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Black history month: Remembering soul to soul

Cameron Duodu Comlumnist Cameron Duodu

Sun, 11 Oct 2020 Source: Cameron Duodu

“Black History Month” has now come to feature prominently on the calendar of events in many countries during the month of October.

This year, I was surprised to find that the London Times newspaper, which in times past, used to be the custodian of the imperialist view in Britain, was publishing articles on the British role in the Atlantic Slave Trade – both as it occurred in Africa and more importantly, within Britain – by an academic with a Nigerian surname, the immensely erudite and now extremely popular TV personality, David Olusoga.

My surprise stemmed from the fact that British academia and the educational establishment, generally, have, until recently, largely subscribed to the ignorant view of African history propounded in 1963 by the infamous Oxford historian, Hugh Trevor Roper, which goes like this:

QUOTE: '”Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present, there is none; only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.'' UNQUOTE

Darkness? What about Great Zimbabwe; Chaka's Zulu Empire; the Sudanese origins of the Egyptian Pharaohs and their Pyramids (which so impressed the Ancient Greeks whose “civilisation” Trevor-Roper had taught thousands of Oxford University to admire!); Ethiopia; the Empires of Mali, Songhai and Ghana; the Asante Empire; Kongo; Mende, Benin, and so on and so forth? Darkness? What darkness? It existed only in the lazy mind of Trevor-Roper! No wonder he came a cropper over Hitler, whose “fake diaries” Trevor-Roper “authenticated” for the world!

Now it isn't as if Britain has not got vast collections of documents, artefacts and other memorabilia which should have made it impossible for Trevor-Roper to speak such nonsense. But much of that stuff relating to African history is hidden in vaults under the floor of the British Museum. But if you don't see it, you can't talk about it, of course. Hence, darkness mostly reigns with regard to African history, as far as the UK is concerned.

But guys like David Olusoga, are not waiting for the floor of the British Museum to “open sesame” (!) and jettison the stuff hidden there onto the surface. These historians are using their eyes to detect who built the great houses of such English cities as London, Bristol, Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool; where they got the money from; and how part of that money was paid to them in compensation for being prevented by British law, passed in the 1820s, from continuing to own slaves (whom they used very profitably on cotton, tobacco and sugar-cane plantations in the United States and the Caribbean.) You won't find a word about this perverse way of paying “compensation” (to the slave owners, not the freed slaves!) in any of the more popular books published in Britain, on African history.

I am glad to acknowledge that Black History Month has reached Ghana, too. For I was sitting “my somewhere” when the BBC Correspondent in Accra, Thomas Naadi, gave me a telephone call. Would I be interested in recalling, for a programme he was working on, my impressions of the Soul to Soul event in which black American musicians and their Ghanaian counterparts performed at an open musical concert in Accra to mark the 14th anniversary of Ghana's independence?

Would I? Of course I would love to do that – I told Mr Naadi. It's been fifty years since Soul To Soul took place. But I remember it like yesterday, and some of the music I heard at the concert has stayed with me and delighted my soul silently for years and years and years.

I met Mr Naadi and his cameraman at the Ghana Independence Square in Accra, formerly the “Black Star Square.” Pardon my discomfiture but the sight of the place, as it is now, filled me with revulsion. What on earth is wrong with modern Ghanaian architects? They cannot touch anything without making it dangerous, can they? Our beautiful and peaceful “Black Star Square” is now serrated into two sections, one of which is divided from the other by an enormous OPEN GUTTER! WHAT?

Yes! Two bridges, one of which is wooden, connect the two sides. I took one look from the wooden bridge down into what seemed to be the huge cavernous dry canal below and – involuntarily felt dizzy! School children are meant to encounter this monstrosity during national celebrations? Tweaaaah! I needed persuasion to walk on one of the bridges!

Anyway, I told Mr Naadi how ecstatic the Soul To Soul had been in 1971. I told him of the way the guitar sounds of Carlos Santana had filled the Black Star Square with amazing sounds that echoed through the huge speakers that formed part of the sound equipment the Americans had brought from the USA; how these sounds reverberated through the Square, travelled through the ether to the waves of the sea nearby, and were parachuted downwards back to coalesce with the sound waves that hung over the Square! Well, I waxed eloquent.

I longed to imitate for my young interviewer, the opening guitar riffs of Santana's song, “Black Magic Woman”, which once heard, cam never be forgotten:

Tara- rara -ra-ra--- RAAAAAAAAAAAAH!.....

TARA-RARA-TARA-RA-RA-RAAHAHAHAHAHAH!....

TARARA=TARARA-TARAA-ZOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMM!....

But I held my peace, as any sounds coming from my croaky voice would never convince anyone that I had once been an “alto” singer in my school!

I recalled the sexy dancing of Tina Turner and her beautiful fellow dancers.

I mentioned the part played by Wilson Pickett, Les McCann and Roberta Flack. The subtext of Roberta Flack's performance and that of Les McCann was worth telling. As follows:

Les McCann played at the University of Ghana to accompany an address by The Reverend Jesse Jackson. Unfortunately, the Rev Jackson couldn't help but dwell a bit long on the Christian message that he hoped would connect Ghanaians to their American brothers. He was inevitably challenged, during question time, about the role Christianity had played in giving comfort to the beastly Portuguese, Spanish and British slave traders who had attended church services every Sunday in their castles, while plotting how to cart so many fellow human beings, the kidnapped Africans, away as slaves; how these “Christians” had brought horrendous boats and iron shackles; how so many of those taken away in chains had died in the boats and had been thrown into the sea. “Are you taking us for a ride”? The Rev. Jesse Jackson was asked.

Roberta Flack was taken to one of the slave forts in which the slaves were kept before being taken away in boats. She saw the filthy dungeons where so many people were shackled together and forced to lose their human dignity even before they were taken overseas to work as slaves.

She saw “The Door of No Return” through which the slaves were pushed into the boats, never to see Africa again, assuming they managed to cross “The Middle Passage” safely and reached the Americas and the Caribbean.

Roberta Flack flipped. And out of her lips came the melodious song:

“Freedom! Oh Freedom!....

Before I'd ever be a slave,

I'd be dead in my grave....!

Freedom, oh freedom!”

Soul To Soul was therefore, both a great musical performance and an

educational exercise of the greatest value. It gave flesh to what great Black Americans, such as W E B Dubois, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou and Julian Mayfield had been saying during their visits to Ghana – that we are One, Indivisible people, who must wipe away the tears of the past, reunite ourselves, and enrich one another's lives, as a way of trying to rub out the immense suffering inflicted on our peoples, by the cruelty of man to man, in years past and gone.

Long live Black History Month, then – say I!

Columnist: Cameron Duodu