Groundings with Walter Rodney
On the 50th anniversary of Walter Rodney's Groundings with My Brothers, a small group of scholars on the impacts of Rodney on their intellectual development and political commitments.
- Interview by
- Anakwa Dwamena
Pick up a paper, or turn on the news today and you will likely come across discussions about reparations, the re-ordering of the global financial system, disconnect of the people from a political process that claims to represent them, etc. It is always a good time to read Walter Rodney. So voracious was his appetite for thinking, writing, questioning, educating that it can feel like there is a Walter Rodney book, essay, argument for every question, dilemma, paradox. Almost forty years after his assassination, the world has changed tremendously. And as the experts in this roundtable maintain, more useful than looking at Rodney as a man ahead of his time, is looking at how the questions and concerns have morphed and taken different manifestations—and how we have failed or succeeded in tackling them. His lesson of the importance of looking at the many worlds we live in and meeting them with courage and clarity remains. From then to now, Guyana to the world.
I first encountered Walter Rodney as a graduate student at the Africana Center at Cornell University. My professors presented him as one of the stalwarts of the black intellectual tradition. As I pondered his oeuvre, it became clear to me, even then, that he personified the Africana tradition—his commitment, as a historian, to a transnational approach to the black world. I was particularly impressed with the extent to which he worked to master the local realities within a global landscape, and the ease with which he traversed the global and the local in his analyses of different historical periods. In many ways, he provided a model for the type of scholar I wanted to become. Rodney also left us with a reminder that while we must use, in his words, “historical knowledge as a weapon in our struggle,” we must be attentive to the changing realities in our contemporary landscape, and remain studious in our observation of the ever-evolving political terrain.
I have Horace Campbell [Jamaican political scientist at Syracuse University; most recently visiting professor at the University of Legon, Ghana] to thank for introducing me to Walter Rodney through his book Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney (1987). At the time I was working on the research that became Visions of Zion, and I was interested in the relationship between the spiritual and political elements of Rastafari. For a movement to be powerful enough to encourage people to move across the world to Shashemene, Ethiopia, there are a range of forces involved. What Campbell, through his discussion of Rodney, provides is a way of engaging with the spiritual power of Rastafari alongside the revolutionary politics of the movement. Groundings with my Brothers further expands on the importance of the act of repatriation and the need for reparations.
I probably first encountered Walter Rodney as one of the many radical thinkers that I read back in 2006 in “Alternate Globalization,” a legendary undergraduate course at Boston College taught by Davarian Baldwin and Deborah Leveson-Estrada. As a young self-proclaimed radical, I was looking for solutions for the apocalyptic reality that I then faced (the re-election of George W. Bush alone felt like the end of the world). Walter Rodney represented something that was both concrete and abstract. He was as much an intellectual as he was an example. While Rodney was a brilliant thinker that exhibited a stunning attunement to the enduring life of imperial power, he also stood in for a boundless set of revolutionary ideals that, at times, have little connection to his own. For better or worse, I tried to fashion myself into a “guerrilla intellectual” that Rodney spoke about by approaching my research and practice of criticism as a means of clinging onto the promise of black and anticolonial liberation.
Rodney was source of inspiration but he also had a more significant and somewhat unexpected effect on my thinking. Like how Saidiya Hartman approaches her historical figures; that is to say, we start to apprehend his impact when we attend to the gap between his proper name and the existence that it signifies. It is in the gap that we discover the erotic underpinnings of intellectual life. Rodney very much brought me into the fold of an expansive and ever changing social form (a tradition?). When I read Rodney for the first time I was also coming to contact with the immeasurable range of political desires and passionate attachments formulated in his name. In other words, Rodney was an occasion for thinking with others—that includes my professors, older activists, Steve, and the dread with his peanut punch at Roy Wilkins Park.
It was as an undergraduate in the Department of History at the University of the West Indies, Mona, in the nineties, that I first learned about Walter Rodney. This was in the 1990s. He figured large in the department’s history and although his assassination (Rodney was murdered in June 1980 by a Guyanese government agent—Ed.) was over a decade prior to my arrival, it was still a very hurtful episode to the generation that taught me. That story often came out in lectures and general discussions. But more immediately we learned of his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. At the UWI every history major must take courses in Caribbean history. The same was true for Rodney when he was a student there in the early sixties, for me when I arrived thirty years later, and for all incoming students today. In those classes we learn not only of the Caribbean, but also quite naturally of Europe and Africa. African history came to us through a need to understand what the continent was like prior to the beginning of the European trade in Africans which they enslaved. In a reflective comment on his early years as a university student in Jamaica, Rodney commented that his Caribbean history course exposed his deep lack of knowledge about Africa. This is important to note. It reflects the heavy influence of a colonial curriculum that Rodney and his peers had. It was that generation, the generation of independence in the sixties, who broke through that silence in the Caribbean academy. It began with Elsa Goveia in the 1950s, a brilliant Guyanese professor of history who insisted on the teaching of Caribbean history on its own and not as a corollary to European history. And it continued with Rodney who took seriously the need to learn more about Africa so he studied it. Then my generation and those who have come after benefited from his dedication and through works like How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, came to understand Africa’s importance to our history in the Caribbean in a different way.
So Rodney entered my consciousness first as a pioneering historian of Africa who also happened to have been trained in the same department at the same institution where I was. That alone made him stand large in my mind. It was often repeated on campus that Rodney earned his doctorate at 24. This marveled us no end and elevated him to an almost unreachable level. It also intrigued me to learn more about him, his ideas, and how he drew from and influenced the environment around him. As I read more about his life, especially his terrific Walter Rodney Speaks, I became more intrigued.
Looking back at my own relationship with Walter Rodney’s thought, it is clear that just as he was a self-avowed product of his time and the conditions that produced him, so too was I a product of my generation and the conditions we confronted as I came of age in the counterrevolutionary period of the 1980s. I first encountered Rodney’s work as an undergraduate student in London, during my 2nd year of college. I was 17, and turned 18 on the New Year as I voraciously researched social change and revolutionary theory during that 1988-1989 school year […] It was an Eritrean dissident studying at ODI who first insisted I read How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, one night during a long discussion at the check-out desk. He also insisted that I live and work in Africa if I was to truly understand the development dynamics I was trying to grasp. I checked How Europe out that night, and spent much of the New Year break reading it deep into the night in the room I rented in Islington. I remember Rodney’s book cohering my economic understanding of the world, and being a primary reason I determined to study at FWC’s East Africa Center in Kenya, which I finally managed to get to during my final undergraduate years, from 1990–1992. Underdevelopment theory and his grounded analysis of colonialism explained a major missing piece in my understanding of the plight of modern Africa and its position in the world economy, and led me to Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, back to Lenin, and also to Samir Amin, Issa Shivji, A. M. Babu, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank and Giovanni Arrighi.
When I embarked on my senior year of undergraduate study in Kenya in 1990, I settled in a rural part of the central Kenyan coast, in a village plagued by squatter evictions and land issues stemming from the period of slavery, which had only ended there in 1907. In the context of my protracted ethnographic research, during which time I started a squatter farm on Crown Land with a local comrade and also ended up owning a local dhow that we sailed along the coast as far away as Lamu, I reread a lot of the Marxist theory, and especially Lenin’s Imperialism, finding that they profoundly explained everything I was witnessing around me. Frederick Cooper’s From Slaves to Squatters was indispensable as well. But How Europe Underdeveloped Africa far and away provided the essential framework I needed to understand both the colonial and neocolonial history I was wrestling with. Ngugi’s Petals of Blood and Decolonizing the Mind were also powerful tools, as were the works of Okot p’Bitek, James de vere Allen, and Richard Wilding, who I was lucky enough to have as my faculty advisor. While I was immersed in Rodney’s book, I carried it with me wherever I went, including on matatu (minibus) rides into town, and more than any other book, his elicited stories from random strangers about his impact on their lives. Stories from when they saw him demolish Ali Mazrui in their debates at Makerere University, and also stories about his years in Tanzania, around the Dar School of historiography. I realized that he was not just a brilliant theorist and historian, but also an amazing person who had the power to engage ordinary people wherever he was, in ways that left the most lasting of impressions. This has been a recurring theme for me, in my studies and work in the US and around the world, and distinguishes Rodney for me from almost all other scholars I have worked on. That summer on a brief visit to the US I also noted the presence of Rodney’s books on the streets of Harlem, and at Liberation Books, where I discussed his life with the store’s owners. Later, when I got to graduate school in Binghamton, NY, during the 1990s, around the world systems school of sociology that was based there, his work helped me see beyond the Eurocentric formulations many of my comrades and professors held, and also helped me hold fast to the framework of neocolonialism rather than the vastly more popular postcolonial conception that was in vogue at that time (and still is). As I got to know Rodney and his work across these years in Kenya and later in the US, I also noted that many radical or progressive white scholars respected his work on one level, but referred to it somewhat derisively as “polemical,” while for black folks and scholars Rodney was a source of pride and empowerment, and a powerful tool of explanation and demystification.
Groundings with my Brothers became the most important of his texts for me when I began to conceptualize my master’s thesis only a year after I first encountered Rodney’s work. My thesis focused on the evolution of one group within Rastafari, the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Groundings provided the epistemological foundation for my own work (even beyond the thesis), which takes seriously the intellectual offerings of Rastafari. Rodney’s assertion that Rasta people were producers of valuable knowledge from whom he, as a scholar, got “real knowledge,” represented a groundbreaking and necessary intervention. Rastafari had been marginalized and ostracized in colonial and post-independence Jamaica, and the understanding that they were ignorant, backward, laughable, and even insane, remained pervasive in 1969 when Groundings was first published. Rodney offered a powerful corrective to Eurocentric assumptions regarding what it meant to be “educated.” In an unpublished piece, penned shortly after he was banned from entering Jamaica, Rodney also acknowledged Rastafari’s influence on Jamaican statecraft: “The Rastafari have encountered great repression from the authorities under colonialism and since, but their presence has also forced the governments to take some official steps towards restoring Africa to an image of dignity in the public mind.” I remain indebted to him for my own unwavering assumptions concerning the intellectual depth and importance of Rastafari.
In her introduction to Verso’s recent republication of Groundings with My Brothers, Carol Boyce Davies writes, “There are some classics in the library of black studies that have a narrative of their own, even for those who have never read these texts.” I first read Groundings in graduate school. Around that time, I was obsessed with the riots that sparked up in Kingston, Jamaica in October 1968 after the Jamaican government banned Rodney’s re-entry into the country after citing his subversive activities. Initially, I wanted to retell the story of ’68 in a manner that displaced Paris, New York, and Chicago as the major focal points of this revolutionary moment. I already had fixed Groundings into a narrative prior reading a single page. This narrative was not unlike the narratives of liberations that structured my political thought back then. I mainly turned to the past in search of historical figures, overlooked texts (such as Groundings), and marginalized social movements that, once drawn into the present, would unlock a revolutionary future. I thought that I had to find the missing key to our salvation, the person or thing that would allow us to reclaim the revolutionary future that the past promised us.
Reading Groundings disabused me of my habit of approaching the past in search of counter-narratives. It forced me to realize how the narratives of liberation that once structured my ways of thinking politically had actually constrained my political imagination. For instance, I was amazed how in the opening chapter of Groundings, “Statement of the Jamaican Situation,” Rodney moves outside of the ordinary coordinates of space and time to make sense of his contemporary situation that I only knew as ’68. He begins his statement in 1938 (“exactly one hundred years after the supposed Emancipation of the Black Man in Jamaica”) and then alludes to the hypocrisy of the United Nations, mentions Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, and links the brutality of the black police force in Jamaica to racist attacks of the white officers in New York, “for ultimately they serve the same masters.” By situating the violence that was then unfolding in the streets of Kingston within this historical constellation, Rodney is able to locate an emergent social force buried under the signs of criminality and tribal war. “For those who have eyes to see,” he concludes, “there is already evidence of the beginnings of resistant to the violence of our oppressors.” Groundings demonstrates the significance of what Cedric Robinson referred to as black radical historiography and compels us to consider what fall outside of the political schemas that we have inherited. Ultimately, I am making a point about the significance of Rodney’s historical method. Reading Groundings today demands that we interrogate pre-established ideas of black and anticolonial freedom and even that sacrosanct thing we call the black radical tradition.
As my student years progressed at Mona so too did my fascination with Rodney. Reading about his life and his time in Jamaica very quickly led me to Groundings With My Brothers. That book has had an enduring presence among Jamaicans interested in that critical period of radical politics in the late sixties. Reading it first in the mid-1990s, it emphasized, in ways profound and straightforward, the anger and passions of 1968. We were learning the frame of the story in our lectures. Caribbean history classes, and also courses I did in government and Caribbean politics, pointed to the so-called “Rodney Riots of 1968” as a turning point in the region and the campus’ history. What was it about this brilliant young man that so terrified the government they chose no other course but to ban him? I don’t think up until then I had even heard that in Jamaica someone could be declared persona non grata by the state. This was new to me, and that it happened to someone who carried such reverence in the institution and among the lecturers I was drawn to, only fascinated me more. Lecturers such as Rupert Lewis, who has written a first-rate biography of Rodney, Swithin Wilmot, Clinton Hutton, Michael Witter, Christine Cummings, Verene Shepherd, Anthony Bogues, Louis Lindsay among several faculty I encountered, all spoke about Rodney in their classes. I also got to know during this period, Bongo “Jerry” Small, who knew Rodney in 1968. So when I read Groundings, it opened a world for me. Like the reggae music I had always heard but never truly understood before that period in my life, it made that era of black power tangible. It was not just his analysis of Jamaican society that did it for me; it was the language he used to describe the society and its contradictions. The nationalist symbols I had learned in school—the idea of unity, of heroes and a common story of achievement—were challenged by Rodney’s insistence that a conscious class divide shaped by the large fragments of colonialism that remained after 1962 was undermining Jamaica. This was a pivotal moment in my understanding of the construction of the society to which I belonged.
As a graduate student at SUNY Binghamton, I delved deeply into more advanced theory. As I processed my years of Middle East and African fieldwork from my undergrad years, I also engaged heavily in the activism then engulfing our campus. My first Teaching Assistant assignment, in 1996, was a course called “Africa in the World System” and I assigned How Europe as our core text. By the time class started, I had become a leader in a social movement that was occupying the administration building around demands for a more diverse curriculum, preventing the arming of campus police, and a host of multicultural issues of student representation. So I held our first session of class inside the building takeover, where I had the students sit in a circle on the floor somewhere to the side of the main lobby that was the center of our occupation. In my Freirian tradition and in the spirit of the Marxist circles I had been a part of in London, we each took turns reading a paragraph from How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and then discussed it as a group. There in the introduction by Vincent Harding, Robert Hill and William Strickland from the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, we were all stunned to read that because Rodney had been denied his Chairship in the History Department at the University of Guyana by Guyana’s dictator when he returned home in the mid-1970s, he’d had to travel and lecture internationally to pay the bills and one of his regular stops had been at Binghamton in addition to Cornell, Michigan, Amherst and other nearby US schools. We all wondered how this legendary figure could have graced our campus some fifteen years earlier and yet there was almost no memory of him, no building or room named for him. We started asking questions and finding people who remembered him, and soon formed a student-based Walter Rodney Study Group that met over the course of the next four years, and engaged in a number of projects which included starting a scholarship in his name, unsuccessfully trying to name the Student Union after him, and our biggest success, a major international conference about his work which we convened as students in November of 1998: “Engaging Walter Rodney’s Legacies.”
So it was in this sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly study group that we started reading more of Rodney’s works, and this included very close studies of both Groundings With My Brothers, and Walter Rodney Speaks, as well as many of his lesser known academic essays on subjects ranging from Angola to Latin America and George Jackson. Walter Rodney Speaks was central for us, and was even adopted by a sympathetic professor, and helped me cohere my commitment to what Rodney called the role of the radical or guerilla intellectual. Like Ward Churchill, who spoke on campus in late 1993 during one of our student uprisings, Rodney stressed the obligation to ground in the community where we were, the importance of the university as a site of struggle, and together they helped us commit to blending our studies with deep political engagement and struggle outside of class. But Groundings had an especially profound impact for me and for my comrades then, as it explicitly engaged and exemplified the Black Power struggles that prefigured our 1990s social movements around multiculturalism, diversity, identity politics, and representation. Here was a text that answered the raging (false) questions of race versus class, and showed us that far from being a theoretical abstraction, these questions were a matter of specific historical conditions and realities that had to be studied in their specificity, and were in almost all cases a matter of deeply entwined configurations. We were reading about Kimberle Crenshaw’s new theories of intersectionality, and she visited campus for a memorable lecture at one point. We were also reading Audre Lorde and Sylvia Wynter under the tutelage of our primary scholar-mentor, Carole Boyce Davies, the most engaged and committed professor we had in that period. Wynter, who had known and worked with Rodney in Jamaica and other places, would visit campus and become engaged in our work on several occasions, and ended up joining George Lamming as one of our keynote speakers at the 1998 Rodney conference.
What is one segment or anecdote or observation from Groundings that really stuck with you and why?
I encountered Groundings when I was speaking with a range of people in Shashemene, Ethiopia, about their perceptions of the incoming repatriate community. Rodney’s work is so clear about the master narrative of history—all of his work points towards this, but there are sections of Groundings that disseminate this in just a few sentences. I taught Ethiopian students English in Shashemene and they, like Rodney, taught me about the resonance of their country’s history and the wider history of the continent. The shift in focus beyond western, Eurocentric, colonial views of historical trajectories opens up possibilities for thinking differently, considering power dynamics, and as Rodney points out so clearly in a phrase as relevant now as it was when he wrote it, objects to “the current image of a multiracial society living in harmony—that is a myth designed to justify the exploitation suffered by the blackest of our population, at the hands of the lighter-skinned groups” (26). It is hard to choose one bit of the book. Rereading Groundings involved so many moments of stopping to consider the resonance of the work to today’s situation. I suppose one of the first specific observations that jumped off the page, was when Rodney discusses Marcus Garvey’s point that “Whenever an oppressed black man shouts for equality, he is called a racist… Imagine that! We are so inferior that if we demand equality of opportunity and power, that is outrageously racist!” (20). It is hard not to think of the legions of so-called “freethinkers”, the Jordan Peterson acolytes, the Quilette readers, who all work in the service of legitimizing the concept of reverse racism—grasping onto arguments that suggest that it is really white (normally cis, hetero, and male-identifying—though often female-identifying too) folk that are the victims of oppression.
For me, there are several striking phrases in Groundings so I will choose the one that most occupies my thinking at the moment: “The Government of Jamaica, which is Garvey’s homeland, has seen it fit to ban me, a Guyanese, a black man, and an African.” In that powerful statement, Rodney captured the complexity surrounding the rise of the black-led nation state. Of course, Rodney was responding to the fact that the Jamaican government had used the protocols of the newly formed nation state to refuse him (re)entry into a majority black, Caribbean, and African diasporic space after he attended the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Canada. The post-independence period had yielded the reality that nationalism as the strategy for liberation from colonial rule had produced its own hierarchies, structures of power, and tools of repression. Black leaders had begun to use their power to control “subversive” black radicals, and in using his nationality, race and continent of origin to chastise the “white-hearted” Jamaican government, Rodney had put his finger on a major problem with nationalism in Jamaica. While continental Africans emerging from colonial rule easily found their roots on the African continent from which they had not been displaced, many in the Caribbean rejected African heritage in favor of the multi-racialism that had come to mark state-driven notions of national identity (as was the case in Jamaica). Rodney’s comment continues to resonate in Jamaica and in the wider Caribbean where the question of African heritage in particular, remains a point of contention. He also highlighted the contradiction that has historically defined Jamaica: a history of anti-colonial black radicalism alongside a history of the type of conservatism that reflects the impact of colonial thinking and values.
The protests that erupted in Jamaica as a result of the banning represented a watershed moment in the history of radical movements within Jamaica and across the English-speaking Caribbean more broadly. Black radicals in the Caribbean, like their counterparts across Africa and its diaspora, had begun to see the complexity that would mark the period of decolonization. Rodney’s banning was neither the first nor the only cause for alarm that dampened the optimism and euphoria across the black world since Ghana gained independence in 1957. Portugal’s determination to hold on to its colonies in Africa, the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961, and the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in Rhodesia in 1965, among other developments, had all served as reminders that white power was not about to retreat in the face of nationalism and efforts at post-independence transformation across Africa and the Caribbean.
Finally, beyond its rhetorical power, this statement from Rodney has stayed with me because it continues to speak to contemporary debates about nationalism and its discontents.
I keep on returning to a passage from the closing essay, “The Groundings with My Brothers,” where Rodney interrogates the myth of “a harmonious multi-racial society” exhibited in Jamaica’s national motto, “Out of Many, One People”:
It is a harmonious multiracial society, we are told. It is an integrated society, we are told. It reminds me of Ted Jones’s [sic] poem “Integrated Nigger.” It is a myth of the ruling class, and it is a subtle myth, an important myth because it does in fact have a certain appeal. It talks about multiracial and harmonious living, which nobody on the theoretical level would oppose. This is what we are struggling for.
Rodney’s point here, of course, is that it is a lie that this harmony ever existed. But what always draws me back to this passage is his quick reference to the poem that Ted Joans read earlier at the Congress of Black Writers at Montreal—the same event where Rodney delivered the speech that led to the essay in question. Sometimes I like to give myself the liberty to think of that reference as Rodney’s “reading” of Ted Joans “Integrated Nigger,” a poem that will be printed in Joans’ Black Pow Wow: Jazz Poems (1969) under the title “The Nice Colored Man.” I don’t have the time or space to read the poem, or read Rodney’s “reading” of the poem, or underline the uneven reception of Joans’ work in the Caribbean by comparing Rodney’s “reading” with seminal literary scholar Mervyn Morris’s contention that Black Pow Wow exhibits how Joans’ “art is imprisoned in a propogandist programme.” For the time being, let us just note Joans’ use of the demonstrative at the end of the poem:
(I Cant Figger This Nigger He’s Too Much This Nigger! He’s All Over Us This
Nigger I Dont Trust This Nigger He’s Far Too Much He’s
Everywhere… This Nigger!)
It is difficult to figure or account for “This Nigger” precisely when “This” starts qualifying something that exceeds any particular person or thing, something that is “Too Much,” “All Over,” “Far Too Much,” and “Everywhere,” only to end up back at “This Nigger.” The particular harbors something more general, like the social force of the masses or some sort of multiplicity. This is a far cry from the correspondence of the one and the many in a harmonious multiracial society. Fred Moten might call it “extra-musical” to the extent that it is precisely what is denigrated by the imposition of multiracial harmony. We might think about it as the possibility of every individual that is “This Nigger” assembling themselves, like the black power that slants out of Black Pow-Wow if you know what to listen for when Rodney talks about poetry.
There is a part of the eponymous essay that closes Groundings with my Brothers in which Rodney recounts his experience in Jamaica. He places this personal insight as a defense against the accusations of the Hugh Shearer government that banned him. It is not a chest-thumping by any means. It is however personal in a way that the rest of the other essays are not. Rodney gives insight into his motivations and activities. He said, “I lectured at the university, outside of the classroom that is.” He states that he went to “highly respectable” places to speak and give public lectures. More importantly, he “would go further down into West Kingston and I would speak wherever there was the possibility of our getting together.” Among the places he spoke, he tells us in this captivating section, was in the area of Kingston near the city dump in Riverton City called the “dungle.” Rodney wrote, “I have sat on a little oil drum, rusty and in the midst of garbage, and some black brothers and I have grounded together.” He went further: “But we spoke, we spoke about a lot of things, and it was just the talking that was important, the meeting of black people. I was trying to contribute something. I was trying to contribute my experience in traveling, in reading, my analysis and I was also gaining” (68-69). This admiration for what he learned from the people in Kingston’s slums gives indication of the sort of person Rodney was. More importantly, for readers in 1969 and even now in 2019 it is striking that Rodney, a widely recognized brilliant academic, could give value to the knowledge he gained from people who had not benefited from anything more than a basic education is so relevant and worthy of consideration. What Rodney expresses in that essay which closes the book, is that those who misunderstand the potential of the majority population do so at their own peril. He says clearly that he did not create a situation of upset, he found one. And he expresses confidence that this energy would continue to mature after his departure. Rodney closes the essay with a reiteration of the point:
The black people in the West Indies have produced all the culture that we have, whether it be steel band or folk music. Black bourgeoisie and white people in the West Indies have produced nothing! Black people who have suffered all these years, create. That is amazing (73).
Think about that statement, written on the eve of the 1970s when the profound creativity he mentions exploded internationally with reggae music, and you can appreciate how tuned in this young revolutionary intellectual was with his times and people.
I was also a co-founder of the Coloniality Research Working Group at Binghamton with several activist comrades, in which we engaged and expanded on the work of [Peruvian sociologist] Anibal Quijano, who visited campus each Spring in the same visiting scholars program that had hosted Rodney in the 1970s. Our coloniality conferences hosted Walter Mignolo, Fernando Coronil, Ifi Amadiume, Enrique Dussel and other leading thinkers, but it was Sylvia Wynter’s profound theories and stimulating visits that most profoundly bridged the works of Rodney and the Pan-African revolutionary school of thought we were steeped in—the then-new-in-the-Anglophone-world concepts of coloniality and its nuanced formulations of racialized continuums of labor exploitation. This was long before decolonial theory had become a buzzword, and in hindsight our activism and scholarship played a significant role in the proliferation and development of this theory. And for some of us, Walter Rodney, as a meta-theorist of the highest order, but also as a local figure in our own regional history, was core to connecting and empowering our work across the usually separated fields of scholarship and activism, and across the intersections of race and class. Groundings With My Brothers made it clear for us that our struggles were not new, that police brutality was central to the struggles of the 1960s, even as we were pepper sprayed by our own campus security forces when we tried to enter open meetings to fight a dangerous white supremacist student leader who had hijacked the undergraduate student government. As we occupied the administration building for more than a week, our struggle was covered in The New York Times and mentioned in the first police brutality week on MTV, which occurred while we still held the building and locked out our provost and other senior administrators while we negotiated our demands. Rodney’s work, and especially Groundings also helped us remain strong in our convictions that race could not be reduced in some hierarchy to class, even when many of our professors and leading scholars told us it should be. Our diverse movement was comprised mostly of working class black and latino students from Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx and other parts of New York City and New York State, and Rodney helped us tangibly link the Caribbean and African communities within our struggles to domestic US communities of color, connecting us with a Pan-African vision that helped unite and strengthen us across our differences. His work helped us hold fast to notions of Black Marxism that otherwise might get lost in more Eurocentric readings of class theory that were prevalent then as now. Eventually, when we convened the Walter Rodney Conference in 1998, we got to host and meet members of the Rodney family, as well as scholars and activists from around the world. Organizing the conference was at once a struggle in and of itself, but was also a profound organizing experience that shaped much of my subsequent life and thinking. It was also the beginning of my relationship with Patricia and Asha Rodney (Walter’s wife and youngest child), with who I would later work very closely around the Walter Rodney Foundation and its activities in Atlanta after I moved there in 2006.
What does it mean to revisit the work now?
This diminutive text covers so much. To revisit Groundings now is to see just how many of our “new” theoretical insights are actually building on ideas with which Rodney grappled decades ago. In Groundings we find, among other insights, the precursor to contemporary examinations of the role of the university and of (black) scholars within it, the model of how to bridge the so-called “town and gown divide,” the prototype for transnational work that never loses sight of local specificities, and a trenchant explication of what Rodney calls the “white capitalist system.” Rodney’s work reminds us of how much we need to continue to engage with the black intellectual tradition and the canon created by him and his contemporaries. Of course, we quarrel with it, we problematize it, and we must, for example, critique Rodney for having given the impression that he grounded only with Rastafari “brothers” and not with sisters. To point out his enduring relevance and brilliance is not to engage in hagiography and it is not indicative of a desire to ignore the blind spots of our intellectual ancestors; it is, rather, to underscore his role in the creation of a black intellectual tradition that was so rigorous, adaptable and meaningful that we continue (sometimes unwittingly) to “repackage” its ideas in contemporary scholarly works. We stand to learn not only from Rodney’s actual arguments, but also from his method: he was as serious about witnessing and learning from changing realities on the ground as he was about studying and learning from the past.
Africa is a Country has already talked about how Rodney was ahead of his time, but I don’t think this can be underlined enough. The conversation about reparations that is thankfully receiving more and more attention.
I am more invested in a reading than a revisiting of the work. Most of the time, we revisit a work, we simply hold up an important aspect or feature to the present as if it were a prism that might clarify or even rewrite our current fates. Reading, on the other hand, is an encounter with the historical life of a text. It is also a way of operating within the space of difference. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes in “Fanon Reading Hegel”:
How does one read? One inserts oneself inside the text of the other, not as her/himself. It is not “Please Hegel, be like me!” It is rather “Hegel, here I come, to ventriloquize you.” It is to act out the text as the text of the other, the enemy’s text.
From Spivak we begin think about reading as a mode of critical intimacy. It calls for something other than criticism or interpretation. It is a sort of thinking through the text, entering its protocols, and noticing the dissonances that emerge along the way. It is by reading that I discover the differences that structure my relation to the other. Reading the “enemy’s text,” in this way, is not about outright antagonism but instead highlights the deviations between the other’s perspective and my own. I remember getting my hands on the 1996 edition of Groundings With My Brothers published by Bogle-L‘Ouverture and Research Associates School Times. Before I could get to Rodney, I had to get through two publisher’s notes (1969 & 1983), an introduction by Omawale (1975), an editor’s note (1969), and the original introduction by Richard Small (1969) that were featured in that particular edition. These paratextual elements are certainly not readings of Groundings. But through my reading of these texts, I came to realize how I inhabit a different horizon of expectation than those who turned to Rodney in 1969, 1975, 1983. When it comes to the Verso republication of Groundings, I want to suggest that reading this text in the contemporary moment requires at the very least that we “act out” the editors’ note by Asha T. Rodney and Jesse J. Benjamin, Carol Boyce Davies’ introduction, and the five commentaries published at the end of the book. Attending to the infinite readings that now surround Rodney’s text on the occasion of its republication brings with it the possible rediscovery of the here and now.
Five decades later Groundings with My Brothers can be read in several ways. For the scholar intrigued with understanding what international Black Power was like in the 1960s it gives you a direct view. For persons who wish to learn about the intellectual vision of Walter Rodney and his motivations—remember the book was written before his opus, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa—it captures that very well. The new reissue has some fascinating essays on Rodney and the production of the book. For me there is special value in reading the book to be reminded of a time when people believed in their power to change a system that was historically constructed to oppress them. That system remains so present if more easily concealed in our digital age. The examples of Walter Rodney and his generation show that above all it takes commitment to the project of improving the circumstances of one’s society. And a major part of that commitment is the discipline to learn as much as you can. Not only through formal education, but also through the sort of work that Rodney did: the listening closely and exchanging with others. The confidence Rodney had to write How Europe Underdeveloped Africa as well as later major works such as A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, was infused by this discipline and openness. He learned about Africa from studying African history, writing about it, living in Africa, and also from speaking about Africa with Rastafarians in Kingston who had never left their island. All of this was part of what made him and what he left for us to consider.
Groundings With My Brothers is now 50 years old. It’s a profound milestone in many ways. It’s striking that Walter is not with us to reflect on it himself. He should be 77 years old now, and would be one of our leading elders. It’s striking how little has changed, in Jamaica, in Guyana, and in the world. Police brutality remains just as central and fiery an issue today as it was 50 years ago, because the underlying conditions of repressive state apparatuses and the capitalist protection of property above concern for oppressed community lives have not shifted in any significant way, in the Caribbean, in North America, or almost anywhere. Stratification along ethnic and racial and class lines in Jamaica has not changed either. And the reclamation of African and African Diaspora histories has come a long way in the past 50 years, but has only really begun its long march of reordering our systems of knowledge and meaning in the modern world.
The original Rasta concept of grounding, which Rodney turned into a pedagogic and revolutionary theory, remains one of the most powerful models of revolutionary praxis we have available to us today. I have joined a few other scholars in arguing recently that the groundings model deserves far greater attention in pedagogic studies, right alongside the better known contemporaneous work of Paulo Freire. Groundings is also a practice actively engaged in across each year of work in Atlanta that the Rodney family, the Walter Rodney Foundation (WRF), Atlanta students and activists and I engage around the annual Walter Rodney Symposium, the Walter Rodney Speakers Series, and the new WRF journal which bears the same name: Groundings: Development, Pan-Africanism and Critical Theory.
I am especially proud to have worked with Asha Rodney to edit the new 50th anniversary Verso edition of Groundings With My Brothers, which came out just this past April. It’s a beautiful new volume, and the only authorized edition, whose proceeds go entirely to the Rodney family and the Rodney Foundation (the others on the market in recent years are pirated copies). Beyond that, we worked with Verso to develop an edition that includes critical new content, starting with the powerful new introduction by Carole Boyce Davies who is herself very much a scholar working in the Rodney tradition. Then, after the original text, which remains so vital today, we collected five reflective essays from Patricia Rodney, David Austin, Bongo Jerry, Verene Shepherd, and Randall Robinson, the significance of which I think deserves careful consideration and study by scholars all over the world. Pat Rodney provides a scintillating reflection on living a life of groundings with Walter and their family all across the world, and she continues to lead by example in this regard, especially in her institution-building work in Atlanta over the past two decades. Austin writes from his recent work in Montreal on the importance of the Black Writers Congress in 1968, at which Rodney became better known to the black radical world and was simultaneously barred from re-entry to Jamaica. The resulting Rodney Riots or Rebellion are chronicled in the text from Bongo Jerry, who was one of the youth who hosted Walter during his 1968 Jamaica sojourn. His account provides valuable first hand observations and memories of the groundings and their aftermath, including the truly Afro-diasporic role the Olympic protest of Tommy Smith and John Carlos played in galvanizing their resolve to rise up. Shepherd’s essay provides some important broader socio-historical analysis, while Robinson reflects briefly and powerfully at the widest of levels, on what the highest role of humans is: in the service of other human beings.
What lessons can we draw from Rodney’s larger body of work in this historical moment?
Rodney was a part of a generation of scholar-activists, politicians and other revolutionary thinkers who imagined and worked to build more egalitarian societies in Africa and across its diaspora. The widespread notion that the socialist and/or Pan-African ideas of this generation were unrealistic and foolhardy has led many to surrender to the idea that capitalism is/was the only way forward. This has affected the scholarship, which, until recently, has focused on the failures of those who tried to create socialist solutions to the difficulties of post-independence nation-building. Yet, our contemporary moment finds us, once again, contemplating the excesses and evils of capitalism. We can draw many lessons from Rodney’s body of work as he expertly explains the process by which the so-called developing world came to be exploited by a Western European economic and political system. Of course, we must engage his work with a clear understanding of the specificities of our historical moment, of exactly where power lies and how it produces conditions of inequality. I also think it would behoove us to revisit his classic text, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and focus more on his analysis of how class functions. In the same way that many have reduced Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth to his thoughts on the role of violence in decolonization, we have reduced How Europe Underdeveloped Africa to a general point about Europe stealing Africa’s resources.
I think that Rodney’s work points to the continued struggle, and the need to recall, as Stuart Hall later said, that race is “the modality in which class is ‘lived’, the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through’”. It is imperative that this connection between race, class and power—that which Rodney’s intellectual and activist work laid bare—continuously be referenced. The idea that solidarity around class is desirable without consideration of the mechanisms of white supremacy and their impact is one that will never provide freedom from oppression. I’m a white person. This book both revealed and explained to me what society had and continues to actively deny in the interest of shoring up white supremacy and colonial power structures. I teach in a college—a college in Montreal, the very city where Rodney spoke many of the words that make up Groundings—where we speak of decolonizing education. My students need this information. Rodney provides a means of accessing foundational concepts—and the connection between grassroots organizing and intellectual work remains as relevant now as it was fifty years ago.
In lieu of applying Rodney’s political reflections to our present conjuncture, it might serve us better to read him in relation to his contemporaries. How might we tell the story about the intimacy of black radical and anticolonial thought as the history of the present? Take, for instance, the December 1973 issue of Bulletin of the African Studies Association of the West Indies, which features “comments” on Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) by Rupert Lewis, Norman Girvan, Kenneth O. Hall, and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Titled “Dialect and Dialectic,” Brathwaite applauds Rodney’s text as “truly revolutionary scholarship: history as teach, as thought, a verbal bomb and bullet” (89). However, Brathwaite’s main concern lies with the “residual image” of Rodney’s historiography: “Over and over we find our brother, trapped within his modernist/progressive dialectic, talking about the escalation of African societies from their primal primitive structures into something newer, more complex, more ‘efficient’” (92). Brathwaite’s concern is that the critique of the capitalist exploitation of Africa, its underdevelopment, reaffirms the logics of development. As a result, the text overlooks the traditions of the oppressed, “omens of a vitality which if we can’t yet understand, we can still not ignore” (98).
Rodney’s body work emerges out of a tangled web of intellectual exchange. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Rodney’s work and what might be most relevant to our present historical moment are his citations which demonstrate an incredible window into the worlds once unfolding in past.
Rodney remains one of the clearest and greatest examples of what a committed revolutionary scholar looks like, how one can combine academic productivity with activism and service to one’s community. Rodney was a precursor of today’s decolonial theory and practice, a leading example of grounded Marxist theory and practice, one of the most sophisticated thinkers on race and class, and perhaps our greatest example of what an anticolonial historian looks like. Because he was an activist and a radical, his thinking is often seen as practical and inappropriately separated from theory, but I and others have argued against this false divide. Pan-African theory in general, and the work of Rodney in particular, should be reconsidered as central to the development and genealogical construction of theories and knowledge upon which we build in the current moment. We now have many ways to reach the important issue of the fraught relationship between knowledge and power, and we have great work left to do to create knowledge that is liberatory in relation to power. Rodney’s work is one of our greatest models in this urgent task.
When did you first encounter Walter Rodney and what was the effect this had on you/your thinking?