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Tuesday 21 January 2020
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George Padmore, force of nature

Culture Matters

Emancipation Series:

The Pan Africanists

“A journalist, radical activist, and theoretician, George Padmore did more than perhaps any other single individual to shape the theory and discourse of Pan-African anti-imperialism in the first half of the twentieth century.”

– D Salter, 2007

HE LIVED through two world wars, left the prestigious Howard Law School to pursue his political causes, and became an avid proponent of communist ideology. He worked in Moscow in a very senior position with the communist regime, publishing articles on the condition of African workers.

As CLR James commented, Padmore “was the biggest black man in Moscow, dealing with black people and the colonial revolution.”

Padmore was the main organiser behind the post-World War II Pan African conference in the UK. He served as a principal adviser to Kwame Nkrumah, president of a newly independent Ghana. His writings were published globally, from the US to UK, Africa and the Caribbean. In short, George Padmore, born and raised in Trinidad, was a force of nature.

By 1901, the year of his birth, the brutal system of legalised enslavement had been abolished for just about 60 years. As the 20th century emerged, the intellectual activism of people of African heritage focused on liberation from colonialism. Caribbean writers such as George Lamming of Barbados, Samuel Selvon of TT and Frantz Fanon of Martinique exposed the persistent effects of enslavement and colonialism on people of the African diaspora.

At the same time, their powerful literary offerings encapsulated the hopes and aspirations of Caribbean people. These included Lamming’s in the Castle of My Skin, Selvon’s Lonely Londoners and Fanon’s Black Skin’s White Masks and A Dying Colonialism.

Padmore was born Malcolm Nurse to a black middle class family in Arouca. It is said his father was a “schoolmaster, entomologist and agricultural instructor.” He went to St Mary’s College and was friends with CLR James. What would the brilliant Padmore and James have talked about?

Not surprisingly, they questioned the system that educated them. CLR recalls that their lessons about Africa centred on “how backward they were and how beneficial the British invasion of Africa was and the slave trade was not so bad because it brought backward people in touch with civilisation and taught them Christianity.”

When Nurse became involved with the communist movement, he assumed the name George Padmore. His discourse on race and imperialism saw him rise very quickly. He would no doubt have been influenced by the work of other anti-colonialism activists. From the Caribbean, voices such as Amy Ashwood Garvey (Marcus Garvey’s first wife) emerged.

They took the fight for an end to colonialism to the UK and other parts of Europe. They mobilised, organised meetings and printed ideological pamphlets, always with a focus on African liberation.

African American WE Du Bois was an enormous influence on Padmore and the anti-colonial movement as a whole. It is astonishing to see the exchange of manual type-written letters between Padmore and DuBois from the 1950s. Their content gives a sense of the danger that Padmore and others involved in the struggle constantly faced.

In one letter, Padmore says, “Mail is always watched from the original sources, which makes it extremely difficult to get news directly, and the censorship of news presents the same difficulty indirectly.”

It is clear Du Bois had resigned himself to the consequences of the path he walked, saying, “I sincerely hope that a Sixth Pan-African Congress can be held soon. Of course, in all probability I will be unable to get a passport to attend, although I will try.”

By the time that letter was written, Padmore was in Ghana advising Nkrumah. Du Bois cautioned him about the dangers of allowing “British and especially American capital” to become too deeply embedded in the running of the country. Padmore had also long rejected communism ideology after the Communist Party refused to continue agitating against the imperialist policies of Britain and France.

The rise of Hitler in the 1930s meant that the Communist Party preferred to focus instead on “Fascist imperialists, Italy, Germany and Japan.” But Padmore’s main concern was the liberation of African and Caribbean countries from colonial rule, so he left the party and that ideology behind.

George Padmore joined the ancestral realm two years before he turned 60 due to illness. The movement he worked tirelessly to build influenced the independence of some 30 African nations after Ghana became the first in 1957. Truly a national hero and trailblazer. Truly a force of nature.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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