A Foundation for Keith


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Category: Profiles 13 Feb 11

On February 8, I ran into writer, poet, former columnist, and veteran journalist Raoul Pantin. He told me Keith Smith had died at three that morning. Raoul, who has known Keith for over 40 years, said just last week Keith told him: “I ain’t fraid death.” Raoul chuckled at the way Keith teased death into a mirage which would lose its bite and disappear if faced with aplomb and picong. “That is Keith,” said Raoul.

Sometime later, in the grocery, the checkout girl trying to get my attention riveted on the BlackBerry which was flooded with tributes to Keith asked me: “What you looking at?”  When I told her that Keith Smith was dead, the girl next to her packing the groceries dropped her jaw and several tomatoes, sending them rolling down the aisle. “My pores raise up. My pores raise up. Nah! Nah! How? When? He knew he was dying? Nah! Keith can’t dead.” She went on. 

“He was kicksy. I always feel he put me in the papers. He know we struggle. He made me laugh with it.  He make me understand plenty things. He break it down...you know? I don’t have O’levels, he make me understand about pan, Moko Jumbie, agriculture, oil, the Lydian Singers, why Laventille is so, about PTSC, culture, why we must read, and how we must love we own music, talk and selves.”

At a work event, a usually placid, even tempered, suited businessman reacted to the news of Keith’s death by jumping off his chair as if someone had altered the map of this country.  He had never met Keith. Everyone claims him; And rightly.  When Keith married journalism 45 years ago, he gave himself away to the profession and people of this country. My abiding image of Keith…on a hot day so still that the shade of the leaves of trees seemed tattooed to the pavements, walking along the searing street cool as a poui blossom.

I passed him in my car, reversed and offered him a drop to the Express.  At that time Keith had become something of a phenomenon even to the most seasoned journalists, delivering century after century.  He was writing a column every single day. Raoul marvelled anew.  “I know how hard it is to do a column every week, especially in Trinidad where nothing ever changes, so after I repeated myself several times I stopped.  But he kept going.” Most people who walk in this country or take a taxi instead of driving around may be well known in their communities, but tend not to be public figures.  And public figures tend to drive and not mingle with ordinary folk.  The divide between the walkers and drivers is sharp in every way.  Keith was both a leader with the immense power of the press, and a man of the people with a pen so supple he reached everyone who could read.

What was obvious was that Keith carried his title, Editor At Large, with a huge enjoyment, relishing the pun on his considerable girth and influence in the newsroom. I told him so and he, seeing I was star struck, laughed with his whole face, his whole body, his whole boom box voice. I could see though, over the years, caught off guard, occasionally his eyes displayed panic, the deer caught in headlights.  He wrestled with inner demons like us all, laid himself bare, and we identified with him some more.

It’s only now that he’s gone that we recognise that Keith was an institutional pillar of democracy.  He was as solid as he looked.  A thoroughly authentic voice who spoke for, and led the hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians who knew him, read him and mourn him (remarkable in a country with ridiculously high illiteracy rates–over 500,000 can only read basic signs) to an essential humanity.  By rebuilding a sense of identity to a damaged new world, people who have had their original languages, history and culture snatched in a brutal colonial history.

His work did all the talking.  He had rank with everyone, from the politicians and intelligencia to the unloved 14-year-old boys on the block, wavering between the underworld and education. In this fledgling new world country he helped us to shape our still halting identity, inspiring mas designer Peter Minshall to create an entire mass, Earl Lovelace’s novel Just a Movie, gave Kitchener the title of Grandmaster, and yet we were also able to nod our heads appreciatively over his paean to zaboca.

Someone wrote that Keith had been planning his funeral with the meticulous care one would a wedding.  As I wrote, it’s going well.  As you read, it was yesterday, and the papers today will again be saturated with Keith.  From the day he died the tributes came down like a flood, from the Prime Minister who issued a press release declaring him a “national icon,” to Judy Raymond who described Keith’s columns on her Facebook page as “the most brilliant extempo calypsoes…dashed off at great speed”...“poetry containing nuggets of great wisdom”   Down to the ordinary man who wrote in to the Express to say: “When he write, is like ah hearing meh people talking.  He used to string words together with ah kinda melody, just like how we does talk.”

He was born and lived most of his life in Success Village, Laventille, raised by a single mother, attended Fatima College, and spent 45 years serving this country. His death cannot be just another ‘passing’ forgotten after a bunch of eloquent tributes. There must be a Keith Smith Foundation so the Editor At Large continues to roam, shedding his light on neglected, forgotten teenagers pulling them out of guns, drugs, illiteracy, child neglect, and introducing them to Walcott and Shakespeare.

A legacy that allows us to have a Museum of Mas, Pan and Calypso, (his last wish in his final column) a Literacy Academy, a Book Club, and finally, a published volume of his columns to be made mandatory in schools. Novelist, Earl Lovelace reproduced an email he wrote for Keith on winning the Humming Bird Medal Silver last year saying: “You have kept faith with this society in an idiom that is our own and for that, we have awarded you our love.” What better way to keep this love alive, than a Keith Smith Foundation for National Development.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur