Posted - 25 Feb 2016 : 12:33:05
How Civil Rights Actions in the US influenced democratic change in Africa
Presentation at the US Embassy Black History Month 2016 Academic Symposium 24 February 2016 – Law Faculty University of the Gambia
Fellow Africans, ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to first of all express my appreciation to the US Embassy and the University of the Gambia for organizing this most important meeting and at the honour of inviting me to speak on a matter that I consider to be at the heart of the wretchedness and weakness of the Global African Nation. The importance of history in the life of a human being, and society as a whole is immeasurable, and one can confidently claim that societies that become strong and developed are societies that are situated squarely on the knowledge of their history and practice of culture. It was Marcus Garvey who had said a person without the knowledge of his or her history is like a tree without roots. A tree without roots or with dead roots will not survive, hence a people without the knowledge of their history are a dead or a weakened people. This is the predicament facing Africans around the world today.
Mr. Chairperson, in understanding this topic under the theme, ‘Africa’s role in America’s development’ as well as the significance of Black History Month, it is quite necessary therefore for us to first delve into the very heart of the matter which is history. One of the leading scholars of Pan-Africanism and a leading scholar of history, and who in fact pioneered the study of Africa civilizations and history in American colleges since the 1960s until his demise, the late African American Prof. John Henrik Clarke described history as,
“A clock that people use to tell their time of day. It is a compass that they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It also tells them where they are, and what they are. Most importantly, an understanding of history tells a people where they still must go, and what they still must be.”
All peoples of the world have their respective histories, i.e. a body of information and knowledge about their culture and experiences, their environment, times and circumstances and their identity and humanity. Thus the ability of a people to know where they are and what they must be is a question of history and culture, i.e. how much do such a people own their own narrative, or worldview, and how much do they control their social, economic and political institutions and processes as according to their worldview.
History, Education and Subjugation
It has been observed that while you can subjugate and control a people by force and violence, what ensures that such domination lasts longer and more cost-effective, is when you alienate the oppressed people from their culture and their history so that you impose the culture and history of the dominant group on them. In this way, not only will the dominated people become passive and obedient, but shall also help to further facilitate their own oppression. I am sure we all can remember in the Roots movie, how Master Tom sought to forcefully change Kunta Kinte’s name to Toby. This was a classic scenario in attempting to deny and alienate Kunta Kinte from his identity and roots, i.e. to distort his history in order to break his will and dehumanize him. But by refusing to be Toby and insisting on keeping his original name, Kunta was resisting a disconnection with his history, his roots and identity. It is for this reason that the Great African Patriot Amilcar Cabral said that history is a weapon for the liberation of a people in reclaiming their culture and national productive forces.
The significance of Black History Month therefore lies in the attempt of a people to reclaim their history and culture from which they have been alienated in order to become full-fledged human beings who create and own their own social, economic and political institutions, free from foreign domination. To alienate the African from her history and culture so that slavery and colonialism can continue to be manageable and profitable, European and American perpetrators institutionalized a comprehensive education system that sought to colonize the mind in order to control the actions and decisions of Africans in favour of their enslavement and domination. Speaking to fellow Pan-Africanists in Accra in 1962, Kwame Nkrumah noted that,
“This system of education prepared us for a subservient role to Europe and things European. It was directed at estranging us from our own cultures in order the more effectively to serve a new and alien interest.”
He went further to point out that Europeans propagated a mythology surrounding Africa, whose central theme is the denial that Africans are a historical people,
“Whereas other continents have shaped history and determined its course, Africa has stood still, held down by inertia. Africa, it is said, entered history only as a result of European contact. Its history, therefore, is widely felt to be an extension of European history.”
The impact of slave education on the African has been well recognized but none has ever more purposefully and methodically positioned himself to combat this cancer than the founder of Black History Month Dr. Carter G Woodson himself. Starting in 1926 as Back History Day, this most important institution grew into Black History Week and since 1976 became Black History Month. Dr. Woodson recognized slave education was not meant to teach and enlighten African Americans, but to culturally indoctrinate them. In his seminal work, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), he says,
“If you can control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”
Thus Dr. Woodson observed not only had this miseducation system made the African-American to participate in her own oppression, but it also made her to despise herself and her people, while looking up to other races for emulation. Writing on the same theme, the Kenyan scholar, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o noted in his book, ‘Decolonizing the Mind’ (1986) that the imposition of European languages on Africans and the entire colonial education system served as indelible tools for the alienation of the African from her culture, hence his decision to start to write solely in his native language of Kikuyu. I remember as a primary school boy in the Gambia, we were punished in school for speaking our national languages which were disgracefully termed as vernacular.
Ngugi noted that, “Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. [. . .] In my view language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.”
Yet since gaining independence, except for Tanzania under Pres. Julius Nyerere, no African nation sought to replace European languages with their national languages. Ngugi went further to observe that,
“…writing in our languages per se [. . .] will not itself bring about the renaissance in African cultures if that literature does not carry the content of our people's anti-imperialist struggles to liberate their productive forces from foreign control.”
It is also for this same reason that students in Apartheid South Africa rose up in the Soweto Uprising of 1976 against the imposition of Bantu Education. In a 1984 statement, the Congress of South African Students said,
"The education we receive is meant to keep the South African people apart from one another, to breed suspicion, hatred and violence, and to keep us backward. Education is formulated so as to reproduce this society of racism and exploitation."
The purpose of that mis-education system developed since in the 1950s was well defined earlier by Hendrik Verwoerd, who was then the minister for native affairs, and later became the prime minister of South Africa. He says,
"There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour ... What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live."
Mr. Chairperson, I have deliberately taken time to delve into the issues of history, education and domination as a basis to establish the linkages between the civil rights movement in the United States and the struggle for liberation on the continent. As history has recorded anywhere there is oppression, there is bound to be resistance. Thus in discussing the subject of the African-American civil rights movement and its relationship with the struggle for liberation and democracy in Africa, one has to realize that these are agitations against slavery, colonialism and post-colonial oppression, which are nothing other than the distortion of the history and the denial of the culture of a people.
In light of the foregoing, it is clear therefore that the emergence and observance of the Black History Month itself is an act of resistance against the denial and distortion of Black history and destruction of our culture. Black History Month is an institution for the restitution of African History and Culture, an act of liberating a people from bondage.
Civil Rights and National Liberation
Led by both the masses and individuals of the highest caliber, and formed into associations, or institutions and as artists and other professionals, the civil rights movement can be described as a formal system of organization and struggle since the birth of the United States itself. It has employed various tactics and strategies such as nonviolence and direct action, voter registration, boycotts, civil resistance, disobedience, and education. The civil rights movement can be divided into three major epochs.
1865 – 1895 First Phase of the Civil Rights Movement
First, the American civil war served as a major source of hope for African-Americans that liberation would soon come given the leadership of Pres. Lincoln as well as the involvement of highly respected African-Americans such as the Frederick Douglas. The run-up to the civil war was particularly challenging for African-Americans that in 1852, Douglass gave a speech entitled, ‘What is Fourth of July to a Slave’ in which he lambasted his country as he highlighted the contradictions in the words and values touted by the United States and its practice of slavery. He says,
“America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
Thus the period immediately after the civil war i.e. from 1865 – 1895 as the first phase of the civil rights movement was laden with many forms of resistance through legal and political processes and also within the civil society by various individuals and organizations comprising both African-Americans and Whites. The Emancipation Proclamation, even though made two years earlier but kept away from the knowledge of African-Americans until 1865 was one of the key successes of the civil rights movement at the time. But the hope generated by Lincoln and the proclamation did not in fact translate into actual freedom and prosperity of the African-America such that as we entered the 20th century, a stronger culture of militancy was brewing up within the African-American community. The Supreme Court decision of 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson for which the highest court of the land upheld the principle of ‘separate but equal’ doctrine served to further dampen the hopes of African-Americans that they are equal members of their society.
1896 – 1954 Second Phase of the Civil Rights Movement
The second phase of the civil rights movement struggle, 1896 – 1954 therefore saw the emergence of formal and well organized African-American groups such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) of Hon. Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Other individuals of high standing and with great initiatives who would make lasting impact on the African world include WEB Dubois and his NAACP, Carter G Woodson himself as well as Booker T Washington, whose focus was on education and cooperation with well meaning Whites and the government as a means to obtain freedom and development for African Americans.
A dominant characteristic of this period is the overwhelming reference to Africa. Even WEB Dubois, who had always opposed Marcus Garvey and his call for return to Africa, had to eventually relocate and be buried to Ghana as he denounced his US citizenship. While this period was quite very active in Black Lives, yet official and systemic racism and overall oppression of the African-American continue unabated. In relation to Africa, this was also a period that saw the emergence of several anti-colonialist movements and leaders which eventually paved the way for the decolonization of the continent.
In West Africa, former British colonies had constituted themselves into the National Congress of British West Africa in the 1920s in which Gambia’s Edward Francis Small played a major role. In South Africa, the ANC emerged in 1912 as an instrument for racial equality and democracy. Between the 1930s to the 50s, the Negritude movement was launched in France by a group of African-descent intellectuals from the continent, Europe and the Caribbean prominent among who were the great scholar from Martinique Aime Cesaire and former Senegalese president Leopold Senghore. The movement sought to protest against French colonialism and assimilation. Furthermore, the period between 1900 and 1945 saw a series of international Pan-African congresses held in various European and American cities. Started first by Henry Sylvester Williams from Trinidad in 1900, the subsequent congresses led by WED Dubois from 1919 to 1945 have been considered by some analysts as the beginning of formal or organized Pan-Africanism. The 1945 congress in Manchester, England was particularly significant as it saw the involvement and participation of leading African intellectuals and politicians who would become key players in the struggle for liberation in their home countries. These included Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana who was Secretary to the congress, and former present of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta as well as Gambia’s IM Garba Jahumpa, a leading independence political figure in this country. Soon after the congress Nkrumah returned to Ghana in 1947 to become a key political leader and twelve years after the Manchester congress, Nkrumah led Ghana to independence in 1957, the first in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, Jomo Kenya would also lead his people to independence in 1964.
What needs to be observed here is that the continued practice of racial segregation in the US and colonialism in Africa as experiences of people of African descent were serving to increasingly bring these people together in which one influenced the other and vice versa. For example, Kwame Nkrumah noted in his autobiography that the book that made the biggest impression on him was the ‘Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Mosiah Garvey’ which was published in 1923. In fact, Marcus Garvey became the leader of the largest African organization ever created, the Universal Negro Improvement Association – African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) which held one of the biggest conventions ever convened in New York City in 1920 in which 25 thousand delegates from around the world attended. The convention concluded with a 40-point Declaration of the Rights of Negro Peoples of the World.
1954 – 1968 Third Phase of the Civil Rights Movement
As the civil rights movement entered its third and final phase, i.e. from 1954 to 1968, it witnessed the enactment of landmark pieces of legislation in support of freedom such as the Brown v. Board of Education in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the practice of separating public schools for Blacks and Whites thus overturning an earlier ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson 100 years ago! The 1964 Civil Rights Act followed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act as well as the 1968 Fair Housing Act were all revolutionary decisions to recognize the humanity and equality of the African-American in her society. This period was particularly interesting with the presence of two formidable schools of thought in the struggle for liberation led by two formidable individuals. While the movement led by Martin Luther King, on the one hand considered non-violence as a principle and a strategy under all circumstances, on the other hand, Malcolm X as a member of the Nation of Islam strongly upholds that non-violence is merely a tactic, ad not a principle. Between them various student and youth groups notably the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led by Stokely Carmichael, who would become Kwame Ture, and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense led by Huey Newton, emerged that eventually tilted towards Malcolm.
But significantly, one can notice here again the relationships that developed between civil rights leaders in the US and anti-colonial leaders in Africa. This period witnessed the emergence of the OAU in 1963, and the attainment of independence for about two-thirds of the African states. We know that in 1957, Martin Luther King was present in Accra at the independence ceremony of Ghana. Similarly and most significantly is the realization by Malcolm X that ultimately the struggle for civil rights in America is directly linked to the struggle for liberation in Africa. During a visit to Africa in 1964, Malcolm was exposed to the OAU which he considered a viable strategy to emulate in America to unify African-Americans.
More interestingly is the case of Stokely Carmichael who is credited for coining the term Black Power in the 1960s. Frustrated by the progress of the civil rights movement and influenced by Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure of Guinea, Stokely decided to repatriate to Africa in Guinea where he became a secretary to Nkrumah who was by then located in Conakry following his overthrow in 1966. Carmichael eventually changed his name to Kwame Ture (i.e. joining the names of the two leaders) and committed to build the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party, an instrument for African liberation and unification conceived by Kwame Nkrumah in his book, Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare (1968).
From the foregoing, it is clear that indeed the civil rights movement in America and the struggle for libration from colonialism in Africa influenced each other in terms of leadership, ideas, strategies and organization. This point was emphasized by Nkrumah in his book, The Struggle Continues (1968) when he said that the African revolutionary struggle was not an isolated one, but an integral part of the wider “Black Revolution.” He argued that the struggle for civil rights in the United States and struggles in the Caribbean were part of the struggles for the liberation of people of African descent for social, political, and economic justice, emphasizing that,
“The core of the Black Revolution is in Africa, and until Africa is united under a socialist government, the Blackman throughout the world lacks a national home. Africa is one continent, one people, and one nation.”
Nkrumah held the view that despite Africa’s arbitrarily erected colonial borders and myriad ethnic groups, the continent fundamentally constituted a single nation, noting that,
“All peoples of African descent whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean or in any other part of the world are African and belong to the African nation.”
In 1922, Garvey, who can be described as Nkrumah’s mentor, actually coined the slogan “One God, One Nation, One Destiny!” for Africans and people of African descent had similarly spoken of the need for Black people to,
“redeem our Motherland Africa from the hands of alien exploiters and found there a government, a nation of our own, strong enough to lend protection to the members of our race scattered all over the world.”
This trend of thought can be associated with even WEB Dubois. The author, Mark Stafford noted in the biography, WEB Dubois (2005) that in Dubois’ mind, the destinies of Black Americans and Africans - both of whom suffered, one under the heel of a racist social and political culture, the other under the boot of white imperialism - were connected. To demonstrate this connection, Dubois, considered the Father of Pan-Africanism eventually moved to Ghana soon after independence where he also began work on the Encyclopedia Africana, which Nkrumah described as a study that,
“Will open the eyes of Africans, will lay bare all the potentialities of this vast continent, will uncover its past and will relate that past to the present. The study will be a major factor in uniting us culturally, economically and psychologically.”
Given the role and contribution of the African Diaspora, one can confidently claim that indeed Africa gained independence thanks to Pan-Africanism, which itself, as pointed out by John Henrik Clarke is a concept produced by intellectuals in the Caribbean, and describing it as,
“A new international education whose full dimension few of us understood. The idea of bringing the totality of the African world together as one people, looking at the very essence and existence of African people.”
To conclude, Ngugi wa Thiong’o reminded us in his ‘Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance’ (2009) that Garveyism and Pan-Africanism, as remembering visions and practices, have had as their most visible results the gains of Black civil rights in America, the independence of the Caribbean territories, the independence of Africa, and the rise of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and, more recently, the African Union. He noted that Africa’s role as the base of Black history was always in Dubois’s mind, who says in Dusk of Dawn that
“As I face Africa I ask myself: what is it between us that constitute a tie which I can feel better than I can explain?”
Fellow Africans, what is clear is that the destinies of Africans everywhere are linked, and Africa is the foundation upon which a free, developed and independent African can be found. This is why Malcolm X noted that unless there is a free and respected Africa, no individual of African descent anywhere in the word shall be respected. The challenge facing Africans in the US and Africa and indeed anywhere in the world is therefore to first of all reclaim our history and culture. By this I mean we must become an independent people who are equipped with the necessary political consciousness to realize and determine our purpose, and establish our institutions that serve our needs and aspirations. Both the civil rights movement in America and the struggle to end colonialism in Africa ended in more or less the same time. While we have realized the election of an African-American as president of the United States in 2008, and also continue to witness the peaceful transfer of power in a number of African countries with presidential term limits in place, yet the core objectives of the civil rights movement as well as national independence continue to be unmet for the vast majority of our people. The incessant and incomprehensible spate of police brutality in the US targeted at African-American youth with a criminal justice system largely skewed against that population speak to the dire need to continue the fight for civil rights in the US. In Africa, the continued failure of governments and leaders to lift the vast majority of their people out of poverty, powerlessness and non-participation after half a century of independence, mainly due to weak political systems, corrupt leadership and dishonest intellectuals highlight the necessity to continue national liberation struggles. We must bear in mind that the objective of national liberation is not merely to kick out colonialism, just as the objective of the civil rights movement is not just to be able to elect any individual African-American as president or mayor or governor. The objective of the liberation struggle and the civil rights movement is primarily and fundamentally to be liberated mentally, to own and live our history and culture, in order to be free socially, economically and politically, individually and collectively, to enjoy equality and justice and become an embodiment of dignity and prosperity.
There is no excuse for the widespread underdevelopment in Africa which remains an underdog in an increasingly turbulent world other than the fact that the continent is off tangent with its history and culture. We continue to be fed and influenced by foreign ideas, policies, programs and institutions which have served to only weaken the African nation socially, economically and politically despite our unlimited resources and opportunities. The main reason for such misguidance lies in the very nature of the colonial education system that can be found in our institutions of learning, aggravated by a weak and an overwhelmingly dishonest social, economic, intellectual and political as well as religious and traditional leadership. Until this miseducation of the African stops and completely overhauled to be replaced with the truth of our history, Africa and Africans shall remain at the mercy of nature and other peoples of the world.
Thank you for your kind attention.
1. Binney, Ama. Political and Social Thought of Kwame Nkrumah’ (2011)
2. Stafford, Mark. WEB Dubois: A scholar and Activist (2005)
3. Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. Something Torn and new: An African Renaissance (2009)
4. Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. ‘Decolonizing the Mind’ (1986)
5. Nkrumah, Kwame. Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare (1968)
6. Nkrumah, Kwame. The Struggle Continues (1968)
7. Woodson, Carter G. The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)
8. Malcolm X’s Speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity
9. Clarke, John Henrik. ‘Education for a New Reality for Africa’.
10. Cabral, Amilcar. History as a weapon of national liberation and culture. 1970
11. Nkrumah, Kwame. Africanism and Culture. 1962. Excerpt of Speech Given At The Congress Of Africanists, Accra, Ghana
A clear conscience fears no accusation - proverb from Sierra Leone
Posted - 25 Feb 2016 : 12:35:32
| Black History Month observed to expose racial prejudice
By: Kaddijatou Jawo
The Point: Thursday, February 25, 2016
The United Embassy in Banjul in collaboration with the University of The Gambia yesterday observed Black History Month with a symposium at the auditorium of the Law Faculty in Kanifing.
Across the United States, Black History Month is observed every February, and it has been one of the most widely commemorated memorial months.
The aim of Black History Month is to expose the harmful effects of racial prejudice and to recognise the significant contributions made by people with African heritage, including artists, musicians, scientists, political figures, educators, and athletes, among others.
Yesterday’s symposium, under the theme: “African Contributions to American Progress” explore the many positive contributions Africa and her people have made to American development throughout her history.
Speaking at the symposium, the United States Ambassador to The Gambia, C. Patricia Alsup, said that in the United States and now in other countries as well, February is a time when they reflect upon the challenges and triumphs of African-Americans throughout the course of their history.
“The contributions of African-Americans and of their ancestors who were brought unwillingly to North America as a result of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade are countless,” she said.
She also said Africans and African-Americans have played key roles in the development of the United States, from the early days of the slave trade, to the March on Washington led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr., to the election- and re-election of President Barack Obama.”
She spoke on the history of slavery in the United States, saying: “In the United States, slaves were utilized by plantation owners growing tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton.”
By 1890, she added, nearly two million slaves of African descent worked on cotton fields and plantations in the southern region of the U.S.
Enslaved workers toiling in cotton fields built the economy of the United States, she stated, adding that the industries within the country and Europe relied on plantation-grown cotton.
As cotton plantations expanded throughout the South, banks and financial institutions in the northern cities supplied funding and investment capital to plantation owners, she added.
As millions of slaves were growing the United States economy in the cotton fields, others were building the nation’s infrastructures; and when the railroad came to the United States, slave labour was used to build thousands of miles of tracks across the nation.
Ambassador Patricia Alsup also shared the story of an African-American man: “Elijah McCoy, an African-American man who was the free son of escaped slaves, had a significant impact on the early days of railroad.”
“He developed mechanisms for oiling the steam engines of locomotives,” she stated, saying that before Mr McCoy’s invention, trains needed to stop frequently to be oiled and undergo four routine maintenances.
“The ‘automatic lubricator’ brought innovation to the American railroad, allowing trains to run at higher speeds for longer amounts of time. The invention was so successful that many companies tried to copy it and sell their own versions,” she said.
“In the United States we have a phrase, ‘the real McCoy’, which is the metaphor for ‘the real thing’ or ‘the genuine article’,” she noted.
Ambassador Alsup also recalled the days when she was growing up in the South of the United States, saying that in the 50s and 60s, “schools were segregated, the restaurants were segregated, and even the beaches were segregated”.
“When my father filed a lawsuit against the city where I grew up to desegregate the city swimming pool, the city destroyed the swimming pool rather than allow black people to use it. But the Civil Rights Movement eventually changed all that,” the US Ambassador said.
Speakers at the event included John Charles Njie, who read out the Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have A Dream” citation.
A clear conscience fears no accusation - proverb from Sierra Leone