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Sunday, August 18, 2019

Walter Rodney's The Groundings With My Brothers at 50: The Production of a Seminal Text (speech by Ewart Thomas)

Ewart Thomas Stanford University (Presented at the Walter Rodney Symposium, Atlanta, GA, 3/23/18)

I’m very grateful to Pat Rodney, Asha Rodney and the Walter Rodney Foundation for inviting me to join in this retrospective on Walter’s 1st book, The Groundings with My Brothers (1969).  This year is the 50th anniversary of the conception of the book. 
It is important that we find time to share our memories and impressions of significant social and political events, like the publication of this book.  This is partly as a corrective for the distortions that must occur over time in individual memories, and partly because the information going into each individual memory is almost certainly incomplete.  None of us gets the full context, and the full picture, and we need to pool our memories to fully appreciate the event.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, I called Richard Small, who wrote the Introduction to the 1st Edition of Groundings, to see if he was coming to this Symposium.  He wasn’t sure, but we got to talking about Groundings, and he gave me some fascinating details about how the book was partially funded through the sale of a poster of the Madonna and Child, created by Ras Daniel Hartman.  I never knew about the connection between the posters and the book. 
The memory that I had, but Richard did not have, was of a conversation I had with Walter during one of his visits to Stanford.  He said that, if he were deciding on the title, he probably would have chosen The Grounding with My BrothersThat is, he would have used the singular noun to indicate the type of activity taking place in all the sessions, rather than the plural, Groundings, which refers to the set of individual sessions.  

Walter was a preeminent historian and political activist.  But, to my mind, he was, first and foremost, the quintessential intellectual who enjoyed debating the finer points of language and logic – and who enjoyed debating, period.  He played a mean game of chess, and he was a connoisseur of languages! For example, when he was researching his thesis on the Upper Guinea Coast, he would come across archival documents in Spanish, which he spoke fluently, and in Portuguese, which he hadn’t yet learnt.  To most of us, this would be a big problem, but to him it was a source of excitement – how could he use his high school French, Spanish and Latin to figure out the Portuguese that was in the documents. Later on, he told me that he was thinking of writing something that relied on his languages (which included Portuguese at that point!), rather than on history per se.  He never got around to this project!

Speaking of Walter’s archival research (this is not directly about Groundings), when he was working on The History of the Upper Guinea Coast, the archives he went to for documents also had materials on Guyanese history, and he would uncover some gems from time to time.  For example, he told me about the Rev. Robert T. Frank, a minister of the Congregational Church in New Amsterdam, Berbice. Frank, it turns out, was a nationalist who broke away from the Congregational Union and started his own church in 1911, Independent Congregational Church, renamed Frank Memorial Church after Frank’s death.  I attended the “mainstream” Mission Chapel Congregational Church in N/A, and we would only go to Frank Church for the occasional funeral or other special event. It was only after that conversation with Walter that I realized that there must have been an important person named Frank, after whom the church was named, and that there might be an interesting history behind the relationship between those two churches.

The Groundings with My Brothers

Let’s turn now to the story about GroundingsAs I said earlier, no one person knows all the details.  The simple version starts with Walter being refused re-entry into Jamaica in October 1968, after he attended a conference in Montreal.  Walter was a socialist, had visited Cuba and the USSR, and spent a lot of time grounding with the Rastas, and the poor, trying to raise their political consciousness.  The JLP government felt that he was a danger to Jamaica.  UWI students demonstrated on the Mona campus, then marched to the PM’s residence, and then to the parliament building in Kingston.  On the way, others joined in, the march became violent, several people were killed, and there was property damage to the tune of $$M.  

There was outrage in the Caribbean and elsewhere; and there were demonstrations at the Jamaican Tourist Board in London.  A group of Walter’s friends in London discussed ways of responding to the high-handed action of the J’can govt After all, UWI is a West Indian institution, not a J’can one. This group included Jessica and Eric Huntley, Richard Small, Chris Le Maitre, Andrew Salkey, Errol Lloyd, John La Rose, Barbara Joseph, and others.  Richard had a copy of the lectures Walter had given to the Rastas during the nine or so months he lived in Jamaica, and the decision was made to try to publish them as a book.  This initial group then recruited others to help, people like, Waveney Bushell, Claire Jean-Pierre, Fitzroy Griffith, Anne Johnson, Margaret Busby, Dale Saunders, and others.  I was in this later group, and we worked together to get Groundings published, and then sold out against long odds.  

In order to publish a book, we needed a publisher who would find the contents “attractive.”  It didn’t take long to realize that we would have to form our own publishing house.  We were reluctant to do so, because we had no experience in publishing, and Richard was about to return to Jamaica.  Anyway, Jessica and Eric decided to forge ahead, and we had to come up with a name. I think Richard suggested L’Ouverture (after Toussaint, the 18th century Haitian general who defeated the French), Chris suggested Bogle (after Paul, who led the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion), and Andrew suggested combining them to get Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications.  While I was editing the manuscript, I noticed that most publishers have a logo, so I sat down and created one with the B, L and P superimposed on top of each other!  John La Rose recommended us to his printer, Villiers Press. We managed to raise the 300-500 pounds required for the initial run of 1000 copies.  And so the book was published!

That’s the simple version.  Of course, this raises a host of issues, such as, how to explain the motivation of this group of publishing neophytes, and their success in getting the book published.  There were two small Black publishing houses at the timeNew Beacon Books, founded in 1966 by John La Rose and Sarah White, was the 1st independent publisher of Caribbean and Black interest writings in the UK.  Then there was Allison and Busby, founded by Margaret Busby and Clive Allison in 1967 – their first book was The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969) by Sam Greenlee.  And that was it, as far as Black publishers were concerned – and they were trying to get established.  They were both very supportive, but there was a limit. So the founding of BLP was a milestone in the development of an independent, radical Black publishing space in Britain; and it merits much further study by today’s researchers.  Part of the explanation for our success in the late 1960s lies in the broader societal movements occurring around that time; and part lies in the interpersonal ties within the group, and how that affected individual choices.

Societal movements:  Many of these are being discussed at this weekend’s Symposium: 
  • The Black Power movement in the USA, 
  • The Black Power salute at the Mexico games (We’re honored to have John Carlos as our featured speaker!), 
  • The activism contained within the independence movements in the former British colonies, 
  • The student movements in Europe, 
  • The increasing awareness of racial disparities in education in London, in particular the growth of ESN schools (for Educationally Sub-Normal children) that were separate from the mainstream schools.  (There was a 1967 report of the Inner London Education Authority, Immigrant Children in ESN Schools, that was leaked to Bernard Coard, PhD student at Sussex, by his cousin, an ILEA employee.  Bernard presented the findings at a conference in 1971; led to his 1971 book on the topic.)
  • The activism, leadership and community support provided by the West Indian Students’ Centre in Earls Court.  (They had presentations by Caribbean leaders, debates, fêtes, and a restaurant with cheap food – they even had a shower, this at a time when many homes in the UK did not have baths or showers!)

Personal Attitudes and Interpersonal Ties: Many in the BLP group were personal friends of Walter Rodney and of the Huntleys.  The role of the Huntleys is well described in a 2013 book, Doing Nothing Is Not An Option: The Radical Lives of Eric & Jessica Huntley, by Margaret Andrews.  Some members of the group had well-formed political attitudes, but others, like myself, were driven more by interpersonal ties.

How did Richard get copies of Walter’s lectures?  Roger met Walter at a Cuba conference for Caribbean students – Roger representing students in Britain, and Walter Rodney representing UWI students.  Then they were members of a study group in London, convened by CLR James – a group that included Eddie, Walter’s older brother, Darcus Howe, CLR James’ nephew.  Then Roger Small and Walter went to a conference in Moscow in 1966.  Later that year, Walter left for a teaching position at the University College in Dar es Salaam.  When Walter went to teach at UWI in Jamaica in early 1968, Roger Small's brother, Bongo Jerry Small (who is also at the Symposium), introduced Walter to the Rastas.
Roger Small also attended the 1968 conference in Montreal (from which Walter was denied reentry into Jamaica).  At this conference, Walter Rodney gave Roger Small copies of the lectures and asked him to see about getting them published.  Roger brought them back to London, and that is how they were available when we were considering our response to the Jamaican ban on Walter.

Then there was the impact Walter Rodney had on other students, like myself, in outlining what he saw as the proper role of the intellect-worker in society.  There is no question that I was motivated to help in the production of The Groundings With My Brothers because of Walter’s example of participation in political movements.
These interpersonal networks were also crucial in raising the initial funds to publish GWMB, and then to sell the book.  So-and-so would take 3 or 6 copies, and try to sell them, and bring back the appropriate multiple of 6 shillings and 6 pence!  As expected, there was some leakage at this point of exchange, but getting the message out was more important than the profit motive!

The Broader Impact of Groundings: Finally, we might also assess the broader impact of GWMB - as the engine of growth for BLP, which led to the Walter Rodney Bookstore, which, in turn, became a community hearth, sponsoring education and cultural programs.  

Groundings impact on College curricula, on Black Studies programs; 

1953:  Politics and Walter enter my life this year.  My father ran for the Berbice River constituency, as an Independent candidate, in the fateful elections, the first under adult suffrage.  That year, we both get Scholarships to attend Queen’s College, and are in the same forms up until “O” Levels. Politics is a major theme in the lives of Guyanese – suspension of the Constitution, one of the most advanced among the colonies; occupation by British forces; split between Jagan and Burnham and Apaan Jaat; debates about Communism, Socialism, Capitalism.  
For “A” Levels, Walter stays in the Classical stream to do History, Spanish and English Lit, while I switch to the Science stream to do Maths, Physics and Chemistry.
1955-58:  Robert (Bobby) Moore comes from UCWI to teach us W.I. History, and Debating.  He works with Walter to rid him of “ze” for “the.UCWI is described as an Elysian plain, with beautiful women, and we all intend to go there after QC!  We were both in “K” (Cunningham) House, which dominated the Academic Points competition among the 10 Houses.
1958-60: Brazil beats Sweden 5-2 in the World Cup final, and we see a grainy film of it at school.  We hear about Fidel and Ché, the Sierra Maestra. We went to a lot of the same parties.    We take the UWI Open Scholarships exam in early 1960, and the rumor was that 5 of the 7 scholarships available to the entire Caribbean went to Guyanese, including Walter.  The university then had to expand the number to 10, so that the proportion of Guyanese winners could drop to a more respectable 50%!
1960-63.  UWI, W’s trip to Cuba in the summer of 1962 (he met Richard Small there for the 1st time).  Lots of debating.  1st class honors in History, scholarship to SOAS to do his PhD.
1963-66.  WR at SOAS.  Soap box lectures at Hyde Park Corner.  Archival research on Guyana, as well as Africa.  Groundings at CLR’s home in London with Darcus Howe, Richard Small, Eddie Rodney.
During the past few months, I’ve been cleaning out my office, having retired from Stanford on Aug 31, 2017.  I found some documents about Walter from around the years 1979-81, and I am sending them to his widow, Pat. 
Four pages of these documents contain my notes for introducing Walter when he spoke at Stanford in 1980, and notes for other occasions that I don’t recall.  These four pages are quite special to me, and reading them brings back powerful memories. I got a chuckle out of the reference to “the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica, and Walter whispered ‘page 85’.”  It referred to an occasion when Walter readily gave me ‘illegal’ help – such was the friendship between us. For most of the Lower 4th, Upper 4th and 5th Classical forms, Walter’s and my desks were next to each other, near the middle of the classroom, one row from the back.  He was to my right; Keith Isaacs and Colin Moore had desks nearby. We got into a lot of mischief from that perch!

I’ve found about 3 inches of documents and a dozen audiotapes from 1980-82 relating to Walter’s life and the reactions to his murder - letters about fundraising, establishing his legacy, etc., from Richard Small, Pat, Ned Alpers, etc.  The tapes are of a seminar that a group of us ran on African history, Walter’s historiography, and Walter’s political work.  This group included Kennell Jackson, Prof of History at Stanford, Noel Samaroo, a Guyanese graduate student in Education, Percy Hintzen, a professor at UC Berkeley who used to come down each week for the seminar, and many others.  One theme from that seminar was that Walter’s seminal contributions to the historiography of Africa were seriously underappreciated within African Studies. I recall Kennell Jackson telling us that Walter was the first historian to treat the region, Upper Guinea Coast, as an integrated system within the Atlantic slave trade.  Before then, historians treated the different countries (Nigeria, Gold Coast, etc.) as separate entities – as dictated by the way European powers divided up the continent.  Much is lost when Africa is studied in this piecemeal manner. I don’t know what has happened in the discipline since 1980.

From my Introduction of Walter at Stanford U in 1979:  “… And a few of you might remember the shortest of his books called The Groundings with my Brothers,” which happens to be my favorite book for a number of reasons. It is a living testimony of how the black intellectual can move beyond his or her own discipline and challenge the social niche that is invariably structured in a Eurocentric way. This brief book also shows how the black academic can develop his or her ideas in a positive way by attaching himself or herself to the activities of the black masses…”

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