By FELICITY DARVILLE
August is the month that commemorates the emancipation of Africans in the Western world. The people of the Rastafari movement never let Emancipation Day pass without impassioned calls for the freedom, redemption and repatriation of African descendants throughout the Diaspora. It has been decades since the calls first began.
In The Bahamas, Priest Philip Blyden is among those leaders who have paved the way and set a foundation for those who seek to better understand themselves, Pan Africanism and the Rastafari movement. He is literally a walking history book, well versed in African, Caribbean and Bahamian history. He is a priest of the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress (EABIC); Chairman of the House of Rastafari (HOR) inter-mansion group; an art, craft and creative design teacher at Akhepran International Academy; a skilled contractor and a father and grandfather.
The current pandemic caused the Rastas to decide not to march on the streets for their right to be heard and heeded this Emancipation Day, as they have done year after year. However, the priest affectionately referred to as “Blyden” wants people to know the current state of affairs in terms of systemic racism - and even the health crisis being battled globally - are all signs of things long foretold by the Rastafari movement and that now, more than ever, African descendants must rise and pull together for their survival and success.
Blyden was born and bred in Bain Town, Nassau. His mother was Jane Whymns, a straw vendor who had a very strong bond to her faith and served as an usher at Transfiguration Baptist Church. His father was Joseph Blyden Jr. He was a Sergeant in the British Legion, banquet manager, hotel and catering teacher and a taxi driver.
Blyden’s great-granduncle was Dr Edward Wilmott Blyden, a pioneer in the African Nationalist movement. He was also noted as one of the grandfathers of Pan African ideology. He left his native St Thomas to go to school in the US, but this was a period right after Emancipation. He was a Presbyterian preacher but he still had to lay low as even free blacks were susceptible to being kidnapped and sold back into slavery. He made the decision to take a boat to Liberia and there, he flourished, and he became the Dean of the University. Today, his legacy is one that Rastas seek to follow – to return to Africa and help build up a rich continent that their ancestors were stolen from.
Blyden remembers the Bain Town community in the 1960s as being “perfect” in terms of being a community built on African ideals. People were loving and principled and lots of African customs prevailed. The community raised the child. They saved together and formed Asues. They used plants for food and medicinal remedies. They had societies to strengthen their bond.
Blyden says the community members had everything they needed, although they were poor and being rich in love and spirit made all the difference. He recalls when those communities in the inner cities of New Providence began to disintegrate and were replaced with the concept of “ghettoes”. Before this time, Bahamians were proud people who were working together to rise above their circumstances. Colonialism thrived, but the community, or village, as he calls it, allowed African descendants to have their safe place. They were tight knit, and “cleanliness, morality and ethics were the order of the day”.
It was in that community that Blyden began to awaken to his African identity at a young age. “At seven-years-old I had an odd experience when I coloured Christ brown and faced being ostracised from the other children in summer camp at church,” he recalled. “A few months later while at home, I drew a portrait of Christ as a black man. This stirred up a lot of controversy in my family. I was taken before the elders, including my paternal grandmother who at the time was a matriarch of Bethel Baptist Church. The ordeal was long and drawn out, one of mixed opinions. They contended that one must not play with God. The Elders would keep a watchful eye on me. There were European Renaissance paintings, prints and similar posters everywhere in the churches, public spaces and accompanying illustrations in literature, always portraying biblical characters as Europeans, via Greco-Roman iconography.”
The watchful eye of elders could ensure the young Philip’s safety but could not fetter his mind, which continued to blossom into vivid enthusiasm for the continent of his ancestors and the rich history and culture it holds. The more he studied, read and watched his environment, the deeper his river ran until he became a wellspring of African knowledge, and he gradually progressed to becoming a fire starter in the Rastafari movement.
“It was a joy to hear the early Rastafari pioneers who frequented the community like Ras Michael, “Fly” Major and Ras John Brown preaching and teaching of a black God,” Blyden recalls.
“Many parents were adamantly opposed to their doctrine and discouraged them from coming around, yet I knew the early ‘black heart’ man had truths and the missing part of our glory that parents nor history teachers could tell us.
“As time went on, I witnessed the changing of the political guard. Majority Rule was ushered in of course with help of the grass root masses. Labour Unionists like Sir Randol Fawkes rose. My mother played an active role in the Native Straw Vendors Union and the Baptist Church was a catalyst to this end. I remember when Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel in the late 1960s performed here during this era of social transformation. She gave an inspirational performance at the Southern Recreation Grounds in The Gazebo House (the same place where Marcus Garvey addressed the African masses 40 years earlier). She was in the presence of Baptist ministers like Rev Dr HW Brown and others. The political socio-economic landscape slowly began to change.
“As the years passed on, the rise of socialism touched the village. Mr Lionel Carey and Mr Lesley Campbell made their rounds on Saturdays without fail, dressed in African Dashikis and kakhis or jeans. Notwithstanding, socialism was generally tabooed and rejected by a westernised society. However, their literature was compelling to read. Besides the leftist ideology and mainstream black international characters one would read about in conventional Afrocentric tabloids like Jet and Ebony. There’s one name that stood out - Dr Edward Wilmot Blyden. The quest for knowledge inspired me and lead me to research more about The Pan African Movement.
“From that point, my perspective was enlightening so it was easier to make the connection between Pioneers Drum and Bugle Corp (UNIA-ACL Youth group). Pre-independence, they dressed in red, black and green and waved Marcus Garvey’s UNIA-ACL African Liberation, Redemption and sovereign banner. Also The Bahamas National Cadets who proudly wore red, gold, green and black, the Ethiopian sovereign banner. These two groups were organised by Dr Dame Doris Johnson and Mr Kermit Ford. The new Bahamas was born in the ideology of Marcus Garvey who was inspired by Bahamian, Dr Joseph Robert Love, the first African Nationalist pan-Africanist Patron Saint unsung.
“Yet despite these very rich historical records, somehow the old guard of colonialism was able to convince political leaders that an African Liberation/ Redemption identity and ideology would drive their tourism demigod away. On the contrary, many visitors are often disappointed when they weren’t able to experience a part of the African Liberation journey here in The Bahamas. Meanwhile, our regional neighbours to the south were able to see record levels soaring in their economy.”
While working in Guadeloupe in 1979, Blyden took a few books with him, among them was ‘Black Skin, White Mask’ by Frantz Fanon. He was still on a quest for knowledge of self. The Caribbean region was budding in colonial resistance and Rastafari was at the forefront. Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada were “at the pinnacle of Black Power and socio-economics”. Blyden says the Rastafari community in Grenada assisted Maurice Bishop win the elections and he in turn locked them up. Dominica was bustling with Rastafari people and Eugenia Charles had a bounty on Rastas in the hills. Every where Rastafari prospered they were hunted, tortured, oppressed and imprisoned, Blyden says.
“I returned to Nassau on November 15, 1979 not knowing that Bob Marley was performing here,” Blyden shared.
“I noticed a surging increase of Rastafari numbers, so we formed study groups and made arts and crafts, Rastafari icons, cultural T-shirts and the like. As time went by in the 1980’s, the African village that we once knew (in the inner cities) was almost gone. By 1988 while involved in a Rastafari Inter-mansion group King of Kings Missionary Movement, I was asked to assist organising a platform of unity, fellowship, fundraising and a Human Rights Drive. As the group dissolved, it was decided that funds that were raised go to the EABIC at the headquarters in Bull Bay, St Andrew, Jamaica.”
Blyden found that the EABIC church, the Bobo Shanti, were in the mountains in Jamaica living the lifestyle of the African village he grew up in and yearned for. He met King Emmanuel Charles Edwards, their leader, who encouraged him on a righteous path. Over the years, Blyden would be a part of delegations that would agitate to the government, make presentations at the House of Assembly and the Senate in Nassau, meet with the Governor General, and urge the press to document their mission. He was one of the first Rastas to live at the camp on Fire Trail Road East, which is now the home of the EABIC Bahamas Branch.
“We call for freedom, redemption and international repatriation to Africa with universal reparations and compensation for the survivors of the African holocaust (trans-Atlantic slave trade),” he said.
“This was the mandate and resolution that was agreed on at the Nyahbinghi Seminar Conference called to order by then Prince Emanuel on March 1, 1958 in Jamaica when all Mansions of Rastafari and pan-African activists convened and agreed to agitate people to people and government to government. Now today, Africans are repatriating to Africa from the all over the diaspora. The healing cannabis plant (ganja) that we were persecuted and oppressed for is worth billions of dollars on the stock market today. Not one word of Marcus Garvey, Dada Emanuel and King Selassie I have failed or become fruitless. As their messenger, I am fulfilled in delivering the message people to people, government to government through the divine powers of Qedamwi Haile Selassie and Empress Menen.”