DR. Walter Rodney was assassinated on June 13, 1980. His assassination brought to a premature end a life that represented the best of our Caribbean civilisation. This month we again remember him– what he stood for and represented. I am always saddened by the fact that our Guyana has still not come to wholeheartedly embrace our own shining star. Thanks to the inability of our political leaderships on all sides of the spectrum to separate narrow partisan interests from broad national pride and dignity, Rodney remains mired in our, often, muddy political waters.
For this month of June, I am dedicating this column to a reflection on Rodney and his meaning to Guyana, the Caribbean, Africa and its diaspora. I start today by highlighting what I see as his lasting legacy. Walter Rodney was born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1942. In 1960, he won an open scholarship to further his studies at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and graduated with a first-class honours degree in history in 1963. He then won another open scholarship to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In 1966, at age 24, he was awarded a Ph.D. with honours in African History. His doctoral research on slavery on the Upper Guinea Coast was published in 1970 by Oxford University Press under the title, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800. Rodney took up his first teaching appointment in Tanzania before returning to his alma mater, the University of the West Indies, in 1968.
However, Rodney did not confine his activities to the university campus. He took his message of Black Liberation and his knowledge of African history to the gullies of Jamaica where the impoverished masses, including the Rastafarians, lived. By mid-1968, Rodney’s “groundings” had begun to attract the attention of the Jamaican government. When he attended a Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal, Canada, in October 1968, the Hugh Shearer-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) government banned him from re-entering the country. This action sparked widespread demonstrations in Kingston, during which several people were injured by the police and security forces and millions of dollars’ worth of property was destroyed. Rodney’s groundings with the Rastafarians were published in a small book titled “Grounding with My Brothers,” which became a handbook of the Caribbean Black Power movement and is still cited today as a central text in Caribbean and Black Studies.
Having been expelled from Jamaica, he returned to Tanzania after a short stay in Cuba. There he lectured from 1968 to 1974 and continued his groundings in Tanzania and other parts of Africa. This was the period of the African liberation struggles and Rodney, who believed that the intellectual should make his or her skills available to the struggles of the poor and the powerless, became deeply involved. His second major work, and his best known, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, emerged from these activities. In 1974, Rodney returned to Guyana to take up an appointment as Professor of History at the University of Guyana, but the government rescinded the appointment. Rodney remained in Guyana and joined the newly formed political group, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). Between 1974 and his assassination in 1980, he emerged as the leading figure in the WPA and the resistance movement against the authoritarian government.
This year we celebrate Rodney and remember his contributions at a critical time in Guyana and Caribbean history. We do so at a time when our region is caught in the web of alienation, displacement and social destruction, brought about by the new re-colonisation project misnamed globalisation. The consequences of this project are multi-layered, far-reaching and total. The era of globalisation, has brought our country and region face to face with the demons of our plantation past. We are forced to take a fresh look at our independence — its content, its context, its trajectory and its promise. Here is where Walter Rodney is invaluable. He has, through his legacy, left us some tools with which we can try to make sense of our past, our present and our future. What is this Rodney legacy that I am talking about? There are three major elements of this legacy.
First, Rodney exemplified a broadened role for the intellectual in Guyanese and Caribbean society. For him, the intellectual must put herself and himself at the service of the people by becoming immersed in the popular struggle for freedom. The premise of this was the fact that it is the struggles and sacrifices of the working people that make it possible for the intellectual to attend university and hone his or her skills. This element of Rodney’s legacy is particularly relevant as our society grapples with the tension between individual aspiration and achievement on the one hand, and responsibility to community and nation on the other. For Rodney, there was no tension. His was a harmonisation of individual endeavour and collective advance.
A second aspect of the Rodney legacy was his instinctive embrace of the concrete. Rodney saw no place for dogmatism in political praxis. This allowed him to construct a broad praxis which he used not to confine and limit his ability to understand social motion, but to help him to navigate the diversity and sometimes chaos that are very much part of our historical tapestry. This aspect of his praxis helped him to distinguish between the tree and the forest, even as he articulated the relationship between the two. Rodney, therefore, would not be stuck in time and place as some are desperately trying to do to him today. He would, for example, point out the continuity from the 1970s to the 2000s, but would alter his analysis to take into consideration the inevitable changes over time.
A third aspect of the Rodney legacy that is applicable to our discourse today is this vision for the wholeness of our multi-ethnic society. His approach to ethnic problems which have plagued Guyana was three-fold. First, he adopted the approach of confronting the problem as a real living phenomenon. He did not see ethno-racialism as a fiction of people’s imagination, but as an unfortunate but real outcome of our history. Second, he made a distinction between ethno-racialism as identity and ethno-racialism as domination, insubordination and otherisation. Third, he saw the overcoming of ethno-ethno-racial polarisation as rooted in a praxis of inclusion rather than exclusion. But he advocated an inclusion premised on equality and mutual respect or what he referred to as “jointness.” Such inclusion is multi-faceted–ethno-racial inclusion, class inclusion and generational inclusion. While he did not speak much on gender inclusion, his praxis did not silence it.
A fourth aspect of Rodney’s legacy was the inclusion of resistance as a necessary aspect of nationhood. The right to resist was, for him, central to the realisation of freedom. In that regard, he saw the independent actions of the masses of people as critical to the process of democratisation and freedom. It is within this context that his notions of self-activity and self-emancipation were located. For Rodney, protest and resistance were not meant as tools of destruction and domination, but as sites of self-activity of the people. In the process of resisting, the people are creating and recreating their own identities and carving out their own spaces of liberation.
More of Dr. Hinds’s ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org