BOOK REVIEW: Reflections on the Black Diaspora

Well read in theology and the classics, Blyden wrote “The Vindication of the Negro Race” in 1857, and, as early as 1869 in “The Negro in Ancient History” was beginning to marshall learned arguments against the widely held view that Negroes were the “accursed sons of Ham” and was quoting Greek and Latin texts to prove that Ethiopians were once held in high esteem and that West Africans as well as East Africans were of the same racial stock – the “Ethiopians” referred to in the Bible and by Homer and Herodotus, and that they were black. During the next thirty years he was a prolific writer and Hollis lynch lists for those who wish to become better acquainted with his thinking 29 books and pamphlets and a sampling of 19 of his more important articles. Blyden continuously proclaimed a cyclical theory of history to arouse faith in a future African Renaissance. To our ears, these polemics have an archaic ring, but they were couched in the idiom of the most advanced intellectual discourse of his day. He was a skillful and highly respected “Vindicator.”

Blyden explained the backwardness of Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of isolation from the mainstream of circumstance Mediterranean civilisation after the fall of the Roman Empire until the spread of Islam, which he saw as a renovating force whose beneficent influence was frustrated by the European slave trade.

During his youth, Blyden who was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister, had faith that Christianity, if carried to Africa by New World Negroes, would complete the work begun by teachers, merchants, and kings of the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem, and Bomu. But he became convinced as he grew older that Islam was more attuned to what he called “The African Personality.” HIS CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM AND THE NEGRO RACE published in 1888, though widely acclaimed for its scholarship was denounced by the missionaries and many African Christians. But Blyden was successful in convincing the British West African colonial authorities of the desirability of giving special attention to the education of Muslims and he served as Director of Mohammedan Education in Sierra Leone from 1901-1906. He learned Arabic to facilitate his work.

Hollis Lynch documents in fascinating detail the personal experiences that led this West Indian born intellectual to abandon his belief in the “redemption mission” of New World Negroes (which Garvey never did), and to acquire a crusading faith in the ability of Africans to “regenerate” their own societies through the combined efforts of intellectuals administering their own institutions of higher learning, leaders of African controlled non-sectarian churches adapting Christianity to African needs, and Islamic malams and traditional rulers borrowing selectively from Western cultures. He travelled throughout the English¬speaking West Africa, exploring the hinterland, encouraging Africans to establish newspapers, lobbying in government circles for a West African university. urging Christian leaders to break away from missionary control, sometimes serving as a professor or even teaching secondary school, and always preaching, writing, and holding conferences with young people. It was this dedicated activity that won him the loyalty and admiration of an entire generation of West African leaders (except in Liberia). The year before he died, the leading Gold Coast nationalist and the founder of the Congress of British West Africa, J.S. Casely-Hayford wrote of Blyden, “He was a god descended upon earth to teach the Ethiopians anew the way of life in the garb of an humble teacher – preaching rational and national salvation.”

Blyden visualised the emergence of a great West African nation between the desert and the sea. At first he conceived of Liberia as the spearhead, the vital nucleus with which an eventually independent Sierra Leone would be merged. But he gradually became so disillusioned with the Liberian political and commercial leaders, and so deeply embittered, that he came to oppose what he conceived of as premature sovereignty. From 1884 until he died in 1912 he pinned his hopes upon temporary. benevolent colonial tutelage, and he became so pro-British that he was virtually a British “agent”. He felt that he was using colonialism for ultimate ends, and except for Liberians, legitimately suspicious of the possible abrogation of their sovereignty , African leaders approved of the strategy. The author provides sufficient data for an assessment of the wisdom of this controversial point of view.

Dr. Nicol referred to Blyden as” … one of the greatest sons of Africa”, although he was born in St. Thomas, Danish Virgin Islands in 1832, and did not set foot on African soil until 1850. He might never have gone to Africa had Rutgers University and two other American colleges not refuse him admission because he was a Negro. Liberia had become an independent state just three years before Blyden arrived in the United States and the white-controlled American Colonization Society was urging promising young free Negroes to emigrate. They offered Blyden an opportunity and, as Lynch points out, “The idea of helping to build a great Negro nation in Africa appealed tremendously to the race pride and imagination of young Blyden.” His race consciousness had been stimulated as a youth growing up in a free family within the slave system of St. Thomas, some travel as a child in Venezuela and his admiration for the close knit Jewish community in his homeland with which he had close and pleasant contact. Now he could help build up a Black Zion in Liberia. He went forth with enthusiasm, secured an education in mission schools in his adopted country, read voraciously and studied languages diligently and became a professor at Liberia College. He eventually served Liberia as Secretary of State and as Ambassador to the Court of St. James. But the lack of serious intellectual interests among the America-Liberians alienated him from them and they in turn resented his gadfly role.

Blyden went to Liberia as a ward of American white missionaries who had elaborated a theory of “Providential Design” to rationalise their colonization scheme. God had used the slave trade to bring benighted Africans to the New World so they could be Christianised and return to “redeem” Africa. Blyden gave a new twist to the theory, arguing that New World Negroes not only had a mission to Christianize and “civilize”, but also to restore Africa to the position of power and prestige it once had, both for its own sake and so it could be a homeland for the peoples of the Black Diaspora. In 1862 he made the first of many journeys to recruit settlers, visiting his birthplace to stimulate the organisation of a St. Thomas-Liberia Association and Bermuda where he reported that there were “intelligent and hard working Negroes who were anxious to emigrate.” He sent out circulars to other islands, and these seem to have played some part in stimulating the organisation of a Barbados Company for Liberia and the Fatherland Union Society of that island. After visiting Negro communities in Eastern Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, he returned to Liberia and was appointed Secretary of State. In that role, he persuaded President Warner to issue, in 1864, “A Proclamation to the Descendants of Africa Throughout the West Indian Islands” inviting them to come to Liberia ” … to build up an African Nationality, and thus aid in restoring to this ancient cradle of civilisation her pristine glory.” The Legislature voted $4,000 to assist West Indian emigrants and offered grants of 25 acres of land to each family that would come.

Barbados was the only island in which any appreciable number of “exiles” answered the call to “come home”. When the slaves were freed in the U.S. in 1865 interest in Liberian emigration virtually disappeared and Blyden persuaded the American Colonization Society to divert $10,000 of its funds to Barbados. “The most select and highly skilled group ever to emigrate to Liberia” was assembled and on April 6, 1865, the brig CORA sailed from Bridgetown with 346 settlers. On board was one of Liberia’s most distinguished future presidents, Arthur Barclay. This spurt of activity marked the end of the West Indian emigration movement. A searching analysis of the reasons why is a theme worthy of some future master’s thesis.

For the next 20 years Blyden devoted a great deal of his time and energy in trying to attract emigrants to Liberia from the United States. The story of his efforts and his failure, and the depths of his disillusionment, is documented in two absorbing chapters: “The Pan-Negro Goal, Class and Colour Conflict in Liberia, 1862-71” and “Pure Negroes only for Africa”. Blyden interpreted the failure to attract emigrants from the United States, as well as most of Liberia’s ills, as due to the sinister machinations of “mulattoes” against whom his animus became so strong that he rejected his own wife after she had borne him three children. Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois – all were suspect in Blyden’s eyes, as were most of the leading Liberian politicians. His unconcealed disgust with Liberian and American Negro leaders was one of the basic factors in his transformation from a West Indian and a Liberian into an “African”. Yet, although actually driven out of Liberia into temporary exile in Sierra Leone in 1871, he returned from time to time when his “pure Negro” friends were in power or when Liberia was willing to swallow its pride because it needed his services. Despite his running feud with the country, just seven years before his death, he was asked to serve for three months as Liberian Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary to London and Paris to help settle a border dispute and to unscramble some financial matters. But Blyden never returned to Liberia to live, finding Freetown, Sierra Leone, a more congenial home.

Though Blyden is claimed by Africans as one of the greatest sons of the soil, Hollis Lynch presents him in a wider frame of reference, subtitling his volume, “Pan-Negro Patriot”. And this was the way Blyden viewed himself. Nation building in Africa, was to him only one aspect of “vindicating the race”. As he saw it, the dispersed fragments of “the race” in the New World would have their status enhanced by the emergence of a modernised sovereign Africa, and he died firm in his belief that Negroes would never achieve equality in the United States and would eventually decide to “go home” to Africa. He believed that all Negroes, everywhere, should develop a sense of one-ness and co-operate together, thus prefiguring Garvey’s concept of a Universal Negro Improvement Association. But this concept of “Pan- Negroism” was not something invented by Blyden. He simply gave explicit expression to sentiments that had been developing as one aspect of a 350 year old historic process.

“Pan-Negroism” was the natural – and perhaps inevitable – response of the people of the Black Diaspora to the trauma of their dispersal and the attempts of white men to degrade them and break their spirit. Of varied tribal origins, even when they preserved some degree of tribal solidarity m the New World, the general pattern was one in which they fused fragments of diverse religious beliefs and customs into something African, not tribal, on the plantations. to lend dignity to their existence and to provide a basis for occasional united action. By distributing Negroes after they were “seasoned” in Jamaica and Barbados to North America and the Guianas, tribes were indiscriminately mixed and all were treated and referred to simply as “blacks”. Out of these processes, Pan Negroism at the psychological level was generated. Then, almost 300 years after the slave trade began, a successful nationalist insurrection in Haiti sent a tremor of pride and hope surging among all the peoples of the Black Diaspora. Christophe established quasi-diplomatic relations with the African kingdom of Dahomey. Pan-Negroism found its first political expression through the Haitian revolution. One of the unintended consequences of British public and private activity was the growth of Pan-Negro sentiments. The founding of Sierra Leone brought New World Negroes and Africans into intimate face to face contact after 300 years of separation and forced them to define their relations with each other. The liberations of Africans in Freetown during the suppression of the slave trade intensified this process, and sporadic attempts to send free African labour to the West Indies after 1808 proceeded simultaneously with the recruitment of West Indians and American Negroes for mission work in West Africa and of Negroes from everywhere to serve in the West Indies regiment which was subsequently used to subdue Northern Nigeria. American Negro freed men were brought to Trinidad in some numbers after 1840 before the massive importation of East Indians. Thus, the mercantilist South Atlantic system, colonial imperialism in West Africa and the missionary movement all facilitated contact between West Indians, American Negroes and Africans.

The basis was laid for Pan-Negroism as a social movement. By 1880, Blyden, Caseley-Hayford and few American Negroes were dreaming of the potential strength in the unified action of New World Negroes and Africans. By 1900, Sylvester Williams and W.E.B. Dubois were calling the movement “Pan- African.”

The expression, “Pan-Negroism”, is not so euphonious as “Pan Africanism” to which our ears have become attuned, but Hollis Lynch’s use of the term is a contribution toward semantic clarity. When Trinidad barrister, Sylvester Williams first used the term “Pan-African” at a conference in 1900 it referred to the united action of “black” men everywhere in a struggle against their common disabilities. It retained this meaning until 1958 when the eight independent African states, four of which were not “black” began to use the term to refer to the unity of all Africans in Africa. irrespective of colour – Caucasoid, Arabs and Fulanis and white liberals and leftists in South Africa as well as “black” Africans. A new term was needed for the original concept . . . “Pan-Negroism” meets that need. The word “Negro” has been a bone-in-the-throat to peoples of African descent throughout their history. Blyden insisted that “black” people everywhere should proudly accept the designation as a symbol of ” . . the brotherhood of race wherever found.” Black Power advocates in the U.S. reject it scornfully, however, preferring “Afro-American”, “African-American”, and “Black People”. The term “Pan-Negroism” may not ever become current, however useful it may be.

The ideas that Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor have developed in the 20th century into a cult of “negritude” were vigorously propagated in the 19th by Blyden with even more pronounced implications of special, desirable, inherited, Negro traits that should be conserved, treasured and cultivated and not diluted by miscegenation. No one with an understanding of modern science can accept such outmoded biological determinism, but certain shared traits that have been transmitted culturally do exist among Africans, West Indians, and American Negroes, though the differences may be greater than the similarities.

The First World Festival of Negro Arts held in Senegal in 1966 brought together writers, performing artists, and scholars who were interested in the cultural expression of Pan-Negroism. This type of interaction is likely to grow during the next few years.

However, the objective basis for political Pan-Negro action is being progressively narrowed by the emergence of sovereign African states and the accession to independent and quasi-independent status of the Caribbean territories. Indeed, emphasis upon Negro solidarity is actually dysfunctional to national integration in countries such as Trinidad and Guyana; Pan-Negroism encourages disquieting “Ethiopianist” escapism among the Jamaican masses and it sometimes embarrasses new African nations caught between the pressure of American Negroes for a friendly word and the possibility of alienating the source of grants and investment funds if they respond. But Afro-Americans and the Negroes of Rhodesia and South Africa still expect the support of independent African and West Indian nations in their struggle against racial discrimination even if it must be verbalized in general terms of “human rights” instead of in a Pan-Negro idiom.

The strength of Pan-Negro sentiments may diminish during the next quarter of a century even in the cultural dimension, but movements with deep historic roots do not disappear overnight. The black masses everywhere will increasingly find their identity as Americans, Barbadians, Zambians – and even Anguillans – as citizens of nations, how¬ever “Mini”, not as Negroes. There are those worshippers of-all-that-is-white who will try to decry any expression of Negro “race pride” or “race solidarity” as an anachronism often a personal embarrassment. Yet, even these groups will find themselves occasionally identifying emotionally with Negroes when they are outrageously mistreated in Europe, America and southern Africa.

A small minority of alienated New World Negroes, on the other hand, will continue to fantasy of flight to “Ethiopia” when Haille Selassie send the ships to bring his Ras Tafarians home to “heaven”. (And a few New World Negroes will actually find their way “home”).

Harlem and Los Angeles will have to continue to live with those few Negroes who assume African name and dress, acquire a smattering of Swahili or Yoruba, and trust to African Black Power to intervene when “the white devils” unleash a campaign of genocide against black men in America Middle-class Negroes wince at these bizarre expressions of Pan-Negroism, but they must be viewed as the attempts of the oppressed to make intolerable conditions tolerable. Only the abolition of those conditions will eliminate such myth-making and escapist behaviour.

There is another small minority currently expressing Pan-Negro sentiments that reflect social health, not pathology. It is composed of sensitive individuals for whom history is a living reality and who have a strong sense of social obligation. For them a Pan-Negro identification is one but only one of the multiple meaningful dimensions of their Inner lives, not an emotional crutch or an escape mechanism. By expressing Pan-Negro sentiments they enrich the lives of others as well as their own, Padmore and Fanon were such men who decided to make a total commitment to Africa in the realm of revolutionary politics. Among them, too, are a few scores of highly trained professional men, teachers, artisans, businessmen, and civil servants from the West Indies and the United States who enjoy working in the new African nations, or individuals such as Arthur Lewis, who have put their expert knowledge at the disposal of the new states from time to time. Some African diplomats for their part, feel an obligation when travelling in the New World or stationed there, to participate occasionally in the activities of Negro organisations as an expression of Pan-Negro solidarity.

This creative minority also includes artists and writers such as those in the American Society for African Culture in the United States or an Edward Brathwaite whose “Rites of Passage” cites poetic expression to the historic unity of Africans and the varied peoples of African descent in the diaspora. It includes too, those scholars who are keenly conscious of the fact that Blyden’s job of “vindication” has not yet been completed. Thus, Nigeria’s Essien Udom, a graduate of the University of Chicago, makes a contribution in a cogent scholarly analysis.

BLACK NATIONALISM IN AMERICA, and Trinidadian Hollis Lynch, who taught for two years at the University of lfe in Nigeria, now gives us this important profile of a “son in Africa.”

Not all educated Negroes will care to make the Pan-Negro identification. Those who do certainly need not apologize for it, though some will charge them with being racialists and others may sneer at them as “intellectualised Ras Tafarians” They have chosen to become part of an important historical movement that still has a vital role to play in extirpating the last vestiges of the legacy of the slave trade and slavery in the process of fulfilling the Black Renascence.