February is African History Month originally designated to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas on February 12 and 14 respectively. It is noted and marked in Guyana.
The African people of Guyana have contributed the most, not only to making Guyana the habitable place that it is, but also to the historical narrative of revolutionary resistance to oppression that is now our common heritage. This heritage bequeathed by our ancestors from Africa has inspired Guyana’s quest for freedom and justice. While it is important to bring the story of Guyanese of African origin to public notice, as I have done in the case of Jack Gladstone and the pivotal role he played in the 1823 rebellion, there are many others from other countries who filled my teenage and early adult years and inspired me.
These include W.E.B DuBois, Paul Robeson, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Patrice Lumumba, C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, Henry Winston, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Amilcar Cabral, Angela Davis, Walter Rodney, who came later, and many others. Forbes Burnham is an inspiration to a large number of Guyanese.
I wrestled mightily with whether to highlight for African History Month Henry Winston or Paul Robeson. Henry Winston was the lightly known African American chairman of the Communist Party of the United States for about 20 years and who became blind from medical neglect while imprisoned for more than a decade for his beliefs. With a lifetime of struggle, no bitterness, and about 20 publications to his name, I once had the humbling experience of listening to a lecture by him.
I chose Paul Robeson, who was a truly remarkable figure of historic proportions and his story has inspired me greatly. The son of a former enslaved African who became a preacher, having acquired bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as qualifications in theology, Robeson inherited his father’s dedication and ambition. He became a brilliant student and attended Rutgers University, where he excelled as a talented football player. Thereafter he obtained a law degree from Columbia University. He participated in dramatic productions while a student. After qualifying as a lawyer, he brought his still brief legal career to an abrupt end when a stenographer refused to take dictation “from a n****r.”
His then began a brilliant and storied career as a film and stage actor and singer, enhanced by one of the most commanding presence ever on stage or screen. His Othello in 1943 on Broadway amorously involved a Black man and a white woman for the first time on stage and has the record for the longest run of a non-musical on Broadway. It toured the country to non-segregated audiences. He became one of America’s and England’s most famous actors and was one of the most deeply admired men of his generation. His songs “commanded effortless attention: perfectly focused (his singing) came from a deep place, not just in the larynx, but in the experience of what it is to be human…The spirituals Robeson had been instrumental in discovering for a wider audience were not simply communal songs of love and life and death but the urgent cries of a captive people yearning for a better, a juster life. These songs, rooted in the past, expressed a present reality in the lives of twentieth-century American black people, citizens of the most powerful nation on earth but oppressed and routinely humiliated on a daily basis.” (Simon Callow: New York Book Review Feb 18-21). His 46th birthday party was attended by 12,000 people where he was described as representing “a highly desirable tomorrow which, by some accident, we are privileged to appreciate today.”
He earned the hostility of the American administration when he led a march after the lynching of four African Americans after the war, met President Truman and demanded “an American crusade against lynching. The public campaign against him was intensified when, at the Soviet-backed World Peace Council, he criticized the belligerence of the US and at the Paris Peace Congress when he said that the wealth of America was built on the backs of millions of white and black workers and it should be shared equally. He expressed admiration for the Soviet Union. The campaign against him at the height of the Cold War, even by the NAACP, resulted in his meetings being broken up with rocks, stones and knives. He became as widely condemned and he was admired and his passport was eventually seized. After worldwide condemnation it was returned in 1958 and he made highly successful tours in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, where he played Othello for the last time. He visited the Soviet Union. Ill health sent him into retirement in 1963 before he could speak in favour of the fledgling civil rights movement which he had planned to do.
Books have been written about Paul Robeson since 1936. His outstanding contribution to freedom and liberty as an artist and activist has faded but hopefully will be restored by two new books published recently – Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary and No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson.