Writing the Struggle
The slave who started black nationalism
Research shows that a child – Martin Robison Delany – born to a slave father and a free mother in 1812 came up with the idea that was later adopted by Marcus Garvey and put as ‘Africa for Africans’.
Delany, who died in 1885, according to various online sources, was the first black American physicist; and the first black American to fight in the American Civil War. He was also a journalist and a writer.
Although he did not really coin the phrase Africa for Africans, Delaney is credited with the first-ever back to Africa movement in 1859 when he visited Liberia in search of his ancestry. For nine months, Delaney travelled the region meeting chiefs in Abeokuta where he promised to stay.
Between 1860 and 1861, Delaney was gathering blacks in American for the pioneering return to Africa where they would use the knowledge they had in exchange for land.
But his plans were, however, scuttled by some white missionaries who opposed it as well as the break out of the American Civil War.
Delaney chose Liberia for two reasons: It was the only free country in Africa and it was where his ancestors had been stolen from and sold into slavery.
Records show that Delaney’s grandparents belonged to the Gola of Liberia while his mother was a Mandinka from the Niger Valley and that they were shipped off to Virginia during slavery.
However, his grandfather escaped to Canada where he later died fighting against slavery.
Delaney’s maternal grandparents, Shango and Graci were both sold off into slavery and shipped off to Virginia. They were, however, freed and Shango returned to Africa leaving Graci in America.
What pushed Delaney was the way he was treated although he was long since been a free slave. For example, when he was admitted to Harvard Medical School as one of the first three blacks – Isaac H Snowden and Daniel Laing Jr ‑ Delaney’s presence was met with resistance by other white students who wrote protesting against admission of blacks.
The protest led to the dismissal of the three.
This incident made Delaney believe that whites do not like to give room to blacks even when they deserve.
His thoughts about this incident were summed up in his 1852 book “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered”.
He also argues in the book that the US does not offer any prospects for blacks, hence, the drive for a back to Africa movement.
Delaney also responded to Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1859, which caricatured slaves as being passive human beings and how cruel slavery was.
In his book “Blake: Or the Huts of America”, which was a direct response to Stowe Delaney, he writes about an anti-slavery champion visiting slaves in South America.
The book, the first novel by a black African in America, was initially run as a serial in The Anglo-African Magazine and then in the Weekly Anglo African Magazine.
The dismissal from Harvard did not stop him from studying medicine. Delaney then became an understudy for Dr McDowell, Dr F Julius LeMoyne and Dr Joseph P Gazzam.
Drs LeMoyne and Gazzam were active slave abolitionists whose work inspired Delaney to enter politics in 1835 and become a member of the National Convention of Men of Colour, an organisation formed in 1831.
His participation in the convention gave him the idea to set up a 'Black Israel' state on the east coast of Africa and he vigorously embarked on this campaign through his writings, which received a huge attention.
One such column was called “The Mystery”, which was published in 1843 and was reproduced in many other anti-slavery publications such as The Liberator and others.
In 1847, Delaney founded the North Star, which played a vital role in the fight against slavery and by 1854 had taken over the leadership of the National Emigration Convention that resolved that “As men are equals, we demand every political right, privilege and position to which the whites are eligible in the United States and we will either attain to these or accept nothing”.
It is this standpoint, which is even regarded today as the first ever declaration of Black Nationalism, which later seeped through to Garvey and then to those on the African continent.
Despite making more plans for the back to Africa voyage after buying a ship and forming a company called Liberia Exodus Joint Emigration to Africa, Delaney could not make it.
He succumbed to TB in 1885 but his writing and thoughts created the desire for the Africa for African movement.