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.
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
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.
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.
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.