The killing of Walter Rodney
On the evening of June 13, 1980, a bomb blast shook a neighborhood in Georgetown, Guyana and took the life of Black scholar, writer and activist Walter Rodney. Few Black people in the United States, or elsewhere around the world felt the explosion, but it was an event that shook our lives to their very foundations.
The assassination of Walter Rodney on that bad luck Friday the 13th silenced a voice that was pressuring bastions of white supremacy to loosen their grip on the formerly enslaved and colonialized people of color around the world.
In 1972, Rodney published his brilliant book, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” and stripped away the false narrative of humanistic motives driving European and American interactions with Africa both before and after most modern African nations gained their independence. This book, described by some as “the 20th century’s most important and influential book on African history,” eloquently sets out the case of how European and American regimes deliberately exploited and underdeveloped Africa. It also called for people of color to understand the capitalist system underpinning European and American economic dominance and to work for its overthrow.
Walter Rodney knew that modern Western culture was built upon, and maintained by, a worldwide system of racialized labor exploitation of people of color, coupled with the theft of the natural resources from the lands where those people lived. He was determined that people of color should come to understand this. And this is why, for some, he had to die.
We must understand that Walter Rodney’s death is not a singular instance of European and American regimes shutting down voices calling for the economic freedom of people of color. Economic freedom translates into political power, and the former slave nations and colonial powers cannot allow people of color to gain the type of power that comes with economic independence.
For those who would argue that this last statement is an exaggeration, a brief survey of history presents a very clear picture of how white supremacy and Eurocentric dominance has been maintained by violence throughout the centuries.
History tells us of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the most prominent figure in the Haitian revolution against France from 1791 until his capture in 1802. But his capture and subsequent death in a French prison in 1803 did not end the Haitians’ thirst for liberty. The fighting continued until the Black and brown population of the former French colony won their freedom in 1804 at a great cost of lives lost. This victory also created the nation of Haiti — the world’s first Black-led republic.
However, 21 years later, France sailed warships into Haitian waters and threatened a devastating invasion if its demands for reparations for the loss of its slaves and its slave colony were not met. Haiti was forced to submit to the overwhelming French show of force and, over the years, has paid to France what amounts to $21 billion in today’s dollars. This economic burden severely stunted Haiti’s economic development and has kept the island nation impoverished to this day, as well as making it a source of cheap labor for more developed economies.
Not long after Haiti became a nation, Mexicans began their war of independence against Spain, and after 11 years, threw off the Spanish colonial yoke. But when Vicente Guerrero, the second president of Mexico, issued a decree abolishing slavery in 1829, it sent shock waves through the Texas region of Mexico, which was being flooded with Americans bringing their slaves and seeking fertile lands to grow cotton.
Three months after abolishing slavery, Guerrero, who was an Afro-Mexican, was driven from office and eventually executed by reactionary conservatives who took over the Mexican government. But the prohibition against slavery remained in place.
Texas slaveholders eventually rebelled against the Mexican government and its abolitionist policies and declared independence, sparking a war that is famous for its sanitized myth about the Alamo. After gaining independence in 1836, Texans codified white supremacy by, among other things, establishing a constitutional provision banning free Black people from its borders.
More than a century after Texas gained its independence, Africans in various European colonies began to agitate for their freedom and, in many instances, fought bloody wars of liberation. Unable to maintain their geopolitical grip on these overseas holdings, European nations devised “post-colonial” strategies to achieve the same economic results they enjoyed during centuries of colonial exploitation.
History also documents how African financial independence has been thwarted by Western colonialist and imperialist powers.
It is now a part of the public record that President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the mineral-rich Democratic Republic of the Congo, an act that has led to decades of instability in that nation and made its riches easily exploitable by Western interests.
From the beginning of their independence in the mid-20th century until 2020, former French colonies in West Africa were forced to deposit half of their foreign exchange reserves with the French Treasury. This economic constraint gave France control over the financial prosperity of those countries. And to this day, France controls the currency of its former central African colonies this way.
There are many chains with which global white supremacy and Eurocentric policies have kept people of color in economic bondage and unable to develop the necessary power to control their own well-being.
And this brings us back to Walter Rodney. Rodney wrote about post-colonial economics and the need for people of color to be aware of those transactional processes that keep us impoverished around the world. And he urged us to do something about it.
The least we can do is to educate ourselves about why people of color are in the economic state we are in. Try as they might, we cannot allow white supremacists to silence the voices of people like Walter Rodney who speak truth to power in the face of certain danger. Many people of color have lost their lives speaking against white supremacy. We should not only amplify their voices, we should act upon those truths of which they spoke.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.