Remembering Rodney in absentia

I never had the opportunity to meet Walter Rodney. I had heard of his ban by the Shearer Government from re-entering Jamaica in 1968, when returning from a Black Writers Conference in Montreal. Seems he had dared to identify with the dispossessed – especially the Rastafarians – and to educate them on their history while he was teaching at UWI’s Mona Campus. The “Rodney Riots” in Jamaica reverberated weakly with a time lag at UG when Ratoon was formed in 1969 by Clive Thomas and other academics. By then, notions of “Black Power”, which Rodney was said to espouse, had reached even the village of Uitvlugt, where I lived.
We had read Stokley Carmichael’s book, “Black Power: the Politics of Liberation”, and I was intrigued by his proposition on “racism”. He argued that a group could not be racist if it did not possess power, since it did not have the power to oppress others. This offered a tool for analysing the PNC’s actions that impacted on Indians like myself. By then Burnham had rigged the 1968 elections, and was consolidating his rule. Even though the 60s’ riots had segregated Uitvlugt into Indian and African sections, I saw some of my underage friends from the latter section vote.
I was doing “A levels” at Indians Trust in May 1970 when Stokely Carmichael – who had coined the term “Black Power” – was invited to Guyana by Ratoon, in conjunction with Eusi Kwayana’s ASCRIA. The Black Power rebellion over in Trinidad in February had piqued our interest, especially when we heard that there was an attempt to form an alliance between African and Indian Trinidadians.
Roy Sawh over in England had become very vocal on the Black Power issue with his “Racial Adjustment Action Society” (RAAS), formed with the newly minted Michael X following visits by Carmichael and Malcolm X. Sawh was a neighbour from Uitvlugt, and I had been kept abreast of his exploits by a nephew who was my childhood friend. I persuaded a couple of fellow Indian Guyanese sixth-formers, and we went over to listen to Carmichael’s speech at Queen’s College. We soon walked out with some others when Carmichael announced that Black Power was only for Africans. We were obviously in the wrong place, and it confirmed for us the rationale for Indian Trinidadians staying away from their Black Power marches.
As an addendum, the multi-racial Ratoon disagreed with Carmichael’s exclusivist stance, while ASCRIA and Kwayana supported it. It would appear that Kwayana wasn’t in agreement with Rodney’s position then. Not so incidentally, Burnham was present at the speech, and he embraced Carmichael along with Kwayana. It was then that I heard of Rodney’s “Groundings with my brothers”, and that he defined Black Power in the Caribbean as including Indian Guyanese.
I taught for a year at Central High School under former PPP executive Rudy Luck, before heading off to the US in 1972 for further studies. At Central, I came in touch with other teachers such as Mandal, Brutus and Devonish, who were influenced by the new politics represented by Ratoon and other “progressives” outside the PPP-PNC dichotomy. Being oriented towards Indian culture, I focused on the school’s Hindu Society, and was not considered “progressive” enough. I remember visiting Moses Bhagwan at his law office after learning he was going to form an Indian political organisation. But he insisted that while Indians were being excluded politically, they were not oppressed culturally. He did not agree that in the preparations for Carifesta, Indians were allocated a peripheral role.
I left for New York the day after Carifesta ended in September 1972, and ended up in Flatbush, where I attended Brooklyn College. I joined West Indians who were moving in while the Jews and others were moving out. While I appreciated our commonalities in speech and food, my “Indianness” was more of a curiosity than anything else, excepting for Trinidadians. I learnt via mail about Rodney’s return to Guyana in 1974, and his joining the WPA, which had been formed by ASCRIA and Bhagwan’s “Indian Political Revolutionary Associates” (IPRA).
On my first return in Dec 1979, Guyana was in political ferment due to the charismatic presence of Walter Rodney and his politics of racial integration. But I was consumed in meeting family I hadn’t seen in seven years. By the time I returned in late September 1980, he had already been assassinated by Burnham.