Groundings with Walter Rodney

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[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]  here are excerpts from an interview with Monique Bedasse, Erin MacLeod, Nijah Cunningham, Matthew J. Smith, and Jesse Benjamin on the 50th anniversary of Walter Rodney’s Groundings with My Brothers. Here are excerpts from the interview by Anakwa Dwamena (Africa Is A Country, 18 August 2019):

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.

AD:  When did you first encounter Walter Rodney and what was the effect this had on you/your thinking?

MB: 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.

EM: 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.

NC: 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.

MS: 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.

JB: 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 NkrumahJulius Nyerere, back to Lenin, and also to Samir AminIssa 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. [. . .] 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. [. . .]

For full interview, see https://africasacountry.com/2019/08/groundings-with-walter-rodney

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