Conspiracy and Rumor in Remembering the Death of Walter Rodney

Friday, January 6, 2017: 11:10 AM
Room 503 (Colorado Convention Center)
Vikram Tamboli, University of Wisconsin–Madison
On June 13, 1980, Dr. Walter Rodney, the acclaimed Marxist activist and historian of the African World, died in a fatal explosion in Georgetown, Guyana. A“walkie-talkie” exploded while Walter Rodney “tested” it in his lap. The blast hurled Donald, Walter’s brother, from the drivers-side of the vehicle. Although injured, Donald was able to run to the nearby home of Working People’s Alliance members with the terrible message. In 1980, the Peoples’ National Congress (PNC) State surveilled and controlled the media and most means of communication and regularly exercised its monopoly over violence. Rodney’s apparent assassination was officially recorded as “death by misadventure,” and Donald was charged with harboring explosives, forcing him to flee Guyana.

In popular memories and oral histories the PNC regime’s narrative of Rodney’s death by “botched” prison-break made little sense, not just because of the limited radius. What everyone knew, however, was that Rodney and the WPA had publicly ridiculed and threatened the power of Forbes Burnham—The Kabaka—Comrade-Leader of the PNC and Guyana, and the regime’s response had grown increasingly violent. Comparing “evidence” from the 2014-2015, Walter Rodney Commission Of Inquiry, archival sources in London, Atlanta and New York, and memory narratives of conspiracy, rumor, and “popular” knowledge, I argue Rodney’s death marked a critical moment in Guyanese debates on the ethics of violence and societal order. Rodney’s death formed part of broader stories that regularly interwove representations of witchcraft, popular spiritual belief, clandestine CIA activity, and the Jonestown tragedy on November 18, 1979. Viewing Rodney’s death through lenses of rumor and conspiracy then provides a unique way to see the way in which postcolonial life and history has been ordered by sensations of arbitrary and intimate violence—feelings of constant insecurity and precarity.

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