By E. Ethelbert Miller
How can they really dare
to call me almost white
when every part of me
yearns only to be black
– Leon Damas
The term Pan-Africanism entered my vocabulary when Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) walked across the stage of Cramton Auditorium on the campus of Howard University. The year was 1970. I was a sophomore just deciding to major in African American Studies. I had arrived on the campus my first year with a copy of Carmichael’s Black Power in my luggage. Now here in a crowded space, a handsome Carmichael was proclaiming that the highest expression of Black Power was ‘Pan-Africanism’.
Throughout the 1970s, Pan-Africanism would be a muse. The word inspired my writing and even determined the type of clothes I wore. It was an introduction to a number of people I eventually had the opportunity to meet and come to admire. Each one of these individuals contributed to Pan-Africanism as well as my personal growth. The list includes: C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Dennis Brutus, Ras Makonnen, Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, June Milne, Julius Nyerere, Julius Nyerere, Skunder Boghossian, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Sylvia Hill.
These individuals would help to encourage me to seek a better understanding of Black people and the importance of the continent of Africa in World civilization and global economic and social development.
In 1974, I attended the 6th Pan African Congress and video-taped the proceedings for Howard University. These recordings are today housed in their Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
Years later, working with June Milne, I would help the university obtain papers and items belonging to Kwame Nkrumah.
Today, I’m surprised Pan-Africanism is not a word used more in the media. It’s easier to come across the term apartheid, which seems to have replaced the word segregation in our daily use.
One might even expect with the Internet and social media that Pan-Africanism would supplant the word Diaspora. Is Facebook now the highest stage of Pan-Africanism?
It’s interesting to ponder these things as we move further into the 21s Century. It’s also essential that we not embrace a culture of erasure or what Pope Francisco calls “spiritual alzheimer’s.” Memory loss too often results in the destruction of Black civilization. As a literary activist I try to remember and document as much as possible. I cannot think about Pan-Africanism without thinking about the poet Leon Damas. What follows are words reduced to memories…
On November 2, 1977, a very ill Leon Damas made his way to the Watha T. Daniel Library (not far from Howard University) to deliver his last public speech. The Institute for the Preservation and Study of African American Writing, a local literary organization founded by Jonetta Rose Barras, Susan Dorsey and Sheila Crider had curated an exhibit honoring the Negritude poets. In his remarks, Damas explained how the Negritude movement started and how it manifested itself in Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and Uruguay. Damas spoke of how a person of blackness must overcome alienation stressing the importance of defending one’s racial qualities. He commented on the significance of the NAACP and how this organization introduced him to W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson while he was in Paris.
In 1977, Leon Damas did not focus only on talking about the past. Towards the end of his remarks he made reference to my work. He said, “Now you have to work together. You have to follow, to take this idea of Ethelbert Miller who created Ascension. You have to go up and you have to make something together. You have to say as we say, we are just a segment of the Black race, we are not first. And what we have to do is learn modern languages.”
When Damas made this comment I was 27 years old. I was a young poet and the Director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. I had met Damas three or four years earlier. But I graduated from Howard in 1972 with no knowledge of his work or global influence.
Even though I majored in African American Studies and took a number of black literature courses, I was not introduced to the poetry of Leon Damas. Why? I can think of two reasons.
The first is how we teach courses on the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro Movement. This period is viewed primarily through the work and contributions of Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston. The focus is on Harlem and the Garvey Movement. We tend to focus on the Harlem Renaissance as being defined by geography and coming to an end as the Great Depression of the 1930s begins. But what do we overlook? We fail to acknowledge that culture is not held back by mountains or restricted by oceans. The poems of Langston Hughes crossed the Atlantic and influenced young students from Africa and the West Indies living in Paris. I was not aware of this when I was studying at Howard. When I eventually did read work by Aime Cesaire , Leopold Senghor and Leon Damas I had forgotten almost all of my high school French. It was language that suddenly became an obstacle and barrier. We sadly continue to separate black literature by languages. Pan-Africanism must come to mean an end to the language divide between Black people.
I remember, one day I was at work and Leon Damas telephoned and invited me to read poetry with him at the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial Public Library. That event took place on February 20, 1975. What I admired about Damas was how he was always reaching out to help young artists. When I started my Ascension Reading Series in 1974, its primary purpose was to provide an outlet for emerging Black poets and highlight the work of more established voices. I made this possible using my personal funds. This was what Damas would remember in his last public speech. I took the name Ascension from the 1966 jazz album by John Coltrane. I felt that if the 1960s was a second renaissance or rebirth of black culture, then the next stage or level was one of Ascension. I viewed African American poetry and other art forms uplifting a community. I’m certain this was what attracted Damas to my work.
My attraction and appreciation of Leon Damas started in 1973. That was the year Howard University established the Institute for the Arts and Humanities (IAH). The purpose of the Institute was to “facilitate the efforts and commitments of Howard University, to preserve, study, enhance, develop, disseminate and celebrate the artistic and creative aspects of the Afro-American heritage.” IAH was designed to complement the academic units already in existence at Howard. Dr. Stephen Henderson served as Institute’s director. I was the Junior Research Assistant. The poet Sterling A. Brown came out of retirement to be the Senior Research Associate. Leon Damas was on the advisory board.
I recall the first meeting of the advisory board, held in the board of trustees room at Howard. Everyone was sitting in big chairs around the conference table, and as people introduced themselves they all made reference to having doctorate degrees or directing an academic unit. When it was time for Damas to introduce himself, he simply sat in his chair with his leg crossed and said – “Damas.”
There is something very definitive when one says the name Damas. Even when talking about the founders of the Negritude movement one might say, “Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire and Damas.” His name tends to punctuate our lives. It serves as an exclamation mark or perhaps even a mantra.
Back in 1973, when I looked across the room at this man sitting in a chair, I immediately noticed he was much larger than his physical size. He was very dapper. I never saw this man without a suit and tie. He would come to represent the quiet dignity and style that I would associate with several advocates of Pan-Africanism. When I met President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam the following year, I felt he had a similar aura.
Dr. Stephen Henderson was almost the exact physical height as Leon Damas. It was beautiful seeing these two men interact. They both had a tremendous understanding and appreciation of international black culture and were friends with the writer and scholar Dr. Mercer Cook. In his last public speech, Damas expressed the hope that one day a student would write a thesis or dissertation about Cook. This man’s work should be discussed when attempting to better understand Pan-Africanism. Cook was a cultural bridge introducing the work of many French speaking Black authors to others in the Diaspora. When Damas came to the United States for the first time in 1945, he stayed at the Washington home of Mercer Cook. He visited Cook’s classes at Howard University. Cook would become Head of the Department of Romance Languages at Howard.
A Pan-African classic that one should read is The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States by Mercer Cook and Stephen E. Henderson. It consists of two essays delivered by both men at a two-day symposium, “Anger and Beyond: The Black Writer and a World in Revolution” held in Madison, Wisconsin on August 8 and 9, 1968. Henderson’s essay was an attempt to define and give legitimacy to the black poetry written in the late 1960s. His opening paragraph was unapologetic to critics of the Black Arts Movement. Henderson was speaking just a few months after Martin Luther King’s assassination:
The term “militant” when applied to black people in the United States is at once inadequate and redundant; when applied to black writers it circumscribes them in a way which they themselves reject. Black writers are “militant” only to white people and to Negroes who think “white,” for merely to say, “I’m black,” in the United States is an act of resistance; to say out loud, “I’m black and I’m proud” is an act of rebellion; to attempt to systematically to move black people to act out of their beauty and their blackness in white America is to foment revolution. To write poetry is an act of survival, of regeneration, of love. Black writers do not write for white people and refuse to be judged by them. They write for black people and they write about their blackness, and out of their blackness, rejecting anyone and anything that stands in the way of self-knowledge and self-celebration. They know that to assert blackness in America is to be “militant,” is to be dangerous, to be subversive, to be revolutionary, and they know this in a way that even the Harlem Renaissance did not.
Henderson’s comments should be read alongside the poetry of Leon Damas. In his first book Pigments, Damas is the militant poet. His embracement of blackness causes the ground beneath his feet to move. Damas’ work was viewed as dangerous and subversive. In his essay “African Voices of Protest” in The Militant Black Writer, Mercer Cook makes reference to a new era of African humanism that began in the 1930s. He links the publication of Pigments to a new militancy growing among young Africans and makes reference to books by Jomo Kenyatta (Facing Mount Kenya) and Nnamdi Azikiwe (Renascent Africa).
In the early 1970s, Leon Damas would be connected with the African Studies and Research Program at Howard University. But many years before – in Pigments, Damas would select an epigraph by Claude McKay to introduce his book of poems. McKay’s words are prophetic and instructional:
Am I not Africa’s son
Black of that black land where
Black deeds are done
In January 1972, Black World magazine published a special feature on Damas. It consisted of a short essay by Ellen Conroy Kennedy and her translations of 16 poems from Pigments. Kennedy made note of how the poetry of Damas, published in 1937 should be seen as providing a theoretical framework for the work of Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s work is pivotal in the struggle against colonization and the shaping of African independence.
Today one reads the poetry of Leon Damas for strength and memory. It was Damas who wrote “everything within me/ wants only to be black/as negro as the Africa they robbed me of.”
These words are a reminder that we must still define ourselves by the rubric of Pan-Africanism.
Our pigment is still black and yes – very beautiful. We remain as dapper as – Damas!