The Memorial 2007 Lecture is an annual lecture delivered by those of African heritage as part of the Memorial 2007 education programme. The inaugural lecture was given by the Right Honorable Lord Boateng in October 2016 in the Chancellor's Hall, Senate House at the University of London.
[Text in square brackets indicates the titles of each side or set of slides]
[Harlem Sequence 1,2,3]
This summer, I spent some time in Harlem. For those of you who haven’t been to Harlem, it’s a curious place. Depending on who you talk to, it starts from about 110th Street, which borders on one of the most high end parts of Manhattan, within a stone’s throw of central park - unlike other New York neighbourhoods known for their black populations, like Statten Island or Queens, which you have to reach by boat or by bridge, Harlem is at the centre of New York. It’s begun to be gentrified now - in much the same way as Brixton or Stoke Newington was - because of its proximity to the city and the charm of its period buildings,
[Harlem pretty brownstones]
in this case the famous brownstone buildings with steps leading up to the front door.
[Poor African Americans on the street]
Most of the people you see at street level in Harlem are African American, or if you veer more towards the East Side, Dominican. Most of them are poor - a clearly disproportionate number are disabled, and many of those who are spend much of the day sitting outside stores on the sidewalk in these kind of strollers that have inbuilt seats. I always find it shocking to see so many poor, black people who are disabled - especially since so many seem relatively young. It’s a reminder that the US is a nation without the free, universal healthcare we take for granted here, because some of their disabilities come from treatable conditions they couldn’t afford to properly medicate, like diabetes and high blood pressure. But if you happen to pass a gym, visible just below ground in one of the basement sports clubs, most of the people running on treadmills are white, healthy city workers - the other side to the Harlem community. They don’t spend the day sitting on the sidewalk, you only glimpse them in passing.
But let me take you back to the 1920s
[Harlem Renaissance Map]
It’s the prohibition, and a ban on alcohol has created a thriving black market and illicit nightlife scene. In this small stretch of Harlem alone there are more than 125 nightclubs. The Great Migration of millions of poor African Americans from the South - since this era is also the apex of the Jim Crow regime - has swelled the population of Harlem with African Americans living together in urban conditions for the first time, and their ingenuity is creating new forms of music; jazz, the blues, dances like the Lindy Hop, the Cake Walk - and the musical Shuffle Along - which launched the careers of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson among others - became a sensation on Broadway. Wealthy white Manhattanites are flocking to Harlem to experience the cultural wealth of black Harlem, and the underground clubs in which liquor flowed freely.
This is the first time that African Americans have, within a generation of slavery, been able to make their mark on the mainstream cultural and literary life of America. But the ideologies that gives rise to, are not all compatible. WEB Du Bois, the titan of African American scholarship, is advocating racial uplift, by demonstrating that the African American is capable of great feats of intellectual achievement. His philosophy of the “talented tenth” suggests that the most capable African Americans should receive an academic education to prepare them for leadership, and the demand for equal civil and political rights, and that they have a special responsibility to be an example of what the race can accomplish.
The NAACP was publishing a magazine called Crisis and the National Urban League another called Opportunity! showcasing the best of African American art and literature. Alain Locke - the first black Rhodes scholar - whose history is still largely being ignored by Oxford University today even though he is one of the most famous African Americans of all time and was partly shaped by his time in Britain - published the New Negro asserting African American confidence. The First World War which had seen many black Americans fighting in Europe and for the first time experiencing countries which did not have a legally sanctioned regime regarding them as second class citizens. At least not on European soil. For Alain Locke there were two types of “New Negro” - the migrating peasant, and the intellectual elite - the black writers reflecting that energy in literature. For the latter, now facing white America - still on grossly unequal terms but with greater platforms than ever before - this was a time to prove a point.
Into the fray step a bunch of young writers who aren’t much interested in the strategic agenda of the NAACP and the National Urban League, or class hierarchy - they had been living in this brutalised land, and they had stories they wanted to share. So they created a magazine called Fire!! (with two exclamation marks) as an outlet for their creative energy as, as they called themselves, “younger negro artists”.
One of them, Aaron Douglas, created this incredibly powerful, afro-centric cover art. At first you see an African sphinx - symbolising strength, sensitivity, pride in heritage, anger, chains. Then you make out the face of a black man - subverting the caricatures they had to endure and turning it into an important image of black beauty. “There is nothing more supremely American than the coloured American, nothing more made-in-America, so to speak,” Jessie Fausett, the literary editor of Crisis had written. And that was true. But these young artists were exploring their African heritage, and that is something to which I can relate.
There was Langston Hughes, already in his early 20s a star poet, although he had not long ago left poverty and stints as a low paid seaman and washerman, and Zora Neale Hurston, the writer from Florida, both of whom we’ll hear more about later. But the older guard did not approve of Fire! While they were putting their best foot forward and trying to dispel the hideous stereotypes that white culture had caricatured them as, these writers were enjoying free expression. The Fire!! creatives wrote about prostitution, domestic violence, straight love and gay love, as well as the richness of southern culture, colourism, and other features of their full experience of American life. They explored their African-ness, as well as their American-ness. And this was not always convenient.
Fire!! is little known now. They only managed this one, single edition of what was meant to be a quarterly magazine, and ironically, most of the copies burned down in an actual fire. Surviving editions are so rare, they have become a precious collector’s item.
[Schumburg Remaining edition of Fire!!]
I saw one of the few remaining ones at the Schomburg Centre - America’s equivalent of our Black Cultural Archives - an incredible treasure trove of black history that - in the case of the Harlem Renaissance - was documenting and partaking in it in real time.
Arthur Alfonso Schomburg
The Shomburg Centre is a rare example of arts philanthropy by black wealth - it was founded by the Puerto Rican-born Black scholar and bibliophile, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who personally collected more than 5,000 books; 3,000 manuscripts; 2,000 etchings and paintings; and several thousand pamphlets.
The problem of white patrons
But for the most part, the attempt by black artists at self-sufficiency in the early twentieth century fell down - not surprisingly given most of their own roots in poor and often recently enslaved African American communities - on their lack of funds. They often relied on wealthy white patrons to support them.
Langston Hughes, in particular, relied on Charlotte Mason - a wealthy white widow who funded the artistic pursuits of many high profile Harlem Renaissance figures in 1920’s New York. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, this complicated and generally lovable poet writes with touching affection about his relationship with Mason, who he says gave him some of the happiest times of his life through her companionship and support.
But the relationship throws up troubling problems about the attitudes of white patrons of black creativity, and their motives for funding it. Mason’s were problematic at best.
“Concerning Negroes, she felt that they were America’s great link with the primitive, and that they had something very precious to give to the Western World,” Hughes wrote. “She felt that there was a mystery and mysticism and spontaneous harmony in their souls… she felt that we had a deep well of the spirit within us and that we should keep it pure and deep”.
When Hughes wanted to move away from writing of the ‘spiritual’ negro, and write political material about segregation and economic injustice, including material that was focused on the complicity of the white elite, she stopped funding him.
Claude McKay gratefully Mason’s checks and wrote adoringly about her, but was scathing about other white patrons, who he saw as exploitative primitivists - one in particular, (Henri Cartier-Bresson,) he described as “white lice crawling on black bodies”.
Mason was also, by December 1927, funding Zora Neale Hurston to the tune of $200 per month so that she could conduct her research on the folklore of the south.
“She wanted me to be primitive and know and feel the intuitions of the primitive,” Hughes wrote. “But unfortunately, I did not feel the rhythms of the primitive surging through me, and so I could not live and write as though I did. I was only an American Negro - who had loved the surface of Africa and the rhythms of Africa - but I was not Africa”.
Complicated idea of Africa
The implication of course being that Africa IS primitive. I have a huge amount of affection for Hughes, both as a man and a writer. Who can forget his poems, including probably his most famous and for me, one of his most powerful, The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
This poem is inspired by Hughes’ trip to the African continent as a sailor, an experience that I could, in part, relate to. He is astounded that “the Africans looked at me and would not believe I was a Negro”, he writes. It’s not unlike my first trip to Ghana, as a teenager girl, thinking I had reached the place where I would finally blend in - having always been so consciousness of both my blackness and my otherness in Britain, where I had grown up, only for Ghanaians to astonish me by calling me “obruni”, or “white person”.
Hughes also, in my opinion, accurately summaries the ideology of empire.
“The white man dominates Africa,” he wrote. “He takes produce, and lives, very much as he chooses. The yield of earth for Europe and America. The yield of men for Europe’s colonial armies. And the Africans are baffled and humble. They listen to the missionaries and bow down before the Lord, but they bow much lower before the traders, who carry whips and guns and are protected by white laws, made in Europe for the black colonies.
But at the same time, he approaches Africa, inevitably perhaps, as an American, with the gaze of a coloniser, revealing some of his own prejudices about this land “surging with the rhythms of the primitive”.
It’s a complicated dynamic and perhaps the most pressing legacy of the history of slavery - the conditioning and ideology that still divides us, the extent to which we have internalised and come to believe in our differences. Our differences exist - clearly if you have been raised in Louisiana, or St Lucia, or Liverpool - your identity and cultural experience is going to be very different from someone raised in Monrovia, or Maidiguiri, or Mombasa.
Some of the most prejudiced things I have ever heard about the African continent have been uttered by African Americans or the Caribbean. Some of the most bigoted things I have ever heard about the descendants of slaves were uttered by West Africans. This was, of course, by design. Africans were commoditised and dispersed to places where they were useful as chattle labour, their links to their heritage - their names, languages and religion, deliberately suppressed, with penalties for those found to be keeping their traditions alive. Their oppressors knew the power that lay in that heritage, so that their spirits could only be broken if that link was broken too.
That’s why it’s painful each and every time we are reminded just how effective that project has been.
One of the most potent conflicts that has emerged within the diaspora in recent years has surrounded the role of black British actors in American roles. From Idris Elba in The Wire, Daniel Kaluyya in GET OUT!, Naomie Harris in Moonlight, Thandi Newton in Westworld, and John Boyega in Star Wars, the question we in the UK are asking - why are our black actors having to go to the US to find career defining opportunities they are being denied at home?, is a different question in the US. Particularly in the depiction of emotive historic roles, such as David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma, and
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, Americans are asking why black British actors are stealing their roles. What’s emerged is a very ugly, but also very predictable, spat. Samuel L Jackson, in particular, memorably said in an interview, that he worried about America’s “love affair” w British actors. “There are brothers here that need work”.
[Cynthia Erivo TWEET]
Kaluyya’s response to Jackson?
Kaluuya’s response to Jackson highlighted the bind British actors now find themselves in: “When I’m around black people I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned. I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going, ‘You’re too black.” “Then I come to America and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’” Kaluuya said.
The reason for this is not that black British actors are doing anything wrong. They are acting, excelling in auditions, and gaining parts. The problem is an industry which has deliberately created an environment of scarcity for black actors, thereby putting us against each other. There are so few roles black actors can obtain - rarely leads, rarely heroes, or romcom figueres, or heads of state, or action heroes, or in films that aren’t about slavery or race, or crime or drugs - that there is a sense of desperate competition for those that do exist.
As Gary Younge wrote:
Arguing that black Britons should not be cast in those parts does nothing to challenge the people with the power to put more black people in movies. It simply sets black people of different nationalities against each other, while those with the actual power to make a difference are let off scot-free. It does not advance the case of anti-racism one jot. It simply shifts the focus of identity politics from racial equality – where it is useful – to an ethnic bun fight – where it is worse than useless
We are still suffering from a divide and rule mentality. We pick sides instead of remembering we should be on the same side.
The fact that several of those black British actors made up the very few Oscar nominations for black actors increased the stakes. But one film with numerous roles for black actors - as well as the also rare phenomenon of a black director - was Moonlight, which unforgettably won an Oscar last year.
Moonlight was seen as a groundbreaking film for its depiction of black sexuality, by tenderly depicting a gay love story. This was fascinating to me, because it was ground already broken by the authors of Fire!! back in 1927. The young negro artists are incredibly audacious in writing stories like Smoke, Lillies and Jade, which were completely taboo at the time.
And their battle against best foot forwardism - the idea that we need to always show our most appealing side - is still raging too.
Just think about the row over the movie Precious - which depicted a traumatic story of a teenage girl abused by her father and mother, battling with poverty, compulsive eating, depression and pregnancy. There was a sense that we endure enough stereotyping about our communities as abusive and dysfunctional in mainstream society - we don’t need to make our own movies reinforcing the message.
Think about the row about grime, and drill music, and the claim that it’s fuelling gang warfare, violence and murder. David Cameron said in 2016 that the BBC shouldn’t even play Grime. ‘I would say to Radio 1, do you realise that some of the stuff you play on Saturday nights encourages people to carry guns and knives?’ he said. What Cameron doesn’t seem to have understood is that grime artists don’t deny their proximity to crime, nor is it fair to say they encourage it – they explore it. The music is a symptom of the violence, pressure and struggles they grow up experiencing. Why do they experience this? Because ever since our arrival in this country, many of us have lived in poor areas characterised by low wage employment forcing our parents to work long hours when they would like to be supervising their children, leaving them at the hands of poor quality education, a lack of services for young people, substandard housing, and a demand for drugs healthily stimulated by middle class consumption, all things political leaders have been slower to condemn. But it’s not just Conservatives. Just take Bill Cosby and his Pound Cake speech, in which he blamed African American poverty on single mothers and names like Shaniqua. We police our own image as a community.
[SLAY IN YOUR LANE GIRLS]
I was struck by the recent book Slay In Your Lane by the recognisable respectability politics that seem to come straight out of the pages of the Harlem Renaissance.
We were very black faces in the very white space of university - unintentionally exasperating our white flatmates by crowding the kitchen, filling the halls with the smells of jolly rice and plantain and the sounds of Wizkid and D’banj”, writes Yomi. “One day in particular, a friend from the year above informed us that the gaggle of black girls we hung out with were referred to as the 'too loud, too black freshers’ - by other black people.
“My behaviour was even more policed at the [Afro Caribbean Society] than it was on the rest of campus.
Our loudness and ‘blackness’ at university was seen as exacerbating already existing damaging tropes that many were trying to distance themselves from.
A mouthy black girl on a reality TV show elicits mass shame because she is seen as adding to and worsening one predominant narrative - a narrative that even the meekest of black women cannot escape. We aren’t permitted the luxury of individualism.”
[SLIY p. 112 - 114]
Sometimes the distance between the struggles of the past and the present collapses altogether.
This year, a project interrupted in the 1920’s, came directly back to life. A book of Zora Neale Hurston’s - one of Langston Hughes’ close friends and co-founding member of Fire!! until the two spectacularly fell out, resurfaced.
It is one of the most moving books I have ever read.
[Cudjoe Lewis - Barracoon ]
The first truly remarkable thing about this book, Barracoon, is the fact that, through the man whose story it tells - Cudjoe Lewis, who was born Oluale Kossola - we are reminded that there were people alive in America who had experienced the Middle Passage, abduction from Africa, being examined, displayed, traded and enslaved, first hand, well into the twentieth century.
Kossola - born in the Yoruba kingdom of Takkoi - was the last survivor of the last known slave ship to sale from the African continent to America with a human cargo. He was kidnapped and sent on the Alabama vessel The Clotilda, half a century after the official abolition of the slave trade, along with 130 men and women from the West African kingdom of Dahomey.
By 1931, when Hurston interviewed him - he was around 90 years old, and yet able, over a period of three months, to recall his life in Takkoi remarkable detail; his grandfather - an officer of the king - his mother and siblings, law and justice, love and adolescence. He spoke in heartbreaking detail of watching his community annihilated during a raid by Dahomey’s female warriors, leading to his capture and enslavement, the torture of the Middle Passage, and life in nineteenth and twentieth century Alabama. Through all the years - many more lived in American than he had spent in his African birth nation - he never let go of the unspeakable loss of his homeland. When Hurston takes his photograph, Kossola dresses in his best suit, but removes his shoes, telling her, “I want to look lak I in Affica, ‘cause dat where I want to be.”
While other members black intelligentsia were celebrating racial uplift, while hundreds of thousands of African Americans fled the rural south in the Great Migration, in search of what they imagined to be progress in northern cities, Hurston was interested in “the Negro farthest down”. Her goal, from the very beginning of her career as an author, anthropologist and essayist, was - the scholar Karla Holloway has said - “to render the oral culture literate”.
“The unlettered Negro,” Hurston wrote, was “the Negro’s best contribution to American culture.” Hurston, sweetening the old man with peaches, Virginia hams and late summer melons - was determined to record Kossola’s story as she heard him say it, in the distinctive vernacular English of African American of slaves in the deep south.
Publishers demanded that she change his words into standard American English. She refused. The irony is astounding. The story of Kossola, a man denied his home and his voice by American racism, would have the telling of his story silenced too. Barracoon, having been met with intransigence by publishers, remained unpublished, ending up in a private collection that was passed to the archive at Howard University until 1956, where it remained inaccessible to all but a handful of scholars who read it and cited it in their work.
B [Zora Neale Hurston]
Hurston, whose own focus on America’s black, folk communities, would find our own life mirroring this cycle of narration and dispossession. After the success of her own work in the 1930’s and ’40’s, her hugely productive career spiralled downwards.
She lived hand to mouth working odd jobs, ending up in in a welfare home where she died, penniless, of heart disease in 1960, none of her seven books previously published books any longer in print. She was buried - after neighbours collected money for her funeral - in an unmarked grave.
The novelist and feminist Alice Walker set out to find her grave, and restore her memory, making it with a gravestone.
“There are times,” wrote Walker, “and finding Zora Hurston’s grave was one of them — when normal responses to grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of emotion one feels.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God, still considered Hurston’s greatest work, was soon back in circulation. That edition, by the University of Illinois Press, sold more than 300,000 copies, making it - as Wall says, “one of the most dramatic chapters in American American literary history.”
The publication of Barracoon thus represents a recovery within a recovery; the works of Hurston having been so dramatically resurrected, but this one languishing in obscurity until now. It comes at an emotive moment in the black experience.
A new renaissance.
It’s perhaps ironic that I have spoken about American history, since one of my main critiques of our approach to black history in Britain, is our tendency to focus on the American experience. I have often felt that schools and public services prefer to dwell on Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks because they can hold these figures at a safe distance. Theirs is a story of racism “over there” - which has nothing to do with us. We can in Britain thus have our cake and eat it - acknowledge the history of racial injustice without having to do any really challenging soul searching of our own.
There is a popular view in Britain that the horrors of plantation slavery and legally sanctioned segregation happened in bad, racist places like America, and not on British soil. I have lost count of the number of times a debate about British racism ends up in an attempt to compare us to America only to find, hey presto, that we come out smelling of roses by comparison.
[British Slavery in the Caribbean]
But the Caribbean WAS our Deep South. A regime as barbaric - in some cases, it’s suggested, more so - was perpetrated by Britain, on British soil, for Britain’s economy - it was just slightly further away. Out of sight, out of mind. The trouble with the British, the writer Salman Rushdie observed, is that they don’t know their history, because so much of it happened overseas.
I’m going to assume that those of you in the audience are familiar with that history. You know about it, you believe it matters - otherwise you wouldn’t be here. But on an individual level, many of us still don’t know our history. Many of us who yearn to connect with it struggle to know how. “There are no paths in water,” wrote the great novelist Caryl Phillips in his book Crossing The River. “No signposts. There is no return.”
We are turning to DNA tests to shed light on our genetic inheritance. But they keep our DNA and have at least the very real potential to sell it to pharmaceutical companies - who here has confidence in the data protection regime protecting new tech DNA tests? - and there is so little research about the African genome that they are wildly inaccurate. One journalist I spoke to who was researching this found that ancestry companies had done more tests on European settlers in American than on all the ethnicities relating to people of colour in the rest of the world. Only 4% of their studies are conducted outside Europe. They told her - she is of Caribbean heritage - that she was 30% Nigerian, and then when new information became available changed that to 2%.
Race and genetics have a pretty uncomfortable relationship anyway. Race has no basis in biological science. Geneticists have failed to find a gene sequence that correlates with race. Scientists and social scientists alike regard the visible differential features of people from different races to be superficial categories that have less biological foundation than differences between race.
Stuart Hall, the great British cultural scholar, described race as a “sliding signifier” - a way of making sense of the world based on superficial differences that were weaponised against us. When he gave his landmark series of speeches at Harvard in the 1990’s, he was surprised by the extent to which we responded to that oppression by embracing those differences, rather than advocating for their abolition. It was not the fact that we notice superficial physical differences in each other that was the problem, he wrote. It was the fact that those differences have been loaded with content - ideas about who is superior, smarter, stronger, libidinous and so on - that still persist.
He also identified, quite accurately, that globalisation has not spread homogeneity, as some predicted it would. The global flow of capital and people that has so dramatically increased in our lifetimes has further commoditised difference, difference, exploited it, packaged it and heightened the inequality stemming from it. Centuries after back women were ridiculed for their bums, celebrities now pay for implants that imitate them. Jerk is packaged for - it’s fair to see ludicrously inauthentic consumption - by large multinationals for sale in British and European supermarkets. Black labour continues to flow into poorly paid roles at the bottom of the economy - our doctors, writers, engineers, teachers becoming cleaners, Uber drivers and security guards in industrialised economies. The social legacy of race has never been more visible. Inequality has never been more heightened.
But, the information that was so suppressed for centuries is becoming available through globalised flows too. Schoolchildren in Aberdeen are learning about the fourteenth century Malian king Mansa Musa, believed to be the richest person in history, who once gave away so much gold it caused the global gold price to crash. Ghanaians know about Afro-Peruvians. A generation of “returnees” are learning stories like Dederi Jaquoah, whose story was unearthed by Miranda Kaufmann, author of Black Tudors which came out earlier this year. Jaquoah was the son of a King in or near modern day Cote d’Ivoire. When an english trader came in 1610 with silks, satins, taffetas, velvet and brass, iron and wines, the king and his merchants traded them with rice, pepper and ivory. And Dederi Jaquoah was sent to England to receive an English education, and perhaps conduct some industrial espionage that would assist his kingdom in future trade agreements. He was not the only African in London at the time. There were numerous others, often with high social standing, there for similar purposes, including the rather heartbreaking story of Coree, a boy kidnapped from the Cape of Good Hope - then known also as Saldania - in 1613. Although Coree was, Kaufmann writes, given a “good diet, good clothes, good lodgings with all other fitting accommodations” and a suit of armour made from brass, which was considered very desirable back home, he was inconsolable, and “would daily lie upon the ground, and cry very often thus in broken English, “Coree go home, Saldania go, home go”. When Coree returned home a year later, he revealed his true feelings about the luxuries the English had bestowed on him.
“He had no sooner set footing on his own shore, but presently he threw away his clothes, his linen, and all over covering, and eagerly got his sheep’s skins upon his back, guts about his nec, and a perfumed cap… upon his head. and then promptly ‘went away with his rich armour and all his wealth in the company of his friends and did not return’.
And of course, Disney has brought us black pride in the form of Black Panther. I loved watching Black Panther. But from an intellectual standpoint I’m maybe less enthusiastic about this than other people, since it feels to me like a form of regression. I look back at this, for example
[Chokwe Lumumba and Anasa]
Chokwe and Anasa Lumumba, members of the Black power group New Africa, in Detroit in the 1970’s. These groups were as much about self-help - controlling their own resources, taking charge of their children’s education, making sure children ate nutritious breakfasts - as they were about self-defence, based on an ideology of reconnecting and celebrating their African heritage. Fast forward to 2018, and our consciousness of being African is coming to us via a Marvel movie, packaged by Disney. I can’t deny the reality - there are many of us who simply did not know there was anything beautiful, inventive or desirable about the African continent. If it takes a Marvel film to communicate that message, then so be it. But can we really celebrate this as progress?
Blackness is becoming globalised in new ways. For those who lament that this is a deepening of racialised identities, I would say that globalisation is deepening ethnic, nationalist and yes racialised identities everywhere. We could have a conversation about the greater pros and cons of global capitalism. But to the extent that that system is with us for the foreseeable future, I don’t accept that everyone else is forging new identities, while the African diaspora is meant to simply meant to reject the content of its own.
People say that to speak like this is identity politics. I would like to know why only the politics of positioning blackness as a source of pride, is a destructive form of identity politics. Not working class politics - that’s fine, not Jewish politics - that’s a perfectly natural outcome of a shared heritage and culture. But express blackness and suddenly you’re divisive.
The fragility of those who feel threatened by assertive and confident blackness is nothing new. Looking through my book, preparing for this lecture, I realised how many of the quotes with which I opened my chapters are taken from the Harlem Renaissance writers. Chapter 1 begins with Zora Neale Hurston, Chapter 4 with WEB Du Bois, Chapter 5 with Richard Wright, Chapter 7 with Langston Hughes, in other chapters I cited writers whose work was directly inspired by the Harlem Renaissance ; James Baldwin, Claudia Rankine, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou.
This was completely subconscious - of all the writers I have read, of all races, eras, genres - these just happened to be the words that seemed most fitting to the points I was making. And yet, putting them all together is like uncovering a secret code at work within my own mind. It’s like a code revealing itself on the pages of the book I wrote not seeing it until now.
Are we, undergoing a new black renaissance? I said that it is unhealthy now, on the cusp of Black History Month, to focus only on the African American experience. But at the same time, I genuinely believe that to repair the wounds of the past, we need to restore the links between us that were broken, too. If we do so, we can learn the lessons from all corners of the Atlantic triangle, and the world, the lessons are, that knowing, and embracing our history, and not listening to those who try to stifle our art, will be at the heart of our growth.
Copyright 2022 © Memorial 2007
Charity (1140221) Registered in England & Wales