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Student fire – Rodney

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by Oscar Allen 17.OCT.08

“How these children get big in the twink of an eye” was the nervous muttering of some adults in 1966. They watched mouth open as school children from the Grammar School and Girls’ High School were marching through the streets of Kingstown and up to ‘Government House’ in support of their striking teachers.{{more}} Two years later, in 1968, Student Power was an accepted mobilisation worldwide as the young people stood up against racism and emptiness of purpose/spirit in their institutions; they joined political and revolutionary groups to question power and remove undemocratic governments. More critically, they refined what it meant to be a student – more than passing courses and accepting certificates; and more like investigating their place in society and the path to a knowledge that approaches truth, justice and peace. They left school to go among the poor to give service. From Montreal and Managua, to Paris and Prague, students were on fire for a new world! Students reinvented their vocation.

And in Jamaica, at the University of the West Indies, the students at the enlightened Faculty of Social Sciences became further inspired by the arrival of Walter Rodney, a Lecturer in History. Rodney was tutoring a small group on the history of feudal Europe when I went to invite him to speak to us students at the Theological College. I listened in on his tutorial and had to agree with the students as they emerged: “Girl, he make history feel like a living experience.” But Rodney was more than a brilliant history teacher. A movement was building. Around Ring Rd, at the Cafeteria, near the Library, graphics would grab your eyes saying: I am black and I am proud; Black is beautiful; Stand up and be black; and on the notice boards and side walls, alongside fete notices with BL+D, there would be a notice that Dr Walter Rodney was to speak at such and such a place on ‘African History’ or ‘The Black Experience’ or some other similar topic. When he spoke at the theological college, students and faculty filled the hall, and nobody wanted the discussion to end. That is how Walter Rodney moved people, and at the Mona University, a ‘black power’ movement took shape. Outside the University, Rodney spoke to many groups. He particularly focussed on his discussions with Rastafarians. Of them he said “…I learnt. I got knowledge from them, real knowledge…”


What Walter Rodney was saying in 1968 was that, inspite of what progress black people were making in Jamaica and elsewhere, their real condition was oppressive, and it was an oppression that must not be accepted. People must organise to bring an end to black oppression, and the formulation and policies and mobilisation and outcomes could be called Black power! Rodney moved beyond generalities as he spoke about university people – the intellectuals. He wanted to see a new Caribbean intellectual come to birth. In fact, in 1968, he said that “…black intellectuals, all of us are enemies to the people until we prove otherwise”. Here is how he positioned the intellectual. “The system will give you a nice house, a front lawn, a car, a reasonable bank balance. They will say ‘Sell your black soul’. That is the condition upon which you exit as a so-called intellectual in the society.”

Now, Rodney must have known that his words were just a rephrasing of the challenging words of Jesus, and not far different from the words of Paul of Tarsus. Evidently, there were students who heard his words, considered them and factored them into their plans and goals for their lives. They looked forward to more teachings and discussions with him. Ralph Gonsalves was one such student. But on the 16th October that year (1968), the Shearer government of Jamaica banned Walter Rodney from returning to Jamaica to teach.

Walter Rodney’s discussions and example had given students at UWI an active awareness of the society they were going to build; he made them re-examine their own positions and plans and politics, and when the government banned Rodney, students felt cheated. They knew an injustice was facing them and proclaimed that injustice on the streets of Kingston on 17th October, led by Ralph Gonsalves. That night the working people of Kingston illuminated the injustice and outrage. A coalition of different students spoke in defence of Rodney and of truth and of change.

When I learned some vague reports of the events in Kingston days later, I reflected then, in part:

The word became piss
And sweat and
Flesh and blood
And bread and wine
Bread is a corpse

…Wine flows from bullets holes (Petit Goave, Haiti)

This week, 16th to 18th October, the UWI in Jamaica hosts a conference on the 1968 banning of Walter Rodney.

Banned 1968. Bombed 1980. Remembered 2008.