Seminal is a word frequently used to describe How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney’s opus that swiftly extended itself far beyond its academic crucible when published in 1972. Not since Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth had a writer so widely transformed how Africa was seen and researched. Rodney’s gift was his ability to synthesize centuries of history around a truism stated clearly early on in the book: “For the greater part of Africa’s history…the changes have been gradual rather than revolutionary;” the result of centuries of outside exploitation.
Changes in Rodney’s own life were anything but gradual. A gifted scholar born in what was then called British Guiana in 1942, he ascended to the top of a highly competitive school system based on outstanding ability. Even as he developed wide interests, Rodney was always on a course towards an intellectual life. He won a scholarship to the University College of the West Indies (now the University of the West Indies) in Jamaica in 1960.
In a new film I directed, The Past is Not Our Future: Walter Rodney’s Student Years, I explore these early intellectual foundations of Rodney, to eventually produce How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
The film details the story of how since UCWI was the principal university in the English-speaking Caribbean, it attracted the brightest minds from across the region. Rodney arrived at a time when the university and the country it was located in, Jamaica, were both transitioning from British rule toward independence. His generation was inspired by the voices of their age: Eric Williams, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago (himself a professional historian), Trinidadian writer and Marxist C.L.R. James, and Norman Manley (leader of the Jamaican political party, the People’s National Party). The intergenerational struggle for meaning in independence was palpable. A burgeoning sense of “Caribbeanness” was always at the centre of the intense student discussions and with it a debate over the place and relevance of the African heritage of the majority of people in the Caribbean.
The film documents this early period in the life of the young revolutionary. It places Rodney the student, the brilliant idealist whose restlessness was his greatest motivator, in the context of a Caribbean in flux. When Jamaica shifted finally to full independence in 1962, Rodney was already exploring other models on which the Caribbean’s future could be based. A student visit to Cuba impacted him greatly. So did the silences which he had to confront in his education. African History seldom evolved in the curriculum beyond the trans-Atlantic slave trade and even then its coverage tended toward the prosaic accounting of region and numbers. The ancient history and the contemporary release from the formal grip of colonialism on the continent, were concerns of the peripatetic undergraduate who also visited the US, England, and Russia between 1960 and 1963. Dissatisfied with the answers to his questions, Rodney started answering them for himself.
This path to intellectual self-discovery and revolutionary awakening is the soul of the film. Rodney serves as narrator of his own journey, through the creative use of several rarely seen essays penned more than fifty years ago during his student years and recovered during the research for the film. The concerns he expressed in them—the importance of Caribbean unity; the admonitions on improper application of independence; the attraction to Cuban-style communism; the disappointment with his peers; the insistence on knowledge of Africa to the burgeoning sense of Caribbean identity—offer revealing clues of the process of his intellectual evolution.
Through previously unseen photographs, archival footage, captivating shots of the UWI campus, interviews with those who knew him as a student, and closer attention to the social and political context, the film aims to bring the viewer closer into Rodney’s life during this period of revolutionary gestation.
By the time Rodney set about work on How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the young man of the film had matured tremendously. His Caribbean experience and the type of exposure he received during his student years, gave him with the focus he needed to get through his graduate studies in England. An interlude at the newly formed University of Dar es Salaam was followed with a brief and controversial return to his alma mater in Jamaica in 1968 to take up a position in African History where he was banned by the government for his radicalism. He passed more years in Tanzania where he left a profound impression and where he worked on his masterpiece.
Rodney’s final return to the Caribbean in the mid -1970s was to take up the struggle for equality in Guyana where he would be assassinated in 1980. In life and even more in death he enjoyed iconic status, revered as much for his courage as his scholarly works.
Rodney exemplified the life of the revolutionary intellectual that as a student became his fundamental commitment. The Past is Not Our Future helps us understand the yearning that produced it.