In June 2020, on the anniversary of the assassination of Walter Rodney, roape.net published an interview I conducted with the scholar-activist, Jesse Benjamin.
In the week that marks the fortieth anniversary of the murder of the revolutionary Walter Rodney, Jesse Benjamin – member of the Walter Rodney Foundation – speaks to ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig about Rodney’s astonishing work, life and activism and how he speaks to the dehumanization of Black lives everywhere. Rodney’s work, Benjamin argues, remains vital for those now seeking to overturn the systems of oppression worldwide.
Firstly, can you tell us something about your own political and intellectual journey, how and where did it start?
I was born a citizen of the world, already with two citizenships due to my itinerant 1960s parents who had travelled and then started living in the Middle East. I had a third citizenship a year later when we got to rural Nova Scotia, where my brother was born, and my parents split up. Until I was 10, I then lived all over Toronto, from Etobicoke to Cabbage Town, from the ‘good school’ neighborhood of Forest Hills to years running between the recording studios and international vendors on the streets of Kensington Market.
I arrived to live in the US for the first time, just as the New York Islanders hockey team went on to win four Stanley Cups in a row – a literal miracle for a 3rd grade Canadian kid with every pro hockey player’s cards in his collection, but it went almost completely unnoticed in upstate New York where we now lived, and wasn’t even on TV. Almost four years in a rural small town situation was a new experience with some good friends and a new love for computers, physics and sci-fi, but before I was 13 we moved suddenly again, to Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, surrounded by religious communities and the most shockingly new kind of overt and vulgar racism I had ever experienced within the confines of my then brief, ostensibly colorblind, ideologically liberal humanist upbringing. It was South African apartheid style racism in the schools and streets I was now on, and that was also formative.
I’ve traced my willingness to question and even stand against what is going on around me pretty far back. I recall failing only one class in Canada, my civics grade at a particular school, because I refused to stand or sing the anthem and the Queen-related song that followed it. I did do the subsequent state-mandated exercises to the piped-in music of Stevie Wonder every morning, but I did not want to align with the symbols of a single nationalism, even though I really liked Canada as a kid, it seemed ordered and largely fair compared to the adults in my world. I also remember anti-Pakistani racism from students and their parents within days of arriving to school in a more working-class immigrant community outside of Mississauga.
But the simmering race hatred we encountered in those early Reagan-era Brooklyn years was shocking and awoke me to my first attempts at more direct activism. Eastern Parkway was very white and Jewish on one side, and mostly Black and particularly Caribbean on the other side, and in hindsight as a young teenager I was one of the very few people with friends on both sides of this apartheid line around which violence could easily erupt on any given day and sometimes did.
By 1987 I’d dropped out of high school, relocated to the Middle East, gone through some pretty dramatic struggles, and improbably managed to join a radical Quaker international college in Jerusalem. I was introduced to Marxist theory, Paulo Freire and Edward Said, while doing fieldwork with marginalized Bedouin communities in the Naqab/Negev and Sinai Deserts. The next year I made my way to my school’s European Center as a Marxist 17-year-old.
While studying in London I was lucky to have a series of mentors who I officially made my teachers and took courses with, starting with my primary advisor, professor and musician Vic Gammon, who taught me political economic theory and ethnomusicology. Then my development theory mentors introduced me to Ewan MacColl – a folk musician, leader in street and radical community theatre praxis, ethnomusicologist, lifelong Marxist theorist and activist who was the same age as my grandfather. He was then starting a Marxist theory class for his disaffected ‘capitalist’ children, in his home in South London, together with his partner, folk singer Peggy Seeger. I joined the first session, as we read paragraphs aloud from the Communist Manifesto for several weekly meetings, then Lenin’s Imperialism, some Engels, always illuminated in unparalleled detail by Ewan but also by the general conversation at this close-in level. Ewan’s kids never showed, but he ran the group anyway, and he later insisted I take voice lessons from him to improve my diaphragmatic breathing, oratory, and ‘the way I carried myself.’ I tried to warn him that it might not be for everyone, but I did give it a serious shot and learned a lot from him in the process. He used a lot of Paul Robeson in our exercises, and I got to spend hours with their incredible record collection.
In my fourth year of college, I studied in Kenya for two years. I immersed in a coastal community north of Mombasa that was a mix of Mijikenda and Swahili cultures, including many descendants of formerly enslaved people from the brief plantation period that had emerged right in this area from the 1830s – 1890s. Land and the struggle for it was central. The deeper my investigations went I discovered evictions of thousands of people into undocumented, largely hidden rural slums, the commodification of land as a resource in itself, and increasingly shady land dealings. This continued on as my dissertation research and is still an active area of my work. Underdevelopment was explicit in this setting, so Walter Rodney became a primary theoretical framework for me as an undergrad, because it provided even better answers than world systems theory seemed to and provided direct explanations for the contradictions my studies were revealing.
So, underdevelopment became central to my thinking and has seeped into my work in many ways. To my knowledge, though it started with my unpublished 550-page undergraduate thesis, I am still one of the only people using underdevelopment as a primary explanation for the profound economic, political and cultural marginalization of the numerically predominant non-Swahili, largely Mijikenda people of coastal Kenya. After the tripod-mounted machine-gunning British were largely defeated by Me Ketilili and her Giriama rebels in 1913/1914 (because they levelled the playing field with spears dipped in one of the deadliest of all neurotoxins, produced locally of black mamba and deadly sea mollusk poisons), the British punished them for this humiliation by charting all subsequent colonial development to circumvent their territories. Thus, the Mijikenda hinterlands were deprived of roads or railways, schools and administrative centers, economic or any other forms of development, providing an unintended positive cocoon of cultural independence from the steady erosion of colonial cultures, but also producing undeniable long-term effects such as an almost complete lack of social science doctorates some seven decades later.
Honestly, by the time I got to grad school in a more traditional state university setting back in upstate New York, in 1993, I not only had four years of serious fieldwork under my belt, I was also up to speed on most of the critical and radical theories of the day, and was already evaluating them on the basis of their applicability in real work contexts. So, I was probably a more intellectually aggressive and politically intense student than usual. I was also now a pretty experienced activist and, at least intellectually and morally, a self-avowed revolutionary. I quickly joined the growing social movements, was soon a campus leader, and we engaged in major social movements there for years, resisting arming of campus police, fighting to keep our co-op bus service, fighting state tuition raises and other regressive social policies, and mainly contesting racism and demanding a more diverse curriculum on campus in a cycle of incidents, actions, repressions, getting pepper-sprayed, building takeovers, marches and more occupations.
It became an education in and of itself, the struggles at SUNY Binghamton were almost a shadow PhD I accidentally enrolled in, as my closest comrades and I insisted on taking our classes into the world and our struggles into the classroom. For my first tenure track job, in Minnesota, I was hired to teach a required first year anti-racism course in a heavily white community with active racism and white supremacist organizing, with the expectation of incorporating community activism into all my work. I didn’t need the invitation, but I took it – we worked on dozens of issues like police profiling and brutality, and racist Native sports mascots, we fought to remove swastikas from the stone masonry of the regional Catholic cathedral and resisted anti-Somali and anti-Hmong violence. In Atlanta, my praxis came with me, as my colleagues soon discovered, and here one of my main groundings has been with the Rodney family and the Walter Rodney Foundation.
I am always on the lookout for activism and activist comrades, but I never expected the degree of involvement and movement we were a part of in Binghamton. But it was theory that truly reared its head unexpectedly when I needed it. In those same years I discovered coloniality and got to study with Anibal Quijano, and although we were in very different disciplines, Carole Boyce Davies was a significant influence as I deepened my knowledge of Pan-Africanism and Black radical thought, especially Black radical feminist thought. Rodney and Sylvia Wynter would be central in all of this.
How did you become involved and interested in the work of Walter Rodney? When did you first read his work and what were your first impressions?
Friends World College was a blessing on so many levels. I had survived a meandering transnational childhood, a religious cult, homelessness and drugs and now I wanted to understand the world in every way I could. Political economy, anthropology, philosophy became my primary tools, and for a few years I basically studied revolutionary thought and history. Every generative book that blew my mind in those early years led to a study of all the works in its bibliography, and so I studied the genealogy of revolutionary thought, from Marx and Engels to Che, Freire, Cabral. That is when Rodney’s name first started coming up. At the idyllic job I landed in London, working the late shift at Regent’s College Library, I talked to patrons of the Overseas Development Institute and basically anyone checking out any radical books, and in that context a dissident Eritrean PhD student insisted I read Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA) that weekend in order to continue our already intense discussion about development theory. So I did, with great appreciation. I remember being that radical librarian, who after reading this text, and Nkrumah’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, politely but earnestly told everyone I could about the blood soaked sugar slavery origins (Tate and Lyle Sugar Co.) of the stately Tate Reading room we were standing in as they checked out books with me. It was one of many times the world all around me was directly illuminated by Rodney.
His book was one of the reasons I decided to travel next to Africa, and my school had a Center in Kenya. I read an immense amount of Kenya-specific scholarship, and then two years later as I worked to complete the ethnography that would be my senior thesis I returned to Rodney, along with Marx, Lenin, Robert Brenner, Fred Cooper, Wallerstein, Roger van Zwanenberg and anyone else who seemed to helpfully explain the neocolonial squatter evictions and land privatization I was seeing.
Rodney was just so explanatory, his work provided the deepest of answers, and unmasked the dynamics usually left opaque or unexamined altogether. It used a nuanced and flexible Marxism and flexible thinking in general, to describe more than 500 years of history in Africa, and with a high degree of specificity for each region’s details. While reading Rodney again in Kenya I remember figuring out that East Africa Industries, which produced a preponderance of staple products in all the stores (like Blueband margarine and Omo laundry powder), was in fact not local as its name slyly implied, but just a regional hub of the Unilever corporation, the largest and most colonial of Dutch/Anglo multinationals since the deeply colonial roots of the Lever brothers. Lloyds of London and Barclays Bank were also indelibly located within their violent imperial origins. It was the only book that evoked major reactions, mostly loving, when I took it on the crowded matatu rides to town. Everywhere I went with that book people who were touched by a lecture or a work of Rodney’s announced themselves, started sharing their stories. That was a special experience in relation to a book unlike any I’d ever experienced.
Years later, in Binghamton New York, entrusted with my first ever solo-taught course as a now PhD student, I was teaching ‘Africa in the World System’, and in the third week or so, we had occupied buildings in protest, and I was teaching my class in the occupied building, sitting in our discussion circle, each reading and then discussing paragraphs from our main text HEUA. There in the introduction was the statement about Rodney teaching in Michigan, Cornell and Binghamton to pay his bills, having been blocked from working in Guyana by the dictator. So, my class discussed how crazy that was, how we’d received no loving history of his presence on our campus, how the activists would be so empowered to know about him. We asked why no building was named for him, no study lounge, nothing. Few of my activists friends knew much about him either, and my own knowledge was still limited to three books and several articles, so I started a Walter Rodney study group with some other students, focused on Rodney and his writings, as well as his scholar/activist model, which we were already trying to embody a version of.
Walter Rodney Speaks was key to this time for me, for the blueprint and legitimation it provided for the radical academic life I was slowly realizing I might actually continue working in long after my degree was completed. Rodney was a rare example of a truly committed intellectual, an important role model. We started monthly meetings around his scholarship, ran a petition and fundraiser to launch a scholarship, demanded the Student Union be named for him, and most consequently, after three years of work we held a major international conference on him and his work, run entirely by radical students, which became itself an historic event. That is where I met Patricia Rodney, Walter’s wife, and Asha Rodney, his youngest daughter, who I was very excited to be on a young scholars panel with. Patricia Rodney riveted us with an intimate session about all she had lived through with Walter and the assassination, a night none in attendance will ever forget.
Eight years later, when I got a job offer to work in suburban Atlanta, they were the only people I knew in the region, and the prospect of their friendship and collaboration was a significant factor in our move. My informal mentorship with Carole Boyce Davies – more of me being a dutiful follower and student really – was foundational too, including her unparalleled scholarship, internationalism and willingness to engage with student movements, her rigorous example on both sides of the scholar/activist divide. Wynter was also a key part of this period for me. She was one of two keynotes at our Rodney conference, together with George Lamming. She also came to some of our early coloniality studies sessions and one of our first conferences, and honestly blew us all away with her brilliance, her intensity and unique style, her appreciation and recitation of Nas, that she chilled and danced with us until after midnight at the party we set up in her honor, or came to our house for dinner on another visit.
For readers of roape.net who may not be overly familiar with Rodney’s work could you give us a brief overview?
Rodney is both loved and appreciated all across Africa and the Diaspora, but too often pigeonholed into categories and limitations that suit the needs of contemporary scholars. He is an ancestor via martyrdom in the cause of his people’s liberation, so interpreting his thought and ideas is, or should be especially sensitive. After achieving his PhD at 24, his body of work over the next 14 years made him one of the great Marxists and Pan-African scholars of the twentieth century, whose work is still insufficiently cited and engaged across a vast range of fields.
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is by far his best-known book, still relevant and in print almost 50 years later because it dared to explain the fundamental relations of the world order like few other books ever have. He wrote erudite books like this for a broad general audience, and he also wrote refined historiographic works of anticolonial recuperation and reorientation that remarkably remain definitive in the historiography of both Guyana and the Upper Guinea Coast of West Africa. He was a peerless scholar/activist everywhere he went, an unusually solid example for us today, his concept and praxis of grounding providing a major pedagogic model. At a minimum, Rodney’s work is central to discussion of underdevelopment, Marxism, Black history, race/class, world systems, pan-Africanism, Guyana’s politics and history, Jamaica’s too, Caribbean studies, Tanzania’s Ujama politics and the Dar School of radical historiography, Education theory, and I would also argue that he should be more central to modern genealogies of how we understand the politics of knowledge, coloniality and decolonial theory.
To read the full interview click here.