Rodney factor in West Indian literature
by Al Creighton - First posted in Stabroek News on June 18th. 2000
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 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 a Rastafarianism 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 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 in 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 Rastafarianism 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 in 1969. When Rodney was declared persona non grata, the literary revolt immediately escalated.
The banning 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 winning the sympathy of then Vice Chancellor Sir Philip Sherlock, who is, among other things, a published poet and compiler of folk literature.
The issue forced widely publicized 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 the legitimacy of its activities and its right to become involved in public affairs to the public. This was mixed with protest and new outlets for radical thought. Many 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 changed its name to The Trinidad and Tobago Review and still survives. It has contributed considerably to the development of the literature through its publication of work and of critical articles. 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 which grew out of the Walter Rodney uprisings. It brought creole poetry 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 and literature 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.
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 trilogy of Eddie Kamau Brathwaite (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.
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. Out of this grew 'performance poetry' and 'dub poetry' (not to be confused with DJ dub which grew out of the dance hall phenomenon).
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 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 and is now Leader of the Opposition in his native St Vincent.
* 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.