Let's have a debate on Walter Rodney


Thursday, February 15, 2018

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In October of this year it will be 50 years since the late Guyanese lecturer Dr Walter Rodney was declared persona non grata to Jamaica. Rodney was expelled on Tuesday, October 15, as he attempted to disembark the aeroplane that flew him back from Montreal, where he had attended a conference of black writers — a daring thing to do in 1968.

The students of the Mona campus of The University of the West Indies protested the decision of the Government to expel him from Jamaica. The then prime minister, Hugh Lawson Shearer, spoke in Parliament the day after the demonstrations, which was carried live on JBC Television — many watched on their old black-and-white tv sets.

Shearer referred to a pamphlet that read in part: ”Tactics, Tactics, Tactics, Burn UWI, Burn UWI, Burn UWI.” The initial reaction of the then Opposition Leader Norman Washington Manley was that he agreed that action had to be taken as he had to deal with an attempted insurrection when he was premier of Jamaica. But the official Opposition reply in Parliament was given by David Coore, who said that there was not a shred of evidence that the pamphlet was published at the university.

It did not initially occur to the elder Manley that Shearer might have used parliamentary privilege, which protects anyone speaking in Parliament from being sued for slander, libel or defamation. But it did occur to Coore. No similar statement about Rodney has ever been made outside of Parliament by Shearer. Coore's speech was published in Public Opinion.

I am not guessing about the above, nor do I need research. October 1968 was a month before my 15th birthday. Wednesday, October 16 was the day of the 'Rodney riots'. The cadets at Jamaica College met on Wednesday evenings, but the meeting was cancelled that afternoon as all students were told to get home safely as the buses had stopped running.

I had worn my cadet boots to school, which cadets were allowed to do on Wednesdays, or if we were going off on camp for the weekend. The parent of one student gave me a lift part-way home and I walked the rest of the journey — at least four miles — in my steel-soled cadet boots as that was the way army boots were made in those days.

Apparently, Dr Walter Rodney had meetings in the inner city of Kingston and taught his listeners about ancient African history and their advanced civilisation before the invasion of Europeans. This was similar to what Marcus Garvey did when he was alive. Rodney's book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, is considered a classic in all parts of the world. He also wrote another book called Groundings with my brothers.

In 1968 there was a list of banned books that went back to the year 1966 when Donald Sangster (later Sir Donald) was acting prime minister. Books about black power or any form of socialism were banned. And, as you would expect, this included the books written by Dr Walter Rodney. The ban was lifted in 1972 by the then Michael Manley-led People's National Party Administration.

As black power spilled over from the United States to Jamaica, there was great fear among the mostly white-skinned upper class in Jamaica. Later, in the 1970s, most of the white-skinned upper class left Jamaica because they had an aversion to democratic socialism as espoused by the then Prime Minister Michael Manley and the then People's National Party Government. But in 1968 the Jamaica Labour Party was in power and many of them thought that the civil tension or foment that was growing should be stopped.

It is my considered view that to continue to spread negative rumours about Walter Rodney is to work at cross purposes with the need for Jamaicans to know their own heritage. In a country that speaks about the need for better family life — with which I fully agree — it is important that Jamaicans who are mostly of African descent know that family life in Africa has been highly commended all over the world, including a few Roman Catholic popes in the last 50 years.

Marginalised men in Jamaica need to know how African men saw themselves in a bid to emulate the more positive aspects of our African heritage. Just as Garveyism should be taught in our schools, so should the teachings of Walter Rodney. Did the upper classes put pressure on Shearer into declaring Walter Rodney persona non grata? Shearer had been described by a former US ambassador as “a well-dressed negro who knew his place”. In other words, Shearer was what has been described as a 'roast breadfruit' — black on the outside and white on the inside.

Walter Rodney, while back in Guyana, had become a leader of the Working People's Alliance, which was a political party. He died in a bomb blast in 1980. Who wanted him killed? In Guyana where voting, especially in those days, was done along racial lines, with the Afro-Guyanese on one side and the Indo-Guyanese on the other side, one can ask who was in danger of being divided. I am unable to say if that was in any way connected with his death, but I have my suspicions.

Dorlan Francis has commented more than once that history proved that Shearer was right in banning Walter Rodney, the latest being a few weeks ago when Garfield Higgins admitted that the Jamaica Labour Party was wrong to have expelled Walter Rodney. I would like Dorlan Francis to expand on that and I would like to get others like Kevin O'Brien Chang to also expand on that.

I would like to see a debate on the decision to remove Walter Rodney from Jamaica. If it is too short a notice to have it in February, let us have it in October — the 50th anniversary of his expulsion from Jamaica. Both Dorlan Francis and Kevin O'Brien Chang should face off against attorney-at-law Richard Small and retired The University of the West Indies professor, Rupert Lewis.

A third person on this side could be Robin “Jerry” Small, while a third person on the other side could be Edward Seaga. It would be good if all of the named people could agree on such a debate which should be filmed.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or




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