THIS week’s column takes the form of excerpts from an interview I did in 1998 with Dr. Rupert Lewis, Jamaican and Caribbean scholar and political activist, at the time of the release of his book Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought.
Dr. Lewis, let’s do the usual by asking the question that everybody will ask– how you came to write this book on Walter Rodney?
RL: Well, David, the reason has to do with the students I teach. What you found in the 1980s, although Walter Rodney was assassinated in June 1980, the generation of students that I taught in the late 1980s, even some Guyanese students, did not really know very much about Walter Rodney– who he was, what he stood for, what his writings were about. Some, of course, had encountered How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Jamaicans knew about the experience in October, 1968 when he was banned and there were mass demonstrations in Kingston.
Others, when I traveled to Tanzania, knew about his Tanzanian experience. And what I wanted to do was put together the different facets of Walter Rodney’s life into one book where people could examine him, both in relation to his revolutionary political activity in Jamaica, in Guyana, in Tanzania with the African Liberation Movement, his work as a pioneer historian of African, of the Caribbean, his work as an intellectual analysing the contemporary Caribbean, and the contemporary Black World in relation to Western imperialism.
So, it is to put together a portrait of Walter Rodney as a basis of a more comprehensive way of presenting him to a younger public. If I had been concerned exclusively with my generation, it would have been a different kind of a book, where you would be working with people who shared your assumptions and shared your political activities. But when you are working now with students who are removed from that, then you have to approach the text in a different way. And as time passes along, people are less familiar with the circumstances of the 60s and 70s and the personalities that emerged and, therefore, you have to re-present that experience through Walter Rodney or through other revolutionary thinkers in a way which enables the younger people to do their own thinking in relationship to how they assess the world in which they find themselves–how they draw on their own potential, how the working people are aware of what has gone on before them. And Walter Rodney’s important idea of self-emancipation as a person coming from the working people himself and being very committed to his own class of people, I think that is what I tried to do in the book– to enable people to understand in a very comprehensive way the varying activities of Walter Rodney.
DH: Let’s go to Rodney specifically and to the first part of the book where you talked about Rodney’s early years in Guyana. Born in 1942, growing in the 1950s — a tremendous period in Caribbean history in general and Guyanese history, in particular. How did this shape Walter Rodney’s future?
RL: It shaped it first of all in terms of the anti-colonial movement. The movement was led by the last Cheddi Jagan and others—the political ferment of the 1950s and the repressive character of the colonial authorities in relation to that movement. And Walter’s parents are a part of that political awakening and, therefore, his youth is shaped by these activist concerns—these concerns about trying to develop consciousness, trying to develop political activities. But it is also shaped by that period, which is the end of colonialism and the opening up of educational opportunities for a large number of Black and Indian people, and he takes advantage of the opportunities of scholarship, going straight through to the School of Oriental and African Studies and before that to the University of the West Indies. He takes full advantage of the educational opportunities that are now open during the early period of decolonialisation.
So, there is a combination there of intellectual awakening, of study and the relationship between that and the political challenges of decolonisation. That combination endures in Walter Rodney’s life. The Guyanese experience is extremely important because it brings on to the agenda of his mind, this question of race — the question of Black people, the question of the Indian population, the question of how the imperialist and the colonialist utilised racial division as a means of making the populations disunited, the use of race for reactionary political purposes and the need to challenge that particular agenda.
Therefore, from early in his life there is an integration of his historical investigation and his effort to connect to political struggle. And what is important during his period at the University of the West Indies is that in the early 60s, no African history is taught. He knows a lot about European history. He knows a lot about this side of the Atlantic, but nothing at all about Africa. And this is what is impelling him – his need to know. And this is what is sending him on the investigation of the African slave trade and its impact on the modern world.
DH: Rodney goes to England and receives his PhD at age, 24. He then goes to Africa for a short while.
RL: He went to Tanzania around the end of 1965 and he teaches there but his main intention is really to return to teach at the University of the West Indies. So, he comes back to Jamaica at the start of 1968, but he does not get an opportunity to teach African history because that is aborted in terms of the formal education system. But he spends a lot of time in the inner-city communities of Kingston, in the rural communities, reasoning with people, particularly the Rastafarians– learning from them and also letting them know about the changes that are underway in Africa as well as teaching them about pre-colonial African history, which was a major topic of interest at the time. Because this is important for people to understand, because we now have a better understanding that our history did not begin with the plantation—it did not begin with the colonial mis-adventure. One has to understand that period prior to the slave trade, prior to the 15th century. And he does a lot of work on African civilisations, on African cultures and he finds in the poor communities of Kingston, especially among the Rastafarians, a knowledge of these things and there is an interaction. So, although he does not get a formal opportunity to teach African history to students, he has these reasonings and lectures which are collected as a book, Groundings with my Brothers.
DH: There are couple things here. On the international scene, Black Power is raging in the United States of America and other parts of North America, but more importantly, here is a young academic, going among poor people and talking to them about their blackness, talking to them about their African experience. It is an affront to the ruling class in the Caribbean at that particular time. How did they react?
RL: They reacted very viciously. First of all, they use of the police, they use of informers. In Jamaica, they banned the biography of Malcolm X; they even banned a book called Black Beauty which had no political significance whatever, just because it had the word black in it. They banned other writings coming out of Cuba. There was a ban on black literature period, coupled together with a ban on communist literature. Walter Rodney, along with some of the students had visited Cuba and this made him a target for the Jamaican government. Of course, this was the case with other governments as well, but moreso the Jamaican government.
So, Walter Rodney, after he attended a Black Writers’ conference in Montreal in October and when he returned to Jamaica on or around October 15 he was declared persona non-grata. And when the students heard about it they were upset because they were losing a lecturer who they liked. But unbeknown to them Walter Rodney had a constituency off the campus. So, you had a constituency off the campus who encountered this large number of red-gowned students who went on the streets to protest. So, it is the convergence of the urban youth and the students which creates a mass demonstration which turns violent in Kingston. And there are casualties, properties damaged. But it creates a new political awareness in the region and has an impact wider than Jamaica and marks a turning point. It is the beginning of the radical centres so to speak.
DH: But Rodney goes to Tanzania
RL: Rodney goes not directly to Tanzania. He spends some time in Cuba and apparently, he wrote a manuscript on the black struggle, which we have not been able to find, reflecting on his experience. Certainly, we intend to follow up that particular manuscript. He goes to England and then he settles in the University of Dar es Salaam between 1969 and 1970.
DH: And he wrote the seminal How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
RL: Yes, he wrote the seminal How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and the genesis of that text is very interesting in that it really developed as a set of lecturers to the Tanzanian teachers, the history teachers’ association. He goes throughout Tanzania, discussing the problems that Tanzania faces in terms of trying to bring about change. And he says one needs to understand the problem in the broader way of the European involvement in Africa over several centuries. And interestingly he gives the manuscript to workers for them to read and comment and this is an indication of how seriously Rodney took the role of political education among working people and he did the same in terms of his discussion with people in Jamaica and in the bottom house in Guyana or elsewhere. So, this was a way of operating and hence, by 1972 we had a brilliant book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
DH: And he went back to Guyana in 1974, expecting to get a job at the University of Guyana, did not get the job and what happened after then?
RL: He determined that he will not leave, he would stay. And he tried to get jobs even at the high school level and the dictatorial Forbes Burnham regime bans him, prevents him from getting a job there. But he decides to stay– he was not going to migrate. He does not take up offers elsewhere. And there are many offers – there are offers in Hamburg, there are offers in Canada, there are offers in the United States. He visits these places, he earns some money, he gets grants, he is able to do research in the Guyanese archives and he writes a very brilliant book on the history of the Guyanese working people, which is a fine historical work.
And at the same time, he is involved in political activism in the Working Peoples’ Alliance. And this activism brings him and brings and the working people in active confrontation with the Burnham regime. And it is this boldness and audacity of Walter Rodney which enlivens the opposition movement in Guyana and which tragically leads to his death. And the death, in my view, was deliberately organised by the State–deliberately organised by the Burnham regime in order to eliminate a very bold opponent of the dictatorial regime.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘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