Walter Rodney, whose father was a tailor and whose mother was a homemaker, was born in Georgetown, Guyana. He won a government scholarship that enabled him to enter Queen’s College, then the leading secondary educational institution in the colony. There he did well scholastically, edited the school’s newspaper, and took an active part in the debating society. The 1940s and the early 1950s, which saw the emergence of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Guyana’s first mass-based political party, was a period of intense political activity oriented specifically toward the attainment of political independence. Rodney’s own political awakening and the beginning of his lifelong adherence to Marxist theory and praxis occurred in the 1950s when as a youngster he distributed PPP manifestos. He learned while doing so that it was imprudent to enter yards with long driveways because those who lived in the houses there were of a higher social class and lighter pigmentation than he, and therefore unlikely to be sympathetic to the nationalist aspirations of the PPP.
After winning an open scholarship in 1960 to study at the University College of the West Indies, later called the University of the West Indies (UWI), Rodney majored in history and graduated with first-class honors in 1963. While at the UWI, his intellectual and political sensibilities were further sharpened when he noted that West Indian history was deemphasized, which to him meant seeing reality through European eyes with no connection between history and politics. Upon graduation, Rodney continued the study of history in England awarded a Ph.D. in 1966 by the University of London. His doctoral thesis, “A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545–1800,” involved research in fascist Portugal, where he became aware of the contradiction of imperialist racism that privileged an educated black like himself while exploiting and repressing uneducated blacks.
In England Rodney also continued to be exposed to a brand of scholarship that divorced history from politics and politics from scholarship, as well as to the trials of racism. Undaunted, he took the opportunity to hone his public-speaking skills by addressing audiences at London’s famous Hyde Park, where soapbox orators who exercised the right of free speech found willing audiences for whatever topic interested them.
Leaving England in 1966, Rodney accepted an appointment as lecturer in African history at University College in Tanzania but left to accept a teaching appointment in January 1968 at the Jamaica campus of the UWI, where he launched and taught a course in African history. Consistent with his view that scholarship should not be divorced from politics and that the most meaningful education comes from an understanding of the condition of the people, Rodney took his pedagogy to the “dungles,” or the most dispossessed parts of Kingston. This led him, perhaps inevitably, to a sustained critique of the government of Jamaica, whose policies, he maintained, perpetuated the dispossession of black Jamaicans. However, after attending a Conference of Black Writers held at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in October 1968, Rodney was declared persona non grata by the Jamaican government and banned from reentering the island.
Rodney’s exclusion from Jamaica led to various protest demonstrations and confrontations by students and others with the police. Another significant result of the ban was the publication of his 1969 book, The Groundings with My Brothers. This book provided Rodney with the opportunity to address issues of major concern to African intellectuals in the diaspora and enabled him to fuse scholarship and reality through the eyes of a person of African descent. Rodney thus addressed the Jamaican situation that had led to his exclusion by challenging what he referred to as the myth of a harmonious Jamaican society that was being perpetrated by the same people who had named Marcus Garvey a national hero, while at the same time using the full force of the law to repress darker skinned Jamaicans. He warned that black youths were becoming “aware of the possibilities of unleashing armed struggle in their own interests” (Rodney, 1969, p. 15).
Turning his attention to Black Power, Rodney continued to revert to history to explain the oppression of peoples of color by whites. However, fully cognizant of the differences between the experience of the colonized in the United States and those in the West Indies, some of whose territories, like Guyana and Trinidad, had large East Indian populations, Rodney noted that the Black in Black Power in the Caribbean must include all colonized individuals who were not of European descent and whose forebears earlier on had been forced to work on the plantations in the West Indies. Black Power, he continued, must involve efforts by these individuals to control their own “destinies.” Moreover, he argued, the major and first responsibility of the nonwhite intellectual in the diaspora was the struggle over ideas and, as a “guerrilla intellectual,” participation in the struggle for the transformation of his own orbit.
After his exclusion from Jamaica, Rodney taught in Tanzania from 1968 to 1974 before returning to Guyana to accept a position as professor of history at the University of Guyana (UG). In Tanzania, he concluded that he had contributed as much as he could and that as a non-Tanzanian, his participation in the political culture of that country would be marginal and thus restricted to the university. He could more easily master the nuances of Caribbean culture than those of Tanzania, which were so critical to political activity. However, following the blocking of the UG appointment by the repressive government of President Forbes Burnham, Rodney remained permanently in the country of his birth, where he became a founding member of a political party, the Working People’s Alliance. A dynamic speaker with a penchant for breaking down complex ideas into everyday language, Rodney set about mobilizing the Guyanese masses against the regime of Burnham by educating and raising the consciousness of the thousands who attended his lectures in the heart of Georgetown, the capital, all the while using his knowledge of history as his main weapon.
Since some of Rodney’s rhetoric was uncompromising and directed at Burnham personally, some felt that Guyana had reached a point where the country was too small for the two antagonists. Thus, in addition to various retaliatory acts by the government, in July 1979, along with seven others, Rodney was arrested and charged but later acquitted, with arson in connection with the burning of two government offices. At a mass rally on June 6, 1980, Rodney used humor not merely to ridicule Burnham and his government but to criticize the constitution, which arrogated a tremendous amount of power to Burnham as president for life, which Rodney felt was incompatible with democratic socialism. Interspersing his speech with historical references, and much to the amusement of his listeners, Rodney dealt with the serious issue of oppression and death meted out to so-called enemies of the state, referring to Burnham as “King Kong,” revealing that some individuals had decided that a certain public convenience should be renamed “Burnham’s Palace.”
On June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney was killed instantly when a walkie-talkie in his possession, allegedly given to him by an electronics expert in the Guyana Defense Force, exploded. Before his death, Rodney had revised a manuscript, which he had submitted for publication to the Johns Hopkins University Press. In that manuscript, published posthumously as A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905, Rodney continued to emphasize the class nature of Guyanese history, whether he was analyzing the political economy of slavery in general, the capricious labor withdrawal by the Creoles (the former slaves), the role of the planter-controlled legislature in perpetuating the peculiar institution, or Creole opposition to immigration policies that resulted in the introduction of indentured laborers from India to plantation life in the colony. Thus, he remained faithful to the significance of social class and its race/color dimensions, which he had first observed in the 1950s during the struggle for political independence, in his treatment of a particular moment in Guyanese history.