(Originally published by Pambazuka News 653: SPECIAL ISSUE: Kwame Ture and the African revolution today)
15 years after his passing, the greatest memory I have of Kwame is how well he embodied the wide variety of experiences of revolutionary struggle he encountered throughout his lifetime; how well he upheld the highest principles of revolutionary Pan-Africanism in his relationship with people
My first encounter with Kwame Ture occurred in the spring of 1975 when I was still a 20-year-old kid. He was known, then, as Stokely Carmichael — 33 years old and full of enough youthful exuberance and charisma to engender fear, awe, or adoration in all those he encountered. I was a third-year student at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore (UMES), a small historically black college located in the small rural town of Princess Anne, Maryland. It was 120 miles from Washington, DC, where I was born, bred and fed. Kwame rode gallantly into campus that Sunday evening along with one of his comrades-in-arms, the dynamic Mukasa Dada, then known as Willie Ricks. The venue was the beautiful Ella Fitzgerald Auditorium. It was packed to the rafters, with probably the entire campus of 1,200 students, and most of the faculty and staff, in attendance. I sat nestled in the back, not knowing what to expect, with less knowledge about things African than a wooden parakeet.
Like most of the students in the auditorium that night, I had heard of Stokely Carmichael (his name was still huge); however, I was a tad too young to have followed his involvement with Students Nonviolent Coordinating Commitee and the civil rights movement from the previous decade, some of which even occurred, famously, in the neighbouring town of Cambridge, Maryland. Moreover, I had not even read any parts of his books, Black Power, co-authored with Charles Hamilton, or Stokely Speaks: From Black Power Back to Pan-Africanism. Regardless, I was pumped up with anticipation, knowing, somehow, intuitively, that we were hosting a giant of a man, young as he was, who had fought so hard, sacrificed so much, and challenged so many to see us free. That we all knew!
Mukasa went first. He served as the ‘warm-up’ speaker, and in about 15-20 minutes the young firebrand whipped the students into such a frenzy, with his fiery, plain talking, folksy, black southern dialect, that, after he had finished, we were all jumping up and down in our seats like a pack of hungry wolves waiting for our next meal, the main course. And boy did Kwame — the former 1960s diamond-in-the-rough, now brightly polished gem of the 1970s — deliver!
With such power and eloquence, with such anger and love, his voice bounced off the auditorium walls like bullets of light. That night Kwame took our young polluted minds on an ideological journey around the African World. It was a world that I had, until that night, never thought about or dreamed of ever existing. Yet Kwame described that world with frightening clarity, explaining to us just how acutely we were suffering, as Africans, ever since our continent was first visited with invasion, depopulation, occupation, exploitation and degradation. In fact, until that night it had never occurred to me that we were actually one people, scattered and suffering all over the world because of what was done to us, and yet charged with the responsibility of organizing ourselves to liberate Africa and Africans everywhere! Of course Kwame was not the first African to promote this Pan-African agenda and work on it as fastidiously as he did. However, among his generation of post-Malcolm X militants in the diaspora, no one did it as consistently or as successfully as he. Fortunately for me, one of the ‘bullets of light’ ricocheting around the room that evening reached me, and the bright light it turned on inside my head has never, ever diminished, not one iota; and it never will. And this is what Kwame did—shed light—as a Pan-Africanist organizer, par excellence, for more than 30 years of his adult life.
A few days after he left Princes Anne with Mukasa (after giving a brilliant workshop the following day in the auditorium of the Frederick Douglass library), it was my good fortune to attend an orientation meeting of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (A-APRP), the organization that was responsible for not only Kwame visiting us in Princess Anne that evening, but for him traveling to countless other towns and cities across the US and abroad to shed light and organize. Unfortunately, the level of political consciousness on the UMES campus, at that time, was too low for a chapter of the A-APRP to take root. However, because the Pan-Africanist flame continued to burn inside me, unabated, it wasn’t long before I found a way, during my graduate school years at the University of Notre Dame, to join the ranks of the party.
For nearly three decades after my initial encounter with Kwame, I had the opportunity, like so many other Pan-Africanist organizers, to learn from him directly. These lessons were profound and enduring, yet they are too many — and in some cases too sensitive — to recount in this forum. Instead, it’s worth noting that even today, 15 years after his passing, the greatest memory I have of Kwame is how well he embodied all of the wide variety of experiences of revolutionary struggle he encountered throughout his lifetime, how well he upheld the highest principles of revolutionary Pan-Africanism in his relationship with his people. Whenever I was around Kwame, he always exemplified, in theory and practice, what he gained from his experiences from battle (yet he never seemed battle-fatigued like so many of his counterparts); from his travels (to nearly every part of the world); from his associations (with Martin Luther King, Jr., Ho Chi Ming, Fannie Lou Hamer, Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, Mariam Makeba, Louis Farrakhan, H. Rap Brown, Shirley Graham DuBois, Muammar Gaddafi, Bob Marley, Elijah Muhammad, Sekou Toure, Amy Jacques Garvey, and Kwame Nkrumah, to name but a few); and from his readings (the voracious reader that he was, especially of one of his favorite authors, Sekou Toure). When you worked with him, ate with him, traveled with him, joked with him, argued with him, and listened to him, these rich experiences seemed to have congealed into the gigantic, yet simple, person that he was, and flowed out of him and onto to you like a fountain of Pan-Africanism that was so easily imbibed. And at the core of all of this, the message remained the same with Kwame: Struggling for the people, as organizers, as mundane as this work can be, is the noblest activity we can ever perform in our lives.
I’m sure his experiences contributed, in no small way, to the iron steel resolve he always demonstrated in all things Pan-African, all things anti-imperialist! While I was teaching at the State University of New York, in Binghamton, I’ll never forget how cool he was when he visited that campus, one of the major academic beachheads of Zionism, to give a lecture on Pan-Africanism in the winter of 1985. The Zionist students on campus, many of whom were ardent followers of the late arch Zionist racist, Meir Kahane, were preparing for weeks to engage in serious battle with Kwame on his day of arrival. In fact, they had tried everything to prevent the university from allowing him to even visit the campus, let alone address the student body. They knew Kwame was one of the leading anti-Zionists in the world and that his party, the A-APRP, had as one of its sworn objectives, ‘the smashing of Zionism.’ What perhaps they didn’t know, or at least weren’t prepared for, was how knowledgeable Kwame was of Zionism.
The day he arrived on campus, the police presence was as heavy as I had seen anywhere. The constant threats and protests from the Zionist student camp was met, head-on, by the militancy of those who invited him, the Black Student Union (BSU) and their followers — most of whom we had been training for years. The campus, for weeks, was swirling with turmoil! Yet, as was his style, the black stallion, surrounded by unfriendly policemen, strode onto the campus as cool as a cucumber. He was quickly escorted to a small room to meet with a small handful of mostly well-wishers and BSU officers. I met with him briefly in that room and remember, vividly, how happy and jubilant he was to see how worked up the Zionist zealots were in contrast to the pride and glee on the faces of the BSU members. It was as if all of the anxiety, anticipation, and tension that had filled that room and, in fact, the entire campus didn’t exist, at least not in his head. And sure enough, on that night, during the question-answer period, he blew the Zionist opposition away, including many of the faculty, as they stood in a long queue in front of a standing microphone, trying everything they could, yet failing, to derail him.
I used to think Kwame was exaggerating when he bragged about reading a book on Zionism every month for nearly 20 years, ever since SNCC was removed from the Zionist payroll for denouncing Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967. That night it was crystal clear that he had. In fact, you had to see it to really appreciate it. Indeed, the impact was so great on me that, later that same night, I took pen to paper — which, years ago, is how I used to begin all of my writings — on what began as my most rewarding experience in research, culminating in the book, Pan-Africanism and Zionism: Political Movements in Polarity (completed in 1987, yet not finding a publishing home, because of the rampant fears of a Zionist backlash, until 1995).
I always enjoyed listening to Kwame respond to questions after a speech, give interviews, or conduct workshops more than I did listening to his speeches in lecture halls and auditoriums — his legendary speeches at African Liberation Day rallies at Malcolm X Park in Washington, DC, notwithstanding! It was in these sessions that I was able to appreciate the full measure of his intellectual brilliance, his organizational acumen, and the philosophical underpinnings of nearly everything he said (see one of his best interviews). It was in one of these sessions, years ago, that he taught about the ‘justice’ instinct of human beings, how someone like Adolf Hitler, or more recently, George Bush, would have to lie to the people, as gullible as they are, before their energies could be used to support unjust causes. When they know the truth, the masses of the people will never defend injustice!
Once in Chicago, decades ago, when someone in the audience began pleading for Africans to unite, Kwame responded with the quip, ‘Unity, my brother, presupposes organization.’ He taught us that day that we organize to unite and not the other way around. This is because, he argued, the only real, genuine unity is ideological unity (the unity of shared ideas, values, and principles), and this level of unity, so urgently needed within the African world, will only occur when we organize, like never before, to politically educate the masses of our people on the aims and objectives of the African Revolution.
One of my favorite Kwame Ture moments came in February of 1995, in Ghana, which, unfortunately, was the last time we met. I had recently settled in Ghana, for good, and was telling him how much I was enjoying being at home. He told me that he could see that I had caught ‘African fever,’ and that it was incurable! Anyway, he was in Ghana to serve on the panel of a seminar that was being organized at the Accra Conference Centre by the Nation of Islam as part of their Savior’s Day program (which, I believe, was their first Savior’s Day program ever held in Africa). During his presentation on the imperative of continental African unity, Kwame made, what to me was, and still is, one of the most powerful arguments for African unity there is. On that day, he said that African unity was, in effect, a fait accompli! Subliminally, culturally, historically, geographically, economically, socially, spiritually (in the broadest sense of that term), and otherwise, Africa, Kwame argued, is one; and, more importantly and profoundly, it’s actually lodged that way in the mind of the African. This is why Africans around the globe, routinely, write poems, sing songs, and pour libation for Africa, about Africa, and to Africa. This is not done, for example, in Asia or Europe or the Americas. All that was left, according to Kwame, was for us to organize around what was as natural as sunshine and palm wine!
That afternoon, Kwame explained just how artificial our division was and that, had we been left alone, Africa, on its own, would have come as close to achieving genuine African unity as one could ever imagine. Needless to say, I left the Accra Conference Centre that afternoon with my head reeling with yet another one of Kwame’s philosophical gems to integrate into my writings and lectures, and to ponder over for the rest of my life! I have never, since then, associated the origin of Pan-Africanism with the London-held, Pan-African Conference of 1900, as momentous as that event was, or with earlier attempts by stolen Africans to return home.
The stories, the experiences, the lessons for all those who knew him and worked with him are too many and too complex to recollect, chronicle and elucidate here, precious as they are. I was always amazed, for example, at his proficiency in Latin. After giving him a copy of my dissertation on Nkrumaism, once, and telling him that I wanted to publish it right away, he advised, and wisely so, that I wait a while, gain more knowledge and experience, and then publish it as my magnum opus. Fortunately, I had just enough context to know what the hell he was talking about without having to ask, shyly, ‘Say what?’
Then, on another occasion in my office at the house, albeit I can’t remember which house or what city it was in, he interpreted the first sentence of the W.E.B. Dubois’ classic 1915 essay, ‘The African Roots of War,’ so quickly that I joked that he must have a little ‘Roman’ in him, which, by the way, he didn’t find terribly funny. The sentence read, ‘Semper novi quid ex Africa,’ meaning, ‘Always something new out of Africa.’
Kwame was a great man, period! His unique contribution to the transformation of our generation from reaction to revolution, from confusion to clarity, and from micro-nationalism to Pan-Africanism will remain one of the most treasured memories in our protracted struggle to build a united and socialist Africa. In fact, the sacrifices he made, alone, were enough to propel him into the pantheon of Pan-Africanist ancestors who — like Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba, Robert Sobukwe, Thomas Sankara and countless others — contributed so much during their short lifespan that we will be singing his praises for all of eternity.