The month of February is full of memories of historical significance not just for us here in Nigeria, but for our brothers and sisters located elsewhere in the African world, a world that today extended itself beyond the shores of the African continent. While for Nigeria in particular, February marks the death of General Murtala Ramat Mohammed, which by implication arrested the promises offered by the dreams of a liberated Nigeria, and by extension, Africa from the yoke of hundred years of colonial bondage. Equally significant, the month of February is coincidentally the time in which the Black History Month is memorialized through elaborate celebrations and activities aimed at raising awareness. In celebrating this month, wide-ranging activities are organized by groups, intellectuals, and especially faculty members in various academic spaces where African and African American studies have been institutionalized.
In Nigeria this time around, the Departments of Theatre and Performing Arts of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria and Bayero University Kano have jointly hosted one of the most memorable commemoration of the Black History Month with fascinating stage performances and public lectures. The Black History Month organized by the two of the most important public universities in northern Nigeria enjoyed the generous support of the Cultural Department of the United States Embassy in Nigeria as well as the tremendous support of the Vice Chancellors of the two hosting universities, Professors Ibrahim Garba and Muhammad Yahuza Bello. The interest of the United States government in the Black History Month, according to the Ambassador Mr. W. Stuart Symington “was to honor the incredible contributions African Americans made to the United States and to the world” in the “arts, sciences, economics, and many other fields”, and particularly their “resolve, resilience and courage … against a historical backdrop of discrimination and bigotry”. Nothing has captured the plight of African Americans more than the wordings of Ambassador Symington.
The Cultural Attache in the United States Embassy, Mr. Laurence Socha, also resonated the views above even more elaborately. In his submission, the “trends in Black struggles, which occurred in the United States found parallel expression in the arts and resultantly the most vibrant of these expressions was in theatre and drama. The civil rights movements of the 1920s and 1960s, which were arguably the most organized and most formidable social movements in American history sought to confront the nagging issues of racism, oppression and social inequality through creative artistic expressions. Black History Month represents not only the history of struggle but also that of perseverance and collective resolve to triumph”. Again, nothing could be more apt in capturing the mood of the moment more than the wordings of the Cultural Attache, Mr. Socha. In essence, both the Ambassador and the Cultural Attache of the United States Embassy in Nigeria have since anticipated the tenor of the discussions and the cultural activities that have subsequently followed during the commemoration ceremonies of the Black History Month in Zaria, Kano and Abuja, respectively.
The organizers of the events have invited some of the finest African and African American scholars from Nigeria and the United States to serve as guest speakers. The speakers were none other than highly respected distinguished academics in the persons of Professors Jeffrey C. Wray, Tama Hamilton-Wray, both from Michigan State University, Tanimu Abubakar, Ahmadu Bello University, Muhammad O. Badmus, Bayero University, Mabel I. E. Evwierhoma, University of Abuja, and Dr. Maria Martin, University of California. According to the Black History Month Coordinator of the program, Dr. Rasheedah Liman of the Department of Theatre and Performing Arts, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, the speakers were given the leverage to abstract a topic of their choice under the broad theme of this year’s celebration. This was captioned as “Acknowledging Our History: Memory, Culture and the Black Race”. The speakers have indeed done justice to the various topics they have freely chosen for themselves to discuss in the cozy precincts of carefully selected venues in Zaria, Kano and Abuja.
In this regard, Professor Wray decided to concentrate his talks on the play that was staged the previous night at the Ahmadu Bello University Drama Village. The play titled Raisin in the Sun was written by an African American woman Lorraine Hansberry. It was specifically selected for the stage performance because of its significance and popularity amongst African American folks in the United States. The performance cast was a combination of undergraduate and postgraduate students in the Department of Theatre and Performing Arts. In his presentation, Professor Wray has absolutely concurred with the speech of the American Ambassador in Nigeria who referred to the dreamscapes of the average African American family. The title of the play was appropriated from Langston Hughes’s poem “What happens to a dream deferred?” According to Ambassador Symington, this is of course what Hansberry alluded to, and illustrated in the play that apparently highlights “the dreams of a family living in a one-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s south side.” However, even with the attempts of the cast to approximate as closely as possible to the ambience of the African American play, it still remains an exciting production of another version of the written play. There were indeed various adaptations, including its cinematic rendition, since its debut in the 1950s.
Anyway, Professor Wray reminded the audiences at the venue of the public lecture that the play has lifted its title from Hughes’s poem in an intertextual fashion. In his evaluation, he said that African Americans may be a minority in America, but they are unmistakably part of the African world. The play draws the attention of its audience to the struggles waged by African Americans in the context of the rising awareness of civil rights in the United States. In the process, it expresses the spirit of resilience demonstrated by ordinary African American folks who are consistently engaged in the struggle to keep their family together and their identity in the face of the racism that was embedded in the American system, lack of opportunities for African Americans through subtleties of disempowerment. One of the striking features of the play is therefore its Pan-African motif. This has come up where an African character from Nigeria was introduced with all the nuances of his Yoruba cultural identity; an identity which he proudly flaunts in the midst of his African American friends. The other aspect of the Pan Africanism of the play includes the powerful reference to Walter’s (one of the key characters in the play) attachment to Jomo Kenyatta and Ethiopia. In an instance Walter rhapsodizes “Yes, Kenyatta is my man”. Elsewhere, you have this reassuring soliloquy on the spiritual connection of the African Americans with their African essence: “Ethiopia spread out your arm”. In this of course there was a very strong embodiment of beautiful memories of the proud past of our African heritage.
Professor Tama Hamilton-Wray shifted gears slightly to the history of the African American struggles for justice and equal opportunities in America. The contest of African Americans over the American cultural spaces have led them to revaluate the over 400 years of historical experience of slavery, which was unequivocally captured through different means of cultural representation. Her presentation was particularly centered on the phases of film culture amongst the African American community with emphasis on the earlier struggles and the experience of migrations from the South to the North. Similarly, the experiences of the African Americans in the South under the Jim Crow era, and later on in the North in what was widely viewed as the new Jim Crow experience, which is characterized by what she termed as subtle racism where the blacks were denied opportunity for self-actualization. All these were projected in especially the cinematic productions of Ava Marie DuVernay. She then panoramically expatiated the cultural resistance and resilience of black folks through the visual media. It was in this context that she situated the play Raisin in the Sun, which she sees as a strategy of resistance in its own right.
The two Nigerian Professors in Zaria and Kano have in their various ways reexamined the predicament of the African race from the standpoint of politics of representation in the cultural sphere, which significantly impacts all other dimensions of existence. For Professor Tanimu Abubakar, the African experience under the current global structures of power has not remarkably changed from the last 500 years under the tutelage of western dominance. For centuries now the other willfully narrates the African story, reconstructed African being and identity to suit their own agendas. Consequently, the fate of Africans living on the continent under the neoliberal global order is not in any remarkable sense different from the fate of African Americans in America. Put differently, the destiny of Africans in Africa is inextricably implicated in the destiny of African Americans through our shared ontology, history and existential struggles. And there is not going to be freedom or total liberation for both Africans in Africa and Africans in the diaspora if they do not join hands together in their struggles against injustice and inequality. It was on this basis he urged Africans at home and in the diaspora to uncompromisingly take necessary steps in the business of telling their own story in order to avoid the inevitable pitfall of the fire of re-colonization that is raging across the continent of Africa. Thus, if we do not project ourselves culturally, truthfully and positively nobody is going to do it for us in an amoral world of unbridled subjugation of our common humanity.
On his part, Professor Badmus has in his own presentation recouped issues raised by previous speakers from the prism of imaginative literature and race relations by not just African or African American writers, but non-African writers as well. On this note, the Black History Month team brought down the curtains on its activities in Zaria and Kano and moved its crew to central Nigeria to storm the city of Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria where another round of public lecture would take place. However, this time around the expert views of Professor Mabel Evwierhoma of University of Abuja and Dr. Maria Martin of University of California is to come on board.