Carolyn Cooper | As long as you’re human, you’re an African
Peter Tosh's provocative song, African, on his militant Equal Rights album, was released more than 40 years ago. It opened with this startling declaration: "Don't care where you come from/As long as you're a black man, you're an African."
None of the usual distinguishing features mattered to Tosh. Nationality, religion and complexion - high, low or in-between - could not alter the black person's fundamental African identity. I'm sure Tosh knew that the average Jamaican would not welcome the label 'African'. The dominant images of the African continent in the local media were, and still are, largely negative. Deprivation and disease!
Proverbial wisdom in Jamaica still asserts that "nutten black nuh good". 'African' is rather worse. In a society that rewards 'high' colour and devalues melanin, Tosh was consciously asserting a revolutionary pan-Africanist philosophy.
These days, Tosh could not say just 'man'. He would have to change up the rhythm of his line to include woman. I hope. Furthermore, it's not only black people who originated in Africa. More than a decade ago, scientists at the University of Cambridge, England, concluded from their study of skulls and DNA of human remains across the globe that modern humans are all of African origin. This shared heritage ought to be celebrated, not denied.
Two Thursdays ago, I attended the inauguration of the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar. It was a grand affair. There was spectacular drumming, singing, dancing and, of course, speechmaking. Total theatre! The establishment of the museum fulfils the vision of Leopold Sedar Senghor, eminent poet, cultural theorist and first president of Senegal.
Senghor conceived the World Festival of Black Arts which was first held in Senegal in 1966. Forty-five African, Caribbean, North and South American and European countries participated in the historic event. It highlighted the whole range of literary, visual and performing arts of Africa and the diaspora.
A second festival, FESTAC, was held in Nigeria in 1977. More than 17,000 participants from 50 countries attended. By all accounts, it was the largest cultural event convened on the African continent. In 2010, the third festival was held in Dakar. Senegal's president, Abdoulaye Wade, addressed the UN in 2009, issuing an invitation to share in the rising of a new Africa.
The Museum of Black Civilisations was declared open by Senegal's current president, Macky Sall. As he and his rather large entourage crossed the plaza from the National Theatre to the Museum, I tried to take a photo. I was shooed away by protective guards. The president paused and extended his hand. He had clearly recognised a sister from the diaspora. I introduced myself, proudly stating that I had come from Jamaica for the inauguration.
HOLD DOWN AN TEK WEH
The circular design of the museum reflects traditional Senegalese architecture from the Casamance region. And its scale is appropriately lofty. Inside, the open core of the building rises four floors, immediately conveying the grandeur of the enterprise. A huge metal sculpture of a baobab tree dominates this riveting space, like the centre pole in a Haitian vodoun temple.
The floor space of the museum is 150,000 square feet, or 14,000 square metres. It has the capacity to display a very high percentage of the stolen African art now in European museums. Last month, a BBC report quoted an English translation of the words of France's President Emmanuel Macron. He admitted that much of the African art in French museums had been "acquired under some degree of duress" - hold down an tek weh!
An important element of the inauguration was the colloquium on 'Reclaiming Black Civilisations: Finishing the Decolonisation Process'. There were four panels. The first was on reaffirming black civilisations. The second focused on black women and the production of knowledge. The third addressed creativity and resilience in the African diaspora. The final panel was on African arts.
For me, the most engaging panel was the one on black women, chaired by Professor Linda Carty, University of Syracuse. It featured Professor Carole Boyce Davies, Cornell University; Dr Myriam Moise, University of the Antilles, Martinique; and Dr Siga Jagne, commissioner for social affairs and gender, Economic Community of West African States.
Dr Moise's brilliant paper, 'For a New Genealogy of Negritude', beautifully expressed the essence of the panel. Female thinkers like Jane Nardal have been excluded from literary history. The seminal Notebook of a Return To My Native Land, written by the Martinican poet philosopher Aime Cesaire, is celebrated as the defining text of the Negritude movement. It was not.
More than a decade earlier, Nardal's ovular essay, 'Black Internationalism', was published. It did not receive the attention it deserved. The knowledge produced by women must be recognised if the decolonisation process is to be completed.
On the final panel, I spoke on popular music as an instrument of emancipation from mental slavery - in the spirit of Marcus Garvey. I cited Burning Spear's critique of Eurocentric history: "Whole heap a mix-up mix-up, whole heap a bend-up bend-up go ha fi straighten out." That is the ultimate mission of the Museum of Black Civilisations: decolonising knowledge.