FESTAC ’22 : Let Us Lay Emphasis on the Historic Definition of the Black Race as a People from whom Emerged the Unique Geographical Diaspora of the Enslaved -Prof. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize Laureate
Planned to headline the recently held FESTAC ’22, should have been a live goodwill message from Prof. Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize Laureate of highest esteem, but due to the certain factors, majorly, time difference, because Prof. was engaged in the USA that period.
Perhaps, an opportunity was missed, perhaps, not totally as a soothe presented itself in what l would describe as a perfect, timing, saving, engaging and well researched paper for the festival by Baba Kongi, which Prof. Jeleel Ojuade, a Professor of Performance Studies (with emphasis in dance) University of Ilorin facilitated.
Prof. Soyinka in his series of personal responses to Prof. Jeleel, would have loved to be in Zanzibar again, if not for the mixed engagements, but was however delighted at the presence of his counterpart, Prof. Abdurazak Gurnah, a 2021 Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature who was not just one of the Guest Speakers, but a son of Zanzibar who was visiting his native for the first time after winning the Nobel Prize.
The paper which was earlier presented In Pennsylvania, USA pragmatically dissected the phenomenon called “FESTAC” and coming from one of the forebearers of the initiative prior to ’66 and ’77 editions.
A perusal of this paper will definitely create a nolstagia among the older ones and probably another research ground for any student of history like myself and other savvy minds.
Prof. Soyinka, delved into the deep ocean of FESTAC with so much energy, enthusiasm, encouragement, advise and scoldings, if you wish, and above all, the urgent need to sustain this renewed momentum for the festival with an emphasis on blackness as an identity in all sense of it.
A passionate immersion into the full paper will better explain the dynamism and what have you as it concerns the festival, hence the paper:
DESTINATION ZANZIBAR 2022 (from an Inaugural Lecture at the Institute of African American Studies, University of Pennsylvania, USA, March 2022)
My discourse actually falls into three parts: One, an Invitation, Two, A Story – a History if you prefer, and – lastly, A Proposition. I shall plunge straight into the first of the triad – the invitation. It came from Zanzibar, that federated island unit of the Tanzanian Republic:
FESTAC AFRICA 2022 – Destination Zanzibar is planned to be Africa’s BIGGEST festival of Arts and Culture. The prestigious event is scheduled to take place during Africa Month from the 23rd to 29th May 2022. A series of festivities have been planned over the seven days which will transform Zanzibar and also change how Africa’s culture is viewed as we take pride in showcasing our identity to the rest of the world.
This inaugural festival ushers a new dawn for Africa and is aimed to bring people from all over the world annually to celebrate the unique culture, heritage, art, poetry, literature and African music and much more. Zanzibar was chosen as the host country for its rich and diverse heritage and the declaration of Stone Town by UNESCO as a heritage site in 2000. The event is expected to attract between 5,000 to 10,000 visitors to the island during the week. We take this opportunity to invite you as one of our very special and VIP Guests who will speak about the African Heritage, given your rich knowledge and participation in the inception of FESTAC 1966 in Dakar, Senegal.
You may have observed that I stressed a certain tiny phrase, tiny but trenchant, packed full of history. That was deliberate. The phrase was responsible for the arousal of mixed feelings with which I absorbed the contents of the letter. On the one hand, it read as an uplifting message of the creative and intellectual resilience of the black world – despite its historic battering, its socio-political reverses that seem perpetual – Boko Haram/ ISWAP today, a resumption of the culture of military coups the day after. Thus, the prospectus read like a vote of confidence in, at least, the continent’s creative community. However, it was also a begetter of doleful feelings. Memory is a hard taskmaster, I endlessly complain, most times indeed a cruel, self-flagellating provocateur. So, what was that troublesome phrase? Or more accurately, word, that inserted a check in the upsurge of euphoria? Here it comes again: a rich and diverse heritage. ‘Rich’ was not in question, but – ‘diverse’?
Well, it is true that I have not been back in Zanzibar since – perhaps – 1962, that is, two years before a momentous event erupted on that island. I have had at least two opportunities since then but, frankly, I was afraid of what I might encounter, uncertain what changes would confront me since that one visit. Optimistically, the Festival would be a celebration of recovery, the consolidation of a reconciliation process that incorporates cultural diversity centrally as a domesticated value. That optimism immediately weighed in on the side of acceptance. For, most certainly, there was not much diversity left in the aftermath of the upheavals of April 1964.
It is rather ironic, since I have a record of harsh, unrelenting criticism of the conduct of that then dominant half of the dual culture that distinguished Zanzibar before independence. The conduct of that ethnic group in other parts of the African continent–- in the Sudan, Somalia, Mauritania and of course in Zanzibar – has provided flash points for much of the continent’s upheavals. However, I have never been a supporter of cultural genocide, and that, not to mince words, was what took place in Zanzibar, s thoroughgoing cultural eradication, always guaranteed its front line place in any campaign of ethnic cleansing. The Sudanese Janjaweed, or Rwanda’s interahamwe are simply two sides of a dire human malformation.
Yes indeed, there was a revolution, and let me point out that that revolution was hailed across much of the continent – at least before appalling details of the uprising emerged, with a John Okello earning a place among the pioneer corps of ethnic cleansing in post-independence Africa. Even two years later, the mood of approbation across the continent had not fully dissipated. It was evident in debates and informal discussions during the Dakar Negro Arts Festival. Still fresh in most minds, the event had direct implications for considerations of race, identity and culture. These, after all, constituted the parameters for the conceptualization of that Festival in the first place. They determined the entitlement of prospective participants , content, and even re-drew the geography of the African continent beyond its physical borders.
Race, alas, is real. It is ideologically tempting to pretend that it is not but, both history and memory, reinforced by individual and collective encounters, challenge the contrary position. As a utopian act of resolve, we can opt out of race but, if such resolve fails to attain universal concordance, others who are not part of that radicalization of the human spirit will soon remind us, painfully of that reality. All we have to do is step outside our comfort zone and we are confronted with evidence that race existed long before Apartheid, before BLACK LIVES MATTER, long before the Holocaust and is lodged in the dark history of Turkey and Armenia, indifferent even to the 1741 efforts of the Royal Academy of Science under Louis XIV to resolve the mystery of Race, plus other such exotic scientific, and even theological exercises. To haul us back to the present, Race obtained frontal manifestation quite early in the killing fields of Ukraine, where humanity, trapped within lethal barrages that did not discriminate between citizens and strangers, nonetheless found time to discriminate against residents – including students – who were visibly of a different race – black.
Race, however, can be tamed. We can staunch its nauseous emissions, attenuate its corrosion of human relationships but – Race is not thereby an abstraction. It is not part of the baggage of – “false consciousness”. The Race factor becomes even more toxic when it is interwoven with class segregation, religion and economic disparity – this was what happened in Zanzibar, but one dares hope that half a century has sufficed to attenuate, if not totally erase the memory of 1964, replacing it with the celebration of diversity. Will that be the embedded takeaway from Festac 22?
The agenda raises high expectations but, for dedicated numerologists, the assigned year may be accounted either a positive or troubling augury – I refer to the adoption of the twinned digital ending of its predecessors. Accident? Or design? Dakar, 66, Lagos – 77, now Zanzibar 22.. I strongly suspect the exhumation of some ancient African digital mysticism, something along the lines of the Chinese code of lucky numbers. We missed out on 88, 99, 00 and even 11, but this year, 22, compensates by coming the closest so far to a full flush of the figure 2 – unfortunately I cannot immediately recall to which culture or deity the figure 2 attaches. Zanzibar has however resolved to make this an annual event, not wait until the final two digits come together again in some cabalistic conjunction, only to have it jinxed at the last moment.
For there have been other efforts at revival, and even those that did take place – 66 and 77 were miraculous survivors of the jinx. Lagos 77 in particular was plagued by a thousand and one of such jinxes, induced as many heart seizures and had to be resuscitated again and again. However, that one atop the thousand was in a special category of its own, and it proved more potent than all the supporting thousand.
The Lagos edition all but foundered even before it began. You know the Yoruba proverb – ti iya nla ba gbe ni san’le, kekere a gori e. Rough translation: when a powerful ailment has left us prostrate on the ground, a tiny one then squats on its head. That tiny squatter was none other than –Race. The Race Question. Let us use that 77 edition as our narrative of instruction.
The adopted name itself was a perfect giveaway – quite a mouthful – The Black and African Festival of the Arts – now ask how it came about that title. Compare it to – just a few studies in contrast – the Venice Biennale., or Dakar’s straightforward Negro Arts Festival, the Pan-African Festival, Or, to bring the issue across to the large black American constituency, contrast it with that succinct, duo-syllabic borrowing from the continent – Kwanza. Let us revisit what considerations propelled the course of that precursor, Festac 77.
A recapture of its enabling propositions goes to the heart of black intellection and race politics, the contentious and yet unresolved issues of self-apprehension that still plague our relations to the world, and especially to our fellow occupants of that continent.
We should keep at the back of our minds the nature of that world, that is, as it manifests itself today It is one that is currently dominated by the rampaging anti-scholastic, anti-enlightenment, indeed anti-humani theology of the Boko Harams, the al-Shabbabs, the Da’esh, the Answar Dines and company. We shall set aside for now their secular clones in other lands, such as Poison Putin the warmonger, and other enemies of human dignity, indeed of human freedom itself.
While we do not attempt to gloss over our own past, we owe it to the future to elevate the Feast of Reason and Imagination as humanity’s loftiest aspirations, turning such events into the norm of existence, not the exception.
So, back to that long-winded title – how did the host nation end up with that confection? A recapture of that season of ideological rivalries is essential here, and the answer to that question is: it came of being surrogates of the wars of others! The name given to the enabling war in the Festac case, now fallen somewhat into disuse was – The Cold War. That so-called war – if anyone needs reminding – penetrated every activity or projection, intruded on all corners of the globe, operating through proxies, conscious or unconscious, willing or unwilling, many of whom functioned in the ironic confidence that they were mapping out their own autonomous course as self-determining paracletes of a new, ennobled humanity. That Festival proved a reflection of the pan-African movement that split into two ideological camps, then degenerated into a near-personal war of egos, utopian manifestoes swallowed intact, then regurgitated out of context and indifference to material relevance.
The pan-African solidarity movement that was inaugurated all the way from the turn of the twentieth century with Henry Sylvester Williams in Manchester, UK, Edward Blyden, W.E.B.du Bois, Claude Mackay and all eventually ran out of steam – or perhaps we should say, imploded from excessive steam – and disintegrated in 1974, in Tanzania. I was present at the debacle. Three years later, the supposedly autonomous cultural complement – FESTAC 77 – inherited the embers from that eruption – that is, continued the internecine warfare, now reinforced by thrashings from the tentacles of the Cold War, often via the most unexpected channels. The contradictory facets of that movement coalesced into the cultural and debating sessions of Festac 77, in Nigeria – but not directly. Through Algiers.
For, often ignored is the fact that, between Dakar and Lagos – that is, between ’66 and ’77, there had been a Pan-African Arts Festival in Algiers, in 1969, just three years after Dakar. That Festival was far more political than cultural, in the view of many of the participants. Circumstances – such as being under physical political restraint at the time – it was the time of the war of Biafran secession – prevented my participation. So now, partisans of the quite different orientation of the Algiers Festival, whose agenda had been mostly sidelined during the Dakar Negro Arts Festival , having now gathered confidence and numbers, responded to the champions of Dakar/Lagos continuity, saying – yes, Festac 77 was indeed a continuation of Africa’s cultural manifesto but – of which model? The pan-Africanist partisan’s position was straightforward: a continuation along the orientation of the Algiers encounter, not the Dakar. Thus, for starters, Lagos should even be dubbed The Third, not the Second African Arts Festival. The black nationalist postulants begged to differ. It all went beyond arts and culture of course. Both were entrapped within the politics of the Cold War.
We shall not delve excessively into the numerous features of discourse, ideological declamations. and political horse-trading that nearly made Festac 77 a stillborn affair, even after guzzling millions of petro- dollars in its preparation. Dakar, no petro-dollars to boast of, had already earned classification as a bourgeois confection, its orientation reactionary, lacking a ‘correct’ ideological grounding. Such rumblings were already present in the condescending commentaries of some of the radical bloc, but could not really dominate the sessions of formal exchanges, or the artistic presentations. Nonetheless, even ‘Black’ – you may find it difficult to recollect – ‘Black’ was already under attack, queried and tagged a reactionary concept, since the world had to be seen solely in terms of class divisions and class struggle. The racial definition of humanity, never mind the objective experience of race as a frequent defining factor of political struggle – consider the glaring examples of Apartheid South Africa and the United States for instance! – all this was nothing more than yet another facet of ‘false consciousness’, a misleading distraction. Later, you may also recollect, within South Africa itself, movements such as Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness proponents would also be looked upon askance by other liberation movements , such as the predominant ANC with its strong Communist orientation. It was often looked down upon for being backward in political orientation, the commitment and ordeal of the Black Consciousness movement notwithstanding .
Within the United States also, veterans of both Dakar and Algiers, these divisions had also begun to be manifested and would later develop into virulent confrontations.
It was from the cauldron of these fearsome divisions that the hard contested title – Black and African Festival of the Arts – was forged, as a compromise, to accommodate the willing, the entitled, and the gate-crashers. Those who defined themselves Black in 1966, despite thunderous denunciations from the catechists of a radical, International Leftism – were not about to give up their language of self-apprehension without a fight. That fight lasted years during the build-up!
From this colour coded versus colour-blind spectrum, the battle now shifted into the next, and fundamental issue – The Race question itself. Virtually on the eve of Festac 77 – by an accident of timing or design, Said Barre of Somalia, who would later be ousted from power to end his days as a political refugee in the same Nigeria – set a startling precedent by declaring his nation, Somalia, an Arab state! The continent was used to Barre’s ideological flip-flops, aligning with the Eastern bloc one moment, then turfing out the Soviets and embracing America and capitalism the next. This, however, was something new, an African nation formally re-defining itself along racial lines. That of course gave massive blood infusion to what was, until then, a somewhat abstract, dry-as-dust contention. The obvious question was – Why? Next: what exactly did Somalia identity itself out of? What entity was under renunciation? There was, went the argument, an aggregation to which Somalia once belonged – the African continent. What then did such a pronouncement mean for that entity? Did the transformation reflect on others whose history and racial composition had hitherto been the same as Somalia’s? What exactly was Somalia saying to the rest of the continent? To other races?
Such questions, posed by supposedly retarded minds, including this speaker, extended into interrogations of the participatory status that defecting states like Somalia enjoyed within international structures.
The answers emerged as follows: on that same African continent, there were already nations that not only pronounced themselves Arab, even moslem Arab states, and thus belonged to a political organization known as The Arab League. Such members of the Arab League also belonged to the Organisation of African Unity – now known as the African Union. That same league had indeed addressed its cultural field as a crucial element of its self-apprehension, establishing – as part of its overall race strategy – a parallel organization known to the world cultural institution known as UNESCO. That separatist organ had taken on the name ALECSO – The Arab League’s Educational, Cultural and Scientific organization, with headquarters in Tunis. Well then, where, we foolishly asked, was the place of equity between races, and especially on a predominantly ‘black’ continent? Where were the political structures that belonged exclusively to non-Arab, black autochthones? Just what was pan-African about self-declared members of the Arab League?
During the years that preceded the formal annunciation of that festival, an event that would undergo several take-off dates, numerous preparatory meetings were also organized all over the world. Wherever a drop of blackness – or claim of African origination – could be found, it was the perfect excuse for a ten, fifteen, sometimes even twenty strong promotional team to be dispatched to that end of the world. Petroleum had begun to flow and thus, as one national leader declared at the time, the problem of the nation was not a lack of money, but how to spend it. Committees were set up everywhere, lavishly funded through embassies. And thus, numerous meetings – several in the United States – took place between the touring caravans with a dualist ideological contention – Black (reactionary) and African (progressive.) Each designated region of Black Presence everywhere on the globe did its best to adjust to the ideological leaning of the visiting delegations in a bid for recognition. Several years went into this competition for supremacy and funding. I had better state right here that I was part of one of the delegations – a modest foursome – our constituency covered part of the Caribbean, whose own festival, Carifesta, we covered.
Let me interject here that there was, to everyone’s credit, a common ground of agreement – the Festival would be more than a parade of grass skirts and swinging buttocks. The intellectual content was not only to be safeguarded but must form the very core of the Festival. Thus the rationale for numerous pre-festival mini-colloquia that were organized over the years of preparation and postponement, from the Soviet Union to Papua New Guinea. At the very heart of the Festival itself was placed – The Colloquium. At which point of course, a new division arose, to which all previous battles would prove mere skirmishes.
A Colloquium, yes, but for whom, and by whom? That was the question. The Senghorians insisted that the Colloquium, at the very least, must be strictly for Black Africa. The opposition, led by Sekou Toure’s Guineans, insisted that all creatures inhabiting the Africa must be represented. I think, at this point, I should simply conclude with my own partisan conviction, which, if fully applied would relieve all arguments of their sting. It has to do with a disciplinary approach. Like it or not, History has defined Africa, not Africa defined the world, nor has that continent even been permitted to define herself. The complement of this has been the unarguable, physical continental dispensation by Geography.
I propose therefore that we simply install those two agencies – History and Geography – in combination as defining parameters of our existence, and forget all about those problematic others – such as Physiognomy and Anatomy – even take the colour code out of contention. In short, let us lay emphasis on the Historic definition of the Black Race as a people from whom emerged the unique geographical Diaspora of the Enslaved. That phenomenon has no duplicate on this earth – certainly not on such a scale! Thus, those from among whom that Diaspora was created remain identified as the Black Race, distinct from other inhabitants of the continent, indeed of the globe, an immutable, existential reality that demands its global recognition, acceptance but also – celebration.
That formulation enables me to conclude with my own contribution to such a festival of renewal, a near obsession, it must be confessed. Its blueprint was originally confined to the North and West African coastlines – all summarized in the following extract from a constantly refurbished prospectus, first aired during the Lagos Black Heritage Festival series that began a decade ago, It was again projected – followed by a brief trial run in Italy – five years ago at a Colloquium session of an international Festival in Palermo, Sicily. Palermo stands out from the rest of Europe as a city that has demonstrated a humane, pro-active approach to the twentieth century Migration Crisis, a new cycle of displacement that has yet failed to provoke European nations into a recognition of the karmic law of cause-and-effect, the present effect commenced as far back as the designation of the African continent as material for an involuntary Black Diaspora in the making. Summarized, the project goes thus:
Today’s offspring of near and far-flung Diaspora will converge on a designated port on the Mediterranean by land, air and – yes, also sea – to embark on a reverse slave voyage. The ‘armada’ of one or more vessels will cross the Mediterranean into the northernmost port of the continent, then cruise along Africa’s shoreline with stops at ports of slave history – Cairo, Algiers, Essaouira,, Goree Island, Cape Coast/Accra, Benin, Lagos/Badagry. On board throughout the journey, exhibitions, films, seminars and lectures, historic reenactments, fashion displays and body arts will jostle with a medley of pre-colonial cuisines and leisure traditions. Participants embark, drop off and rejoin en route as desired. Prominent among the tackled themes will be the CRISIS of MIGRATIONS in this 21st Century. The rest can be left to adventurous imagination.
I refer to it as the Grand Voyage of Return. The FESTAC re-convergence in Zanzibar – stated in its 2022 prospectus – logically demands the extension of this voyage to embrace both East and South. This journey, conceived as an annual event from the Diaspora to the continent, tracks back through the notorious routes along which Africa was uprooted, her survivors from horrendous voyages through ocean and desert replanted in alien earth. Outsiders would be welcome as participating guests on this floating academy and space of reflection, a symbolic voyage that is certain to prove also therapeutic for many, individually and collectively.
My vote has always been for diversity, hybridity, even mongrelisation, the dynamic crucible of the creative adventure. Mentally and spiritually, even long before Festac the First, I have always reserved a cabin on this vessel.