FORTY-ONE years later, and with the PPP administration seeking to cement democratic governance after the attempt to rig the election, I cannot think of a better circumstance than which to pay tribute to Walter Rodney than to expunge the fraudulent criminal file on him that was prepared by the Burnham regime. I salute President Dr. Irfaan and the PPP administration on this initiative and Attorney- General Anil Nandlall for piloting the bill to clear the good man’s name. It is long overdue. Nandlall, in his inimitable style, was masterful in his choice of words. The PPP and its support group in New York, the Association of Concerned Guyanese, rightly pay tribute to and honour Rodney’s activism.
Rodney was assassinated on June 13, 1980 in a carefully orchestrated conspiracy involving elements in the GDF and the Burnham administration to eliminate him from the Guyana scene. Rodney was a major threat to Burnham’s dictatorship. His movement was bridging the racial divide between Indians and Africans and was growing in popularity. He was perhaps the first African genuinely reaching out to Indians, expressing solidarity with them over the racism they experienced at the hands of Burnham and his ruling PNC. Indians gravitated towards him for speaking out against racism and banned goods on which the Indian cultural diet was critically centred.
I remember Rodney very well having met him in Port Mourant where he came to show solidarity with striking students and staff during Spring 1977. I was a student leader at the Corentyne High School organising the strike, picketing exercises, rallies, and marches on the Corentyne. It was over the transfer of three staff members at CHS – Chaitram Singh, AK Jagnandan, and MS. Indira Poonwasie Tewari – that related to another strike I co-organised in October 1976. Rodney interacted with several student leaders and members of the faculty on the Corentyne during the protests. I was among the leaders of the protests from the first week in January through mid-February, 1977. I distributed handouts, explaining why were on strike and announcing the rally. The size of the rally in Miss Phobe surprised us – over a thousand people from all walks of life came at a time when thugs were known to break up meetings. A GDF helicopter flew above, obviously intended to intimidate us. Rodney was speaking when it flew past us with propeller noise to drown out his voice. I remember him poking fun of Burnham calling him king kong; I believe the movie had just come out. “This government is fearful of people getting together. It is suspicious of every activity. If donkeys graze together, it gets worried.” he told the gathering.
Other speakers included Malcolm Rodrigues and our teachers, Chaitram Singh, Iserdat Ramdehol, and Father Cheerah. I do not recall if Eusi Kwayana spoke, but he did come to Corentyne to join picketing exercises. At various times, I believe Clive Thomas, Maurice Odle, Omowale, Edward Dublin, Ohene Koama and Moses Bhagwan came to the Corentyne in solidarity with striking students and teachers. Rodney, like others, were welcomed to Port Mourant, an Indian plantation working-class village, a hard-core PPP supported enclave.
Rodney’s academia and activism inspired us to struggle against injustice. We followed in the footsteps of Rodney and Dr. Cheddi Jagan in political activism. Rodney is regarded as the most important African theoretician cum community and political activist, academic-scholar. He is often compared with C.L.R. James and W.E.B. Dubois. He spent his entire life fighting just causes for Africans. Rodney studied at UWI (Mona) and London. He taught in Africa and parts of the Caribbean before returning to Guyana. He addressed issues pertaining to the global African (Black) identity and liberation. He lavished praises on Afro Caribbeans for their energy and dynamism in confronting White injustice. He did not allow his race and his struggle on behalf of Africans to define his relationship with Indians. He paid tribute to the Indian ancestors who fought against indentureship and for the liberation of Guyana from colonial rule.
Rodney was revered everywhere, including at City College where I studied for my early degrees. His book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, was prescribed for classes in Black Studies, History, Political Science, and Economics. Africanists praised him everywhere. At City College where I enrolled as a 17-year- old, we were impressed with his activism.
We wanted to be like Rodney – revolutionary activists, scholars. There were hardly any Indian Caribbean role models who had acquired public prominence; later, through research, I learnt about the role of several in Trinidad, Suriname, Jamaica, Guyana, Grenada, and other parts of the Caribbean in combating indentureship and colonial rule.
Rodney was a foremost Black scholar, a prominent figure in Black nationalism, Black Power, Pan-Africanism, Afro-Caribbean scholarship. His work was outstanding, he focused on his people. There is no equivalent Indian-Caribbean historian replicating his kind of scholarship on their community or on India. I remember well when news came of the murder of Rodney. I was living in the South Bronx and working as a student assistant at the library at City College. It was a Friday. WLIB radio broadcasted the news early Saturday morning (June 14, 1980) that Rodney was killed in a bomb explosion near the Georgetown prison. The support groups of the WPA and the ACG met that Friday evening to collaborate on activities to combat the Burnham dictatorship.
They quickly organised a protest. I belonged to another group comprising Baytoram Ramharack, Vassan Ramracha, among others, but we supported activities of the WPA and ACG to liberate Guyana. Myself and friends usually go to 14th Street for our weekly protests and distribution of flyers. I went to the picketing exercise in front of the Guyana Consulate 40th Street and Third Avenue and thence to 14th Street. PPP activists like Arjune Karshan, Chuck Mohan, and a few others were at the protest. Rallies and picketing continued for days. I forwent work to join the picketing exercises at various locations. Singh (forgot his last name) was the main organiser of WPA and Lincoln Van Sluytman led the protests. The ACG was key in funding permits and transportation for rallies. The early rallies were small, but later ones grew in size, joined by Caribbean and Black activists. For he was also a hero for Caribbean people. A Jamaican-Chinese, Richie Hoyen and Afro-Jamaican, Winston Simmons, joined the protest movement. The PPP activists were in the thick of the struggle collaborating with Rodneyites. Joey Jagan spoke at one of the rallies in Brooklyn. Rodney is still remembered. Four decades later, I am so pleased to learn that the PPP has recognised the contribution of Rodney. I applaud the government for eradicating the ‘criminal’ file on Rodney and for the High Court to erase the conviction of his brother. In so doing, the PPP is also recognising the great work of this distinguished Guyanese scholar in confronting the monster that was Burnhamism. It is long overdue.
Vishnu Bisram (PhD)