JAMES EMMAN KWEGYIR AGGREY
It is extraordinary the impact James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey, better known as “Aggrey of Africa”, had in South Africa on his arrival in 1921 as part of the American delegation of the Phelps-Stokes Commission. He was to spent three months in the country. One specific aim of the Commission was to help bring about better and harmonious racial relations between Africans and Europeans, as well as to examine the conditions and opportunities of education among Africans. His arrival was opportune because South Africa was profoundly preoccupied with constructing modernity. Being a Ghanian, who had studied and lived in United States for twenty-two years before his visit, Aggrey epitomized to New African intellectuals such as H. I. E. Dhlomo, H. Selby Msimang, Abdullah Abdurahman and others, the absolute blending of New Negroism and New Africanism. He exemplified what the New Africans in South Africa were striving for: the harmonious admixture of the New African and the New Negro. Aggrey seems to have symbolically represented this historical wish and desire in the imagination of the New Africans. This explains the spectacular deference that nearly all the New African intellectuals and political leaders showed to Aggrey. Towards the end of Aggrey’s three-month mission in South Africa, D. D. T. Jabavu sketched a brilliant political and intellectual portrait of him which originally appeared in two American journals, The New York Age and The Star of Zion, and was subsequently re-printed in Imvo Zabantsundu: “South Africa is a land that literally bristles with problems, racial, social, political and economic. . . . Now, Dr. Aggrey, a Native of the Gold Coast, trained in England and America, has in some respects shown in a series of closely reasoned lectures (lately delivered in Cape Town, Victoria East, King William’s Town, Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, Queenstown, East London, Durban, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Umtata and various other districts of the Transvaal, The Orange Free State, Natal and Transkei) more than any other casual visitor to this land how this inter-racial comity may be composed. . . . Of African origin he is a man of medium stature, of jet black hue, whose conversation is characterised by a simplicity and colloquiality agreeably homely for a scholar of his intellectual caliber. We have been highly impressed by his severely practical views as an educationist, his achievement in work of social uplift, and the gospel of self-help that he preached with telling confidence and persuasive eloquence. I was privileged to be closely associated with him in part of his travel in my district and was thus enabled to study at first hand his caprivating personality and his versatility as a public speaker. He gave addresses each of a distinct stamp to suit the occasion, all strictly practical, never nebulous but always to the point. He excelled in the art of concentrating his thought on one specific topic, and finally gathering up his argument, getting it home to the hearts of his bearers with Quintilian effect. His method of extempore speech, without the slightest note-paper for reference, invested his discourse with a genuineness that astonished his audience, compelling their admiration. Without doubt, he has done more than any other visitor I know of, in the brief space of time, to persuade people in our circumstances of the necessity of racial co-operation between white and black. . . . Certainly his talent for Logic and mastery of Crowd-Psychology, sharpened by University studies, made him more than a match in open public debate for the most hostile audiences of disgruntled opponents that he frequently encountered. His Christian humility and social social urbanity made him a central figure of admiration with all grades of society. His secret lies in his Christianity, . . . . “ (“Dr. J. E. Kwegyir Aggrey in South Africa”, Imvo Zabantsundu, June 7, 14, 1921). This obeisance to the Ghanian New Negro is all the more surprising because he does not seem to have been a major intellectual or artist or thinker. He exuded a deep belief in political liberalism. In some ways, he was a disciple of Booker T. Washington believing very strongly in accomodation to the hegemonic white status quo (whether majoritarian, as is the case in United States, or minoritarian, as was the case in South Africa) and reconciliation to the ruling order. Perhaps one his appeals to the New African middle class was his unwavering hostility to Garveyism. The middle class was confronted then by the emergence of peasant millenarian movements inspired by Garveyism which actually saw Marcus Garvey as a ‘Black Moses’ who must come and liberate the African people in South Africa from white oppression and domination. Perhaps these two reasons explain his appeal to the incipient middle class. It is not surprising therefore that the two leading New African newspapers, Ilanga lase Natal and Umteteli wa Bantu, extolled his visit and effect. Announcing the visit of James Aggrey, Umteteli wa Bantu quoted a portion of a talk he gave, which could be taken as his political credo of modernity: “I don’t care what you know; show me what you can do. Many of my people who get educated don’t work, but take to drink. They see white people drink, so they think they must drink too. They imitate the weakness of the white people, but not their greatness. They won’t imitate a white man working hard. . . . If you play only the white notes on a piano you get only sharps; if only the black keys you get flats; but if you play the two together you get harmony and beautiful music” (April 9, 1921). The newspaper indicated clearly that it supported such a statement. Two weeks later reporting on travels and talks throughout the country, the newspaper stated the following: “He held the attention of his large audience by a relation of his experiences in America, out of which he has learned that work is the fundamental basis of individual and national achievement” (“The Phelps-Stokes Commission”, Umteteli wa Bantu, April 23, 1921). In an Editorial which was requesting funds from the public to assist John Langalibalele Dube in attending the Pan-African Congress organized in Versailles in 1921 by W. E. B. Du Bois, Ilanga lase Natal took this occasion to praise the historical vision of James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey: “We have recentky had amongst us one notable African who has received his education in the United States, Dr. Aggrey, who emphasised one phase which is very necessary to our development, that of self-help” (“The Progress of the Negro World”, April 29, 1921). Through his philosophy of reconciliation, James Aggrey assisted in the establishing of the Joint Council of Europeans and Africans. It is perhaps his facilitating the making of the Joint Council that endeared him so profoundly to the New African intelligentsia. As an indication of the high esteem in which he was held, when Aggrey died in 1927, two leading intellects of the New African Movement wrote remarkable obituaries in his memory. R. V. Selope Thema, had this to say: “The news of the sudden death of Dr. J. E. K. Aggrey in New York gave many of his friends in South Africa, both black and white, a shock from which they have not yet recovered. It is difficult fully to appreciate the tragedy that his passing means for the mutual understanding and co-operation between the white and black races in working out the destiny of Africa. As is well known Dr. Aggrey was the apostle of the gospel of inter-racial goodwill and harmony. He was the only man who could interpret Africa to Europe and Europe to Africa. He was the only educated African who, in spite of the sufferings of Africa’s sons and daughters under the tyrannical rule of the nations of Europe, maintained the human qualities so characteristic of the African peoples---the qualities of humility, fidelity, patience, large-heartedness and love. . . . Of his great work at Achimota. Gold Coast, nothing can be said by us in South Africa. But there can be no doubt his death is a great blow to that great institution which is destined to revolutionise the whole of West Africa, if not the African continent. Thus in his death Africa has lost a great son and humanity a pillar of international goodwill and harmony” (“The Death of James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey”, Umteteli wa Bantu, September 17, 1927). Solomon T. Plaatje wrote similar observations: “Among the sad news of the month must be mentioned the death of this great West African scholar and international statesman. In the fields of education, diplomacy and race co-operation, it is doubtful whether, since the death of the late Dr. E. W. Blyden (whose monument faces Freetown Harbour at Sierra Leone) the work of any African on this side of the Atlantic ever deserved so much admiration as that of James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey, M. A., D. Ph., at one time Professor at Livingstone College, Salisbury, North Carolina, U. S. A., and lately of Prince of Wales College, Achimota, Gold Coast, West Africa. The writer met this eminent and highly educated Native first in 1920 at the School of Oriental Studies, London. . . . We afterwards met in Canada, and in New York two years later, and and spent some helpful evenings together while, he was reading at Columbia University for his degree of Philosophy. Let me say that I have seldom, if ever, met a more spright gentleman nor a more sincere and loyal friend. . . . Deceased loved South Africa with an almost incredible intensity. Recognising that his own people on the West Coast, in contrast with the South African Natives, far down the scale of development, had much wider opportunities to share in the fuller life, he was ready to lay the fruit of his vast learning and ripe experiences at the feet of his countrymen in this Union. . . . And when he met them [Africans in South Africa] he would urge forebearance with our tormentors until the time the Native had acquired all the good obtainable from the presence of a white civilisation in their midst. Needless to say, many Natives did not share his views on the excellence of the character of Uncle Tom” (“The Death of James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey”, September 17, 1927). The total and singular respect that practically all the major figures of the New African Talented Tenth had for James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey is very amazing today in the first few months of the twenty-first century. For example, nearly two decades after the death of Aggrey, in a threnody memorializing John Langalibalele Dube who had recently died, H. I. E. Dhlomo places the great Ghanian New African in a pantheon of immortal African leaders:
He [John Dube] now belongs to the immortal few
Who on the Tree of Time their
names did hew
With blades of beauty, pain and
In service to their people and their
Such Shaka, Aggrey, Khama, Han-
And many more who answered to
His work and efforts and his name
Forever in our midst will be a flame
Inspiring us to fight for liberty,
An echo and a rod to make us free.
(“John Langalibalele Dube: Two Songs”, Ilanga lase Natal, February 23, 1946). Nearly two years later, in another threnody commemorating the tragic death of Benedict Vilakzi, H. I. E. Dhlomo places Aggrey in another pantheon:
Black bards and heroes greet their friend and peer;
Great Shaka, Magolwana there appear,
Mbuyazi, Aggrey, Dube, Mqhayi, ache
To meet him---so Bambatha, his namesake;
Not these alone, for here below he loved
And spoke with long-haired bards, among them moved;
Now Keats, his idol, whom he prayed to greet,
And Catholic great Dante, Comedy
Divine enjoying, smiles to meet and see
A Catholic bard mate.
(“Ichabod! Benedict Wallet Bambatha Vilakazi”, Ilanga lase Natal, November 8, 1947).
F. Z. S. Peregrino, editor of the South African Spectator newspaper in Cape Town, who died two years before the arrival of his compatriot, would no doubt have been pleased yet envious of such great acclamation for his fellow countryman coming from practically all the major figures of the New African intelligentsia.