The name “Walter Rodney” has receded from public memory in the last few decades. Only yesterday, it seems to this reviewer, Rodney was the most promising young political scholar of Afro-Caribbean origin, influential from parts of Africa to Britain and North America, not to mention his home Guyana, as well as Jamaica, Trinidad, and other anglophone islands. He was revered: great things were expected of him, as great things were expected of the new phase of regional history in which independence had been achieved and masses mobilized for real change.
The promising youngster and student leader at the University College of the West Indies took a PhD in London in 1963 and joined a study group with C.L.R. James. These two events proved equally decisive. Teaching first in Africa and then Jamaica, he wrote a distinguished history of slavery while penning a powerful pamphlet setting black power in a Caribbean context. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, his most widely read work, answered the “Development” theory then popular with liberal anti-communist thinkers. Always controversial, he returned to his homeland to organize against the dictatorship of Forbes Burnham, and was assassinated in 1980, doubtless by Burnham’s forces and probably with the assistance of the CIA. The Working People’s Alliance, seeking democratic change by building solidarity among the East Indian and Afro-Caribbean populations, is in a sense a monument to his memory.
Rodney has been largely forgotten outside the region (and perhaps by the next generation inside it) because change, in any meaningful way, did not come. Instead, neocolonialism has so penetrated the region, exaggerated by global commerce in every sense, that the long hoped-for federation of islands seems almost to have been a mirage. They were mainly handed over from the British to the Americans, by way of overpowering influences, economics to culture, if not formal governance. The socialist parliamentarism of the Michael Manley government in Jamaica is as long gone as the reggae utopianism of Bob Marley. These societies have not thrived, and have only been saved from worse decay partly by tourism, but mainly by remissions—money sent home by emigrants moving to New York, Boston, Toronto, and elsewhere.
To observe this backward movement is painful and necessary. Hope is not absent because progressives continue to strive, reformers of a wide variety of types and agencies struggle for small improvements, and the centuries of folk life remain part memory, part living culture with a potential damaged but not eradicated. Recovering Walter Rodney is one of the tasks obligatory for clearheaded reconsiderations.
This book is an oral history, or rather a series of oral histories conducted by the editor, who was born in Guyana, arrived in New York in 1979, and since became a filmmaker, scholar, and teacher. Like any well-conducted oral history, it deals heavily in “orality,” that is, memories in the eyes of the beholders. These are highly subjective and they need to be taken with their own weight, not historical accounts so much as personal accounts of engagements, brief or extended, with Rodney. It would have been a better book, I think, with a more extended introduction, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of this orality as well as offering an assessment of scholarship about Rodney. Detailed footnotes do provide annotations of the major personalities and events that otherwise seem to go by rather too quickly for a full understanding.
Still, there are riches here. For instance, Dr. Brenda Do Harris, a Guyanese feminist, recalls her political life in Guyana, “riddled with guilt about leaving because there were others who stayed.” She claims no political intimacy with Walter. She knew him only as a teacher who explained politics in a way “always gentle and loving” to her as a young person. Now, so many years later, she fears that the grand visions of the days with Rodney may never return. Robert Hill, a political counterpart from Jamaica and comrade with Rodney, acutely describes encounters in the Caribbean and the United States. Other writers, not famous at all, recall Rodney’s intellect, influence, and aura, but mainly his political activities and his deep sincerity, his ability to bring people together from Tanzania to Guyana, and give them confidence in themselves to change history. In doing so, he gave them ways to understand that they could and would change themselves as well. Amiri Baraka and editor Clairmont Chung himself provide for us memories of Rodney’s influence within the United States. Issa G. Shivji recalls Rodney’s work in Tanzania and Rupert Roopnaraine observes in passing Rodney’s impact and efforts in Zimbabwe and Suriname, before going on to the Guyanese circumstances of Rodney’s return and his building of the WPA.
Could Pan-Africanism have gone further, achieved its aims, and protected itself from being swatted down by the forces of repression? Were savants like C.L.R. James and Rodney too optimistic in their assessment of the situation? These questions hang in the air, as they must. What we know is that after Rodney’s assassination and the U.S. invasion of Grenada, an era had truly come to an end.
Let me close, on a personal note, that no one would have been more pleased at this volume than the late Tim Hector. A disciple of C.L.R. James but from the same generation as Rodney, Hector (on his return from graduate education in Canada) was a homebody to his native Antigua in the late 1960s. There, he worked on a series of left-wing weekly newspapers culminating in Outlet, published until shortly after his death in 2002. Read from the anglophone islands to the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, Outlet might properly be called a “James-Rodney” journal because the two of them were quoted, pointed toward as regional exemplars, so often. Hector wrote on Rodney’s death that while James had warned the activist from returning to a dangerous Guyana, Hector himself had urged the return—and later felt extreme remorse at having done so. Arrested repeatedly, his printing press destroyed twice by the authorities, his wife Arah Hector murdered, Hector was no stranger to repression. But in his mind, Rodney had been the generational greatest, and could not be replaced.
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