Carolyn Cooper, Contributor
Most students at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies are too young to have witnessed the events of October 16, 1968, when protests erupted in Kingston as a result of the banning of Walter Rodney by the then government of Jamaica. Many students don't even know the name of this distinguished Pan-Africanist.
These days, the only question the average student would ask if a lecturer were banned is, "So who is going to take over the class?" And you really have to understand. With the high cost of tuition, books, housing, food, transportation, and so on, most students are focused on getting in and out of university as fast as possible. Their goal is a 'big' job. They don't have any time to count cow. They just want to drink milk.
My generation of students also counted the cost of university education. But we counted cow as well. The late 1960s was a period of self-discovery in which the cry 'Black Power' animated conversations about racial identity and national consciousness. The promise of 'independence' and 'out of many, one people' masked the visible signs of neo-colo-nialism. So we had to take stock.
THE GOLDEN CALF
Students of the University of the West Indies break through a police cordon along Mona Road, St Andrew, in 1968. The cops, armed with tear gas canisters and riot batons, are in hot pursuit.
When I entered UWI in October 1968 I was accompanied to my hall of residence, Mary Seacole, by my immediate family, as well as the pastor of my church, the North Street Seventh-day Adventist. The university was seen as a hotbed of radicalism and so it was decided that I needed divine intervention to protect me. Or, at least, my pastor's prayers.
I had always been the kind of child who asked disquieting questions. Why can't we wear jewellery when the children of Israel had enough gold to make a calf? And why is it OK to wear a brooch and not earrings? You can well imagine the quizzical expression on my face when a well-intentioned pastor told me that you wear a brooch on your clothes and earrings on your body, so that was the important difference. The identical decorative function simply didn't matter.
It was clear that university education was going to give my restless imagination even more scope for development. So in exactly the same way that other believers would have taken their child to an obeahman or woman for protection from bad-mind and grudgeful people, my pastor was brought along to offer prayers to save me from dangerous intellectual inquiry.
IMPRISONED ON CAMPUS
Nevertheless, before the end of the month, I was out on the streets taking part in the infamous demonstrations. The meeting of the Guild of Students that was called to discuss the appropriate response to the banning of Walter Rodney took place in Mary Seacole's dining room. There was no question about not attending. I was living at the very centre of the excitement. I certainly didn't understand all the issues. But the eloquence of the older students was persuasive. I made up my mind to participate in the demonstration.
We had been advised to take damp towels to protect ourselves from tear gas. As it turned out, I was quite lucky and was able to jump into a passing car when we were tear-gassed in Liguanea. When the march divided - some students going downtown and others down Hope Road - I took what I anticipated would be the less dangerous route. I headed for Half-Way Tree.
But when I realised that I could actually be arrested, the demonstration lost its appeal. I don't know what I would have told my poor mother. I quickly calculated that discretion was, indeed, the better part of valour and retreated to the campus. Imprisoned there for two weeks as police and soldiers cordoned the university, we had the luxury of time to reflect on the meaning of the protests and our role as university students in transforming political systems of inequality.
This week, the University of the West Indies will host 'Groundings: The Walter Rodney Conference', to mark the 40th anniversary of the student protests. The conference, one of the many activities to commemorate the University's 60th year, will open on October 16 with the 10th Annual Walter Rodney lecture. Professor Patricia Rodney will speak on the topic, 'Remembering Walter Rodney: My Personal, Political and Professional Journey'.
The conference continues on Friday and Saturday with panels on 'Rodney, Revolution and Popular Music'; 'Rastafari and Political Activism in Jamaica'; 'Oral Histories of the Rodney Protests'; 'Rodney, Race, Class and Gender'; 'Student and Youth Activism Past and Present'; 'Rethinking Development' and 'Walter Rodney's Academic and Political Legacy'.
Some of the featured speakers include Donna Hope, whose paper is titled 'Pon di Gullyside: From Rodney to Mavado'. Horace Campbell will examine Rodney's contribution to the Dar es Salaam School of Philosophy. Rupert Lewis will assess the implications of the demonstrations for UWI and the idea of regionalism.
Karen Jefferson, head of Archives and Special Collections at the Atlanta University Center's Robert W. Woodruff Library, will focus on the Walter Rodney papers which are housed there. Asha Rodney will speak about the role of the Walter Rodney Foundation in sustaining her father's legacy.
One of the highlights of the conference will be Edward Seaga's reflections on Walter Rodney as an activist. Frederick Hickling's multi-media presentation on 'Rastafari as an African Disapora National Liberation Movement' promises to be another high point. There will be film screenings and poetry readings and the conference will close with a dance at the UWI Student Union, 'Eras: Reunion at the Union'.
Like Walter Rodney's influential book, The Groundings With My Brothers, the 40th anniversary conference will provide a unique opportunity for conversation with both sisters and brothers about how we can help create humane societies in the 21st century.
In the spirit of Rodney's inclusive politics, the 'Groundings' conference is open to the public and there is no registration fee. For further information, email conferencewalter firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone the Institute of Caribbean Studies at 977-1951 or 512-3228.