The Star Of Ethiopia

In 1913, Du Bois wrote and presented The Star Of Ethiopia, a historical pageant chronicling the history of black civilization and its contribution to world history at the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in New York City. In many ways, the play is an early enactment of the story he so painstakingly documents in the idiom of social science in his 1946 monograph, The World and Africa. Foregrounding African-American drama’s connection to African dramatic and spiritual traditions as well as its historical distinctions, his chief purpose in imagining it was to create a complete work of art, one capable of educating and uplifting the masses. As he put it, “The great fact has been demonstrated that pageantry among colored people is not only possible, but in many ways of un­ surpassed beauty and can be made a means of uplift and education and the beginning of a folk drama.”

Towards the fulfillment of this mission, The Star of Ethiopia progresses in six movements that detail the origins of humanity in Africa, the contributions of African civilizations to the ancient world, and the struggle of the black worker for freedom from American slavery and imperialism in the modern period. Originally imagined for an ensemble of three hundred to a thousand performance artists, the play premiered in Washington, D.C. in 1915 and made its Philadelphia debut in 1916 (see below for pictures of cast and the playbill). It was revived in a 1925 performance at the Hollywood Bowl.

“Hear ye, hear ye! All them that sing before the Lord and forget not the Vision of the Eldest and Strongest of the Races of Men whose faces be Black. Hear ye, hear ye! And remember forever and one day the Star of Ethiopia, All-Mother of Men, who gave the world the Iron Gift and Gift of Faith, the Pain of Humility and Sorrow Song of Pain, and Freedom, Eternal Freedom, underneath the Star. Arise and go, Children of Philadelphia—the Play is done—the Play is done.”

Asia in Africa

In the ninth chapter of his 1946 inquiry The World and Africa, which explores the role played by Africa in the ancient and modern world, W.E.B Du Bois theorizes the black foundations of Asiatic civilization, citing as evidence the African origins of the name “Nahsi” and the black features of the Buddha and Krishna, two of India’s most revered gods. Siddhartha Gautama who ascended to Enlightenment many centuries before Hume, Kant, and Hegel, sought to liberate Hinduism from the strictures of inequality and chart out a selfless path of human being-in-the-world. Du Bois copiously illustrates the long history of trade and inter-civilizational exchange in the Afro-Asiatic zone–the region above the Sahara Desert linking the African continent to the Asian land-mass, particularly the Indian subcontinent, in antiquity as well as by modern developments. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa and India met in the body of water we now call the Indian Ocean and Roman North Africa had extensive trade relationships with the Indian peninsula. Finally, these continents were linked by the spread of Christianity and Islam.

As Du Bois confirms

The Asiatic and African blacks were strewn along a straight path between tropical Asia and tropical Africa and there was much racial intermingling between Africa and Western Asia.

He advances a scientific argument that presents evidence about race relations in the framework of historical materialism, guided by the logic of the Marxist dialectic. As such, though he draws on mythology and literature and indeed European ethnography as primary sources, he reads them to reconstruct a picture of the world that counters the Western imperial order, one in which the dark proletariat leads humanity in our common efforts to build a civilization founded on principles of peace and freedom. As a sociologist, Du Bois was interested in studying aspects of social life arising from human actions. As a humanist, he was guided by the belief that humanity had emerged from a common origin in Africa before developing continuously to our present condition. Ancient Greece and Rome were not European or “Caucasian”, per the evolving field of race science in Europe which struggled to establish the origins of humanity even while denying kinship with African and Africoid peoples throughout the world. Such was the vastness of the shadow cast by the Du Boisian epistemology on the history of science. Scientists today confirm what Du Bois discovered in 1946: that bi-pedalism, tool use, and language first arose in Africa before spreading to Asia about 2 million years ago and to the Americas by way of the Atlantic and the Pacific and later to Europe. Settled cultivation of land and use of iron began in Africa, as we now know. Du Bois was one of the first historians to insist upon this truth in the West in his pivotal study, The World and Africa which was published in America at the height of Jim Crow as a wave of virulent anti-communism swept the nation. The ground-breaking philosophy of history argued that contrary to white civilization, Black Africans had not only contributed to but led civilization in all epochs of human history.

Social science saw the history of human being in the world as a materially unified whole capable of being studied scientifically. Humanity’s origins were relatively recent in the history of the modern world and each phase of its development was characterized by a different relationship to means of production and reproduction. For example, means of production differed in the Stone Age and the Iron Age; during the latter, which began earlier in Africa, human beings discovered iron as a raw material, welding it to create tools, weapons, and other implements to improve their lives and build civilization. Du Bois’s intervened in the debate about positivism in Western social science, which suggested that the laws of the human social world operated in the same way as the laws of the natural world, a premise which he exposed as a fallacy. As he continued his scientific study of social life and human actions he realized that there was something incalculable about humanity–human behavior is counterintuitive and human consciousness infinitely variable, always operating in movement of time as an unknown factor. Moreover, as he increasingly turns to the work of Karl Marx and strengthens his commitment to the world Communist movement, he understands that each epoch of human history, and its attendant form of social organization, was constitutionally shaped by the mode of production upon which it depended. Hence, he saw that the world around him–a world riven by the color line–was so because it depended on a system of production that necessitated subjugation of the darker races and most especially the black race to labor for the capitalist planter and merchant.Thus, his dialectical reasoning interprets the ancient and modern past of humanity and human action in terms of their political and economic consequences for the dark nations in order to carve out a path for revolutionary change and non-capitalist development.

The rise of Islam and Christianity in the past two thousand years and the latter’s deployment in defense of European capitalism and slavery inculcated new civilizational developments for humanity in the medieval and modern period. Du Bois’s argument in this chapter also reminds me that both Hinduism and Islam developed against the spread of Western Christianity which also took on a new life in Africa and Asia, like other Abrahamic religions, and amongst African-Americans and indigenous American peoples in the New World colonies of Europe. His hypothesis is also confirmed by recent investigations of scholars such as Kosambi, Abu-Lughod, Gunder-Frank, Panikkar, and, to some extent, Wallerstein, though what distinguishes the Du Boisian thesis from the above and even a Martin Bernal is his commitment to a revolutionary politic, exemplified by his lifelong search for a broad strategy for human liberation and in particular, the unconditional freedom of the African-American people, who continue to wage a heroic struggle against the forces of white supremacy and war in the heart of the American Empire.

As he argues in his “Guiding One-Hundredth Address,” race is not solely a physical reality; it is, first and foremost, a psycho-social dynamic in that the racial experience of each group is shaped by its relation to the social power structure, means of production, which together shape the movement of history. This Karl Marx understood is the struggle of the oppressed to overcome the oppressor in the pursuit of freedom, a deeply human drive. As he puts it here

all races really are a cultural group. It is too bad that we have to use the world “cultural” for so many meanings. But what it means in modern scientific thought is that 15, 000, 000 men and women who for three centuries have shared common suffering and have worked all those days and nights together for their own survival and progress; that this complex of habits and manners could not and must not be lost. That person’s sharing this experience formed a race no matter what their blood may be. That this race must be conserved for the benefit of the Negro people themselves and for mankind. I came then to Advocate not pride of biological race but pride in a cultural group, integrated and expanded by developed ideals so as to form a method of progress.”

Du Bois compels us to revisit the inconvenient truth that in the past four hundred years, the white race has subjugated the darker races to toil on its behalf so as to sustain its criminal pursuits throughout the world. It was thus no wonder that the struggles of black folk in America for peace and freedom from slavery and later, segregation, and the struggles of colonized peoples throughout the world against imperialism and European domination germinated a tremendous renaissance of civilization amongst the darker races in the twentieth century, from Baldwin in America to Tagore in India. The dark proletariat created civilization in the face of soul-seeping oppression, pressing on in its heroic quest to free society from imperial tyranny and monopoly capital, and to define and interpret reality so as to gain control of it and thereby, transform it themselves.

Du Bois’s thesis is a significant discovery because at the time he was writing in America, whites were perpetuating the lie that civilization amongst black people was impossible,drawing on this rhetoric to deny the connection of African-America to Africa–and the latter’s relation o Asia–so as to justify the slave trade and slavery, both of which formed the basis of the capitalist mode of production, a process that began in the early modern period and created the conditions for modern life aaa we know it. Thus, Du Bois marshals a wealth of evidence attesting to the achievements of black civilizations throughout the world in order to show the complexity of black peoples worldwide and to disprove, by way of scientific argument, the primary lie of Western science which served as colonialism’s chief alibi: that the black race was inferior by nature and that African-Americans were incapable of development and self-determination–a premise that compels him to write a novel called Dark Princess in 1928 wherein he presents a vehement rebuttal of European race theorists by way of a bravely imagined political allegory about a romance between an Indian princess and an African-American doctor who together establish a pivotal alliance against world imperialism. Du Bois’s research emphasized, by contrast, that it was oppression which had impeded the progress of black folks in America and throughout the world towards their highest potential, not nature or historical inevitability, as it was being suggested by bourgeois science. He thus recognized that colonialism had set the darker races back by several centuries in development. It was for this reason that he insisted upon world peace, communism, and Pan-Africanism, by which he meant something very specific, namely the progress of oppressed peoples against imperialism towards the non-capitalist path of development, wherein production and civilization are directed towards the fulfillment of human need rather than imperial gain.

Du Boisian Pan-Africanism, as Henry Winston, leader of the American Communist Party clarified some decades ago, rejected the vicious anti-communism of the day which had led to the witch-hunt of so many beloved leaders, including Du Bois and Robeson but also King and Gandhi, peace-bringers who were assassinated for their efforts to cultivate civilization amidst war, poverty, and colonial devastation. It sought to oust imperialism from every corner of Africa and the world. It advocated the pursuit of the non-capitalist path of national development in newly independent countries and called upon exemplary figures amongst the darker races to eschew the European bourgeoisie and join with the proletariat in order to build socialism in their countries. This intercivilizational vanguard sought to create a revolutionary society in its own image, in the service of the people’s interests–education, industry, harvests that fed the people, art that nourished and propelled their imagination in pursuit of the grandest possibilities of the human mind and spirit, music that combed through the most antagonistic knots of the soul, literature that revealed revolutionary being-in-the-world–the kind of human beings we must become to build the world that will overcome the one that is presently collapsing.

The Black Buddha, after W.EB Du Bois

Shalabhanjika, terra-cotta, 5th century, Gupta dynasty, India

Ottam Thullal (2018)

A poetic dance form originating in the Tamil and Malayalam literary tradition, OttamThullal was developed by Kunchan Nambiar in eighteenth-century India. The form, traditionally accompanied by a double-headed hand drum (mrindagam) and a drum-and-cymbal (edakka), stages important sociopolitical questions, deploying satire, humor, and irony in order to shed light upon prevailing social maladies. Jawaharlal Nehru would refer to it as “the poor man’s Kathakali,” as many of the facial expressions of Ottam Thullal are drawn from Kathakali, which is an older theatrical form in the region, though one that tended to reinforce the values of the feudal aristocracy. By contrast, Ottam Thullal often advanced sharp criticisms of poverty and other forms of social inequality.

Universal Consciousness: Alice Coltrane’s Turn To Hinduism

You have your own conscience, your own intelligence, and you know your own mind.

–Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane

A portrait of Alice Coltrane, R. Divya Nair

In this clip, Turiya Coltrane, the grand-daughter of jazz pianist, harpist, and vocalist Alice Coltrane (née McCleod) reflects on her grandmother’s study and interpretation of Hindu philosophy through the gospel of the Detroit churches of her childhood. The Hindu bhajan (devotional) and the African-American spiritual together constitute the formal foundations and thematic touchstones of Alice Coltrane’s ecumenical sound. I may have mentioned that a few weeks ago, I had the great honor of singing her composition, “Om Shanti,” at Blessed are the Peacemakers, the Saturday Free School’s celebration of the philosophy of Robeson, King, and Du Bois, at the historic Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. I chose the piece because it is an invocation to world peace and a much-needed intervention in the politics of imperialism which thrives on perpetual war, war waged by the few at the grave expense of the many. The earth reels from many centuries of ceaseless destruction as humanity cries out for an end to oppression and a resolution to the degradation of the darker races in the past four-hundred years of white rule. Since then, I have been reading voraciously about her, focusing in particular on her spiritual evolution, namely her turn to Hinduism, the world-historical significance of her interpretation of it, and how it connects with the contributions of her contemporaries, familiars, and interlocutors.

After her husband, the legendary John Coltrane of North Philadelphia, passed on to the next world, Alice immersed herself further in the study of Hindu scripture and Indian classical music forms. She traveled to the city of Chennai in southern India to study with Swami Satchidananda. However, it was John Coltrane who would introduce her to the philosophy, theology, music, and meditation practices of Pan Africa and Pan Asia. John, who was ten years older than Alice when she first met him at age 26, likely encountered these sources during his world tour in the U.S. armed services–an experience which deeply inscribed upon him the evils of war and American imperialism. Coltrane would himself undergo a spiritual awakening in 1957.

Following her husband’s death, Alice fell into a deep tapas, a self-imposed spiritual retreat undertaken by Hindus committed to an intentional path wherein one lives a life of strict mental and physical discipline in order to reach a higher spiritual plane of existence and consciousness. Tapas often yields states of high spiritual vibration characteristic of Alice’s ecstatic compositions. During this period, it is said that Alice made connection with John’s spirit. She strove to continue advancing their common aspiration to create music capable of illuminating the totality of the human experience, the internal struggles of the atman (soul force) in the face of the external strife of humanity’s relation to itself and the physical world–songs of innocence, songs of experience, songs of pain, and songs of bliss. Indeed, her chosen spiritual name Turiyasangitananda roughly translates to the transcendental Lord’s highest song of bliss. In Hindu philosophy, turiya (Sanskrit: तुरीय or English “the fourth”) refers to the fourth dimension of consciousness, underlying waking consciousness, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. The seventh verse of the Mandukya Upanishad, which discourses upon these four states of consciousness which are accessible through the universal syllable Aum or Om, refers to the magnitude of Turiya’s infinity and incalculability in the following terms:

Not inwardly cognitive, nor outwardly cognitive, not both-wise cognitive,

not a cognition-mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive,

unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark,

non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of assurance,

of which is the state of being one with the soul

the cessation of development, tranquil, benign, without a second,

such they think is the fourth. He is the soul (atman). He should be discerned.

The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad is the shortest of the Upanisads and is associated with the Atharvaveda, which is chiefly concerned with the practice of everyday life. It is also an affirmation of the soul force underlying all existence and creation. It reflects on the physics of the four-part structure of the sound AUM–A + U + M + “silence,” which not only harnesses the past, present, and future of time, but bends them such that the transcendence of time by the soul force is made possible. The intonation of the Aum sound explains the progression of sound through the universe, tracking its movement from the syllable “a,” which signifies Apti (searching and aspiring), to “u” or Utkarsa (exaltation) to “M” or Miti (Reconstruction) followed by the punctuating silence that separates each intonation. The rhythmic chanting of aum thusrepresents the human will to know in this world and beyond, to be of one’s time and yet, reach beyond it.

As such, it is high time that we recognize the true significance of the commitment to Afro-Asiatic civilization in twentieth-century jazz composition, a realization which once again affirms the intercivilizational unity of Pan Africa and Pan Asia in the struggle against imperialism and European civilization’s ongoing attempts to repress the contributions of the darker races to humanity. It is not a coincidence, for instance, that John and Alice Coltrane, along with Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Yusuf Lateef, and so many other black composers in the United States, re-imagine the relation of the darker races to one another at a time when W.E.B Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paul Robeson were extending their hands in open friendship with revolutionary leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and others. They dedicated their life’s work towards establishing an epistemology that saw the civilizations of Africa and Asia in a historical continuum, so as to break free from the chokehold of the Western interpretation of human history.

Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane thus participated in the invention of a radically new form of world spiritual music that fundamentally re-interpreted Hinduism–not unlike her contemporaries Don Cherry (e.g: his record “Mahakali”), Pharaoh Sanders (e.g “The Creator has a Master Plan”), and indeed, John Coltrane (e.g “Om”)–in terms of the African-American spiritual tradition and political struggle for freedom, truth, and peace. Her work ought to be considered in dialogue with other Black composers of the period who increasingly turned to Africa and Asia to discover their relation to African-America and broadly, the truth about the origins of humanity and the shape of its future. In the wake of their musical and cosmological experimentations, they left behind a rich body of music characterized by a distinctive Afro-Asiatic sound . What distinguishes their aesthetic practice at this juncture in history is their grounding in the black anti-imperialist political tradition. Prophets and architects of peace, these artists were committed to fulfilling the Creator’s great plan for the advancement of humanity in the twenty-first century.

Alice Coltrane’s songs are hymns to truth, grace, love, and peace. Her oeuvre ought to be studied in light of her deep spiritual longing for what James Baldwin memorably christened the New Jerusalem. In the new galaxies of sound she maps out for the world, in her cosmic distillations of jazz, we see the outlines of all that which remains to be won by humanity in our common quest for a kingdom of heaven on earth.

Letter from Chanan Singh to W. E. B. Du Bois, May 7, 1963

In this letter dated May 7th, 1963 from Nairobi, Kenya, Kenyan official Chanan Singh writes to W.E.B Du Bois about the possibility of contributing to the Encyclopedia Africana. Du Bois had very early established the need for a an encyclopedia that presented the truth about Africa and its civilization in place of the lies of Western Enlightenment. He endeavored to develop a Black equivalent to the colonial Encyclopedia Britannica and thereby overturn Western epistemologies of knowing and being. As he put it in his 1945 essay, “The Need for an Encyclopedia Of The Negro,”

There is need for young pupils and for mature students of a statement of the present condition of our knowledge concerning the darker races and especially concerning Negroes, which would make available our present scientific knowledge and set aside the vast accumulation of tradition and prejudice which makes such knowledge difficult now for the layman to obtain: A Vade mecum for American schools, editors, libraries, for Europeans inquiring into the race status here, for South Americans, and Africans.

Notably, Singh–who was then serving in the capacity of Parliamentary Secretary to Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President from 1964 to 1978–inquires whether Du Bois’s proposed Encyclopedia Africana will include articles about Indians living in Africa and offers assistance with compiling historical and statistical information on the subject:

I wish to offer my services to help you in compiling information about the Asians of Indian origin… For 15 years, I wrote the editorials and editorial notes of a local weekly, The Colonial Times. I was a member of the Legislative Council Of Kenya from 1952 to 1956 and again from 1961 to 1963.

Singh’s letter is significant, in part, because it once again illustrates the geographic and epistemological continuities between Africa and Asia and the necessity of looking at their civilizations in a continuum. Many thanks to the folks at Black Agenda Report for picking up “Reflections on the Pan Afro-Asiatic Civilizational Complex.”

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.