Black history and Africa

HARARE - An African-American campaigner for the rights of the black people, WEB du Bois, was once denied a passport by the US government to travel to a conference at which the black people of the US were to meet the black people of Africa.

Among those who eventually attended the meeting in Europe were the Senegalese poet and later president of Senegal, Leopold Seddar Senghor, and the African-American essayist, novelist and civil rights campaigner, James Baldwin.

The speeches were filled with the militancy of the black people to be recognised as respectable members of the world community.

The Europeans and the Americans had enslaved them, chaining and packing them off into crowded ships sailing from the continent to their countries.

There, they laboured in horrible conditions, whipped mercilessly if they slowed down.

After bloody struggles, during which millions of them died, the Africans eventually won their freedom.

Italy, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and France plotted The Scramble for Africa, one of the worst examples of humankind’s savage treatment of their kin.

February was Black History Month in the US, which has its first ever African-American president. His father was a Kenyan of Luo descent.

His rise to the most powerful political post in the world was to have affected, most advantageously, the people of the continent.

The argument is deliberately ignored that Africa’s problems after the end of colonialism, can be traced back to the continent’s leadership.

The current bloodshed in a number of countries today can hardly all be blamed on the former colonialists.

The events quoted above are from a biography of James Baldwin. Artist On Fire, by WJ Weatherby,  who knew him for more than 30 years.

Baldwin is a hero of the struggle for the freedom of the African-American people.

In his own country, he may not have the same rank with Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X, with whom he worked in the civil rights struggle. But he is much revered and is mentioned in Black History Month as one who advanced the cause of the black people with sacrifice and dedication.

Yet Baldwin had disadvantages which might have hindered his acceptance as a decent hero of the African struggle: he was what they derided as a “bastard, nigger queer”.

He was openly gay and one of his novels,  Giovanni’s Room, is about a man’s struggle between his two lovers — a man and a woman.

Baldwin would be 90 this year, if he had not died in 1987. Among African leaders now either 90 or nearing that age are Robert Mugabe and Kenneth Kaunda, whose own struggles for their people are as illustrious as Baldwin’s.

I have not come across Kaunda’s comments on homosexuality, but I know Mugabe’s views, about which many Zimbabweans are embarrassed. I doubt he would have had anything decent to say about Baldwin, a young preacher in Harlem, New York, where he grew up.

Yet during a lavish birthday bash in Harare recently, the president spoke glowingly of a young Zimbabwean prophet, a distinguished guest at his party. Some were embarrassed for him. Others would say this was an example of the lack of seriousness among African leaders on ending poverty.

I have my doubts about entrusting a prophet to save our tottering economy, and end the massive corruption which is about to bankrupt this country.

Many Africans today, ashamed of the continent’s poverty in the midst of rich natural resources, despise the preoccupation with homosexuality.

There is hardly the same concentration on ending poverty.

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