John Joseph Figueroa

On this Day in Caribbean history, August 4, 1920, John Joseph Maria Figueroa was born. Figueroa was a Jamaican poet and educator. He played a significant role in the development of Anglophone Caribbean literature both as a poet and an anthologist. He contributed to the development of the University College of the West Indies, now know as the University of the West Indies, as an early member of staff, had a career as a broadcaster working for many different media organizations including the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC), and taught in schools across the nation including Jamaica, Britain, the United States, and Africa.

Figueroa was born in Jamaica, attending St George’s College. In 1946 he went on a British Council fellowship to London University to study for a teaching diploma and a master’s degree in education. He contributed criticism, stories and poetry to the BBC’s Caribbean Voices radio programme produced by Henry Swanzy.

In Jamaica Figueroa became the first West Indian to be appointed to a chair at the University College of the West Indies, and the first Dean of the Faculty of Education. Between 1964 and 1966 he was a visiting professor first at Rhode Island University and then Indiana University. In the early 1970s he became Professor of Humanities leading the Department of Education of the Centro Caribeno de Estudios Postgraduados, Puerto Rico.

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In the 1980s he moved to the UK, where he worked for the Open University, was a Fellow at the Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick, and an adviser in multicultural education in Manchester. He edited the pioneering two-volume anthology Caribbean Voices comprehensive landmark collections of West Indian poetry. He was also the first general editor of the Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series.

He also played an important role in the development of Caribbean studies as a founder member of the Caribbean Studies Association and the Society for Caribbean Studies.

His own poetry “reflects his origins as a Jamaican of [Hispanic] descent and a Catholic who, whilst deeply committed to the Caribbean, was concerned to maintain [the diversity of its] heritage without apology. He insisted that drums were not the only Caribbean musical instrument and championed Derek Walcott’s relationship to the classical and European literary tradition. Ironically, one of Figueroa’s most effective poems is in Nation language.”