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25.05.2019 Feature Article

Oprah, Barack and the Story of Black America: Alain Locke's 'The New Negro' Revisited

The twentieth century drew to a close with America's erstwhile Queen of Daytime Television Oprah Winfrey clutching a coveted trophy - proclaimed "Woman of the Century" (by Newsweek magazine) and "arguably the world's most powerful woman" (by Time.com and CNN). As though in a relay toward glorification of their ethnic stock, another African-American, Barack Obama, assumed office as President of the United States in the opening decade of the 21st century. A year after Obama's inauguration, 'Madam Walker and A' Lelia Walker Plaza' was unveiled along 136th Street, New York City, after Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a bill in honour of the daughter of former black slaves, Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919), who had entered the Guinness Book of Records as 'the first woman of any race in the US to become a millionaire by her own achievement.'

The extraordinary figures here highlighted represent legions of African-American achievers who, from the earliest times of proprietary and royal colonies in the New World to the emergence of the Union and beyond, made remarkable contributions that lifted the United States developmentally and thus won renown that elevated their much-despised race in global reckoning. Until the advent of slavery and repressive laws some Blacks had been successful entrepreneurs and professionals who had white indentured servants. The league of famous Negro property owners, with Anthony Johnson (1600-1670) as "the black patriarch," is well-known in American entrepreneurship. He alone had four whites and one Negro as indentured servants. Blacks were a bulwark for America against hostile native Indian tribes that regularly attacked white settlements. In places like South Carolina, the "Slave Cowboys" were indispensable. Besides, the white communities in various colonies were dependent on black immigrants from the West Indies for expertise in cultivation of tobacco, which was of comparable economic value to gold at the time.

Slavery - introduced in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia 1661, among others - and the raft of repressive laws that followed, changed the dynamics. Blacks ceased to be free agents, who could think, plan and undertake any business or project, or pursue a course of action deemed potentially beneficial. Blacks became property of white slaveholders who reduced them to miserable existence on plantations and in factories without safety standards. Not even the Declaration of Independence in 1776 with its guarantees of fundamental freedoms and human rights could alter their material conditions. In the Revolutionary War that followed, they proved to be the proverbial stone rejected by the builder which became the chief cornerstone.

Several blacks of slave status distinguished themselves in battle. James Armistead, for instance, proved to be the nemesis of Britain's General Lord Cornwall and his squadron of some 9,000 troops after he abstracted some critical intel from them and passed same to the American forces at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. The General who had been deceived into believing that Armistead was a runaway slave, was shattered and forced to surrender. History books teach us that Great Britain never recovered from that blow. Another Negro slave, Pompey Lamb, also spied on British forces in the Battle of Stony Point, New York, in 1779, obtained their operational password which he passed on to America's General Anthony Wayne. The British were similarly routed, losing their strategic fort. The famous Negro farmer and surveyor, Benjamin Banneker, fed squadrons of American troops, turning barren lands into fertile soil and raising crops for the sustenance of soldiers. He is also known to have been appointed by President George Washington onto the commission for the survey and planning of Washington D.C. When the expatriate head of the Commission, France's L'Enfant quit the job, Banneker assumed leadership.

Their proven capabilities notwithstanding, the Constitution of 1787 placed the black population in the lowliest of places: it rated a male black slave as the 'equivalent of three-fifths of a man for purposes of representation in the Continental House of Representatives.' Even after the proclamation of Emancipation in 1863, African-Americans remained in subjugation as second class citizens, with Jim Crow Laws and segregationist policies instituted in most parts of the country.

In their distressed state, divested of the capacity to function as citizens fully protected by the law and Constitution, the black man had no shred of dignity. In some quarters, they were no better than zombies and were a fit subject for skits and caricatures that became popularised in the first half of the nineteenth century through an art form known as Blackface Minstrelsy. It featured white performers with faces blackened with burnt cork or shoe polish who exhibited strange behavioral traits in their performances. With flat, broad noses, thick lips and bulging eyes, presumably depicting physical features of Africans, they performed with spectacular success in cities across the United States. The sole object was to evoke disgust and detestation among the dominant white population against African-Americans in tandem with the vision of the political establishment at the time for a lily-white America. They sought to establish that Blacks were unfit for civilized society.

Blackface, in all its grotesqueness, had been entertainment to America from the first half of the nineteenth century and beyond, ever attracting record audiences in the theatres and taverns. By the end of the twentieth century the narrative had changed completely. Blackness, hitherto recklessly commodified in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had ceased to be an object of ridicule and amusement. It had become an undeniable element of American identity. Illustrative of the new reality was The Oprah Winfrey Show, anchored by a black face, that had become the highest-rated talk show in American television history, transmitted in about 150 countries of the world. That black face, according to Forbes magazine Rich List, was worth US$2.7 billion in 2010. Another black, Muhammed Ali, of blessed memory, had also attained legendary status, enough to make a leading American entrepreneur, Robert F. X. Sillerman, to pay $50 million for rights over his face. And in the White House, from 2009 to 2017 were a President and a First Lady of African-American origin.

"The New Negro," a phrase coined by Alain Locke as title of a 1925 essay, aptly captures the attributes and attainments of the African-American overcomer. In a section of his aforesaid publication, a portrait of that Negro is provided. It reads, "Uncle Tom and Sambo have passed on .... In the very process of being transplanted the Negro is being transformed." The African seized in his native land in Africa and sold to European merchants was transplanted to a new territory, the New World. The slavery experience, beginning from the ordeals in the cramped holds of cargo vessels in the Middle Passage to the initiatory rites on arrival in the New World and the actual life as a slave (the property of a white master), had all the conditions to transform an individual, ironical as it may sound. Slavery was something of a crucible occasioning systematic purification and conditioning that transformed the African into "The New Negro," the African-American distinguished by superlative performance.

The idea of "The New Negro" and the implicit notion that the Negro in his pristine state and environment in Africa is markedly different, lacking in some critical qualities, is a proposition worth thorough examination and analysis. What is known around the world about the African, as reflected in writings and comments by Europeans dating back some centuries, cannot by any stretch of imagination be associated with "The New Negro." In 1858, for instance, Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic Presidential Nominee who lost narrowly to Abraham Lincoln in the United States Presidential Election of 1860, had this to say of Africans:

The civilized world has always held that when a race of men have shown themselves to be so degraded by ignorance, superstition, cruelty and barbarism as to be utterly incapable of governing themselves, they must, in the nature of things, be governed by others, by such laws as are deemed to be applicable to their conditions.

The human stock that is so degraded is known by utter lack of respect for societal values and norms, utter disregard for institutional regulations and management principles. Such humans are found in the Management ranks of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation who sabotage the refineries and make importation of petroleum products imperative, so as to enrich themselves. They could be found in the defunct Power Holding Company of Nigeria and now in the Managements of the Electricity Distribution Companies. Individuals so degraded by ignorance and cruelty are known by their insensitivity to the feelings of others; utter disregard for elemental decencies, for fairness and equity. Who else but the type of people we have in top government positions, in the Executive and Legislative arms of government? Nigeria's National Assembly, we know, takes 25 per cent of Federal Government's overhead budget each year; a Senator, as Senator Shehu Sani recently disclosed, receives N13 million monthly, when the National Minimum Wage is N18,000 monthly. And all over the country, retirees are not paid their gratuities or even monthly pensions. The Police and other security agencies are grossly underfunded and insecurity makes every part of the country unlivable, but the National Assembly has a 'Welcome Package' of N4.6 billion readied for newly-elected members to be inaugurated early June, 2019. National redemption remains a pipe dream in the country, where basic essentials like electricity and water supply are unavailable to over 70 per cent of the populace.

Writing about half a century after Stephen Douglas, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) expressed the same sentiment in his work, "The White Man's Burden," noting that the civilized races had a responsibility to actively intervene, by way of management, in the affairs of grossly underperforming parts of the world, particularly in Africa, to enthrone a semblance of socio-political order and some tolerable quality of life.

Could such views be justifiably dismissed as racist or jaundiced, in the light of post-independence crisis-ridden politics and governance in sub-Saharan Africa - from Nigeria, Mali, Togo, Burkina Faso, The Gambia, etc. in West Africa to Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic in Central Africa; from Somalia and Djibouti in East Africa, Sudan and South Sudan in North Africa (south of the Sahara) to Zimbabwe and South Africa in southern Africa since the dawn of majority rule? In the case of Nigeria, the bitter lamentations of the elder statesman, Chief Anthony Enahoro who, as a member of the Federal House of Representatives in 1957, initiated the processes that culminated in the country's independence in 1960, are noteworthy. "I regret moving the motion for Nigeria's independence," he declared plaintively in an interview published in New Age (July 14, 2006). In other words, the British colonial authorities managed the country's affairs much better. Before him, in 1982, then Governor of Imo State, Chief Sam Mbakwe, openly stated his desire that Britain would "come back and rule Nigeria for another 50 years." So, what possible conclusions about Nigeria and Nigerians since independence?

Talking about “a race of men" that have so shown themselves "to be so degraded by ignorance...as to be utterly incapable of governing themselves," the remarks of Colin Powel (one-time Chairman, Joint Chiefs of the Staff and former United States Secretary of State) in a September, 1995 edition of The New Yorker could provide some insight. His words on the near-irredeemable state of affairs in Nigeria:

Nigeria is a nation of ninety million [as of 1995]. With enormous wealth. And what they could have done with that wealth over the last twenty years - they just pissed it away. They just tend not to be honest. Nigerians as a group, frankly, are marvelous scammers. I mean it is in their national heritage.

A distinguished West Indian scholar, Professor Patrick Wilmot in an article entitled "The Grave of the Unknown Civilian" (Daily Independent, May 29, 2006) expressed his revulsion at what had become of an oil-rich country like Nigeria:

In 20 years China's absolute poor sank from 56% of the population to 12%. In 30 years Nigeria's rose from 20% to 70%. Today China is a world power, Nigeria a basket case.

In an interview with the Hausa Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on November 24, 2004, a leading Nigerian politician, Governor Joshua Dariye of Plateau State, gave an insight into what the notoriously corrupt ruling elite make of public funds. According to him, "Some people joined politics [in 1999] with bathroom slippers [flip flops] but today, they are billionaires." Mindless looting of the public treasury at the federal, state and local government levels, as well as lawlessness in all its ramifications, is one endemic symptom of the degraded state of Nigeria's so-called ruling elite. Sadly, others on the bottom rungs of the public service ladder are hardly better - from the accounts clerks and accountants who routinely defraud through ghost names in payment vouchers and sundry other devices to policemen and Federal Road Safety Corps operatives who routinely harass transporters and other innocent citizens to extort money; from university and polytechnic lecturers who demand and receive financial or sexual gratification for marks to magistrates, High Court judges and Supreme Court Justices who brazenly negotiate with litigants and receive bribes before delivering judgment.

How 'ignorance' is at the root of corruption and economic underperformance in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa was substantially explained in an incisive analysis by a renowned political economist, Professor Pat Utomi, in an article in The Punch newspaper. He said, "A lack of connectedness breeds corruption in the society," and that "corruption can be minimized when a person finds a sense of stability and safety in his own abilities and self-confidence." 'Lack of connectedness,' failure to understand the organic nature of human society, how the actions of one affect the totality, the well-being of all, and equally impact on the actor, predisposes the unregenerate to infamy. 'Connectedness' could be equally deduced from the brilliant expose on contemporary Nigeria in the late 1990s by an elder-statesman and Emeritus professor of Economics, Sam Aluko. He said, "The poor cannot sleep because they are hungry, and the rich cannot sleep because the poor are awake." Few in Nigeria's public space seem to care about the honor in attaining to 'a sense of stability and safety' through hard work. The primitive instinct to amass wealth by criminal means rules the hearts of many, hence the perennial crises and under-development in every facet of national life.

"The New Negro," the overcomer and achiever, stands in sharp contrast to the Negro of Africa, the quintessential African still laboring under the shadow of perceptions that are anything but dignifying, the one whose woeful socio-economic and political circumstances - genocidal conflicts, random violence, mass poverty, hunger, disease, human trafficking, and political instability - remain recurring concerns of the global community. "Uncle Tom and Sambo (imagery for the old self) have passed on," been exorcised from the psyche of the African-American, "The New Negro," through centuries of tempering under slavery and racial oppression. The New World, the proving ground, equally transforms from the ordinary - a mere geographical space - to the sublime, nature's workshop for rarefaction of the human stock, a process analogous to genetic engineering.

By Dianam P. Dianam (author, From 19th-Century Minstrelsy to Oprah: Milestones in the Evolution of America amazon.ca/dp/BO7RVN9WBN )

Dianam P. Dianam
Dianam P. Dianam, © 2019

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