30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

A Brief Biography of Walter Rodney

Dr. Mary E. Curry

Only 38 years old when he was killed, Dr. Walter Rodney was an internationally acclaimed author of six scholarly books and numerous academic articles that documented the devastating effects of slavery and colonial imperialism in Africa and the Caribbean. He extended his critical analysis to explain how those effects continued to prevent the progress of newly formed neocolonial governments. His framework was Marxist ideology focused on the working classes; he was critical of capitalism because it promoted individualism instead of cooperative communal efforts. By combining political economic analysis with archival research, he demonstrated how colonialism resulted in economic inequality and racial ethnic divisions and how neocolonialism continued those damaging effects.

Walter Rodney was born in Georgetown, the capital of then-British Guiana. He was an outstanding student, attending the elite Queen’s College high school where he won a scholarship to the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica. After graduating in 1963, he entered the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies which awarded him a doctorate in African History in 1966 when he was 24 years old. His revised dissertation “A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545 to 1800” was published by Oxford University Press in 1970.

From 1966 to 1967, he taught at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and returned to teach at that university from 1969 to 1974. During 1968, he taught at the University of the West Indies at Mona, where he came to the attention of the Jamaican government security officers for meeting with working class groups including the Rastafarians, an anti-government sect. Rodney expanded his friendships to outside the university campus. He began criticizing Jamaica’s middle-class elite and the existing government for ignoring its large population of poor and disadvantaged residents. This was labeled a subversive activity and the government banned his re-entry after attending a book conference in Canada. This decision prompted a riot revealing Rodney’s popularity even though he had been in Jamaica for less than a year. His 1969 book “Groundings with My Brothers” includes three speeches given during those years about decolonization and Black Power.

In 1974 he left his position at the University Dar es Salaam to accept the offer of a professorship at the University of Guyana. However, when he arrived the offer was withdrawn by the Forbes Burnham PNC (People’s National Congress) which had firm control over Guyana’s educational system. To support his young family, Rodney accepted temporary teaching positions in the United States and other countries, and also made time to promote an anti-capitalist socialist vision of a more equitable and prosperous future for newly independent nations through articles and working on a new book. His research in archival materials resulted in “A History of the Guyanese Working People 1881 to 1905” that would be published by The John Hopkins Press (Baltimore and London: 1981). The book documents the unfair labor and economic conditions commonly experienced by the working people of African descent (Afro-Guyanese – about 40% of the population) and East Indian descent (Indo-Guyanese – about 50% of the population). His book presented their common labor experiences and economic suffering as proof that ethnic differences existing in Guyana in 1980 should be set aside and all Guyanese working people needed to work together to improve the country’s economic and social conditions.[1]

He joined and became one of the leaders of a new organization named the Working People’s Alliance, that formed in 1974 from several smaller organizations. Its goals included uniting working people from all ethnic and racial backgrounds in Guyana and obtaining political power by participating in elections. It was WPA’s increasing success in uniting citizens from both African and East Indian ethnic backgrounds and declaration as a political party in June 1979 that created a challenge the Burnham controlled government had not faced before.[2]

Walter Rodney’s most influential book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” (1972) provided a new lens to examine the development of nations and remains a model of how to analyze capitalist societies and the rise of inequality. His life and writings are well documented. His papers are archived at the University of Atlanta’s Woodruff Center. There is a Walter A. Rodney Foundation in Atlanta that holds annual symposiums and supports research.[3]

 

Notes

[1] Arnold Gibbons, The Legacy of Walter Rodney in Guyana and The Caribbean (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2011), pp. X111; Ch. VI: The Approach to Armageddon, and Ch. VII: Assassination of Walter Rodney.

[2] Claudia Mitchell-Kernan,“Troubled Little Guyana’s Problems Extend Far Beyond Jonestown,” Los Angeles Times, August 26, 1979.

[3] Walter Rodney Foundation and Walter Rodney Papers at Atlanta University, Woodruff Center