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W.A.R Stories: Walter Rodney – a documentary

A life and death – celebrated.

By Antoine Craigwell

On Feb 8, a cold Monday evening, more than 200 people braved the freezing winds blowing off the Hudson River to pack a room at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan’s West Village for the New York premier of the documentary, “W.A. R. Stories: Walter Anthony Rodney,” which chronicled the life, work, passion, and death on Jun 13, 1980, of the world-renowned Guyanese historian and social activist.

It was from an idea that Clairmont Mali Chung said he  had that he was encouraged to traverse the globe, crisscrossing and tracing the routes and places where Rodney lived, and interviewed more than 43 people who knew or in some way were associated with him. Chung, an attorney, who wrote, directed, and co-produced the 90-minute documentary, said that all those who were interviewed recalled Rodney’s life and more importantly, the effect he had on them and on the places where he either visited or lived, including those places where he was rendered persona non grata by governments.

L to r, Gabriehu Aregai, Abbyssinian Carto, and Clairmont M. Chung. Photo: Andrea Williams

In the film, those who were interviewed included academics, Horace Campbell, Ph.D., professor of African-American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York; Rupert Roopnaraine, Ph.D., principal of the Critchlow Labor College, Georgetown, Guyana; Clive Thomas, Ph.D., professor of Political Science, University of Alaska Southeast; Issa Shivji, Ph.D., professor of Law, University of Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania;  the late professor Haroub Othman, Ph.D., University of Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania; and the late Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Rex Nettleford, Ph.D., professor of Cultural Studies, University of the West Indies, at Mona, Jamaica. Also included among the list of those interviewed were poets, U.S. poet and playwright Amiri Baraka and Working Peoples Alliance (WPA) member Eusi Kwayana, writers, and activists including, Karen DeSouza and Andaiye, members of the WPA, the political party in Guyana to which Rodney belonged.

The documentary captured the essence of the man – in the people he met, spent time with, who listened to him speak, and shared in his vision for the rights of workers, especially those of the African Diaspora. Many spoke not only of his academic brilliance, referring to his books, which were during his life, and have since become required reading in colleges on subjects of Black history, and placed as part of the canon of Afrocentric and conscious writers such as the late Guyanese Ivan Van Sertima, and Cheikh Anta Diop, but as his widow Patricia Rodney, Ph.D., recalled, his humanness. His daughter, Asha Rodney, spoke of the tenderness and delight he had in his family – being nimble with his hands to build a doll house for his children, and his brother Hubert Rodney, who spoke of his attempts at cricket and his passion for striving to correct the wrongs done, not just to one person, but to a people.

In the film, many pointed to Rodney’s ability to navigate the line between his scholarship and his ability to dance the ska, he was able to hang out with friends, often hosting numerous people where he lived, to meet, to discuss and share thoughts on issues affecting them, and still be disciplined in his work.

Section of the audience

The crowd that gathered for the screening, though small in number, was a promise of those expected to turn out to see the documentary at other occasions. The film revealed that whenever Rodney spoke at a meeting and wherever he went, from countries as far flung as Tanzania to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo; from Zimbabwe to Jamaica; from Montreal, Canada to Atlanta, GA in the United States; and to the intersection of Louisa Row and D’Urban streets in Georgetown, Guyana; people gathered to hear him speak of realism, practicality, pragmatism, and to hear him excoriate those who condoned and perpetuated wrong-doing. Undoubtedly, Rodney’s charisma and his grasp of the issues combined with his oratory, held many captive, and not only unnerved those in power, but also earned him their opprobrium and ultimately, his demise.

The documentary, with a few technical glitches, drew on archival material including footage from the Victor Jara Collective “Terror of the Times” and Menelik Shabazz “Time and Judgment,” and news clips from the Walter Rodney Archives, and from Guyanese and Caribbean publications, such as the Guyana Chronicle, The Catholic Standard, The Mirror, Dayclean, The Gleaner of Jamaica, Caribbean Contact, and the Trinidad Guardian. The music, which provided another sense of context was taken from the work of artists including Ras Camo, Rubix and Talib Kweli “Another Millionaire Dies Everyday,” Carl Dawkins “Dr. Rodney,” Lui Lepke “Dem kill Walter Rodney,” and the strains of Frederick Chopin, all fused together to produce a piece of work that truly captured who Rodney was, his impact on the people he met, and the patina of a legend that had begun to form about him in life, and which assumed greater significance for the party and the people with his death.

At right, Abbyssinian speaking with members of the audience. Photo: Amali Chung

Following the screening, Chung, Abbyssinian Carto and Gabriehu Aregai, author of “Dangerous Times: The Assassination of Dr. Walter Rodney,” hosted a panel discussion and was assisted from the audience by Nigel Westmaas, Ph.D., assistant professor of Africana Studies, Hamilton College. Westmaas, who was an advisor for the documentary, as he answered questions from the audience, placed Rodney in the context of his time. He pointed out that despite stories to the contrary, Guyana’s history is replete with several successful rebellions, occurring during slavery by slaves as in 1763 Slave Revolt in Berbice, and after slavery, in the 20th century. In response to a question from the audience, Chung said that while he was aware of the presence of the idea for and about Rodney in his consciousness for sometime, he decided in 2006 to bring it to reality, and completed filming in 2008. Carto and Aregai, who appeared in the documentary, each recollected memories of Rodney’s life and the dastardly circumstances of his death. Speaking separately, Carto and Aregai said that combined with the knowledge that some of the principal people who were instrumental in formulating a decision to have Rodney removed, and who are still alive and playing active roles in the political life of Guyana, fills them with unspeakable anger. Carto said that he is so angry with the former prime minister, Hamilton Green, now mayor of Georgetown, that he cannot bring himself to forgive him for the part he is alleged to have played in ordering Rodney’s assassination.

During the film and even after, in the question and answer session, frequent mention was made of Rodney’s authorship, especially “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” “A history of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545 – 1800,” and “Groundings with my brothers.”

Rose October-Edun, a member of the Guyana Cultural Association, commented that as a young woman in Guyana, she was as aware, as were those of her generation, that while many Guyanese were ignorant or unfamiliar with Rodney’s international stature and proficiency, there were people in Guyana, who through the filter of the political domination of the time were only slightly familiar with his work and activities; he was ever more popular abroad than he was at home. She admitted that she was a victim of the deliberate or unconscious channeling by the adults in her life who denied Rodney’s existence and stature, a charge she felt was true for many of her peers and those of subsequent generations; that any information of and about Rodney was purged from the news and from popular discourse. The documentary, she declared, has inspired her to make a project of learning as much as she could about a true revolutionary. Many in the audience called for the educational system in Guyana to embrace and promote Rodney’s books, so that this and future generations could be informed more accurately about their history.

At left, Clairmont Chung after the panel discussion

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February 10, 2010 - Posted by | African-American News, Black Men, Caribbean, community, Guyana, Jamaica, Politics, Tanzania, Walter Rodney | , , ,

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