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7 August 2015

The Pan-African Congress in black and white

Photographs of the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester tell a complex tale of postwar black independence movements.

By Nana Yaa Mensah

African politics meets journalism meets high art at an exhibition at Rivington Place in Shoreditch: “The Fifth Pan-African Congress”. The main display, of black-and-white photos by John Deakin (curated by Mark Sealy of Autograph), fills the ground-floor space at the David-Adjaye-designed centre for visual art in the City. It relies as much on writing as it does on images: right from the entrance, plain black text set against white walls gives the background to the Congress and lists names, origins and designations of delegates. Some of them went on to change history.

The pan-African congresses had begun in 1919: the first one was on the sidelines of the Paris Peace Conference, with 57 black delegates led by W E B DuBois, the American philosopher, pioneer of urban sociology, editor of the Crisis magazine, prophet of black diasporan liberation and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The most pressing thing on delegates minds was the sacrifice by thousands of black American and African troops for the war effort in Europe and the American lack of recognition for the contribution these men had made. But their chief aim was to persuade the First World War Allied victors over Germany to take Africa into account in their discussions of a new global order. They were sidelined.

Three subsequent congresses, held between Lisbon, Paris again, Brussels, London and New York between 1921 and 1927 were called by DuBois and others who realised there could be little progress for black folk in North America, the Caribbean and Europe without progress for Africans on the mother continent. These did little to win Africa a place on the agenda. The continent had been carved up in Berlin in 1885; there was nothing to discuss.

It wasnt until 1945, another world war newly over, that the issue of African emancipation returned to an organised public forum in Europe. This time it hit the spot. From 15-21 October at Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall in Manchester, a new generation of hungrier, more streetwise pan-Africanists met under the leadership of Dr DuBois, now a stately 77.

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W E B DuBois, 1945. Courtesy Getty Images. © John Deakin/Picture Post/Getty Images

Other prominent activists from the black diaspora, including the Trinidadian-born George Padmore and the Guyanese-born Ras Makonnen of C L R James’s International African Service Bureau (IASB), played an important role in making the conference happen. With their involvement came not only an significant Caribbean influence in the African liberation struggle, but also a renewed Marxist turn of mind that strengthened lines of thinking many delegates had already begun to pursue.

One of the keynote speakers was John McNair, general secretary of the Independent Labour Party; another was Amy Ashwood Garvey, first wife of Marcus Garvey, estranged from her husband but still a notable figure in pan-Africanist politics in Britain in her own right.

Whos Who of black politics

The list of 87 delegates to the Manchester Congress reads like a mini roll-call of movers and shakers in African independence movements: Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Nyasaland; Obafemi Awolowo, then of the Nigerian Youth Movement; Kwame Nkrumah, the colonial civil servant J S Annan, the historian J C de Graft Johnson, the Soviet- and US-trained journalist Bankole Awoonor-Renner and Joe Appiah representing the Gold Coast; Jomo Kenyatta, stranded like Banda by the war in Europe, but using enforced exile to lobby for Kikuyu land rights in London; Marko Hlubi and Peter Abrahams, later of Mine Boy and Tell Freedom fame, representing the ANC and South Africa; the Sierra Leonean trade unionist I T A Wallace-Johnson.

John McNair of the ILP, 1945. Courtesy Getty Images. © John Deakin/Picture Post/Getty Images

Roughly a third of the delegates were directly from Africa, whether would-be activists like Nkrumah, then working for IASB, or doctors eking a living in Britain (Hastings Banda), or students like Appiah, who represented the UK-based West African Students’ Union (Wasu), a hotbed of pro-independence radicalism. Another third were from the Caribbean, among them two delegations of six from Jamaica and Trinidad, the latter including Ernest McKenzie. The remaining third represented people who today would be termed “black British”, including trade unionists and community organisers such as E J Du Plau, a welfare officer for seamen, visiting from Liverpool.

The British press ignored the Congress – with the exception of Picture Post, which despatched the war reporter Hilde Marchant and the photographer John Deakin, more usually associated with Francis Bacon and Soho of the Fifties and Sixties than with black liberation movements, to cover the event. Marchant’s story, “Africa Speaks in Manchester”, reproduced on one wall in the gallery, is sympathetic but has a deafening period tone of “A bit much, isn’t it?” throughout. She paints a picture of the “drab and soot-blackened streets of Manchester (nice), focuses on the “colour” problem and picks a local human-interest story to brighten things up a little: John Teah Brown, a Krio Sierra Leonean seaman settled up north, and his English wife, Mary. The caption notes approvingly: “A Mixed Marriage That is a Success”.

Marchant is less sanguine about Joe Appiah and shrinks from his “deluge of abuse and violent oratory”: “The only language the English understand is force. Others plead for more diplomatic negotiation but I am for firm action. Only force will take us out of our disgraceful plight . . .”

Influential as the Congress was in assembling all these bold new anti-colonialists, it is instructive to trace the fault lines here. Nkrumah, a relatively low-key participant, returned to the Gold Coast in 1949, hijacked the existing, “bourgeois” pro-independence movement and led the new Ghana to independence in 1957. In so doing, he and Appiah – who joined the Ashanti, pro-federalist National Liberation Movement on his own return (and became father of Kwame Anthony) – ended up on rival, bitterly opposed sides of the independence debate.

Many participants, from Du Bois to Peter Abrahams, would discover the limitations of communism; others eventually found that race was a barrier in the Labour Party and the trade unions. And one wonders what DuBois made of sitting on the same platform as Amy Garvey, after his clashes with Marcus and the militants of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, who found the likes of the good doctor, the NAACP and his intellectual crowd at the Crisis “too white” for their taste.

Cricket, lovely cricket

The exhibition is both very modern in design and like a time capsule: a glass cabinet shows delegates’ numbered tags and a copy of the resolutions passed at the Congress, both of which seem to have been made by hand-press. In the same cabinet are autographed pages, apparently torn from an old diary (wartime paper shortage), bearing signatures. Most of the delegates’ names are scribbled in pencil and so those inscribed in ink stand out: “Nkrumah” is one of the few. And all the female delegates bar Amy Garvey werent really important enough so they got dumped on stenography, or the ents committee that sorted the ballroom dance for less serious-minded guests.

It was Deakin’s only assignment ever for Picture Post. His pictures reek of postwar austerity, the women’s hair badly done, hemlines ragged, even the dark corners of the town hall somehow looking washed out. In keeping with the best traditions of workers’ solidarity, many of the clothes are worn or ill-fitting. Yet, with a sense of the occasion (and self-importance?), Deakin’s subjects try to play the part. A wide-eyed Jomo Kenyatta almost lets the side down but not quite.

Jomo Kenyatta, 1945. Courtesy Getty Images. © John Deakin/Picture Post/Getty Images

The exhibition is the product of four years’ research by Sealy. Deakin’s pictures, now in the archives of Getty Images, which acquired Picture Post with the Hulton Deutsch Collection in 1996, are accompanied by the contact sheet for the last portrait session sat by C L R James. Steve Pyke’s pictures of the lifelong cricket lover in trademark polo neck and tweed jacket were taken at his flat on Railton Road, Brixton, a few weeks before his death in 1989. Illness had rendered him speechless by that time yet Pyke recalls the grace with which he sat. And although James’s eyes appear glassy his gaze is still knowing.

Sound clips from a 1961 interview with DuBois further situate the Congress in a historical context.

C L R James by Steve Pyke, 26 April 1989

Upstairs from the photos is a room where four related films, curated by June Givanni (ex-BFI), show on rotation between a big screen and three sub-stations. One presents lectures by James, filmed between 1983 and 1985 in London, his audience wreathed in smoke (autre temps). Among those listening are a very young Margaret Busby and Darcus Howe, eyes gleaming with intent. Louis Massiah’s Biography in 4 Voices sheds more light on DuBois’s intellectual trajectory and political work (he died in Nkrumah’s Ghana in August 1963); a third film, by Euzhan Palcy, focuses on Aimé Césaire and the francophone wave of black liberation inspired by the Négritude movement he founded with Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas.

Song and dance

The fourth is an intriguing document: William Greaves’s record of the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Senghor’s Dakar in 1966. This is full of arresting moments: Duke Ellington getting his orchestra to swing by doing not much more than having a good time; Wole Soyinka looking cool and sharp in dashiki and shades; the choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham deep in discussion (it was the year she became director of the Ballet National du Sénégal), a performer from Dahomey as was giving a whole new meaning to the expression “pole dance”, the hysteria of women dancing wassoulou like whirling dervishes as the Ethiopian Airlines jet bearing Emperor Haile Selassie prepares to land, the multiracial Leonard de Paur Chorus singing “Osee yie”, Senghor’s chef de cabinet Abdou Diouf sauntering like a self-conscious young giraffe in the president’s entourage. Some of the images are problematic: there’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition between a modern homage to black liberation by Alvin Ailey’s dance troupe and another long segment showing Chadian pubescent Sara girls dancing to intricate polyrhythms, stamping in perfect sync, fists clenched in concentration, breasts bared and jiggling, oiled flesh glistening with sweat. But perhaps a Sixties film about Africa for the US Information Agency couldn’t avoid straying into ethnography, or voyeurism.

“The Fifth Pan-African Congress” shows how, for first-generation black independence leaders, politics was always bound up with art. “We turn to the British Labour movement to help us and thereby help themselves,” the Congress delegates declare. “We do not want to be cheap labour, driven in competition against British workers.” But what do they ask for? Yes, education and “a decent living”, but also “the right to adopt and create forms of beauty” and “the right to express our thoughts and emotions”.

At Rivington Place, London EC2, until 12 September.