Seme's historic rallying cry owes much to US thinkers

The unacknowledged sources of ANC leader’s Regeneration of Africa speech.

Early in 1906 newspapers across America reported that Columbia University’s prestigious Curtis gold medal for oratory had been awarded to “a full-blooded Zulu”, a man “of Royal Zulu blood”, a Zulu “Prince”.  In the 111 years intervening, that speech on “The Regeneration of Africa” has achieved iconic status. Colored American Magazine published it in 1906 and it has reappeared at intervals across the decades. Kwame Nkrumah, first President of Ghana, read it at the first International Congress of Africanists in 1962. Scholars have discerned behind it “a man of vision” and “extraordinary eloquence”. It has been labelled “timeless”, “an important contribution to discourse on the notion of an African Renaissance”, carrying a message that has “inspired later generations of African nationalists”.

The speaker was Pixley ka Isaka Seme, born at Inanda Mission, north of Durban in 1882. He received his early education from American missionaries there and at the Adams Training School for Boys at Amanzimtoti. In 1897 a missionary, Stephen Clapp Pixley, who had noted the youth’s aptitude for learning, sponsored him to study at Mount Hermon School for boys in Massachusetts, USA. He excelled there, passed Columbia’s entrance examination in 1902 and graduated BA in 1906.

Moving on to Oxford, he studied law. Gaining admission to the bar in 1910, he returned to South Africa, at once throwing himself into his legal business and activism. Today, he is remembered principally for his leading role in the establishment of the African National Congress.

Pixley ka Isaka Seme

Seme was a handsome man with a commanding presence. He was a natty dresser and was often seen smoking his pipe – a practice he cultivated during his Oxford days. Those who heard him speak were struck by his sharp intellect. The Galveston Daily News in 1902 described his “ambition and ability” and found his “scholarship and general intelligence… far above many American freshmen”. Many years later his peers and collaborators in South Africa described his lavish lifestyle, spendthriftiness, impetuosity, snobbery, ambition, and brash self-confidence. An early resident of Sophiatown, his house was described by a contemporary as “an absolute palace inside and out”.

In his oration, Seme took the line – already given wide currency by Booker T Washington – that each of the races of mankind has its special “genius”, making direct comparison between them impossible. Like other African intellectuals before and after him, Seme pointed to great African achievements, ancient and latterday, demonstrating that Africa is no intellectual or industrial backwater. The slumbering African “giant” was finally awakening, he proclaimed, and he drew evidences of this from across the Continent. African “race-consciousness”, he maintained, was a central feature of this reawakening – an awareness of a pan-African identity transcending ethnic differences. He confidently predicted a great African civilization unlike any other on earth.

Seme was certainly a man of big ideas but his key ideas and even some of the phraseology of his speech were purloined from pre-existing sources. The fact is that Seme was not thinking “outside the box”. On the contrary, he was working very much along tramlines of thought laid down by an older generation of Afro-American thinkers – men like Booker T Washington, Alexander Crummell, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and W E B du Bois. Nineteenth-century African intellectuals had already begun to grasp the utility of the African past in the service of their ideological projects. These men sought to salvage African history and apply it to contemporary propagandistic purposes. Some white detractors claimed that Africans could boast of no original achievements – that at best they were only mimics. As a new generation of African thinkers saw it, an early step toward effacing that enduring slur would be for them to claim possession of their own historiography. When Seme climbed aboard this ship as a young man, it had already been afloat for decades.

Seme concluded his speech with a poetic address:

O Africa!

Like some great century plant that shall bloom

In ages hence…

The poetic speaker anticipates the time when Africa will “shine” like her “sister lands with equal beam”.

Seme appropriates this poem as though it were his own. In fact, it is even attributed to him in Return of the Amasi Bird, an anthology of English-language poetry by black South Africans published in 1982.

But why, I asked when I first read the oration, would any Zulu man characterise Africa as a land of “swamps” as this poem does?

Okay, Google and voilà: the poem is not Seme’s. It is the brainchild of Lloyd Mifflin (1846-1921), once regarded as “America’s greatest sonneteer”. It appears in his Collected Sonnets published in the same year that Seme delivered his oration. Well chosen by Seme, it brings his oration to a rousing, visionary crescendo, but he must not be credited for it.

Lloyd Mifflin

Perhaps it would be anachronistic to charge Seme with plagiarism today. Contemporary academic practice a century ago was freer with regard to how sources were handled and acknowledged. Still, having identified one of Seme’s direct borrowings, it seems only natural to wonder if there might be others.

Indeed there are. One of Seme’s memorable sentences has caught the attention of several academics: “In all races, genius is like a spark, which, concealed in the bosom of a flint, bursts forth at the summoning stroke.” To the best of my knowledge, no-one has yet remarked upon the fact that an almost identical sentence appears in a little book published almost a century before Seme: “In all countries, genius is a spark concealed in the bosom of a flint, which bursts forth at the stroke of the steel.” Had Seme been my undergraduate student and had I known of this older text, I might have hauled him over the coals for such unacknowledged borrowing.

The work in question is An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes. The French original appeared in 1808. It was authored by Count Henri Baptiste Grégoire (1750-1831), Constitutional Bishop of Blois – an important leader of the French Revolution. Translated into English by David Bailie Warren, acting American consul in France, it was published in Brooklyn, New York, in 1810.

The Abbé Grégoire was prominent in abolitionist circles, a leading member of the short-lived Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks) and supporter of the Haitian Revolution of 1791. His Enquiry refutes contemporary arguments for the inferiority of Africans. Whether Seme borrowed directly from his book or through an intermediary text is unclear, but Columbia’s online library index shows that it holds a copy of the 1810 edition. Likely the book was already on its shelves in Seme’s day.

On reading An Enquiry I discovered several of Seme’s other borrowings. In supplying evidence of the intellectual capacity of Africans both texts note the existence of those proficient in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldaic – a singular sampling of language.  Both authors refer to Africans who committed the entire Quran to memory; also to an African professor of philosophy at a German university. Seme notes a “corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences, who regularly transmitted to that society meteorological observations and hydrographical journals, and papers on botany and geology”. He lifts this from the Abbé. He also refers to “officers of artillery in the great armies of Europe, generals and lieutenant-generals in the armies of Peter the Great, in Russia and Napoleon in France”. So does the Abbé. So, just how much of Seme’s speech is “original”?

Not a lot. We start with the title. Some historians locate the origins of the discourse surrounding the “Regeneration of Africa” in the thought of mid-nineteenth-century Afro-American intellectuals. In fact,

the phrase can be traced back even further. Irish orator and jurist, John Philpot Curran (died 1817) linked abolition with the “regeneration”’ of former slaves. The Analectic Magazine of Philadelphia used the phrase “regeneration of Africa” in 1818. At that time, it was linked to the projected abolition of slavery and the repatriation to Africa of freed slaves who, it was hoped, would “regenerate” the Continent with Christian values. Regeneration at this stage had unmistakable theological resonance: it implied a spiritual rebirth.

The expression was taken up by black proto-pan-Africanists like Blyden who referred repeatedly to “the regeneration of Africa” through the agency of freed slaves from the New World who would return to their ancestral homeland and “regenerate a continent”. Crummell, who founded the American Negro Academy, presented a discourse in 1865 titled, just like Seme’s, The Regeneration of Africa.

Repeatedly in his oration Seme voiced ideas others had expressed before him. Like Blyden, he cited the Great Pyramid of Cheops as proof of Africa’s former greatness. Without attribution, he shares an anecdote first told by Crummell of the slave-holding John Calhoun, senator for South Carolina, who stated that “if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the negro was a human and should be treated as a man”. Seme exposes Calhoun’s speciosity, and points to Africans who did indeed know Greek syntax. Well and good, but Crummell did this before him.

So why in South Africa is Seme remembered for his speech and not the Abbé Grégoire and the others – black and white – to whom he was so indebted intellectually? Perhaps the success of the Regeneration of Africa comes down to the personality of the speaker: though of lowly birth, Seme’s princely stature and brash self-assurance never failed to catch the eye. He said nothing new but he spoke with a confidence and vigour seldom heard before.

At the Centenary Celebrations of the University of Fort Hare in 2016, President Jacob Zuma made reference to Seme’s “seminal speech which shaped Pan Africanism across the world” – a speech that “inspired a generation of black people across the world to look at themselves in a positive light and to be proud of their African heritage”.

The President went on to quote a portion of Seme’s oration:

“The brighter day is rising upon Africa. Already I seem to see her chains dissolved, her desert plains red with harvest, her Abyssinia and her Zululand the seats of science and of religion, reflecting the glory of the rising sun from the spires of their churches and universities. Her Congo and her Gambia whitened with commerce, her crowded cities sending forth the hum of business…”

A transcendent vision perhaps but it did not originate in Seme’s mind.  Very possibly he lifted it from Ebenezer Porter’s Rhetorical Reader (New York, 1856) which contains A Plea for Africa, authored by Edward Dorr Griffin (1770-1837):

“…a brighter day is arising for Africa. Already I seem to see her chains dissolved, her desert plains turned into a fruitful field, her Congo and her Senegal the seats of science and religion, reflecting the glory of the rising sun from the spires of their churches and universities, her Gambia and Niger whitened with her floating commerce, her crowded cities sending forth the hum of business…”

A Plea for Africa was a sermon preached in October 1817, in the First Presbyterian Church, New York. The vision of “a brighter day arising for Africa” was Griffin’s, not Seme’s, and it was first articulated 200 years ago. Griffin was a white American.

Edward Dorr Griffin

Over the decades, “regeneration” has meant somewhat different things to different thinkers. Blyden actually predicted the “spiritual regeneration”  of Africa in 1862. In 1905, the Zulu-English newspaper, Ilanga lase Natal anticipated the “social regeneration” of Africa.

Seme, in his speech, gives his own take: “By this term, regeneration, I wish to be understood to mean the entrance into a new life, embracing the diverse phases of a higher, complex existence.” He anticipates a “new civilization” in Africa that involves “a regeneration moral and eternal”. Here he appears to borrow from Blyden who predicts in 1862 that “Africa will furnish a development of civilization” of which the “great peculiarity will be its moral element”.

Blyden in turn was inspired in part by Alexander Kinmont, a disciple of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Kinmont predicted in the 1830s that Africa would furnish a “civilization of a peculiar stamp”, one “exalted and refined by a new and lovely theology”. Curiously, Ilanga quoted this prediction of Kinmont in 1904.

In the twentieth century “regeneration” began to morph into “renaissance” and today African Renaissance discourse seldom invokes the ideas entertained by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century abolitionists.

In Renascent Africa (1937), Nnamdi Azikiwe, who would later serve as president of Nigeria, described “the Renascent African” as being “socially regenerated”. Perhaps it is with Azikiwe that we see best illustrated “regeneration” evolving into “renaissance”. Considered etymologically, the words are interchangeable but the connotations of “renaissance” signal a shift towards a more secular vision of the future.

What does all this mean? That we err when we locate the genesis of big ideas in a single human mind. To do so is reductionist, ahistorical, and ultimately dishonest. Too much African historiography is still written in this sloppy mode. Ideas are bigger than humans. They transmute; they jump continents in a flash; they are tenacious of life.

Grégoire was French; Griffin came of a wealthy and respectable Connecticut family; Mifflin was an American of mixed English-German descent; Kinmont was a Scot who emigrated to the States. These men were white yet they were among the first to glimpse a regenerate or renaissant Africa. They have unquestionable chronological preeminence over Seme. Surely they share credit with him?  


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