In the fall of 1995, the top writers in Canada’s Black literary firmament gathered at the National Library of Canada in Ottawa to take part in the Black Writers Conference. Andre Alexis, Dionne Brand, George Elliott Clarke, Cecil Foster, Claire Harris, Nalo Hopkinson, and Makeda Silvera were just some of the authors present. Curiously, given the august assembly, the conference’s keynote speaker was neither a writer nor a literary critic of repute. He was not a renowned academic nor was he even a politician of middling significance. Doubtless, as he approached the stage, many in the audience wondered who this distinguished looking Black man with the salt and pepper goatee was.
By the end of his address, in which he’d discussed the function of art, cited the heroic example of Haiti’s liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture, referenced the Russian Revolution, and stressed the need to resist the depredations of imperialism in all of its guises, audience members understood why he had been invited, for he had reminded them that artists had a critical role to play in the struggle to create a new world – a world of justice and equality, a world in which all people could be free.That so many in the audience knew so little about this worldly, erudite and accomplished man, says much about what has been elided and erased in the stories that are told about Canada. At its most basic level it speaks to the failure of communities to preserve and sustain memory.
The speaker’s name was Alfie Roberts. It was thanks in large part to the activities of Roberts and the group he’d helped to found in Montreal in the mid 1960s, the Conference Committee on West Indian Affairs, that the seminal Congress of Black Writers had taken place there in 1968. Through his tireless efforts to raise the political consciousness of generations of people young and old, he had played a vital role in building politicized communities in Canada and the Caribbean. Ever active in all aspects of his local community, Roberts served as a kind of roving commissar, a veritable ambassador of ideas. In fact, he had been making the regular dissemination of information his business since arriving in Canada in 1962 from his native St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Books, it is said, help to fill in the silences. The newly released A View For Freedom: Alfie Roberts Speaks is an invaluable document that affirms that truth, as it advances the ongoing process of filling in the gaps in Canadian and Caribbean historiography. A View for Freedom is the serendipitous product of a meeting held in January 1995 between Alfie Roberts and his protégé, the Montreal writer/broadcaster David Austin. It was the kind of discussion that the putative brothers in arms had had on dozens of occasions over the course of a remarkably intense six-year friendship. What made this particular rendezvous so unique was that Austin recorded it.
Although Roberts’ and Austin’s encounter was a dialogue, the book is written in a monologue form, in which only the words of Roberts are noted. It is a slim volume, part memoir, part political tract – in the tradition of Guyanese Marxist intellectual Walter Rodney’s book Walter Rodney Speaks – that offers some fascinating insights into the incisive mind of one of the leading, yet unsung figures in the history of both the Canadian and Caribbean left. In its pages, Roberts offers an account of politics in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, provides an assessment of the autocratic leadership styles of Trinidad’s Eric Williams and Grenada’s Eric Gairy, recounts his life in cricket, describes meetings in Montreal with the Trinidadian Marxist intellectual CLR James, and tells the story of the Congress of Black Writers and the thunderclap that was the Sir George Williams Affair. Through it all, Roberts charts his own personal evolution from his early years on a small island in the Caribbean as a precocious “boy in short pants” making keen observations about the world around him, to a young man living in Montreal, thinking and working to change the world.
The book opens with a poignant introductory essay by David Austin that articulates the extent of Roberts influence on Austin’s own political development and that of an entire generation of young political radicals. It closes with an extraordinarily poetic and profound afterword written by the acclaimed Marcus Garvey and CLR James scholar, UCLA historian Robert Hill. Both of these essays pay a fitting tribute to a giant of a man.
Alfie Roberts was that most organic and public of intellectuals whose life was thoroughly contaminated by existence. Like his friend and comrade Walter Rodney, Roberts located his classroom wherever people gathered. Whether it was on the subway or community hall, university library or street corner, Roberts took his ideas to the streets. One of Roberts’ favourite sayings was “Each one teach one”. It was an aphorism that appealed to his democratic spirit and belief in the capacity of individuals to be agents of change. And so he made it his project to engage people on the issues of the day. Whether it was the future of Montreal’s Black community, the state of the Cuban Revolution, the prospects for Quebec independence, the significance of the Haitian Revolution, the genius of Miles Davis, the lesson of King Lear, the scope of CLR James, or the relevance of Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, his was a very human commitment to dialogue, debate and exchange. Roberts knew that each encounter was a pedagogical and political moment pregnant with possibilities for transformation.
Roberts was neither an academic nor a prolific writer, though he was in the purest sense a scholar, bibliophile and political philosopher. And while he held the equivalent of a Masters degree in Public Administration, he was also an autodidact who had made himself an expert on subjects as broad as Caribbean, African and Soviet history, Marxism, and Jazz music.
At times, sections of A View For Freedom seem truncated. Throughout the text, Roberts’s approach to politics is made clear, yet there is insufficient detail about his own ideas. We know that Roberts is sympathetic to Marxism but he doesn’t tell us why. He states that he is intrigued by the question of organization but his position is never fully articulated. Roberts tends to offer succinct general reviews of events rather than elaborate analyses. In his defence, Roberts could never have imagined that a recorded late night conversation with a young friend would become his “final testament.” Had Roberts understood the significance of the conversation he was having, perhaps he might have taken the time to elaborate on many more of his views. Instead, it would seem that his objective in this discussion was to provide a general overview of the people and events that shaped his life.
A View for Freedom: Alfie Roberts Speaks is a book that announces that Black and Caribbean people have played a critical role in shaping Canadian political history. It is an important text that opens up vistas in the Canadian and Caribbean historical landscape that had formerly been dismissed or obscured. And most importantly, it tells the story of a man who understood that ordinary people can organize themselves, dream and make the world anew.