The 40th anniversary of the death of Dr Walter Rodney is two weeks away. The CoI that examined the circumstances of his death had submitted its Report, but the APNU/AFC Government refused to make it public. But Rodney had made too much of an impact during his short life for his legacy to be reduced only to his death. At this time of heightened ethnic tensions, occasioned by the blatant rigging of the PNC, it is important to relook at his wider legacy, and maybe apply some of his insights on Black-Indian relations.
Rodney was deeply influenced by the three ideological currents that swept the Caribbean after WWII – Marxism, anti-colonialism and Black Power/Pan-Africanism. A member of a study group that had coalesced around CLR James in London, he obviously agreed with the assessment of the great Marxist: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.”
Rodney did not return to Guyana because of the complexities the racial hostilities had engendered among the Indian and African segments between 1962 and 1964. In Tanzania, where he taught at the University between 1966 and 1968, he criticised the transfer of power by the British to local African leaders as a “briefcase revolution” from a Marxist perspective. Refused a teaching appointment at UG in 1968, he went on to the Mona Campus of UWI, his alma mater, where he dismissed the Jamaican leader Hugh Shearer as another “briefcase leader” who refused to address the contradictions in WI society.
His slim 1969 book, “Grounding with my brothers”, summarised the lessons he took outside the classroom and into the “gullies” of Kingston. He opened their eyes to Black Power: “Black power is a doctrine about black people, for black people, preached by black people…. The colour of our skin is the most fundamental thing about us…. In doing so, I am not saying that is the way things ought to be. I am simply recognising the real world – that is the way things are.”
He pointed out the power of oppression to sustain identities: “So long as there are people who deny our humanity as blacks, for so long must we proclaim and assert our humanity as blacks.”
The furore generated by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis reminds us of the universal streak of anti-African racism bequeathed to the world by “western civilisation”, but Rodney had a message for us in the Caribbean.
Speaking in Jamaica, with its 1% Indian population, and away from the challenges of his native Guyana, Rodney yet noted its racial divisions and pleaded for working class unity. He pointed out that, to “whites”, there was no difference between Africans and Indians: “Today some Indians (like some Africans) have joined the white power structure in terms of economic activity and culture; but the underlying reality is that poverty resides among Africans and Indians in the West Indies and that power is denied them. Black power in the West Indies, therefore, refers primarily to people who are recognisably African or Indian.”
Describing Black Power as “The hope of the black man (remember, Rodney uses this term to include both Black and Indian) that he should have power over his own destinies”, Rodney made a point that is very apropos to Guyana today: “This is not incompatible with a multiracial society where each individual counts equally. Because the moment that power is equitably distributed among the several ethnic groups then the very relevance of making the distinction between groups will be lost.”
But after he returned to Guyana in 1974, he acknowledged the continued salience of culture over class. While pointing out the homogenising impact of creolisation, Rodney conceded that Indians and Africans had not overcome their cultural differences to develop working class consciousness. In his last book, published posthumously in 1981, he concluded: “…the existing aspects of cultural convergence were insufficiently developed to contribute decisively to solidarity among the working people of the two major race groups. The obverse of this race-class conjuncture is that the development of class forces and class consciousness was inadequate to sustain unity of the working people across the barriers created by legal distinctions, racial exclusiveness, and the separate trajectories of important aspects of culture.”
Overcoming these “barriers” remains our challenge.