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Grounding the Caribbean Struggle for Decolonization: Walter Rodney and Rastafari Critiques of Postcolonial Rule

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By Onni Ahvonen

In October 1968, the Jamaican government led by Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, was facing considerable social and political turmoil in the country’s capital, Kingston. Six years earlier, Jamaica had gained its independence from Britain. Independence, many thought, would finally bring about prosperity, justice, and equality for all Jamaicans who had endured under colonial rule. Alas, these postcolonial promises failed to realise. In the six years between 1962 and 1968, disappointment in the new postcolonial ruling elites increased. British colonialism and the plantation economy, which fuelled global capitalism on the backs of enslaved Africans’ forced labour, had long-lasting destructive effects on Jamaican society. For centuries, British colonialism and the plantation economic system produced poverty, dependence, indebtedness, social stratification, strict racial hierarchies, and psychological dehumanisation of Black people.  

Overcoming this violent legacy of colonialism, then, was no easy task. Yet, in many ways, the Creole nationalists that emerged to wield power in postcolonial Jamaica—and other parts of the Caribbean—were not fully invested in building a society free from racial oppression and economic exploitation. On the contrary, these elites saw opportunities in leading postcolonial nation-states in a newly emergent neocolonial global order. More than mere economic opportunism, these elites subscribed to racial and cultural norms and values inherited from British colonial rule. As a result, the island’s Black working-class people and the lumpen-proletariat continued to be economically, culturally, and socially marginalised and subjugated within Jamaican society. 

This is the context that paved the way for the so-called Rodney riots of October 1968. These riots, which were one of the largest in Jamaican history, got their name from the Guyanese historian and Pan-African socialist Walter Rodney. At the time, Rodney was employed as a lecturer at the University of West Indies in Mona, Kingston. He, however, distinguished himself from his academic colleagues insofar as he was primarily concerned with revolutionary politics, rather than self-serving scholarship distanced from “the masses in action.” (Rodney 2022, ch. 2). Rodney arrived in Kingston in early 1968, having finished his dissertation (published as a book titled A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545–1800) in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies – SOAS, University of London. 

As with every other place he would spend considerable time, Rodney analysed the specific power relations at play in Jamaica and tried to identify social formations with revolutionary potential to enact social and political change. This led Rodney to believe that Jamaica’s Rastafari community “represented the leading force of (…) black consciousness” on the island (Rodney 2019, 65). At the time, the Rastafari were severely persecuted and dehumanised by the country’s elites due to their anti-colonial and Afrocentric ways of life, which challenged the myth of multiracial harmony peddled by the petit-bourgeoisie. In the post-independence era, postcolonial elites sought to consolidate a State wherein belonging and loyalty were organised along distinctly national terms which legitimated the authority of the State and the adopted Westminister form of parliamentary democracy. The politics of Black Power and Rastafarianism, in contrast, challenged the legitimacy of national unity and the State, highlighting instead the deeply stratified nature of Jamaican society along the lines of race and class. 

Upon arrival, Rodney forged strong ties with Rastafari communities and became involved in their radical cultural and political activities. A famous example of this was the Rastafarian praxis of “groundings” in which Rodney took part. The groundings constituted a living practice of knowledge cultivation for the Rastafari. It was a gathering of sorts where open and earnest discussions and dialogue could take place. This praxis functioned to centre African identity and history, as well as communal ways of life, culture, religion, and political education. Rodney was amazed at this tradition and attended the sessions mostly as a listener, but he also brought with him his vast knowledge of African history. 

The Jamaican government saw these autonomous Black spaces and practices as potentially dangerous avenues of political activity, and it didn’t take long before Shearer’s government took notice of Rodney’s connections to the Rastafari. By this time, Rodney had become an ardent critic of the postcolonial leadership, publicly arguing that they functioned as a “local lackey” of imperialism (Rodney 2019, 3). In October, Rodney travelled to Canada to present a paper at the Black Writers Congress in Montreal. As he was out of the country, Shearer proceeded to ban Rodney from Jamaica. As a result, students at the UWI decided to protest the government’s decision. They were met by brutal violence as the police dispersed the students. The next day the students decided to take to the streets again. On the 16th of October, they were joined by the poor Black working class and lumpen-proletariat communities in Kingston, as well as the Rastafari whom Rodney had befriended. Massive riots engulfed downtown Kingston, and the police once again reacted with brutal violence against the protestors. Soon thereafter, the Black Power movement would sweep almost the entire Caribbean, as movements and radical organisations forged solidarities and connections beyond the borders of the postcolonial nation-state. 

The Rodney riots mark a crucial point in time in Jamaican, and indeed Caribbean, history. More than mere protest against Rodney’s deportation, the riots were an expression of widespread dissatisfaction at postcolonial rule

Political independence had not paved the way for Black liberation. Instead, a new neocolonial global order had emerged. Rodney articulated this new conjuncture during his time in Jamaica when he made the point that it is a mistake to believe “that black people achieved power with independence” since “a black man ruling a dependent state within the imperialist system has no power. He is simply an agent of the whites in the metropolis, with an army and a police force designed to maintain the imperialist way of things in that particular colonial area.” (Rodney 2019, 12). The movement for Black Power, which was simmering long before the eruption of the Rodney riots, was a struggle against this neocolonial order. Black Power was a call for true decolonization and Black sovereignty. In the West Indies, Rodney proposed that Black Power would mean three distinct yet overlapping things: (1) “the break with imperialism which is historically white racist”; (2) “the assumption of power by the black masses on the islands”; and finally, (3) “the cultural reconstruction of the society in the image of the blacks.” (Rodney 2019, 24). 

Rodney was proposing a politics of disruption that didn’t merely strive for legislative or electoral power within the imperialist system. The conscious movement of the Black masses in this conjuncture showed Rodney that a revolutionary politic was the only viable path toward true decolonization and Black liberation. Although these Black radical freedom dreams have failed to realise, the Black Power movement has a lot to teach today’s movements and struggles for liberation. In constructing transnational solidarities, pursuing disruptive politics against imperialism and white supremacy, and producing alternative forms of community in the process, this movement carried with it valuable lessons for future struggles. 

For Rodney, there were two alternatives to choose from: “to remain as part of the white system or to break with it. There is no other alternative.” That same choice faces us today, and it’s imperative that we choose solidarity and disruption over oppression and exploitation. There is no other road toward true decolonization.

References

Bogues, A. (2009) ‘Black Power, Decolonization, and Caribbean Politics: Walter Rodney and the Politics of The Groundings with My Brothers’, boundary 2, 36(1), pp. 127–147. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-2008-027.

Rodney, W. (1990) Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Africa World Press.

Rodney, W. (2019) The Groundings with My Brothers. London: Verso.

Rodney, W. (2022) Decolonial Marxism: Essays from the Pan-African Revolution. London: Verso.

Zeilig, L. (2022) A Revolutionary for Our Time: The Walter Rodney Story. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

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