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Remembering Walter Rodney

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Included in the recently published book of poems by Shake Keane was one written in 1973 that was dedicated to Walter Rodney. It is entitled ‘Private Prayer’ and reads in part “To ask/Why I don’t dream/In the same language I live in/I must rise up/Among syllables of my parents/In the land which I am/And form/A whole daughter a whole son/Out of the compromise/Which I am/…To understand history/I have to come home.” In that short extract, Shake captures a bit of the essence of what Rodney was about. This is however not the subject of this article. Over the next couple weeks, in memory of Walter Rodney I will reflect on his life and work. Today’s article is really a reworking of one I had done following his death on June 13, 25 years ago.{{more}}

Walter was only 38 years when he brutally met his death, but despite his youth he had made a significant impact on the Caribbean, Africa and Black America and really on the intellectual climate elsewhere. A leading radical historian, he had made his mark in intellectual circles not only where African and ‘Third World’ history were taught, but also among scholars concerned with liberation/development theories and questions of human rights. Rodney was, however, no arm -chair historian. He was above all a political activist fighting for the liberation of the Guyanese and Caribbean masses that were struggling against injustice and oppression, as existed particularly in the Guyana of that period.

The Student

He attended the University of the West Indies at a time when the detachment of the academic from the realities of life outside the University walls was the accepted thing. The University graduate was seen as a member of the elite and was expected to fit neatly into the place cut out for him. His/her role then, was to help to preserve intact the traditional, oppressive structure of society. As a student, he argued strongly against this detachment and the role that was expected of the University graduate. Later, when he was banned from Jamaica and the University students took to the streets, Rodney reflected on UWI; “There is no more bourgeois campus in the World than the UWI. Yes, I was there, in my time this would not have happened; they might have demonstrated about bad food in the halls or in solidarity with South Africa, you know, or quite harmless issues, as far as the Jamaican government was concerned.” (Grounding With My Brothers)

Obviously this awakening pleased him, not because they were reacting to the ban imposed on him but because it marked an important phase in the evolution of the University and its relationship to issues in the society. But even beyond that it impacted upon and influenced the direction in which the societies were moving. Rodney had quite evidently played a part in stimulating that awakening. Walter had a brilliant academic career, graduating with first class honours in history in 1963. The student yearbook of 1961/62 claimed that among other things he would be remembered ‘for his persistent revolutionary questioning of institutions within the University and analyses of the W.I political and social situation at the time.’ (Pelican 21st Anniversary)

The Role of the Black Intellectual

After pursuing post-graduate studies in African history at London University and teaching in Tanzania he returned to the U.W.I in January 1968 and almost immediately his impact was phenomenal. His deep held convictions, his concern with the struggles of the Black Man/Woman in the Diaspora and in Africa- his public lectures on African history and his groundings with the brothers stand out. Rodney, as stated earlier, did not believe in armchair posturing, but in being at the centre of the struggle. He had a clear vision of the role of the black intellectual. He stated it as follows:

1) He has within his own discipline to attack the distortions of white cultural imperialism in all branches of scholarship. Elsewhere he says, “Whites have dominated us both physically and mentally. This fact is brought out in virtually any serious sociological study of the region- the brainwashing process has been so stupendous that it has convinced so many black men of their inferiority.”

Within his professional discipline as an African historian Walter tried to correct these distortions. In his two major books- History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545- 1800 and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and his numerous articles published in academic journals he made his contribution, his prime concern being the impact of colonialism and slavery on African societies.

2) The Black Intellectual, he felt, had to move beyond his discipline and challenge the social myths that existed in the society. Here again, his life is marked by an attempt to relate his profound intellect and particular discipline to the realities and challenges of contemporary society. Rodney was an associate editor of the journal Transition, which was published by the Faculty of Social Sciences and Institute of Development at the University of Guyana. The Journal sought ‘to provide an opportunity for social scientists to communicate the results of their research and other work in the social sciences.’ Preference was to be given ‘to articles with a radical orientation relating to interesting Third World and Caribbean issues.’

In the first issue the author agreed that ‘One needs to bridge the gap between academic specialization and the wider informed community which is committed to seeking both the understanding and the positive action inherent in the notion of transition in this era and in this part of the world.’ His popular work “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” is an attempt to delve into the past in order to understand the contemporary situation and to ‘challenge the social myth that exists in the society’. It concerned itself with the underdevelopment of Africa, focusing on the historical causes of underdevelopment and tracing a direct relationship between the underdevelopment of African and the development of Europe.

(To Be Continued)

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