Evolution of an Africanist Perspective

Edward Blyden's Africanist writings and speeches are the foundation of the Pan- Africanist ideologies of the twentieth century. The effect of his ideas on black political leaders such as Marcus Garvey of Jamaica, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana , Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Sekou Toure of Guinea and on a whole movement of black historians and philosophers like C.L.R. James, Cheik Anta Diop, John Henrik Clark makes him one of the most influential African figures of recent history. He is all the more remarkable because he was mostly self-taught, which may be the reason his work remains so original long after the particular contexts of his time. Blyden's life was a physical, spiritual and intellectual journey that is hard to interpret without a knowledge of his biography. Through intellectual challenge and personal exploration he changed the view of Africans from one of savages whose only salvation was christianity to the revolutionary and empowering vision of Africans as the originators of civilisation and the guardians of spirituality for the human race. Many of his pronouncements are still revolutionary and inspiring today.

Blyden's journey began when in 1850, as a teenager withouth family or friends, he emigrated to Liberia in West Africa from America. From the moment of his first exposure to Africans living on African soil, he began to construct a vision of Africa's place in the world-- a task to which he would dedicate the rest of his life. His occupation as a christian educator and later, Presbytarian Minister initially made him elaborate his ideas- defensively- within the framework of the 'christianizing mission' of his employers. He saw himself and his mission as one of proving the African equal to other races and only lacking the enlightenment of christianity. As the twenty-nine year old head of Alexander High School in Monrovia, he replies to a condescending letter from his Presbyterian employers in the U.S. by accepting the challenge to vindicate his race:

"You remark: 'The great problem to be solved is whether black men, under favourable circumstances can manage their own affairs, especially their own literary institutions.' Will the efforts now put forth in the Alex. High School if efficient and successful, contribute to a partial solution of the problem?"

As a journalist in Liberia and publishing by correspondence in Colonization and Abolitionist newspapers and journals of the time (notably The African Repository and Colonial Journal ), he began to develop his own ideas about the black race and to counter the European stereotypes of his day that formed the basis of altruism towards Africans. He saw Liberia as a model of a much grander scheme and tried to encourage the descendants of the Freed Slaves in Monrovia to become guardians of a dialog between a natural and spiritual indigenous African and the materialistic world of Europe and America. His ideas were threatening to Monrovian society however, and he found himself at odds with them much of the time. Despite this fact, they recognised his abilities and qualifications for serving the State. He served for three terms (1864-1871) as Secretary of State of Liberia and later on three postings as Ambassador to the Court of St. James (Great Britain) in 1877, 1879 and 1892-94. Travelling in Europe, he was able to personally set an example of African statesmanship that greatly impressed Europeans and won him many Honors.

It was during his diplomatic missions to the interior of Africa however, that he found the deepest sources of inspiration for his ideas. The major expeditions, commissioned by the British Crown, exposed him to an African religious, political and cultural etiquette which changed his views about the role of the "christianizing mission". His discussions with scholarly African muslims, and his observations of Islam's influence on the societies in which he found them forced him to break away from the Christian framework into a more African oriented view of the role of Africans. In 1887, a collection of his sermons was published in the book"Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race" that quickly became a seminal work of African philosophy and caused a sensation in Victorian London. By 1890, in "The Elements of Permanent Influence" a sermon he delivered in Washington, DC, he had conceptually unified Africans not only geo-politically, but with their rightful role in history:

"Everybody knows that the basis of civilization and literature of the present day was on the Nile and not among the Caucasian race- not on the Ilissus, the Tiber, the Rhine or the Thames, but on the rivers of Ethiopia. There were only two steps between Egypt and modern Europe- Greece and Rome. Greece took not only civilization and literature but even religion from Ethiopia. Such were the wonderful developments of civilization and literature and religion in that country that the early poets and historians of Greece, unable to understand such marvellous indigenous growth attributed it to the direct interferance of the gods, who they affirm went every year to feast with the Ethiopians."

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