Journal of Latin American Anthropology
Thunder in Guyana, 2003. A film by Suzanne Wasserman. 50 min. Colour. Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, 5th Floor, New York, NY10013; phone (212)925-0606, e-mail email@example.com,http://www.wmm.com.
by Percy C. Hintzen, University of California, Berkeley
In December 1997, an American-born Jewish woman was elected President of the Republic of Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America. She was the first American-born woman to be elected President of any country in the region. For members of her Jewish family in the United States, the event was a time of reflection on her life and their attitudes to it.
She left them in 1943 when she was just 23 years old to accompany her Guyanese, East Indian, Hindu husband, Cheddi Jagan on his return to his country of birth. Suzanne Wasserman spent 10 days with her during her Presidential campaign in Guyana. It was the first time in the 53 years since Janet Jagan had moved to her adopted homeland that any member of her family in the United States had visited her. The result is a documentary that is partly an historical and somewhat sympathetic account of the nationalist movement of Guyana and partly a quest for understanding a member of the family who elicited profound and concern, even though clearly disapproving but adoring attention.
Janet Rosenberg was a Product of the conflict between the promise of the United States and its harsh reality. She was Jewish and a woman born in 1920. Her Jewish parents were conservative Republicans who held tightly to the racial binaries, cultural exclusivity, and gender typifications that still continue to trouble the country even today. Her father, in an effort to escape the implications of his Jewishness, changed his name from Rosenberg to Roberts in order to secure work. His daughter, Janet, possessed all of the qualities that defined white American (and male) superiority.
She was a world-class swimmer who took flying lessons and rode horses. She was the ideal American beauty. And she was an intellectual. She met Cheddi Jagan while enrolled as a student at Wayne State University in the early nineteen forties. Clearly, she was aware that the promise of America was not available to her, something that she was unwilling to accept. Her Jewishness, she believed, came with the perpetual condition of being the underdog. Rather than accept the limitations of Americansociety, she chose to leave and to create the conditions of her own dignity and the dignity of humanity elsewhere.
While campaigning for the Presidency of Guyana in 1997 Janet Jagan was asked to described herself. After hesitating out of embarrassed modesty, she declared herself to be a “freedom fighter.” This is the most profound insight captured by the documentary. Her response serves as a trope for the dangerous and vicious misunderstandings and misrepresentations that are attached to her life. It describes her profound commitment to freedom and to its pursuit whatever the personal costs. But to American and Western ears, her self-description evokes the spectre of freedom’s diametrical opposite.
The sympathetic airing of Janet Jagan’s story by Wasserman, the daughter of a first cousin who was clearly enthralled with her life, is rooted in the personal and the familial. It has the quality of a journey of redemption for a family who rejected most of what Janet Jagan did and stood for. And there was much to reject. She openly challenged the capitalist status quo in the 1940s. She dated and eventually married an equally radical Asian Indian from Guyana who was studying dentistry at Northwestern University. Their relationship was transgressive in every way. He was Hindu and he was foreign. Her father refused to meet him because, in his racially jaundiced eyes, he was “Black.” He threatened to “shoot him on sight.” Her grandmother had a stroke when they married.
Despite the sympathetic treatment of her great aunt, Suzanne Wasserman cannot escape the American lens through which her interpretation of Janet Jagan’s radicalism is filtered. She succumbs to the use of the “Marxist” and “Communist” labels in describing the ideology of the Jagans and the government that they formed in the fifties despite their own rejection of these labels. These were the very justifications used by the United States and Britain to oust them from power on two occasions, in 1953 and 1964, the latter in a campaign that Janet Jagan predicted, correctly, would lead to a future of endemic violence and turmoil for the country.
Wassermann’s concern with the familial and personal leaves gaps in her understanding of the relationship between Cheddi and Janet. They were extraordinary in their similarities, a point that can be missed when viewed through obscurantist racial, national, cultural and religious lenses. They were both extraordinarily attractive physically. Both were born into societies from which they were excluded on religious and cultural grounds. They both possessed profound and critical intellects. And both managed to overcome the strictures and limitations that their respective societies placed on them. One could sense the profound chemistry in their relationship and the reason for their singular pursuit of freedom and human dignity for everyone. They returned to the English colony of British Guiana soon after they met and married. Immediately, they mounted challenges to the colonial status quo by organising the most dispossessed: the sugarcane workers and she the domestic workers. This catapulted them to the leadership of the nationalist movement.
Their challenge was not merely to colonialism but to capitalism itself. In 1953 the People’s Progressive Party, which they founded won office in the first elections held under universal suffrage. Cheddi became the colony’s first Premier and Janet its first woman member of the cabinet. She also became the Deputy Speaker of the colony’s parliament. Quickly, the Jagans became lightening rods in the cold war anti-communist crusade by North America and Western Europe. And Janet Jagan, as the white American woman who had stepped out of line, became cast as the evil genius behind a gullible husband. The British ousted their Party from power in 1953. The Jagans were both imprisoned.
They survived, unbowed, to be elected to national office once again in 1957. Cheddi Jagan became Chief Minister with Janet holding the important cabinet post of Minister of Labour, Health, and Housing. They Party remained in office until 1964 during a period when the country saw its greatest achievement in education, agriculture, health, welfare, and economic development. But they could not survive the U.S. interventionism that intensified after the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961. The United States collaborated with Great Britain to change the constitution. Despite receiving the largest percentage of the vote, the Party suffered an electoral defeat orchestrated by the machinations of Great Britain (the documentary incorrectly states that the Party received a majority of the votes, which it did not). Janet and Cheddi Jagan had become poster children in the international campaign against communism. But the ire of the anti-communists was directed particularly at Janet. She was labelled as one of the most dangerous communists in the hemisphere and was compared to Eva Peron by the New York Times. Both Jagans got special attention from Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy for whom they had become objects of derision. In the propaganda campaign Janet was identified, erroneously, as related to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Cheated out of office, Janet and Cheddi continued their campaign for freedom and civil rights until, in 1992, their Party, the People’s Progressive Party, won the first free and fair elections held in the country since they were ousted in 1964. With Cheddi Jagan as President, they picked up from where they left off, turning the country’s economy around and restoring stability. When Cheddi Jagan died in office in March 1997, Janet was persuaded to run for the Presidency. She won and spent 20 months in office until a heart attack forced her resignation. In 2003 when the documentary was released, she was still working at the Party’s Headquarters. She was 83 years old.
Janet Jagan’s life is defined by its struggle for freedom against all barriers to human dignity: those of coloniality, race, class, culture, gender, etc. She sacrificed much in her quest, relinquishing her American Citizenship in 1947 and being declared persona non grata by the United States Government in the fifties and sixties. Her successes have much to do with her fearlessness. She declares in the documentary that “nothing much frightens” her. She is not bound by orthodoxy or convention. When asked, for example, about the possible reaction to her whiteness by the electorate of Guyana, a country in which 95 percent of the population is either East Indian, black, or mixed, she expressed surprise: “People do not see white when they look at me.” It represents her successful transcendence of racial boundaries in a country that is driven by racial conflict. It is erroneous, therefore, to characterise her as a white Jewish American, as does the documentary. She has transcended normalised and fixed labels of identity to become truly the “Mother of the Country” in her homeland: the Republic of Guyana.
Throughout her life, her family ties remained strong. She reconciled with her father who died during the period when she was restricted from travelling by the British. Tellingly, the only regret she uttered in the entire documentary was that her father and husband never met. Today, Janet Jagan is no longer an anachronism. While in office, the relationship between the government she headed and the United States was friendly and cooperative. And while she was reluctant to label herself, her daughter in law, Nadia, made the observation that she was “more Guyanese than most.” Perhaps she has become the epitome of what all Guyanese should be. And certainly a beacon of hope for the United States. She is a woman who not afraid to think the unthinkable.