Elizabeth Nelson
Elizabeth Nelson

Guyana and a Global Struggle for Black Solidarity

by Jackie Swift

In the 1960s and ’70s, Pan Africanism swept the world. As a cultural and political movement, Pan Africanism encourages solidarity between African and Black-diaspora peoples. During the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Pan Africanism drew support from Black activists and Black Power leaders. Newly independent African nations, such as Tanzania and Ghana, espoused Pan African ideals. And the Caribbean saw a wave of pride and interest in African cultures and traditions.

And in South America, Guyana emerged as a focal point for Pan Africanism in the Americas. Under Forbes Burnham, the nation’s first prime minister and eventual president, the newly independent nation emphasized solidarity with Africa and Black power. Burnham criticized African elites who espoused values and modes of government that he identified with former colonial powers. “Guyana then becomes visible to an eclectic set of African American thinkers: progressives, activists, intellectuals, and artists,” says Russell Rickford, History. “Many of them are veterans of the civil rights, Black Power, and Black Arts movements. They start to see Guyana under Burnham as a potential Black nationalist, Pan Africanist, and socialist haven. They are delighted to engage with what they see as a Pan Africanist stronghold in the Western Hemisphere.”

Guyana: Nexus of Aspirations and Conflict

Rickford is currently writing a book about Guyana and its role in Pan African thought during this time period. Fittingly, he’s titled the book A Proxy Africa, after Pan Africanists’ vision for Guyana and their emphasis on African cultural retention.

“These African American thinkers believed Pan Africanist ideas and practices—the linking of liberation forces throughout the Black world, among African descended people—were the essential way to elevate and fulfill the Black struggles of the 1960s,” Rickford says. “In this moment, there’s a convergence between a set of African American political actors—who are looking for ways to practice their Pan Africanist politics in a more concrete, engaged, and effective way—and the desire of the Guyanese government to position Guyana as a Third World, Pan Africanist stronghold.”

This convergence brought rich connections and exchanges between Black political actors in Guyana and those in and from the United States. Rickford’s book focuses on the impact of those collaborations on the evolution of progressive African American politics at the time. “You get this triangulation where African Americans are connecting with Afro Caribbeans to support Africans in their struggles against colonialism and white minority rule. Even though this is a short-lived nexus, it becomes a fascinating test case for exploring what Pan Africanism means, what it looks like,” he says. “One of the central questions is who nonstate actors from the African diaspora—North America and the Caribbean, for example—will collaborate with. Should they work primarily with Black governments that they regard as progressive in order to build Black sovereignty? Or should they prioritize engagement with other grassroots groups and activists?”

“One of the central questions is who non-state actors from the African diaspora . . . will collaborate with.”

The Jonestown Massacre

The stakes ultimately grew high in Guyana. A split opened up between progressive grassroots Pan Africanist forces and the Burnham government, which became increasingly authoritarian and oppressive. Then came 1978 and the Jonestown Massacre, when American preacher and self-proclaimed savior Jim Jones variously talked, coerced, and forced his followers, a majority of whom were African American, into mass suicide-murder in the Guyanese jungle.

“Jim Jones masterfully manipulated many of the ideals of the 1960s to build his following and to convince people to move to the Guyanese jungle with him,” Rickford says, referring to Jones’s emphasis on integration, opposition to racism, and embrace of socialist teachings. “The Jonestown tragedy marks the implosion of so many of the ideals of the 1960s.”

Rickford’s book closes in 1980. That was the year the Guyanese government assassinated Walter Rodney, a leading Guyanese political activist, academic, and Pan Africanist. “The story of Guyana and the Pan Africanists is a dark one,” Rickford says. “But what attracts me to this kind of history is the sense of radical possibilities that animate the people who are involved. It helps open up a new perspective on Black politics, on Black thought, and also the possibilities for a radical solidarity, for a sustained and dynamic internationalism.”

In A Proxy Africa Rickford brings to the forefront the hopes, expectations, and ideas of a wide set of Black political actors. “They had a sense that a real alternative to Western imperialism is crystalizing, and they wanted to play a part in that,” he says. “That became a major motivator for the way they lived their lives and practiced their politics. I think these impulses are often forgotten. So even just chronicling some of these efforts, whatever their weaknesses or failures may have been, is an important way to expand our vision of African American political aspirations in the late twentieth century.”

Pan Africanist Schools in the United States

A Proxy Africa will be Rickford’s second book since becoming a professional historian. His first, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2016), chronicled the establishment of Pan Africanist schools in the United States by followers of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and ’70s. A multiple prize winner, We Are an African People focuses on the attempt by Black radicals to revolutionize African American life and to envision an alternative society.

“The schools ran the gamut from K through 12 to postsecondary institutions,” Rickford says. “But their goal was to resocialize African American children and create a generation of Black nationalists, Pan Africanists, and thinkers who would lead the struggle into the next phase.”

The schools faced routine harassment by authorities, were relatively short-lived, and largely forgotten, Rickford explains. “But they did impart a very dynamic alternative education based on Pan Africanist ideas,” he says.

Organizing for Justice

Before graduate school, Rickford worked briefly as a journalist. During that time, he wrote two books: Spoken Soul (Wiley, 2000) (cowritten with his father, John Rickford), which explores the story of Black English, and Betty Shabazz: A Life Before and After Malcolm X (Sourcebooks, Rev. Ed. 2005) about Malcom X’s widow. Both books are evidence of his long interest in African American history, especially African American politics and the Black Power period. “When I worked as a reporter I covered some of these issues, so I really came to them from the perspective of journalism,” he says.

Rickford’s interest goes beyond research. In 2018, he became involved in a local Black Lives Matter chapter in Ithaca, New York. “We were engaged in organizing, particularly around police issues and injustice,” he says. “Ithaca historically has had a small African American community, and gentrification in recent years has really affected it, so it was a good feeling to help maintain political activity and mobilization for a while.”

The sense of connection that comes with boots-on-the-ground activism feels right to Rickford. “I never thought I’d be the kind of academic who stayed in the ivory tower,” he says.

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