DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
IN A BASEMENT classroom in New College, University of Toronto (U of T), Prof Arnold Itwaru changed our lives in a way that only a teacher can. It was 1994, and he looked like Karl Marx, already aged with a grey bush of hair haloing his face and head.
He would hold Caribbean students enthralled. I’d race back to my dorm, impatient to tell friends everything he said. In this way, he influenced even those he never taught.
I’d mimic his grand gestures, his hand spiralling in the air like he was conducting the crescendo of an orchestra, rising to his toes, with passionate fervour. It wasn’t a caricature, it was awe that a smallish Indo-Guyanese man could blow my mind open, leaving me questioning everything. Without him, I wouldn’t be the educator that I am today.
Caribbean Studies was in its inception years at U of T, growing for those hungry for insights from and about what we thought of as home. Prof Itwaru would walk in, without pretence, and unpack imperialism, empire, language, media, literature, and disciplinary knowledge itself.
He could be argumentative, but he was also deeply invested in the power of education, teaching to transgress, and decolonising minds. He wanted us to think hard about what it means and requires to be free. Through him, I read Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming, Franz Fanon, Earl Lovelace, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and many more by 19 years old.
It set my path. How could it not? He made us learn to watch our words, not to speak of mastering a subject for its normalising of master-slave relations and unequal power. He taught us that Star Trek was a fantasy of empire. One friend briefly stopped eating with a knife and fork. I refused to wear an academic gown, otherwise required at my college, founded in 1851, threatening action if I had to carry such a symbol of white, elitist knowledge on my post-colonial shoulders.
Wearing one now for UWI graduations, I tell his spirit not to worry, is a mas I play with all the irony and resistance we understand so well.
He was insistent that jackets and ties were the colonisers’ uniform. Thus, I did not own a single jacket until two decades later, when Prof Paula Morgan, fully understanding, gently suggested I would need one black jacket as head of department. I told my students about mimicry as a tool for subversion in the master’s house.
One jacketed dean would comment that I should dress more formally. I’d feel pity for this man who never sat in Prof Itwaru’s class, just as I’d wonder at our politicians in Parliament, empowering an independent nation, dressed in capitalists’ clothes.
So many examples, I laugh looking back. People now champion their decoloniality, but 25 years ago, we were taking that idea as far as 19-year-olds could, entirely because of Arnold Itwaru.
He taught me only one class, in Semester 1, from September-December. We had to submit an essay and I very earnestly went to his office to tell him that I could not write the paper because I had no nation-language to express myself innocent of empire, for the modern Caribbean is so thoroughly colonial, it seemed we only have the master’s tools. Arnold Itwaru nodded back earnestly. Like I had arrived at a shore where he had been waiting. I remember my agonised undergraduate heart singing.
For an entire semester, and for a second one when I wasn’t even in his classes, I went to his office nearly weekly, consuming books that were beyond any syllabus and talking with my friends in smoky dorm rooms about existence and resistance. My mother had to withstand me calling up one afternoon to ask if she wanted me to get a degree or an education.
Finally, in May, Prof Itwaru said to hand in something. It wasn’t an essay; there were sentences, fragments, poetry. That night, I dreamt he gave me a D. He gave me an A. My college gave me an award for my student contribution. I graduated, determined to return home. I entered rooms in a jacket, like a midnight robber.
Twenty-five years later, who I am inside owes an uncountable debt to this unique, headstrong, radically-intellectual, Indian Caribbean man. I am saddened at his passing, that I did not thank him enough or before. He was a gift to students.
Professor Arnold Itwaru, travel well, knowing that your restlessness for Caribbean freedom lives in us, on and on.
Diary of a mothering worker