Grounding Rodney in Guyana

Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers, ed. Asha Rodney and Jesse Benjamin, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2019); 144 pages; ISBN 978-1788731157 (paperback)

• June 2020

In 1968, Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney left Tanzania to take a position at the University of the West Indies (UWI). Jamaica and the UWI each marked their separation from London in 1962, with both state and institution representing the dreams of national independence. As a lecturer at the UWI, Rodney aimed to create scholarship resonant with this spirit of liberation both within the academy and outside its walls. He brought a critical Marxist analysis of race and class to dispossessed youth and Rastafari in communities such as Trench Town, embodying the Haitian proverb “‘Tout moun se moun’—every human being is a human being.”1

The practice of “grounding” originated in Rastafari and essentially refers to sitting down to reason in a community space where ideas are shared with social transparency and political and pedagogical intent, subject to grassroots, decolonizing critiques. Although Rodney did not define groundings, it became his intellectual tool to break with the assumptions of imperialist worldviews that are “historically white racist” (i.e., Eurocentric, in service of empire and capitalism).2 David Austin’s commentary in the volume discusses the events of October 1968, when Rodney returned to the Caribbean from attending the Congress of Black Writers in Montreal, and Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, alarmed over Rodney’s transgressions of class boundaries and the implications of his radical Black Power ideologies, barred his reentry to Jamaica.3 This resulted in two weeks of unrest known as the “Rodney riots,” when students and communities took to the streets of Kingston to protest. The confluence of UWI students marching in their graduation gowns joined by people in the community provides a real example of groundings, and it speaks to Rodney’s pedagogical aim of having people realize they hold the power to change society. In the aftermath of his expulsion from Jamaica, Rodney, with his wife, Patricia, and their son, Shaka, returned to Tanzania and eventually Guyana. 

The talks given by Rodney in Jamaica and Montreal while he was in exile were collected and published in 1969 by Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, launching the important Black/Caribbean publishing house founded by Guyanese activists Jessica and Eric Huntley.4 Groundings became, according to Kamau Brathwaite, “an ‘invisible’ best seller,” and its spirit heralded a proliferation of critical engagements in the region.5 Unlike the previous six reprints, this latest edition of Groundings refuses the archival impulse, eschewing the preceding publisher notes, preface, and introductory essays written during Rodney’s lifetime or shortly thereafter. The rationale given by Asha Rodney and Jesse Benjamin in their editors’ note for not including the original commentaries is their attempt to “keep the book relatively small, so that it can continue to be accessible” (viii). Like the earlier publications, however, the new edition contains commentary by those who knew Rodney intimately, such as his widow Patricia Rodney and his close friend “Bongo Jerry” (Robin Small), and by leading Caribbean intellectuals (Carol Boyce Davies, Verene Shepherd, David Austin, and Randall Robinson). This review will consider the place of the new commentary in light of the past.

To a contemporary reader, Rodney’s speeches provide insights into the histories and processes of decolonization in the Caribbean and its diaspora, drawing attention to the coloniality of power across borders. In some ways, speeches are more useful than theory for understanding the times because they suggest the urgency of Rodney’s message, then and now. For example, the legacies of state violence, jobless sugar-estate workers, and the relation of African studies to Caribbean studies beyond what Austin calls the “‘great king and queens’ syndrome” remain important issues in the region to this day (96).

The new edition begins with an expansive introductory essay by Carol Boyce Davies, who aims to resituate Groundings by “advance[ing] readership [to] another generation and a larger public.”6 We might ask whether this means a regional, transnational, or, given Boyce Davies’s emphasis on Rodney’s stints in the United States, an American public. Foregoing the red, green, and yellow Guyanese flag/Rastafari colors on the cover of the 1990 edition, the new edition features a Chinese revolutionary art–inspired cover, perhaps welcoming a more global audience. The choices to omit previous commentary and to revise the cover’s visual message notably coincide with particular events in Guyana, including the erasure of Rodney from the public education curriculum, the obstacles to and controversies regarding the commission of inquiry on his murder, and the removal of his name from the country’s national archives.7 It is worth pondering how the transnational and global positioning of Rodney revises the importance of Guyana in his narrative.

Given the global revolutionary context of 1968 from which Groundings springs (including the revolt in France and the Black Power uprisings in the United States and Jamaica), as well as the violent racialization of our own times that makes contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter necessary, it makes a certain sense to reconcile the local context of Groundings with wider global modernities. To that end, Boyce Davies locates the chapters of Groundings within the color lines of the Caribbean and the United States. As she points out, and as Rodney himself describes, Black Power was a response to white capitalist structures. Boyce Davies notes Rodney’s inclination toward a political Blackness defined as “non-whites—the hundreds of millions of people whose homelands are in Asia and Africa, with another few million in the Americas” (xiii). The intermingling of these global histories was very much apparent in Rodney’s own trajectories. For instance, his troubled return to the region was pushed by his questioning of Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere and subsequently by the neocolonial leadership in Jamaica and Guyana.8 Rodney challenged not just the old regimes (European colonial elites) but also Black rulers whose policies did not live up to expectations of decolonization.

Yet it is often to the university as an institution that several of the commentaries turn rather than the wider sociopolitical urgencies of decolonization. Boyce Davies examines how the institutional context of Black/Africana studies in the United States must operate outside white epistemological frameworks yet also exist within the structures of the university. Verene Shepherd, like Boyce Davies, implies that the university may offer another road map for the ongoing work of decolonization through the work of the Centre for Reparations Research (which leads CARICOM’s demands for reparatory justice). Shepherd has played a leading role in bringing the demand for reparations to serious international attention, and in considering the university as a catalyst for change, Shepherd offers as an example the UWI and its strategic alignment “of industry and academia, expansion of access to tertiary education and agility to global opportunities . . . rebrand[ing] and reposition[ing] the university intellectually.”9 While the UWI has always represented national aspirations, for those living in communities where Rodney grounded, tuition fees still make the university inaccessible. Even though Rodney—as a Marxist intellectual interested in building a critical mass of social justice activists and a scholar working for the most marginalized and disenfranchised—would be pleased to see a centering of reparations at the UWI, the language of the neoliberal university (e.g., rebranding or alignment with industry) falls short of his vision. He was not interested simply in improving the university’s accessibility but in transforming the university, from the outside in. This is one of the tensions in the new commentaries that moves away from the anticapitalist language of the past.10

Rodney was, Boyce Davies suggests, part of a generation that did not think of gender in meaningful ways. Patricia Rodney writes movingly in her commentary about her struggles as wife and mother during this period of constant flight. Her contribution provides a lived experience of gender, offered through the power of remembering and recounting: protesting while pregnant, giving birth in exile, traveling with small children. By including this commentary, the editors ensure readers appreciate the intimate contributions made by the partners of revolutionaries as a way of thinking about a gendered praxis of revolution.11

However, while the focus on gender is important, Guyana as a site of engagement is obscured. As the lone Guyanese commentator included in the new issue, Patricia Rodney does not retread the political context of race and class in Guyana that made possible “the first Socialist government in the Western Hemisphere,” nor does she discuss the machinations of Forbes Burnham’s government, which her husband opposed (77). Rodney would pay for such opposition with his life (in the previous edition, Jessica Huntley and Eric Huntley state that Rodney “died in active combat”12). It is difficult to appreciate the resistance embedded in Rodney’s words and life without understanding Guyana. While Black Power was fundamentally about a long history of resistance, epitomized by slave uprisings, Garveyite movements, Rastafari philosophies, and Black Power struggles across the Caribbean,13 for Rodney, Black Power also encompassed the descendants of Indian indentured laborers brought to the region after emancipation, which he writes about in “Black Power—Its Relevance to the West Indies.” If the new edition is aimed at introducing Groundings to a new audience, the interracial copresences in the Caribbean, in particular of Africans and (East) Indians, requires further elaboration for an audience who might be oriented only toward a Black/white axis of critical race scholarship. After all, Rodney’s thinking in Groundings lays out the philosophical principles on which he lived and died, trying to heal the divisive racial politics of Guyana through a body politic shaped by class as much as race.

 

 

Nalini Mohabir is an assistant professor of geography at Concordia University.

Robert Cuffy is a co-founder of the Socialist Workers Alliance of Guyana.

 


1. Randall Robinson, “Our Responsibilities to Each Other,” in Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers, ed. Asha Rodney and Jesse Benjamin, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2019), 110.

2. Walter Rodney, “Black Power—Its Relevance to the West Indies,” in ibid., 24.

3. David Austin, “The Groundings with My Brothers at Fifty,” in Rodney, Groundings (rev. ed.), 93–100.

4. For a brief history of the publisher, see “Bogle-L’Ouverture Publishing House,” Untold Lives (blog), the British Library, 17 September 2019, https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2019/09/bogle-louverture-publishing-house.html.

5. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “The Love Axe (1): Developing a Caribbean Aesthetic, 1962–1974,” in Houston Baker Jr., ed., Reading Black: Essays in the Criticism of African, Caribbean, and Black American Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976), 22. See the commentary by Robin “Bongo Jerry” Small, in which he outlines some of the intellectual and artistic production of the time, including the work of Rastafari poet and artist Ras Dizzy and newspapers such as Abeng and Black Man Speaks. Robin “Bongo Jerry” Small, “The Conscious Youth,” in Rodney, Groundings (rev. ed.), 87–­92.

6. Carol Boyce Davies, “Introduction: Re-grounding the Intellectual-Activist Model of Walter Rodney,” in Rodney, Groundings (rev. ed.), xii. 

7. See “National Archives No Longer Bearing Walter Rodney’s Name,” Stabroek News, 24 November 2019, https://www.stabroeknews.com/2019/11/24/news/guyana/national-archives-no-longer-bearing-walter-rodneys-name/.

8. Rodney refers to Jamaica’s prime minister Hugh Shearer as a “traitor to the black race.” Walter Rodney, “The Groundings with My Brothers,” in Groundings (rev. ed.), 69.

9. Verene Shepherd, “The Continued Relevance of Walter Rodney’s Groundings,” in ibid., 104.

10. In the words of Omawale, in the Bogle-L’Ouverture edition, “So too must we in the Caribbean break with all forms of capitalism and racism before real independence is achieved.” Omawale, “New Introduction,” in Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers (1969; repr., London: Bogle-L’Ouverture, 1990), viii.

11. Patricia Rodney, “Living the Groundings—A Personal Context,” in Rodney, Groundings (rev. ed.), 77–85.

12. Jessica Huntley, “Publisher’s Note 1,” in Rodney, Groundings (Bogle-L’Ouverture ed.), iii.

13. See Richard Small, “Editor’s Preface,” in ibid., 5–­6.

 

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