In an open letter to the African leaders at this week’s summit in Washington, D.C., the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, an African-American former Civil Rights activist and a retired United Methodist minister, pleads for justice and fair treatment for LGBTI people in Africa.
I, as a Southern-born, now 80-year-old African-American, “grew up” with the feeling that Africa was the “Motherland” for those of us of African descent in the USA.
I remember when I was a college student in the 1950’s I with a class visited Washington, D.C., and during that visit I met Tom Mboya from Kenya who has been described as “The best president that Kenya never had.” Mboya was assassinated before he had the opportunity to share his considerable intellectual gifts and personality with the people of Kenya. I, after meeting him as a college student, became fascinated with Africa, interested in its later struggles for Independence, and compared my link with Africa to be much like the link that American Jews have with Israel.
I was filled with enthusiasm when, in 1971 as a member of the National Committee of Black Churchmen, I made my first trip to the “Motherland” to participate in a consultation of African and African-American Church leaders and government officials. The theme of the Consultation held in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania was “Black Identity and Solidarity – The Role of the Church as a Medium for Social Change.” My memories of that event and its theme that took place 43 years ago, now motivate me to write this “Open Letter” to the African Leaders meeting in Washington this week with President Barack Obama.
Dear leaders of African nations gathered in Washington,
I write you as a member of the African Diaspora that is present in the United States of America. How amazing and earth-shaking it must be for you to meet with an American President, whose father was Kenyan. I am sure you can understand what that means to me, a black American who has spent my adult life as a participant in the Martin Luther King-led Civil Rights Movement, resisting and confronting anti-black racial attitudes and actions in the USA, particularly in the my native state of North Carolina. I know that you too, must share this pride as you meet with the first black President of he USA.
My identification with the continent of Africa as an African-American has expressed itself in many ways. Years ago, I my hair was described as an “Afro” because of its size and its “natural” appearance. I wore a Dashiki as a way to identify with African dress styles. Each December, I with many African-Americans participate in Kwaanza celebrations as we seek to embrace the Swahili words that are highlighted during those observances. And with James Brown, “the Godfather of Soul”, I sang with pride,
“I’m Black and I’m Proud”. It is interesting that while you are visiting Washington the movie about the late James Brown, “Get On Up,” is showing around the nation.
I have shared the above as a prelude to the following;
1. President Obama as President is discovering what all American Presidents come to know, “It is easier to campaign than it is to govern”. The high-sounding principles of campaigns give way to the challenges of governing. Particularly, when our opposition party, the Republican Party, from the beginning of the Obama presidency has decided not to cooperate with him.
I believe you as African leaders are recognizing that some of the intentions of the Independence Liberation Movements have been set aside, now that you are in office. Some of this of course is inevitable, but I, as a friend and supporter of Africa, am distressed when at times it appears that some leaders are imitating some of the policies and practices of the colonialists, that you and many African-Americans despised. I got arrested in front of the South African Embassy in Washington in 1985, protesting its racist apartheid policies. How tragic it would be if your embassies in Washington would be picketed because of human rights violations in some of your nations.
2. A friend of mine has suggested that too often, throughout the world, when people who have been oppressed by others achieve power, they imitate some of the practices of those who once oppressed them. My friend has said that this is a peculiar way of acting out the “Stockholm Syndrome.” We know this is the name given those who in captivity become sympathetic to their oppressors. Hopefully, leaders of those who have been oppressed throughout the world, once they become leaders, do not, through their actions, became oppressors of others as they were once oppressed.
3. I conclude by expressing concern for some of the anti-gay language and legislation and culture that has become evident in some African nations. I, hopefully with you, cannot comprehend why any of us who are black, and have known anti-black prejudice and bigotry, would support, sustain or be silent in the presence of anti-gay attitudes and actions. I do not believe this bigotry is rooted in African culture. Rather, I believe it is the result of faulty, insensitive and irresponsible biblical interpretations of some Western missionaries. The Bible that I affirm, and the Jesus who is the Lord of my life, is about love and liberation, not hatred and enslavement.
Years ago I first heard this as being the words of an African:
“When the missionaries first came, we had the land and they had the Bible. When they left, they had the land and we had the Bible.”
Bigotry, whether sustained by biblical interpretation, or by imitating the prejudices of others, has no place among people of African descent, whether they live on the continent of Africa, in the USA or anywhere else in the world.
The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell
One of the African-American clergy featured in the film “Love Heals Homophobia”