English and Drama blog

2 posts from September 2019

27 September 2019

The Banning of a Man and the Making of a Book: The Walter Rodney Affair, 1968

by Naomi Oppenheim, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library and UCL. Researching Caribbean print cultures and the politics of history in post-war Britain. Follow her on Twitter @naomioppenheim. All materials mentioned here are available to consult, for free, in our Reading Rooms. This blog forms part of Banned Books Week.  Let us know what banned book you’ll be reading this week and keep an eye on the Library's Americas and European blogs for more.

Sitting on an aeroplane upon returning from Montreal where he attended a Congress of Black Writers, Dr. Walter Rodney was declared a persona non grata by the Jamaican government and denied entry into Jamaica. The Guyanese historian and Black Power activist was also dismissed from his post (lecturer in African history) at the University of the West Indies, Mona. In a ‘snap interview,’ on 15 October 1968, onboard the grounded aircraft that was he was prohibited from leaving, Rodney stated that ‘“This is no surprise to me. I have discovered that in Jamaica to be a black man is dangerous.”’

Photograph of front cover of Daily Gleaner, showing photograph of Walter Rodney

Daily Gleaner, 16 October 1968, p.1 MFM.MC381

Prime Minister, Hugh Shearer, accused Rodney of being ‘at the centre of plots and plans to promote a Castro-type revolution in Jamaica.’ In fact, Rodney was under surveillance by the Special Branch of the Jamaican police force months before he was banned. This was symptomatic of the Cold War politics that characterised this period. Jamaica’s new governing elite feared Rodney’s capacity to bridge academic and urban political thought and action. Not your typical lecturer, Rodney dedicated his intellectual energy towards Jamaica’s Rastafarians. Rodney would give ‘reasonings,’ in poor communities in Kingston and around the island. Known as ‘groundings’ within the Rastafarian community, they were informal discussions that would take place in gullies (where squatters lived), schools, churches, and trade union halls. Rodney would listen and talk about African history, Black Power, and the failings of the neocolonial class.

The banning of Rodney – physically and ideologically – was part a long history of banning radical texts, newspapers, people, and ideas in the Caribbean. In the early twentieth century, as nationalist politics developed across the region, censorship laws were put in place. In response to mounting workers’ resistance, the Trinidadian Seditious Acts and Publications Ordinance (1920) ‘banned a number of publications and created the offence of “disaffection” against the King, the Government and the Executive … with penalties of up to two years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £1,000.’ In effect, the law prohibited the distribution of printed material that the state considered subversive; thus, threatening freedom of thought, the press, and society at large. One of the main targets of this act was Marcus Garvey’s popular and subversive newspaper, Negro World. Published in New York, from 1917-1933, it reached far corners of the Black Atlantic, often distributed surreptitiously, by seamen and travelers.

Front cover of Black Power in the Caribbean edited by Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn (eds.), Black Power in the Caribbean (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014) YC.2014.a.16051

This culture of censorship was not just a hallmark of the colonial era, it persisted in newly-formed independent Caribbean nations. Speaking about the Jamaican government, Rupert Lewis – Black Power activist who was a student at Mona when the 1968 banning occurred – described the ‘banned list’ of books which the Jamaican government upheld in the Cold War context. It encompassed the ‘ban of all publications from Peking, Moscow, all Eastern European countries, Cuba,' as well as a ‘whole list of Black Panther newspapers, Malcolm X, and so on.’ Lewis who was a founding member of Abeng, a Black Power student newspaper which was established in the aftermath of the Rodney Affair, explains how ‘Abeng saw itself as providing space for the ideas that were being banned by the government.’ It was a powerful move in response to the government’s censorship of Black Power literature.

Front cover of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, showing full portrait

Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books by arrangement with Hutchinson, 1968)

Walter Rodney’s banning from Jamaica sparked an eruption of protests which travelled from the uptown Mona campus to downtown Kingston – it galvanised students, intellectuals, Rastafarians, the unemployed, and downtown ‘sufferers’ alike. Alongside this, the Daily Gleaner reported protests that were occurring across the region – at the Cave Hill (University of the West Indies) campus in Barbados, and in Georgetown, Guyana. In Kingston, the pro-government Daily Gleaner painted the uprising as ‘vandalism,’ with ‘hooligan gangs … looting, smashing, damaging, burning.’The article presented a politically-motivated distinct divide between ‘university students … faculty members’ and ‘gangs of men’ that were ‘anxious to take advantage of civil disorder [causing]…widespread destruction of property.’

Photograph of front cover of Daily Gleaner with headline 'Campus Row Brings Out Vandals'

Daily Gleaner, 17 October 1968, p.1

Photograph of Daily Gleaner showing student protests

Daily Gleaner, 17 October 1968, p.24

Walter Rodney’s trials and tribulations also reverberated in Britain. Protests were held outside the Jamaican Tourist Board in London, where Rodney’s comrades and friends, Richard Small, Jessica Huntley, Eric Huntley, Andrew Salkey, John La Rose, Selma James, and many others protested the banning. Out of these transatlantic political struggles and protests came a series of documents, written by Rodney, that were related to the work he had been doing in Jamaica. Rodney handed them to a group in London (many of whom had been present at the protest).Regrouping and discussing Rodney’s papers at 110 Windemere Road, Ealing – the home of Eric and Jessica Huntley – these documents came to be the basis of the seminal Black Power text The Groundings with My Brothers.


Front cover of The Groundings with my Brothers by Walter Rodney

Walter Rodney, The Groundings with my Brothers (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1969) Andrew Salkey Archive Dep 10310, box 6)

Formed out of the ‘groundings’ that Rodney gave in poor urban communities across Kingston, Groundings is a landmark text that critically explored the history and permeating effects of race, colonialism, and slavery on Caribbean society, passing comment on the continued struggles in the supposedly post-colonial Caribbean. Rodney called out the Government of Jamaica as serving the ‘interests of a foreign, white capitalist system’ whilst also upholding ‘a social structure which ensures that the black man resides at the bottom of the social ladder.’ Rodney was calling for anti-capitalist and global Black Power.

The publication of Rodney’s documents marked the birth of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. One of the first black publishers in Britain, Bogle-L’Ouverture would continue to publish and promote political, cultural, and literary texts, that were written by black and for black people. They also promoted black artists on book covers (Errol Lloyd did the artwork for Groundings), alongside selling greetings cards in their bookshop, which was renamed the Walter Rodney Bookshop in 1980, following his assassination. The publisher was founded on the premise of creating channels of dissemination for ideas and books that challenged the status quo and were hence marginalised, or censored, in the case of Walter Rodney.

Suggested further reading:

  • Andrews, Margaret, Doing nothing is not an option. The Radical Lives of Eric and Jessica Huntley (Middlesex: Krik Krak, 2014)
  • Lewis, Rupert, ‘Walter Rodney: 1968 Revisited’, Social and Economic Studies, 43 (1994), 7-56.
  • Quinn, Kate (eds.), Black Power in the Caribbean, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014)
  • Rodney, Walter, The Groundings with my Brothers (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1969)
  • West, Michael O., ‘Seeing Darkly: Guyana, Black Power, and Walter Rodney’s Expulsion from Jamaica’, Small Axe, 25 (2008), 93-104




23 September 2019

Publishing in America and the 1917 Espionage Act

by Jodie Collins, a CDP student working on American Political Pamphlets within the Collections Division of the British Library. Follow Jodie on Twitter, @jodc92, and read more about her case-studies here. Let us know what banned book you’ll be reading this week and keep an eye on the Library's Americas and European blogs for more on Banned Books Week. 

“Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States … shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment of not more than twenty years.”
— The United States Sedition Act of 1918

In 1917, shortly after joining the Allied Powers in the First World War, the United States introduced controversial legislation which meant that Americans could be prosecuted for criticising the war. This was known as the Espionage Act. Not long after, in 1918, the Act was expanded by the Sedition Act, which forbade “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.”

The introduction of these acts coincided with what was known as the first ‘Red Scare’—an increasingly widespread fear of radicalism—which would reach its peak in 1919-20. The 1917 Russian Revolution and the increase in labor activity in the U. S. convinced many that communist revolution was an imminent threat.

Radical publishers such as Charles Kerr & Company now found it much more difficult to distribute their books and pamphlets, especially as the U. S. Post Office gained authority to withhold delivery of any material it deemed seditious. The Masses, the most prominent socialist magazine at the time, was forced out of print by the new Act, when its editors were prosecuted under the Act.


Front cover of The Masses vol.9 no.2 showing portrait in religious style

The Masses Vol. 9, No. 12 (October 1917) The penultimate issue of the magazine before its demise. [BL General Reference Collection LOU.A93]. 

Over 1,500 radicals and conscious objectors were jailed or deported for writing and distributing material that was critical of the government or the war. Members of the labour union, Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), were particularly hard hit.

Even after the war had ended, literature continued to be closely monitored. Many years later, pamphlets that had been used as evidence in Espionage Act trials could creep back up on those who wrote—or even read—them. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a Communist, recalled in her memoirs how a pamphlet she wrote in 1917 was ‘dug up’ over 40 years later:

“It has bobbed up like a bad penny from time to time, even in the Subversive Activities Control Board hearing in July 1952, when I was a defense witness for the Communist Party. …  Any stick serves in a witch hunt, even a tattered and torn pamphlet, long since out of print, dug up by some sleuth in a secondhand bookstore, nearly 40 years after its publication. … A few years ago when Michael Quill, the head of the Transport Workers Union in New York City, threatened the company with a strict enforcement of the Book of Rules, he was accused of having read this obscure pamphlet of mine, of which he had undoubtedly never heard.”

            —- Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Rebel Girl (New York: International Publishers, 1955)


Front cover for Sabotage by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers' Industrial Efficiency (Cleveland, OH: IWW Publishing Bureau, 1917) [BL General Reference Collection Wq4/9726]

Nevertheless, groups like the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB) were active in fighting against these laws and helping to defend those prosecuted. But the work of the NCLB was hindered by the legislation. Just like those whom the group was trying to defend, the distribution of the NCLB’s publications was impeded by the Post Office department. As such, the organisation struggled to raise money and publicise its case. The NCBL went on to become the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920.

Frontispiece for Political Prisoners in Federal Military Prisons

Political Prisoners in Federal Military Prisons (New York: National Civil Liberties Bureau, 1918) [BL General Reference Collection YD.2007.a.7915]


The Espionage Act of 1917 is, in fact, still intact, and used to this very day. But it has faced many legal challenges throughout its 100 years of existence on the basis of Freedom of Speech and its adherence to the U.S. Constitution. It was, and remains, just one example of the long and complicated history of the United States relationship with radicalism and free speech.

Further Reading:

Maik, Thomas, The Masses 1911-1917 (London: Garland Publishing, 1994)

Martinek, Jason D., Socialism and Print Culture in America, 1897–1920 (New York: Pickering & Chatto, 2012)

Preston Jr., William, Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903—1933 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994)

Schmidt, Roger, Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, 1919-1943 (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000)