HEAVEN ON EARTH
For the past century, the dream of Pan-Africanism has captivated the global consciousness, inspiring black leaders from Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to advocate for a collective self-reliance that would restore to Africa and its peoples all that has been usurped through systems of colonialism, slavery, and racism over the past 500 years. The Pan-African philosophy is an inclusive approach that brings together the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of black cultures on the continent and across the diaspora, aiming to forge new canons of history, spirituality, politics, the arts, and science. A utopian vision with mass appeal, Pan-Africanism was recently popularized once again with the glittering image of Wakanda in the blockbuster film Black Panther. But one does not need to go to Disney World to discover Pan-Africanism realized on Earth. In January 1977, some 16,000 people from 56 nations across Africa and the diaspora descended upon Lagos, Nigeria, to attend FESTAC ’77: the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture.
As Miss Rosen explores in her new piece, “For Howard University student Calvin Reid, FESTAC ’77 was an historic return to the Motherland. As a legacy student at Washington D.C.’s premier Historically Black University, Reid described his life growing up as “virtually a Pan-African ideal. I’m the son of a Jamaican West Indian immigrant, two of my black American aunts married Howard University African students (one from Sierra Leone and another from Liberia) and for stretches, we all lived together in my grandmother's big row house in Washington D.C. The African diaspora was not just words in a book to me; these were real places occupied by real people that I knew, lived with and related to." READ MORE HERE
In the mid 1970’s, Reid began working as photo editor for The Hilltop, the weekly student newspaper at Howard. “I started taking photography and became consumed by it,” recalls Reid, a self-described “jazz head” and fine arts major who studied under AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) principal Jeff Donaldson, Chair of the Howard University Department of Art. Formed in Chicago in 1968, AfriCOBRA is one of the longest continually active artist collectives in Western Art History and an integral part of the Black Arts Movement in America. Donaldson, a visual artist, headed the North American Committee for FESTAC, presiding over a contingent of 444 American artists, writers, musicians, scholars, and activists. Among those who traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to present their work were visual artists Faith Ringgold, Barkley L. Hendricks, and Betye Saar; writer Audre Lorde; and musicians Stevie Wonder, Donald Byrd, and Sun Ra.
In other words, the whole operation was emanating from a lot of the professors at Howard University. "FESTAC was a big deal on campus. The editors at The Hilltop became very serious about the news coverage of it. They wanted to send a [student] photographer and reporter named Vance Hawthorne. So we sat down with the editors, came up with a budget, and they would fund our trip. We were there for three and a half weeks,” Reid says. “Returning to Africa was an object lesson. We were living out our Pan-African dream, and seeing people work together for a united future aimed at establishing agency and identity while challenging white supremacy. But doing it in the most positive way: by linking together with common goals and a sense of common ancestry to create a future of Black Empowerment.”
Gathering together black folk from every continent, FESTAC ’77 was described as a “family reunion” by Ebony magazine. Embracing the ideals of Pan-Africanism, the Negritude movement, and the Harlem Renaissance, FESTAC ’77 continued in the tradition that had been set forth by the first edition, held in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966. But flush with new-found oil wealth, this new iteration took the symposium to majestic heights. In the wake of black liberation movements that had swept the globe, the Nigerian government spent 400 million dollars ($1.65 billion today) to mount this ambitious event, presenting the nation as the powerhouse of Africa—while establishing solidarity with the ongoing efforts for freedom in South Africa and Namibia. “There was some skepticism whether the Nigerians could pull off the intricacies of mounting a multi-national performance,” Reid recalls. “They created an odd/even day for license plates so you could only drive your car on alternating days and not spend most of the day sitting in a traffic jam.” READ MORE HERE
Reid and Hawthorne decided to stay with a Howard alumnus nicknamed "Cincinnati" (in reference to his Ohio hometown) who had relocated there to teach at the University of Lagos. Cincinnati owned both a car and a motorcycle, with odd and even tags, and was able to provide the reporters with transportation to and from FESTAC every day of the week. “Some days I rode through the city on the back of his motorcycle through this ocean of colorful, extraordinary humanity. The streets are filled with Western and traditional African dress. It was dazzling,” Reid remembers. “It was a Wakanda moment in the 1970’s. There was a combination of super technological modernity and almost rural underdevelopment. Lagos was a towering African city but it was also village-like sections that were a throwback to another time. There were market women with massive loads on their head, dirty roads, open sewers, skyscrapers, traffic, and jam packed with people. It was a striking mixture of modern and retro, which was incredibly startling. But “to set foot on the African continent was very special. This was our return. I feel very fortunate to have been there, to know this was cool, and to have gotten the pictures,” Reid says. “Every prominent individual in Black intellectual life was involved in this historic effort to show off the global influence of African culture.”
Documentary photographer Marilyn Nance, who went as official photographer for the North American delegation and acts as the guardian of all things FESTAC '77 understands the importance of unearthing the visual evidence of this almost seemingly fictional event. “I’m so glad that Calvin was also there to document,” she says, “because I only found out about him while I was doing some research and discovered a great interview he did with artist Terry Adkins, who also came out of D.C. and Howard. All of the sudden Calvin started talking about how he had photographed FESTAC. I think he and I are about the same age and I didn’t know him but I did know his wife, artist Jody Culkin, we actually went to school together. He finally came over to my studio and showed some of his work. It all had been sitting in a closet somewhere and he said “ok you're going to make me take this stuff out!” and he started scanning and archiving because I nudged him do that!"
Astonishingly, when you do see the pictures, it doesn’t look real, “and that’s part of the problem, it was almost too futuristic!” Marilyn remarked. “But it actually happened! It was almost 43 years ago, and think the fact that we hung on to this stuff for so long is really the story. I think the fact that we haven’t heard from Calvin about this until now, we should ask “how come no one knows that this happened in 1977?” It was so powerful for people from across the world to get together and organize together and perform together and live together, [black] people from different countries all over the world. It felt like the powers that be almost didn’t want anybody to know about it. The idea that you could for instance talk to someone from Zambia, black people from Sweden, share arts and ideas—we didn’t have the internet then. Now with the tech we have, it could be a moment to finally say that it happened. When I talked about FESTAC, people just didn’t get it. Now they get it.”
“Calvin and I were some of the younger people that were there, just students. The grown ups that were there are now at least 90-100 years old. One of the oldest living musicians who performed at FESTAC was Nadi Qamar, who turned 100 a couple of years ago, and those artists aren't on today’s digital platforms. But the young folks ARE interested in having something like FESTAC happen, as if it never happened before. FESTAC itself is now spoken about in an almost Afro-Futuristic sense, but it’s actually the Pan-African past. There are just so many things that happened on the African continent that people don’t believe are real. People want to think of Africa as backwards, but it was just so forward that Western people couldn’t even conceive of it. There were so many things like that coming out of Africa, and one of them was FESTAC—and that’s recent history, yet people don’t believe it happened. Everything the Dogon People had said about constellations is forgotten, yet everything comes out of Africa. They just can’t see it, and therefor they don’t believe it even when they see it. Hopefully one day nobody will say, "what is FESTAC?”"
all photographs courtesy of Calvin Reid
SPACE IS THE PLACE
And nobody personifies the dichotomy between Afrofuturism and the Pan-African past more than Sun Ra. He can be hard to define—he was an innovative jazz composer, piano and synthesizer player, musical genius, poet, and in many ways, an activist. But way before he became Sun Ra, he was born Herman Poole Blount in a racially segregated Alabama in the ’20’s. Though he was already composing music around age 11, his life on earth was relatively normal until the outset of World War II when he refused to be drafted and became one of the first black men arrested and thrown in jail due to his pacifism. Along with his passion for music, Sun Ra had always found an escape from his reality through reading science fiction novels, the Bible, Egyptian and Armenian mythology.
Around 1937, he had what he thought of as an epiphany, though some might call it a break with reality: he believes he was abducted and taken to Saturn and met aliens who forewarned him of an impending doom happening on Earth. They advised him to warn everyone through his music, he “would speak, and the world would listen”. And so, he did. He was dedicated to using his “space music” to make a better life for black people on earth. From that point on, he saw himself as truly being “born” that day and Saturn being his home planet—he was now simply an angel hailing from Saturn. By the 1950's he went on to form the Intergalactic Arkestra, and the rest is Afrofuturist history. This can all be written off as cooky and insane, of course, but the thing is, Sun Ra’s vision and music made an unwavering mark in cultural history that cannot be argued against or written off.
He melded together ancient Egyptian aesthetics with futuristic realms to create the foundation, sounds, and look of what is now called Afrofuturism—the reimagining of the African diaspora through a black, futuristic lens. And although the term came after Sun Ra’s time, he is still thought of as the father of it. Afrofuturism continues to find its way into pop culture, through artists like Outkast, Deltron 3030, Sonic Youth, Janelle Monáe, and most recently, Solange. He took jazz and turned it into something supersonic. With nearly two hundred albums released over his lifetime, the amount of sound was truly out of this world. It had everything from abstract noise mixed with doo-wop to loud heavy jazz combined with rhythmic chants. In his book, A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism, Paul Youngquist argued that through his talk of alien abduction Sun Ra “retells the whole harrowing history of African slavery… the slave ships of the Middle Passage were the first alien motherships. Alien abduction assimilates a three-hundred-year history of subjugation to futuristic images of flying saucers and spacemen.”
Sun Ra created an astro-black mythology that was a response to the state of culture on earth at the time. He truly saw himself as someone from another planet and was desperate to give new vision, more vibration, and a reimagined political activism that used pop culture to create real change, right here, on this earth. Sun Ra wanted to wholly transform society into a more creative, just, and beautiful world. And he did so for many people, especially those lucky enough to see him at FESTAC.