नन्दि

“नन्दि” (Nandi), color pencil

Nandi stands vigil over Mount Kailasham, Lord Shiva’s abode, and is his bovine protectress. Shiva is also Kali’s consort. The image of the bull and its association with Shiva dates back to the Indus Valley civilization of antiquity, as envisaged in the Pashupati Seal, which dates back to Mohenjodaro c. 2500-2400 BCE. Bull seals such as this one discovered amongst the ruins of the Indus Valley have led historians and archaeologists to conclude that Shiva was an important deity for this civilization, for he is the patron god of fauna and so, particularly  important to keepers of pastoral, cattle-herding life. . It is also striking that in literary Malayalam the word “Pashu” today means cow.

Du Bois in Ghana

Du Bois (center) at his 95th birthday party in 1963 in Ghana, with President of the Republic of Ghana Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah (right) and First Lady Fathia Nkrumah.

Shakti: An Interpretation of Mahakali, 2018

An interpretation of Bhadrakali. Historically, the worship of Kali, a black goddess, amongst Indians confirms the truth of Du Bois’s argument in The World and Africa about the long history of trade and inter-civilizational exchange between India and Africa.

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), O Black and Unknown Bards

O BLACK and unknown bards of long ago,

How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?

How, in your darkness, did you come to know

The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?

Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?

        5

Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,

Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise

Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?

Heart of what slave poured out such melody

As “Steal away to Jesus”? On its strains

        10

His spirit must have nightly floated free,

Though still about his hands he felt his chains.

Who heard great “Jordan roll”? Whose starward eye

Saw chariot “swing low”? And who was he

That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,

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“Nobody knows de trouble I see”?

What merely living clod, what captive thing,

Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,

And find within its deadened heart to sing

These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?

        20

How did it catch that subtle undertone,

That note in music heard not with the ears?

How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,

Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.

Not that great German master in his dream

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Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars

At the creation, ever heard a theme

Nobler than “Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars

How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir

The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung

        30

Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were

That helped make history when Time was young.

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,

That from degraded rest and servile toil

The fiery spirit of the seer should call

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These simple children of the sun and soil.

O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,

You—you alone, of all the long, long line

Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,

Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.

        40

You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;

No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean

Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings

You touched in chord with music empyrean.

You sting far better than you knew; the songs

        45

That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed

Still live,—but more than this to you belongs:

You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.

W.E.B Du Bois – Letter to Kwame Nkrumah on Peace Program, February 1957

I came across this letter from Du Bois to Kwame Nkrumah and wanted to share it with you. In it, Du Bois apologizes for his absence in Ghana upon Nkrumah’s invitation due to restrictions placed upon his passport, which the State revoked in 1952. I was reminded once more of the biographical contiguities between the trajectories taken by Du Bois’s and Robeson’s lives—the deep politics of their friendship and their common persecution by the white-ruled government of their country. In 1950, Robeson applied for a passport renewal so that he could fulfill his acting and singing committments and continue his crusade for peace in the world. However, the State Department presses him to submit an affidavit renouncing his affiliation with the Communist Party and confirm his allegiance to the United States government. Robeson roundly refused and drew upon his legal acumen to conduct his own defense.

Du Bois takes the letter as an opportunity to comment upon the state of affairs in Ghana and what role it ought to play in the future of Africa. Looking forward to a New Africa under a leadership accountable to the people and committed to the development of Pan Africa and Pan Asia and the preservation, above all, of human civilization, Du Bois observes that

with a program of Peace and no thought of force…Pan Africa will seek to preserve its own past history and write the present account, erasing from literature the lies and distortions about black folk which have disgraced the last centuries of European and American literature; above all, the new Pan Africa will seek the education of all its youth on the broadest possible basis without religious dogma and in all hospitable lands as well as in Africa and for the end of making Africans not simply profitable workers for industry nor steel-pigeons for propaganda, but for making them modern, intelligent, responsible men of vision and character.

The letter is both a plea to Nkrumah and a paean to Africa’s rich history as a decisive power in the world and its always flowering civilization. Semper novi quid ex Africa: Always something new comes out of Africa. He also shares important insights about his organization of the PAC’s following the First World War, after which he sought in earnest to “establish some means of cooperation between the peoples of African descent throughout the world.” Other notable details include his insights about early modern African history and the founding of Timbuktu and ancient Ghana’s connection to the Roman Empire—Bernal’s thesis which he develops in the three volumes of Black Athena echoes Du Bois.

This seemed particularly important, given our conversations in our Year of Du Bois World And Africa Reading Group and I will be sure to share with participants next time we meet. I also found it significant that Du Bois impresses upon the necessity of Ghana’s alliance with sub-Saharan Africa and the special oppression faced by “Black Africa below the Desert” under white rule. More comment on this later. Sharing here, too, Anthony Monteiro’s reading of this letter on WURD this morning.

UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, Tribute to Paul Robeson, April 1979

Muhammad Ali at a press conference with the Chairman of the Special Committee Against Apartheid. April 13, 1979

“Paul Robeson entered our consciousness at an early age, during the years before the Second World War, when Asians were struggling to regain their nationhood from Western imperialism. We remember him as a great American, great in every sense, in body and soul larger than life. It is not only the things that he stood for, but the manner in which he said and sang about them that compelled the attention of the world… This interrelationship between him and the peoples fighting for freedom everywhere was bound in the same web of history, human suffering and human aspiration. Inevitably, he became a part, and indeed a symbol, of the world movement for freedom and liberation. His songs were the purest expressions of the essence of humanity. Like the rest of us, he too was a victim of the white man’s law and the white man’s world. But not for long, because the victims of yesterday have now become the children of destiny of today and tomorrow.

There is in every country a separate third world of suffering and sacrifice, of struggle and liberation, and Paul Robeson belonged to that third world. For us of the third world today. his life is a shining symbol of the collective human effort to break down the barriers that have held back the coloured people for centuries. Paul Robeson wanted very much to go to the Bandung Conference in 1955, but he was denied a passport and so he sent a message of greetings. In it he stressed the urgent necessity of preventing another world war and the common duty to humanity of the peoples of Asia and Africa to support disarmament and to save mankind and civilization from wholesale destruction. He said ‘ Discussion and mutual respect are the first ingredients for the development of peace among nations and an end should be put to the policy of force and the threat of nuclear war.’ He fully supported the principles of Bandung and proclaimed that he took his stand on the Bandung platform.”

—Rikhi Jaipal, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, Tribute to Paul Robeson, April 1979

A Tribute to Paul Robeson

Philadelphia honors Paul Robeson in all of his radiance

On April 28, Philadelphia will honor Paul Robeson in all of his radiance and I am knee-deep in his music and speeches. I was lucky to have come across the proceedings of a special meeting of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid on April 10, 1979,  wherein many comrades of Robeson offered tributes to his life and the legendary contributions he made to humanity in politics, sports, law, literature, history, music, and folklore. These loving reports of his prodigious talent, immense generosity, and boundless faith in humankind inspired me to compose my own tribute to this great revolutionary.

Robeson brought light and life to the twentieth century. He dreamt of the grandest future for the dark nations of the world and compelled humanity to act with honor, courage, and grace. Art, he averred, was a weapon of love, for he could never separate his progress as an artist from his capacity to love and grow as a human being. It is often said that he is a “Renaissance” man, but we must be more specific: he strove to will into being a renaissance of black civilization in America and throughout the world. It is for this reason that he pushed himself to surpass the bar in virtually every dimension of human achievement: he excelled in law, literature, athletics, theater, folklore, linguistics, and many other subjects. He also knew more than twenty languages. Above all, Robeson saw himself as a son and defender of African peoples and their civilizations throughout the world. He cultivated the highest moral standard for Communists and humanity, in general. During the Second World War, he stood with the Soviet Union against fascism, like Du Bois. He valiantly struggled for the freedom of the people of Africa through his role in the Council for African Affairs with W.E.B Du Bois. He championed the Chinese people’s movement for a people’s republic and he praised the Indian masses in their dignified opposition to white rule. As Rikhi Jaipal, the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations said during a commemoration of Paul Robeson’s eightieth birthday, organized by the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid:

Paul Robeson entered our consciousness at an early age, during the years before the Second World War, when Asians were struggling to regain their nationhood from Western imperialism. We remember him as a great American, great in every sense, in body and soul larger than life. It is not only the things that he stood for, but the manner in which he said and sang about them that compelled the attention of the world… This interrelationship between him and the peoples fighting for freedom everywhere was bound in the same web of history, human suffering and human aspiration. Inevitably, he became a part, and indeed a symbol, of the world movement for freedom and liberation. His songs were the purest expressions of the essence of humanity. Like the rest of us, he too was a victim of the white man’s law and the white man’s world. But not for long, because the victims of yesterday have now become the children of destiny of today and tomorrow.

There is in every country a separate third world of suffering and sacrifice, of struggle and liberation, and Paul Robeson belonged to that third world. For us of the third world today. his life is a shining symbol of the collective human effort to break down the barriers that have held back the coloured people for centuries. Paul Robeson wanted very much to go to the Bandung Conference in 1955, but he was denied a passport and so he sent a message of greetings. In it he stressed the urgent necessity of preventing another world war and the common duty to humanity of the peoples of Asia and Africa to support disarmament and to save mankind and civilization from wholesale destruction. He said ‘ Discussion and mutual respect are the first ingredients for the development of peace among nations and an end should be put to the policy of force and the threat of nuclear war.’ He fully supported the principles of Bandung and proclaimed that he took his stand on the Bandung platform.

He brought to life the rich musical, spiritual, and literary traditions of black folk in America. He tirelessly believed in the capacity of the human spirit to overcome great adversity and prevail in freedom’s glory. He was also a profoundly gifted actor, that most complicated of arts. Theater plays a crucial role in human civilization. Playing a role is a way of imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself, and traversing the dialectic of  the self’s relation to humanity. The actor stands as synechdoche of a people, encapsulating in his mien, their manners, cosmology, morality, world-thoughts, and aspirations. As a witness, watching a dramatic production requires the audience  to reflect on the fundamental questions that motivate human existence. As Robeson knew, the actor is important because it is he who imagines new ways of being in the world, new directions for human action, and, most importantly, new prerogatives for human compassion. It is for this reason that we must properly contend with his interpretation of Othello, which was a historic achievement in the Shakespearean theatrical tradition in that it insisted upon the necessity of seeing Othello as an African nobleman and ruler in Italy, an insight which sheds light not only on the role of Africa in the early modern world but also, the origins of Western civilization in Africa, out of the contestations between Christian Rome and Islamic Afro-Asia.

His disappointments with the mainstream film industry made Robeson keenly aware of the limitations placed on roles black actors could play in Hollywood and it was through these experiences that he came to realize what role he—as artist and revolutionary—needed to play in history in order to secure the freedom of his people. Thus, in every speech he gave and every song he sang, Robeson conveyed that he spoke for the African-American people, guiding world opinion in their favor and bending it towards justice. In testimonies such as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearing, during which he is the subject of the U.S. government’s vile scrutiny, Robeson plead the fifth amendment rather than betray his comrades. In maintaining this firm position, he vowed that he would never be moved by the chauvinism of white people, that he would not be cowed by the virulent anti-communism and racism of the U.S. government, which basely seized his passport for his role in the struggle for peace in the world.

His voice cries out of the past holding us spellbound in the deep timbres and hollowings of his tremendous basso profundo, and in the end he left us with more than a body of musical and dramatic interpretations: they are meticulous enactments, offerings, of what it means–and has meant–to ache and agitate for a world where the liberation of humanity from white civilization and imperialism is not only a concrete possibility, but an inevitability. Such was the mettle of his hope and the tenacity of his exhortation.  Long live Robeson. His spirit prevails and his songs will follow us to the heavens.