09 Jun A Life of Praxis with Walter Rodney: interview with Jesse Benjamin
In the week that marks the fortieth anniversary of the murder of the revolutionary Walter Rodney, Jesse Benjamin – member of the Walter Rodney Foundation – speaks to ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig about Rodney’s astonishing work, life and activism and how he speaks to the dehumanization of Black lives everywhere. Rodney’s work, Benjamin argues, remains vital for those now seeking to overturn the systems of oppression worldwide.
Firstly, can you tell us something about your own political and intellectual journey, how and where did it start?
I was born a citizen of the world, already with two citizenships due to my itinerant 1960s parents who had travelled and then started living in the Middle East. I had a third citizenship a year later when we got to rural Nova Scotia, where my brother was born, and my parents split up. Until I was 10, I then lived all over Toronto, from Etobicoke to Cabbage Town, from the ‘good school’ neighborhood of Forest Hills to years running between the recording studios and international vendors on the streets of Kensington Market.
I arrived to live in the US for the first time, just as the New York Islanders hockey team went on to win four Stanley Cups in a row – a literal miracle for a 3rd grade Canadian kid with every pro hockey player’s cards in his collection, but it went almost completely unnoticed in upstate New York where we now lived, and wasn’t even on TV. Almost four years in a rural small town situation was a new experience with some good friends and a new love for computers, physics and sci-fi, but before I was 13 we moved suddenly again, to Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, surrounded by religious communities and the most shockingly new kind of overt and vulgar racism I had ever experienced within the confines of my then brief, ostensibly colorblind, ideologically liberal humanist upbringing. It was South African apartheid style racism in the schools and streets I was now on, and that was also formative.
I’ve traced my willingness to question and even stand against what is going on around me pretty far back. I recall failing only one class in Canada, my civics grade at a particular school, because I refused to stand or sing the anthem and the Queen-related song that followed it. I did do the subsequent state-mandated exercises to the piped-in music of Stevie Wonder every morning, but I did not want to align with the symbols of a single nationalism, even though I really liked Canada as a kid, it seemed ordered and largely fair compared to the adults in my world. I also remember anti-Pakistani racism from students and their parents within days of arriving to school in a more working-class immigrant community outside of Mississauga.
But the simmering race hatred we encountered in those early Reagan-era Brooklyn years was shocking and awoke me to my first attempts at more direct activism. Eastern Parkway was very white and Jewish on one side, and mostly Black and particularly Caribbean on the other side, and in hindsight as a young teenager I was one of the very few people with friends on both sides of this apartheid line around which violence could easily erupt on any given day and sometimes did.
By 1987 I’d dropped out of high school, relocated to the Middle East, gone through some pretty dramatic struggles, and improbably managed to join a radical Quaker international college in Jerusalem. I was introduced to Marxist theory, Paulo Freire and Edward Said, while doing fieldwork with marginalized Bedouin communities in the Naqab/Negev and Sinai Deserts. The next year I made my way to my school’s European Center as a Marxist 17-year-old.
While studying in London I was lucky to have a series of mentors who I officially made my teachers and took courses with, starting with my primary advisor, professor and musician Vic Gammon, who taught me political economic theory and ethnomusicology. Then my development theory mentors introduced me to Ewan MacColl – a folk musician, leader in street and radical community theatre praxis, ethnomusicologist, lifelong Marxist theorist and activist who was the same age as my grandfather. He was then starting a Marxist theory class for his disaffected ‘capitalist’ children, in his home in South London, together with his partner, folk singer Peggy Seeger. I joined the first session, as we read paragraphs aloud from the Communist Manifesto for several weekly meetings, then Lenin’s Imperialism, some Engels, always illuminated in unparalleled detail by Ewan but also by the general conversation at this close-in level. Ewan’s kids never showed, but he ran the group anyway, and he later insisted I take voice lessons from him to improve my diaphragmatic breathing, oratory, and ‘the way I carried myself.’ I tried to warn him that it might not be for everyone, but I did give it a serious shot and learned a lot from him in the process. He used a lot of Paul Robeson in our exercises, and I got to spend hours with their incredible record collection.
In my fourth year of college, I studied in Kenya for two years. I immersed in a coastal community north of Mombasa that was a mix of Mijikenda and Swahili cultures, including many descendants of formerly enslaved people from the brief plantation period that had emerged right in this area from the 1830s – 1890s. Land and the struggle for it was central. The deeper my investigations went I discovered evictions of thousands of people into undocumented, largely hidden rural slums, the commodification of land as a resource in itself, and increasingly shady land dealings. This continued on as my dissertation research and is still an active area of my work. Underdevelopment was explicit in this setting, so Walter Rodney became a primary theoretical framework for me as an undergrad, because it provided even better answers than world systems theory seemed to and provided direct explanations for the contradictions my studies were revealing.
So, underdevelopment became central to my thinking and has seeped into my work in many ways. To my knowledge, though it started with my unpublished 550-page undergraduate thesis, I am still one of the only people using underdevelopment as a primary explanation for the profound economic, political and cultural marginalization of the numerically predominant non-Swahili, largely Mijikenda people of coastal Kenya. After the tripod-mounted machine-gunning British were largely defeated by Me Ketilili and her Giriama rebels in 1913/1914 (because they levelled the playing field with spears dipped in one of the deadliest of all neurotoxins, produced locally of black mamba and deadly sea mollusk poisons), the British punished them for this humiliation by charting all subsequent colonial development to circumvent their territories. Thus, the Mijikenda hinterlands were deprived of roads or railways, schools and administrative centers, economic or any other forms of development, providing an unintended positive cocoon of cultural independence from the steady erosion of colonial cultures, but also producing undeniable long-term effects such as an almost complete lack of social science doctorates some seven decades later.
Honestly, by the time I got to grad school in a more traditional state university setting back in upstate New York, in 1993, I not only had four years of serious fieldwork under my belt, I was also up to speed on most of the critical and radical theories of the day, and was already evaluating them on the basis of their applicability in real work contexts. So, I was probably a more intellectually aggressive and politically intense student than usual. I was also now a pretty experienced activist and, at least intellectually and morally, a self-avowed revolutionary. I quickly joined the growing social movements, was soon a campus leader, and we engaged in major social movements there for years, resisting arming of campus police, fighting to keep our co-op bus service, fighting state tuition raises and other regressive social policies, and mainly contesting racism and demanding a more diverse curriculum on campus in a cycle of incidents, actions, repressions, getting pepper-sprayed, building takeovers, marches and more occupations.
It became an education in and of itself, the struggles at SUNY Binghamton were almost a shadow PhD I accidentally enrolled in, as my closest comrades and I insisted on taking our classes into the world and our struggles into the classroom. For my first tenure track job, in Minnesota, I was hired to teach a required first year anti-racism course in a heavily white community with active racism and white supremacist organizing, with the expectation of incorporating community activism into all my work. I didn’t need the invitation, but I took it – we worked on dozens of issues like police profiling and brutality, and racist Native sports mascots, we fought to remove swastikas from the stone masonry of the regional Catholic cathedral and resisted anti-Somali and anti-Hmong violence. In Atlanta, my praxis came with me, as my colleagues soon discovered, and here one of my main groundings has been with the Rodney family and the Walter Rodney Foundation.
I am always on the lookout for activism and activist comrades, but I never expected the degree of involvement and movement we were a part of in Binghamton. But it was theory that truly reared its head unexpectedly when I needed it. In those same years I discovered coloniality and got to study with Anibal Quijano, and although we were in very different disciplines, Carole Boyce Davies was a significant influence as I deepened my knowledge of Pan-Africanism and Black radical thought, especially Black radical feminist thought. Rodney and Sylvia Wynter would be central in all of this.
How did you become involved and interested in the work of Walter Rodney? When did you first read his work and what were your first impressions?
Friends World College was a blessing on so many levels. I had survived a meandering transnational childhood, a religious cult, homelessness and drugs and now I wanted to understand the world in every way I could. Political economy, anthropology, philosophy became my primary tools, and for a few years I basically studied revolutionary thought and history. Every generative book that blew my mind in those early years led to a study of all the works in its bibliography, and so I studied the genealogy of revolutionary thought, from Marx and Engels to Che, Freire, Cabral. That is when Rodney’s name first started coming up. At the idyllic job I landed in London, working the late shift at Regent’s College Library, I talked to patrons of the Overseas Development Institute and basically anyone checking out any radical books, and in that context a dissident Eritrean PhD student insisted I read Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA) that weekend in order to continue our already intense discussion about development theory. So I did, with great appreciation. I remember being that radical librarian, who after reading this text, and Nkrumah’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, politely but earnestly told everyone I could about the blood soaked sugar slavery origins (Tate and Lyle Sugar Co.) of the stately Tate Reading room we were standing in as they checked out books with me. It was one of many times the world all around me was directly illuminated by Rodney.
His book was one of the reasons I decided to travel next to Africa, and my school had a Center in Kenya. I read an immense amount of Kenya-specific scholarship, and then two years later as I worked to complete the ethnography that would be my senior thesis I returned to Rodney, along with Marx, Lenin, Robert Brenner, Fred Cooper, Wallerstein, Roger van Zwanenberg and anyone else who seemed to helpfully explain the neocolonial squatter evictions and land privatization I was seeing.
Rodney was just so explanatory, his work provided the deepest of answers, and unmasked the dynamics usually left opaque or unexamined altogether. It used a nuanced and flexible Marxism and flexible thinking in general, to describe more than 500 years of history in Africa, and with a high degree of specificity for each region’s details. While reading Rodney again in Kenya I remember figuring out that East Africa Industries, which produced a preponderance of staple products in all the stores (like Blueband margarine and Omo laundry powder), was in fact not local as its name slyly implied, but just a regional hub of the Unilever corporation, the largest and most colonial of Dutch/Anglo multinationals since the deeply colonial roots of the Lever brothers. Lloyds of London and Barclays Bank were also indelibly located within their violent imperial origins. It was the only book that evoked major reactions, mostly loving, when I took it on the crowded matatu rides to town. Everywhere I went with that book people who were touched by a lecture or a work of Rodney’s announced themselves, started sharing their stories. That was a special experience in relation to a book unlike any I’d ever experienced.
Years later, in Binghamton New York, entrusted with my first ever solo-taught course as a now PhD student, I was teaching ‘Africa in the World System’, and in the third week or so, we had occupied buildings in protest, and I was teaching my class in the occupied building, sitting in our discussion circle, each reading and then discussing paragraphs from our main text HEUA. There in the introduction was the statement about Rodney teaching in Michigan, Cornell and Binghamton to pay his bills, having been blocked from working in Guyana by the dictator. So, my class discussed how crazy that was, how we’d received no loving history of his presence on our campus, how the activists would be so empowered to know about him. We asked why no building was named for him, no study lounge, nothing. Few of my activists friends knew much about him either, and my own knowledge was still limited to three books and several articles, so I started a Walter Rodney study group with some other students, focused on Rodney and his writings, as well as his scholar/activist model, which we were already trying to embody a version of.
Walter Rodney Speaks was key to this time for me, for the blueprint and legitimation it provided for the radical academic life I was slowly realizing I might actually continue working in long after my degree was completed. Rodney was a rare example of a truly committed intellectual, an important role model. We started monthly meetings around his scholarship, ran a petition and fundraiser to launch a scholarship, demanded the Student Union be named for him, and most consequently, after three years of work we held a major international conference on him and his work, run entirely by radical students, which became itself an historic event. That is where I met Patricia Rodney, Walter’s wife, and Asha Rodney, his youngest daughter, who I was very excited to be on a young scholars panel with. Patricia Rodney riveted us with an intimate session about all she had lived through with Walter and the assassination, a night none in attendance will ever forget.
Eight years later, when I got a job offer to work in suburban Atlanta, they were the only people I knew in the region, and the prospect of their friendship and collaboration was a significant factor in our move. My informal mentorship with Carole Boyce Davies – more of me being a dutiful follower and student really – was foundational too, including her unparalleled scholarship, internationalism and willingness to engage with student movements, her rigorous example on both sides of the scholar/activist divide. Wynter was also a key part of this period for me. She was one of two keynotes at our Rodney conference, together with George Lamming. She also came to some of our early coloniality studies sessions and one of our first conferences, and honestly blew us all away with her brilliance, her intensity and unique style, her appreciation and recitation of Nas, that she chilled and danced with us until after midnight at the party we set up in her honor, or came to our house for dinner on another visit.
For readers of roape.net who may not be overly familiar with Rodney’s work could you give us a brief overview?
Rodney is both loved and appreciated all across Africa and the Diaspora, but too often pigeonholed into categories and limitations that suit the needs of contemporary scholars. He is an ancestor via martyrdom in the cause of his people’s liberation, so interpreting his thought and ideas is, or should be especially sensitive. After achieving his PhD at 24, his body of work over the next 14 years made him one of the great Marxists and Pan-African scholars of the twentieth century, whose work is still insufficiently cited and engaged across a vast range of fields.
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is by far his best-known book, still relevant and in print almost 50 years later because it dared to explain the fundamental relations of the world order like few other books ever have. He wrote erudite books like this for a broad general audience, and he also wrote refined historiographic works of anticolonial recuperation and reorientation that remarkably remain definitive in the historiography of both Guyana and the Upper Guinea Coast of West Africa. He was a peerless scholar/activist everywhere he went, an unusually solid example for us today, his concept and praxis of grounding providing a major pedagogic model. At a minimum, Rodney’s work is central to discussion of underdevelopment, Marxism, Black history, race/class, world systems, pan-Africanism, Guyana’s politics and history, Jamaica’s too, Caribbean studies, Tanzania’s Ujama politics and the Dar School of radical historiography, Education theory, and I would also argue that he should be more central to modern genealogies of how we understand the politics of knowledge, coloniality and decolonial theory.
You have recently coedited a book by Walter Rodney on the Russian revolution, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World. The book is based on the extensive and detailed lectures that Rodney prepared for an advanced course on the historiography of the revolution at the University of Dar es Salaam in the early 1970s. Can you tell us about how you came to put this extraordinary book together, the work that was involved and what you regard as its principal contribution?
Different versions of the history and status of the work were out there. I heard little traces. Horace Campbell was the only person I knew who’d really written much about it, in a little-known essay, and Rupert Lewis in his biography. Rodney was at the height of his powers when he was killed, and he had many projects almost finished and ready to work on in his travels and various moments for research and presentations. Somehow, he was able to continue his major research projects while organizing furiously and engaging in a steadily increasing battle with a dictatorship. Toward the end they were moving regularly between safe houses. Some of his unfinished works were confiscated from the Rodney home by the regime on the day of the assassination, others were saved and collected into what the family held together and preserved until it officially became the Walter Rodney Papers at the Archives Center of the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library.
Much later, while he was in town for a conference on race and integration in the post-WWII military industrial context of northern Atlanta/Marietta, I met with David Roediger who shared what he knew about the manuscript that Robin Kelley had worked on as a student of Ed Alpers in UCLA. And so, I got Robin together with Pat and Asha to form a plan and we worked to get the book out after that, over a few years, in conjunction with Verso. Rodney had written the book first as a series of lecture notes on the Russian Revolution, with the intention of developing them later as a book, and he used the same deep preparation for the class as the writing process, where he read the primary literature deeply and directly himself, taking meticulous notes on cards, starting from the ground up with his own independent evaluation of the history. Robin got to do a lot of work on the original handwritten drafts while they were in UCLA in the mid-80s in the care of Edward Alpers, before the Atlanta archive was set up. We now had the task of turning what was unfinished into a book, so we tried to leave it as close to the way it was in his papers, the reader gets to see the unfinished chapters in a few places, and wonder what other chapters he’d have added, what he would have revised before publishing. It’s a fresh take on the Russian Revolution, with the clear point of what could be learned for then-contemporary revolutions, anticolonial struggles and non-aligned movement blocs. It’s a snapshot of very critical 1970s thought, almost like a time capsule. For almost everyone it was an unexpected 10th book, a text which flows with a voice that feels closer in style I think to How Europe than almost any other of his works. Rodney frames the work as part of Black Studies, with the obvious but radical notion that any area of the world could be the legitimate subject of this newly ensconced academic framework. I also argue that his critique of bourgeois scholarship and its obvious biases compared to the largely more accurate technocratic records of the Soviets, encapsulated his original Two World Views of the Russian Revolution title concept for the book, which revealed the epistemic and cultural level of his work, parallel with critiques of knowledge/power in Michel Foucault and Edward Said.
Why do you think the Russian revolution held such interest for a radical activist and researcher working in Africa, and focused on the struggles of the Third World?
When I think of the 1970s and the transnational Non-Aligned Movement in which Rodney was a major presence, it was a similar moment to the one we are facing now, a period of unwritten possibilities based on unprecedented ruptures in the capitalist world system, where better visions emerge to confront colonialism, imperialism and outright fascism. When you think of the fight against Portuguese colonialism or the forward advance of apartheid South Africa and the resistance that frontline states had to put up, with the help of Cuba, these were transnational struggles against imperial fascism. Fascist dictators were ascendant in the Americas and elsewhere then too, creating stark choices, and from our vantage point we see that, with a few exceptions, the better side did not win.
The post-Vietnam era was characterized by ‘low intensity conflicts’ and proxy wars, sometimes genocidal, often fueled by clandestine drug and arms running operations, from Guatemala and El Salvador to Indonesia and East Timor. A lot of that imperial history has been coming home to roost for decades, as the US metropole reimports the only remaining industries it has, bringing the technologies of its imperial ‘Third World’ domain back to the US. Things like debt manipulation, repackaged versions of structural adjustment and privatization, infinite wealth disparities, militarizations of all varieties. Just as we must now assess our situation and draw from the best and also the most illustrative examples that history has to offer, Rodney wanted to understand every aspect of the Russian Revolution in all of its complexity. And on close examination there are innumerable parallels that help raise questions and ideas in relation to many African and Third World nations, and really people everywhere, regarding land and peasant production, industrialization, ethnic and religious diversity, power and the state, power and the international arena.
You get a sense reading the book and looking through Rodney’s archive in Atlanta, of the phenomenal extent of his reading, his deep grasp of Marxism (and its various tendencies) and his knowledge of a wide-ranging literature on the revolution. What do you think the volume tells us about who Rodney was, how he worked and his political commitment?
How real and urgent his search for truth and answers was, but also how undoctrinaire and creative he was in his thinking. The groundings approach he already typified and then greatly refined during and ever after his Jamaican sojourn in 1968 was a very rigorous mode, one of self-reflection as to one’s role and capacity in a given space, one of studying thoroughly the deep historical roots of each place, and then the process of decolonizing our thinking sufficiently to the task of liberation. He mentions his interest in physics, he read about the natural world and the environment, he went wherever the questions and issues took him, and he was always independent in his thought, reading the original texts and forming his own analyses in the process, never skipping steps as a scholar, meticulous in his language and his argument. In his 20s he was openly contesting with the doyens of the field of African history and African studies in their peer-reviewed journals and remarkably holding his own. Really, he was boldly writing decolonial historiography and they were feeling threatened and therefore contending with him, not entirely successfully either. Because he was a prolific scholar and wrote in various media across his career, we can see many examples of his attempt to forge critical praxis wherever he was, grounded in Marxism and Pan-Africanism, always building his analysis from deep local roots and then navigating toward the primary contradictions, usually finding himself way ahead of almost everyone else, labeled a threat, surveilled. Already in grad school he and Pat were followed between restaurants and archives in Portugal where he was researching colonial history in his third or fourth language.
There is a balance of pragmatism and rigor on the one hand, and a creativity and realness on the other. When we read him, we find someone with the same questions as us: why is the world this way, and how can we understand it deeply enough to transform it? I am pained that we don’t get to see his intellect contending with the powerful theories that have emerged since the late 70s. His praxis, the way he grounded, the way he went to the deeper truth and called it out, the way he was willing to reach unusual or challenging conclusions based on the evidence even if it was groundbreaking or unexpected, these are all license for us in the present, models of how we can tend to the world and its contradictions today. And as you allude, even with the tragic loss of some of his work in the events around 1980, there is considerable work still either unpublished, obscure or little known, some of which will continue to flow out hopefully from the Verso loft. And scholars can seek his work, it is on all the servers and in journals which are increasingly accessible.
Rodney’s research and writing, at all points, was marked by his commitment to putting ‘ideas’, teaching, books and articles ‘to work’ in the vital and necessary struggle of continued liberation and revolution. How would you chart Rodney’s intellectual and activist trajectory from the 1960s to his murder in 1980?
Relentless, multifaceted, unfinished, focused on numerous projects at once, focused on Guyana and its very specific geometry in the final years, and might have helped lead the country to freedom and unification beyond what has since seemed remotely possible. He was unusual in connecting organically and genuinely with people in all lines of work and at all levels of poverty and dispossession, he seemed to have no boundaries in that regard. In Guyana he crossed over racial lines and united people with knowledge of shared colonial histories. In Binghamton I met more working-class people who remembered him than academics, people who attended an open lecture of his or took one of his classes or knew him from some interaction in town. His praxis was so powerful in 1968 Jamaica, at such a significant time, that he was expelled from the country in under 9 full months, leading to the Rodney Riots or Rebellion, an event of national, Caribbean and arguably world historical significance. In Tanzania he was a leading voice on campus and in the Dar School of Radical Historiography, and participated and was a leader in student social movements of national consequence, but he also left campus and taught and grounded with high school students, rural labor unions and collective farmers, and all sorts of groups that invited him.
Less seriously, but no less complexly, Rodney’s thinking and work put him at odds with the government again, though he was close with President Nyerere. His transnationalism was off putting to nationalist party leaders, as were his withering but essential critiques of comprador petty-bourgeois elites and neocolonialism, and he knew that his groundings would be deeper in Guyana than anywhere because it was his home society. His work there deserves more attention from PhD researchers and scholar visits to the archives, it was an incredibly rich grounding, probably his deepest of all. He produced his definitive, A History of the Guyanese Working People, and the subsequent two volumes intended to follow it were done or nearly completely when they were stolen from his house. He produced the beginnings of an ambitious children’s book series which was to cover the true historical stories of all the major groups in the country, to undermine the divide and conquer legacies that separated Guyanese communities. And his speeches to the Guyanese people, including ‘Peoples Power, No Dictator,’ are another set of documents altogether, some of his least known and most important, though his comrades have maintained a steady literature and engagement with this and all the literature in Dayclean, and more than a few other venues. He was planning to get out for a while, the complexities were staggering, political, legal, personal, familial; newly independent Zimbabwe had invited him and there was a plan to go when the bomb was planted in his walkie-talkie.
Justice for Walter Rodney
There have always been calls for justice for Walter’s assassination. A Commission of Inquiry (COI) Report in 2016 concluded that Dr. Walter Anthony Rodney, 38 years old, was assassinated by the state on June 13, 1980. The evidence is clear that the Guyanese government at the highest levels, including the army and police hired an assassin to murder Walter Rodney.
In 2016, the COI was terminated by the incoming APNU+AFC administration, the Guyana government which to date continues to ignore calls to table the report in parliament and officially release the COI Report to the public. A copy of the COI findings and recommendations can be found here.
Ironically, Guyana, his homeland, is undergoing an election ‘recount’, with the declaration of results to be announced on June 13, 2020.
Activism to pressure the government to accept the findings and to act on its recommendations continues in Guyana and abroad, notably by the weekly protests of Donald Rodney, Walter‘s brother who was in the car with him the night of the murder, and who stands falsely convicted. The death certificate states the cause of Walter Rodney’s death as ‘death by misadventure,’ a travesty that reveals yet another aspect of the broader injustice.
The family is committed to continuing its efforts. Constitutional lawyers, investigative reporters, witnesses and others with an interest in seeking justice would also be helpful.
Where does this book, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World, fit within Rodney’s overall published work?
As with HEUA, there’s the methodological/theoretical modelling done here, which stands the test of time remarkably well, as the conditions it confronted remain largely continuous and expanded in new ways that need to be updated, and can often be found in the pages of ROAPE and just a really select number of venues. At the level of specificities and historiographic details we see some inevitable aging of facts and shifts of knowledge that reflects the passage of time. But even here many of the basics hold up in ways that reflect the depth of the basis on which his arguments were made, their original facticity and empirical, personally validated, experiential, grounded praxis. It’s his most explicit work of Marxist theory, a window into his Tanzania years and his teaching practices. It’s also an important contribution to his thinking on epistemology, Black Studies and decolonial scholarship.
Can you tell us something about the work you do as a board member of the Walter Rodney Foundation? What activities and events, publications etc. does the Foundation carry out? Could you also mention the involvement of the family in the foundation?
It’s a family foundation, first and foremost, and grassroots, which is to say, we operate on a very small local budget and have yet to land any large grants to support our work. We have an incredible group of community partners, with most of our work based in collaboration with the AUC Woodruff Library and comrades in the greater Atlanta area and well beyond, extending internationally wherever people find us really. Almost all our work and activities are therefore volunteer based. There is a lot of freedom in this model, but also a degree of grind on some of the main actors, including Pat and Asha Rodney, who do the lion’s share of the actual work and leadership. I am one of a very dynamic Board, that already has its own history, and Atlanta is the perfect city to do the work we do, we fill a particular niche in the community and have room for many more to join us.
After the Rodney Papers were deposited at the AUC Woodruff Library, the family started an annual Walter Rodney Symposium, now in its 17th year (though our keynote speech and fundraiser with Angela Davis this past March had to be canceled just as Covid-19 shutdowns arrived). This annual Atlanta tradition has attracted hundreds of guests each year, students and scholar research panels, artists and musicians, heads of state, and incredible recent keynotes such as John Carlos on the 50th anniversary of his Olympic protest with Tommy Smith, Mireille Fanon-Mendes- France, daughter of Frantz Fanon and a leading decolonial thinker and activist in France, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, legendary radical Kenyan writer and theorist.
I started the Walter Rodney Public Speakers Series in 2013, which continues to grow. We have partnerships with The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the Walter Rodney People’s Revolutionary Library in South Africa, the Young African Leaders Forum to name a few friends in our growing global network. We sponsor writing contests in the Caribbean, with a new writing project now in development in Jamaica. We are involved in the upkeep of the Rodney memorial in Guyana and a number of NGO and educational projects around the world. We have been working hard on the publication of his books. We have also built publications, first a Groundings Newsletter, and now a recently launched expanded version, with peer reviewed academic content, called Groundings: Development, Pan-Africanism and Critical Theory, at Pluto Journals.
For some years now, you have been organising a public lecture series on Walter Rodney’s work and life. Can you give us some idea how successful this has been, in extending and disseminating Rodney’s work and ideas and raising some of the questions that were important to him?
The Walter Rodney Public Speakers Series is now eight years old, and our most recent guest speaker was Aaron Kamugisha, just before the shutdown hit. I was very happy to have Marc Lamont Hill and Walter Mignolo lined up, among other guests, and we plan to resume with them and many other friends in Spring 2021. We’ve had probably 80 events now, featuring student and community activism panels, discussions on the threats to Black Studies, and guests like Roediger, Kelley, Zwanenberg, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Jesus ‘Chucho’ Garcia, Cynthia Enloe, Kali Akuno, Ajamu Nangwaya, Charisse Burden-Stelly and many more.
My own university sometimes tried to block me from bringing my suburban state university classes to the Black side of town for these lectures, and for college credit, so I’ve had to scramble to keep making this possible. Throughout, the public has been welcome to all lectures, high school students have participated, especially through our partner Project South, and undergrad and graduate university students have taken it for college credit at Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Spelman, Emory and Georgia State, as well as being anchored at my school. The work has won awards, including the very meaningful Hosea Williams Community Activism award at Georgia State University, named for one of Martin Luther King’s closest allies. This work has attracted small intimate groups of 20-50, and larger groups of 80-200 people over the years, and become a part of the Atlanta conscious landscape.
I have been pushing the idea that together with King and Du Bois, Atlanta should also be renowned for its Rodney relationship, the 3rd of this powerhouse triumvirate, and whose work and legacies continue to overlap in Atlanta. One of those connection points was the Institute of the Black World, at which Rodney taught and worked over summers in the 1970s. It was launched by King’s close ally and comrade Vincent Harding, in Du Bois’s old house, just a few feet from where the Rodney Papers are now located. The earliest ideas for my series were inspired by Harding’s visiting pedagogic model in 2012 at Morehouse, so I am happy that this work also serves to honor his legacy. These are important linkages we work to sustain and amplify.
Given Rodney’s work on Black Power, and his deep involvement with the workers movements in Guyana, can you reflect on the contemporary relevance of his life and writing, for activism in the United States, and in a world increasingly controlled by the 1%?
This part of Rodney’s work is powerful and really resonant with youth and activists today. It’s central to all his work. I find Groundings With My Brothers, for example, to be a great pedagogical tool in intro and more advanced classes, as is How Europe. Some Marxists falsely portray his work on race as ‘an embryonic precursor to his more mature Marxism of later years’, but in fact he did not follow linear stages in his thought and development any more than human societies do. Instead, Marxism and racial analysis were things to be figured out in their specificities in different locations around the world, always in complex relation with one another.
Rodney is therefore one of our most brilliant thinkers on race/class questions and a major precursor to, and somewhat different tendency within coloniality and decolonial theory, which also seeks to elaborate what real world race/class continua are like in their actual complexities. Given the ongoing and abject dehumanization of Black lives everywhere, and especially in the US police state, his work remains inspirational and important for those now seeking to overturn these systems of representation and oppression and provides critical historical groundings for us today. Rodney gives us a Marxism in which Black Power is central.
Less than a year after Rodney was murdered the great Caribbean activists CLR James lamented that Rodney had ‘not studied the taking of power’ – it seems to me more of a lament that Rodney was murdered, than a serious critique. Looking at Guyana and the Caribbean do you think there is any merit to James observations?
It’s a moment of personal frustration with James, honestly. I remember discovering it in the Alpers book in the stacks at Binghamton one night, no doubt one of those nights I came home after dawn to the chagrin of my partner. It was a blow, as I had come to love and appreciate James more than almost any other.
Either you take it as honesty in a moment of pain, as some no doubt do. Or you read it, as I think I tend to, as a moment of limitation, frustration at the loss of his student who had become an equal, a comrade with a parallel but different path, generationally removed but also different in more subtle ways. To me it signifies a shift between a more rigid and formulaic way of thinking in James (which incidentally reminds me of Ewan and my own grandfather, both born 1917, and sharing an austere vertical formality in thinking regardless of which radical end of the spectrum they occupied), and a more creative and open way of thinking about epistemologies and categories of thought. But also, a matter of praxis, of grounding, and where Rodney lived his life in action as opposed to James who remained more in the metropole, often at a distance from the taking of power he so brilliantly theorized about.
We organized a major Rodney conference in 1998, the first of international scope after somewhat of a lull since the 1981 event at UCLA. And this question reverberated there as well, amongst the participants and the students. It’s too big an unfinished and one-sided beef between some of our most revered leaders to leave hanging out there as a community.
One of the intended purposes of these assassination events is to send a public message of fear, a chilling effect. It’s a potent weapon in fact, and it’s a force we in the world have no choice but to acknowledge. Whether the silencing and chilling effects are successful remains an open question reflective of broader patterns of negotiations of power in various nations and regions. We are in our own ways all potential unauthorized and unexpected authors of alternate outcomes, limited only by our own grounded creativity, ie. in many ways unlimited. Rodney’s legacy, so ensconced within the lives of the people of this world, and resonant with profound and clear answers about our world, has unsurprisingly continued to grow. The conditions he illuminated and diagnosed continue to prevail and continue to need deconstruction and decolonization.
What have the years of activism you have put into the study, legacy and politics of Walter Rodney taught you? How have you been marked by living so close to his work?
Deep questions. Honestly, it’s a huge honor to be able to work so closely with the family and the Foundation, and although I never really expected something like this per se, I always did think about meeting or studying with the great scholars I read, each time I put down one of their masterpieces. Some I never met before they died, like Freire. In this case, not only did I meet the Rodney family, but they and those with whom they worked were truly great people steeped in the values and practices of Walter and his communities, so joining in was really an easy, organic choice. We have a beautiful family of activist friends and comrades for which we are grateful, but we are limited mostly to those who are willing to do the kind of work that requires institution building and low-budget activism without compensation, usually with few resources. One of the great privileges of supporting the WRF work, and then of building my own work around and into it, has been being able to be present for so many incredible speakers and guests, artists, musicians, scholars, activists, elders, youth and leaders who have come through to pay homage, to ground with us, to teach and to learn with us. My work there has also fused with my research, teaching and activism, and we’ve begun to articulate some of that and the emergence of a School of Rodney Pedagogy and Groundings Praxis here in Atlanta, particularly in a recent journal issue we did on Black radical pedagogy. The work Rodney did remains fraught terrain, so much so that my own work encounters challenges and institutional resistance, all sorts of complexities. It’s my activist background that makes this more navigable, but the grind is real, and it comes at certain costs which we have to weigh and try to balance.
What areas need to be developed on Rodney’s work and how it continues to be used and read today?
I would argue that, with some irony and some predictability, Rodney’s work itself has been underdeveloped, discursively and epistemically, and in terms of how the Academic Industrial Complex works and relates to it. What does it mean to decolonize Rodney, as we use him to decolonize history? What does it mean to work at this triple level, because Rodney already worked at a double level (writing history but also decolonizing it), and now we have to work on him, and the production of work on him, while taking up his ongoing mission and methodology of decolonizing history and thought generally. History in particular, as a discipline, still tends to avoid theory, but points to Novak when it goes in that direction, and has its own ways of talking about the politics of producing historical knowledge, but it largely fails to acknowledge or cite Rodney in these moments, or others before him, and it refuses to engage all the work he did to advance these very same questions. So that’s an important disciplinary point of departure to consider.
This parallels in some ways the Scholar Denied, which revealed sociology’s conspiracies to erase Du Bois and his original contributions. Apartheid structures of knowledge still haunt the academy, and Western and therefore hegemonic modern global thought in general. Rodney was a consummate scholar-activist, but the bourgeois pretense to illusory objectivity, and the resultant depoliticization of scholarship, means that he is generally seen more as an activist and partisan than as a scholar in the academy, a glaring slight that should be challenged. One unintended benefit of this underdevelopment is that his work has also not been coopted and mediated by the academy in the reductive ways that Fanon, James and Cesaire have been in the past three decades, so our freedom to interpret and engage his work is also greater.
What does it mean for the academy and the wider society if the greatest thinkers of the 20th century are not Foucault and Derrida but James, Rodney, Lorde, Wynter? What if our politics of citation take us not back to the slave owning and invested ‘founding fathers’, but to the founding rebels who fought for every freedom we enjoy today?
The sort of support and solidarity roape.net readers could provide to the Walter Rodney Foundation
Besides our annual Symposium in March, around Rodney’s birthday, and the Speakers Series I run each Spring, work continues collecting Oral Histories from people who knew and worked with Rodney, and further development of the archives – please contact us directly or visit our website. Materials from people who knew and worked with him are still sought after, please share with anyone you know who might have old film, stills, writings, stories, etc. The COI and related ongoing struggles continue to bear urgency, to set the record straight, provide resolution for the family, and clear Donald Rodney’s name. We have numerous other projects, including the launch of our new chapter in the UK, the Walter Rodney Program @ Pluto Educational Trust, established 2019 in London.
Support in funding from those who have means, whether small or large, is deeply appreciated. People can also support us directly by ordering our books, especially the three new authorized editions from Verso (believe it or not, many editions of his books now online are pirated, without any proceeds coming back to the Family or the Foundation). Ordering books for yourself, for presents, for projects and book clubs, and especially for classes, communities and even school systems is immensely helpful, and gets his work out to new generations. Our new journal, Groundings: Development, Pan-Africanism and Critical Theory is just starting out, so its immensely helpful if you ask your community and university libraries to subscribe to it through Pluto Journals. Writing for our journal is another way to contribute. On the ground in Atlanta we always ask for volunteers to help with our events and projects, and we’re launching research working groups with Global South Research Consortium, which has become my home base of operations. You can join our occasional mailing list here , and follow us on twitter and facebook here and here.
Do you think there are any ways that Rodney’s work and activism speaks to those protesting across the country and world today?
The issue of historical underdevelopment is foundational, it’s a framework for understanding everything we are seeing. Tamika Mallory gave a powerful speech a few days ago about how America has been looting Black people, and this is the basic truth. Rodney pointed out the relational nature of our lives. When we see Black poverty, we know that it is there because it is making someone else rich. Underdevelopment means extraction of labor and resources so others can be overdeveloped. This happens on a local and domestic axis, and also transnationally.
Western societies tend to focus on the actions of individuals, as though individual Black and White choices and behaviors could account for the grossest disparities of wealth we have ever seen. Rodney helps us achieve an historical structural analysis that accounts for the mechanisms that create and perpetuate systems of inequality. In the absence of such a robust structural explanation for the chasm of unequal life quality, experience and wealth between racial communities in the US, what possible explanation can people reach other than the tired racist tropes that blame the victims of oppression for having dysfunctional cultures, families or behaviors that supposedly brings suffering down upon themselves? Are people, beyond the Murdoch/Breitbart world of openly racist discourse, willing to defend the idea that the different outcomes are actually because of the behaviors of “different races”? Increasingly I have confronted my students and colleagues with this stark choice, because there really is no middle ground, we are either racist (and it’s a wide spectrum), or we develop capacity to see and articulate how systems produce different racial experiences and outcomes, and join the fight to change those systems (in everything we do, how we fully live our lives, not just once in a while).
Covid-19 is an expected but unpredictably timed world-historical crisis of its own, which continues to unfold even as the US is in open rebellion. With a racist president working overtime to disenfranchise and assault communities of color, now an illness that attacks the pre-existing conditions of oppression and dispossession is predictably having a disproportionate effect on all oppressed communities, Native, Black, migrant laborers, industrial meat and factory workers, the undocumented, the homeless, the newly unemployed, workers choosing between lethal risk at work or rent and food. The profound mishandling of the pandemic in the US and the UK, and in so many countries around the world, adds another profoundly destabilizing impact at all levels of our world systems.
We are looking at dereliction of national duty so severe and at such horrifying rates of death that it bears comparison to the eugenicist planning of the 1930s in terms of outcomes and the range of callous elitism, with widespread discussions and even supposedly rational heartfelt speeches about ‘sacrificing’ our elders en masse, and people with health issues and disabilities ‘for the good of the economy.’ Covid and its rising death toll, as something we all face, but very disproportionately, is having a politicizing effect akin to the Vietnam War, helping clarify the divides in our society into clearer warring camps, those grounded in reality and collective good will, and those who refuse to distance, preferring to traffic in conspiracy theories without concern for the dead as a category.
The uprising against racist dehumanizing policing in the US confronts the core fact that police treat people of color as non-humans, as Sylvia Wynter told us in her Open Letter in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and the L.A. Rebellion. The police had been openly responding to calls in Black and Brown neighborhoods with the code NHI, or ‘No Humans Involved,’ literally codifying their at-war mentality with an enemy they no longer considered human. Police and civilians have both driven into and over protestors in New York City and many other places this past week, and threats of driving over protestors remains a popular theme on TikTok and are being heard on police channels. Between the pandemic and its orchestrated and amplified unequal impacts, and the war on Black and Brown people, the US is at a critical juncture in terms of its capacity to function.
The consent of the governed is badly shaken and/or withdrawn, and the state apparatus of violence is insufficient to protect private property like it normally does. Meanwhile we all see the response to legitimate protest of the most grotesque police brutality is met with historic levels of more police brutality, including the latest advanced new technologies of violence. It’s gone global because it’s so recognizable and familiar everywhere. And as the hegemonic empire for 80 years now, what happens in the US is watched closely globally, in the event that one of its crises is also a crisis in the whole world system, signifying a shift to a new world order.
These are the historic moments that produce such shifts, and the US is completely unprotected at the moment from these implications, its executive actively fueling the decline in status and power almost daily, while also exploring the possibilities of more fascist alternatives. Wynter would hasten to point out that the crisis could also this time be not just limited to the cycles of world capitalist hegemons, but might also be a crisis of the capitalist system itself, and a crisis of the legitimating liberal humanist epistemology that has governed with it for 500 years, through inquisitions, indigenous genocides, mass enslavement of African peoples, violent colonization, and now a network of neocolonial puppet dictators. The kind of decolonizing of the mind Rodney and Ngugi wrote about.
Rodney also warned us that fascism is the product of capitalism in crisis, which could not be more relevant today. Trump just declared Antifa – the correct idea of being anti-fascist, rather than a formal organization – to be illegal and terrorist, while failing to name white supremacy, which is now ascendant at historic levels, burning and accelerating whatever violence and chaos it can. Young people especially are discovering the disenchantment of the two-party corporate oligarchic system, amidst a global death cult that may never respond to the specter of total environmental apocalypse, so that too is an accelerant to consciousness, again akin to Vietnam and the cascading sociogenic ruptures of the late 1960s.
The electoral hope of defeating ascendant fascism and racism in the US is now in the hands of the woefully lackluster Biden/Democratic National Convention, and mail-in ballots are being blocked in the first germ-warfare inflected election season since 1918. Critically, the centrist liberals are unequipped to fight this war and inevitably abet the right agenda in almost all their actions. The US therefore faces the very real prospect of open fascism if trump wins reelection. It will be a long hot summer of protest. The forces of the Right are actively seizing this conjuncture to foment their agenda, and the Left is largely fractured in its response, due to internal differences, engineered divisions, ideological mistakes, and mainly decades of repression aimed at removing leaders and organizational structures. Because the US sees fascism only in its enemies, it is incapable of seeing its own proximity to fascism, its own descent. So now is the time for increased vigilance, the looming election is actually critical for not just the US future, but for the world. Even more important is the direction this new movement takes, and what gains it can rip from this moment. This is going to be an especially intense year, reminiscent of 1968 globally.
When I think of Rodney in moments like this, I think of a truly brilliant and passionate thinker in search not of professional gains but of the actual truth, of the actual understandings that could help us navigate to social justice in the present. And in that spirit, I look at this uprising and I know I am feeling like I want something new. I’m grounded in but also slightly distrustful or tired of the usual way we do these things, largely within the parameters prescribed by our race/class enemies. It’s time for this generation to define new horizons for us all. The rupture is world systemic in nature, the economy is crushing people as its baseline starting point, the grind of capitalism is felt everywhere in the world. History is unwritten right now, at a very perilous time, on the precipice of resurgent fascism on its widest and most industrial scale since World War Two. We also have the possibility of shaking lose from systems of control so rooted they appear to be inscribed in nature. We are in that rare moment where, as Marx and Engels said, ‘all that is solid melts into air.’ The illusions holding our societies together are ruptured, because the humanity of the majority is being so visibly and systemically denied that for once most of us experience some measure of it and/or know it to be that way, and so the myth of civilization and democracy and gallant lofty bourgeois notions generally is shattered – for those who still harbored any such ephemeral hopes. The all-important but usually invisible consent of the governed is being everywhere withdrawn, an unwanted shift in the calculus has been forced by what the bourgeois and property-identified misname looting.
The four imperial circuits of hegemonic world historical capitalism (Spanish/Portuguese, Dutch, British/French, US) have created contiguous un-remediated patterns of inequity that are easily visible in the lives we live, the relational wealth and poverty, the (over)developed and underdeveloped. Power ensures that the ‘over’ in overdeveloped is silent, invisible. Instead, it’s always just stated as ‘developed,’ the posited natural baseline or optimal state. Immaculate, somehow, in its arrival, as if by its sheer force of will or character or special ‘Cartesian’ rationality – though some argued it was virility and manhood, some cranium size, there were many bizarre scientific versions – but always a unique human quality that only select white bourgeois Europeans somehow managed to have. Which of course also required the total erasure of all of African history and all of American, Asian, Pacific and Indian Ocean histories. These issues of relational power and immiseration are instituted in obvious and clearly visible ways, industrialized in our modern world, built into our radically disparate infrastructures and currency valuations.
More than half of us go in abject want of food and housing and water and education, while we have long had and continue to have far in excess of enough for everyone in the world to have all the their basic needs completely satisfied and the basis of life thus completely altered. Yet this is hardly conceptualized and pursued as a goal, so beset with antihuman capitalism as an epistemology and total way of life that alternatives have become almost unthinkable. But within and between nations these deep patterns of colonialism, neocolonialism, and oppression can all be traced, and we can demand and institute reversals of the flows and expenditures, to rebalance but also to undo. Why stop at reparations, why not a universal bill of human rights that includes freedom to travel anywhere on earth, honoring of indigenous and collective land holding nations first, provision by any of numerous means of food, housing, work, education and opportunity for all, as basic human rights? Demilitarization and inter- and intra-regional cooperation to solve our real needs would shift productivity in unknown ways, so many resources and so much potential could be freed up. Its utopian, but in these conjunctures, we need to think big about what is possible. Our enemies can only think small, to fascist maneuvers and regressive horrors; it is up to us to create something new, which is always utopian until we make it real.
Jesse Benjamin is a scholar/activist and professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, and the School of Conflict Management, Peacebuilding and Development at Kennesaw State University, focused on critical race theory, Pan-Africanism, epistemology, whiteness studies and coloniality. A member of the Walter Rodney Foundation board and founder of the Walter Rodney Public Speakers Series, and has won numerous awards for his teaching, diversity leadership, and community engagement. His more than 80 publications include the recently co-edited Walter Rodney volumes with Verso, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World (2018) and The Groundings With My Brothers (2019).
 Jesse Benjamin, ‘Representation in Kenya, its Diaspora and Academia: Colonial Legacies in Constructions of Knowledge about Kenya’s Coast,’ Journal of Global Initiatives 2(2), 2007.
 I’ve written a few short biographies of Rodney: ‘Walter Rodney,’ in Black Power Encyclopedia: From ‘Black is Beautiful’ to Urban Uprisings, Akinyele Umoja, Karin L. Stanford and Jasmin A. Young eds., ABC-CLIO, June 2018; and with Robin D. G. Kelley, there is a biographical section in our long Introduction to Rodney’s The Russian Revolution: A View From The Third World, Verso, 2018.
 ‘Special Issue: Black Radical Pedagogy at the Limits of Praxis,’ Journal of Intersectionality, Vol. 2, No. 1, Summer 2018, p. 1-108.