18 October 1968

Walter Rodney: The Groundings with my Brothers

Walter Rodney portrait

Walter Rodney

IN THIS EXCERPT from a speech given in Montréal following his banning by the Jamaican authorities a few days earlier, Rodney warns against being seduced by the myth of a harmonious multi-racial society and describes how he got real knowledge and understanding from Rastafari, the least regarded, most despised section of society. Finally, Rodney stresses the importance of the black intellectual attaching himself to the activity of the black masses.

The Government of Jamaica, which is Garvey’s homeland, has seen fit to ban me, A Guyanese, a black man, and an African. But this is not very surprising because though the composition of that government – of its Prime Minister, the Head of State and several leading personalities – though that composition happens to be predominantly black, as the Brothers at home say, they are all white-hearted.

These men serve the interests of a foreign, white capitalist system and at home they uphold a social structure which ensures that the black man resides at the bottom of the social ladder. He is economically oppressed and culturally he has no opportunity to express himself. That is the situation from which we move. . .

. . . First and foremost for the benefit of some West Indians who still refuse to appreciate that our society is racist, I would like to give a slight historical analysis of the problem. West Indian society is a veritable laboratory of racialism. We virtually invented racialism. Because it was in the slave system on the slave plantation that the fantastic gap between master and slave was translated into a feeling on the part of the white slavemaster that he had inherently to be superior to that black man who was slaving out in the fields. It was the white plantation owner who produced a number of pseudo-scientific and theological theories attesting to the inferiority of the black man.

Ours was the society in which modern racialism was engendered, and it has developed and intensified since then, assuming certain subtle but nevertheless vicious forms based on colour and based on a hierarchy which presupposes that black is the lowest natural colour of things, and that white is at the top. That is the society from which we come and the particular society has added a new dimension to the bag of tricks which racialists have. That dimension is to try to confuse the people.

It goes like this. They claim that in our society we cannot talk about black and white because we have these gradations of shades. We have many peoples, we are told. Ninety-five per cent of the Jamaican population is clearly black, the other five per cent is divided into these shades, and we are told we have many peoples. It is a harmonious multi-racial society, we are told. It is an integrated society, we are told.

It reminds me of Ted Tones’ poem, Integrated Nigger. It is a myth of the ruling class, and it is a subtle myth, an important myth because it does in fact have a certain appeal. It talks about multi-racial and harmonious living which nobody on a theoretical level would oppose. This is what we are struggling for.

The lie is that harmony exists and the black people show it up to be a lie, sometimes quite spectacularly. This month, October, is Paul Bogle’s month, that great Jamaican patriot who marched and as he marched he said – “Remember your colour and cleave to the black.”

Marcus Garvey was also in the same category. Garvey’s appeal was to all black men, whether they were in Jamaica or outside. And even when there were not great leaders present, the mass of the people have constantly been acting against this system. In our epoch, the Rastafari have represented the leading force of this expression of black consciousness. They have rejected this philistine white West Indian society. They have sought their cultural and spiritual roots in Ethiopia and Africa. So that whether there is a big flare up or not, there is always the constant activity of the black people who perceive that the system has nothing in it for them except suppression and oppression.

Now the Government is terribly afraid of the question of colour. This is something that I’ve learned from living in Jamaica for a period of time. They would much rather you talk about Communism, so they can tell country people: “He is a Communist he wants to take your goats and chickens.” And do those Jamaican peasants want you to take their goats? No man! And they are very right too – so what government men are afraid of is the question of colour. They are afraid of that tremendous historical experience of the degradation of the black man being brought to the fore. They do not want anybody to challenge their myth about ‘Out of Many, One People’ and a harmonious multi-racial society, and they show it in various ways. They will ban people from coming to the country like James Foreman, Stokely Carmichael. They will ban the literature of Malcolm X, Elijah Mohammed, Stokely Carmichael. The black Jamaican government in case you do not know it, have banned all publications by Stokely Carmichael, publications by Elijah Mohammed, all publications by Malcolm X . . .

In my own case, to give you a small example, I went to the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. I pre-recorded a programme on Black Power and the white power system said that they are not using that programme, when they saw what came out of it. A small example but a token of things to come, no doubt. Because the system does not want you to open the issues, they do not want anyone to articulate those grievances which the masses are talking about all the time.

Now, what is my position? What is the position of all of us because we fall in the category of the black West Indian intellectual, a privilege in our society? What do we do with that privilege? The traditional pattern is that we join the Establishment. The black educated man in the West Indies is as much a part of the system of oppression as the bank managers and plantation overseers.

The system will give you a nice house, a front lawn, a car, a reasonable bank balance. They will say, ‘Sell your black soul’. That is the condition upon which you exist as a so-called intellectual in the society.

How do we break out of this Babylonian Captivity? I suggest three ways. I suggest first that the intellectual, the academic, within his own discipline, has to attack those distortions which white imperialism, white cultural imperialism have produced in all branches of scholarship. In fact what I was attempting to do in the Congress of Black Writers earlier was to talk about that sort of thing and its relation to African History. Of course, the white press of Canada did not see fit to talk about those points. I think I saw it only in the McGill Daily. They were more concerned with nice little juicy bits about violence. We will give them some tit-bits as we go along.

My second point is that the black intellectual has to move beyond his own discipline to challenge the social myth, which exists in the society as a whole. In other words, this myth about the multi-racial society. This is the sort of thing we have a duty to perform to the black people from whom we came.

Thirdly, the black intellectual, the black academic must attach himself to the activity of the black masses. I shall not deal with point one on this occasion. I shall concentrate on points two and three. I shall try to exemplify my own role while I was there in Jamaica.

I began by stating first and foremost that the struggle was there long before I went and will continue long after I have left. Iam simply trying to analyse that particular conjunction of forces as I saw them when I attempted to get in touch with the black people, to perform these two functions: attacking the myth, the various myths rather, and getting in touch, working with the people. On the first level, as far as Black Power was concerned, the response of the population was automatic because this is what they are doing, this is what they are talking about. They can tell you and I about Black Power, but I’ll indicate this later on. You can learn from them what Black Power really means. You do not have to teach them anything. You just have to say it and they add something to what you are saying.

So the mass response was there, and the Government response was clearly there. They in their panic were quick to come out against this new spectre, Black Power. For my own part, I was prepared to make these statements in public and around me there were gathered a nucleus and a movement was born calling itself the Black Power Movement. Unfortunately I have not brought the aims along with me, but you will find them highly respectable even in the terms of the system. We went outside the University and we talked to Black Brothers and Black Sisters and this the society, this the system could not tolerate. Even more, let us talk about the activities. I lectured at the University, outside of the classroom that is. I had public lectures, and then I left there, I went from the campus. I was prepared to go anywhere that any group of Black people were prepared to sit down to talk and listen. Because, that is Black Power, that is one of the elements, a sitting down together to reason, to ‘ground’ as the Brothers say. We have to ‘ground together’.

There was all this furore about whites being present in the Black Writers’ Congress which most whites did not understand. They do not understand that our historical experience has been speaking to white people, whether it be begging white people, justifying ourselves against white people or even vilifying white people. Our whole context has been, ‘that is the man to talk to.’

Now the new understanding is that Black Brothers must talk to each other. That is a very simple understanding which any reasonable person outside of a particular ‘in-group’ would understand. That is why we talk about our ‘family discussions’. Now when I went out, as I said, I would go on the radio if they wanted me, I would speak on television if they allowed me. I spoke at the Extra-Mural Centre. Now these are all highly respectable and I would go further down into West Kingston and I would speak wherever there was a possibility of our getting together. It might be on a sports club, it might be in a schoolroom, it might be in a church, it might be in a gully. (Those of you who come from Jamaica know these gully corner.) They are dark, dismal places with a black population who have had to seek refuge there. You will have to go there if you want to talk to them. I have spoken in what people called ‘dungle’, rubbish dumps, for that is where people live in Jamaica. People live in rubbish dumps. That is where the government puts people to live. Indeed, the Government does not even want them to live in rubbish dumps. I do not know where they want them to go because they bulldoze them off the rubbish dumps and send them God knows where. I have sat on a little oil drum, rusty and in the midst of garbage, and some Black Brothers and I have grounded together. Now obviously, this, first of all, must have puzzled the Jamaican Government. I must be mad, surely, a man we are giving a job, a man we are giving status, what is he doing with these guys. Shearer calls them all manner of names there in this paper, you know: ‘criminals and hooligans’. What is he doing with them? So they are puzzled and then obviously after that suspicion, he must be up to something, as the paper will try to imply. But we spoke, we spoke about a lot of things and it was just the talking that was important, the meeting of black people. I was trying to contribute something. I was trying to contribute my experience in travelling, in reading, my analysis, and I was also gaining as I will indicate.

Now the new understanding is that Black Brothers must talk to each other. That is a very simple understanding which any reasonable person outside of a particular ‘in-group’ would understand. That is why we talk about our ‘family discussions’. Now for the Government of Jamaica and this statement; I cannot go into it. I have a lot of ambiguous reactions to it. At one level I want to tear it apart. The first is that all the charges made here are either irrelevant, frivolous or vague, and I cannot put forward any defence against such. You know, it is like that trick question: a man comes up and asks you, have you stopped beating your wife; he makes the assumption that you are beating your wife, and asks you, have you stopped. So it is that sort of nonsense, they throw out a little thing and get you to grab the bait; and there is another reason why I would not defend myself against this. People like this man here, the so-called, the Dishonourable H. L. Shearer, Prime Minister of Jamaica, this traitor to the Black Race, has no moral authority to lay accusations against me. What I will give instead is not a defence, it is an explanation. It is an attempt to make an analysis of what was going on in the hope that this has some meaning for other people who are either within the struggle today or would like to join the struggle. For the educated black man, as I said, the principles are clear. There are three possibilities open to him and it seems to me that if he does not follow every single one of these three, and perhaps some more that he can think of, he is not fulfilling any function as far as our people are concerned, except the function of oppressing them. Let me refer to another statement which I made which the white press found very irritating – that all white people are enemies until proved otherwise, and this applies to black intellectuals, all of us are enemies to the people until we prove otherwise. It is not just a question of student riots.

The students have demonstrated, which is good. They came out, they heard a University lecturer was banned, they got no reason, which is the normal procedure of the Jamaican Government (it does not give reasons for things). They came out, they started to walk along the roads, the police started to tear gas them, they started to beat them with batons and night sticks and something flared up, relatively small, but it is a great advance I tell you. There is no more bourgeois campus in the world than the University of the West Indies. Yes, I was there, in my time this would not have happened: they might have demonstrated about bad food in the halls, or in solidarity with South Africans, you know, on quite harmless issues as far as the Jamaican Government was concerned. However, they moved, and that in itself is a good thing, but there was more to it than that. The Black Brothers in Kingston, Jamaica moved against the Government of Jamaica. That is the point that must come home. Let us stop calling it student riots. What has happened in Jamaica is that the black people of the city of Kingston have seized upon this opportunity to begin their indictment against the Government of Jamaica.

Now, let us see what happened. As far as I can gather 50 buses were overturned and burnt. Fourteen major fires were started in different parts of the city; certain known enemies of the people were spat upon, dragged out of their cars and beaten, shop windows were wrecked. I gather that downtown Kingston looks as if Hurricane Flora has just passed through. Now let us get this abundantly clear – this did not happen as an isolated incident, that is part of the whole social malaise, that is revolutionary activity. It has only marginal significance as far as my ban is concerned. The significance is that the brothers see that I am a spokesman for their cause and the Jamaican Government is so brazen as to stop me from returning. That is the incident that triggered it off, but beneath that, there is a whole range of short-term and long-term considerations which we must take into mind. Take for instance that those 50 buses were burned; that is not just coincidental for those who know Jamaican society. The J.O.S., which is the private company running transport in Kingston, is one of the most notorious companies in Jamaica. There is a strike there every other day. It is notorious from the point of view of its relationship with the workers and just recently it decided to hike the fares as far as the people were concerned. Now imagine the poor people of Jamaica standing in the hot sun, waiting on the bus, having to pay increased fares and while they are struggling to find the 4d, for that is what the fares have gone up to, here is a whole set of guys flashing by in some cars longer than you can see out here in Montreal. You have to go to Jamaica to see long cars, you know. That little middle-class there, they love to show off. The bigger the car they better. A little petty city and they fill it up with American cars, and they jump around and they feel so pleased with themselves. And the black man is there and he has not got 4d for a bus fare. So when those 50 buses were burnt, it was that type of issue that was involved. The brothers who were in that struggle, unemployed, they have no housing, they have no education, they have no prospects in the society, save to go to what the Brothers call ‘Must Pen’ – May Pen Burial Cemetery. They call it ‘Must Pen’, you must go there.

That is what has been going on in the society. So if we have to take a stand, we have to take a stand perhaps on the first issue, say the immoral, shameless conduct of the Jamaican Government in issuing this ban. But it is not the first and presumably will not be the last such action on their part. We also have to take a stand of solidarity behind those Black Brothers. We also have to recognise that three more martyrs have been added to the long list of Black Martyrs in Jamaica in recent days. We will have to find out their names. We will have to sing their praises.

This is not an issue which is isolated. In fact, as I speak here, I would like to feel perhaps that what I am saying in one form or another will reach the brothers and therefore it is a message both to you and to them. And above all, I would like to indicate my own gratification for that experience which I shared with them. Because I learnt. I got knowledge from them, real knowledge. You have to speak to Jamaican Rasta, you have to listen to him, listen very carefully and then you will hear him tell you about the Word. And when you listen to him, and you can go back and read Muntu, an academic text, and read about Nomo, an African concept for word, and you say, Goodness the Rastas know this, they knew this before Janheinz Jahn. ( Muntu: African Culture and the Western World, Janheinz Jahn, 1961) You have to listen to them and you hear them talk about Cosmic Power and it rings a bell. I say, but I have read this somewhere, this is Africa. You have to listen to their drums to get the Message of the Cosmic Power.

And when you get that, know you get humility, because look who you are learning from. The system says they have nothing, they are illiterates, they are the dark people of Jamaica. Our conception of the whole world is that white is good and black is bad, so when you are talking about the man is dark, you mean he is stupid. He has a dark mind. So that is what the system says. But you learn humility after you get into contact with these brothers. And it is really great. I am giving here now a personal reaction. I find my colleagues, my so-called peers, white people, black bourgeoisie all frustrate me and I get annoyed. I find it difficult to conduct a discussion. I am more likely than not to tell them a few bad words after a while. And by and large, I do not think it is good for the personality, probably makes you contemptuous, haughty and so on, that you have seen and they have not seen. But with the black brothers you learn humility because they are teaching you. And you get confidence too, you get a confidence that comes from an awareness that our people are beautiful. Beauty is in the very existence of black people.

Now we have gone through a historical experience through which by all accounts we should have been wiped out. We have been subjected to genocidal practices. Millions raped from the West African continent, a system of slavery in the West Indies which was designed to kill people. The documents are there. White slavemasters used to conduct a discussion. They said, look we have some blacks, what to do with them? Is it better to let them grow old and work for us for an extended period of time, or should we let him work for a specified period of time, work him so hard and let him die, and buy a fresh slave? And the consensus of opinion was this, take a prime African black, work him to death in five years, and you make a profit. So the system aimed at killing us out!

Now not only have we survived as a people but the Black Brothers in Kingston, Jamaica in particular, these are brothers who, up to now, are every day performing a miracle. It is a miracle how these fellows live. They live and they are physically fit, they have a vitality of mind, they have a tremendous sense of humour, they have depth. How do they do that in the midst of existing conditions? And they create, they are always saying things. You know that some of the very best painters and writers are coming out of the Rastafari environment. The black people in the West Indies have produced all the culture that we have, whether it be steelband or folk music. Black bourgeoisie and white people in the West Indies have produced nothing! Black people who have suffered all these years create. That is amazing.

So these are things you learn when you are in contact with our people. And, therefore, it seems to me that there is something that we have to give. I tried to outline some of the things that I tried to give.


From The Groundings with my Brothers, Walter Rodney, with an introduction by Richard Small, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, London 1969.

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