Claudia Jones, Gilberto Gil, Martin Luther King Jr. & Alex la Guma

Claudia Jones (1915-1964)

Claudia Jones was born in Belmont, Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1915, when the island was still a British colony. When she was eight, the family moved to Harlem, New York. Due to their impoverished living conditions, Jones contracted the tuberculosis that would dog her for the rest of her life. In 1936, frustrated by the way issues relating to black people were neglected in mainstream politics, she joined the Communist Party, attracted by its ethos of social equality. She rapidly proved her journalistic flair, and edited ‘Negro Affairs’ for the party’s paper, The Daily Worker. In 1941 she became National Director of the Young Communist League. As the Cold War developed, Jones’s membership of the Communist party made her life increasingly problematic. Her application for US citizenship was refused in 1940, and from 1942 onwards, she was kept under intense FBI surveillance. Arrested for the first time in 1948, she was in and out of prison over the next few years before eventually being charged and convicted of ’teaching and advocating the overthrow of the US government by force’. After she enforced to leave America and came to Britain, she continues to work to resolve violent reaction to post-war immigration from the Caribbean. It is the Caribbean Carnival in London, the forerunner of the Notting Hill Carnival that remains Jones’ most enduring legacy. She helped devise the event in response to the 1958 riots. Simmering tensions between communities had exploded into violence with racist mobs attacking local black residents. Drawing inspiration from the Trinidadian Carnivals of her childhood, and in keeping with her conviction that arts and culture had an important role to play within politics and society, she hoped the Carnival would encourage greater harmony between all local communities. It was a way of both building black confidence and extending a ‘hand of friendship’ to white communities. Although there is some debate as to who originally initiated the Carnival, there is no doubt that Jones was a pivotal force in the adoption of the idea.


Gilberto Gil (b. 1942)

Singer, composer, musician, politician and environmental activist Gilberto Gil, entered active politics in 1987. He was already an international figure when in 2003 the President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio da Silva, offered Gil the newly created post of Minister of Culture. This made him the second black person to have served in a Brazilian government.

Gil was born into a middleclass family in 1942 in the countryside of Bahia, Brazil. Bahia has always been a vibrant centre for music creation and production. Growing up steeped in this tradition, he learned to play the drums and the accordion, and even taught himself the trumpet. Influenced initially by the forró music of his native northeast, whilst at high school in Salvador, Gil helped set up the band, Os Desafinados (The Out of Tunes). He was just 18.

1969, however, was a year of triumphs as well as lows for Gil. It was the year in which he had his first hit as a solo artist with the song AqueleAbraço. But it was also the year, in which he and fellow musician Caetano Veloso were arrested by the Brazilian military government, doubtless because of the oblique criticisms contained in their lyrics. Gil and Veloso spent three months in prison and six months under house arrest, before being freed on the condition that they went into permanent exile. Gil, who went to London, believes that the government thought of him as ‘represent[ing] a threat [to them], something new, something that can’t quite be understood, something that doesn’t fit into any of the clear compartments of existing cultural practices, and that won’t do. That is dangerous.’

Three years later Gil was back in his beloved Brazil. The years of exile in London had been musically productive and he had performed with such groups as Yes, Pink Floyd, and the Incredible String Band. When he returned, in 1972 Gil participated in the renaissance of the African Brazilian afoxé tradition in Carnaval. Also he collaborated with Jimmy Cliff and they jointly released a cover of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ in 1980. It was an instant number one hit that arguably introduced reggae to Brazil. By now an unstoppable global musical force, Gil’s Quanta Live won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album, whilst his Eletracústico won the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album. In 2005 he received the Légiond’honneur from the French government.

He has been deeply involved with the conservation movement in Brazil, and in 2001 he was made a Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. As Minister for Culture, he sponsored the Culture Points programme, which awarded grants for music education and technology to the young urban poor, doubling the department’s expenditure in the process. Gil’s music is in a constant state of reinvention and his appeal to new generations of music lovers demonstrates his wide-ranging popularity. In 2007, Gil announced his intention to resign from his post as Minister of Culture. President Luiz Inacio da Silva rejected Gil’s first two attempts to resign, but gave in to a third request in July 2008. Acknowledging the good work Gil had done for Brazil, da Silva said that Gil was ‘going back to being a great artist, going back to giving priority to what is most important to him.


Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta in 1929, into a family where his father was a third generation Pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. King’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement started during his time as Pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and president of the Montgomery Improvement Association when Rosa Parks began the 282 day bus boycott after refusing to give up her seat at the front of a bus.

King’s commitment to non-violence protest is unquestionable. Even after his house was firebombed whilst he and his family were inside, King did not waver in his vow of non-violence. It was not until this moment that the Civil Rights movement which began in the 1940’s found its true leader.

The most famous aspect of King’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement is his ‘I have a dream’ speech, which has become one of the most iconic speeches in recent history. The speech was made in 1963 after JFK proposed his civil rights bill. This led to the civil rights leader organising a march in Washington to show support for the bill, which attracted 400,000 people. This, along with the rest of King’s work to promote peaceful protests, led to him being named Time Magazines person of the year in 1963 and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Martin Luther King was assassinated on 4th April 1968 whilst standing on the balcony of the Lorriane Hotel, Memphis.


Alex la Guma (1925-1985)

Justin Alex la Guma was born on 20 February 1925, his father was a leading figure in trade union politics and gave the Soviet Union his uncompromising support. La Guma’s childhood was spent surrounded by debates of national liberation politics were to have a great effect on his adult life. He followed his father’s footsteps into Trade Unions and helped organise a strike in the 1940’s and by 1950 had been entered onto a list of known communists.

La Guma worked as a writer and journalist. He started as a reporter for the New Age (a weekly magazine which was left-wing and linked to the African National Congress, where he wrote a number of short stories.

Following 1956, la Guma was subjected to ten years of unrelenting police harassment.  Despite this trouble, it was during this period that la Guma really started to become recognised as a writer. He was involved along with a number of other writers in drafting the Freedom Charter (a declaration of rights for the black South African population).  His involvement with the charter and other anti-apartheid movements led to his trial along with 154 others during the Johannesburg Treason Trail.  In 1960 la Guma spent five months in prison after 69 black south African protestors were killed in Sharpville, then in 1962 he was put under 24 hour house arrest and was put into solitary confinement twice in 1963 and 1966 without trial.

La Guma did not receive international recognition for his work until he produced the novella A Walk in the Night, which followed the leading characters’ encounters with poverty, racism, police harassment and criminality. The book was well-received well by critics, however, la Guma’s own people in South Africa were unable to read the book as its publication was censored.

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Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wole Soyinka, Paul Robeson & Christopher Okigbo

Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995)

Saro-Wiwa was born to one of the Nigerian tribes, Ogoni, in 1941, and at the age of 13 won a scholarship to Government College in Umuahia. After the graduation from the University of Ibadan, he worked at the jobs which the Nigerian Government provided. When the Biafran civil war broke out, he was one of the few Ogoni intellectuals to side with the Nigerian government, believing that the Ogonis had better prospects within Nigerian than in Igbo-dominated Biafra. This became very controversial. When he was appointed to be a regional commissioner for education, his prospect became one of the impediments for the Government to gain the control over the Ogonis people. Since his attitude failed to meet government’s expectation, he was more and more actively engaged in campaigning for the rights of the Ogoni people to stop the government from agreeing the Shell to exploit their natural resources. In spite of the organised activism such as the Survival of the Ogoni People which he founded, as well as a more radical youth movement that was allegedly engaged in sabotage activity against Shell, the Nigerian government swooped down on them in 1990.

A number of Saro-Wiwa’s supporters and relatives were killed, and Saro-Wiwa himself was arrested. He was detained without charge for six months, chained, tortured, and denied access to his family, doctor, and lawyer. His imprisonment was met with widespread international outrage and amnesty International adapted him as a prisoner of Conscience. Saro-Wiwa was eventually charged with inciting Ogoni youths to kill four leading Ogoni figures, a charge widely believed by members of the intellectual community like Chinua Achebe and Harold Pinter to have been fabricated to silence his campaign for basic human rights for the Ogonis. He was found guilty and executed along with eight others. His execution had a massive damage to the Shell’s international image, consequently the Shell agreed to pay money in order to cover the legal costs of the case and in recognition of the events that took place in the region. Some of the money was used to set up a development fund. his legacy still now remains not only in the region, but also worldwide.


Wole Soyinka (b. 1934)

Born in Nigeria and educated at the universities of Ibadan and Leeds, Wole Soyinka’s life and literary career have witnessed the end of colonialism and the challenges of independence in Africa. His earliest playwriting, specifically A Dance of the Forests (1960), challenged the complacency of the achievement of independence and predicted a future that would be faced with strife and turmoil – something which events from 1960 to the present had confirmed. The awful events of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) brought out the peace-seeking activist in Soyinka and caused him to be imprisoned without trial or charge for over two years, an experience chronicled in his prison memoirs. Soyinka had always been feared by the tyrants of his time because of the articulate anger in his writing. His first play after the Civil War was the scathing Madmen and Specialists (1971), a bitter allegory depicting the military rulers as cannibals, feasting on the people. In many other plays, he often used satire to devastating effect to speak out in the face of tyranny and the dangerous vanity of political ambition. For example, A Play of Giants (1984) brings together a quartet of tyrants – Presidents Ngeuma, Bokassa, Mobutu and Idi Amin – preening themselves at the United Nations and calmly discussing the elixir of power. As one who refuses to keep silent, Soyinka has been forced into long periods of exile from his homeland, in particular during the reign of General Sani Abacha (1993-98). Namely as a playwright – but also as a novelist, poet, essayer and autobiographer – Soyinka is one of the great and fearless chroniclers of our time.


Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

Robeson was born in 1898 and grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. HIs enslaved father had escaped and gone on to become a Presybiterian minister; his mother came from a distinguished Philadelphia Quaker family. He was as much an outspoken activist as a prodigiously talented actor and singer. He raised money to fight the Italian Invasion of Ethiopia and supported the Committee to Aid China. He became chairman of the Council on African Affairs, which he helped establish in 1937, and which the American government chose to brand as ‘Communist’. His stance against the murderously brutal practice of lynching was one of outspoken fury. He lobbied President Harry S. Truman about the issue in 1946, and founded the American Crusade against Lynching. Robenson was also a passionate spokesman against all aspects of unjust treatment to which the African-American Community was subjected to in the United States.

In 1949, a planned concert by Robeson in New York to benefit the Civil Rights Congress resulted in the anti-communist Riots. He was singled out by Senator McCarthy as a threat to American democracy and put under close surveillance. However it did not stop him from speaking out vehemently against American involvement in the Korean War, declaring that “if we don’t stop our armed adventure in Korea tomorrow it will be Africa”. His effort was not appreciated by the American government however he has been acknowledged for his fairness and strong will to challenge realpolitik.


Christopher Okigbo (1932-67)

Christopher Okigbo is regarded as one of the outstanding examples of postcolonial modernist poetry, whose work influenced an entire generation of African poets. A constant motif in all of his poetry is the desire to free society from its shackles – to decolonise the mind and to reinstate the dignity that is everyone’s birthright. Okigbo’s inspiration came from the two traditions of the Igbo people and Christianity, as well as the Classics he studied university. His poems are firmly anchored in events that took place in his lifetime and the political dimension of his poetry is entwined with his empathy for ordinary people subject to injustice, oppression and suffering. In 1966 Okigbo refused to accept the Langston Hughes award for African poetry at the Festival of Black African Arts in Dakar – he argued that there was no such thing as a ‘black poet’, and that art should not be burdened by racial pigeonholing. During Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), Okigbo joined the Biafran army and attained the rank of major, having been driven by a desire to play an active role against and army that was killing so many innocent civilians. Okigbo believed that when the basic principles of human justice and survival are threatened, purely political positions become hollow and indefensible. He was killed in action during the Civil War.

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Jack Mapanje, Thami Mnyele, Nelson Mandela & Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Jack Mapanje (b. 1944)

Jack Mapanje is a Malawian poet, who taught in the English Department at the Univeristy of Malawi before being imprisoned in 1987 for his first volume of poetry Of Chameleons and Gods (1981), which used indirect but savage symbolism attacking the rulers of Malawi. Mapanje recently told an interviewer ‘I started writing when I discovered that the politicians in my country were telling a lot of lies … So I thought, even if nobody reads me, I will tell the truth.’ It was this desire to tell the truth that landed Mapanje in jail. Despite campaigns for his release from other writers and activists – including Harold Pinter, Wole Soyinka and Noam Chomsky – he was not freed until 1991. Whilst in jail he made a pact with other prisoners: ‘Survive, and you will embarrass the dictator with your life. Die and give up, then he has triumphed. Victory for you is first, survival. Second, if you have the opportunity, tell your story.’ Upon his release in 1991, Mapanjee migrated to the UK where he published two further volumes of poetry, which had been composed whilst he was in jail. These poems explore the state of Malawi in all its festering corruption: from the roadblocks, to the starving children, to the ‘fat-necked custodians’ and to the political disappearances. Through his poems, Mapanje became the spokesperson for the so-called ‘dregs of society’ and found himself defending those who seemed unable to defend themselves. Mapanje won the USA’s Fonlon-Nichols Award in 2002 and currently teaches Creative Writing and Literature of Incarceration at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.


Thami Mnyele (1948-85)

Thami Mnyele was a South African artist who is associated with the anti-apartheid politics of the African National Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement. For Mnyele, making art and precipitating social change in South Africa were indivisible from each other. He was always searching for new ways of forging art forms into tools that could help mobilise the grassroots. Unsurprisingly, this made him a key target for the apartheid government. During the 1970s Mnyele came to believe that artists had to be partisan to be successful and much of his work was centred on depictions of violence, depicting the emotional and human consequence of oppression. In 1979, Mneyele moved to Botswana and joined the Medu Art Ensemble, a cultural group that used literature, theatre, visual arts and music to oppose the South African government (its membership largely comprised of South African expatriates, both black and white). As head of the graphic unit, he was able to combine his creative skills with his passion for activism – creating a range of inexpensive products capable of large-scale distribution (such as T-shirts, badges, postcards and calendars), and deploying bold colours and emotive slogans to generate ‘a determination to fight on.’ Mnyele also designed posters, mastheads and stickers for the African National Congress (including the sketching of the very first version of the current ANC logo), as well as also being active in the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. He chaired the Gabrone Culture and Resistance Festival in 1982, and was spokesperson for South Africa’s visual artists at a follow-up conference in Amsterdam in 1983. Mnyele was shot dead during a cross-border raid by the South African Defence Force on June 14th 1985, a day before he was supposed to move to Zambia. Works seized during the raid were displayed on South African television as evidence of Mnyele’s ‘terrorist’ activities. He was only 37.


Nelson Mandela (b. 1918)

Nelson Mandela – a clan chief, lawyer, activist, writer, orator, and later statesman and humanitarian – released his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, in 1994 and it was to become an international best-seller. He had written the book in prison on whatever paper he could salvage and it was an account of a lifetime’s struggle for equality and justice for the people of South Africa, which was made all the more compelling by the fact that it is free of any rhetoric or flourish. Prior to his imprisonment, Mandela had become a lawyer before deciding to join the African National Congress (ANC) in 1942, where he occupied various prominent positions.

When the National Party won the all-white election of 1948 on a platform of Apartheid, the ANC began its historic adoption of a policy of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-cooperation. Mandela travelled the country, using his oratorical skills to mobilise mass resistance against the discriminatory legislature. Along with other younger members of the ANC, Mandela espoused a radical African Nationalism based on self-determination (in contrast to the ineffective methods of the constitutionalist ‘old guard’). After the ANC was outlawed in 1960, the leadership went underground, with Mandela as a leading figure. At a time when the government was using such brutal force, Mandela regarded non-violence as unrealistic and so became the co-founder and leader of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (the militant wing of the ANC). Following a conference in Ethiopia in 1962, Mandela was arrested upon his return and charged with illegal exit from South Africa and incitement to strike.  He was sentenced to life imprisonment and his 27 years in jail included a lengthy spell at the notorious Robben Island Prison.

As the apartheid became increasingly untenable, the ban of the ANC was revoked in 1990, which was followed by Mandela’s release from prison. In 1994, Mandela became the first President of South Africa to be elected by a fully representative democratic vote. As President, Mandela was able to rebuild a volatile South Africa, which improved the country’s international image (that the apartheid had so badly tarnished). His considerable moral authority was also further reinforced, by his determination that the white people of South Africa be treated fairly as citizens of the country. He stepped down as President in 1999 and has since made a number of high-profile humanitarian interventions, mainly through his charity, the Mandela Foundation.


Ngugi wa Thiong’o (b. 1938)

Ngugi wa Thiong’o was novelist, playwright, literary theorist, journalist, academic and activist.  He was born in to a large farming family in the White Highlands of Kenya in 1938 and later became one of the most important writers to have emerged from East Africa. He had witnessed first-hand the pressures on the traditional family unit and disintegration of rural families, resulting from the expropriation of Kenyan farming land by the British. These were subjects he would return to again and again in his writing.

In 1977, when Thiong’o’s play “Nagaahika Ndeenda” was performed in his home village as a community project, he was jailed for a year on charge of subverting national unity by performing the Gikuyu language. His decision to write in Gikuyu was rooted in a desire, not merely to make the working class and peasantry the central subject of his work, but also its primary readers. He said “language carries culture, and culture carries particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world”.

During his imprisonment in 1977-78 Thiong’o wrote the novel “Caitani Mutharabaini” on prison toilet paper. It was translated into English as “Devil on the Cross”. He became a Prisoner of Conscience by the Amnesty International. After his release, Vice-President, Daniel Arap Moi, barred him from jobs at universities and colleges throughout the country. He reluctantly chose exile first in the UK and then US.

When He returned to Kenya in 2002, he and his wife were attacked by four hired gunman and narrowly escaped with their lives. Again he decided to work for the Kenyan people from outside through writing. Thiong’o’s novels are characterised by a search for an appropriate style to represent the increasingly complicated social structure of postcolonial Africa. Also his desire to preserve Gikuya language explores ways of working, not just with the Gikuyu language, but also with the wealth of other languages of the African continent.

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Fannie Lou Hamer, Miriam Makeba, Peter Magubane & Frederick Douglass

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Fannie Lou Hamer’s grandparents were enslaved. She was born in 1917 to a family of sharecroppers, whose position had not improved much with emancipation. They lived in Montgomery County, Mississippi. Hamer was working in the fields, picking cotton by the time she was six. She was forced to leave school by the age of twelve after a downturn in the family’s fortunes, caused by a white man poisoning the family livestock. It happened when Hamer’s parents might actually be on the cusp of breaking out of their cycle of poverty. The family never recovered from the blow. Hamer’s mother said to her ‘I want you to respect yourself as a Black child,’ she once told her, ‘and as you get older, you respect yourself as a Black woman.’ Drawing upon the African tradition of using music to integrate young people into society and build a sense of community, as well as allow for a release for pent up emotions and frustrations, Hamer’s mother employed song to instil values in all of her children. Hamer was to use her beautiful singing voice in a manner that even her determined mother could not have imagined to radicalise and mobilise thousands of people from across the United States. Hammer often led the activities in the singing of Christian hymns. With her incredibly moving, powerful voice acting as a rallying cry for the cruelly disenfranchised and dispossessed, she sang everywhere to encourage the voiceless.

In 1963, having been arrested for disorderly conduct after refusing to adhere to a restaurant’s ‘whites only’ policy, she was taken to a prison cell. ‘Three white men came into my room. One was a state highway policeman…They said they were going to make me wish I was dead. They made me lay down on my face and they ordered two Negro prisoners to beat me with a blackjack. That was unbearable. The first prisoner beat me until he was exhausted, then the second Negro began to beat me….They beat me until I was hard, ‘til I couldn’t bend my fingers or get up when they told me to. That’s how I got this blood clot in my eye – the sight’s nearly gone now. My kidney was injured from the blows they gave me on the back.’ Refused medical treatment, she was left permanently disabled. After long standing effort, in 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act which outlawed discriminatory practices. She became one of the most significant figure who made this happen through nonviolent means.


Miriam Makeba (1932-2008)

When she died in 2008, Miriam Makeba was hailed as ‘Mama Africa’ and the ‘Empress of African Song’. This was in stark contrast from the dark days in the 1960s when she had been exiled from South Africa, the land of her birth, then ostracised by the United States after she married black power leader Stokely Carmichael. However, Makeba’s bubbling spring of talent could never be suppressed for long. Throughout her life, she wrestled with adversity – from exile to unsuccessful marriages to the loss of her daughter – to become one of Africa’s most loved musicians, and ultimately a symbol for the new, post-apartheid South Africa.

Makeba was born in a township suburb of Johannesburg, into an oppressive South Africa whose concept of white supremacy was manifested through racial segregation. Forced to work as a servant for white families in Johannesburg, her amazing singing voice was soon discovered and she was frequently in demand to sing at weddings and funerals, as well as performing with various bands. Makeba’s growing popularity was cemented in 1959 when she played the female lead role in the legendary South African musical King Kong. International success followed shortly afterwards with a singing role in the film Come Back, Africa, a dramatised documentary on the lives of black people directed in secret by Lionel Rogosin. However, the South African regime was unhappy about her appearance in a film with such a strong anti-apartheid message and in 1960 her South African passport was revoked. Three years later, when she testified against apartheid at the UN, the South African regime then revoked her citizenship and banned her records as well.

Makeba was to spend three decades in exile. Harry Belafonte helped her gain entry to the U.S., where her performances on television and at the Village Vanguard jazz club swiftly earned her a following. Her first solo recordings focussed on her African repertoire, including her songs Pata Pata, Malaika and The Click Song. She toured the U.S., achieving international stardom and meeting stars like Bing Crosby and Marlon Brando, as well as being invited to perform at John F. Kennedy’s birthday in 1962. In 1966, she became the first black woman to earn a Grammy Award. At the same time, Makeba’s increasingly impassioned crusade against apartheid led her to sympathise with the civil rights and Black Panther movements in the U.S. and other countries. In 1968 she married Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael which precipitated a devastating nosedive in her popularity with the American public, with record deals and tours cancelled.

In 1986, Makeba was awarded the Dag Hammarskjöld peace prize for her continued efforts against the apartheid and her campaign for the cultural boycott of South Africa. But it wasn’t until the collapse of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 that she could finally return home after over 30 years in exile. Upon her death, Mandela, in his tribute, said ‘She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours … Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music installed a powerful sense of hope in us all.’ Even the circumstances of her death in 2008 were testament to her activist spirit, as she died whilst leaving staging after performing at protest concert in Italy, in support of writer Robert Saviano in his stand against the Camorra mafia group.


Peter Magubane (b. 1932)

Peter Magubane is a South African photojournalist who dedicated his life to photographing some of the key moments in South Africa’s turbulent history. His photographs of Nelson Mandela being conducted to his treason trial in 1956 and of the 69 coffins of the victims of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 now have iconic status – they represent the apartheid in all its ugliness. Drawn to photography from a young age, Magubane became inspired by the magazine Drum, which was renowned for its searing reports on the effect of the apartheid was having on urban black communities. He too wanted to deal with the social issues that affected black people in South Africa.

Considering the subject of his photography, such as Sharpeville in 1960 and Nelson Mandela’s trial is 1964, and the manner in which he exposed the hidden realities of these key events to the world, it was inevitable that Magubane would eventually fall foul of the authorities (especially as photographers were not allowed to carry cameras if the police were involved). Astonishingly, largely through his ingenuity, he managed to stave of serious persecution and imprisonment until 1969. From this point Magubane was subject to a series of arrests, assaulted by the police, banned from photography and over a period of three years spent 568 days in jail.

Despite having experienced the brutality of apartheid first hand, there is nothing Dogmatic about Magubane’s work. He also recorded the internal ‘township wars’ which accompanied the demised of apartheid, as well as other happier moments charged with hope, such as that of Nelson Mandela at the ballot box in 1994. In 1986, at great risk to his own life, he intervened to save the lives of a mother and daughter whose son and brother had been murdered by an angry mob outside their house. Later that year he was awarded the American National Professional Photographers’ Association Humanistic Award.

Magubane’s photographs have appeared the magazines Life, National Geographic and Time, and he has also taken photographs for several UN agencies, such as the High Commision for Refugees and UNICEF. In 1999 he was awarded the Order of Meritious Service by President Mandela. Recently, Magubane’s work has focussed on documenting South Africa in all of its magnificent cultural variety, including the surviving tribal ways of parts of post-apartheid South Africa. An unflinching opposition to injustice of any kind, an acute awareness of the crucial importance of recording key moments in South Africa’s history, often at great cost to himself, combined with a great humanity make him one of the most important photojournalists and documenters of our time.


Frederick Douglass (1818-95)

Frederick Douglass spent his childhood and early adult life as a slave in Maryland. During his early childhood Douglass was witness to many brutal whippings and spent much of his time cold and hungry. Unlike many other slaves, Douglas was taught to read by one of his master’s wife as a child. This allowed him to grasp the crucial importance of literacy and Douglass came to see learning to read as a pathway from slavery to freedom. The more he read, the more Douglass began to detest his enslavers. Working on the plantations as a teenager, Douglass became more troublesome and was often subject to severe whippings.

He retained a desire for freedom, though, and after a failed attempt in 1835, Douglass was able to escape to freedom in September 1838, when dressed in a sailor’s uniform and carrying identification papers provided by a free black seaman, he boarded a train. He settled in New Bedford with his wife, Anna. Douglass was able to launch his reputation as an orator for the Anti-Slavery Society and so was able to bring news of the anti-slavery movement to thousands of people. His gifts as a great orator and writer (including his acclaimed Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself in 1945) brought him to the attention of two presidents – he is widely credited with persuading Abraham Lincoln to make emancipation a key issue of the Civil War (Douglass was a staunch advocate of the Union cause), as well as actively supporting Ulysses S. Grant in his crusade against the Ku Klux Klan.

Douglass moved to Washington DC in 1872 where he took up a series of distinguished public office posts. Also in 1872, Frederick Douglass became the first African-American to be nominated as a Vice Presidential candidate for the United States. He was nominated, without his knowledge, to run on the small Equal Rights Party ticket (though Douglass did not acknowledge his nomination). However, this was a historically significant moment and it is striking testimony of the esteem in which this former enslaved-African was held, by those campaigning for racial equality in the United States. At the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass also became the first African-American to receive a vote for President of the United States in a major party’s roll call vote. Douglass’ impact on the emancipation movement in the United States cannot be over-emphasised and he is one of the most respected activists of his age – not only a leader of the abolitionist movement, but also an active supporter of the American Indians’ cause and of Women’s Suffrage.

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Olaudah Equiano, Angela Davis, Elizabeth Catlett & Bernard Dadiè

Olaudah Equiano (1745-97)

Olaudah Equiano was a freed-slave who was a writer, speaker, sailor, merchant and abolitionist. He was the son, according to his autobiography, of a village elder in the kingdom of Benin (now in southern Nigeria) and when he was about eleven, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped, and brought to the coast where he encountered white men for the first time. He was shipped across the Atlantic to Barbados and then Virginia, where he worked as a slave on a plantation and was horrified by the sights he saw. When sold to a Royal Navy officer in 1757, Lieutenant Michael Pascal, Equiano would spend the next eight years of his life as a slave on board ships, where he was often subject to brutal treatment.

After finally being able to scrape enough money together to buy his freedom in 1765 (from his new master in Philadelphia), Equiano returned to London as a freeman. Equiano soon realised his true vocation as an activist for the abolition of slavery. He was a prominent member of the ‘Sons of Africa’, a group of 12 black men who campaigned for abolition, and in 1787 he was appointed Commissary for a project to settle former black slaves in Sierra Leone. He worked closely with the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and spoke movingly and eloquently at a large number of public meetings about the cruelty of the slave trade.

After helping Ottobah Cugoana edit and publish his book, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery in 1788, Equiano realised that the most formidable tool he could deploy for the Abolition campaign was the story of his own life. In 1789, he published his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. The book begins with a petition to Parliament. It was highly effective in mobilising public opinion, and played a key role in reinforcing William Wilberforce’s campaign in the House of Commons for the abolition of the slave trade. But although copies of his book were sent to George III, he failed to persuade the king to change his opinions, and George III remained firmly against the abolition of the slave trade. His work remained hugely popular and influential, though, but Equiano did not live to see the abolition of the transatlantic Slave Trade – this came in 1807, ten years after his death.

Angela Davis (b. 1944)

Angela Davis, born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944, had impeccable intellectual credentials. She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University and pursued her graduate studies at the Goethe Institute, Frankfurt, the Sorbonne, Paris, and the University of California, San Diego. She conducted her doctoral research in the department of Philosophy at Humboldt University, Berlin. Then in 1970 she went on the run. Davis’s engagement with organised protest started early on in her career. She worked with the Black Panther Movement and also became involved with the American Communist Party.

These connections, along with her social activism, brought her to unwelcome national attention in 1969 when she was removed from her teaching position in the Philosophy Department at the University of California. In 1970 the FBI notoriously placed her briefly on their Ten Most Wanted list after she was accused of being involved in the abortive attempt to free the ‘Soledad Brothers’ from a courtroom in Marin County, California; the gun used during the courthouse revolt was registered in Davis’s name. The subsequent police search, described in the opening paragraph, drove her into hiding and eventually culminated in one of the most famous trials in recent US history. Her 16 month incarceration was notable for the high-profile international ‘Free Angela’ campaign. She was released in 1972 after being acquitted of all charges.

A charismatic speaker, Davis continues to be a key force for political and social activism. Her prison experience had a lasting impact on her. She was overwhelmed by the solidarity her fellow prisoners had shown her and outraged by the often inhumane treatment meted out to them. Davis was also struck by the complex social structures created by the prisoners. The current research on kinship structures among the enslaved throws up some fascinating parallels with Davis’s encounters of jail kinship networks: ‘The extended kinship network played a particularly important role in helping slaves adapt to family breakup. Whenever children were sold to neighbouring plantations, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins often took on the function of parents. When blood relatives were not present, strangers cared for and protected children. Slave parents taught their children to call all adult slaves “aunt” or “uncle” and to refer to younger slaves as “sister” or “brother”. In this way slave culture taught young people that they were members of a broader community in which all slaves, whether related or not, had mutual obligations’.

Davis continues to be a leading campaigner for the reform of prisons, calling for the wider address of class, race and gender issues which have resulted in significant numbers of Blacks and Latinos being incarcerated. She points out that the U.S. spends more on prisons than on its educational institutions.

Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012)

Elizabeth Catlett was born in Washington DC in 1915. Her father died before she was born, and it was her mother, and Haley Douglass, a high school teacher and descendant of Frederick Douglass, who encouraged her to draw and sculpt. ‘From the time I was very small, like a lot of kids, I liked to draw.’ After graduating from High School, she attended Howard University because her initial choice, the Carnegie Institute, did not accept black students. At the Howard University, she became active in the anti-war and anti-fascist National Student League, participating in a strike against wars and fascism.

This activism was rekindled when, after graduating, Catlett started teaching at a high school in Durham and learnt that she was earning less than her white colleagues. She joined the North Carolina Teachers’ Association in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to equalise salaries for black faculty members. Finding that high school teaching was leaving her with too little time for her own practice as an artist, Catlett enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1940, becoming the first student there to earn an MFA in sculpture.

In 1955 Catlett was summoned to the US embassy, asked to write an affidavit about her political activities, and ordered to name the people with whom she had worked. Catlett, of course, refused. Four years later she was imprisoned as a ‘foreign agitator’ by the Mexican government. They had been colluding with the US government and deporting many US citizens living in Mexico who had been labelled ‘Communist’. It was this that compelled Catlett to seek Mexican citizenship, in order to avoid being thrown out of her adoptive country. She took up permanent residence in Mexico and immersed herself in its culture. She married the Mexican artist Francisco Mora in 1947 and became a citizen in 1962. Her work also began to reflect her strong identification with the Mexican people and the progressive Mexican art movement. However, she never lost sight of her African-American roots, which were to surface in an even more dominant manner, in the course of time.

‘Because I am a woman and know how a woman feels in body and mind, I sculpt, draw and print women, generally black women,’ Catlett says. ‘We can learn from black women…I feel that we have so much more to express and that we should demand to be heard and demand to be seen…’ Catlett’s women are strong, dynamic figures. While her work saluted black women who were historical figures, she also emphasised the extraordinariness of ordinary people. Her passionate dedication to the Black Liberation and Black Arts Movements was also clearly manifest in her work.

Bernard Dadiè (b. 1916)

Dadié was born in Assinie, Côte d’Ivoire, in 1916 and became playwright, novelist, poet, civil servant and politician. Dadié spent sixteen months in jail after the active engagement in the independent movement in 1949, documenting the experience in journals that were to be published 32 years later in 1981 as Carnets de prison (‘Prison Notebooks)’. The challenge Dadié issues to the West about its claim to be a ‘model’ civilisation, including its use of Christianity to pursue its own self-interest, have a continuing resonance. He felt that a truly humanist civilisation was one based on equality, not dominance. Prison could not cow Dadié or compromise his political and cultural vision. Within twelve years the tables were to be dramatically turned when, in 1961, Dadié became director of cultural affairs for the newly independent National Education Ministry. His life and works thus span colonialism, decolonisation and post colonialism.

Already known as a playwright in the West, he believed that because storytelling in Africa was based on oral performance it was inherently theatrical in nature. His plays range from popular farce, to satires of both Western manners and African political excesses, to historical tragedies like Les Voixdans le vent (Voices in the Wind) and fuse spoken word, dance, pantomime, and music in a uniquely African idiom. Dadié has made a seminal contribution to moulding the French language to articulate the African voice. The nature and content of African literature continue to be an ongoing preoccupation for Dadié. The many honours he has received include the French Légiond’honneur.

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Ida B. Wells & Chinua Achebe

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

Ida Wells was born enslaved in 1862, in Holy Springs, Mississippi. The family obtained their freedom a few year later in 1865 and her father became a member of the Loyal League (a local black political organisation) – his commitment to racial justice and political activism made a lasting impact on the younger Ida Wells. In her autobiography, Wells pinpoints the exact moment when she first began her fight for racial equality. She had been asked by the conductor on a train to give up the first class seat she had paid for and move to the carriage closer to the locomotive. She refused and this was followed be her forced removal; subsequently she sued the railway company, but this was overturned by the Supreme Court of Tennessee. The incident inspired her to write an article for The Living Way, a black church weekly, which kick-started her career as a journalist.

Wells began contributing a weekly column and rapidly made a name for herself. In 1889 she was offered the editorship of a small Memphis newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight. Her articles spoke directly to her readers because she spoke of events that affected them on a daily basis, such as the indignities heaped on black people by white racists. In 1891 she was fired from her teaching post at the school she worked at after criticising the Memphis School Board of Education for the way facilities and supplies available to African-American children were inferior to those offered to whites.

But what perhaps made Wells a formidable national force was her stance against lynching. Her articles and pamphlets highlighted the fact that many black people, especially men, were hung, shot and burned to death over such trivial issues such as disrespecting white people, testifying in court and public drunkenness. Her first pamphlet created such a furore that a mob broke into the office of her newspaper and destroyed her printing presses – they intended to lynch Wells as well, but luckily she was not present. Unable to return home, she settled in Chicago and began an anti-lynching lecture tour, throughout the north-east of America, as well as the United Kingdom. In 1901 she published her book, Lynching and the Excuse for It, in which she argues that the main aim of lynching was to intimidate black people from becoming involved in politics and therefore to maintain white power in the South.

Wells was also one of the founders of the National Association of the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909, then in 1910 she formed the Negro Fellowship League, a fellowship house for new settlers in the south that served as an employment office, homeless shelter and a religious centre. Three years later, she established the first black women’s suffrage club, called the Alpha Suffrage Club. When Ida Wells died in 1931, she left behind an extraordinary legacy of dedication to racial and gender equality. Her refusal to give up her train seat in 1884 would echo through time until, almost eighty years later, a similar protest by Rosa Parks helped launch the Civil Rights Movement.

Chinua Achebe (b. 1930)

Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor and critic and is the most translated African writer of all time, with his extraordinary first novel Things Fall Apart going on to sell over 8 million copies and has been translated into 50 languages. Things Fall Apart explores the conflict between European and African and is widely regarded as one of the most ground-breaking novels of the 20th century. Achebe has been cited as ‘the man who invented African literature’ – his writing was not a simple imitation of European forms, rather it fused such forms with oral tradition. His role in recognising and nurturing literary talent as General Editor of Heinemann’s African Writer Series (1962-72) provided a platform for some of Africa’s most important writers and brought African postcolonial literature to the attention of the rest of the world. It brought African postcolonial literature to the rest of world, and is said to have helped Mandela find his literary voice. During the Civil War in Nigeria (1967-70), Achebe and Okigbo set up the Citadel Press, whose main aim was to publish works by African writers for children and to encourage their exploration of oral traditions. Forced to flee the Nigerian Army, he travelled around Europe trying to gather support for Biafran secession from Nigeria, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Achebe returned to Nigeria in 1976, becoming involved in teaching at the University of Nigeria, editing the Okike literary journal and was also active in the left-leaning People’s Redemption Party. He moved the USA in 1990 after becoming partially disabled in a car accident and at a time when the political situation in Nigerian began to worsen again. He was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2007. Achebe believes literature had the power to perform wonders, by allowing us to identify with situations and people far away.

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