O. R. Dathorne Biography
Grew Up in a British Colony, Attended College in England, Developed Interest in African Literature
Novelist, poet, critic, professor
Author and educator O.R. Dathorne earned an international reputation for his work exploring and illuminating the experience of colonized cultures. Born and raised in the complex and diverse society of colonial Guyana, Dathorne was quite young when he began to learn about the social conflicts of race, class, and status that result when one nation takes possession of another. As a child growing up in a black family trying to achieve middle class status in a society ruled by white Europeans, Dathorne was all too aware of the divisions in the world around him. Perhaps because he did not fit comfortably into any one group, he became a questioner and a challenger, a social critic with little patience for the hypocrisy and unfairness he saw around him. Though his challenges have often brought him into conflict with those in authority, Dathorne remains a creative thinker and a respected expert on the effects of colonization and the literature of colonized peoples.
Situated in northern South America, between Suriname and Venezuela on the Atlantic Ocean, Guyana means "Land of Many Waters." First encountered by Europeans in 1498, the small, fertile country was almost immediately colonized by the Dutch, who brought African slaves to work on their sugar and tobacco plantations. The British, who took over the colony at the beginning of the nineteenth century, continued to use black slave labor to operate plantations until the 1830s, when the slavery was officially ended. After the abolition of slavery, British plantation owners brought in other workers to serve as cheap plantation labor, first from Portugal, then from India.
Grew Up in a British
This resulted in a highly diverse society, made up of large black and Indian populations, with minorities of Portuguese, Chinese, and Native Americans, dominated by a British minority. Into this complex culture, Oscar Ronald Dathorne was born in the fall of 1934. The family lived in Guyana's capital city, Georgetown. Oscar Robertson Dathorne was an electrical engineer, and his wife Rosalie Belona Dathorne worked at home caring for young Ronald and his six brothers and sisters. Though many Guyanese blacks did not have such skilled professions, Dathorne's family had worked hard to become educated and improve their status. Even his mother's father had studied in England and had become an engineer.
Having achieved some degree of financial and social success, the Dathornes were protective of their children and did not want them to associate with poorer black children who lived nearby. As a child, Ronald often felt suffocated and confined when his parents discouraged him from making friends with children of a lower class. He was already beginning to learn how difficult it could be to navigate the divisions of a colonial society.
Eager to introduce him to friends of a better class, Dathorne's parents got him a government scholarship to the prestigious Queen's College, a boys' school which had been opened in Georgetown during the mid-1800s. Because its founders were British, Queen's College was organized in much the same way as exclusive British academies. The school accepted students of all races, but the principal and most of the teachers were white. In school Dathorne was taught that there were six races of people inhabiting Guyana: the English, the Indians, the blacks, the Amerindians, the Chinese, and the Portuguese. It interested him to learn that the English did not even consider their fellow Europeans the Portuguese to be members of their race.
Though he did well in his studies, young Ronald Dathorne was not happy at Queen's College. He was acutely aware of racial prejudice and resented the easy assurance of the white students who unthinkingly accepted the privileges of their race, interrupting other students and taking the best places without even seeming to notice. In addition to this, he was not athletically inclined and could not use sports to achieve success, the way many other black students did. However, he was inspired and encouraged by his history teacher Sir James Cameron Tudor, one of the few black teachers at Queen's College.
Attended College in England
In 1953, after his graduation from high school, Dathorne went to England to continue his education, as his grandfather had before him. He worked for two years as a clerk in the office of the London County Council while he studied the advanced Latin he needed to be accepted into a British university. In 1955, he entered the University of Sheffield in central England. He received his bachelor's degree in English in 1958 and studied education at the University of London for a year before returning to Sheffield to pursue his master's and doctoral degrees.
In 1963, armed with a Ph.D. in English, he began to look for a teaching job in England. However, he soon found that few English universities were willing to offer a black colonial the kind of teaching work that Dathorne was qualified to do. He sought job opportunities abroad and was hired to teach at the University of Ibadan in the west central African nation of Nigeria. Over the next six years, he would teach at several African colleges and universities, both in Nigeria and in the tiny coastal country of Sierra Leone.
Like Dathorne's home South America, the continent of Africa has also been conquered and colonized by a variety of European nations. Coming from England to live in Africa, Dathorne began to understand a bit of the experience of the English in Guyana. Far from feeling that he had come "home," Dathorne's education, accent, and even his name announced him as a foreigner, even among the African friends he made. His professor's salary enabled him to live like a wealthy man in Nigeria. As a member of the educated class, he was attended by servants, and even called "master" by working people. Very uncomfortable in this upper class role, he invited the man who served his meals to sit and eat with him. When this gesture only made the servant uncomfortable as well, Dathorne realized that he had learned one more twist in the complicated maze of race and class divisions that are part of a colonized society.
Developed Interest in
While teaching in Nigeria, Dathorne began to meet artists, publishers, and writers. Inspired by his new friends, he started using books by African writers in his literature classes. In the past, "African literature" had mainly consisted of books written by Europeans about Africans. In these works, Africans had been presented as the "Other," that is, strange and foreign beings who were only seen through the eyes of the European colonizers. Dathorne had learned from his own experience that it was damaging to native peoples to be seen only through the eyes of those who had conquered them. Along with some other literature professors of African ancestry, such as Molly Mahood, Dathorne began to redefine African literature to be works written by Africans.
In 1969 Yale University invited Dathorne as a guest lecturer. During the late 1960s, the civil rights movement had begun to evolve into a Black Power movement that celebrated African culture and heritage. Colleges and universities all over the United States were becoming interested in African and African-American studies. Yale offered Dathorne a permanent job, but only as an associate professor. At his last job at the University of Sierra Leone at Njala, he had not only had a full professorship, but had headed the English department. Always reluctant to take a job that was below his capabilities, Dathorne instead went to work at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he became professor of African studies.
While moving to Nigeria had placed him in the master class, moving to the expensive United States left Dathorne broke. Following in the tradition of hardworking colonials everywhere, he took a second job to help pay the bills. Along with his job at Howard, he became professor of African-American studies at the University of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, working at two different institutions is severely frowned upon in the academic world. When university officials complained about Dathorne's two jobs, he resigned both and went to work at Ohio State University.
Pioneered Black Studies in
the United States
He spent the next 15 years working at Ohio and the University of Miami, establishing and directing African, Caribbean, and African-American studies programs. Though he had a great love for African and Caribbean literature and culture, he often found working within universities to be frustrating and competitive. Too often he felt that the schools did not have a serious commitment to black studies, and that they only wanted to quiet the demands of African-American students by offering a few courses. Though he was not always successful, Dathorne worked to create strong programs that offered students a chance to major in African-American studies. Often his struggles brought him into conflict with those who employed him, and he changed jobs several times because of these conflicts.
In 1987 he left the University of Miami, having worked unsuccessfully for many years to establish a black studies major. He took a job as a professor in the English department at the University of Kentucky. Along with teaching, he continues to direct the Association of Caribbean Studies, which he founded in 1979. He has also been the editor of the Journal of Caribbean Studies since 1979.
During the mid-1960s, Dathorne had begun to write poetry and novels to describe his experiences and the feelings they aroused in him. Dumplings in the Soup was inspired by his years as a student in England, and The Scholar-Man describes the academic world in Africa. He also wrote critical works about the literature he was teaching. During the mid-1970s, as he worked to establish African studies in U.S. academics, he published The Black Mind: A History of African Literature, African Literature in the Twentieth Century, and, in 1981, Dark Ancestor: The Literature of the Black Man in the Caribbean.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Dathorne returned to the issue that has perhaps influenced him more than any other—the multi-layered experience of colonized people. In books such as In Europe's Image: The Need for American Multiculturalism, Imagining the World: Mythical Belief Versus Reality in Global Encounters, Asian Voyages: Two Thousand Years of Constructing the Other, and Worlds Apart: Race in the Modern Period, Dathorne explores the ways that European colonists have affected the nations they colonized, even many years after the colony has achieved independence. He also points out the deep effect that Africans have had on culture and society in the Americas and the Caribbean.
In many of his works, Dathorne has continued to examine the way that viewing the colonized person as the "Other," or outsider, has allowed colonizers to mistreat native people. In many ways, Dathorne points out, the entire concept of race itself, of "blackness" or "whiteness," stems from the colonizers' need to separate themselves from the "Other." Dathorne's own complex life as a black man from a colonized country, who has lived in various parts of the world, serves as an illustration that both black and white have many different shades.
The Black Mind: A History of African Literature, University of Minnesota Press, 1974.
African Literature in the Twentieth Century, University of Minnesota Press, 1976.
Dark Ancestor: The Literature of the Black Man in the Caribbean, Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
In Europe's Image: The Need for American Multiculturalism, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994.
Imagining the World: Mythical Belief Versus Reality in Global Encounters, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994.
Asian Voyages: Two Thousand Years of Constructing the Other, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.
Worlds Apart: Race in the Modern Period, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
Dumplings in the Soup, Cassell, 1963.
The Scholar-Man, Cassell, 1964.
Dele's Child, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Incorporated, 1986.
Songs for a New World, Association of Caribbean Studies Press, 1988.
"History of the Republic of Guyana," Guyana News and Information, www.guyana.org/history.html (February 14, 2005).
"Oscar Ronald Dathorne," Senior Paper: Anglo-phone Authors Project, www.yudev.com/mfo/britlit/dathorne_oscar_ronald.htm (February 14, 2005).
"We Are More than the Other. We Are the Same," Mots Pluriels, www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP1400ord.html (February 14, 2005).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with O.R. Dathorne on February 19, 2005.
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