Remembering, Learning and Loving What Pan-African Activist Walter Rodney Did for Black People

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Walter RodneyWalter Anthony Rodney was an intellectual, a teacher, and an activist during the 1960s and 1970s; his life and work hold major importance for those of us who care about social justice and Black liberation today. Rodney embodied the transnational dimensions of Black struggle and wielded a sharp critique of white supremacy. His scholarship on the intersections of colonialism, enslavement, indenture, and capitalism informed generations of people committed to understanding inequality and fighting against it. His trenchant class analysis of society compelled him to call out black leaders who participated in exploitation and to mobilize cross-racial movements of working people. Finally, his commitment to interventions in ideas and actions meant that he put his life on the line in service of an empowered populace, before his 1980 assassination in Guyana (his birthplace). Because of who he was and his contributions, he has not been forgotten. Events and symposia have been held throughout the world, including in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Georgetown, Guyana; and Montreal, Canada. This year we honor what would have been his 75th birthday.

Rodney’s influence traversed the globe. This article briefly charts some of his work in Jamaica, Tanzania, the United States, and Guyana. In Jamaica, he taught at the University of the West Indies and in some of the poorest areas of the country —specifically engaging Rastafarians and espousing a Caribbean version of Black Power. In Tanzania, he taught at the University College, Dar es Salaam, during 1967–1968 and again from 1970 to 1974. Tanzania was a hotbed of African liberation movements, and Rodney worked diligently with those who were fighting to free the continent from imperialism.

In the United States, he participated in the Institute of the Black World, founded in Atlanta in 1969 under the leadership of historian and theologian Vincent Harding.  Participants in the IBW described themselves as a “community of black scholars, artists, teachers and organizers” dedicated to “a new understanding of the past, present and future condition of the peoples of African descent.” During the mid- to late 1970s, Rodney lived in Guyana, working tirelessly to bring together the two major ethnic groups (people of African and of East Indian descent), mobilizing working people in a movement for “bread and justice.” He helped develop a multiracial coalition that in 1979 evolved into a political party, the Working Peoples Alliance. Rodney would be killed for those efforts to democratize the country and fight for economic justice.

Political biographer Rupert Lewis described Rodney’s intellectual trajectory as “West Indian, Pan Africanist, and Marxist.” With interests that included the Atlantic slave trade and the Russian Revolution, Rodney’s range as an intellectual was remarkable. During his early years, Rodney was mentored by several important Caribbean thinkers, including the Guyanese historian Elsa Goveia at the University of the West Indies at Mona, and later, by Selma James and C. L. R. James in a Marxist study group in London.

At the age of 24, Rodney obtained his doctorate in history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University under the direction of Richard Gray, writing about the history of the upper Guinea coast (a region that included modern-day Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau) from 1545 to 1800. His time in Tanzania ultimately solidified his role as a Pan-Africanist. He taught African History at the University College, Dar es Salaam, for a little under a year before returning to Jamaica, but Tanzania had not seen the last of him.

Rodney in Jamaica

Rodney returned to Jamaica in 1968 to take a position as a lecturer at UWI, teaching African history. There, he was drawn to the most marginalized of the society and made a series of speeches that became the political pamphlet “Groundings with My Brothers.” The late 1960s was a fertile moment for Black Power in the Caribbean. In October 1968, Prime Minister Hugh Shearer of the Jamaican Labour Party denied Rodney entry into Jamaica when he returned from a Black writer’s conference in Canada. Shearer believed that Rodney needed to be banned because he was a threat to the security of the Jamaican state. The state had already banned writings by Black Power advocates such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, but Rodney’s expulsion set off uprisings by students and the urban poor, many of whom Rodney had politically engaged.

The “Rodney riots” as they came to be called, represented an outburst against dire economic conditions, colorism, and an expression of the black nationalist feelings growing in Jamaica. Rodney’s vision of Black Power in Jamaica advocated a break from imperialism, power for the masses of Black people (as opposed to a small elite), and a cultural remaking of the society.

Rodney suggested that Jamaica did not have a Black government. Importantly, he argued that the structures of power were white and that nonwhite people were “black”—“the hundreds of millions of people whose homelands are in Asia and Africa, with another few million in the Americas.” It is important to note that his definition of “black” included the South Asians of the Caribbean whose ancestors had come to the Americas as indentured labor.  This flexible class-based definition of blackness allowed him to build with Indo-Caribbean peoples; in many ways this vision would inform the Black Power Revolution that took place in Trinidad in 1970.

African Revolution in Tanzania

Rodney returned to Tanzania in 1968 ready to engage in the new vision for Africa. In 1960, the Year of Africa, 16 countries gained independence.  In 1961, Tanganyika joined independent Africa with Julius Nyere at the helm. Tanzania was formed in 1964, merging Tanganyika and Zanzibar, with Nyere as president. Nyere’s vision for Tanzania was expressed in the Arusha Declaration, an African socialist vision for self-reliance. Rodney chose Tanzania because of its revolutionary potential at the time, seeing it as a place where he could make a contribution and where the liberation movements in Africa, the Caribbean and the United States met.

At Dar es Salaam, Rodney influenced a generation of students who were committed to thinking through the challenges faced locally and on the broader continent. He was committed to decolonizing education and writing Tanzanian history from a Tanzanian perspective in a way that paid attention to local conditions and class distinctions.  He worked to create graduate programs in African history, to develop a history teachers association, and to engender a spirit of political debate on campus and beyond.  He was a popular teacher and participated in debates about the role of the university in the African revolution, the need for democratic governance, and how to re-create a society based on the needs of the masses.

By the age of 30, in 1972, Rodney published one of his most well-known works, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.” This book examined the destructive impact of enslavement and colonialism on the continent and the ways in which these forces paradoxically contributed to the development of Europe.

In June 1974, the Sixth Pan African Congress was held in Tanzania. Rodney could not attend, but he circulated a controversial document, “Towards the Sixth Pan African Congress: Aspects of the International Class Struggle in Africa, the Caribbean and America,” that was widely discussed.  The essay highlighted the contradictions between nationalism that reinforced colonial boundaries and Pan Africanism. He argued for the importance of representing liberation movements, not simply heads of state. Further, he issued a scathing critique of those who led newly independent states in ways that reproduced the divisions and economic exploitation of colonialism and modern capitalism. He highlighted the class contradictions that would plague the congress — the first to be held in Africa — if organizers were not vigilant in combating the over-representation of state governments and if liberation and popular movements were not there to represent themselves.

Rodney and the Institute of the Black World (IBW): Race and Class

Later in 1974, Rodney traveled to Atlanta to support the work of the Institute of the Black World as a lecturer and co-coordinator of their Summer Research Symposium. The 1974 symposium included public lectures, a six-week research component about “Social Structure and the Black Struggle” and a three-day conference to chart future directions for the Black Freedom Movement. Historian Derrick White, author of the book “The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s,” has argued that the IBW was an activist think tank that sought to build consensus across various strands of Black thought, including Black nationalism, Marxism, and integrationism. The National Black Convention of 1972 (largely organized by the Congress of African People) drew more than 10,000 people from across the country. Participants of the convention developed a comprehensive “Black Agenda.” Movement activists would come to believe that some politicians who participated betrayed this agenda, inflaming an ideological debate that intensified fractures in the U.S.-based Black struggle.

As White demonstrates, during the 1970s ideological debates in the Black Freedom Movement often centered on race versus class and socialism versus Black nationalism.  These ideological debates were also international, as they plagued the Sixth Pan African Congress. For Rodney, class and race were critical categories of analysis. For the IBW in their attempts to bring unity to the struggle in the United States and support for Black struggle abroad, political economy was a necessary ingredient for their analyses. Rodney — who had been critical of black neocolonial leadership and deeply understood the impact of both white supremacy and capitalism on communities worldwide — supported them in their vision to chart a new analysis through their 1974 symposium. White argues that the discussions with and lectures by Rodney helped the IBW “expand their understanding of a racialized political economy.”

Rodney Returns Home to Guyana

1974 would also be the year that Rodney returned home to Guyana. He was denied employment at the University of Guyana for political reasons. He eventually joined the Working Peoples Alliance, a collective socialist multiracial organization. In 1979, the WPA transitioned from an alliance of several organizations to a political party, striving to provide an alternative to the two major political parties while focusing on anti-polarization work and sustained political education. Organizers, including leading figures like Eusi Kwayana, Rupert Roopnarine and Andaiye, challenged the corrupt practices of the government of the People’s National Congress and its politics of intimidation while trying to model their vision for Guyanese society.

Rodney helped mobilize a multiracial popular movement that challenged Forbes Burnham’s government and fought for “bread and justice.”  This movement was especially important because fraudulent elections had allowed the PNC to maintain power for decades. Opposition activists were often arrested, and some were even kidnapped or murdered. They fought for “bread” because of the shortages of basic foodstuffs and the challenging economic circumstances that plagued Guyanese people. Perhaps most important, the WPA and their allies mounted a challenge to the polarized ethnic politics that plagued the country and resulted in race riots between African-descended and South Asian–descended populations during the 1960s.

Rodney was critical to the political struggle in Guyana, as he drew large audiences from both ethnic groups and was able to speak to a broad spectrum of people, including bauxite workers, sugar workers, students, civil servants, teachers, and the urban poor. He was able to inspire those who felt disenchanted. During these moments, often under duress, Rodney conducted the research for and wrote his work that would be published posthumously, “A History of Guyanese Working People, 1885–1905”. A social history of British Guiana, the book explores the political economy of the country, the role and struggles of working people in national development, the constraints they faced, and how they challenged systems designed to control them.

Not Just One Leader

Although Rodney was charismatic, he rejected the concept of the single charismatic leader. He was deeply and steadfastly committed to democratic and group-centered leadership. In one of his speeches about the work of the Working Peoples Alliance, he stated, “We have shied away from concentration on single leadership. That is, one personality, said to be the leader, becoming the focus of attention, and ultimately, no doubt, becoming the maximum leader in the style that is well-known in some Third World countries. We reject that. And we feel that on principle, it doesn’t really represent the full development of people in any society.”

In another commentary, he upheld his ideals: “We really see no need to suggest to the Guyanese people that any single individual, or even a handful of persons, hold the destiny of the country in their hands.” He lived in the “we” rather than the “I” and believed that everyone could make a contribution to building more just societies.

Peoples’ Power

In a speech called “We Are Moving Forward,” Rodney noted that “the revolution is made by ordinary people, not by angels, [but it is] made by people from all ranks of life.” Rodney saw knowledge and understanding as a two-way street. He listened intently to and learned from the communities he engaged, often the people whom the state deemed as throwaways or important only because of their labor. Their struggles and understandings of the world played a role in his intellectual and political development. They also made him a strong believer that ordinary people could fundamentally change their societies.

Confronting Fear

Finally, Rodney reminded all of us to constantly confront fear. In “The Struggle Goes On,” Rodney argued “one must be prepared to take a stand against evil and injustice in the society. … For too long our nature has been overcome by fear; a justified fear. It is true that there is a fear of losing jobs. … The fear that your children might be victimised and so on. But there must be a point at which people realize, that even that fear has to be overcome. It has to be overcome by a new resolution because in the long run it is not simply that you and I are fighting in individual battles. Far more important is the sense in which we can fight in a collective battle.” Clear here is his ability to speak to people’s fear of challenging government and addressing society’s pervasive problems.  He would confront his fears repeatedly, especially later in life, because the Working Peoples Alliance was a government target, and Burnham at the time had openly threatened Rodney’s life. Rodney’s work with the WPA would ultimately lead to his assassination.

On Rodney’s Death

On the evening of June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney was seated in a parked car with his brother, Donald Rodney. A walkie-talkie exploded in his lap and tragically ended his life. His brother survived, sustaining minor injuries. The device had been built and given to Rodney by Gregory Smith, an electronics expert and marine sergeant in the Guyana Defense Force whom Rodney believed was an ally. Shortly after Rodney died, Smith, his girlfriend and their children, were carried out of the country in an army plane.

In 2014 the government of Guyana launched a Commission of Inquiry into Rodney’s death, 34 years later. While the commission became quite controversial, in 2016 it completed its report, concluding what many people already knew: Rodney’s assassination was executed with “the full support, participation and encouragement” of the Guyanese state, police, and army. The report concludes “He could only have been killed in what we find to be a State organized assassination with the knowledge of Prime Minister Burnham in the Guyana of that period.”

His murder left Patricia Rodney — his wife of 15 years who had struggled alongside him across the globe — a single mother of three children — Shaka, Kanini, and Asha.  In her testimony to the commission, she discussed how her family had suffered so much surveillance and harassment that they had to stay with relatives, friends, and in safe houses for protection. She testified that her husband had been committed to building solidarity among people in Guyana and felt that they shouldn’t give into fear and intimidation. That deep commitment had cost him his life.

A Revolutionary Intellectual

I felt that somehow being a revolutionary intellectual might be a goal to which one might aspire, for surely there was no real reason why one should remain in the academic world … and at the same time not be revolutionary.” Walter Rodney

Rodney spent his life examining the international capitalist system and class formation; highlighting the ways that white supremacy functioned; recognizing the challenges newly independent societies faced and the struggles for sovereignty; confronting the collective subordination in which Black people found themselves on a global scale and the reality of black and brown faces leading regimes that militated directly against the interests of their people; and asserting the importance of both race and class as categories of analysis and, most importantly, as bases for organization.

Currently, in the United States, mainstream media outlets will often pit issues of class against issues of race when it comes to politics. People like Walter Rodney remind us that ultimately race and class are fundamentally interconnected. His life and work remind us that we need to pay attention to a living and changing continental Africa, to recognize the interconnections across the diaspora, that we should confront our fears and collectively participate in struggles for justice.

You Want to Learn More?

If you want to learn more, read some of his work, including “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” or “A History of Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905.” The Walter Rodney Foundation, founded by his family in 2006 and based in Atlanta, Georgia, holds events in his honor and organizes a series of legacy projects. His family also donated his papers to the Archives and Special Collection of the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center. This extensive collection of his writings also includes a few audiotapes of his speeches. One classic biography is Rupert Lewis’ “Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought,” and a few years ago Clairmont Chung edited a volume of interviews entitled “Walter A. Rodney: A Promise of Revolution.”

 

Nicole Burrowes is an Assistant Professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas, Austin.

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