When Edward Blyden, one of the founding fathers of Pan Africanism, published his book, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race in 1887, it was widely thought that a work of such fine calibre couldn’t possibly be the product of the brains of a race dismally incapable of rivalling this degree of intellectual prowess. Many were those who refused to become part of an apparent dubious hype!
A century earlier, in 1791, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, a legendary abolitionist, had re-published a shorter version of an earlier book that had failed to persuade the powers that be to consider their stance on slavery. The book Sons Of Africa (probably a more easily readable version) could have tickled a bad nerve within the corridors of power, for Quobna Ottobah Cugoano disappeared from both history and administrative records. His disappearance left a scornful question mark in the stead of his date of death.
It was sacrilege to reveal the intellectual fruit of the black man, to prevent the white notion of superiority from being corrupted. Some argue that this notion still exists in Europe, particularly in France, where a recent bill for a law highlighting the positive effects colonialism was mooted.
Slavery, as well as the colonial domination of blacks, was politically construed for the social elevation and economic gains of the white race. In February 2006, Rt Rev Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, United Kingdom, noted that : “The profits from the slave trade were part of the bedrock of our country’s (Great Britain) industrial development…” A recent book by the American author Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains, indicates that the church’s missionary organisation, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, branded its slaves on the chest with the word society to show who they belonged to.
The involvement of the church in slavery was also a means of creating a superior spiritual identity. The symbolic placement of chapels above slave dungeons bears testimony to the fact that the colonial master thought of himself as a more superior being. Whilst he solemnly related to God in holy communion above, the soul-less black devil gnashed his teeth in the dungeons below. It was supposed to be a biblical depiction of heaven and hell. It was cruel. And for years the bible was kept away from blacks.
But for Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s highly religious undertones in his narratives, would the European have accepted him as a being with a soul? Quobna’s disappearance was of the essence. His narratives, nonetheless, marked the beginning of an intellectual trail. Blyden, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and a host of other knowledgeable men of colour would not only prove the intellectual capacity of the blacks but also show a common yearning for a unique identity. The general awareness that followed the First World War, in which blacks fought alongside their white counterparts, was a glaring example of an equal human race, giving more impetus to Pan-African beliefs.
Greater still was Jesse Owens’ achievements at the 1936 Olympic Games, in Berlin, where he showed the world that Hitler’s profound conviction of aryan supremacy was not just frightfully incorrect but simply ridiculous. If the intellectual tool and a World War had proved too slow and arduous to persuade, the popular nature of sports allowed men of all horizons to recognise blacks as equals. Jesse Owens’ multiple gold medal performance captured imaginations.
Around the same period, Wallace Johnson’s communist West African Youth League had infiltrated from Nigeria in 1937 and stirred the political pot throughout the Gold Coast (now Ghana). The demand for a major political change in British West Africa was fermenting beneath the surface and Kwame Nkrumah’s return home after his European studies couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Dr. Danquah, E. Akufo Addo, William Ofori-Atta, E. Obetsebi Lamptey, E. Ako Adjei and Nkrumah, popularly known as the big six, were intent on moving from rhetoric to action. They encouraged the boycott of European goods as well as labour and work slowdowns.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Martin Luther King junior had also moved into action with demands for civil rights in a rather Ghandhi-like manner. Just like Nkrumah, the Rosa Parks incident led Dr. King to encourage a boycott. The ultimate success of the Montgomery bus boycott turned King into a national symbol. John F. Kennedy’s — albeit his political quandary — push for the enforcement of certain laws, and the James Meredith case, superbly argued by Thurgwood Marshal during the remarkable 1954 Brown vs Board Of Education suit, leading the Supreme Court to order the desegregation of schools, both served as a beacon.
Desegregation was achieved in the United States and Ghana became the first black African nation to achieve its Independence in 1957. The way was paved for blacks.
In 1964, four years before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. became a Nobel Prize Laureate. Thousands of kilometres away, Nelson Mandela – also later to become a Nobel Laureate – was sentenced to life in prison for his stance on freedom and equality.
Although some argue that the building process of civil rights in the U.S. slowed down after the assassination of Dr. King, it is also true that those years were marked by the growth of Nelson Mandela’s popularity as a potent symbol of resistance, as the anti-apartheid movement gathered strength. He was a constant reminder of the Pan-African struggle for equality. Mandela’s consistent refusal to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom was iconic. His freedom and eventual presidency brought one of the final bastions of black humiliation to a halt. The end of South Africa’s apartheid regime brought respect.
Respect, as performed by Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin is synonymous to the inroads Black music and popular culture had made, permeating the very core of an unrelenting racially intolerant West. Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, James Brown, Miriam Makeba, Osibisa, Fela Kuti, etc., were being openly listened to in white homes, subtly changing attitudes, at a period pundits claim was a slow period for civil rights and Pan Africanism.
Quobna Ottobah Cugoano would be proud to learn that Kofi Annan, a fellow countryman and possibly a fellow tribesman, had taken the reins of one of the highest international offices, the United Nations. That Richard Pearson is the head of time Warner whilst Oprah Winfrey has been ofttimes named the most influential woman on earth.
But above all else, the most impressive of all, is a breakthrough for the Pan-African dream of equality. The fact that millions of whites voted alongside blacks, as co-equals, for a black presidential candidate in the United States brought the world to the realisation that quality is irrespective of colour. Barack Obama’s election has redefined the black race’s place in the world.
Yet, it is still far from a perfectly equal world as far as Barack Obama’s race, more than anything else, causes euphoria. Nonetheless, we have come a long way and as Maya Angelou’s poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” goes, “The free bird leap on the back of the win’ and floats downstream till the current ends and dips his wings in the orange sun rays and dares to claim the sky…”
This is the beginning of a new dawn and it is time to savour our freedom from the frustrating snare of inequality.