such as Waters of My Soul (1975), Red Rain (1977), Embryos (1982), and Black Velvet Time (1984), although The House of Blue Lighting (1973), Children of Lalibela (1985), and Choreographers of the Dawn (1989) were professionally published.

In 1991 Cartey published his final work of literary criticism, Whispers from the Caribbean: I Going Away, I Going Home, in which he addresses the unique community of the West Indies that has been created by its politics, economics, and history of colonialism and diaspora. According to Cartey, Caribbean literature acknowledges this fragmented and despondent history of the area yet molds from this despair and bleakness a vibrant and vivid community that creates its own cultural value, which he terms "unique communality." He also plays on themes, familiar to the Caribbean literary community, of exile or migration and subsequent return. In Whispers from the Caribbean Cartey introduces readers to an array of indigenous writers and includes several of his own poems.

On March 28, 1992, Cartey died in New York after a short illness. During his career, Cartey made significant contributions to the advancement of African and Caribbean literature as an author, editor, and critic. He was eulogized by his brother John during a ceremony hosted by the Caribbean Writer's Summer Institute at the University of Miami in July 1992.

At a Glance …

Born on July 19, 1931, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad; died March 28, 1992, in New York, NY; son of Samuel and Ada Cartey. Education: University of the West Indies, BA, 1955; Columbia University, MA, 1956, PhD, 1964.

Career: Columbia University, New York, instructor of Spanish, 1957-62; Columbia University, professor of comparative literature, 1963-69; City College of New York, professor of comparative literature, 1969-72; City College of New York, professor, then distinguished professor, of black studies, 1973-92. African Forum, literary editor, 1967-68; Pan African Journal, executive board, 1970-92; Confrontation: A Journal of Third World Literature, contributing editor, 1970-92; SAVACOU, contributing editor, 1970-92. Visiting scholar, University of Puerto Rico, University of the West Indies, University of Ghana, Brooklyn College, Howard University, University of California at Berkeley, and others.

Selected memberships: African Heritage Studies Association; African Studies Association; African American Heritage Association; American Society of African Culture; Institute of Caribbean Studies; Black Academy of Arts and Letters.

Awards: Bernard Van Leer Foundation Fellow, 1955-56; Fulbright travel grant, 1955-59; urban center grant, 1970; City University of New York Research Foundation fellow, 1985-86.

Selected writings


Some Aspects of African Literature, University of Vermont, 1964.

Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa, Random House, 1969.

(With Joseph Colmen and Barbara Wheeler) The Human Uses of the University: Planning a Curriculum in Urban and Ethnic Affairs at Columbia University, Praeger, 1970.

(With Marlin Kilson) The African Reader: Volume 1. Colonial Africa; Volume 2. Independent Africa (editor), Random House, 1970.

Palaver (editor), T. Nelson, 1970.

Whispers from the Caribbean: I Going Away, I Going Home, Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California, 1991.


The House of Blue Lightning, Emerson Hall, 1973.

Waters of My Soul, self-published, 1975.

Red Rain, self-published, 1977.

Suns and Shadows, Emerson Hall, 1978.

Embryos, self-published, 1982.

Black Velvet Time, self-published, 1984.

Children of Lalibela, Printed Word, 1985.

Choreographers of the Dawn, Printed Word, 1989.


The West Indies: Islands in the Sun (for children), Nelson, 1967.

Black Images (anthology), Teachers College Press, 1970.



Journal of Black Studies, December, 1984.

New York Times, March 25, 1992, p. D22.

Research in African Literatures, Summer 1993, p. 148.

Times Literary Supplement, October 1, 1971.


Brannigan, John, "'The Regions Caesar Never Knew': Cultural Nationalism and the Caribbean Literary Renaissance in England," http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/jouvert/v5i1/bran.htm (September 13, 2004).

"Wilfred Cartey," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (September 13, 2004).

Cartey, John, "A Whisper from the Caribbean: A Program to Honor the Memory of Wilfred Cartey," Caribbean Writer's Summer Institute, Archival Video Collection, http://scholar.library.miami.edu/cls/speakersDisplay.php (September 13, 2004).

—Kari Bethel

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Katie Burke (1953–) Biography - Personal to Galeazzo Ciano (1903–1944) Biography