Africa is A Charity: Celebrity and the Continued Colonisation of the Continent

Here are two extracts from Sai Murray’s essay, ‘Africa is A Charity: Celebrity and the Continued Colonisation of the Continent‘, in the forthcoming book, 21 February.

Extract 1

The charity single, the wristband, the red nose are all seductive tools to lure us into the group event, the spectacle. FOMO: the fear of missing out. It is not enough to simply donate money to a cause, we must receive something in return. A token with which to publicly exhibit our empathy. The innate satisfaction of helping a fellow human being in need is incomplete – it must now come with a badge, a sticker, a token, a tailored avatar, the reassuring dopamine hit of someone liking, acknowledging, favouriting, retweeting, our charitable good person status.

The history of abolition once again offers an echo of how this element of charity has been used to enhance the inferiority of Africans. The ‘Slave Medallion’: the white wristband of its day. In lieu of “Make Slavery History”, the marketing slogan: “Ain’t I A Man/ Woman” framing a kneeling supplicant African figure in chains.” As abolitionist Thomas Clarkson wrote at the time, the popularity for wearing these Wedgwood medallions “became general, and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.” The side effect of course – intended or otherwise – was also to propagate the perception of the needy, grateful, charity recipient African and to obfuscate the role that Empire and the wearer’s own actions or non-actions played in that particular situation.

Extract 2

We sit in baths filled with baked beans to raise money to fill food banks; we poor buckets of iced water over ourselves for one charity, while another charity calls for help to secure access to clean water… The #icebucketchallenge more important than the actual cause. In our celebrity insta-snap-twit-face world it’s all about displaying your kudos, connections. How we look, not think. Don’t think. A departure from pictures of starving swollen belly Africans is surely to be welcomed yes? More carrot less stick. More beans, buckets and celebrity bake-offs; fewer swollen bellies, flies round mouths. And guilt.

Wasted food and water in the name of helping impoverished people is one level of disconnect. To join the dots of wasted lives via our technological consumption, exploitative trade, extractive industries and arms industries… would risk a questioning of the capitalist system itself and is many steps too far for the charity/ entertainment/ news industry to contemplate.

Sai Murray is a writer, poet and graphic designer of Bajan/Afrikan/English heritage. His debut poetry collection, Ad-liberation, was published in 2013: “social commentary at its best… wry, witty and biting… traverses standard poetry and prose”, The Jamaica Gleaner.  Through Liquorice Fish Sai has designed, edited and published several books/resources including, No Condition Is Permanent: 19 Poets on Climate Justice and Change (2010); Abeng Soundings: A Timeline of Anti-Slavery Resistance (2008); Cross Community Dialogue Facilitation Toolkit (2007).


Africa deserves better from Comic Relief by David Lammy

The Scholars. E. Ethelbert Miller interviews Paul Coates (Part 2)

E. Ethelbert Miller interviews Paul Coates, Publisher of Black Classic Press
(Part 2)
In this second video, their conversation is about his involvement with the Black Panther Party and the raising of his son, the multi award-winning journalist and writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates.



                                          By E. Ethelbert Miller

   How can they really dare

to call me almost white

when every part of me

yearns only to be black

–       Leon Damas


The term Pan-Africanism entered my vocabulary when Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) walked across the stage of Cramton Auditorium on the campus of Howard University. The year was 1970. I was a sophomore just deciding to major in African American Studies. I had arrived on the campus my first year with a copy of Carmichael’s Black Power in my luggage. Now here in a crowded space, a handsome Carmichael was proclaiming that the highest expression of Black Power was ‘Pan-Africanism’.

Throughout the 1970s, Pan-Africanism would be a muse.  The word inspired my writing and even determined the type of clothes I wore. It was an introduction to a number of people I eventually had the opportunity to meet and come to admire. Each one of these individuals contributed to Pan-Africanism as well as my personal growth.  The list includes, C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Dennis Brutus, Ras Makonnen, Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, June Milne, Julius Nyerere, Halie Gerima, Skunder Boghossian, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Sylvia Hill.

These individuals would help to encourage me to seek a better understanding of Black people and the importance of the continent of Africa in World civilisation and global economic and social development.

In 1974, I attended the 6th Pan African Congress and video-taped the proceedings for Howard University.  These recordings are today housed in their Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.

Years later, working with June Milne, I would help the university obtain papers and items belonging to Kwame Nkrumah.

Today, I’m surprised Pan-Africanism is not a word used more in the media. It’s easier to come across the term apartheid, which seems to have replaced the word segregation in our daily use.

One might even expect with the Internet and social media that Pan-Africanism would supplant the word Diaspora.  Is Facebook now the highest stage of Pan-Africanism?

It’s interesting to ponder these things as we move further into the 21s Century. It’s also essential that we not embrace a culture of erasure or what Pope Francisco calls “spiritual alzheimer’s.”  Memory loss too often results in the destruction of Black civilisation.  As a literary activist, I try to remember and document as much as possible. I cannot think about Pan-Africanism without thinking about the poet Leon Damas. What follows are words reduced to memories…

On November 2, 1977, a very ill Leon Damas made his way to the Watha T. Daniel Library (not far from Howard University) to deliver his last public speech. The Institute for the Preservation and Study of African American Writing, a local literary organisation founded by Jonetta Rose Barras, Susan Dorsey and Sheila Crider had curated an exhibit honouring the Negritude poets. In his remarks, Damas explained how the Negritude movement started and how it manifested itself in Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and Uruguay. Damas spoke of how a person of blackness must overcome alienation stressing the importance of defending one’s racial qualities. He commented on the significance of the NAACP and how this organisation introduced him to W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson while he was in Paris.

In 1977, Leon Damas did not focus only on talking about the past. Towards the end of his remarks, he made reference to my work. He said, “Now you have to work together. You have to follow, to take this idea of Ethelbert Miller who created Ascension. You have to go up and you have to make something together. You have to say as we say, we are just a segment of the Black race, we are not first. And what we have to do is learn modern languages.”

When Damas made this comment I was 27 years old. I was a young poet and the Director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University. I had met Damas three or four years earlier. But I graduated from Howard in 1972 with no knowledge of his work or global influence.

Even though I majored in African American Studies and took a number of black literature courses, I was not introduced to the poetry of Leon Damas. Why?  I can think of two reasons.

The first is how we teach courses on the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro Movement. This period is viewed primarily through the work and contributions of Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston. The focus is on Harlem and the Garvey Movement. We tend to focus on the Harlem Renaissance as being defined by geography and coming to an end as the Great Depression of the 1930s begins. But what do we overlook?  We fail to acknowledge that culture is not held back by mountains or restricted by oceans. The poems of Langston Hughes crossed the Atlantic and influenced young students from Africa and the West Indies living in Paris.  I was not aware of this when I was studying at Howard.  When I eventually did read work by Aime Cesaire, Leopold Senghor and Leon Damas I had forgotten almost all of my high school French. It was language that suddenly became an obstacle and barrier. We sadly continue to separate black literature by languages.  Pan-Africanism must come to mean an end to the language divide between Black people.

I remember, one day I was at work and Leon Damas telephoned and invited me to read poetry with him at the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial Public Library.  That event took place on February 20, 1975.  What I admired about Damas was how he was always reaching out to help young artists.  When I started my Ascension Reading Series in 1974, its primary purpose was to provide an outlet for emerging Black poets and highlight the work of more established voices. I made this possible using my personal funds.  This was what Damas would remember in his last public speech.  I took the name Ascension from the 1966 jazz album by John Coltrane.  I felt that if the 1960s was a second renaissance or rebirth of black culture, then the next stage or level was one of Ascension.  I viewed African American poetry and other art forms uplifting a community.  I’m certain this was what attracted Damas to my work.

My attraction and appreciation of Leon Damas started in 1973. That was the year Howard University established the Institute for the Arts and Humanities (IAH). The purpose of the Institute was to “facilitate the efforts and commitments of Howard University, to preserve, study, enhance, develop, disseminate and celebrate the artistic and creative aspects of the Afro-American heritage.” IAH was designed to complement the academic units already in existence at Howard.  Dr. Stephen Henderson served as Institute’s director. I was the Junior Research Assistant. The poet Sterling A. Brown came out of retirement to be the Senior Research Associate. Leon Damas was on the advisory board.

I recall the first meeting of the advisory board, held in the board of trustees room at Howard. Everyone was sitting in big chairs around the conference table, and as people introduced themselves they all made reference to having doctorate degrees or directing an academic unit. When it was time for Damas to introduce himself, he simply sat in his chair with his leg crossed and said – “Damas.”

There is something very definitive when one says the name Damas. Even when talking about the founders of the Negritude movement one might say, “Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire and Damas.”  His name tends to punctuate our lives. It serves as an exclamation mark or perhaps even a mantra.

Back in 1973, when I looked across the room at this man sitting in a chair, I immediately noticed he was much larger than his physical size. He was very dapper.  I never saw this man without a suit and tie.  He would come to represent the quiet dignity and style that I would associate with several advocates of Pan-Africanism.  When I met President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam the following year, I felt he had a similar aura.

Dr. Stephen Henderson was almost the exact physical height as Leon Damas.  It was beautiful seeing these two men interact. They both had a tremendous understanding and appreciation of international black culture and were friends with the writer and scholar Dr. Mercer Cook.  In his last public speech, Damas expressed the hope that one day a student would write a thesis or dissertation about Cook. This man’s work should be discussed when attempting to better understand Pan-Africanism. Cook was a cultural bridge introducing the work of many French-speaking Black authors to others in the Diaspora. When Damas came to the United States for the first time in 1945, he stayed at the Washington home of Mercer Cook.  He visited Cook’s classes at Howard University.  Cook would become Head of the Department of Romance Languages at Howard.

A Pan-African classic that one should read is The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States by Mercer Cook and Stephen E. Henderson.  It consists of two essays delivered by both men at a two-day symposium, “Anger and Beyond: The Black Writer and a World in Revolution” held in Madison, Wisconsin on August 8 and 9, 1968.  Henderson’s essay was an attempt to define and give legitimacy to the black poetry written in the late 1960s. His opening paragraph was unapologetic to critics of the Black Arts Movement.  Henderson was speaking just a few months after Martin Luther King’s assassination:

The term “militant” when applied to black people in the United States is at once inadequate and redundant; when applied to black writers it circumscribes them in a way which they themselves reject. Black writers are “militant” only to white people and to Negroes who think “white,” for merely to say, “I’m black,” in the United States is an act of resistance; to say out loud, “I’m black and I’m proud” is an act of rebellion; to attempt to systematically to move black people to act out of their beauty and their blackness in white America is to foment revolution. To write poetry is an act of survival, of regeneration, of love. Black writers do not write for white people and refuse to be judged by them. They write for black people and they write about their blackness, and out of their blackness, rejecting anyone and anything that stands in the way of self-knowledge and self-celebration. They know that to assert blackness in America is to be “militant,” is to be dangerous, to be subversive, to be revolutionary, and they know this in a way that even the Harlem Renaissance did not.

Henderson’s comments should be read alongside the poetry of Leon Damas. In his first book Pigments, Damas is the militant poet. His embracement of blackness causes the ground beneath his feet to move. Damas’ work was viewed as dangerous and subversive.  In his essay “African Voices of Protest” in The Militant Black Writer, Mercer Cook makes reference to a new era of African humanism that began in the 1930s. He links the publication of Pigments to a new militancy growing among young Africans and makes reference to books by Jomo Kenyatta (Facing Mount Kenya) and Nnamdi Azikiwe (Renascent Africa).

In the early 1970s, Leon Damas would be connected with the African Studies and Research Program at Howard University.  But many years before – in Pigments, Damas would select an epigraph by Claude McKay to introduce his book of poems. McKay’s words are prophetic and instructional:


Am I not Africa’s son

Black of that black land where

Black deeds are done


In January 1972, Black World magazine published a special feature on Damas. It consisted of a short essay by Ellen Conroy Kennedy and her translations of 16 poems from Pigments.  Kennedy made note of how the poetry of Damas, published in 1937 should be seen as providing a theoretical framework for the work of Frantz Fanon.  Fanon’s work is pivotal in the struggle against colonisation and the shaping of African independence.

Today one reads the poetry of Leon Damas for strength and memory. It was Damas who wrote, “everything within me/ wants only to be black/as negro as the Africa they robbed me of.”

These words are a reminder that we must still define ourselves by the rubric of Pan-Africanism.

Our pigment is still black and yes – very beautiful. We remain as dapper as – Damas!

LEON-GONTRAN DAMAS edited by Hanetha Vete-Congolo.FOREWORD BY
E. ETHELBERT MILLER. This book about the Negritude poet includes essays in French by Liliane Fardin, Kathleen Gyssels, Edwin C. Hill, Roger Konan Langui, Joseph Noumbissi Wambo, Jonas Rano, Daniel Seguin-Cadiche, Katharina Stadtler, and Emmanuel Toh Bi Tie. The foreword was translated by Hanetha Vete-Congolo from English into French. Published by L’Harmattan:


E. Ethelbert Miller is a writer and literary activist. He is the author of several collections of poems and two memoirs and the board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies. In April 2015, Miller was inducted into the Washington, DC Hall of Fame. His most recent book is The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller, edited by Kirsten Porter and published by Willow Books.


21 February: Progress and Possibilities for a PanAfrican Future

21 February: Progress and Possibilities for a Pan African Future

 21 FEB -cover-final-lo-res

A collection of 21 thought-provoking essays commemorating three significant occurrences of the 20th century that have influenced a Pan Africanism perspective for the 21st century and beyond:

  • The arrest of Martin Luther King (and others) for their leadership during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. (1956)
  • The assassination of Malcolm X (1965)
  • The start of the trial of the Ogoni 9, including writer Ken Saro-Wiwa (1995).

Ironically, they all took place on 21 February reminding us that there are other (past and present) parallel events and situations on the continent and in the diaspora that have had and will have a part to play when considering PanAfricanism and its future.

‘Pan Africanism has given birth not only to political movements, but more significantly, it has evolved its own social thought.’ Professor Paul Okojie, Senior Lecturer in Law, Manchester Metropolitan University

21 February encompasses numerous themes and topical concerns such as climate change and human security, cultural influence, enterprise and development, the media and women and children health initiatives. The text brings together writers of exceptional pedigree who have a singular belief – strengthening the unification of the continent in order to build a positive future. The rise of female prominence within this movement is not only discussed in one of the essays but is immediately reflected in the editorship and production of the book (the editor and publisher are women, Kadija Sesay and Janis Kearney respectively).

The anthology poses PanAfricanism as an ideology and implicates the concept of cooperation as a weapon against modern political and social injustices.

Contributors: Hakim Adi, Amadou Mahtar Ba, Nnimmo Bassey, Ama Biney, Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell , Hassoum Ceesay, Carole Boyce-Davies, Gibril Faal, Raimi Gbadamosi, Wangui wa Goro, ChenziRa Davis Kahina, Shannon Marquez, Tariq Mehmood, Sai Murray, E. Ethelbert Miller, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo, Oghenetoja Okoh, Paul Okojie, Ewuare X. Osayande, Deborah A. Sanders, Amrit Wilson.

Editor: Kadija Sesay is a literary activist, editor, publisher and poet of Sierra Leonean descent. In 1985 she graduated from Birmingham University where she majored in West African Studies. Kadija established SAKS Publications in 1996 to publish anthologies for writers of African descent. This now includes SABLE, an international literary publication for writers of colour. She has received several awards and accolades for her work and contribution to the literary arts.

Publisher: WoW Press is an independently owned, Arkansas-based publishing company specialising in biography, non-fiction, fiction and children and women’s literature. Writing our World Press was founded by literacy advocate, former presidential diarist, journalist, and newspaper publisher Janis F. Kearney.

21 February: Progress and Possibilities for a Pan African Future Edited by Kadija Sesay

ISBN: 978-0-9889644-1-9                             Publication Date: 10th November 2015

Front cover book image attached. Designed by liquorice fish
For more information contact:

Writing our World Publishing                                      

Janis Kearney:

Kadija Sesay: