Special Documents


Spreading Pan-African ideas in America

THE work of Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912), that man of black consciousness advancement is universal, covering the entire race and the entire race problem. While Booker T. Washington seeks to promote the material advancement of the black man in the United States, and W.E. Burghart Du Bois his social enfranchisement amid surroundings and in an atmosphere uncongenial to racial development, Edward Wilmot Blyden sought for more than a quarter of a century to reveal everywhere the African unto himself; to fix attention upon original ideas and conceptions as to his place in the economy of the world; to point out to him his work as a race among the races of men; lastly and most important of all, to lead back unto self-respect.

He was the voice of one crying in the wilderness all these years, calling upon all thinking Africans to go back to the rock from whence they were hewn by the common Father of the nations – to drop a metaphor, “to learn to unlearn all that foreign sophistry has encrusted upon the intelligence of the African”.

Edward Blyden’s life is a constant source of new perspectives even long after his death. An important lesson in his life is that it reveals both a vision of Africa and the personal struggle by which that vision came about. Few men of his era were able to “learn to unlearn” the complex of European constructions and misconstructions of the meaning of Africa. The same challenges that motivated Blyden to champion the African contribution to humanity are still with us today. Many of his observations are surprisingly fresh and painfully relevant.

Blyden was a prolific writer of letters, and published many articles, sermons, poems and books that make up an extensive legacy to the human race. We hope this small offering encourages you to “explore” his legacy which can be found in dozens of libraries and museums around the world - you will also find it in the oral history of the people of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, the Virgin Islands and the United States. We hope that you will respond with comments and information about what you find – it will help us in the further development of this Virtual Museum of the Life and Work of Edward Wilmot Blyden.

Edward Blyden believed that African-Americans had a very important role to play in developing the African continent. He dedicated a considerable amount of his time and energy into encouraging African Americans to abandon the prejudice and discrimination of 19th century America in favour of a more spiritually satisfying role in Africa. As Commissioner to Britain and the United States, he travelled to the US from Liberia several times in the 1860s giving sermons, speeches and addresses in Churches, Colonisation Societies and other black organisations, championing a return to Africa on behalf of the Liberian government. In one such address entitled The Call of Providence to the Descendants of Africa in America, Blyden stressed the importance of Black Africans in America linking themselves to Africa. He believed that African Americans were the key to integrating Africa into the modern world due to the integral part they had already (unwillingly) played in the construction of America. He criticised Blacks of the time who dissociated themselves from Africa but hopeful that the situation would change and that Black Americans would realise the importance of Africa:

“I venture to predict that, within a very brief period, that down-trodden land instead of being regarded with prejudice and distaste, will largely attract the attention and engage the warmest interest of every man of colour.”

He believed American Blacks were wasting their energy on the North American continent. The work to be done by Blacks, he believed, was not in America:

“It is theirs to betake themselves to injured Africa, and bless those outraged shores,”
The Black African in the US had some advantages, but he argued that on the whole:
“It has been at the expense of his manhood”.

To those blacks who believed that their life in America would get better with attainment of equality he had this to say:

“It ought to be clear to every thinking and important mind, that there can never occur in this country an equality, social or political, between whites and blacks.”
White America, he argued, held all the cards economic, political, etc and also shaped public opinion. He urged unification among blacks and criticised those blacks who “passed”. (A term used to describe the many people of mixed race who by virtue of a small percentage of African blood were officially “negro” but who were biologically indistinguishable from whites and lived as though they were white.) The energy of blacks in America should be directed towards Africa, he said:

“We need some African power, some great centre of the race where our physical, pecuniary and intellectual strength may be collected.”

He argued that because Africans were so scattered around the world they could do little or nothing.
“Among the free portion of the descendants of Africa, numbering about four or five millions, there is enough talent, wealth, and enterprise, to form a respectable nationality on the continent of Africa.”

Europe and America have been “sustained and enriched” by Africans. Europeans were looking to Africa for enrichment, so should black Americans.
“We need to collect the scattered forces of race, and there is no rallying ground more favourable than Africa.”

To those Blacks who claimed they had a purpose and work to do in America, he argued that it was already easy to see the work of Blacks in the US but pointed to a limiting factor:

“……… there is an extreme likelihood that such are forever to be the exploits which he destined to achieve in this country until he merges his African peculiarities in the Caucasian.”

In an address to the Maine State Colonisation Society, he emphasises the need for Blacks in America to consider immigration. He again reiterates the fact that prejudice in the US was on the rise rather than decreasing, pervading “the whole national mind”, that is, the institutions. He argued that prejudice was perpetuated by the degraded position of Blacks. The occupations Blacks were allowed, he said, served to keep them in a morally degraded condition above which they would only rise by aligning themselves with a global cause:

“For, supposing that, it was possible for Black men to rise to the greatest eminence in this country, in wealth and political distinction, so long as the resources and capabilities of Africa remained undeveloped – so long as there was no negro power of respectability in Africa, and that continent remained in her present degradation – she would reflect unfavourably upon them. Africa is the appropriate home of the Black man, and he cannot rise above her.”

This idea of Pan-Africanism, all-embracing with respect to the Black race and its geo-politics was neatly summarised in the title of one of his articles: Africa for the Africans.
Blyden Museum

Courtesy of the Sunday Mirror of the 3 October, 2004

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