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Remembering the 1968 Congress of Black Writers

Published: 
Monday, April 9, 2018

The Montreal Congress of Black Writers of 1968 is considered by some to have been pivotal in promoting global awareness of the issues of people of colour, while adding steam to unfolding social tensions in North America, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

“For that long Canadian Thanksgiving weekend in October 1968, the Congress of Black Writers temporarily transformed Canada and Montreal into the centre of the Black Power movement,” writes Canadian scholar David Austin in Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex and Security in Sixties Montreal.

At that time, the civil rights movement across the border in the United States had taken a critical turn with the 1968 assassination of leading activist Martin Luther King Jr while there was the growing, controversial prominence of the Black Panther Party, formally established in 1966.

Port-of-Spain-born Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), who had joined King in the 1966 Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi march was also subsequently at the centre of tensions between the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Panthers. He was among the headline-making participants at the Montreal Congress.

In Canada, conflict over racial discrimination at the Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University in Montreal was simmering and would eventually bubble over into the dramatic events of 1969 largely involving Caribbean students.

Social conflict in the West Indies in countries such as Jamaica, T&T and Guyana had reached heightened proportions, even in those early years of political independence. So, by late 1968, there were riots in Jamaica traceable to the writers’ congress as a result of the island’s black-listing of Guyanese Walter Rodney, post-election conflict in Guyana following elections in December and, in 1970, the Black Power demonstrations of T&T fueled in part by the George Williams events.

In the background, and somewhere between the collapse of the Montreal-based Caribbean Conference Committee (CCC) in 1967 and CLR James’ seemingly-unrelated London study group of the early 60s, was seeded the idea of a Black Writers Congress.

One important personal interface of much of this was not an academic, author or fiery left-wing orator, but a musician who had moved from Trinidad to London in 1959, worked on the London transit system and ended as a percussionist under famed T&T/Venezuelan musician, Edmundo Ros before moving to Montreal in 1967.

During the London years between 1959 and his move to Canada, Trinidadian Raymond Watts had become a follower of CLR James and was a regular at the late writer’s weekly Friday evening study sessions where he sat on the floor alongside a star-studded cast of Caribbean intellectuals, activists and writers examining the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Watts still describes himself as something of an outsider “with a terrible inferiority complex in that environment.” For, in the room, at different times, could have been found the late Guyanese writer, Wilson Harris; Jamaican novelist/poet, Andrew Salkey and Jamaican economist Norman Girvan. Occasionally, T&T novelist Sam Selvon would drop in.

One other regular visitor was Guyanese historian/activist, Dr Walter Rodney—who eventually went back home to found the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) and was assassinated on June 13, 1980.

The London interactions with Rodney, says Watts, would help take the Guyanese academic to Montreal and a series of events which led to the Jamaican ban. Upon his return from the Congress, Rodney was refused entry into Jamaica to resume duties as a UWI lecturer and was sent back to Canada, having resisted deportation to his native Guyana where he thought he would have been targeted for assassination.

It was Watts, following an early-morning phone call from Rodney in Toronto, who would lead the effort to raise a CAD$40,000 immigration bond to help keep the Guyanese academic in Canada until the smoke cleared.

Watts’ role in much of this is often buried under the significant parts played by both the CCC and the 1968 Congress in the epochal events that followed in Canada, Jamaica, and T&T that forged uneasy but effective alliances between the black nationalists and so-called progressive elements of the left and changed the course of Caribbean history.

Watts claims to have come up with the idea of a black writers’ conference having followed the published proceedings of the International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists hosted in Paris in 1956 and in Rome in 1959. He also thought it would be one way to continue the momentum of the CCC conferences.

The Negro Writers and Artists conferences had witnessed the participation of Caribbean luminaries such as Barbadian writer George Lamming, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon of Martinique and, in 1959, Dr Eric Williams of T&T. The events were also well-known for the papers delivered by Fanon which preceded publication of The Wretched of the Earth in 1961.

Watts says he recalls a conversation with Grenadian radical activist, Franklyn Harvey (who died in 2016) following the demise of the CCC in which he (Watts) proposed that “we should attend to the black problem in North America” through a similar kind of event drawing from Caribbean intellectual resources resident and not resident in Canada.

“I had been following the proceedings of the Negro Writers’ conferences and they had formed part of my mental structure and was something I wanted to do if I could,” Watts says.

Among the immediate challenges, though, was the raising of money to host the event. Roosevelt “Rosie” Douglas, who went on to become prime minister of Dominica and is widely credited with leading the effort to stage the Black Writers Congress, was not on the best of terms with McGill University (where he had completed his undergraduate studies). According to Watts, it was T&T economist, Lloyd Best who convinced the university to invest CAD$9,000 in the conference. “There would have been no Congress, if Lloyd (Best) had not intervened,” Watts says.

Ironically, Best was among the people responsible for the reportedly chaotic closure of the Congress. He is widely quoted as having argued before the gathering that the intellectual discourse at the conference was “absolutely scandalous” and had divided the world into “cowboys and Indians.” He also refused to stick to the guidelines for speaking time when things dragged on beyond the appointed schedule.

Members of the Panthers contingent, who had travelled from New York, had also complained about the high presence of white people at the event and decided to stage a parallel “conference” at the campus with, according to Watts, the approval of leading conference organiser, Douglas.

Additionally, unlike the Paris and Rome events of 1956 and 1959 which are now recorded in the archives of the bi-monthly Présence African—the “Cultural Journal of the Negro World”—the proceedings of the Montreal Congress are nowhere to be located as a coherent standalone publication, though Austin’s publication chronicles and interprets the highlights.

Once asked why the Black Power movement is never readily associated with the struggle of blacks in Canada, Austin linked it to what he described as “the myth of Canadian innocence.”

It’s the kind of point Black Panther-aligned African-Canadian Rocky Jones, would have made when he spoke at the Congress 50 years ago.

Together with Jones, Carmichael, James, Rodney, American civil rights activist, James Forman and sociologist Harry Edwards are among the most cited presenters on the occasion.

Watts is mentioned in the scant records as having led the Raymond Watts Combo with music for the opening session. He was also responsible for the shuttling of participants to and from the airport and actually took little part in the deliberations of the Congress.

This year, trade unionist/writer Rae Samuel is part of a team working on commemorating the 50th anniversary of the event with a similar conference to be staged in T&T.

It’s not 1968, but a fit-looking Watts is ready to roll when the others are ready. This time around, he seems set to occupy the podium and to more boldly assert his presence. In 2016, he launched his own perspectives on race and radical politics From Colonialism to Capitalist Democracy—A Failed Option for Trinidad billed as a “modest non-academic work.”

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