Rodney was not known to be an artist, although he authored two publications that
read like fictional narratives. Kofi Baadu: Out of Africa (1981) and Lakshmi:
Out of India (1981) capture African and Indian immigration into Guyana in
a form resembling fictional biography. Following his assassination, he has been
immortalised in poetry, particularly by Wole Soyinka, Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris
and Mark McWatt. But a decade before his murder, he had begun to affect the shape
of Caribbean literature.
On October 16, 1968,
news of the expulsion of historian Dr Walter Rodney from Jamaica swept rapidly
across the Mona Campus of UWI - Rodney had first gone to Mona as an undergraduate
and following his honours degree in history in 1963, had gone to the School of
Oriental and African Studies at the University of London (SOAS) as a doctoral
student. He had then returned as a lecturer in the History Department at Mona,
and West Indian Literature has never been the same since.
As the new Michaelmas
term began in October 1968, Rodney had left the campus to attend a black writers
conference in Canada and, after having secretly followed his every movement in
Kingston and beyond, the Jamaican government seized that opportunity to deny the
Guyanese academic re-entry into the country. Despite the grand historic state
visit of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selasse I of Ethiopia to Kingston in 1966,
the government felt very insecure about Africanness, about communism/socialism
and radical politics and viewed anything proclaiming itself as black with great
suspicion. Since joining the staff at UWI, Walter Rodney had attracted their attention
because of his venturing beyond the safe boundaries of the campus to teach African
history in some of the more depressed communities and because of his embracing
of scientific socialism.
Black Power from North
America was already a major influence in the Caribbean and the outreach of Rastafari
that had been becoming much more outgoing and articulate had been claiming its
place in a society in need of greater consciousness of its cultural heritage.
Independent Jamaica was six years old and struggling to find itself in the middle
of ideological racial voices shouting from the left and from the right. The Jamaica
Labour Party government led by Hugh Shearer belonged emphatically to the right,
a position it fiercely defended by marshalling such forces as police activity,
the banning of literature, music and persons, among other impositions. One was
allowed to be as revolutionary as one fancied within the Ivory Tower on the campus
at Mona (already ceded as foreign territory) but bringing such dangerous academic
activity out into the local communities as the likes of Rodney, Clive Y. Thomas,
Arnold Bertram, Rupert Lewis, Ralph Gonsalves and later Trevor Munroe were doing
was not to be tolerated.
Already there were signals
that the literature was responding to the socio-political developments by challenging
authority. The powerful urban sub-culture that gave rise to the Rude-Boy phenomenon
had only recently expressed itself in ska, rock steady and reggae music between
1963 and 1967. This grew into more systematic songs of political protest in 1968.
The social, cultural, political and ethnic conflicts including Rastafari and the
urban sub-culture were reflected in Eddie (Kamau) Brathwaite’s impactful books
of poems “Rights of Passage” (1967) and “Masks” (1968) to be followed by “Islands”
When Rodney was declared
persona non grata, the literary revolt immediately escalated.
triggered off an explosion which started among students on the campus. They barred
the gates, shut down classes and marched seven miles to Gordon House (the seat
of parliament) in downtown Kingston, fighting police road blocks and tear gas
at several points. During the day they were joined by sixth formers from some
secondary schools and after they returned to Mona, groups of people on the streets
took up the cause in a series of riots in the city. While violence spread across
Kingston, the students kept the campus closed for two weeks, joined by several
lecturers and even apparently winning the sympathy of then Vice Chancellor Sir
Philip Sherlock, who is, among other things, a published poet and compiler of
The issue forced widely
publicised debates in parliament with the government claiming that national security
was under threat and appealing to nationalist and patriotic sentiments against
an invasion of foreign subversive communist academics. The academic community
responded with a sudden rise of public intellectualism, at first to defend itself
against government attack, while explaining to the public the legitimacy of its
activities and its right to become involved in public affairs. This was mixed
with protest and new outlets for radical thought. A number of new periodical publications
emerged. Among the most important were Tapia and Moko Jumbie (Trinidad),
Abeng and Savacou (Jamaica).
Abeng, taking its name from the shell/horn used by slaves as a means of
coded communication, was among the most devoted to political protest while others
played a more lasting role in the growth of creative literature. Tapia
(a name taken from a form of slave housing) was published by Tapia House in Trinidad
as a journal which later changed its name to The Trinidad and Tobago Review,
and still survives. It has contributed considerably to the development of West
Indian literature through its publication of creative work and of critical articles.
The waves from the Rodney uprising at Mona obviously caused ripples across the
Caribbean with this publication being one of the literary responses to what the
intellectual community saw as a threat to free expression. But a much more substantial
role was played by Savacou, started on the Mona campus.
Savacou 3/4 made quite a stir in West Indian literary criticism when it published
a collection of poetry in 1970, which came out of radical developments in the
literary form. It was the first major publication of a new poetry including the
now very important dub poetry, growing out of the Walter Rodney uprisings. It
brought creole verse to the fore and moved literary/scribal poetry much closer
to oral forms, performance poetry, oral literature and the oral tradition.
Rodney’s direct influence
had much to do with this in more ways than one. His activities in Jamaica in 1968
deepened the alliance of West Indian writing with grassroots sensibilities and
a proletarian consciousness, which continued at the core of the new poetry. This
kind of communal focus was also a part of the protest at his banning which continued
even a year after, because in 1969, another Guyanese academic at Mona, economist
Dr C Y Thomas was expelled by the JLP regime. In addition, Rodney’s was the kind
of historiography that came out of close attention to proletarian and peasant
points of view. He published the famous Groundings With My Brothers out
of his experiences in the depressed Kingston communities and How Europe Underdeveloped
Africa, a text that charted definitive directions in Caribbean history.
After October 1968 there
developed the Yard Theatre movement (not to be confused with the earlier ‘Backyard
theatre’). In Yard Theatre, there were performances of poetry, readings and other
oral presentations often accompanied by music, particularly drums. The African
drum and the Rasta drum were prominent, as were reggae music and reggae rhythms.
The creole verse of Louise Bennett set the pattern for countless performances,
became much more popular than previously and influenced many other poets to write
in the creole language(s).
(“The Arrivants”) was also very popular with several readings performed in Yard
Theatre concerts. Brathwaite himself often appeared to read and there were powerful
recordings made of him reading to the accompaniment of drums. The success of this,
and his interest in rhythms certainly inspired the rise of dub poetry.
In keeping with Rodney’s
‘groundings with brothers’ concept, Yard Theatre was performed, not in established
theatres, but in a variety of unconventional venues and in communities. It was
a theatrical shaping of the concept not only because of where it was performed,
but because it influenced literary form. In Jamaica, ‘yard’ was the dwelling place
of the wretched of the earth as well as a symbol of the black identity and working
class solidarity. ‘Grounding’ was fellowship with that community.
Yard Theatre performances
arose out of solidarity with Rodney and his cause. It saw many middle class academics
and artists ‘grounding’ with their proletarian brothers in these concerts. Out
of this grew ‘performance poetry’ and ‘dub poetry’ (not to be confused with DJ
dub which grew out of the dance hall phenomenon). This new verse form was driven
by musical rhythms because of its oral performance in the ‘yards’ and the initial
use of drums, followed after by reggae. But not only that, dub poetry started
as protest literature and a part of the artistic resistance to the establishment
that deported Rodney and Thomas.
These new forms, which
were published in Savacou, developed to become very influential not only in the
rise of dub poetry, but in West Indian literature generally. Oral performances
of the literature intensified, ‘Rapso’ rhythms and verse developed in Trinidad
as did ‘performance poetry’ in England. Established poets such as Dennis Scott
and Mervyn Morris made profound use of ‘Dread talk’ and creole sensibilities in
literary verse while many prose fiction writers freely explored the range of linguistic
forms strongly influenced by consciousness of the oral tradition. West Indian
literature has gained and diversified in value out of this.
The work of Dr Rodney
in Jamaica and the waves that were generated by his expulsion can claim some of
the responsibility for these advancements.
Revolutionary literature, largely in the form of reggae lyrics
intensified and helped Michael Manley’s People’s National Party to sweep aside
Shearer’s JLP in the 1972 elections. Manley made full use of the music, the new
literature and its underlying consciousness in his campaign. He also revoked the
ban on Rodney and Thomas but, strangely, it took him some three years to do it.
Arnold Bertram, a former UWI student Union Chairman,
became a Minister in Manley’s Cabinet.
Rupert Lewis, formerly prominent in Munroe’s Marxist
party, is now a professor of Political Science at Mona, UWI.
Ralph Gonsalves was UWI Student Guild President
in 1968. He was a Rhodes Scholar, later Lecturer at UWI in Politics, switched
to Law, became Leader of the Opposition and is now Prime Minister in his native
Trevor Munroe is now Reader in Government at Mona.
He founded and led the communist Workers Liberation League and Workers Party of
Jamaica as well as the flourishing University and Allied Workers Union.