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Walter Rodney remembered

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Last Sunday, June 13, marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Walter Rodney, Guyanese and Caribbean historian and political activist. It is remarkable that 30 years since that fatal day in 1980 there has not been an official inquiry into his death that was allegedly stage managed by the Burnham Government.{{more}} Today, Caribbean people of a progressive bent who are dissatisfied with the lethargy in Caribbean progressive thought and our blind acceptance of neo-liberal policies that were never geared to satisfy the aspirations of Caribbean people would, if they are old enough, remember the glorious period from the 1960s to the 1980s when the policies of those holding the reins of power in the Caribbean were seriously challenged.

There was a richness in Caribbean thinking at that time and a boldness among Caribbean intellectuals who not only challenged the prevailing policies and practices of those who held power but felt that there were alternatives and actively sought to find them. It was a process that involved members of Caribbean NGOs and other Caribbean people who formed themselves into different groups to challenge the prevailing assumptions of the period. Walter Rodney was central to that process and significantly died three years before the invasion of Grenada, an event that has pushed Caribbean life and politics into a sort of maelstrom into which they are still stuck. Clearly, the global context has changed and obviously the politics and life of the period from the 1960s to the 1980s would have had to change. But what we have today is a blind acceptance as if this is it, as if there is no real alternative. The search has ended.

Walter Rodney played a prominent role during that period. The son of a father who was a tailor and a mother who was housewife and part time seamstress, Walter Rodney after distinguishing himself as a secondary school student went on to the then University College of the West Indies on an Open Scholarship, graduated with first class honours in history and then entered the School of Oriental and African studies in London, where he completed a Ph.D dissertation, “A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545- 1800”. Rodney had begun to challenge the Euro-centric scholarship of that era and questioned the assumptions about Africa and African history. The next step on his journey was the taking up of a position as a Lecturer at the University of Tanzania where he began to involve himself in the African liberation struggles. A teaching job brought him back to the University of the West Indies, at Mona, Jamaica, in 1968.

His stay in Jamaica was short lived. His attempt to make his remarkable scholarship available to ordinary Jamaicans through lectures and his links with the Rastafarian community did not go down well with the government of the day, and so after attending a Black Writers Conference in Canada they refused him re-entry to Jamaica, an act that led to protests in Jamaica by thousands of students and working class Jamaicans. This began to have repercussions in the rest of the Caribbean, where a number of different things were beginning to impact on the life of Caribbean black people. This was the era of the Black Power Movement where ideas and images of that struggle in the USA began to touch the consciousness of Caribbean people.

Then there was the Sir George Williams students’ protest that involved a number of Caribbean students. The 1970s and 1980s were to see a broadening of the movement with the emergence of other groups that combined black awareness with what can be called a socialist orientation since one of the dominant groups of that era, the New World Group led by Lloyd Best of Trinidad and Tobago insisted that the Caribbean must find its own way. In St.Vincent a number of groups influenced by what was happening in the wider Caribbean and the USA emerged. The Educational Forum of the People was largely a group of persons who had returned from study mainly at the University of the West Indies and had begun to involve themselves in an analysis of the society and a search for a new way. There were other groups that were dominated by the black struggle and then finally the United Peoples Movement that brought some of these groups together before splitting after the 1979 elections and after the collapse of the Peoples’ Revolutionary Government of Grenada in 1983.

Rodney, after his ban from Jamaica, took up another teaching appointment in Tanzania and remained there until 1974. In Tanzania he produced his classical work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. This work, according to Rodney, was geared to people outside the University, although he expected that it would be made available to those within the university. He wanted to “reach our own people without having it mediated by the bourgeois institutions of learning.”(Walter Rodney Speaks, 1990). This as was to be expected came under attack from the academic community in the ‘developed world’ for it questioned many of the distortions of European thinking and European history and put Europe at the centre of African underdevelopment.

By 1974 he felt that it was necessary to get back to the Caribbean and accepted a position as Professor of History at the University of Guyana. The Burnham government which claimed to be socialist turned down his appointment. Rodney had, however, decided to stay and sought to combine a life of active historical research and political activism. The Guyanese political landscape was seriously split between two parties, one largely African based and the other largely East Indian. This division played into the hands of some politicians and was used to tighten their grip on political power. Rodney’s move across the racial line made him a real threat. The regime of the day could not tolerate this.

The impact Rodney was beginning to have could be seen by the thousands that lined the streets and attended his funeral. Even though based in Guyana his political work was beginning to make an impact on the rest of the Caribbean. His ‘Open Letter’ to the Caribbean Conference of Churches as they were about to embark on their Assembly in Guyana in the early 1970s made the CCC take note of some of the issues affecting Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean. Rodney’s academic work was at the same time making its impact on academia in the USA, Europe, Asia and Africa. His journey was brought to a sudden end on that fateful day of June 13, 1980. His work remains unfinished.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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