Vol. XXII, Issue 2 (Spring 2015): Distingished Poet and Novelist, Professor Syl Coker Cheney
The 2015 Amistad Lecture
Olayemi Akinwumi (South Africa)
For more information on AfricaUpdate
The Amistad Lecture and Banquet is organized yearly by the Amistad Committee, an affiliate of the Africana Center, as part of the Black History Month activities. In 2010, the Provost and Vice President, Dr. Carl Lovitt declared the Amistad Lecture and Banquet as the signature event of Black History Month activities at Central Connecticut State University.
At present, it consists of five members, namely, Professor Beverly Johnson (English); Professor Fumilayo Showers (Sociology); Professor Dann Broyld (History), Professor Olusegun Sogunro (Ed. Leadership) and Professor Gloria Emeagwali (History). Other than the first lecture which was held in November 2003, subsequent lectures and banquets have been held in February as part of the Black History Month activities. The Amistad events of 1839 and the aftermath constituted the most famous landmark slavery case in the U.S., setting the stage for freedom, social justice, and equality.
Among other things, the Amistad Committee is committed to organizing the lecture series in order to preserve and protect the history and legacy of the Amistad; honor the experience of the captives aboard the Amistad; and relate the events to the universal aspirations for human dignity and freedom. The aim is also to foster intellectual inquiry relating to the events of the Amistad and reflect on human capabilities to recover from traumatic experiences, misfortune and calamities. We also hope to contribute educational resources related to Black Studies, in general, and Amistad Studies, in particular.
The Amistad saga which spanned 1839-1842, involved the illegal capturing of fifty three Africans, especially from Sierra-Leone, their enslavement in Cuba, a bloody revolt aboard the Amistad ship, and a landmark trial in Connecticut which finally set free the captives and facilitated their return to Sierra-Leone, their homeland.
During the trial of the captives in Connecticut courts, especially Hartford, some human rights activists in the state offered humanitarian assistance and gave a helping hand to the survivors of this traumatic event. Notably, the town of Farmington played a prominent role in the rehabilitation of the Amistad victims.
The committee has been actively involved in organizing and coordinating the events, and bringing renowned scholars to the University. The distinguished scholars are also granted the Amistad Award in honor of their outstanding research and direct and indirect contributions to the field of study.
To date, the following lectures have been delivered:
Professor Gloria Emeagwali , Chief Editor and
Professor Olusegun Sogunro
, Chief Editor and Professor Olusegun Sogunro
I would like to begin this homage with one of the most contentious issues in contemporary politics and poetry. I do this because tradition suggests that when you invite a writer to speak at a pre or post- prandial event, he or she should show that the wine and dinner are deeply appreciated. I intend to do just that!
For a long time there was, and still is, the belief that sometime during the Second World War, to inspire English resistance against the Nazis, Winston Churchill quoted some lines from the famous sonnet, If We Must Die, by the great Jamaican Harlem Renaissance poet Claude Mackay. Let us recall some of the memorable lines from this great sonnet.
'If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an
Oh, Kinsmen, we must meet the common foe.
Now, some contemporary scholars, black and white, but especially people of Caribbean descent, insist, without any prevarication, that Churchill did quote from Mackay, during a moment of great oratory in the House of Commons.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the disbelievers: those who say that at no time did Churchill quote from Claude Mackay; especially not from a poem that owes its genesis to the race riots of 1919, during the so-called Red Scare and Red Summer. But the contentious argument lacks the morality of eloquence and importance: whether Churchill used it or not did not advance the greatness of the poem, nor did it add to its epic grandeur. For in its bold, assertive statement aboutFreedom and dignity, it is one of the towering poems of the 20th century. No lover of poetry can fail to be moved by the sweeping power of its language, the invocation to courage and dignity, which carried a very important message: no one has the right to imprison, kill and brutalize another human being, without any resistance from the victim. The poem defined and codified the very essence of human existence, the human rights of all men and women; something that only the individual can create for himself or herself; a precious gift that is seldom, if ever, given to one individual by another.
This year, Britain is marking the 5Oth anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. While celebrations are taking place, some contemporary historians have taken the opportunity to revisit Churchill's views on race and freedom. Looking at some of his speeches, it is clear that Churchill had some very unsavory views about so-called people of color.
For instance, in 19 37, he told the Palestine Royal Commission:
This was strong, imperial and sickening stuff that was politically very correct, very common, in his day. It was the age of imperial arrogance and conceit. But although we are often reminded not to speak evil of the dead, I cannot, like most black writers, help wondering whether Churchill did, indeed, use the famous sonnet by the grandson of a slave, to rally the English- a so-called higher grade race- as they were being pummeled by another so-called worldly wise race.There is every good reason to believe that being very well read, Churchill knew about this great poem, and probably, I say probably, did use it. After all, as we all know, politicians are supposed to govern in prose but campaign and inspire in poetry. It is the difference between inspirational eloquence and platitudinous pronouncements.
One thing we are all certain about, one incontestable narrative of history, something that was to shape the language of freedom, humanity, and justice, and create a discord between two nations is this:On a cold, miserable night, in August, 11839, a group of captured Africans,(I refuse to call them slaves,) sat in the hold of a ship, incongruously called The Amistad, which I believe means 'friendship' in Spanish. They were on their way from Havana to Puerto Principe, in Cuba, where they were to be worked as slaves: According to some documents, they were the properties of two Spaniards, Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz. As the Africans' own testimonies would later show, when they had a chance to speak, they had been subjected to unspeakable violence and barbarity; moreover, prior to that memorable night, they had watched some of the menacing gesticulations of their captors, which made the Africans believe they were going to be killed and eaten by people of a different breed (I don't like the word race because I strongly believe in one universal race.)
None of those men, women or children believed in the idea of subjugation; the unpalatable notion by a group of men, who, for the simple fact that they had guns, felt they could chain and brutalize other members of our small world. So, on that cold night, convinced that they were about to be killed and eaten, one of the youngest members of that group, whose name was Kinna, conveyed his suspicions to a big, sagacious man in the group.
The conversation went like this:
The older man replied: 'let me think about it for a while; if we do not do something we shall be killed. We may as well die trying to be free than for all of us to be killed and eaten.'
As we all know, the name of that man is of course Sengbe Pieh. I have refrained from calling him Cinque, an illegal, gilded hallucination of conquest and ownership that his so-called owner had tried to stamp on him, when Sengbe was in chains. (Some has suggested that the name was hispanized to make it easy for the captors to pronounce)
Now the plot begins: the translucent power of the mind to respond to an injustice; something that leads to the ritual of revolt in all of us! One could even argue that the genius of revolt is present in nearly every individual: it takes only a spark of outrage to bring it to the surface, when, as I said, our humanity is denigrated and assaulted.
Throughout history, there have been several occasions when men and women have felt that genius of revolt tearing at their insides, to which they must respond not only for themselves, but for others. Who can forget Joan of Arc, Patrick Henry, those women in Western Nigeria, led by the formidable Fumilayo Ransome Kuti, who in the late 1930's stormed the palace of the Alake or King of Abeokuta, because of his despotism; who can forget the Aba Women who rose against the exploitative colonial tax system? There were many, many others like them. We owe a lot to these brave people.
Sitting in that dark hold on that miserable night, in August,1839, contemplating what to do, Sengbe Pieh was unaware that the action he was about to take would become one of the most memorable and sustained narratives about the contemporary struggle between good and evil. How could he have foreseen that his action would lead to a long diplomatic argument between the USA and Spain; that it would bring an ex-president out of retirement and propel him into universal greatness, after he had made one of the most moving speeches in front of the United States Supreme Court at that time?
The incredible thing about the mind of Sengbe Pieh was how similar his words were to the sentiment expressed in Claude Mackay's great sonnet. Like MacKay, Sengbe Pieh did not want his country men and women to die an inglorious death. He wanted them to die only after, or during, an act of courage in dignity, with their heads held high! But we shouldn't be surprised by his sagacity: After all, unknown to his captors, Sengbe Pieh came from a proud people with a long, beautiful narrative tradition; he was the product of a society with a complex, time-tested judicial system: one with an understanding of how the cosmos works. So, we could assume that before deciding to act, he must have delved into some form of historical analysis about man's destiny; most likely he called upon his deities, and prayed to them, although of course, at that time, his captors, like many of their kind, were convinced that people like Sengbe came from a world without any claim to civilization!
One thing Sengbe Pieh was sure of was this: he had to act. The question of whether he succeeded or not was immaterial: as events happen in history, one moment dissolves into another; and our fate is either transformed into sanguine greatness or reduced to pitiful mediocrity! Whatever the result, he would leave that to historians. Luckily for us, he did not fail.
What kind of a man was Sengbe Pieh? I am sure we are all familiar with various descriptions of him; but the one I like the most, the one for which he has been honoured and continues to be so celebrated, is this one in the New Haven Daily Herald, when the Africans first appeared in court, charged with mutiny on the Amistad :'His appearance was neat said the newspaper. And in cleanliness would compare advantageously with any colored dandy on Broadway!'
Another reporter had this to say about him:
Strong stuff, mixed blessings: all we can do is wonder what Sengbe Pieh would have made of it, if only he could read the newspaper. For me, this was the beginning of what is undoubtedly a great Sierra Leonean narrative: a journey into the evolution and affirmation of a national consciousness; something worthy of a national epic: one that Sierra Leoneans should celebrate with pride and gratitude. For there were other acts of refusal by Africans to be condemned and sold as chattel slaves in the Americas; but they failed, and the leaders paid a terrible price for their audacity. Some of us will no doubt recall that, exactly eight years before Sengbe Pieh's revolt on the Amistad, a larger, more organized rebellion by slaves had taken place on American soil, which was to become part of the American literary canon. On August 22, 1831, in Southampton County, Virginia, a black preacher named Nat Turner had staged a violent rebellion against slavery. We all know, from his so-called confessions, after the rebellion was brutally put down, and before he was executed in a most brutal and inhumane manner, that Turner had received a series of religious revelations urging him to revolt. There were other, more violent rebellions in the Americas; but besides Turner's legend, the other figure of importance to me, was perhaps the Haitian Francois Mackandal: a man variously described as a Guinean or Senegalese Moslem, who had been snatched from his homeland, and taken to Haiti. He was called a great hougan or maroon, who instructed slaves in Santa Domingo in the art of making poisons, to kill their masters and help bring about the liberation of slaves.
And so, we have three historical figures whose actions helped to shape our narratives about freedom and dignity during the slave period. With great pride, Haitians can point to the legendary figures of Toussaint L' Ouverture, Dessalines, and Henri Christophe as the liberators of their nation, but those in the know always recall the actions of Francois Mackandal, in the same way that Kenyans might celebrate the figure of Dedan Kimathi. And for some African-American scholars, Nat Turner is undoubtedly a major figure of American history and literature. The question then is why has Sengbe Pieh not been celebrated with the same reverence in his own country? Why has it been left to the good people of this state, to erect a monument to his memory?
Perhaps, it has to do with the way we, as Sierra Leoneans, see ourselves in the diasporic narrative of slavery, freedom and identity; how our historical responses and compositions, our direct involvement in the umbilicus of that narrative are not part of contemporary scholarship. Be it the writings by Caribbean writers of Haiti, Trinidad or Cuba, or the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and other expressions of what Dubois had called the souls of Black people, there is so much to recall and celebrate, so much we should be proud to talk about. Bu when it comes to the Amistad, it would appear that the short lived importance of so much of Sierra Leone's contemporary narrative ( by which I mean the past fifty-four years ) has tended to overshadow the far more intrinsic and rewarding narratives of the pre- independence period . How else do we explain the unbelievable reality that we tend to canonize the present and abandon the past in a comedic ritual of political subservience?Not too long ago, at Congo Cross in the western district of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, there was a statue erected in memory of Sengbe Pieh. It was not of bronze or gold; it was amateurish and not really well maintained. No one came to put flowers there, and I do not recall people trooping to it to go and worship at the plinth. But it was a reflection of how he should be celebrated. I believe there is a primary school, or possibly two, in his memory. But they are not the grand portals to such an important legacy. Anyway, as I was saying, there used to be a memorial, in a very public place, to Sengbe Pieh. If my memory serves me well, it was erected by some young people, during the period of military rule that preceded our return to a civilian political dispensation in the early 1990's.
Then one day, when I was home, some fifteen months ago, I saw that, shockingly, the homage to one of the seminal figures of the Atlantic slave revolts had been pulled down, and replaced with a very crude one, in honour of the current occupant of our presidency.
Now, I am not opposed to colourful masqueraders, the drum majors, portraitists and asho-ebi wearers of any political dispensation wanting to honour their paymasters. If that is how some people want to express their loyalty, then so be it. But when that public display of fidelity to a current political ideology is a fanfare at the expense of a historical statement so large, so powerful, that it led to a movie by none other than Steven Spielberg, I am sure I am not the only one who took offence at the displacement and the devaluation of a very important diasporic Sierra Leonean narrative that resonated across the ages!When asked why he made his 1997 movie about the Amistad Steven Spielberg had this to say: “shares a place in my heart with the Colour Purple.’ And commenting on how important this comparison is to Spielberg, one of his biographers went on to say:
'It is not simply because it is also about black people, who are enslaved, formally or not; not even because it is also about the difficulty of establishing communications between whites and black who, in the case of the Amistad, share not a single word or communication, though, that, finally, is the film 's message. The most important theme is of course the burning and universal need for freedom” 1 (2)
Yes that is what the Amistad is all about, communication by free men and women: how human beings build bridges across the frontiers of cultures, so- called races and colors, and reach for the genuine, triumphant statement about all of us: that we live in a small world, and that our response to challenges, in that prism, must be made with conviction, boldness and courage.It was as a result of that belief that John Quincy Adams, a man not necessarily in sympathy with the Abolitionists, decided that the most important moral purpose of man or woman is to make a statement about our common humanity. On those two or three days of his memorable defense of the captives on the Amistad, what he did was to ask the members of the Supreme Court of the United states to look into their hearts, look at the laws, and ask themselves whether it was right that fifty four men, women and children, who did not understand the exegesis of a foreign language, should be condemned to die in that language. Unlike Winston Churchill, who you may recall felt no wrong had been done to people of color, John Quincy Adams believed that no one, whatever the accident of where he or she was born, should be denied the opportunity to be respected and treated with equal justice and dignity, in the only language that matters: the common language of brotherhood and sisterhood.
The current Sierra Leonean narrative, if we are so inclined to remember, is one about the reflexes of failed promises, missed opportunities, and recurring mistakes; it is about the attempts at correcting those mistakes, but then plunging, willy-nilly, back into a repetition of those deeds. I need not elaborate: take your pick. With current events as they are in Sierra Leone, it is clear to me that what we need is leadership that is disciplined, bold, and honest: the kind of leadership that Sengbe Pieh showed when he led that revolt that night. History may yet be kind to Sierra Leoneans in assessing how we have conducted our affairs in the past five decades. I am a writer deeply conscious of a primal responsibility: to write about some of the major and small themes in our lives, and hopefully, get some of us to think about them. But no writer in any part of the world can fail to remember that, as the current ship of uncertainty is drifting from one confusing narrative to the next, perhaps what we need is a return to the old narratives for edification and comfort.The Amistad was a seminal statement about the importance of human dignity and the search for a common language. In our contemporary reflections of the self, our dignity, but, God forbid, not our vanity, it is an event worth celebrating for years to come. What do I propose? I suggest that, in a much-more profound manner, the government of Sierra Leone should erect a towering monument to Sengbe Pieh. I insist that the government endow him with a prominent place in the history books; let the younger generation know more about him; let him become and continue to be an unforgettable presence in their education, so that the events of the Amistad can move beyond a historical myth to a more intrinsic statement about national pride. Too much of our current narrative is wasted on arguments that won't even stand the test of a year, much more the elasticity of a decade. We have already wasted too many goods years in Sierra Leone over the trivial and unnecessary bewilderment of a wanton life. If we are lucky, I believe fate may yet give us another chance to reshape that nation, and bring back our glorious past!
Syl Cheney-Coker - Biography/Curriculum Vitae
Syl Cheney Coker is a poet, novelist, and journalist from Sierra Leone who has spent part of life in exile. He has written poetry, fiction and non-fiction and is a major literary figure in the contemporary era. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, University of Oregon, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught at the University of the Philippines and University of Maiduguri, Nigeria before becoming a Writer-in Residence at the University of Iowa. The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar remains one of his most distinguished writings. Syl's historical fiction is distinct from other distinguished writers such as Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Ngugi wa Thiongo. Some critics associate his work with ‘magical realism.’
In one of the 2014 bestseller books, “Emerging Perspectives on Syl Cheney Coker,” Eustace Palmer and Ernest Cole claim that “Syl Cheney-Coker is generally regarded as Sierra Leone’s leading writer. Indeed, he is one of the most accomplished and challenging writers to have emerged from Africa in recent years and his works have deservedly won several literary awards. A versatile artist who excels in both poetry and prose and whose influences range from Africa, to Latin America , to Europe, he is arguably the most prolific, complex, popular and misunderstood poet to have come from Sierra Leone.”At the instance of the military coup of 1997 in Sierra Leone, Cheney-Coker was targeted a dissident, and barely escaped with his life. In part through the efforts of a Wole Soyinka, an exiled Nigerian poet teaching at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Cheney-Coker was invited to be the first writer in the City of Asylum program in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Abridged Annotated Bibliography Materials about Syl Cheney-Coker