Thursday, March 15, 2007

Kwame Nkrumah: The Early Years

Kwame Nkrumah: The Early Years

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor's Note: The following article was originally published as a chapter in the Pambana Journal Monograph Series number four in the Spring of 1985. It is taken from a broader book on Pan-Africanism which examines historical issues related to the impact of slavery and colonialism on African societies. The Pambana Journal Monograph Series ran from 1984-2000 in twenty-four different editions that were edited by Abayomi Azikiwe. This series was produced and circulated from Wayne State University in Detroit.
The historical developments that have been outlined in previous writings by this author illustrates the political and social context that Kwame Nkrumah grew out of in the early part of the 20th century. Nothing is created within a vacuum; all individuals grow out of a particular historical context, and it is this context which shapes the individual's ideas and modes of behavior.

Nkrumah was born into the Nzima ethnic group who resided in the southwestern part of the Gold Coast. The village where he was born is Nkroful. This area is located between the river Ankroba on the east and the river Yano and its lagoons on the west. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact date and year of Nkrumah's birth because during this period no records were kept of birth dates in the outlying areas in the Nzima region. However, according to Nkrumah's priest in the Roman Catholic Church, his date of birth was September 21, 1909. This was a guess on the part of the priest who baptised Nkrumah into the Catholic religion. This guess proved to be quite accurate as Nkrumah points out in his autobiography written in 1957:
"...I spent a short holiday in Nzima and had the opportunity to revisit some of my childhood haunts and to recapture the past. As I sat with some friends on the seashore at Half Assini our eyes were drawn to the rusty bulk of the Bakana, a cargo boat owned by the British and African Steam Navigation Company, which had been wrecked in 1913 and had come to rest on the seashore.
"The Bakana had been a landmark to me for so long that I had never realised how significant a part it could play in throwing light on my age. One of my friends asked what had happened and whether I could remember it. Although I was certainly no older than three or four years at the time, I can well remember being told the story of this disaster....
"My mother confirms the fact that I was a small boy at the time and that the event occured some little time after she had brought me from Nkroful to live with my father in Half Assini. Assuming, therefore, that the year of my birth was 1909, the Saturday nearest to the middle of September in that year was the 18th. It seems likely, therefore, that I was born on Saturday, 18th September, 1909."

Nkrumah attended a Catholic missionary school during his early years; he finished primary school and was selected as a pupil teacher for one year at Half Assini. While teaching at Half Assini Nkrumah was selected by the principal of the Government Training College in Accra to attend teacher's training college. He then relocated in the country's capital of Accra where he had to adjust to the lifestyle in the city.

It was during this period that the Prince of Wales College at Achimota was opened by the colonial governor, Sir Gordon Guggisberg. The Accra Teacher's Training College became part of the new Prince of Wales College in 1928. The principal of the school was Reverend A.G. Fraser, who along with Guggisberg and another popular figure at the school, Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey, played a significant part in establishing the College. Dr. Aggrey was the first African member of the college staff and his presence at the school did much to spark the flames of nationalism in the young Nkrumah. Aggrey, who later traveled to America, became suddenly ill and died in 1929. Nkrumah, in his autobiography points out Aggrey's influence on his early developement:
"It was because of my great admiration of Aggrey, both as a man and a scholar, that I first formed the idea of furthering my studies in the United States of America. My plan was to finish the teacher-training course, return to teaching for five years and endeavor to save the necessary passage money."

However, after completing his studies at Achimota in 1930, Nkrumah found it extremely difficult to save the necessary funds for passage to the United States. Nkrumah was offered a teaching position at the Roman Catholic Junior School at Elmina where he taught Lower Class One. While teaching at the Junior School he helped form the Teacher's Association at the school. This association was set up in order to improve their (teachers') status at the school and to provide a mechanism for the voicing of grievances that the teachers had with the school administration.

After a year at the Junior School, Nkrumah was promoted and became the head teacher of the Roman Catholic Junior School at Axim. While at the school in Axim, he studied privately for the examination at London Matriculation, but he later failed the examination in Latin and Mathematics.

It was during this period that Nkrumah became interested in politics. He had begun to form literary societies in the Axim area, one became well known as the Nzima Literature Society. He explains in his autobiography how his involvement in political ideas came about at the time of his activities with the Nzima Literature Society:
"...It was through this work that I met Mr. S.R. Wood who was then secretary of the National Congress of British West Africa. This rare character first introduced me to politics. He knew more about Gold Coast political history than any other person I have ever met and we had many long conversations together. I told him I was determined to get to America. He supported the idea whole-heartedly and wrote to me a testimonial, which I still possess, to help me gain admission to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania."

After teaching in Axim for two years, Nkrumah was offered another position at the Roman Catholic Seminary at Amissano near Elmina. This school was new and it was the first of its kind established in the Gold Coast in order to train clergymen. His lifestyle at the Seminary was as strict and disciplined as the students and Nkrumah felt that this was an effort lure him into the clergy profession.

Nkrumah began to question many of the beliefs embodied in the Catholic religion while he was a student at Achimota. He felt that the religious beliefs of Catholicism could serve as a limiting force in his consciousness and activity. However, while living in the confined and isolated atmosphere of the seminary he began once again to have feelings of religious fervor. He even contemplated, during this period, pursuing a career as a jesuit priest. This feeling soon left his consciousness and he came to the realisation that the priesthood was not the type of profession that he was suited for in the Gold Coast.

His strong feelings of nationalism began to arise within him again and he became even more determined to seek higher education in the United States of America.

Nkurmah, during this period, was heavily influenced by the African nationalist newspaper, the "African Morning Post." Many of the articles written by the Nigerian Nnamdi Azikiwe from Onitsha had tremendous impact on his consciosness. Azikiwe was a graduate of Howard University in the United States, and while he was there, he was heavily influenced by the Aricanist historian William Leo Hansberry.

Azikiwe and another African nationalist by the name of Wallace Johnson, who had been the founder of a radical youth league in Sierra Leone, became involved in a sedition case in the Gold Coast during the 1930s. The charges grew from an article written by Azikiwe and published in the African Morning Post, entitled "Has the African a God." The words that brought about the charges of sedition by the British colonial authorities were as follows:
" Personally, I believe the European has a god in whom he believes and whom he is representing in his churches all over Africa. He believes in the god whose name is spelt Deceit. He believes in the god whose law is 'ye strong, must weaken the weak.' Ye 'civilised' Europeans you must 'civilise' the 'barbarous' Africans with machine guns. Ye Christian Europeans, you must 'Christianize' the pagan Africans with bombs, poison gases, etc.
"In the colonies the Europeans believe in the god that command ye Administrators, make Sedition Bill to keep the African ragged, make Deportation Ordinances to send the Africans to exile whenever they dare to question your authority.
"Make an Ordinance to grab his money so that he cannot stand economically. Make a levy bill to force him to pay taxes for the importation of unemployed Europeans to serve as Stool Treasurers. Send detectives to stay around the house of any African who is nationally conscious and who is agitating for national independence and if possible, round him up in 'criminal frame-ups' so that he could be kept behind bars."

These written words brought about the deportation of Johnson and Azikiwe from the Gold Coast back to Sierra Leone and Nigeria respectively. The issues raised in this poem were dealing with the nature of the colonial system, the Italian invasion into Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and the role of western religion in the process of colonizing the African continent. The Africans, Azikiwe and Johnson, attempted to bring their case before the West African Court of Appeals but were dismissed and therefore returned to their respective territories.

Nkrumah felt that he needed to pursue higher education and therefore in 1935 went to Lagos to borrow money from an uncle living there in order to buy a ticket to travel to the United States. He arrived in the United States in October of 1935, his destination was Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

The United States of America

In 1935, the United States, like the rest of the western capitalist world, was undergoing a grave economic depression. Since 1929 the unemployment rate had skyrocketed with thousands of formerly well-to-do persons in American society having lost all or most of their fortunes. The new American President Franklin D. Roosevelt had embarked upon several governmental programmes which were aimed at preserving the capitalist system in America. Prior to the Roosevelt presidency, the political values that were predominant in the US ruling circles were staunchly opposed to governmental interference aimed at solving the social ills of American capitalist society. However, with the advent of the grave economic depression of the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt began to carry out massive governmental financed programs in an attempt to preserve the capitalist system in America.

The policies of an economist named John Maynard Keynes were studied seriously by the Roosevelt administration. His policies (Roosevelt) represented many of the ideas articulated by John Maynard Keynes. Keynes felt that the classical theory of capitalist economics were no longer applicable in the world of monopoly capitalism. He believed that the government had to become involved in creating jobs and stimulating the private sector in order to also create employment. Therefore, many governmental programs were established such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Social Security and welfare relief, in order to alleviate the tremendous social problems created by the economic depression. However, these programmes had limited effect on the economic conditions in America; unemployment remained high and businesses continued to go bankrupt.

The African population of America had suffered the most from the economic depression of the 1930s. Millions of Africans who lived in the southern US were surviving under some of the most wretched conditions imaginable. During World War I and the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Africans had left the rural south and moved into the urban areas of the northern industrial cities seeking work and alleviation from the vicious racist "Jim Crow" system of southern segregation. However, after coming north, the Africans found that the conditions in the north were just as bad, if not worse, than the conditions of the south.

In the northern industrial cities, the Africans were pitted against the European immigrant working class in competition for jobs and housing. This competition led to a series of violent outbreaks of racial violence in 1919, which became known as "red summer" for its violence during the summer months in Chicago and other industrial cities of the north.

During the 1920s, the African community in America had experienced a flowering of literary, musical and artistic expression. The main center of this cultural renaissance was in Harlem, which had become a center of African life by the end of World War I. This cultural renaissance was accompanied by the rise of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) headed by Marcus Garvey. Garvey's slogan "Africa for the Africans, Those at Home and Abroad," generated tremendous support among the African masses in America. The headquarters and main base of operations for the UNIA was in Harlem during the 1920s. In 1920 the organization held the "Conference of Negro Peoples of the World" where thousands of representatives came from all over America, the Caribbean and the African continent to participate.

However, by the end of the 1920s, Garvey had been deported, the UNIA was harassed and crippled by the US government and the economic depression had effectively ended the cultural renaissance that was taking place in Harlem. The 1930s were marked by increased racial tension and overt forms of violence against Africans such as lynchings and frame-ups in the courts, as demonstrated in the Scottsboro Boys' case in Alabama.

In 1935, after the Italian invasion into Abyssinia, a new wave of racial violence erupted in America. In Harlem, Africans ransacked and burned stores belonging to Italian merchants. They were incensed by the atrocities commited against the Africans in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and many people in America were willing to go to the Horn of Africa to assist the Ethiopians in their struggle against the Italian fascism of Mussolini.

The programmes adopted by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1930s were also partly aimed at preventing the rise of socialism in the United States. During the 1930s, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) organized massive chapters throughout America, they ran people for political office and conducted large demonstrations in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit and New York against unemployment and hunger. However, with the rise of fascism in Europe, as represented by Adolf Hitler and Mussolini, the Soviet Union was forced to make a temporary pact with Germany in the late 1930s. The CPUSA at that time began to view the main threat as being European fascism and set out to form an alliance with the Roosevelt administration. This resulted in the cooperation between the so-called radical forces among the European-dominated left in America and the Democratic Party as represented by the Roosevelt administration.

When World War II brought the United States directly into the military fighting, the country found itself in alliance with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor brought about the involvement of US military forces in the war. Shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor occured, the German Reich declared war on the United States.

Other than the initial attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, no warfare took place within the territorial boundaries of the United States of America. However, in contrast to this phenomena in America, the Soviet Union was extensively attacked and 20,000,000 of its citizens were killed during the war with Germany. Poland, Czekoslovakia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Norway, Austria and other European nations were severely socially dislocated during the war years. The Japanese experienced the first atomic attack in human history in August of 1945 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This phenomena of the United States not experiencing military warfare within its borders provided the opportunity for the US economy to benefit tremendously from the demand for war machinery. Unemployment during the period of US involvement in WWII, 1941-1945, was only 1.2 percent, the massive human idleness of the 1930s was absorbed in the military and war industries. By the end of the war, the US had become the top industrial nation in the world with the defeat of Japan and Germany. Britain's economy suffered greatly as a result of the war because its cities and industrial centers were extensively bombed by German warplanes in 1939-1940.

Hard Times in America

Nkrumah arrived in the United States in 1935 and immediately began to pursue a college degree at Lincoln University. He was almost penniless when he arrived at Lincoln and talked with the University's president and made arrangements to take the entrance examination, in which he passed, and was therefore awarded a part-time job at the school and a scholarship. Lincoln University was established in 1854, it was the first university in America that was designed to give higher education of people of African descent. The people involved in setting up Lincoln was Reverend John Miller Dickey, a minister of the Presbyterian faith, and his Quaker wife, Sarah Cresson Dickey.

Nkrumah graduated from Lincoln with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Sociology in 1939. During that year he was voted the "most interesting senior" by his classmates at Lincoln. Later, in 1942, after spending three years as an assistant lecturer in Philosophy at Lincoln and as a student, he was granted a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theology. In the same year (1942), Nkrumah also received a Master's degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

The next year, 1943, in February, he received the Master of Arts degree in Philosphy from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under Professor Edgar Singer, Jr. After receiving a M.A. in Philosophy, Nkrumah began to work on a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania where he took courses during 1943-1944 preparing to write a thesis in Philosophy. However, it was during this period that Nkrumah fell ill as a result of over-exhaustion. In his autobiography he reflects on this period in his life in America by stating that he was not satisfied if he was not busy nearly 24 hours a day:
"...In order to keep body and soul together, I got a job as a counter in the Sun Shipbuilding Yard at Chester where I worked in all weathers from twelve midnight until eight the following morning. It froze so hard on several occasions that my hands almost stuck to the steel and although I put on all the clothes that I possessed, I was chilled to the marrow. After 8 a.m. I used to return to my lodgings, having breakfast, sleep for a few hours and then begin to research for the writing of my thesis.
"One morning when I arrived home I had my breakfast as usual then went to sleep and did not wake up until four the following morning, to the end of my tether and it was soon after this that I caught pneumonia.
"It was a bitterly cold night and I was shivering more violently than usual. At about four in the morning, I began to feel very ill and simply did not know how to carry on. I went to the company's doctor to ask if I could be excused from further duty. I felt that if only I could get home to bed, all would be well. When he took my temperature, however, he immediately summoned the ambulance and rushed me off to Chester Hospital where I was put in an oxygen tent in a supposedly critical condition."

Nkrumah was consistently hard pressed economically while he was in the United States. He lived among the masses of African people born in America and therefore, as a result of his own personal experience, understood the nature and dimension of their struggle. He was determined to link the two situations in common efforts toward the alleviation of suffering on the part of Africans world-wide.

These factors stirred Nkrumah's interest in the conditions of African people in America. While he was an instructor at Lincoln University he frequently taught classes and presented lectures on the history of African people born in America. He investigated the various trends of political and sociological thought centered around the so-called "Negro Question:"
"At that time I was interested in two sociological schools of thought in the States, one represented by the Howard Sociologists led by Professor Frazier, and the other led by Dr. Herzkovits, Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University. The Howard school of thought maintained that the Negro in America had completely lost his cultural contact with Africa and the other school, represented by Herzkovits, maintained that there were still African survivals in the United States and that the Negro of America had in no way lost his cultural contact with the African continent. I supported, and still support, the latter view and I went on one occasion to Howard University to defend it."

Nkrumah became involved in political activities in the United States while he was at the University of Pennsylvania. He assisted in the establishment of the African Studies Section at the school. In addition, he also began to organize for the African Students Assocation (ASA) of America and Canada, where he was eventually elected president and remained active up until the time period when he left the United States.

Nkrumah, in cooperation with other students such as Ako Adjei and Jones Quartey, established the ASA's newspaper entitled the "African Interpreter." The attempt in this effort was to spark a re-emergence of African nationalism.

Nkrumah became active in participating and studying the organisational techniques and political views among the various social trends in America. For example, he studied the Democrats, Republicans, Communists and Troskyites, where he met for the first time CLR James.

After reading Marx, Lenin, Hegel and Mazzini, Nkrumah reached the conclusion that there was much within the philosophy of Marx, Engels and Lenin which could be utilized for the liberation of the colonial territories. However, he stated that the book that fascinated him the most was the "Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey" which was published in 1923.

He began to give such serious thought to the question of national liberation of the colonial territories that he started to write down his ideas on the subject. He eventually produced a pamphlet entitled "Toward Colonial Freedom." The rough draft of this work was completed in America, however, it was not until Nkrumah relocated in England in 1945 that he obtained enough funds to publish the pamphlet.

The ideas embodied in the essay "Toward Colonial Freedom" represented a culmination of experience and study on the part of Nkrumah up until 1945. During that year the second World War ended and Nkrumah moved to England in May of 1945, shortly before the war had ended.

Abayomi Azikiwe is currently the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. Azikiwe has worked also as a broadcast journalist for the last twelve years on five different radio stations and one cable television network. His articles have been reprinted in various newspapers, journals and web sites throughout the international community.

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