Guyana is a Caribbean peculiarity
Welcome to Guyana
Few places on the planet offer peculiarity in such abundance as Guyana. Thanks to Sir Walter Raleigh and the British imperial crown, Guyana is South America’s only English speaking country. Since the end of slavery and indenture in the country, Guyana’s history has become one of fraudulent elections and ethnic divide. But there is also a Guyana that is covered in rivers, creeks, and trenches, a Guyana that took up extra room in the kitchen when you were a child watching your grandmother clap hot roti over the sink, spinning stories about a place that was an empty memory for the first twenty-five years of your life.
What no one tells you is there are two returns. Before you physically return to Guyana, you return to a Guyana as it is narrated by two great boxes of newspaper clippings, photographs and documents. You are a graduate student at Columbia University. You feel like an impostor every time you tumble off the 1 Train at 116th Street. You do not know where in India your ancestors sailed from to British Guiana, but you do know they were most likely illiterate.
Gaiutra Bahadur is teaching a section of your History in Action class this semester and that makes this entire experience more than worth it. Your assignment for class is to gather archival materials on Guyanese historian and scholar-activist Walter Rodney at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Your grandfather, Dhanpaul Tiwari, knew him, but you did not get into detail with him about it, did not realize he too was an archive. Now he is dead.
Go to the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division of the Schomburg. It is well lit, with wooden wall paneling and wide tables.
Start with: John Henrik Clarke Papers, Box 42, Folder 41, Rodney in Guyana 11/2/79, interview transcript, names unlisted, 16 pages.
Start at the end. Start with the assassination, and work your way back.
Search for the ghost of Walter Rodney.
The interview is unpublished, and so there is no context for why it took place.
Diaspora is: fooling yourself into thinking that closely reading each account of the assassination of Walter Rodney in 1980 by Gregory Smith, a former general in the Guyana Defense Force, at the command of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham will bring you closer to the ghost of your grandfather, will bring you closer to a narrative of home that is whole.
Count the number of uh’s at the beginning of sentences and in between words. Grandfather, what did Walter Rodney sound like? Was his voice a deep baritone like yours?
Count the number of times Walter Rodney uses the words peculiar and peculiarity to describe Guyana.
Count the number of times you read the words division and split.
Closely read the interview and piece together the political climate in which your grandfather came of age. Grandfather, did you turn down the Minister of Education position from Forbes Burnham before or after Walter Rodney was blown up by a walkie talkie?
Recent Articles (That Might Supplement Your Return)
Walter Rodney and I Gyaff About Guyana
Walter Rodney: “…because in other territories, they have not yet reached the stage that we did in the sixties of actually having inter-communal racial violence. They have not perhaps yet reached the stage where they have allowed the question of race to uh, be utilized, to become the basis of a dictatorship.”
My grandfather grew up in Nabaclis. Before he became a teacher, and then a headmaster, before he became treasurer of the Guyana Teachers’ Union, before Forbes Burnham sent him a pack of Tom’s cigars for Christmas, he grew up without shoes and a mother who sewed empty rice bags together for bedsheets. His family was the only family of East Indian descent in a village of Afro-Guyanese families. When the race riots started and rivers ran red, these families protected my lineage, said “leave the Tiwaris alone.”
Walter Rodney: “The racial divisions between Africans and Indians, primarily, uh, are not restricted to Guyana, they appear sharply in Trinidad, they appear sharply in Surinam, uh, we, I believe in Guyana, that we can make a contribution to the resolution of those differences, if only because we have made a lot of mistakes, and we have learned from our mistakes, and I believe we are capable, and we’ll show the world that we are capable of transcending the petty manipulations that are inherent in a racially divided society, and which can be politicized to the detriment of all sectors of that society, particularly to the detriment of the workers of that society.”
When I was a child growing up in Richmond Hill, I did not immediately question why my neighborhood was almost entirely Indo-Guyanese. I did not yet know that somewhere in Brooklyn, a train ride away, Flatbush is almost entirely Afro-Guyanese. I do not yet have the language to talk about the hows/whys/wheres/and whens of such a divide. PNC, PPP, WPA—it’s alphabet soup to me. Acronyms the grown-ups toss around over scotch and dominoes. People’s National Congress, People’s Progressive Party, Worker’s Party Alliance. The PNC and PPP are divided along ethnic lines.
Walter Rodney: “But surely there is a sense in which ours has been peculiar because of the manipulation, because of the attempt to hold on to the facade of democracy, so-called, constitutional democracy, while at the same time, eroding all of the rights.”
Ours, too, has been peculiar. I can’t think of a better word to describe diaspora, or Guyana. It is peculiar to grow up with the empty memory of a country I did not know intimately, but did know intimately because of the stories my relatives told me. Storytelling is peculiar because it imprints a place few people with any certainty can point to on a map of my brain. When I am asked where are you from, when I do the labor of translating this peculiarity, I become the peculiar one. It is in the look the cab driver from Punjab gives me when he realizes I am not one of his own, but a bastard child of diaspora. It is in the look of a lover whose Desi parents want him to settle with a Good Indian Girl whose mouth can hold their language comfortably between her teeth.
Walter Rodney: “…the WPA has said quite clearly, that we have no problem with whoever burnt down the offices of a, of a dictatorial party that was imposing itself on the Guyanese people and we, we don’t want to be, to seem to be on the defensive of that question.”
The year is 1979. Guyana’s elections have been rigged with the help of the Kennedy Administration and the CIA. Accused of burning down the People’s National Congress headquarters, Walter Rodney has been on trial since July. The Working People’s Alliance, Guyana’s first multi-ethnic political party, poses a significant threat to Forbes Burnham’s thirteen-year-old dictatorship. The country is a teenager, the politics volatile.
My mother is eight years old. My grandfather is receiving death threats from both the PPP and the PNC. Was this before or after Forbes Burnham asked my grandfather, Comrade Tiwari, are you still satisfied with where you are as a trade unionist?
Was this before or after my grandfather replied, Yes, Chief. I am satisfied with where I am.
I think about what it means to be satisfied with where you are, but sometimes it feels like I'm everywhere and nowhere all at the same time, and where, grandfather, is the satisfaction in that?