The following interview, facilitated by Derek Ford, took place via e-mail during June and July in preparation for Black August, when progressive organizers and activists deepen our study of and commitment to the Black struggle in the U.S. and the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist class struggles worldwide. During this time, we wanted to provide a unique and accessible resource on Walter Rodney, the revolutionary Guyanese organizer, theorist, pedagogue, political economist, and what many call a “guerrilla intellectual.” Liberation School recently republished Rodney’s essay on George Jackson here.

About Devyn Springer

Devyn Springer is a cultural worker and community organizer who works with the Walter Rodney Foundation and ASERE, an extension group of the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente. They’re a popular educator who doesn’t just study Rodney but practices his philosophies. Since 2018, they’ve hosted the Groundings podcast, which is named after Rodney’s revolutionary educational praxis. The podcast, which has addressed an impressive array of topics relevant to the struggle, is available on all major streaming platforms. They’ve written timely and important pieces on politics and education in academic and popular outlets, some of which can be found here. They’ve also produced the documentary Parchman Prison: Pain & Protest, and you can support their work and get access to exclusive content by supporting their Patreon.

Liberation School: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview, Devyn. I always look forward to working and learning with you and I appreciate your work on revolutionary movements and education. I know you’re involved with the Walter Rodney Foundation, which is not just about preserving his legacy but promoting the revolutionary theories, practices, and models he developed. Can you tell me a bit about the Foundation, your role, and why it’s important for the movement broadly in the U.S.?

Devyn Springer: The Walter Rodney Foundation was formed by the Rodney family in 2006, with the goal of sharing Walter Rodney’s life and works with students, scholars, activists, and communities around the world. Because of the example Walter Rodney left in his own personal life and the principles he established in his work, we see supporting grassroots movements, offering public education, and the praxis of advancing social justice in a number of ways as what it really means to share his life with the world; Walter Rodney was as much a fan of doing as he was speaking, after all. We have a number of annual programs, including many political education classes oriented around themes related to Rodney’s body of work—colonialism, underdevelopment, Pan-African struggle, scholar-activism, assassination, Black history, the Caribbean, etc. We also run ongoing projects like the Legacies Project, which is actively seeking and collecting stories and oral histories around the world about Walter Rodney.

I’ve volunteered with the WRF since around 2013. I currently help coordinate the Foundation’s social media, and offer other types of support as needed.

I feel the Foundation is crucial for the movement broadly for a number of reasons. First, the critical analysis of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and underdevelopment Rodney gave in works like How Europe Underdeveloped Africa remains relevant, and we need organizations dedicated to distilling this knowledge. Second, because our movement must reckon with the lives, works, histories, struggles, and relevance of the elders past and present who we owe so much to, whether it’s the Claudia Jones School For Political Education, the Paul Robeson House & Museum, Habana’s Centro Martin Luther King Jr., or the Walter Rodney Foundation: there needs to be organizations and groups dedicated to maintaining these legacies and continuing their work.

More than just maintaining legacies, in other words, the WRF also makes sure that Walter Rodney’s critical analyses remain critical, and do not get co-opted. Finally, the foundation is important because it is run by the Rodney family, who themselves have extensive decades of organizing, advocacy, and knowledge which is always beneficial. (And I must clarify, whenever I speak of a ‘movement’ broadly as above, I am speaking about the global Black Liberation Movement foremost, in a Revolutionary Pan-Africanist sense).

Liberation School: Those are precisely the reasons we wanted to do this interview, particularly to expose readers (and ourselves) to the broader range and context of his work, and to learn more about the depth of his praxis and why it’s needed today. To start then, can you give our readers a bit of historical and biographical context for Walter Rodney’s life and work? What was happening at the time, who was he working with, agitating against, etc…?

Devyn Springer: I will try to be brief here and give some basic biographical information, because there’s so much one could say. Walter Rodney was an activist, intellectual, husband, and father, who lived and visited everywhere from Guyana, Jamaica, the USSR, Cuba, and Tanzania, to Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, London, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the U.S., and Canada. He was born in Georgetown, Guyana in March 1942, where he was raised and resided for much of his life. He graduated from the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Jamaica in 1963, then received his PhD with honors in African History from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London at the age of 24. His thesis, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800, was completed in 1966 and then published in 1970, and I highly recommend it to readers [1].

Rodney was deeply influenced by a number of revolutionary movements and ideologies which had flourished during his lifetime: the multitude of armed African decolonial struggles across the continent, the Black Power Movement in the U.S., Third World revolutionaries like Che, Mao, and Cabral, and Pan-African/Marxist praxis generally. Walter Rodney taught in Jamaica, working to break the bourgeois academy from its ivory tower, where he delivered a number of groundings across the island to the working class, including the Rastafari and other marginalized communities at the time. While at the 1968 Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal, Canada, the Jamaican government banned him from re-entering on the grounds that his ‘associations’ with Cuban, Soviet, and other communist governments posed a threat to Jamaica’s national security. Massive outbursts now known as the “Rodney Riots” subsequently broke out across Kingston. Rodney spent many months writing in Cuba prior to traveling to the University of Dar es Salaam in revolutionary Tanzania in 1969. 

In 1974, Walter returned to Guyana to take up an appointment as Professor of History at the University of Guyana, but the government (under the dictates of President Forbes Burnham) rescinded the appointment. Rodney remained in Guyana and helped form the socialist political party, the Working People’s Alliance, alongside activist-intellectuals like Eusi Kwayana and Andaiye. Between 1974 and 1979 he emerged as the leading figure in the resistance movement against the increasingly repressive government led by the People’s National Congress, which can be summarized as publicly espousing Pan-African, anti-aparatheid, and socialist talking points while running a despotic, corrupt Western-backed state operation.

He gave public and private talks all over the country that served to engender a new political consciousness in the country, and he stated in his speeches and writing that he believed a people’s revolution was the only way towards true liberation for the Guyanese people. During this period he developed and advocated the WPA’s politics of “People’s Power” that called on the broad masses of people to take political control instead of a tiny clique, and “multiracial democracy” to address the steep obstacles presented by the racial disunity between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese peoples (which is still present today).

On June 13, 1980, shortly after returning from independence celebrations in Zimbabwe, Rodney was assassinated in Georgetown, Guyana by an explosive device hidden in a walkie-talkie, given to him by Gregory Smith, former sergeant in the Guyana Defense Force. Smith was subsequently given new passports and secretly flown out of the country. Donald Rodney, Walter’s younger brother who was in the car with him when the bomb went off, was falsely accused and convicted of being in possession of explosives; he fought to clear his own name for decades until April of this year, when Guyana’s appellate court exonerated him. A few weeks later the Government of Guyana officially recognized Walter’s death as an assassination. This comes after years of struggle on behalf of the Rodney family, particularly Dr. Patricia Rodney and the WRF. Walter was just 38 years old at the time of his assassination, but his legacy is continued by his wife, three children, and the dozens of incredible speeches, essays, interviews, and books he gave and wrote.

Liberation School: Rodney’s best-known work is How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Why do you think that is? What are his main arguments there, and are they still relevant to understanding Western imperialism and African resistance?

Devyn Springer: That’s a special type of book that, like few others, can completely change or deeply influence one’s politics. Rodney essentially put forth a historical-materialist argument showing that economically, politically, and socially, Europe was in a dialectical relationship with Africa, wherein the wealth of Europe was dependent upon the underdevelopment of Africa. In other words, Rodney shows with painstaking detail how European capitalism (and eventually the global capitalist system) could not have existed without the systematic precolonial exploitation of Africa, the massive amounts of capital generated through the Maafa, later the expansive economic, political, financial, and social domination under direct colonial rule, and the continuing—or perfecting—of these exploitative processes under the current neo-colonial world order. As Rodney puts it:

“Colonialism was not merely a system of exploitation, but one whose essential purpose was to repatriate the profits to the so-called mother country. From an African viewpoint, that amounted to consistent expatriation of surplus produced by African labor out of African resources. It meant the development of Europe as part of the same dialectical process in which Africa was underdeveloped” [2].

It remains his most recognized work because it remains incredibly relevant, both in the sense that the current world capitalist structure is built on this historical underdevelopment of the South, and because, under imperialism, the North must still exploit and perpetually underdevelop the South. Its publication marked a significant contribution to theories of underdevelopment and dependency. Alongside revolutionary intellectuals like Samir Amin and Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, it was groundbreaking in that it applied Marxism to the Third World with great precision and depth. Further, Rodney goes into detail about not just underdevelopment but the history of class society and feudalism in Africa, social violence, fascism, agrarian struggles, racism, enslavement, gender, economics, misleadership and African sellouts, and so much more. In some ways, I like to think of it as a foundational text for revolutionaries in the same way that many consider Marx’s Capital or Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto to be.

One example of its relevancy is in thinking about labor and the workforce as it relates to slavery. Rodney uses data to explain that the social violence of the Maafa had a deep impact on African development because it removed millions of young Africans from the labor force, created technological regression, and directed whatever mass energy aimed at productive or technological innovation towards the trade in human captives.

He says, “The European slave trade was a direct block, in removing millions of youth and young adults who are the human agents from whom inventiveness springs. Those who remained in areas badly hit by slave capturing were preoccupied about their freedom rather than with improvements in production” [3]. I relate this to the crisis of incarceration in the U.S., wherein millions of Africans are removed from the labor force, removed from their families and communities, and in the same way, are removed even from the very opportunity of innovation and production to instead perform hyper-exploited, forced labor at the hands of the settler-capitalist state. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s work has, to an extent, explained how the capitalist state necessitates this incarceration, and in the same way I’d suggest that European capitalism’s violently expansive nature necessitated the multitude of exploitative interactions with Africa, from slavery to neo-colonialism.

Liberation School: What about the influence it’s had, not just academically but in terms of revolutionary struggles?

Devyn Springer: I get letters, emails, and calls almost on a monthly basis from incarcerated people who are reading not only that book but also The Groundings With My Brothers, an underrated gem of Rodney’s. They’ve formed reading groups and created zines around his work; asked me to further explain concepts he mentions; and even drawn incredible illustrations of Rodney. I find this engagement with Rodney equally valuable (and often more rewarding) as that of academics. Patricia Rodney has told me that over the decades incarcerated people have consistently gravitated towards Rodney’s work and written to her, likely because of the accessible way he’s able to break down complex concepts. I’m actually currently working with the WRF on a project to donate many copies of Walter Rodney’s books to incarcerated people, and hopefully in the coming months we’ll have more info to share on this.

Beyond that, Rodney’s work has globally influenced the left in more ways than I could explain or speculate in this interview. His revolutionary African analysis has corrected Eurocentric views of history and allowed us to better understand the important role decolonization plays in our fight against imperialism. He also offers a great example for young writers, researchers, and organizers on how to write materialist history and analyses. For example, as one reads his work it’s impossible not to note the multitude of ways Rodney directly eviscerates bourgeois historians and apologists.

Liberation School: Please keep us updated on the WRF project, because we’ll definitely want to support it. It seems that Rodney was exemplary at achieving true “praxis,” the merging of theory and practice. One of the ways this shows up most is in his pedagogical work–his theories and practices–which he called “groundings.” It’s not just a pedagogy, but a practice of decolonizing knowledge and empowering oppressed people to organize, at least as I understand it. I know it’s influenced your own work and you’ve written about it, so how would you describe it to someone just joining the struggle, or just learning about imperialism, colonialism, and racism?

Devyn Springer: Yes, I co-wrote a piece titled “Groundings: A Revolutionary Pan-African Pedagogy for Guerilla Intellectuals” that’s available for free online, and which I plan to re-write/expand soon, and my podcast is named after this pedagogical model as well. Usually, when people refer to Rodney’s “groundings” they are referring to his period as a professor in Jamaica, where he quite literally broke away from the elitist academy and brought his lectures to the people: in the streets, the yards, the slums, wherever workers and others gathered. He gave public lectures on African and Caribbean history, political movements, capitalism, colonialism, Black Power, etc. These groundings were often based on what people expressed interest in learning about, and Rodney found ways to make various topics relevant and important to the lives of those listening. In many regards, Rodney should be placed next to popular educators like Paulo Freire for his contributions and his example of merging theory with practice. The book The Groundings With My Brothers is a collection of speeches, many given at or about these groundings [4].

More than just giving public lectures, groundings entailed democratizing knowledge and the tools of knowledge production, which are traditionally tied up with the capitalist academy. He empowered communities to tap into their own histories, oral and written, to generate knowledge and research amongst themselves based on their interests and needs, to place European history and Eurocentric frameworks as non-normative, and to hold African history as crucially important to the process of African revolution. He brilliantly lays out the importance of African history in Black liberation in “African History in the Service of Black Liberation,” a speech he gave in Montreal, ironically at the conference from which he would not be allowed to return to Jamaica [5].

In the most basic terms, I would explain groundings as the act of coming together in a group, explaining, discussing, and exploring topics relevant to the group’s lives; everyone in the group listens, engages, contributes, reasons, and grounds with one another, and all voices are valued. Groundings can take place inside of jail cells, within classrooms, in parks and workplaces, or anywhere the intentions of Afrocentric group dialogue and learning are maintained.

Liberation School: One of the interesting things about The Groundings With My Brothers is the way it moves from Black Power in the U.S. to Jamaica, to the West Indies, to Africa, and then to groundings. As a final set of questions, can you explain what he meant by Black Power and Blackness, and what they had to do with education?

Devyn Springer: Well, to understand that book you have to understand a bit about the context in which the book arose. In Groundings we see Rodney’s ability to take seemingly large concepts like neo-colonialism, Black Power, Blackness, etc., and break them down to a level that could engage people. It taught them how to make sense of the fact that the people oppressing them were the same color and nationality as them. In the midst of decolonization and independence movements sweeping the world, there was a crucial Cold War and neo-colonization taking place simultaneously. Facilitating this counter-revolution were several African leaders and activists employed to do the bidding of imperialist powers seeking to regain or retain their power. In Jamaica, this was no different: the Jamaican government in 1968 went so far as to ban any literature printed in the USSR and Cuba, as well as an extensive list of works about Black Power and Black revolution, including those of Black Power activists such as Trinidian-born Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael), Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammad.

Placed in this context, we see that Rodney’s work explaining the U.S. Black Power movement’s importance and relevance for the Caribbean and Africans everywhere was quite important in raising the political consciousness of working-class Africans. A key part of this was educating on the role of “indigenous lackeys” or “local lackeys of imperialism” in maintaining the (neo)colonial status quo. In a speech initially published as a pamphlet titled, Yes to Marxism!, he says:

“When I was in Jamaica in 1960, I would say that already my consciousness of West Indian society was not that we needed to fight the British but that we needed to fight the British, the Americans, and their indigenous lackeys. That I see as an anti-neo-colonial consciousness as distinct from a purely anti-colonial consciousness” [6].

His distinct analysis of misleadership and its colonial implications was a searing threat, as Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly wonderfully explains [7].

Rodney defines power as being kept ‘milky white’ through imperialist forces of violence, exploitation, and discrimination, and that Black Power in contrast may be seen as the antithesis to this imperialist, colonial, racial demarcation that structures capitalist society. The following quote is long, but I want to quote it in full because I find it useful. He says:

“The present Black Power movement in the United States is a rejection of hopelessness and the policy of doing nothing to halt the oppression of blacks by whites. It recognises the absence of Black Power, but is confident of the potential of Black Power on this globe. Marcus Garvey was one of the first advocates of Black Power and is still today the greatest spokesman ever to have been produced by the movement of black consciousness. ‘A race without power and authority is a race without respect,’ wrote Garvey. He spoke to all Africans on the earth, whether they lived in Africa, South America, the West Indies or North America, and he made blacks aware of their strength when united. The USA was his main field of operation, after he had been chased out of Jamaica by the sort of people who today pretend to have made him a hero. All of the black leaders who have advanced the cause in the USA since Garvey’s time have recognised the international nature of the struggle against white power. Malcolm X, our martyred brother, became the greatest threat to white power in the USA because he began to seek a broader basis for his efforts in Africa and Asia, and he was probably the first individual who was prepared to bring the race question in the US up before the UN as an issue of international importance. The Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the important Black Power organisation, developed along the same lines; and at about the same time that the slogan Black Power came into existence a few years ago, SNCC was setting up a foreign affairs department, headed by James Foreman, who afterwards travelled widely in Africa. [Kwame Ture] has held serious discussions in Vietnam, Cuba and the progressive African countries, such as Tanzania and Guinea. These are all steps to tap the vast potential of power among the hundreds of millions of oppressed black peoples” [8].

He defined Black Power in the U.S. context as “when decisions are taken in the normal day-to-day life of the USA, the interests of the blacks must be taken into account out of respect for their power – power that can be used destructively if it is not allowed to express itself constructively. This is what Black Power means in the particular conditions of the USA” [9].

Rodney finds there are three ways in which Black Power applies to the West Indies:

“(1) the break with imperialism which is historically white racist; (2) the assumption of power by the black masses in the islands; (3) the cultural reconstruction of the society in the image of the blacks” [10].

I’m sure this was a much longer answer than anticipated, but I find it incredibly important to understand that Walter Rodney’s conception of Black Power was revolutionary, and was also fundamentally inspired by his Marxist approach which sought to apply these revolutionary ideals to the specific context of the Caribbean and Africans globally. He also explains, in detail, his notion of ‘Blackness’ as being stretched differently to how we conceive of ‘Blackness’ today to include the entirety of the colonized world. He states, “The black people of whom I speak, therefore, are non-whites – the hundreds of millions of people whose homelands are in Asia and Africa, with another few millions in the Americas;” however he clarifies that “further subdivision can be made with reference to all people of African descent, whose position is clearly more acute than that of most nonwhite groups” [11].

He places Blackness as the most crucial element, stating “Black Power is a doctrine about black people, for black people, preached by black people,” and later adds that “once a person is said to be black by the white world, then that is usually the most important thing about him; fat or thin, intelligent or stupid, criminal or sportsman – these things pale into insignificance” [12]. This understanding stands in relevance to Frantz Fanon’s similar move, where he states: “In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue” [13].

Liberation School: It wasn’t long but incredibly informative and the context you’ve given has helped me grasp his moves throughout that book. I’ve really appreciated your time and energy, and definitely recommend that our readers check out your podcast and other work. I’m looking forward to our next collaboration!

References

[1] Walter, Rodney A. (1966). A history of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800, PhD dissertation (University of London). Available here.
[2] Rodney, Walter. (1972/1982). How Europe underdeveloped Africa (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 149.
[3] Ibid., 105.
[4] Rodney, Walter. (1969/2019). The groundings with my brothers, ed. J.J. Benjamin and A.T. Rodney (New York: Verso).
[5] Rodney, Walter. (1968). “African history in the service of Black liberation.” Speech delivered at the Congress of Black Writers, referenced from History is a Weapon, undated, available here.
[6] Cited in Burden-Stelly, Charisse. (2019). “Between radicalism and repression: Walter Rodney’s revolutionary praxis,” Black Perspectives, 06 May. Available here.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Rodney, The groundings with my brothers, 14-15.
[9] Ibid., 18.
[10] Ibid., 24.
[11] Ibid., 10.
[12] Ibid., 9, 10.
[13] Fanon, Frantz. (1961/2005). The wretched of the earth, trans. R. Philcox (New York: Grove Press), 5.

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