I think the thing I love most about Sir Arthur Lewis and Sir Derek Walcott is not that they were awarded Nobel Prizes but rather, it is that their stories are so poignantly Caribbean, despite their physical plunge into the borders of Britain. To this day, I find no reason to believe their identities were watered-down to suit a more eurocentric ideal.
Sir Arthur was the son of Antiguan parents and was born and raised on the island of Saint Lucia, where he underwent his primary, a brief stint of homeschooling, and his secondary school education. He graduated at the age of 14—too young to attend university. Instead, he worked for two years in a government office. This was between 1930-1932; at a time when the islands of the West Indies were British colonies and only one university scholarship—the “government scholarship” – was provided for the entire region.
Sir Arthur received this scholarship in 1932 and began his studies at the London School of Economics (LSE) the following year. Only Islanders with a strong yearning for a success they have not yet seen materialize before them, by anyone they know, will fully understand the significance of leaving in pursuit of knowledge, experience and mentorship.
Though Sir Arthur broke many barriers, like becoming the first black student enrolled at LSE, – among several other firsts – he seemed not to be a man desperate for white approval. Rather, at a time when British colonialism reined, and already with a reputation of exceptional intelligence, Sir Arthur, in his own way and from his vantage point, constantly rose to the occasion.
Not to mention, when he was set to move on from being the first black lecturer at LSE to serving at the University of Liverpool, racism and prejudice derailed those plans. He was then invited by some to Liverpool to become acquainted with the school, faculty, and surroundings. However, Sir Arthur denied and Robert L. Tignor, the Laureate’s biographer, wrote that Sir Arthur took no delight in visiting “so that the public may be able to look at me and decide whether they can stand my appearance.” He then went on to lecture at the University of Manchester.
Aside from his penned economic theories and advice that have been adopted in various parts of the world but not in the Caribbean, and his service as the first president of the Caribbean Development Bank, it is said that Sir Arthur worked so hard to unionize British Caribbean colonies under the West Indies Federation, that it made him physically ill.
Sir Derek Walcott on the other hand, received the Nobel Prize for his Literary work. His infatuation for his Caribbean home often found its way into his work as several of his poems are rooted in the air, soil, sun, and life that is in and of Saint Lucia. Whereas like Sir Arthur, Walcott’s work and journey involved a level of globe and career trotting very few will ever get to enjoy, always there was an echo; a reference to Saint Lucia in his writing, despite a foreign setting.
From the interviews and other press I’ve seen chronicling Walcott’s trek around the world, I realized how frankly he spoke of the post-colonial world. Not only has slavery and his mixed heritage served as major themes in his work, but he (1) never shied away from discussing it and (2) openly shared his views on the resultant, oppressive “colonies” that existed in minority communities in various countries, including the United States.
Yet, before the accolades, Walcott’s formative years were spent coalescing resources to form a creative, art and cultural scene in Saint Lucia that thespians and fellow artists benefited from. He and his twin brother, Roderick Walcott helped to create the Saint Lucia Arts Guild, which gave local actors opportunities to practice their craft. Sir Derek also founded the Little Carib Theatre—now known as the Trinidad Theatre Workshop—in Trinidad and Tobago. Though the theatre that he dreamed to have built in Saint Lucia did not come to fruition in his lifetime, in his latter years, Sir Derek spent some of his time personally training young, local theatrical actors — some of whom have gone on to pursue their dreams on international soil.