Thu | Dec 13, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | Why was Walter Rodney banned?

Published:Sunday | October 14, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Walter Rodney came from Guyana to Jamaica in 1960 to study history at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He graduated with first-class honours in 1963. He then went to the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and completed his PhD in record time.

Rodney's dissertation focused on the slave trade on the Upper Guinea Coast, which included Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, parts of Mauritania to the north, and Liberia to the south. Oxford University Press published Rodney's dissertation in 1970 and this brilliant book received wide acclaim for its originality. It was the first of several, including the classic, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

How did such a distinguished scholar end up being banned by the Government of Jamaica? Rodney was not a typical academic. His concerns were not purely theoretical. He was an activist who wanted to change the oppressive conditions that were the legacy of the transatlantic trade in Africans.

In 1966, Rodney went to Tanzania to teach at the University College, Dar es Salaam. He immediately became involved in local politics. In 1967, the ruling party, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), issued the Arusha Declaration and a policy of socialism and self-reliance was introduced. After the declaration, student groups set up the Socialist Club, which later became the University Students African Revolutionary Front. Rodney became one of the young faculty members who actively supported the students.

 

'BRIEFCASE REVOLUTION'

 

Issa Shivji, a retired professor of constitutional law, is now Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Research chair in pan-African studies at the University of Dar es Salaam. He recalls in Pambazuka News that Rodney provoked Prime Minister Nyerere by giving a militant paper at a seminar organised by the youth league of the ruling party.

Rodney described the new national governments across Africa as "petit-bourgeois regimes that had hijacked the revolution". The new state of affairs was nothing but a "briefcase revolution". Rodney's essay was published in the Nationalist, the party newspaper. An editorial, probably written by Nyerere himself, was immediately published with the headline, 'Revolutionary Hot Air'. It declared that Rodney was welcome to remain in Tanzania but he should not incite young people to become rebellious.

Rodney wrote a conciliatory response, which Shivji summarises: "Basically, he defended himself, but he was also appeasing in that he was thankful and grateful he was allowed to stay here and that when he talked about capitalism and neo-colonialism, he was only talking about that system which carried his ancestors as slaves into other parts of the world, and now he was trying to establish a reconnection and talk about this gruesome system which is still with us."

 

REASONINGS WITH RASTAFARI

 

This is the politically engaged Walter Rodney who returned to Jamaica in January 1968 to teach at The University of the West Indies. Prime Minister Hugh Shearer was not as charitable as Julius Nyerere. Rodney's reasonings with Rastafari and other dispossessed groups in Kingston made him a target of the security forces. Believe it or not, he was seen as a threat to the tourist industry. In October 1968, Rodney was declared persona non grata and deported from Jamaica. He returned to Tanzania.

In his book, The Groundings With My Bothers, published in 1969, Rodney gives a black-and-white account of why he was banned: "The Government of Jamaica, which is Garvey's homeland, has seen it fit to ban me, a Guyanese, a black man, and an African. But this is not very surprising because though the composition of that Government - of its prime minister, the head of state and several leading personalities - though that composition happens to be predominantly black, as the brothers at home say, they are all white-hearted."

Rodney must have known that Jamaica's head of state was a white-hearted white woman, the Queen of England. In any case, Jamaica was just another example of 'a petit-bourgeois regime' - or worse! To make your former colonial master the head of state of your supposedly Independent country is nothing but lunacy.

 

EQUAL RIGHTS AND JUSTICE

 

This week, The University of the West Indies commemorates the 50th anniversary of the student protests that erupted when Rodney was banned. On Tuesday, there will be a public forum at the Undercroft of the Senate Building at 6 p.m. Rupert Lewis, Bunny Heron, Arnold Bertram and Jerry Small will give eyewitness accounts of events. Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris and Velma Pollard will read their Rodney poems.

On Wednesday, Brian Meeks will deliver the annual Walter Rodney Lecture at 6 p.m. in the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre. The intriguing title is 'Roadblock on Hope Road: The End of Imagination and Capital's Late Afternoon'. On Friday and Saturday, the Department of History and Archaelogy hosts a public conference, 'Confrontations: UWI Student Protest and the Rodney Disturbance of 1968'. It opens with an exhibition at the UWI Museum on Thursday at 5:30 p.m.

In addition, the annual Peter Tosh symposium takes place this Friday at 6 p.m. in the Inter-Faculty Lecture Theatre. Speakers include Jah9 and Omar Davies. Both Peter Tosh and Walter Rodney were public intellectuals who disdained "briefcase revolution". Long after their deaths, their cry for equal rights and justice resounds.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.