This talk was delivered by Dr. McIntosh at John Henrik Clarke House on June 7, 2015
Today our topic is Walter Rodney. “What can today’s Black leaders learn from the leadership of Dr. Walter Rodney.” Before I go into the specifics of my answer to that question lets answer another question.
Firstly who are today’s leaders and for whom is this lecture given. Certainly Mr. Jessie Jackson is not in the room, Certainly Mr. Al Sharpton is not in the room and Certainly Mr. Obama is not in the room. Certainly few if any people widely known as Black leaders or even known as leaders of other local organizations are in the room. So this lecture, though about leadership and about what leaders can learn, is really not for them, is it?
No this lecture is for you and for me. We are the leaders I am addressing. We have to lead ourselves and our families before we can ever lead others or even intelligently follow someone else. We have to know what is possible and what we can expect from ourselves before we can even assess what we want and expect from someone else. The Study of Effective Black Leaders helps to provide us with models for what is possible. Here at BEPAA The Board for the Education of People of African Ancestry, we have decided to conduct a series of lectures on the issue of leadership starting with our divine martyred leaders. Martyred leaders are people who were killed on our behalf. Killed because they struggled for our liberation , our advancement and our betterment, however they perceived that liberation, advancement or betterment. Some of these leaders had seemingly entirely different ideas from each other. However, It is our contention that these martyrs have more in common that they have in conflict with each other. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were viewed as similar enough by the enemies of Black folks to both be killed. Medgar Evers and Patrice Lumumba though continents apart were similar enough to be killed by the same forces. We find that when Black Leaders start out from wherever they start out but if they are sincere, they end up in the same place, effectively resisting the oppression of Black folks. Whether they start out saying that the white man is the devil or that they dream of the time when “all of gods children Black men and white, jews and gentiles,” etc— Whether they start out talking about Congolese independence or voter registration, when they get to the point where they start to shake that entity that destroys Black people collectively—when they get too close to exercising power —whether they call it independence, anti imperialism, or socialism— or fighting the accursed devil—When they get too close to implementing what can be called Black Power—when they become effective—they become what the enemy views as dangerous. They either lead our people to victory or become martyrs.
In that same vein we believe that Walter Rodney’s life provides many lessons that can be valuable in helping us to learn what we can and should expect from ourselves , and others, in terms of leadership. A study of Walter Rodney’s life reveals a person committed to what Ayi Kwei Armah describes in his epic work, Two Thousand Seasons, as “the destruction of destruction.” And though Rodney uses different terms from either Ayi Kwei or Neely Fuller, I think that Rodney ultimately expresses the same thing that Neely fuller said when Fuller said words to the effect of, “If you don’t understand white supremacy and how it operates anything you do understand will only serve to confuse you more. ”
Rodney saw economics and class struggle as being perhaps the most important factors in understanding the oppression of African People but he also saw White Supremacy Racism as a related important factor and he saw both Black Power and Socialist Development as the solution. He saw Capitalism and Imperialism as being the main purveyor of Black Powerlessness and he saw Socialism and Black Power as the solution. He explicitly stated that every victim of this racist, capitalist, imperialist, oppression has a responsibility to study it find out how it works and to work to destroy it. The first principle that I believe todays’ leaders — you and I can learn from Walter Rodney is the principle of using History as a weapon— In a speech called “African History in the Service of the Black Revolution, ” Rodney said that
Quote “the first dilemma which one faces in attempting to utilize African history as one of the weapons in our struggle is a realization that, in a very real sense, we, as black people, are placed in [the] invidious position of having to justify our existence by antecedents, having to prove our humanity by what went before. Now this is very invidious. Humanity is not a thing one proves. One asserts it” UNQUOTE
He went on to tell how he was essentially past proving to others simply that we had great so called civilizations as though trying to prove our worth in European terms. He expresses an understanding of why many of us do this and makes it clear that he went through this process himself. But he concludes in that paper with an example of the kind of research in which we could better engage. He cites the work of Julius Nyerere a leader who tried to take his country of Tanzania along a socialist line of development. Rodney says of Nyerere’s approach to historical scholarship QUOTE “the best example is the work being done in Tanzania today and the type of analysis being carried out by that remarkable man, Julius Nyerere. Take a document like “Socialism and Rural Development, ”which is something blacks should all read. He is attempting to select the elements of culture in Tanzania, the process of cultural history before the Europeans arrived and as it was affected by European arrival, and then from that, to try and come to terms with the modern situation. So you can extrapolate, you can see the process. It's not just going back and taking out, harum-scarum. It has to be a dialectical, you have to see what still exists in the contemporary situation that comes from the traditional roots. And, in that sense, the analysis of culture-history is extremely relevant to the present revolution.” DOT DOT DOT “ White people always keep asking, “After Black Power, what? ”This is not really for all of us to determine. That's another epoch. DOT DOT DOT “When we have achieved what we want to achieve, the history of humanity will begin. So humanity will work out its history. We are concerned now with the Blacks. The Blacks have to get something done DOT DOT DOT “
“For me then, African history, as carried out by the Black brothers and sisters, will have to be a process of coming to grips with all the aspects of African history and with trying to determine what are the categories into which we should fit things, as distinct from saying, let us start and try to determine whether we can reconstruct African history along the same terms in which European history has been reconstructed. Because that analysis, where you utilize only the European criteria is itself the same process of bastardization; the guy oppresses you and then he selects your terms of reference [for you]. Even when you're fighting him you use his terms of reference. But what I am trying to suggest here is that we have to break out from those terms of reference.”
Rodney is here talking not simply of an Afrocentric perspective but an Afrocentric methodology and frame of reference. These are things that today's leaders could definitely learn and benefit from. That Rodney could arrive at this position is something that is amazing when you consider his roots. Just as John Henrik Clarke was born into a slave system of share cropping and never supposed to emerge from it as he did. Rodney was never supposed to escape his colonial roots. He was supposed to love mother England and be proud of whatever accolades England bestowed upon him, He was supposed to put on his bowler hat and spats, MAKING SURE THAT HE ALWAYS SPOKE PROPERLY and HE WAS SUPPOSED TO spend the rest of his life showing his compatriots how he was almost English and how they could become almost English too. That’s what the oppressor intended for Rodney but Rodney chose SELF DETERMINATION AND SELF DEFINITION AND LOYALTY TO HIS PEOPLE FIRST. RODNEY CHOSE Black power instead. THESE ARE ALL THINGS OUR LEADERS CAN LEARN FROM Walter Rodney.
Choose your people first, find out how white supremacy, racism, capitalism, imperialism work, then work to destroy that destruction. Work to get Black power. Yes it was a miracle for Walter Rodney born in British Guiana and educated in a colonial system to ever arrive at that point. From an early age Rodney committed himself to excellence even within a system of white supremacy.
Walter Rodney performed so excellently within that colonial system that he was invited to— in fact was given a scholarship to— study in the so called mother country. Rodney was educated in Queens College in British Guiana. He was on the debating team and he was an editor of the school newspaper. He won a scholarship to the University College of the West Indies which for those of you who don’t know started out as a separate part of The University of London and eventually became the college that still educates people mainly from 18 English speaking countries in the Caribbean. There at UWI the perhaps preeminent colonial school where 3 graduates have gone on to earn Nobel Prizes, 61 graduates have become Rhodes Scholars and 18 graduates have become heads of state Rodney distinguished himself academically and then went to the so called mother country proper—The University of London, The School of Oriental and African Studies where at age 24 he earned a PHD.
He wrote for his doctoral thesis A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800. It is unlikely that the selection of this topic was random. The selection of this topic is entirely in keeping with Rodney’s determination to use History as a weapon in real time. As you will recall between the years 1961 and 1974 Portugal was involved in 3 wars in Africa in the countries of Mozambique, Angola and Giunea Bissau. This very hot phase of the war when Africans are effectively fighting back is of course a continuation of events that began way back with Queen Nzingha and before. So Rodney was well aware of what issues would have to be dealt with in this thesis. It is no accident then that THIS PAPER CONTAINS WHAT HAS BEEN CHARACTERIZED AS A RAZOR SHARP CRITIQUE OF PORTUGUESE IMPERIALISM. Rodney even as he was earning the academic credentials granted by white supremacy was using his study of history as a weapon.
Rodney was studying history not in the abstract but was gaining an in depth knowledge of White supremacy how it operates and was therefore avoiding the pitfall of confusion that Neely Fuller warns against So another thing that our leaders could learn from Rodney- the imperative to study and understand how white supremacy/capitalism/racism works. Rodney had even as a youngster studied white supremacy as they say in Medicine, in vitro. There is the story of how as a youngster he used to pass out flyers for the PPP the party out of which originated both Chedi Jegan and Forbes Burnham. Who would later essentially break that party in two with Jegan becoming the leading force in the PPP and Burnham becoming the leading force in the PNC. But it is said that Rodney had to learn at an early age not to take his flyers onto the properties with long drive ways because those driveways were of the wealthier lighter skinned Blacks who would not support a Peoples Progressive Party. From childhood, Rodney observed and studied White Supremacy, He used History as a Weapon and he committed himself to excellence. I think those are three things that
our leaders could learn from Walter Rodney.
And if I were pressed to name a few more things we and our leaders could learn, those things might be his integrity and willingness to sacrifice. Rodney at 24 with a PhD from London had the keys to the kingdom. Yet individually he walked it as he talked it. He wanted us collectively to do the same thing he did. He wanted us to choose a path of independence and power rather than dependence and servitude. He exemplified Claude McKay's admonition
Quote if we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
I don’t think I would have to illustrate Rodney's commitment to excellence, further than to recite as I have done his academic career but to illustrate McKay's point regarding resistance consider this. In the country where Rodney was assassinated many believe by the government—(Rodney was given a walkie talkie that turned out to be a bomb) by Sergeant Gregory Smith and was blown up by it in an explosion that also injured Rodney’s brother. Smith is widely believed to have been sent by the government of Forbes Burnham and there are still people today 35 years later calling for an impartial investigation of that murder) So let us say he was killed ad argumentum by the government of Guyana and yet eventually that same government had to award him the nations highest award, which is to say, Guyana's highest honour, the Order of Excellence of Guyana.
Also the same government which is alleged to have blocked his appointment as a faculty member at the university of Guyana in 1974 in 1993 had to permit a permanent chair to be named for him at that same University.
So—then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Our leaders should learn from this that seeking degrees and honors from the enemy is not that which immortalizes us it is resistance to the enemy.
Walter Rodney, after earning his PhD and thereby receiving what would be a permanent meal ticket and key to the kingdom for the average colonial graduate went on to Teach history at Dar Es Salaam from 1967 to 68. The history that Rodney wrote and talked about was explosive. It contained his critique of imperialism and Capitalism and more dangerously indicted the the class of sitting Black leadership in several countries. Although I am jumping ahead let’s look at this section of his book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa not published until around 1972 or 73.” Rodney saw the issue of excellence and perpetual improvement as something that should not only be maximized in the individual but in the collective and the world.
He saw the tendency to perpetual improvement as a human quality and used the term development to encompass that concept. He saw underdevelopment as a term of comparison and the natural outcome of capitalist exploitative development. He showed how the dependent nation in a capitalist relationship would continually go downhill even as the mother country improved their way of living. He even showed that the alleged so called civilization the colonizer brought led to further under development.
Rodney was very scientific in his research and proof of these assertions. He studies everything from the per capita allotment for social services in Europe to that same allotment in different regions of post colonial Africa. He shows that even the so called improved transportation and railways Europeans brought were all related to robbing the wealth of Africa. For an example, in those areas critical to mining or other rape of resources the oppressors would build roads to take materials to the harbors but the surrounding regions would get no roads or modern transportation. He showed how African social institutions and economic life prior to the slave trade were destroyed. Similar to Fanon he showed how the robbing of Africa of its labor and resources led to psychological damage and acceptance of dependence and a sense of inferiority.
Rodney is methodical, comprehensive and relentless as he pulls the covers off of European Underdevelopment. He explains in the various chapter,
What is Development? What is Underdevelopment?
How Africa Developed Before the Coming of the Europeans?
Rodney also defines Europes Debt to Africa and as Eric Williams had before him shows the links of Europe's greatest fortunes and most successful corporations to the plunder gained in the slave trade.
Rodney debunks the idea that this was related to any inferiority on the part of Africans but links it to the combination of the natural uneven development that occurs between nations and even neighborhoods coupled with an exploitative economic system and Europe’s use of their control of the seas to dictate the terms the items of barter until they secured an almost irresistible economic and military advantage. Rodney points out that “European technical superiority did not apply to all aspects of production, but the advantage which they possessed in a few key areas proved decisive. For example, African canoes on the river Nile and the Senegal coast were of a high standard, but the relevant sphere of operations was the ocean, where European ships could take command. West Africans had developed metal casting to a fine artistic perfection in many parts of Nigeria, but when it came to the meeting with Europe beautiful bronzes were far less relevant than the crudest cannon. African wooden utensils were sometimes works of great beauty, but Europe produced pots and pans that had many practical advantages.”
Rodney is not as apologetic as some romanticists for African Rulers role in this nor is he a self blamer and oppressor exonerater such as Henry “Skip the Truth” Gates. Rodney points out that “The rulers had a certain status and authority, and when bamboozled by European goods they began to use that position to raid outside their societies as well as to exploit internally by victimizing some of their own subjects. In the simplest of societies where there were no kings, it proved impossible for Europeans to strike up the alliance which was necessary to carry on a trade in captives on the coast. In those societies with ruling groups, the association with Europeans was easily established; and afterwards Europe hardened the existing internal class divisions and created new ones.”
Ultimately Rodney’s book is the capstone to his principle of using History as a weapon. It is not written simply to recount the wrongs done to us and the wickedness of the white man and the complicit rulers. Rodney offered this work as a guide to changing the heretofore exploitative relationship.
He saw future development in the world as being guided by two main forces capitalism and Socialism. He was able to point out that the governments in former colonies each chose to follow one of those two lines of development. He pointed out that those that chose a capitalist line of development chose a disadvantageous path of development that condemned the masses of their people to poverty, ignorance and poor health. He illustrated this fact with the indices of underdevelopment such as production, infant mortality rate etc. He pointed to the ability of Socialism to force the economy to address the needs of the society rather than the trinkets and excesses offered by the oppressor to satisfy the appetites the oppressors consciously develop in those they oppress.
The portion of his critique on the European Powers and their historic exploitation of the Continents of Africa and Asia and North and South America was easy to understand and palate for most people who read it. But Rodney’s critique of those leaders among the formerly colonized who chose a capitalist line of development was impossible for those leaders and their supporters to tolerate.
Worsening matters from the standpoint of the Oppressor was Rodney’s determination to walk it as he talked it. He not only spoke of revolution and history in a vacuum he saw himself as a part of history and revolution. In 1968 while Rodney was in Montreal attending a Black Writer’s conference The government of Jamaica the land where he had distinguished himself as a scholar in 1968 declared him persona non grata meaning that he could not return to Jamaica. This sparked what was called the Rodney Riots in Jamaica October of 1968.
The riots began when the students from UCWI began protests which shut down the campus then marched in the streets gathering momentum as they went. Eventually the protests grew to the point where people were killed and injured and millions of dollars of property were damaged. Do you see the lesson in that? Do you see it. Walter Rodney had done nothing more than teach people history and an upheaval resulted.— HISTORY AS A WEAPON.
The government used Rodney’s trips to the Soviet Union and to Cuba as a pretext but everyone knew that it was Rodney’s practice of taking transformative information to the poor Jamaican Working class that was the real issue. Rodney was essentially forced to return to Dar Es Salaam to again teach from 1969 to 1974.
When Rodney tried to work as a faculty member in his home of Guyana he was blocked by the government. CLR James suggests that this was one of the dumbest things the government did they took him out of the realm of an academic and brought him into the realm of leader of front line troops. Rodney ended up forming an opposition party called the Working Peoples Party and was eventually arrested for alleged Arson of some government buildings. Although he was released on that charge, he was ultimately assassinated and the sort of division that seems to always be created among leaders of African Ancestry was created.
This division makes for great confusion and great enmity. That there was much confusion is illustrated by the fact that many progressive people in the US migrated to Guyana under what they saw as the progressiveness of Forbes Burnham and the promise that seemed to be there when Burnham strengthened ties to the Soviet Union and Cuba in the 60’s and early 70’s. Political Prisoner Herman Ferguson found refuge there. Other people like Una Mulzac moved to Guyana to help Chedi Jegan only to have a terrible experience and narrowly escape Rodney’s fate. (Her book store in Guyana was bombed killing one of her co workers.)
For what ever reasons Forbes Burnham, Chedi Jegan and Walter Rodney who all worked for the PPP at some point in history ended up divided by reasons that each camp will define differently. And each camp will do so with the same passion and intensity that we encounter when people try to discuss why Malcolm X was assassinated or why US and the Panthers fought in the 60’s. In the end what is known is that Walter Rodney left it all in the field.
In a paper by CLR James some of the cause of his death is attributed to his not having been protected from certain aspects of struggle by his followers and for not understanding insurrection and the seizing of power. Rodney, died however, because he had shaken the pillars of power. He died because he was teaching poor people what he had learned and how to do the same thing. He died because of the lack of enough leadership from other’s to share the load he bore. He died because of the lack of leadership working together to iron out contradictions instigated by a common enemy. In the end, If Walter Rodney had a fault it was his unwavering courage and his inability to divide himself into twenty leaders just like himself.