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Mona 1968 and today – The Gonsalves Itinerary

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by Oscar Allen 23.NOV.10

It was the ‘Mona moment’, those years 1966 – 1968 or thereabouts at the U(C) WI in Jamaica. One American observer had written that there were really two Jamaicas – one rich, the other poor, and at the university, urgent spirits and bright minds were alight with a new social and intellectual venture. Their mission was to open a new world in the Caribbean, in which the poor would stand tall, prosper and share the future.{{more}} Young Caribbean scholars who were weaned on the works of James, Thorne, Price Mars, Lewis, Williams et al, spoke their truth with boldness in lecture halls, journals, seminars and other fora. They were the intellectual freedom fighters/guerrillas in the field of social thought and reconstruction, and their students developed critical minds. A Caribbean intelligentsia saw itself nursed at Mona.

It was at this Mona moment that Ralph Gonsalves received his academic, intellectual and moral foundations. The analyses presented at Mona ranged from sugar and the plantation sociology, history, economic integration and development, decolonisation and literary appreciation. In this environment, young Gonsalves states that he approached his political coming to birth. He had been, in the student arena, as active as any student could be, holding forth on the issues of the day, and the students elected him to be the President of the Guild of undergraduates for the year 1968-1969. With the arrival of Dr. Walter Rodney, aged 25 years, to teach history at Mona from January 1968, the Mona moment moved into a new dimension.

Walter Rodney, in 1968, was a missionary for personal and social change in the black world. He was a brilliant, incisive and committed man of thought and he inspired a Black Power movement at the university and beyond. Gonsalves became caught up in that movement, as did hundreds of university students and perhaps, thousands beyond the university. The message was transparently based on people’s lived reality and the messenger was persuasive, with a lifestyle that matched his message. He spoke directly to the university community and to the national situation in Jamaica.

This is what Rodney said, stressing economic, political and cultural change:

Black Power in the West Indies means three closely related things:

I. The break with imperialism which is historically white racist;

II. The assumption of power by the black masses in the islands;

III. The cultural reconstruction of the society in the image of the blacks.

His general call to the university community is summarised in these words:

Black Power in the West Indies must aim at transforming the Black intelligentsia into the servants of the black masses.

He even made the call more chilling thus “… all of us (black intellectuals) are enemies to the people until we prove otherwise.”

Turning to the personal choices which students faced then, Rodney noted: “The system will give you a nice home, a front lawn, a car, a reasonable bank balance. They will say, “Sell your black soul.” That is the condition upon which you exist as a so-called intellectual in the society.

Rodney generally provided an informed and clear presentation of the political economy, which entrapped black people worldwide and the Caribbean and Jamaica. He also condemned black political leaders who helped to keep black people disempowered. The day after the Jamaica government banned him, he said of the Jamaican Prime Minister:

“People like this man here, the so-called, the Dishonourable H.L. Shearer, Prime Minister of Jamaica, this traitor to the Black Race, has no moral authority to lay accusations against me.”

When the university students and sections of working class Kingston rose up after the Shearer government banned Rodney from re-entering Jamaica, they were making several political statements. They were saying that Rodney had said and done nothing to deserve this state sanction. The students, led by their President, Ralph Gonsalves were defending a basic right – the right to speak freely, a legitimate opinion, particularly in an academic presentation. The repressive reaction of the state brought Gonsalves to a point of no return. He was born as a democratic fighter, to resist every expression of political injustice that he could. It was what we might call a high moment of crisis and growth, with a promise to himself and to history.

It is worth noting that Dr Rodney, who died in an alleged state-organised bomb blast, maintained a commitment to defend the right of others’ (and himself of course) basic freedoms. He was critical of those governments which bore the title of progressive, but were repressive. Interestingly, his Guyanese colleague at the university, Dr Clive Thomas, whom the Jamaica government banned in 1969, proclaims consistently (with Rosa Luxemburg) that democracy and rights belong most of all to the opponents of a government.

The promise which Gonsalves made in 1968 to stand up for people’s right to speak, and present on other views vigorously, he needs to affirm again. Return to the place where your political navel string bury – the Mona moment, the Rodney affair and the Shearer crackdown, and reverse the sanctions that you sanction.

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