Before there was a Malcolm X, a Kwame Nkrumah, a Marcus Garvey, or a George Padmore, there was Edward Wilmot Blyden, the Father of Pan Africanism.
Edward Wilmot Blyden was born in 1832 in the territories now known as the Virgin Islands. Like most Black men of his day, Blyden’s parents were slaves and descendants of Nigeria’s Nri Kingdom.
From a young age, Blyden demonstrated exceptional intelligence, and by the age of 18, he was prepared for college.
Many of us who come into Pan-Africanism do so beacuse we come to a gradual realization that we were born into a system that was not organized for our benefit. The same could be said of Edward Blyden. When Blyden arrived in the United States to attempt to enroll in Rutgers Theological College, he was denied admission based on race – an event that would change Blyden’ s life forever. Rather than endure the horrors of America during the 1850s, Blyden joined thousands of other Black AMericans in moving to the newly established Republic of Liberia. Liberia was then one of only two modern countries in Sub-Saharan Africa without roots in the European colonization of Africa, and was created as a direct result of the Back to Africa Movement.
Shortly after his arrival, Blyden was introduced and married to the niece of Liberia’s Vice President, Hilary Yates, giving him inside access to African politics.
At the ripe old age of 30, Blyden was appointed professor of classics at the newly opened Liberia College, a position he held until 1871. Although Blyden was self-taught after high school, he became ‘an able linguist, classicist, theologian, historian, and sociologist.’ according to biographical references.
From 1871 until 1873, Blyden spent an increasing amount of time in neighboring Sierra Leone as the editor of the world’s first Pan-African magazine titled Negro. This first foray into journalism inspired further writings of genius. ”…Blyden, while in Lagos, wrote regularly for the Lagos Weekly Record, one of the earliest propagators of Nigerian and West African nationalism.
He also operated in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he helped to edit the Sierra Leone News, which he had assisted in founding in 1884 ‘to serve the interests of West Africa…and the [black] race generally.’ He also helped to found and edit there, the Freetown West African Reporter (1874-1882), whose declared aim was, even in those early years, to forge a bond of unity among English-speaking West Africans.” – Source
Blyden would call Liberia his home for the next 30 years, and there he would become a successful Presbyterian minister, a newspaper editor, a renowned professor of classics, Ambassador to Great Britain, Minister of the Interior, Secretary of State, and a Presidential candidate in 1885.
Although Blyden had been raised in the white Christian Presbyterian church, by 1886 he had completely renounced Christianity and had converted to Islam. The following year, he published his treatise, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. In it, Blyden offered a wealth of thought on the reasons Islam was more suited to the needs of Black folk than Christianity. The book was immediately hailed as a masterful achievement, and is still in print and circulation today. According to Blyden, Christianity demoralised Blacks,whereas Islam was ‘a unifying and elevating influence’.
By then, Blyden had left his home in Liberia to spread his message to the neighboring country of Sierra Leone, holding debates among the indigenous communities that were at risk of being “whitewashed” . He warned them that they had been “de-Africanised “, and to always that “you are Africans”. In Liberia, Blyden had taken on the mantle of state work, but in Sierra Leone, he was free to become the activist that he would become known as.
There were three primary areas that Blyden
1. Complete autonomy from White culture, colonialism, and religious influence.
2. The establishment of a major, single, modern African state, which would protect and promote the interests of peoples of African descent everywhere.
3. The complete adoption of the African personality, including the Islamic faith, in place of Eurocentric mimicry.
Such was is dedication to Islam, African culture, and Pan-African thought, that in 1901, Sierra Leone awarded him with the position of Director of Muslim Education – a billet that he would hold for 5 years. With his position came the responsibility of teaching English to Muslim youths, bridging the divide between Muslims and Christians in Africa, and establishing a harmonious co-existence.
The works of Blyden had a deep, long-lasting impact on one of the greatest Trinidadian journalists to ever live, George Padmore. Padmore, along with men like Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, the Ghana’sKwame Nkrumah and South Africa’s Peter Abrahams—saw publishing as a strategy for political change, and based much of their work on those of Blyden. Blydens lessons were not lost on the founder of The Negro World, Marcus Garvey either.
Blyden died in Freetown on 7 February1912, at the age of 82. He still has surviving family members in Sierra Leone, who commemorate his anniversary each year.
Today, Blyden’s name is all but forgotten. In celebrating Black History Month, we should remember that it was Blyden who most profoundly impacted men like Carter G. Woodson!
To learn more, click any of the links below to purchase his works. Experience for yourself why this man is the Father of Pan-Africanism!