Today marks 37 years since revolutionary/historian Walter Rodney was taken from us and from his family –Patricia, Shaka, Kanini and Asha Rodney – by an assassin’s bomb.
This afternoon, all are invited to a public conversation at the National Library in Georgetown from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. to celebrate the life, activism and scholarship of Dr. Rodney.
Celebrate means “use”. The aim is not to praise Walter Rodney but to use his life’s example to confront what (and whoever) needs to be confronted. Some examples. In Guyana, the threat to the livelihood of working people and the survival of their families and communities. In the region, the discrimination of CARICOM’s so-called free movement of people against poor people of all CARICOM countries, and particularly of Haiti. Globally, the continued imposition of an economic system which every day breeds more injustice and more inequality between rich and poor and more destruction of the planet. Everywhere, the never-ending violence especially affecting children, women, the elderly, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people.
In a talk given in Jamaica, Andaiye observed that “The angle you look from determines what you see.” And we would add, it shapes our sense of what might be possible, and offers lessons for what might be done. For Walter Rodney, if we look at capitalism as a system of exploitation that is all-consuming, we end up reinforcing a sense of its inevitability and of our powerlessness. His life’s work was committed instead to focusing on the working people without whose labours the system would not be possible. In his observation of Caribbean migrants to the United Kingdom when he was living and studying there in the 1960s, he noted: “Anyone who could come straight from a rural environment, run the underground, run the buses, run the hospitals, take over our schools – people who could do that clearly were people who had almost unlimited capacity for change.”
Beginning always from this point shifts the emphasis, in that it is capitalism that is revealed to be dependent on the creative energies of the working people, and therefore always vulnerable to the withholding of those energies. Instead of focusing on a seemingly invincible power, we look for the cracks and work to multiply them, using as our lesson the incredible creativity and initiative of people who survive the most brutal of conditions and still trod on. It is how we must look at all systems and institutions that rule our lives. If we shift the angle we look from away from race/party, we might see the possibility of sugar workers marching with street vendors and street vendors marching with sugar workers and both standing up for Indigenous small miners.We are not powerless!
This shift in perspective was not an academic matter for Walter Rodney, who won an open scholarship to study History at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, and who would move to the UK and complete his doctorate at the age of 24 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (his thesis would go on to be published as a History of the Upper Guinea Coast). Rodney was always clear that his work was in the service of liberation.
There is no division here between study and activism. As Andaiye has noted, “[Walter Rodney] wrote everywhere – in the car if he wasn’t driving, standing on the street corner, on the stelling waiting to board the Berbice ferry, waiting for public meetings to begin in Linden, on the Corentyne, in Leonora, in Berbice, often surrounded by the people – he wrote everywhere.” He was invested in careful research, not for the sake of study but to understand the movement of history and the possibilities for change. As he noted in ‘Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual’: “In the new society that we expect to build, we will need to understand that we must develop our own commitment to study, to scholarship, to art, to whatever we’re doing, to take it extremely seriously…We must confront an older order with a new discipline, with a new mental and intellectual discipline, with new habits of work etc…yes we must have our work ethic and it’s a very important ongoing factor, provided we don’t take ourselves too seriously, or take the system seriously, provided we move towards understanding that we’re working seriously to establish an alternative, as distinct from working seriously to participate in the system.”
People say that ‘book sense and common sense are two different sense.’ For Walter Rodney, there was no interest in placing the intellectual or scholar on a pedestal. In one of his pamphlets, “The Birth of the Guyanese Working Class and the First Sugar Strikes 1840/41 and 1847,” in which he talked about the post-emancipation decision by formerly enslaved African-Guyanese to withdraw children from estate labour and to emphasise the need for them to go to school against the imperatives of the plantation, the moral of the story is about accountability to community, and recognizing the sacrifices of those whose collective labours make such changes possible.
About getting an education not just to lift up yourself but the whole of the community. In several of his writings he emphasizes how much of his education began when he was a child accompanying his elders to PPP political meetings in the anti-colonial period and handing out booklets to households. The everyday experiences that surrounded him were his classroom and his inspiration. And it was his observation and study of history that allowed him to insist that, “I feel that I had a grasp and a confidence that our people have the capacity to deal with their own situation, and that has not changed in me since.”
Building on and organizing that capacity is what is key to change, and what made Walter Rodney such a threat to the powers that be. In 1968, Rodney was just about one year into a teaching contract in the History Department of the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. His position that “the black intellectual, the black academic must attach themselves to the activity of the black masses,” meant that he did not restrict his teaching and learning to the rarefied confines of the university. He would go to reason – ground – anywhere where people wanted to meet: street corners, inner-city communities, with Rastafarians, with unemployed youth. He travelled to Montreal in October to attend the Congress of Black Writers, where he presented on ‘African History in the Service of Black Revolution,’ and Robert Hill (his colleague and friend and currently Editor in Chief of the Marcus Garvey and United Negro Improvement Association Papers) would present a paper written jointly by himself and Rodney, ‘Statement on the Jamaican Situation’ that condemned the new leaders of a recently independent Jamaica as defenders of a status quo that kept the majority African population on the island in a state of misery.
Upon returning to Jamaica, Rodney was declared persona non grata and prevented from disembarking, a decision from on high that would lead to riots in the city and would serve as a spark for the Black Power movement across the region. He would return to Tanzania to teach, before making the ultimately fateful decision to come back to Guyana, and to join the multiracial anti-dictatorial struggle that was already beginning to take shape through the emerging and combined efforts of the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA), the Indian People’s Revolutionary Associates (IPRA), Ratoon and other groupings. For Rodney, Black Power in the context of a multi-racial Caribbean underlined the need for Indians and Africans to come together across racial divisions designed to keep them apart and to protect the status quo. Again he drew on his own experience and the lessons of history to remind us of what was possible: “With all the vicissitudes of racial struggle that went on in Guyana, I have seen what my parents did and I have seen what other people’s parents did, and what people we call ‘neighbour’ and ‘cousin’ also did.
They were not political ideologues, but ordinary people taking their destiny into their own hands.” And his own life modelled this non-sectarian approach, no more clearly than in his opposition to the Arnold Rampersaud murder trial, when he explicitly refused, as an African-Guyanese, to collude in the framing of an Indian Guyanese political activist, and called on African-Guyanese to insist that this could not be done in their names. As he pointed out, “Who benefits?…It is a fundamental anti-working class strategy to divide the working class, to see to it that they are kept in compartments and in little parcels, so that they could never act together in their own interests.
And this is the message here.” Rodney called out the divide and rule strategy, and for calling it out so successfully, for participating in a process in which the Guyanese people were coming to an understanding of their own power, of the importance of direct action and self-emancipation, he paid the highest price of all. The moral of this story can surely not be that we should all run for cover and preserve ourselves!
So much of this has disappeared from our collective memory. Walter Rodney wrote two children’s books, Kofi Baadu out of Africa and Laxhmi out of India (the first of several he had planned) because he understood the importance of new generations needing to understand our history, and to move past the racial mistrust that has held Guyana back for so long. It is tragic that the inquiry into his assassination did not deliver the reconciliation and move past the political gamesmanship that the Rodney family explicitly hoped it would. And it is tragic that today Walter Rodney’s work is absent from our educational curriculum, his books and pamphlets not readily available.
On June 6, 1980, exactly a week before he would be taken from us, Walter Rodney spoke at a public meeting in Georgetown. He warned of the dangers of a constitution that had been foisted on the Guyanese people through a fraudulent referendum, and particularly of the dangers of an Executive Presidency that vested power in a single person. It is surely something to consider that none of the political parties that has come to power since the return to electoral democracy in 1992 has done anything about removing this dictatorial aspect of our constitution. Surely there is a lesson there for all Guyanese. Walter Rodney’s closing words to those gathered that evening are a reminder of what he stood for, of what his life’s work should inspire us to, and of the work still to be done:
“We must understand that we are still locked in struggle and we are reaffirming our commitment to struggle, and we are saying we are ready to proceed. We are moving forward. We are not intimidated. We recognize the pressures but we are far from bending under those pressures. People’s Power!”
If that sounds far away from where we are, it is up to us to close the gap.