“I stood alone on the veranda of the Villa Silla, looking out into the dark night. Around me grew the rich, tropical vegetation, and below the waves of the Atlantic Ocean lapped against the coast. The night was still.
I wonder if my ancestors had come from this land.
I wondered if they had been chained in the bowels of some slave ship docked on this coast.
I wondered if they have been taken from here to be stood on the selling block in some town of the Americas and with auctioned off like animals.
I wonder how many of them had died in the long, brutal passage across that ocean out there.
I wondered what their names had been, how they looked, whether they had revolted against enslavement- or perhaps killed themselves rather than accept a life in chains.
The entire panorama of slavery swept before me as I stood on that balcony above the ocean. The long years of monstrous slavery, the hope of freedom, the Ku Klux Klan, the Mississippi Convention of 1890 which began the legal “reenslavement” of black people, the migration to Northern cities from the South, the Brown decision of 1954 that ordered desegregation of the schools, Montgomery, Raleigh, the sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides, McComb, and Atlantic City- all filled my mind in the same moment. A thousand names and dates and images swirled through my head, blending together in a single horrendous truth. They were all part of a historical process, the life of a people separated from their homeland.
This was Mother Africa can. We belonged here. This was our home. In the United States, we were strangers in a foreign land. We were separated from our people. We belonged here in Mother Africa, helping to build the continent of our brothers and sisters.
And then I thought of the millions of black people in the United States who could never get to Africa, whose lives were locked in the daily grind of racist poverty. We had to stay there and struggling inside the United States. We had to make a revolution to end the racism, the poverty, the crushing of our dignity.
But the choice came hard.
We were in Conakry, Guinea-10 of SNCC’s officers and staff Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. The trip will been proposed by Harry Belafonte when he came to Greenwood, Mississippi, and he also was in Guinea now with his family and members of a dance troupe that he had organized. His proposal had led to much discussion, for there were many people who want today join this first trip by SNCC to Africa. It had finally been decided that the following veteran workers would go: John Lewis, Bob Moses and his wife Dona, Julian Bond, Ruby Doris Robinson, Donald Harris, William Hansen, Prathia Hall, Matthew Jones (representing the “Freedom Singers”), and I. We had arrived at the beginning of September, 1964, planning to stay about 3 weeks.
As guests of the government, we were extended every courtesy. Comfortable living quarters and two cars were put at our disposal. But these physical conveniences did not explain the sense of well-being that filled all of us. The real reason was that we had come from several years of intense struggle to this place where there were no sheriffs to dread, no Klan breathing down your neck, no climate of constant repression. We had come from years of living as blacks in an e-mail white world to this land of black people with black socialist rulers. We could relax at last. In the group we often talked about the tremendous pleasure of just being able to go to sleep at night without listening to every noise outside, worrying about bombings or armed attacks.
The pleasure of Mrs. Hamerin this trip was a pleasure for all the rest of us to see. She had traveled outside her home state very little and was exceptionally thrilled by everything in Guinea. President Sekou Toure sometimes came by the house where we stayed, and Mrs. Hamer always said, “imagine the president coming to see us, when in the United States we couldn’t even go to see the president.” Today, Mrs. Hamer still talks about the psychological importance of black people from the United States visiting black countries where blacks run the government, industry, everything.
We felt particularly glad to be visiting Guinea, whose people and leaders deserve great respect. This small nation had seed to be a French colony under the most difficult circumstances. In 1958 the government headed by President de Gaulle of France conducted a referendum asking each French colony (they are now called departments of France) if it want today remain under French rules- or not. This was no generous gesture by the so-called mother country, but an action forced on France by the Algerian War and the possibility of more Algerias. Only Guinea voted against remaining under France, and thus it became the second independent African nation. But when the French colonialists left, they took everything with them- even ripping out telephones in some cases. The Guineans had to start from scratch in every area of national life- and they survived.
Since that time, guinea had declared itself a socialist country but nonaligned internationally. Our group saw these principles in action. We attended the opening of a new stadium on Guinea’s Independence Day, October 2- a stadium built with the help of the Soviet Union. We visited the Patrice Lumumba printing plant, built with the help of the German Democratic Republic. And a match factory opened while we were there, built by the Chinese. We read Guinea’s newspaper and were struck by the fact that African news, of a political nature, dominated its pages- not news about France or any other foreign country, and not accidents, scandals, murder. We learned about Guinea’s one-party system and how it was organized, and did not regret the system of the United States with its fraudulent pretense of difference between the two parties. We saw a people working 18 hours a day to build their nation and keep it afloat. Socialism made radiateth great sense for Africa, with its indigenous communal traditions and values that side, if one can eat, then none should starve.
In a hundred ways guinea represented to us the antithesis of everything to which we had been exposed in the United States.
The trip was not as fruitful as it might have been in terms of political discussions, nor were we able to travel in the countryside as much as weld have liked. For one thing, our group was too large for good talks- I realized on this trip that three is the maximum number of people for a delegation that seeks to hold serious, intensive discussion. Also, as I recall, the General Council of Guinea was meeting then and many officials were tide up. But most importantly, a series of Cultural Competitions was in progress- nightly performances of Guinean dance, theater, music which kept many people in the capital busy. The fact that President Sekou Toure attended every performance himself from 8:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. indicated the political importance attached to these events. They represented a new society being built and the important role of youth in that process.
The culture competitions formed a major step in the decolonization process. In a conversion with Diallo Alpha, director general of the Ministry of Information and Tourism, we learned just what the process meant for Guineans. Diallo told us that when he attended school, under French rule, students were taught that they were descendants of the Gauls- that their ancestors had blue eyes. When he later went off to school in Paris, he learned the names of all the rivers and towns of France- but knew very little about the geography of Guinea. The Guineans had to win back their identity. Diallo also told us about a day when President Toure came to Guinea’s state-owned radio station. He called the staff together and said that music foreign to Africa could not go on Radio Guinea from that moment on. And it did not.
Our group spent its time resting, reading socialist literature (for the first time in most cases), talking among ourselves, attending the Cultural Competitions and occasionally meeting with officials. We had several talks with President Toure, a man with many important political ideas. He has given much attention to the internal development of Guinea’s political party, the PDG (Democratic Party of Guinea), and in particular to how to develop political consciousness among the people.
I was impressed by his emphasis on leadership and organization, especially his statement that careful attention must be given to the selection of ladders because the people judge an organization by them. Later, in SNCC, I would push for open discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of various candidates for office- particularly the chairman. But this would be resisted strongly and SNCC would continue in several important cases to choose its officers more on the basis of personality than on careful examination of good and bad qualities.
The concept of criticism and self-criticism was not new to me as an idea. I had always believed in analysis of an organization’s actions, including analysis of one’s own mistakes. Only in this way are mistakes not repeated, conflicts resolved, and steady growth possible. But the trip to Guinea advanced my ideas about this process. Sekou Toure emphasized the need for people to examine the good and bad aspects of not only the party’s section ladders but officials all the way to the top. The president, he maintained, must be criticized by the base and the base must have the strength to do it. I felt the truth of this have acutely, for I was aware of conflicts in SNCC which had been submerged for various reasons- and they included disagreement about my own role.
On one occasion we asked President Toure if he wished to say anything about our struggle in the United States. In that talk, he emphasized the need for political consciousness, good organization, and the correct analysis of our problems as black people in the United States. “It is fundamental that you see the problem as exploitation,” he said. “While you should speak to black people first of all, it is the entire community that must be liberated.” Later in SNCC, and throughout my experiences in the black struggle, I would recall these remarks of Sekou Toure. Ruby Doris Robinson and I would fight vigorously for an understanding of economic exploitation- not merely race- as part of the problems that black people faced. Unfortunately this concept would never be debated in an orderly fashion in the discussion about direction that would later come in SNCC.
I kept a long diary of our visit to Guinea, which formed the basis of a report I would later present to say SNCC staff meeting. The trip for me was a culmination of my life in several ways. Africa as a black continent, as our homeland, had always been on my mind. I had also dreamed for years of helping to build an organization to achieve pop power in the United States and then to relate it with one or more African countries for common revolutionary purposes. My African studies and the energy expended on learning French, which I did to be able to communicate better with Africans, were now being justified. All sorts of plans and activities whose purpose had once been abstract in a certain sense, were taking on concrete reality. My political and historical convictions about the importance of Africa to black people in the United States had become a living experience.
My mind was full of ideas and enthusiasm for formalizing and expanding this first link between SNCC, a base of black resistance in the United States, and the African struggle for total independence. It was imperative, I felt, that SNCC create an African bureau- something we should have done immediately after this trip but did not. Our trip was one of the first organized, group visits to Africa by members of a civil rights organization and, therefore, rather widely reported in the African press. We could extend our relations in Africa with more of such trips, I felt.” -From, “The Makings Of Black Revolutionaries” By: James Forman