A MOST ELOQUENT PRESENTATION OF AFRICA’S CASE TO THE ‘WHITE’ WORLD (1)

George Padmore’s lifelong and single-minded devotion to the cause of African liberation, was ignited in him by another African who was also born abroad –  Edward Wilmot Blyden.

Blyden was born in the Virgin Islands (then under Danish rule) but spent most of his life in West Africa, particularly in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but (rather unexpectedly) also in the then British colony of Lagos.

The nexus between Padmore and Blyden must be acknowledged, because, African history is often taught as if our liberation dropped out of heaven and grew in splendid isolation.

The reason is that it is extremely inconvenient for some of the whites who own the political/history teaching/publishing industry, to accept that there is only ‘one Africanness’ in the world. Even more difficult to grasp for some is the fact that the black colour of a person brought up in a white environment can – and does – often arouse so much curiosity about the origins of that colour (and the possible loss of intellectual and spiritual identity associated with the person’s removal from its ‘source’) that he or she can spend a lifetime exploring and retrieving what he or she had lost.

And when what is lost is found, it sometimes becomes a lifelong mission to communicate it to others with such force and passion that a whole movement – both political and intellectual – can arise out of it to unite peoples otherwise separated by land and sea.

The rediscovery of the African roots of blacks in the Diaspora happened to Edward Blyden; it happened to Sylvester Williams; to W.E.B. Du Bois; to Marcus Garvey and to George Padmore. The works of Edward Blyden, which Padmore came across among his father’s famed collection of books, had such an effect on Padmore as a young man that when he was leaving Trinidad for America in 1924 (at the age of 21), he left instructions with his newly pregnant bride that she should name the child ‘Blyden’ – whether it was a boy or a girl!

Meanwhile, Padmore himself had changed his name ‘Malcolm Nurse’ to ‘George Padmore’, in order to escape the attentions of the FBI (which would have looked askance at Padmore’s joining of the Communist Party in the US.)

When, in 1900, the black lawyer, Sylvester Williams, persuaded Dr W.E.B. Du Bois to participate in the “Pan-African Conference” (at which Du Bois’ famous ‘Address to the Nations’, with its prophetic statement that ‘the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line’) the search for unity amongst all black people had begun in earnest.

Sylvester Williams was born at Arouca in Trinidad, from where he went first to Canada and then to England to read law. He obtained law degrees at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at King’s College, London, before going on to practise as a barrister in South Africa(!) from 1903 to 1905. He was the first black man to do so.

Williams’s experience in South Africa must have politicised him a lot, for on his return to London, he became involved in municipal politics and won a seat on the Marylebone Borough Council in November 1906. He was one of the first people of African descent to be elected to public office in Britain. He returned to Trinidad in 1908, where he practised as a lawyer until he died in 1912.

Although he was fired by the same Pan-African ideals as Sylvester Williams, Edward Blyden was not a politician but a priest and educationist by profession. It was his writings as a sociologist, historian and philosopher that impressed the young George Padmore. Blyden extolled the ‘African personality’ in an unabashed manner at a time – the mid-19th and early 20th centuries – when the prevailing view of Africa in Europe and America (except within a few enlightened circles) was not far removed from the well-publicised words of the ‘influential’ British philosopher and historian, David Hume, namely that: ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes (Hume wrote in an essay entitled ‘Of National Characters’) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.” 

George Padmore, who was very well-read as a young man, may have come across this racist statement of Hume’s and, as many educated blacks of his time did, felt it to be a repugnant viewpoint. But how was it to be countered? That is where he would have found the published works of Edward Blyden enormously liberating. 

Blyden had published more than two dozen pamphlets and books, the most important of which are ‘A Voice from Bleeding Africa’ (1856); ‘The Negro in Ancient History’ (1869); ‘The West African University’(1872); ‘Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race’ (1887) and his most majestic work: ‘West Africa before Europe’ (1905). 

In these works, Blyden argued that Africa and Africans have a worthy history and culture. He rejected the notion of the inferiority of the black man prevalent in Europe and America and propagated the view that each major race had a ‘special contribution’ to make to world civilisation.

He boldly pointed out – although he was an ordained Christian minister – that Christianity had had a ‘demoralising’ effect on blacks, in contrast to Islam, which, he pointed out, had had ‘a unifying and elevating influence’ on them. 

Blyden’s political goal – which Padmore adopted as his own and tried to implement in Africa, as the Advisor on African Affairs of President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (1857-59)- was the establishment of a major, single, modern West African state, which would protect and promote the interests of peoples of African descent everywhere.

Blyden saw Liberia – then with the rare distinction of being an independent African state – as the ‘nucleus’ of such a Pan-African state, with Sierra Leone and Nigeria following not far behind. But in order to offer a credible project of African nationhood, Blyden first had to establish the equality of the African as a man like any other, which meant demolishing the prevailing view of the ‘Caucasian race’ (as exemplified by David Hume) that the African was an inherently ‘inferior being’.

In a book entitled ‘Liberia’s Offering’, published in 1862, Blyden eloquently deployed his vast knowledge of the Bible to indict Europeans who considered themselves ‘civilised’, but who either refused to learn about the true nature of Africa, or distorted it to fit into an ignorant mindset that was “the product of the crudest and most ‘ancient xenophobia’.”

The continent of Africa (Blyden argued) occupied an important geographical position, lying as it did between two great oceans – the highways of the principal portions of commerce. Yet, to the majority of ‘civilised and enlightened’ men, Africa was hardly ever made a subject of earnest thought. To Europeans and Americans, Africa was a land that was spoken of only when “instances of degradation, ignorance, and superstition” were required. Many of these ‘Christians’, only regarded Africa as a place for a “lucrative trade in palm-oil, cam-wood or ivory”, Blyden wrote.

(TO BE CONCLUDED) 

Letter From Afar
by Cameron Duodu

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