When I was a child when I thought of Africa I was pretty steeped in racist clichés . I had seen endless pictures of nearly naked Africans dancing around gigantic cast iron pots with trembling white missionaries cooking inside. I knew nothing of Benin Bronzes or Zimbabwe Ruins / I had not yet heard of the Coptic Christians of Ethiopia. I knew Timbuctoo was half way across the world and a very dangerous place because Bill “Bojangles” Robinson told Shirley Temple so. I knew nothing of the Dogon and their knowledge of the stars. So before my father and I talked about his adventures in modern day Africa I asked him what was his first understanding of Africa and Africans. It was quite eye opening.
You know where I would actually like to start before your adult experiences of Africa. Did you have any impressions of Africa in your mind as a young person and what were they?
Oh yeah, We had a group. My father was a pro-Garvey (Marcus Garvey) man he’d mention it so I had Africa in the house. And some of the West Indians around were also pro-Garvey folk, back to Africa. But the main dimension was the 30’S when Italy invaded Ethiopia so we got seriously involved, all of us were seriously involved in that. Haile Selassie was our hero.
Who’s all of us?
Black kids in the neighborhood (Harlem, NY) I’m damn near talking about 11th street.
Did we as a people have that consciousness or was it because there were so many Caribbean folk?
We as a people. For one thing he was in the news and our news was Saturday morning. I didn’t read the papers at that point but when you went to the movies you saw the RKO/Pathway news. And there was this whole hassle at the League of Nations at the point that Mussolini was muscling into Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was in the setup. And the thing about it was that Ethiopia was independent.
Ethiopia had always been independent.
Right. And it had defeated Italy once. They had tried before. And so we saw that reinforcement in the newspapers. And you know what I think generally it was because it was anti-Nazi and so that was a piece of it. And then there were Africans among the mix and they talked Africa.
So you knew Africans as a child. When I think of the first African I knew I think of Paul Opokum (my brother’s good friend) I was 14, 15 at the time. He was just like a hip, modern African. You know the best of my images were like “Cry of the Beloved Country” (e.g. filtered through Anglo eyes)
I had a sense of Africans and one of the reason’s, oddly enough, was kites. The West Indians and the Africans loved kites and they used to kite together and they also cricketed together. Box kites. These were difficult kites. No tail, actually a box. And Connie (Connie Williams of Connie’s Caribbean restaurant) tells me and I can kind of remember but I can’t verify, Nkrumah (The first president of Ghana who led Ghana to independence from the British) lived in the next block from me. Nkrumah lived on 117th between Lenox and 7th and he used to ride his bike through. Well there weren’t that many men riding bikes. I saw men riding bikes.
He was in college at the time? Right. Right.
So you had a sense of Africa, and this Prince of Africa and the Italians are messing it up. This is a place we should defend. So when Black is Beautiful came on the scene in the late 60’s early 70s with its very African, dashikis, Kiswahili, mgowah Black power did it change your perceptions?
No I was deeply into Africa before that. It was while I was still a child, child 17, 18 that I read The World and Africa by W.E.B. DuBois. And that was an incredible revelation. Absolutely, In 43’ 44 I did an incredible amount of reading while I was in Okinawa. That’s when I read Marx and Engels. I read a volume which is still a big basis of my philosophy today, The Origin of Family, Property and the State.
I remember when you turned me on to that, That is so right there and you can just see it.
Well, Engels work was based on the work of an anthropologist named Taylor. So I went back and read Taylor and so it was Engels and Taylor that got it through my head that Black Africa wasn’t a bunch of oonga bunga because that’s all you would hear. So that when they snatched the Japanese I said, “Well shit if somehow America was fighting the Africans over there our asses would be snatched.” I was very clear on that level. Immediately after war, I’m still in school there was a big Pan-African thing. I’m reading mostly Marx and Communist Party stuff and that lead me to read Black Communist by George Padmore. But I was into them so that the fact that Africa should be freed and Dubois had started forming the Pan African conferences. I wasn’t a Pan Africanist as such
and the Pan African movement that I identified with the Garvey thing, “Up you mighty race” and the fact that I got to thinking of Black people in terms of the diaspora. Particularly since I had a hard time in my block, we all did, we were in the majority as far as being West Indian, individually we weren’t there were Barbadians, Bahamians, Jamaicans, and what not, but the language of African Americans was really negative towards us.
African Americans were really negative towards West Indians on two levels. On the one we were just a little better than the Africans swinging on trees and on the other we were coming over to rip off their stuff.
Ok so you had the fear of immigrants and the racist propaganda of Africa
Yeah. So it was really terrible. And it was really terrible for me personally, for a lot of us because we were all out of the British West Indies. And we had British West Indian names, there ain’t no Tom there’s Reginald and Chauncy.
That’s right. And muthafuckas come over and call you out your name, “I say there old chap.” Then splat. So that was a piece. I’ve met since then a number of Reginalds in the service and all of us had to fight for our names. Every single one of us. Nobody would let Reginald sit still. And it wasn’t like now, there were no Reggies. I mean there were Reggies but those were diminutives. There were no Reggie names.
Like Reggie Jackson…
Yeah. That just didn’t happen. I had this general feeling and it was more conscious of me politically, my own consciousness to be a part of a worldwide Pan African than to be an African American which I wasn’t. I was raised in an Afro-Caribbean culture, We would sit up in camp and sing calypso. We would sing Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford arrangements and calypso. We sang a bunch of calypso. The camp was not all West Indian by a long shot, but there were enough to be able to have West Indian culture kind of dominant. So that was just my general consciousness.
I was left with a wonderful idea of growing with Africa as a valued heritage and Caribbean culture as just one of its offspring. It gave me a better understanding of the gentle confidence and character that my father always carried.
What were your ideas of Africa when you were a child? How have they changed or developed?