I wonder if the world knows what a debt it owes to African Americans. Every modern liberation movement has been based on the tactics employed by those in endeavor for Civil Rights in America. And while MLK’s non-violent methods were borrowed from Ghandi, we did what we always do when we get a hold of something. To borrow a term from Nuongg Faalong, we “swagged it up”. The only reason modern Americans enjoy every bite of peanut butter brittle, a plate of greens or a bowl of grits is because some West African stowed away, was stolen or sold into this country and “swagged up” the American food source. African Americans also gave this country its first indigenous art form: jazz. Born from ragtime, the architects and masters of jazz soothed America and the world’s soul during wartime and beyond, and kept heat on dance floors in its Swing Era.
The African’s experience, survival and (relative) success in America can be attributed to many factors, but in my opinion, one in particular – improvisation. From seasoning boiled pig entrails to using brown paper bags to wall paper our country homes, Black Americans have had to improvise with little resources in order to thrive in this country. Where did this sense of innovation come from? The consensus is that it has been inherited. “You can take the African out of Africa…” and all that.
Someone shared this picture of Muhammad Ali and Kwame Nkrumah a few days ago. I had never seen it before and was immediately captivated. The pair of them looked so young, happy and hopeful. Ali’s visit to Ghana in 1964 had somehow escaped my radar and in turn left me with many questions, chief among these “What was he doing there?”
Google proved to be of little help. Ali’s visit to Ghana was well documented in pictures, and for all accounts it looked like he was there to have some fun in what he called the “Fatherland”. It looked like the man formerly known as Cassius Clay just wanted to come home. It’s documented that he wore kente cloth everywhere (ev-ery-where) he went and sampled local food with gusto. He, like thousands of other African Americans, felt a connection with Africa and was seeking a sense of belonging. Of course we know that not every Black American feels this need to be anchored to Africa as George Foreman illustrated with his sentiments. Even some (self-loathing) Africans wish they weren’t born to and of the continent. They think there is neither beauty nor potential in Africa. We can talk about how this cadre of saboteurs are the enemies of Africa’s progress some other time.
I never got an answer as to WHY Ali was in Ghana, but Malcolm X may have provided an answer through his speech at the University of Ghana in 1964. He spoke about what it meant to be from America, but not be an American. American citizenship at that time was reserved for white people. Within weeks of his arrival, a white European could come to America, anglicize his name and live in any neighborhood of his choice, shop in any establishment of his heart’s desire and vote; whereas the black man whose family had lived and toiled in America for generations was barred from these same advantages. He was not an American – he was still an African in America, according to the law and by virtue of social engineering. After hundreds of years of living in the land, the African in America was still a foreigner.
Suddenly, I got it. Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, my own mother…suddenly it all made sense. My mother was born Sharon Davis but changed her name in the 60’s to a smattering of Kenyan, Nigerian and Ghanaian names. As a teen, whenever the subject of my mother’s name came up in conversation, I used to roll my eyes so hard I could see what the ancestors had for dinner. I never understood my mother’s need to be so different. She was an American…why couldn’t she just own and be that? Little did I know, she didn’t become an American until 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. My mother was born in 1945 and didn’t become a full citizen of the country of her birth until she was nearly 20 years old. Suddenly, her hostility towards Christianity, the white establishment and American life in general made total sense to me. The contempt America held for her and her race had resonated with her and in return she held America in equal contempt. She was searching for home.
I stared at the picture of Ali and Nkrumah for a long while. What things would they have discussed? Did they ever form a friendship? Was this image just a photo-op or was there a real kinship between the two? In my search for answers, I discovered that while Nkrumah was studying at Lincoln University, he became inspired by the Black American’s struggle for independence in America and borrowed strategies from the movement to usher in Ghana’s independence. He joined the United Gold Coast Convention, later formed his own party – the CPP- and began planting the idea of a free Gold Coast (Ghana’s name prior to independence). For his efforts, he and other heroes of the independence movement –men and women – were harassed, interrogated and jailed by the British colonists. But even with the confinement of the leaders of the CPP the idea of a free Ghana had caught on like wild fire and civil disobedience had become the order of the day. What were the British to do? They ‘gave us free’ in 1957 and the rest is history.
At Black Star Square, Nkrumah boldly proclaimed that Ghana’s independence was meaningless without the total liberation of Africa. He had a vision for a United Africa and went on to craft a Pan African manifesto. Richard Nixon was also in the country to witness the first sub-Saharan country gain its independence. It’s reported that walked up to a group of blacks chatting amongst themselves at a function and asked them what it felt like to be free?
“We wouldn’t know, sir,” was the reply. “We’re from Alabama.”
Eventually Nixon and CIA orchestrated Nkrumah’s overthrow and Ghana has been in decline ever since. Thanks, Dick.
I looked at that picture and wondered what the dreams of those Pan African minded men who would eventually go on to become fathers and legends. Have their hopes been fulfilled in and through their children? I can’t help but think of Laila Ali and Samia Nkrumah and how these daughters of legends have carried on their father’s legacies in athletics and politics. Both have earned my eternal respect, Ali for her prowess in the ring and her business savvy, and Nkrumah for her push to keep GMOs from dominating the Ghanaian food market. While a certain party is blindly groping to define what their better Ghana agenda actually is, Samia Nkrumah is working to make sure our country is not recolonized by Monsanto and other agro-conglomerates. If you control the food supply, you control the people…and my hope is that Ghanaians will understand and embrace her and her party’s message soon, before it’s too late. Contrary to what we’ve all ben lead to believe, if Africa stops trading with the world, the rest of the globe will be at peril – not the other way round.
Seeing the younger Nkrumah and Ali side by side prompts more questions within me. For instance, is it time for old alliances to re-forged? Is there anything Black Americans and Africans can offer each other? Given the history their fathers lived through and shared, does it inspire any curiosity in you? Let’s talk!