LAST SATURDAY, June 13, marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Walter Rodney. This year’s anniversary is a special one, coming in the midst of the Guyana elections recount and the protests in the US and throughout the world under the banner of Black Lives Matter. The irregularities, including the recounting, that have marred this year’s election are not new, they date back to the days of Forbes Burnham. I say this without a shadow of doubt, having once been asked in Canada to cast a vote for Burnham. Something has to be seriously done about the conduct of elections in the region. CARICOM should have been ideally suited to do so, but cannot, since many of its leaders stand accused in their own countries of electoral transgressions. But what is at stake in Guyana is the possibility of racial conflict arising from what was truly a farcical electoral process, the results of the March 2 election only now at the point of being finalised but not to the satisfaction of all.
How does Rodney come into the picture? Since 1955 when the Burnham-Jagan split, engineered by the British and US, broke the nationalist movement, race has become a key factor in Guyana’s elections, with the Burnham-led PNC appealing largely to the Black voters and Jagan’s PPP to the Indian electorate. Rodney’s return to Guyana in 1974 and being denied a post at the University of Guyana, found him increasingly involved in politics through the Working Peoples’ Alliance of which he was a co-founder. The 35,000 people who joined his funeral procession from Buxton to Georgetown was an occasion that foretold lost opportunities. Rodney seemed to have been on the point of doing what no one before him could, that is bringing Indians and Africans together and moving away from a politics based on race. I am writing this column on Wednesday, June 17, when the final stamp on the election is about to be done. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but we hope that racial conflict does not result. This of course is a good time to remember Rodney and what he hoped to achieve.
Then we are still into a period of what can be called global protests, moving beyond the US that holds centre stage. We can reflect as we think of Rodney on his involvement as an intellectual force behind the Black Power Movement. What Rodney sought to do was to reinterpret Black Power in the context of the Caribbean experience. In his view Black Power also involved the Indians in Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean. With the Black Lives Movement responding to the oppression of Black People, he would have, while identifying with the American struggle, asked who are the Oppressors in the Caribbean, who are pressing their knees on the necks of the Caribbean people who are overwhelmingly black. He would have focused on the black working people and on the politics of divide and rule. In a 1977 speech, while using the Guyana experience and the fake democratic operations and no doubt focusing on the wider Caribbean he stated, “When a monster grows, it grows out of control. It cuts up even those who created the monster and it’s time the people understood that”.
We in the Caribbean must stand in solidarity with the black people in the US as they continue a struggle that started a long time ago to be respected as human beings, whose lives matter. But we have to make the link with our own struggles which might not have to do with racial oppression in a narrow sense, but with demanding opportunities for us to grow as a people, to move off the plantations in our minds, and to have control over our path to full emancipation that was promised with the abolition of slavery, that was fought for in the 1930s and promised in 1979 when we partially broke the Imperial bonds.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian