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The Souls of Black Folk

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 04, 2011

Part 2 - Part 1

Joseph Winthrop Holley, the founder of Albany State University and the son of a former slave, was born in Albany, Georgia, which explains why he wanted to build a school in his native town. He attended Revere Lay College in Revere, Massachusetts which changed its name to the Boston Evangelical Institute before it merged with another school to form Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary that my former wife attended. During the latter part of the 1980s I visited that seminary often.

Rev. Holley also attended Phillips Academy in Andover, a leading preparatory school in Massachusetts, through the generosity of the Hazzards, a wealthy Rhode Island family who became his benefactors. After Phillips Andover, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the same school that William Robeson, Paul Robeson's father, Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe attended, all of whom left their mark on the politics and culture of the Africana world.

Rev. Holley returned to Albany after studying at Lincoln University to found Albany State University where a month ago I lectured on the circulation of ideas that informed the African American, the Caribbean and the African struggles for liberation. Rev. Holly was inspired to build his university after he read about (and experienced) the poverty of African Americans living in southern USA that Du Bois described in The Souls of Black Folk and Booker T. Washington's strove to overcome by building Tuskegee Institute and which he wrote about in Up From Slavery. Rev. Holley considered Washington his mentor and quoted him extensively in his speeches.

Washington and Du Bois's works had their effects in many countries. Washington inspired Garvey and Garvey inspired many persons in the black world through his newspaper, The Negro World in which he promoted his philosophy of black consciousness, self-help and economic independence. It was distributed in North and Central America, the Caribbean and Africa although the colonial authorities banned it in many parts of the Africana world.

At its peak, the Negro World had a circulation of over 200,000 copies a week and was the most popular black newspaper in the world. Jomo Kenyatta, former president of Kenya, affirms the impact it had on him and his fellow nationalists. Nkrumah wrote in his autobiography: "Of all the literature I studied, the book that did more than any to fire my enthusiasm was Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey." Garvey impact was so powerful that the Black Star, the name of Garvey's shipping line, adorns the green, red and white of the Ghana's national flag.

Paul Robeson did not attend Lincoln University (he attended Rutgers University) but was inspired by his father's commitment to the black liberation cause. He was one of the most respected African Americans in the 1930s and became close friends of George Padmore and C. L.R. James, two Trinidadians in London. In 1936, Robeson played the leading role in James's play, "Toussaint L'Ouverture," that opened in London. He also performed in Trinidad and Jamaica in 1948.

The nineteen thirties also saw the production of three seminal works on slavery, the slave trade and black liberation. In 1935 Du Bois published Black Reconstruction, subtitled An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. It was a continuation of a work he started when he submitted his doctoral dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, to Harvard University in 1895.

In 1938, James completed The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, one of the best works on the struggle of African people to liberate themselves. Aime Cesaire writes that Haiti "was the first place that the black man stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, his determination to create a new world, a free world." The Haitian Revolution stands alongside the American and French revolutions as the three most important world-historical events that repudiated the doctrine of the divine right of kings and ushered in the rule of the common man.

In 1938, Williams finished his doctoral dissertation, "The Economic Aspect of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery," at Oxford University. After additional research he published this work as Capitalism and Slavery (1944) in which he challenged the accepted justification (economic) that were offered for the abolition of slavery. Together with Black Reconstruction and Black Jacobins, Capitalism and Slavery is part of the masterworks that every educated person must read if she wishes to understand the emergence of black people in the contemporary world.

Nkrumah worked closely with Padmore and Kenyatta to organize the Fifth Pan African Congress in Manchester in 1945 over which Du Bois presided and which set the agenda of the liberation movements within British colonial territories. In the late forties Nkrumah, Azikiwe and Kenyatta returned to their countries to fight for their countries' liberation where they later became the first prime ministers of Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya respectively.

When Williams returned to Trinidad in 1955 he used Washington's words to emphasize his commitment to his people. After chronicling the affronts to which he was subjected at the Caribbean Commission, he signified his intention to remain with his people "who have made me what I am...I am going to let my bucket where I am now, right here with you in the British West Indies."

Washington used similar words in Up From Slavery when he urged: "'Cast down your bucket where you are.' Cast it down among the eight million Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides." His speech turned out to be nothing more than an appeasement to the wealthy men of the South.

Although William's intentions were different, it is significant that he drew on Washington's words, delivered in 1896, to declare his determination to serve his people in Trinidad and Tobago.

As we celebrate the International Year for People of African Descent, it is well to remember that Trinidad and Tobago has always been embedded within the circulation of ideas that shaped the liberation struggle of colonial people throughout the Africana world as they freed themselves from colonialism. In the process, we gave birth to what has been called "a quintessence of intellectual wealth."

May we never forget the hardships our forebears suffered so that we might be free.

Professor Cudjoe's email address is

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