24 October 2010

Caribbean Legal Expert Reflects on Legacy of Edward Wilmot Blyden

Blyden was born in the Danish West Indies  (presently the U.S. Virgin Islands) to free parents on 3rd  August 1832.


16 OCTOBER 2010

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

A Presentation by

Judith L. Bourne, J.D., LL.M.

I thank the St. Thomas Reformed Church and its 350thAnniversary committee, especially the indefatigable Roland Euwema for inviting me to participate in this important celebration.

We know that Edward Wilmot Blyden was a genius and that his genius manifested itself in many, often long-lasting, ways. Some of the beneficiaries of that genius, such as Marcus Garvey, John Henrik Clarke, and Kwame Nkrumah, were very much aware of their debt to Edward Wilmot Blyden. Some, such as the US Black Power advocates of the 1970s and 1980s, may not have been aware.

During most of Blyden’s lifetime (3 August 1832 – 7 February 1912), there was no movement known as Pan-Africanism. That term did not begin to become current until the first Pan-African meeting in London in 1900, which was organized by a Trinidad barrister, Henry Sylvester Williams, with the objective of "bringing into closer touch with each other the Peoples of African descent throughout the world."

However, forty years before that meeting, Blyden lectured, wrote and taught the concept of an African personality. He ascribed to the then current “scientific” belief that there were distinct and differing races. European and European-descended peoples of the USA believed that the races were ranked hierarchically, with themselves at the top and the “race” which they most exploited at that time to develop their own wealth - Africans - at the bottom. Of course, this was a highly practical arrangement for them.

Blyden countered this “common knowledge” of the time with the concept that no race was better than any other but that each race had its own personality or genius, which contributed to the completeness of humankind and that each had developed a way of life, a culture, appropriate to its circumstances. Africans, or Negroes (he used the terms interchangeably to refer to African peoples throughout the world) therefore should not attempt to copy Europeans or European-descended peoples, but should develop themselves and their race in accordance with their specific racial qualities as seen in the traditional societies of Africans living outside the influence of Europeans.

Politically, Blyden campaigned for the establishment of a modern West African state, perhaps with Liberia as the core, that was respectful of African customs and institutions and which would protect and promote the interests of African peoples everywhere. Let me give you an example of Blyden’s Pan-Africansim affecting real life.

On one of his two trips back to North America and the Caribbean, he sent messages to various islands encouraging emigration to Liberia. One of those messages went to the African Colonization Society of
Barbados, which had as its treasurer a leading merchant, London Bourne. Although he was in his 70s and too old to go himself, he helped to organize the expedition and his daughter, Sarah Ann Bourne Barclay, her husband, Anthony Barclay and their eleven children were among the 346 persons who landed in Liberia from Barbados in 1865 on the ship “Cora”. One of their children, Arthur Barclay grew up in Liberia and became Postmaster-General and later President of Liberia 1904 - 1912. As Arthur Barclay attended Liberia College, probably in the late 1870s, it is likely that he was once again influenced by Blyden during that time. Although he was not at the College at that time, he was very active in educational and political circles.

Blyden was completely a man of his time, while at the same time transcending that time. He was a Victorian man, but had the unusual ability to approach the objects of his study with an open and analytical mind and considerable intellectual curiosity. One major object of his study were the African societies located awayfrom the coast that remained uninfluenced by Europe or America and that maintained their traditional civilization, He had the opportunity to do this work when he served in Sierra Leone as Government Agent to the Interior 1871-73 when he was sent on a mission to the tribes in the interior of Sierra Leone by the British government, and as Liberia’s Minister of the Interior 1880-84.

While maintaining his strong devotion to Christianity, Blyden could separate the doctrines of that religion from the European culture with which it had become encrusted. He could therefore appreciate that the manner in which Islam was propagated amongst Africans was much more beneficial to Africans because the missionaries of Islam taught the doctrines of the religion without attempting to change the basic culture of the people - one did not have to become Arabized to become Muslim - and once there were sufficient converts who knew and understood the Koran, the missionaries withdrew and allowed the new Muslims to continue the work. However, as he set forth in his acclaimed book, “Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race” in 1887, the practice of Christian missionaries was to Europeanize the convert and to maintain direct supervision and control. This, Blyden said, caused the Christianised African to look to all things European as the good, which he as an African could, of course, never achieve, and that crushed his self-esteem or as Blyden referred to it, his manliness. Blyden pointed out the results of this in the everyday life of Liberia. These observations and analyses are the basis of the book. The book caused great consternation and dispute when it was first published in England, not just, or even mainly, because of its content, but because, due to its high quality, the Europeans refused to believe that it had been written by a “Negro”.

But Blyden also transcended his times by confronting and refuting the then current doctrines of African inferiority by going back to the works of classical Greece and Rome which indicated that Africans are the originators of civilisation and, as he saw it, the guardians of spirituality for the human race. Blyden insisted on using these classics as the basis for the curriculum in Liberia College not only because he believed in their educational value, but also because there was nothing in those classical works of Greece and Rome which denigrates Africans.

From his experience with the racism he had met in the US (which by the way, was not just what we would now refer to as discrimination because of his race, but his very realistic fear that he might be seized and sold into slavery in the South) and the attitudes of the missionary societies, Blyden became convinced that African people could never fully develop themselves in a modern industrial world except in their own country and by their own efforts. He therefore encouraged the emigration of qualified, trained and experienced Africans from North America and the Caribbean to West Africa for what we would today refer to as “nation-building”.
He saw all Africans, wherever they lived, as one race whose people needed to unite in the interest of the race as a whole.

He founded several newspapers, both in Liberia and in Sierra Leone. He named his 1870's newspaper “The Negro” and stated as its purpose “to recognize and greet the brotherhood of the race wherever found.”

In his first book (1857 - A Vindication of the African Race;...), Blyden stated “We need some African power, some great center of the race where our physical, pecuniary and intellectual strength may be collected.”

These principles, the oneness of the African race, its equality with other races, its distinctive attributes, the need for solidarity within the race, and the development of its homeland by its own members - remained the bedrock of the Pan-African movement throughout the twentieth century. W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey were directly inspired by Blyden. Garvey said of African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean peoples that if “you do not know anything of your ancestryit will do you well to read the works of Blyden, one of our historians and chroniclers, who has done so much to retrieve the lost prestige of the race”.

Kwame Nkrumah, the independence leader and first president of independent Ghana and the much-honored historian, the late John Henrik Clarke, attended meetings of an organization called the Blyden Society for the Study of African History in their formative years in Harlem in the 1940s.

Edward Wilmot Blyden’s ideas, including his explication of the social relations found in indigenous African societies, informed both the African Socialism of Julius Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania and the short-lived Union of African States, formed by Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Touré of Guinea and Modibo Kéita of Mali from 1958 to 1962, as well as the less immediately ambitious, but longer lasting, OAU.

The meetings and publications of anglophone and francophone Africans from Africa and from the Caribbean living in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s based their organizations on principles elaborated by Blyden, both in their separate languages, such as the Négritude movement of Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, Léon Damas of French Guiana and Aime Césaire of Martinique, and especially in the several joint language endeavors, such as La Revue du Monde Noir, which had as its aims: “to create among the Negroes of the entire world, regardless of nationality, an intellectual, and moral tie, which will permit them to better know each other, to love one another, to defend more effectively their collective interests and to glorify their race.”

In the USA, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the myriad Black Power organisations of the1970s and 1980s that called on African-Americans to love themselves as themselves and to exercise self-reliance in their economic, educational and cultural endeavors all hark back to the seminal teachings of Edward Wilmot Blyden.

The legacy of Edward Wilmot Blyden has spread throughout the world as the sons and daughters of Africa are spread throughout the world and continues to reverberate. We now know that the only way to begin to secure true peace and cooperation among individuals is to ensure that each person maintains that strong and stable self-respect which enables one to have respect for others. What better legacy can one have than a body of work which encourages a people who were, and who continue to be, denigrated and abused to recognize that their true worth, ability and potential is equal to any and all others, an attitude which supports that healthy self-esteem which leads to self-reliance and commands general respect.

That legacy is a gift to the world.