Sunday, July 29, 2012


On August 1, 1834 the British Imperial Act of 1833 (An Act for the Abolition of Slavery) mandated an end to chattel slavery in British colonies. In Canada enslaved Africans became free on August 1, 1834 however enslaved Africans in British colonies in the Caribbean did not become completely free until four years later on August 1, 1838. The Abolition Act also compensated the White men and women who had benefited from the unpaid labour of enslaved Africans while Africans received no compensation for the years they provided free labour which enriched Europeans. The complete name of the Act tells its own tale: “An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves.” This “compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves” not only added “insult to injury” but further filled the coffers of the white slaveholders and added to the wealth of Europe, Europeans and their descendants. At the same time the impoverishment of Africa, the formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants was guaranteed for generations. Guyanese historian Dr. Walter Rodney has powerfully portrayed in his 1973 published book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” the stunting effect the trading in African bodies had on the African continent: “Many things remain uncertain about the slave trade and its consequences for Africa, but the general picture of destructiveness is clear, and that destructiveness can be shown to be the logical consequence of the manner of recruitment of captives in Africa. One of the uncertainties concerns the basic question of how many Africans were imported. This has long been an object of speculation, with estimates ranging from a few millions to over one hundred million. A recent study has suggested a figure of about ten million Africans landed alive in the Americas, the Atlantic islands and Europe. Because it is a low figure, it is already being used by European scholars who are apologists for the capitalist system and its long record of brutality in Europe and abroad. In order to white-wash the European slave trade, they find it convenient to start by minimising the numbers concerned. The truth is that any figure of Africans imported into the Americas which is narrowly based on the surviving records is bound to be low, because there were so many people at the time who had a vested interest in smuggling slaves (and withholding data). Nevertheless, if the low figure of ten million was accepted as a basis for evaluating the impact of slaving on Africa as a whole, the conclusions that could legitimately be drawn would confound those who attempt to make light of the experience of the rape of Africans from 1445 to 1870.” Rodney also quotes from the writing of the late Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams: “The connections between slavery and capitalism in the growth of England is adequately documented by Eric Williams in his well-known book Capitalism and Slavery. Williams gives a clear picture of the numerous benefits which England derived from trading and exploiting slaves, and he identified by name several of the personalities and capitalist firms who were the beneficiaries. Outstanding examples are provided in the persons of David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. There was a similar progression in the case of Lloyds – from being a small London coffee house to being one of the world’s largest banking and insurance houses, after dipping into profits from slave trade and slavery. Then there was James Watt, expressing eternal gratitude to the West Indian slave owners who directly financed his famous steam engine, and took it from the drawing-board to the factory.”
Although the Portuguese began this barbaric trade quickly followed by the Spanish it was the British who almost monopolized this dreadful system for centuries supported by the British monarchy. Dr Rodney argues: “Some attempts have been made to try and quantify the actual monetary profits made by Europeans from engaging in the slave trade. The actual dimensions are not easy to fix, but the profits were fabulous. John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. On returning to England after the first trip, his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture and she provided for that purpose a ship named the Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains.” Rodney’s argument is supported by the words of Friedrich Engels (November 28, 1820 – August 5, 1895) and Karl Marx (May 5, 1818 – March 14, 1883) who were two white men born in Germany: "The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production." Not that Engels or Marx were by any stretch of the imagination champions of African people’s rights even though some of their writings are sympathetic to the plight of enslaved Africans but they at least recognized the truth of Europe’s role in underdeveloping Africa and the gains Europeans garnered from the unpaid labour of enslaved Africans. They were just stating the facts. They also wrote: “With the development of capitalist production during the manufacturing period, the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience. The nations bragged cynically of every infamy that served them as a means to capitalistic accumulation. Read, e.g., the na├»ve Annals of Commerce of the worthy A. Anderson. Here it is trumpeted forth as a triumph of English statecraft that at the Peace of Utrecht, England extorted from the Spaniards by the Asiento Treaty the privilege of being allowed to ply the negro trade, until then only carried on between Africa and the English West Indies, between Africa and Spanish America as well. England thereby acquired the right of supplying Spanish America until 1743 with 4,800 negroes yearly. This threw, at the same time, an official cloak over British smuggling. Liverpool waxed fat on the slave trade. Liverpool employed in the slave-trade, in 1730, 15 ships; in 1751, 53; in 1760, 74; in 1770, 96; and in 1792, 132.”
The benefits and profits of the European slave trade in African bodies have accrued in value since the four hundred year brutal and inhumane trade was abolished. The benefits to Europe, Europeans and their descendants were more than financial it was the beginning of white skin privilege a scourge which haunts the descendants of enslaved Africans to this day. It has dogged our footsteps and in many cases our minds and when Bob Marley admonishes us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery he is referring to the legacy of the enslavement of our ancestors. During slavery Africans were stripped of their names, their culture, their belief systems and many were taught to revere European culture, names and belief systems and to despise their own. Those beliefs of European superiority and African inferiority savagely and brutally forced on Africans continue to haunt us today. The abolition of chattel slavery did not end the exploitation of Africans. The Europeans moved to the African continent which they carved up and served to further European interests which continues into this 21st century in spite of political independence gained by the formerly colonized continent. On August 1, 2012 we will observe 178 years since slavery was abolished in Canada and 174 years since the system was abolished in the British held colonies in the Caribbean. The Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity(NPAS) is inviting the community to a commemoration of Emancipation Day on Wednesday, August 1, at 63 Gould Street in Toronto. This free event (donations welcome) begins at 6:00 p.m. and features performances and a panel discussion.


At approximately 3:00 a.m on July 25th 1916, African American inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan made history when he used one of his inventions (gas mask) to save the lives of City of Cleveland workers trapped underground and exposed to toxic fumes. The disaster occurred because the Cleveland Water Works Department failed to observe safe working conditions for their employees. At the time an existing tunnel which had been built in 1856 in Lake Erie to deal with the city’s contaminated water supply needed to be expanded. In 1856 Cleveland’s city leaders had authorized the construction of the water tunnel to extend 300 feet into the lake where water would be pumped through the tunnel to a reservoir to supply safe drinking water. In 1914 a decision was made to extend the 1856 tunnel an additional 20,000 feet into the lake. On the evening of July 24th, 1916, night shift workers entered the work elevator which would carry them to a 10 foot wide pipe 120 feet below the surface of the lake. There had been problems with the air quality in the shaft on July 23 and work had been suspended because of the presence of highly explosive methane gas. Workers of the day shift on July 24th had stopped digging after only five hours because of the unsafe conditions. By the time the night shift went to work on July 24 it was believed that the gas had dissipated and that it was safe for them to continue working. At 9:40 p.m. on July 24 there was an explosion and smoke billowed out of the tunnel. A rescue party was organized but they were overcome by gas fumes and within minutes they were unconscious. The next group of would be rescuers wrapped their heads in wet towels but were useless and had to leave because they almost overcome by gas. After these unsuccessful rescue attempts the authorities contacted Garrett Morgan at approximately 3:00 a.m on July 25th and requested that he take his invention (gas mask) to the scene of the explosion to rescue the workers and the would be rescuers. Morgan contacted his brother Frank Morgan and they gathered the equipment they needed.
Morgan and his brother Frank were taken to the scene of the explosion on the tug “George A. Wallace.” They were accompanied by fire fighters and the city’s Mayor Harry L. Davis. When they arrived at the scene of the disaster Morgan and his brother went down the dark contaminated tunnel (more than 200 feet) wearing their safety masks and made several trips rescuing more than 20 people and retrieving the bodies of those who had perished in the explosion. In spite of his heroic efforts which saved the lives of many, he was identified by name in only one newspaper article. “G. A. Morgan was in charge of a party from the National Safety Device Co., 5204 Harlem Avenue, S.E.” The other newspapers named two White men as the heroes of the rescue effort. The two White men, Thomas J. Clancy and Thomas Castleberry were recognized as “heroes” and received medals and $500 in reward by the Carnegie Commission. Mayor Harry L. Davis, who had traveled with Morgan and his brother on the tug “George A. Wallace” to the site of the explosion on July 25th and had witnessed the Morgans’ brave rescue of several men, refused to recommend Morgan for the Carnegie Commission’s medal and award.
In October, 1917, Morgan wrote a letter to Mayor Davis demanding an explanation. The letter reads in part; “I am interested in knowing why it was that you and your Director of Law, Mr. Fitzgerald, would not permit me to testify at the investigation of the disaster; when you knew and was an eyewitness to the fact that I positively lead the first successful rescue party that entered the tunnel and came out alive, bringing with me dead and alive bodies, among them Supt. Van Dusen. Why was it you remained silent and allowed awards [to be given] to men who either followed me into the tunnel, or if they went in at all, went in after my return in your presence with dead and alive bodies, when I returned you congratulated me and told me you would see that I was treated fairly and would be commended for my bravery. You also knew that the police, firemen and lifesavers had worked nearly all night without success and that they looked upon my effort as a last hope of saving persons imprisoned in the tunnel. The treatment accorded me in the particulars set out above is much as to make me and the members of my race to feel that you did not give a colored man a square deal” In spite of all the eyewitnesses to the part that the Morgan brothers played during the Waterworks disaster, their role was negated because of racism and White supremacy. Although Morgan was treated unfairly by the city he did receive recognition and awards from other organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.)
Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky on March 4, 1877 the 7th of 11 children of Sydney and Elizabeth (Reed) Morgan a couple who had been enslaved until the American Emancipation proclamation in 1865. Morgan began his working life when he left his home in Kentucky as a teenager and moved to Ohio. Although he only had a sixth grade education, he was determined to improve his life through education. He taught himself to repair sewing machines and worked with a number of companies before opening his own business specializing in sewing machine sales and repair in 1907. He used some of the money he made to hire a tutor to improve his education. In 1913, Morgan had applied for a patent of a “gas safety hood.” When the patent was granted in 1914, he established the National Safety Device Company. By 1915, Morgan had been awarded a government contract to supply safety hoods to U.S. naval vessels.
Morgan’s invention which was used during the rescue operations at the Water Works disaster scene on July 25th, 1916 was also used by American military during the First World War and is the prototype of the gas masks used by firefighters today. Morgan also invented the first stoplight to use a caution signal between red and green lights. In 1923, he sold his patent to the General Electric Company for $40,000. A few months later, several traffic lights based on Morgan’s invention were installed along Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland. None of the newspaper articles written about this amazing invention being used to save lives even mentioned Morgan. In 1923, a refined model of his gas mask won a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Morgan transitioned on July 27, 1963, just a few days after the forty-seventh anniversary of the Waterworks Disaster. He is buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio and his papers are part of the collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society. The passage of time has seen the recognition of the heroism and contributions of this great African American inventor including the Garrett Morgan Cleveland School of Science Academy. The secondary school which is in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District “offers a curriculum of challenging courses with a strong emphasis in math and science” and students can earn an Associate’s Degree in Applied Technology.


During this year (2012) two Caribbean island nations will be celebrating 50 years of independence from colonial rule. Jamaicans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their country’s independence on August 6, 1962. The 10,990 square kilometres (4,240 square miles) Caribbean island is the 3rd largest island in the area. The indigenous people (Arawaks) named their island "Xaymaca" (land of wood and water) but the island was renamed Jamaica by the European colonizers. The island was first seen by Europeans when Christopher Columbus made his second journey to what Europeans referred to as the New World. Columbus had been searching for a way East but lost his way and thought he had reached India so mistakenly referred to the indigenous people as Indians. Columbus’ arrival signaled the end of the indigenous population of the island. Foreign European diseases to which the Arawaks had no immunity and a combination of inhumane treatment by the Europeans who attempted to enslave the Arawaks along with the suicide of many, decimated the population of indigenous people. After losing their enslaved native labour force the Spaniards began importing enslaved Africans who were kidnapped and taken from the African continent. Between 1509 and 1655 the island was colonized by the Spanish who eventually lost the island to the British. The tribal conflict in Europe spilled over to the New World where Europeans fought for domination of the lucrative slave trade and the new fertile lands. The Spanish in Jamaica were under constant attack by British pirates encouraged by the British government who coveted the rich land. Eventually in 1655 they successfully wrested Jamaica from Spanish possession. All was not rosy for the British after they captured Jamaica from the Spanish. The fleeing Spanish freed the Africans they had enslaved and left them with enough weapons to pose serious threat to the conquering British. The Africans set free by the Spaniards fled to Jamaica’s interior and resisted re-enslavement by the British. This new community of freed Africans made life difficult for the British whose enslaved Africans would hear stories of the Maroon communties. The most famous of the Maroon leaders is Nanny (the sole female of Jamaica’s 7 National Heroes) whose exploits and fame are legendary. The fighting spirit of enslaved Africans and Maroons in Jamaica is legendary even contributing to the start of the Haitian Revolution. The complete emancipation of Africans by the British government on August 1, 1838 owes much to that fighting spirit which continued until Jamaica was granted independence from British colonial rule 124 years later on August 6, 1962.
The people (Trinidadians and Tobagonians) of the twin island state of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago will celebrate their 50th anniversary on August 31, 1962. Whatever the original inhabitants of the 5,128 square kilometres (1,980 sq miles) area named their island home, Christopher Columbus renamed it "La Isla de la Trinidad" (The Island of the Trinity.) It is said that Columbus gave the island its name when he saw three mountain peaks along the southeastern coast as he travelled by the island on his third voyage to the New World in 1498. Dr. Eric Williams wrote in his 1962 published book “History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago” under the heading Our Amerindian ancestors: “Columbus set out on his third voyage on May 30, 1498 and sighted the island, which he christened Trinidad, at noon on Tuesday, July 31. On this same voyage Columbus is alleged to have sighted Tobago. What is certain is that he did not land in Tobago but proceeded from Trinidad to Hispaniola. Trinidad remained in Spanish hands from July 31, 1498, until it was surrendered by the Spanish Governor to a British naval expedition on February 18, 1797.” Columbus claimed Trinidad for Spain but did not settle on the island. Spaniards who went to the island after Columbus’ sighting kidnapped the native inhabitants (Arawaks and Caribs) and took them to work in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The native population of the island also dwindled because they fell victim to foreign European diseases. The first attempt to establish a colony on the island came in 1592 almost 100 years after Columbus first saw the three peaks on the island. It is said that a group of Spaniards settled in a community they named San Jose de Oruna after they failed to find the famed mythical city of El Dorado in neighbouring (7 miles from Trinidad) Venezuela. The Spanish took enslaved Africans to Trinidad to replace the homegrown labour force (Arawaks and Caribs) they had decimated. Dr. Williams in his “History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago" under the heading “Africa to the Rescue" writes: “They were dragged by the millions from their native land in Africa to the Western Hemisphere. What began as a mere trickle in 1441, with twelve African slaves captured by the Portuguese and taken to Portugal, became a roaring torrent in the 18th and 19th centuries, and one estimate, almost certainly on the conservative side, is that the slave trade cost Africa at least 50,000,000 souls. Africans became important elements in the population in all the Caribbean countries, in Brazil, and in the United States of America. They constituted also an important element in the population of Trinidad and Tobago, and were automatically resorted to, as in other parts of the Spanish dominions, as soon as the decimation of the Amerindians by the Spanish conquest was recognised.” The decimation of the native population and the kidnapping and forced migration of entire communities of Africans did not weigh heavily or even at all on the minds of the Spanish who used these populations to enrich themselves because as Dr. Williams so aptly points out: “In Trinidad, and in the other parts of the Spanish West Indies, the conquest had decimated the Amerindian population, whom the jurist Sepulveda had contemptuously dismissed as being closer to the monkey than to man. So the Spaniards and other Europeans after them, promptly proceeded to introduce, as a substitute for Amerindian labour, the labour of slaves from Africa.” Trinidad changed European hands a few times before the August 1, 1962 independence because the Europeans fought like cats and dogs over possession of land in the New World just as they did in Europe. The first conflict between these European tribes on the island took place in 1595 when the infamous English pirate Walter Raleigh and his gang invaded the Spanish settlement San Jose de Oruna and burned the place to the ground. Raleigh was supposedly executed for his crimes in 1618. Trinidad’s sister island had an equally colourful history. From the pen of Dr Williams we learn that: “If there was one West Indian colony with a sadder history than that of Trinidad in the first 300 years after its discovery by the Spaniards, that colony was Tobago. Tobago suffered from the competition of rival colonialisms. It was a never-ending free-for-all in Tobago. Britain claimed the Island on the ground that it formed part of the acquisition of Sir Thomas Warner in 1626. France claimed it as part of the grant made by Cardinal Richelieu to the French West Indian Company some twenty years later. Holland, grant or no grant, asserted its own claim to the Island. Spain lived in constant apprehension of an attack from Tobago on Trinidad. This is how Tobago lived up the end of the 18th century - between Britain and France, or between France and Holland, or between Holland and Britain, now invaded by the buccaneers, now attacked by Spain, now settled by Courlanders.” Dr. Williams a historian and politician led his country’s independent movement and became the first Prime Minister of the independent nation remaining in that position until he transitioned in 1981.


Summertime, And the livin' is easy Fish are jumpin' And the cotton is high Your daddy's rich And your mamma's good lookin' So hush little baby Don't you cry One of these mornings You're going to rise up singing Then you'll spread your wings And you'll take to the sky But until that morning There's nothing can harm you With your daddy and mammy standing by
From the song “Summertime” first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1936
“Summertime” is the most well known song from the opera “Porgy and Bess” which was written by a white man about the life of American Americans. Set in South Carolina the novel “Porgy” written by a white man who purports to tell the story of African Americans living in poverty in 1920s “Catfish Row” which was a fictitious neighbourhood based on the area of Cabbage Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Most of the dialogue was written in what the author thought was the Gullah language which was spoken by African Americans who lived on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Some of the information about the Gullah language includes that the language is derived from a combination of West African languages which were spoken by enslaved Africans who were owned by white plantation owners in South Carolina and Georgia. In Georgia the language is sometimes called Geechee. Some historians believe that the word “Gullah” comes from Angola which is a country located on the South West of the African continent. There has been controversy about the portrayal of the African Americans in the novel Porgy and the opera Porgy and Bess. Not surprisingly the novel became a bestseller in 1926. As usual when a white person writes about Africans whether those living in the Americas or from the African continent the book becomes very popular with white readers.
Just last year (2011) we saw this phenomenon when a book written by a white woman about African American maids was immortalized on film and the book became an overnight sensation. Similarly “Heart of Darkness” the racist, white supremacist novel published by Joseph Conrad in 1890 about his “experiences” with the Congolese and the Congo is considered a “classic.” Thankfully there are knowledgeable Africans who can and will debunk the myths written by white writers. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has done a masterful review of Conrad’s novel which was published in the Massachusetts Review in 1977 under the heading "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.'" Achebe’s deconstruction of this European “classic” which denigrates Africans and African culture reminds me of the African proverb “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.” The young Igbo writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria is one of those African historians who do tell the African story.
In spite of the miserable lives of the characters in the opera “Porgy and Bess” the song “Summertime” is hopeful and does seem to portray a better life for the next generation. In North America like the song from Porgy and Bess, during the summertime life does seem to be easier to live with beautiful sunshine and warm weather for almost three months. African Caribbean culture has been a mainstay of Toronto summers for more than 40 years. The small celebration that began as the Caribbean contribution to Canada’s centennial celebration has grown to become a multimillion dollar business. The celebration based on African culture which was transported to the Caribbean on slave ships with the enslaved Africans who were forced to “toil and toil so hard each day” as immortalized by Sparrow in his calypso “slave” the basis of Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival. The T&T Carnival was the foundation of the annual Caribana celebration which has slowly but surely slipped away or has been stolen from the architects of the celebration. Now the celebration has been given a new name and has mostly been reduced to a display of “feathers and flesh.” Regardless, Caribbean people taught Canadians how to hold a street party and enjoy the summer. Today there are several summer street festivals, patterned after the Caribana celebration, which are allowed to enjoy the city with various streets closed to traffic while the participants parade down those streets or set up stalls and enjoy the beautiful summer weather. The celebration and the people who started it all have been relegated to the far corner of the city out of sight. To get to the colourful celebration we now have to travel by public transportation which nets major profit for the government when all the visitors to the city who are compelled to use the TTC to access the celebration are counted. Summertime is also the time when our children are out of school and formal education is mostly abandoned. This is an excellent time to introduce our young people to books that will teach them about their history and culture. Summertime is the time to unwind and enjoy the weather and can include trips to the library and areas of the city where African Canadians lived and in many cases thrived and contributed to the wealth of this city. Most of these facts are absent from the curriculum that is taught in the public schools but available in many books at the public libraries which benefit from our tax dollars. Parents and guardians please ensure that your children include reading as part of their summertime fun and easy living.


Jane engage and she tink nobady like she Jane engage and she tink nobady like she Run a kokah dam someting bruk away Run a kokah dam Jane engage and she walk the village wid style O run a kokah dam someting bruk away Run a kokah dam From Guyanese kwe-kwe song “Jane Engage”
Singing and dancing to kwe-kwe songs is an important part of some African Guyanese pre-wedding celebration. The songs are sung in the Guyanese Creolese language which is derived from several Central African and West African languages combined with the languages of the Europeans who enslaved Africans. The kwe-kwe pre-wedding celebration does not seem to have a corresponding ceremony in any present day African nation which suggests it was probably derived from a combination of African ceremonies. After all the Europeans who enslaved Africans went to great pains to ensure that they separated the Africans to make it difficult for communication in a common language. The Europeans were afraid that if there were many Africans from any particular nation on their plantation they would foment rebellion and the Europeans would be caught unprepared. However African Trinidadian professor Maureen Warner-Lewis in her 2002 published “Central Africa in the Caribbean: Transcending Time, Transforming Cultures” compares aspects of the Guyanese kwe-kwe to pre-wedding ceremonies in ancient Kongo (Congo.) Professor Warner-Lewis who is also the author of the 1999 published “Trinidad Yoruba: From Mother Tongue to Memory” where she traces remnants of the Yoruba language in Guyana and Trinidad lists the music and songs among the evidence that links kwe-kwe to the Kongo celebration.
The songs sung during the kwe-kwe are varied including instructions for the soon to be married couple, for the relatives and community to support the couple and also social commentary. The greeting song “Goo nite aye” and “Come to my kwe-kwe” invites the entire village to enjoy the celebration. “Nation ah whey yuh nation?” another popular kwe-kwe song urging identification with African nations is recognition of the scattering of Africans during slavery. The kwe-kwe opens with the pouring of libation by sprinkling liquor (Guyana white rum or high wine) on the floor, around the doors and windows. There is usually a leader who will “call out” the song to be sung and will signal the end by instructing “bato, bato.” The singers and dancers are usually accompanied by the music of drums, shak-shaks and/or the sounds of clapping and the rhythmic stamping of feet moving to the irresistible beat of voices raised in joyful celebration.
Kwe-kwe with its accompanying dance and songs is a unique ceremony derived from the experience of Africans who were enslaved by Europeans in what was once British Guiana. African American spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and roll, the African Central and South American cha cha cha, salsa, samba, mambo, meringue and rumba can also be traced to the African continent. During this last week of Black Music Month 2012 a search of the Internet shows that the contributions and influence of Africa and Africans to world music, art, dance and other cultural “norms” of today continues to be recognized and celebrated. Unfortunately celebrations like kwe-kwe are losing ground and the kwe-kwe celebration is not as popular as it used to be and there are predictions that it may become a museum display or reduced to occasional “cultural” performances. African traditions in Guyana seem to be fading from the memories of the people who should be practicing and upholding these traditions. If we forget who we are what will we become? The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey considered the father of modern Pan-Africanism said: “A People without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
In the 1993 released movie “Sankofa” an African elder says to an African American fashion model who did not know that she was African: “Go back to the past, to the source.” African Guyanese need to heed that advice because many of us do not know much about our history. We do not know about the sacrifices that our ancestors made to purchase the land on which they established villages. The Village Movement is a mystery to many of us even some living in the villages that were bought with the blood, sweat and tears of formerly enslaved Africans after the August 1st 1834 Emancipation of Africans enslaved by the British. The villages on the Courentyne (Courtland, Fyrish and Gibraltar) where my father, his siblings, cousins and their parents were born are villages established by their ancestors who saved the pittance they were grudgingly paid by their former enslavers after Emancipation. In unity, groups of Africans purchased the land where they once laboured without pay and established villages on the length and breadth of the Guyana coastland in Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo. Today even the commemoration of August 1st Emancipation Day which was important during my childhood and youth in Guyana is now mostly ignored.
In Guyana kwe-kwe may have been reduced to a quaint celebration in a few African Guyanese villages but there is some good news. African Guyanese in Brooklyn, New York have been keeping the kwe-kwe alive with re-enactment of this African Guyanese pre-wedding celebration. On Friday August 31st as part of the annual Guyana Folk Fest in Brooklyn, New York there will be a “kwe-kwe-nite” as part of the festival. Hopefully this initiative will encourage Guyanese at home and abroad to make kwe-kwe with its music and dance part of their educational and cultural experience.
Nation ah whey you nation? Nation ah whey dem deh? Nation ah whey awe nation? Nation ah whey dem dey?


Precious Lord, take my hand Lead me on, let me stand I am tired, I am weak, I am worn Through the storm, through the night Lead me on to the light Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home When my way grows drear Precious Lord linger near When my life is almost gone Hear my cry, hear my call Hold my hand lest I fall Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home When the darkness appears And the night draws near And the day is past and gone At the river I stand Guide my feet, hold my hand Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
From: “Precious Lord take my hand” composed by Thomas Andrew Dorsey in 1932
Thomas Andrew Dorsey born on July 1, 1899 in Villa Rica, Georgia was an African American composer and musician who is considered the father of gospel music. He wrote his most famous song “Precious Lord take my hand” after his wife and infant son transitioned in 1932. The trauma of losing his wife and baby steered Dorsey towards writing gospel music instead of the secular music he had written and played (mostly in bars and clubs on Chicago’s South Side) since his teenage years using the name “Georgia Tom.” Although Dorsey is considered the father of gospel music, the genre has been defined as “American religious musical form that owes much of its origin to the Christian conversion of West Africans enslaved in the American South. Gospel music partly evolved from the songs slaves sang on plantations, notably work songs.” Gospel music therefore would have existed before Dorsey’s birth in 1899. However Dorsey did contribute much to popularizing gospel music and is one of the well known names of gospel music which includes such stalwarts as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.
Even though gospel music can be defined as African American Christian religious music it is deeply rooted in African rhythms and can be traced back to the enslaved Africans labouring on southern plantations, expressing their sorrow at being forced to work from “sunup to sundown” to enrich white slave holders. The rhythms travelled with the Africans who were forcibly removed from various places on the African continent, displaced and scattered throughout the Americas. Gospel is derived from the experience of the African Diaspora in the Americas. Some writers have identified that music is a part of every aspect of African life and that this was transported to the Americas. The musical traditions from the African continent that came to this New World via the enslavement of Africans encompass various areas of Africa.
Gospel became popular outside of the African American community and in some cases has been redefined. Gospel and African rhythms influenced blues, jazz, soul and rock music. During the Civil Rights Movement African inspired music was used to encourage flagging spirits, to inspire those who were weary, scared or discouraged. Fannie Lou Hamer, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and other leaders of the movement had their favourite inspirational songs which came from the music that in some cases went all the way back to slavery. African Americans used music during slavery for various reasons including planning their escape from slavery. Similar to gospel music this forerunner “the spirituals” used coded language to aid those brave souls who were willing to risk life and limb for their freedom. The enslaved Africans used coded language while singing seemingly innocuous religious songs while they planned their escape. The white slave holders who heard the singing never had a clue that their seemingly docile and downtrodden “property” were intelligent human beings dissatisfied with their lot and planning their escape. When the Africans sang of going home they were not singing of dying and going to a heavenly home but instead home was a code word for a safe haven where they would be free from slavery. In some cases that “home” was a free state in the USA where slavery had been abolished (slavery was abolished in Vermont in 1777) and in other cases enslaved Africans went as far north as Canada (identified in spirituals as Canaan) in their bid for freedom. Enslaved Africans singing “Steal Away to Jesus” were also singing of escape from slavery. Other popular spirituals with coded language were “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in the water” and “The Gospel Train.” It has been written that the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad had a signature song which was “Go Down Moses.” Harriet Tubman was an African American woman who escaped slavery and returned to the area where she had been enslaved to help others escape. She was so successful that the white slave holders put a bounty on her head of the reportedly hefty sum (for that time) of $40,000 to be paid to anyone for her capture. Enslaved Africans held Tubman in high esteem and named her “Moses” after the saviour of an enslaved people they had heard of or read about in the Bible. The singing of “Go Down Moses” apparently meant that Tubman was in the area and her freedom train was on the move so that anyone who had the courage to get on the Underground Railroad with conductor Tubman was welcome. It has been written that Tubman made 19 trips into slave country and rescued upwards of 300 enslaved Africans.
The most recent incarnation of African music in the USA is hip-hop and it surprisingly has been compared to the spirituals because of its coded language. In the 2005 published book “The Hip-Hop Church: Connecting With the Movement Shaping Our Culture” by Efrem Smith, Phil Jackson and Bakari Kitwana the authors write: “Coded language in hip-hop is used to explore life without outsiders being able to understand or exploit the message. Hip-hop’s use of coded language is prompted by the same need that underlay coded language in Negro spirituals: the need to camouflage. Thus hip-hop has its own language that is distinctive to the culture it is speaking to, and it keeps the dominant community out while seeking to advance hip-hop culture.”
Although some of hip-hop could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered inspirational there are some conscious performers including Arrested Development, Common, Dead Prez, KRS-One, Mos Def, Poor Righteous Teachers and Talib Kweli. Interestingly enough when Dorsey began composing and singing his music he was vilified by the established church and now his music is accepted and valued in the church.