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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

AFRICAN AMERICANS AND AFRICA: A LECTURE IN CELEBRATION OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH By AMBASSADOR WALTER CARRINGTON

Below is the lecture delivered by Amb. Walter Carrington at the main auditirium of the University of Lagos on the 14th of February, 2013.
Enjoy!








AFRICAN AMERICANS AND AFRICA:
A LECTURE IN CELEBRATION OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH
By
AMBASSADOR WALTER CARRINGTON
Delivered at
THE UNIVERSITY OF LAGOS
14 February 2013







It is an honor to be invited to speak at the University of Lagos and to be accompanied by a distinguished graduate of one of your rivals, the University of Ibadan, - my beloved wife, who stood so valiantly beside me during a time of military tyranny, – Dr. Arese Carrington.  Her role during my ambassadorial years has often been underappreciated and any credit I have been given belongs in equal measure to this treasure I stole away to distant and colder shores.

This is the month dedicated in the United States to the celebration of Black History.  It is a tradition which traces back to the pioneering efforts of the second black man to receive a PhD from Harvard (the first was the iconic W.E.B DuBois.)  Dr. Carter G. Woodson was a distinguished historian who made his life’s work the propagation of the contributions of African Americans to the history of the United States.  He established Negro History Week in 1926, a seven day period in February which spanned  the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12th) and the greatest black leader of the Nineteenth Century – the abolitionist, Frederick Douglass (February 17th). That week has since morphed into a month and its title from Negro to Black.  I think it serendipitous that UNILAG has invited me here during the week originally set aside for the commemoration of the history of Africans in America.  It is a period of tribute usually chronicling the accomplishments of some of the race’s most significant figures.  Those African American achievements focus almost entirely on our relationship with America.   Little or no attention is paid to our connection with Africa other than our forcible removal from its shores four centuries ago.  I think it is altogether appropriate here in the halls of one this continent’s foremost universities to speak about the history of the ever evolving struggle of African Americans to reconcile their American presence with their African roots.  Or, as DuBois famously stated it in The Souls of Black Folks, in a slightly different context:  "One ever feels his two-ness - an American and a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body..."

It also fitting that this occasion takes place so soon after the second inaugural of Barack Obama, America’s first black president.  This son of an African student has become an inspiration and a unifying figure for black people the world over.

"What is Africa to me?” the poet Countee Cullen wondered nearly a century ago
                                          Copper sun or scarlet sea,
                                          Jungle star or jungle track,
                                    Strong bronze men or regal black
                                   Women from whose loins I sprang
                                       When the birds of Eden sang?
                                        One three centuries removed
                                   From the scenes his fathers loved?
                                        Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
                                             What is Africa to me?

To the poet, Cullen, a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Africa was a romantic Eden lost. His was perhaps the most idyllic of many images of Africa that black Americans have offered -- or had forced upon them -- since the first enslaved Africans set shackled foot on American soil in 1619.

It is important here to understand the uniqueness both of the United States and of its indigenous black population.  America is distinctive among the countries of the world.  It is a country of immigrants.  No race of people, with the exception of its diminishing Native American inhabitants, can claim the nation as their ancient homeland.  All came from elsewhere.  Anyone born in our land is automatically a citizen, with the single exception of the children of accredited diplomats.  Any one naturalized a citizen immediately is vested with all the rights and privileges, but one, of a native born American.  They can hold and have held every political office in the land. Only the Presidency is denied to them and there are many who think that constitutional barrier, enacted to preclude an Englishman loyal to King George, should be removed.

It is the manner of their arrival that sets blacks apart from all other groups that emigrated to America.  Soon after their arrival in the New World, Africans were stripped of all remembrances of the land of their birth.  They were detribalized, forbidden to speak their native languages or to practice their traditional religions.
                       
To succeeding generations of African-Americans, Africa became a distant memory.  It was a place to which they could never return and in time would have little desire to permanently live, even if they could discover the nation, tribe or village from which their ancestors had been uprooted.  And if they could trace those roots would they, as the renowned  writer Richard Wright did, look their lost kinsmen in the eye and wonder if it had been the African's great great grandfather who had sold the African-American's great great grandfather into slavery.  Or, more importantly, would there remain, among the memories passed down from generation to generation, anything of the events which had separated their ancestors from the continent of their birth. 


The great Nigerian poet and writer, J.P. Clark was kind enough to give me, during my ambassadorial tenure, a copy of his seminal lecture, A Peculiar Faculty, delivered in 1996 before the Nigerian Academy of Letters. The title referred not to what many university students sometimes think about those who instruct them but rather to the propensity of Africans to develop what he called a case of “collective amnesia” concerning “the most devastating historic event to have happened to African people in this millennium.”  He relates that he
“… brought the subject to the attention of colleagues, friends and relatives, whether in their communal lore or personal experience, they know of any memory of the slave trade that devastated our land for centuries.  Almost in unison, there seems to be no remembrance of this tragedy that has possibly made us the people we are today…”
“ironically, while we have no direct access to evidence of the fact from the communities that stayed at home, it is from those of the victims, carried into slavery across the sea that we have knowledge of the event side by side with the copious log books kept by those who bought them.”
It is disheartening to note that, on the one hand, the descendants of the Africans shipped to America have little knowledge of where on the continent their ancestral roots are.  While, on the other, the descendants of the left behind in Africa seem to have had no lore handed down to them through oral or written history with any mention of the searing depopulations of their ancient villages and towns. It is estimated that 18 to 20 million were enslaved and taken away – three to four times as many Jews as were killed in the Holocaust.  Yet it is as if, in the African collective consciousness, there never was a slave trade emanating from Africa

But many African Americans now four centuries removed can trace their family trees in the United States by their own oral traditions and written records many generations back with some certainty.  But how and from whence they came to those shores remains shrouded in mystery.  And so America’s black history, in spite of Alex Haley’s inventive tale, Roots, can only authentically be traced back to the 250 years of enslavement.  Beyond that lies only conjecture.

The crusade to abolish slavery was centered in my home state of Massachusetts.  The Abolitionist Movement became the most successful radical movement ever to arise in America. One of its leaders, Wendell Phillips, vowed to make the streets of the capital city, Boston, “too pure ever to bear the footsteps of a slave.”   But the campaign was long and many free blacks despaired that that they would ever be able to live in dignity and equality in a country in which the slave holding states of the southern part of the nation were expanding their political power and influence.

Those free blacks most pessimistic about their future in America sought a solution in emigration back to Africa.  On the other hand, those who felt that blacks had as much a claim upon America as did whites, saw emigration as a shunning of their major responsibility -- the freeing of their brothers in bondage. Thus was joined the intellectual argument that has raged ever since:  was identification with Africa a diversion from the central issue of the black man's role in America, or, a complement to it?

The leadership of the emigration movement was taken up by of one of the first black graduates of the Harvard Medical School.  The Black Nationalist strain in American intellectual thought can be traced back to Dr. Martin R. Delany.  In an age when black was considered anything but beautiful, Delany preached race pride.  Frederick Douglass, the greatest African-American leader of the Nineteenth Century, summed him up best: "I have always thanked God for making me a man, but Martin Delany always thanked God for making him a black man."

Central to Delany's thought was the belief that blacks formed a nation within a nation, "a broken nation", as did the Poles in Russia, the Hungarians in Austria, and the Welsh, Irish and Scots in Britain.  "The claims of no people," he argued, "are respected by any nation, until they are presented in a national capacity..."

He wished to see a great state built in Africa, "a nation, to whom all the world must pay commercial tribute."   Towards that end he led an exploring party in 1859 to what is now Nigeria, sailing aboard a ship owned, by three African merchants.  His one-year stay resulted in the signing of treaties with western Nigerian Chiefs giving American blacks the right to settle in their areas. The treaty, signed not far from here, with Egba leaders stated:
“That the King and Chiefs on their part agree to grant and assign unto the said Commissioners [Martin Robinson Delany and Robert Campbell, of the Niger Valley Exploring Party], on behalf of the African race in America, the right and privilege of settling in common with the Egba people, on any part of the territory belonging to Abeokuta not otherwise occupied." 
In consideration for this grant the black Americans promised to "provide the Egba people with education and knowledge of the arts and sciences, agriculture, and other mechanical and instructional occupations."  [Skinner]  
The agreements were never followed up because the American Civil War broke out just as Delany returned to the United States. He put aside his emigration schemes and joined the Union Army in order to contribute as best he could to the defeat of the secessionist slave holding states.  After the war ended, Delany took advantage of the new amendments to the United States constitution which ended slavery, made the former slaves citizens and gave the newly freed men the right to vote. In 1874 he ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for governor of South Carolina.
The abolition of slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment's grant of citizenship gave hope that there might be a future for blacks in America after all and put to rest for half a century any major efforts to return to Africa. The words of Frederick Douglass spoken before Emancipation became the credo of the newly freed slaves: "Our minds are made up to live here if we can, or die here if we must...here we are and here we shall remain."

While colonization and emigration strategies were generated by concern over the Negro's future in America, a different nineteenth century movement concentrated on improving the spiritual and temporal condition of Africans.  A deeply religious black American population came to believe that they were part of a "providential design", brought to America by God, so Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church preached, to acquire education and civilization which they would then take back to Africa.

Unwelcome in white churches blacks formed their own denominations and christened them African.  At first, these new black churches saw their relationship with Africa only in terms of helping to Christianize their brethren in Africa; by the late 19th century, however, black churches began to champion the grievances Africans held against their colonial exploitation.  American blacks took the lead in protesting Belgian atrocities in the Congo and British and French designs on Liberia.  Along with blacks in other parts of the Diaspora, they formed the Pan-African Movement and saved the German colonies from being swallowed up by the victorious Allied Powers at the end of the First World War.  Thousands of Africans came to black colleges in the United States to receive an education often denied to them at home. The list of future leaders trained at Historically Black Colleges and Universities is impressive.  Lincoln University in Pennsylvania graduated two of the most important African nationalists of their time - Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and, of course, Nnamdi Azikiwe.  Meharry Medical School trained Hastings Banda of Malawi.

In more contemporary times blacks moved the American government away from complicity with the Apartheid regime in South Africa and towards greater relief to the drought stricken Sahel and Horn regions.  The impetus towards an African identification which had been elite driven in the Nineteenth Century had become, by the end of the Twentieth, more and more sparked by the rank and file.  Even as they were struggling to hold onto the gains they themselves had made during the Civil rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s black Americans were determined to help their motherland in spite of warnings from both home and abroad that they had too many problems in their own backyard to go meddling in others.  They championed the cause of democracy in Southern Africa even though neither they nor most of their East and Western African allies in the liberation struggle had ever visited there.

When President Clinton, on whose transition team I had served as a senior advisor on Africa, announced that he was going to appoint me as ambassador to Nigeria, I was thrilled.  Moshood Abiola had just been elected President.  I would be presenting my credentials to someone who was a leading Pan-Africanist whom I had met several times.  The stealing of his mandate and his later imprisonment had brought about a great uproar from the black members of Congress and groups like TransAfrica which had led the fight against U.S policy towards the apartheid government of South Africa

The Abacha military regime spent considerable sums of money to get prominent blacks to serve as praise singers for the government.  They were largely unsuccessful but they did persuade a few including a pair of strange bedfellows the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan and the head of the very conservative National Baptist Association, Henry Lyons. 

I met with several groups who traveled here under Abacha’s patronage and reminded them that they were betraying the Pan African tradition which had led black Americans to oppose regimes which denied their citizens their democratic rights and that they were swimming against the tide of black American opinion in back home.  That majority opinion was reflected by those who led in the anti-apartheid struggle and who were then turning their attention to countries under military and autocratic rule.  The Congressional Black Caucus, made up of the elected African-American members of the United States Congress and pressure groups like TransAfrica strongly influenced the direction of American foreign policy towards Africa especially in a Democratic administration. It was their efforts that turned the tide of American opinion and policy in regards to South Africa and Haiti.  It is they who kept the pressure on the Abacha regime. 

Those other groups, co-opted by Abacha to come and bear false witness to progress here, had little influence within the black American community.  I saw in the four years I was here no success they had in laundering the dictatorship’s woeful image.
         
My ancestors may indeed have become in Nigeria and elsewhere on this continent what J.P. Clark regretted – “the forgotten kin.”  But their descendants continue to remember and search for those ancient roots which the slave traders and plantation masters were so determined to deracinate.  They still, in yearning, sing the ancient spiritual – “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long ways from home.” 

Before he became President, before he was imprisoned by Abacha, Olusegun Obasanjo bestowed upon me the nickname I still proudly bear- Omowale – the child who has returned.  When Africa recovers from its “collective amnesia” and recalls the details of the catastrophe from whence I and the other children of the Diaspora have returned in spirit if not always in body – then we shall be orphans no more.

4 comments:

  1. A wonderfull lecture,blacks ought to know that we have a proud history,I only wish some of this continents leaders and our nation in particular will wake up to their responsibilities.Once again,a wonderfull lecture

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  2. Indeed! Its time Nigeria (the sleeping giant of Africa) wakes up from her slumber! It begins with ME and YOU!

    TOGETHER, WE CAN!

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