A June 13th Tribute: Walter Rodney, the Rastafari and ‘dungles’ everywhere
By Nigel Westmaas
“Mi naw bow to Babylon!”..Mi neva bow to Babylon! Not even in de slave ship, mi jus keep quiet till when wi reach land and whiteman pay money fi mi and tek mi fi cut cane up by some mountain, an before im coulda dream fuh beat mi mi gaan! Yes Maroon! Ariginal rebel! Spirit intact! Fram dat day to dis I & I live as a free man, and dats ‘undreds a years, so mi nuh av no slave mentality, and mi nah bow to Babylon, white or black”
IZion, Rasta leader in Power Game (Percy Henzell)
In Orlando Patterson’s 1964 novel Children of Sisyphus there is a scene, contracted here for space, which reads as follows:
“that same night the Rastafarians held a meeting in the Dungle…By ten o’clock they had all arrived. They sat in a neat semi-circle, the five elders in the midst…that night there was a special guest… a young man from the university who had come to address them. He was brown skinned, short and wore spectacles…his expression was serious, perhaps too serious, for the Rastafarians with their piercing sensitivity could detect somehow that he was trying to impress upon them his awareness of the seriousness of the occasion…”
The narrative here is almost indistinguishable from the real life presence, experience and impact of Walter Rodney (although not an accurate physical description) and his famous “groundings” with Rastafari and other isolated and poor communities in the dungles off campus in Jamaica. Those “groundings”, history records, led to rioting in Jamaica after Rodney was banned from that country in 1968 (along with Clive Thomas and Joey Jagan) after a visit abroad; he was returning after attending the Congress of Black Writers in Montreal, Canada, and was not even allowed to disembark at the airport in Kingston, Jamaica.
But what is the Dungle? In the Jamaican context it is the “tough, tough, tough” slum areas of Kingston and its environs and rural counterparts as popularised in Children of Sisyphus.
The difference between the interaction in the novel and Rodney was of course the fact that Rodney was active in real time in making himself aware of and in struggle with the downpressed with his guiding philosophy, “how do we break out of Babylonian captivity?”
Where did Rodney’s unswerving passion for the common people emerge? Part of the wellspring for this is Rodney’s own experience of life in Bent Street in the poorer sections of his native Georgetown, Guyana. The other source of his always restless humanity came from his own developed political and social trajectory and ideological/moral conviction.
As he wrote of his experience in Jamaica in the Jamaican newspaper Moko:
“The first essential was to operate outside of the petty bourgeois University campus and outside of the “respectable” middle class suburb where I resided. My background in Guyana was working class, but after the alienation produced by the educational system, it was up to me to retake the initiative to rediscover my brothers and sisters. I sought them out where they lived, worked, worshipped, and had their recreation. In turn they ‘checked ‘me at work or at home, and together we “probed” here and there, learning to recognize our common humanity. Naturally they wanted to know what I stood for, what I ‘defended’. I never gave anyone money or bought them drinks; that one must leave to the political gangsters’ of the two-party system. At some point I ceased to be Dr Rodney and was addressed as “Brother Rodney” or better still ‘Brother Wally’ That simple change meant I was no longer a tool of the establishment, but was readmitted into the moral and cultural brotherhood of the Black man.”
There tends be some romance in the Rodney-Rastafari dungle encounter. It was far more difficult than the traditionally safe historical record allows. This romance stems from the fantasy of the great debater/academic who “wins” over opponents. Of course Rodney was a great debater and speaker but those resources were a tool for social change, not a conceit for academic brag and loftiness. Invariably, the Rastafari were not pushovers, and not up to molly cuddling anyone. Rodney had to earn their respect. As seen in the Children of Sisyphus character the Rastas gave him a hard time with their “highalogue.” But he won their respect for his consistency; he earned their respect for his knowledge and assessment of African history and especially Ethiopia; he received their esteem for his humility and for his ability to learn from their own experience and wisdom and for his other commitment to the working class people everywhere be they Garveyite, Rastafarian, “lumpen” or ‘rude bwoys.’ It should be pointed out here that Rodney was not the first academic to reach out and meet the then isolated Rastafari. Credit is due among others to the late Rex Nettleford, scholar, dance choreographer and social critic, as among the first to actually intermingle and reach out to the Rastafarian community long before it was socially “safe” to do so. Nettleford also authored the famous report The Ras Tafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica (or the Rastafari Report) with MG Smith and Roy Augier.
Perennially credited with a marvellous sensitivity to each place he touched down, Rodney would size up the situation and act accordingly. In Guyana, Rodney’s practical intervention was almost identical with his sojourn everywhere if you add the race-class dialectic. Whether bauxite or sugar worker, urban and rural unemployed and “lumpen” – he was active unto death.
It is a little known fact that in the late seventies, at the height of the mobilization against the Burnham regime, Rodney had no problem, as “Dr Rodney,” in taking karate self-defence classes under the tutelage of Tacuma Ogunseye – a black belt instructor in his own right.
On this thirty-first anniversary of his passing we might wonder, like the counterfactual historians, and given Rodney’s renown for the fusion of history with the ‘contemporary’, “what if?” What if Rodney were around today? What would he be up to? Given the logic and trajectory of his past involvement in struggles wherever he lived, we can deduce that he would be attacking the main contradictions in any given situation. Continuously updating his analysis, he would address the disparity in the standard of living (tracing its origins to the past but not excusing the present); he would be protesting concretely whether with a picket, a speech, or with a teach-in - in one form or other drawing out the best in people. He would certainly not be a namesake for any trajectory that did not have as its mission a truly democratic, multiracial society with the component of social equality built in.
As Rodney himself said in 1978 “I feel profoundly confident that my own position is to be vindicated not by the writing of history but by history itself as it continues to be made by our people.”http://www.stabroeknews.com/2011/features/in-the-diaspora/06/13/a-june-13th-tribute-walter-rodney-the-rastafari-and-%E2%80%98dungles%E2%80%99-everywhere/