In Remembrance of Brother Elombe
Commentaries On the Times
Pleading the cause of African Peoples
Praise Song for a Tireless Pan-African Soldier φ
A more committed fighter for black liberation
Has yet to be born
And his mother is dead
Now that he has danced and joined the pantheon of honored ancestors
We shall never see his like again
For when the Gods fashioned Elombe Brath
They smashed the mold
I first met Elombe Brath at the Speaker’s Corner, which was at the intersection of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in his beloved Harlem, 52 years ago. There was no state office building there at the time, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. – for whom the building is named and whose statue now stands on that spot, – was alive and well and giving the southern redneck crackers hell…… in the halls of Congress. Where the State Office building now stands was Michaux’s book store – which displayed a sign over the entrance that announced: “The House of Proper Propaganda!”
There one could purchase every book on black history and radical political thought in print. It was a worthy annex to the Schomburg Collection, the largest collection of materials on the black world to be found anywhere. It was here that leaders of the newly liberated African nations and revolutionary movements fighting to rid Africa of all vestiges of European colonialism on the continent spoke to the people of Harlem.
Kwame Nkrumah, who led the first Ghana, sub-Saharan African nation to independence spoke there; Robert Mugabe spoke there just before he negotiated the independence of Zimbabwe at Whitehall in Britain, and the great Madiba, Nelson Mandela spoke there right after he was released from the prisons of the Apartheid South African government. Elombe was the Master of Ceremonies on that great day and he invited Duruba bin Wahad, an Afro-American revolutionary who had spent 27 years in the prisons of racist America, just as Mandela had done in South Africa, to speak.
This corner was also where home grown Pan-Africanist revolutionaries like Carlos Cook – who first tutored Elombe in Black Nationalism – “Pork Chop Davis,” Malcolm X, and Drs. Ben and John Hendrik Clarke held forth in grand orations that recounted the African past, envisioned the redemption of the motherland and called for a renaissance that would create a modern African culture capable of producing a mighty civilization that could defend African peoples against European domination everywhere. It was an incubator of revolutionary freedom dreams, a place where revolutionaries came for spiritual fortification and freedom highs.
It was here that a curious Vietnamese sailor – who visited New York on a French freighter and was chased uptown by white racist who told him his place was in Harlem – accidentally stumbled upon a rally where the great orator and Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey was holding forth. He was so inspired by what he witnessed on this corner that he went home and began organizing a nationalist movement in his country. When white folks heard of him again he had crushed the French army at Dien bien Phu, and was known to the world as Ho Chi Mien!
This is the corner where Elombe and I first met. I was up on a ladder, as was the custom at the time, running down an impassioned Marxist rap. Standing below me checking me out with a blasé stare was this sharp dude, a Harlem hep cat who looked to smooth to move. He held a stack of what seemed to be magazines under his arm, and he was accompanied by another dude fumbling with a camera who kind of favored him and I surmised that they must be related.
I thought I was really droppin science, the “Science of Society,” as I had been told by my political tutors – a very impressive group of older black radical leftist intellectual/activists that Queen Mother Moore had recently introduced me too. But when I came down from the ladder, the guy with the magazines said “Where you from Jack….that stuff you talkin went outta style in the forties here in Harlem. Revolutionary Pan-African Nationalism is what’s happenin now brother….you got to check out George Padmore Brother…Pan-Africanism or Communism!”
He introduced himself as Ronnie Brathwaite, and the other guy as his brother Cecil – they would later become Elombe and Kwame. Before I could recover from his cavalier dismissal of my speech, he dropped a copy of the magazine on me; which turned out to be a softback book of cartoons titled “Color Us Cullud.”
I took the book and when I got back to Philadelphia, where I was living at the time, I gave it a close reading and was thoroughly fascinated by its contents. To say that I had never seen cartoons of such power and irreverence is an understatement. I had seen scandalous cartoons before, such as the notorious “Tijuana Bibles,” which featured all of the most popular cartoons from the nation’s newspapers and animated shorts in the movie theaters that preceded the feature films, performing pornographic acts.
But these cartoons were irreverent in a different way: they were incendiary political statements. I can still remember some of those cartoons as if Elombe gave them to me yesterday, such was their power. In fact, one of his biggest fans was Malcolm X – even tho he took a little swipe at them too.
Although most people know Elombe as a tireless activist, compelling orator and walking archive of the African revolution who seemed to have the entire history of the modern African struggle against European colonialism neatly filed in his head, and could call it up in detail at will…the Griot of the African revolution. He was all that and more.
Yet Elombe was by training and sensibility an artist. He was the first person I ever met who viewed art as a potent weapon for liberation and knew how to wield it with the devastating effect of a Zulu warrior with an assegai. Since Elombe was a Black Nationalist he was naturally skeptical of, and even hostile to, the integrationist ideology that was the dominant trend in the mid-twentieth century.
He belonged to a tradition that had been the reigning ideology of black Americans in the mid-19th century, a time when secular black intellectuals like Dr. Martin Delaney and Robert Campbell as well as scholarly clergymen like Bishop Alexander Crummell and Edward Wilmont Blyden were all ardent nationalists and emigrationist that actually travelled to Africa on a mission of redemption. They were Pan-Africanists before the term was invented.
The great scholar on this subject, Professor Wilson Jeremiah Moses, tells us in his seminal book, “On the Wings of Ethiopia,” that Black Nationalist ideology was so pervasive during this period, when millions of Africans in America were regarded as livestock under southern laws crafted by slave masters, that it is virtually impossible to distinguish black Christianity from Black Nationalism.
This is the tradition that Marcus Garvey inherited and plugged into when he arrived in Harlem from Jamaica during the second decade of the 20th century, and explains why he was able to build a mass movement based on Black Nationalist ideology among the black minority in America and not in the West Indies where there was a black majority.
Elombe Brath belonged to this tradition and forged and ideology that was much like that of Kwame Nkrumah, who defined his philosophy of liberation as being part Garveyism and part Marxist. I think Dr. Clark pegged him just right when he said “Elombe is a good Garveyite and a middling Marxist.”
Hence Elombe’s political cartoons reflected his nationalist ideology and contempt for integrationist doctrine, just as Bishop Crummell expressed his contempt for integrationist in the 19th century by constantly referring to the great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass as “that mulatto showman!” For instance, among Elombe’s drawings was a cartoon of SNCC activist marching with a big banner that read “Masochism is our Stick Baby!”
His thinly veiled reference to Dr. King as “Reverend Eat A. Chicken Wing,” or his series of caricatured images of Sammy Davis Jr. under the headline “Sammy Davis Jr. is a Race Man…racing after white women, racing after white society, etc were poignant statements that raised the art of the political cartoon to a high level.. It is a testament to the power of these images and their biting witty scandalous captions that I remember them so graphically after half a century!
It was Elombe’s remarkable understanding of the power of art to inspire and fuel a movement for liberation that led him, in conjunction with his brother Kwame, to found the African Jazz Art Society in 1956 and recruit the great Jazz artists Max Roach and Abby Lincoln – the First Couple of what would soon become the Blacks Arts Movement in the 1960’s – to join them in their effort to create and promote a revolutionary black art. There are some highly influential art movements whose origins can be traced to a particular time and place.
For instance DaDa, – a European art of random choice born of a loss of faith in organized modern technological civilization in the aftermath of the barbarism of World War I – can be traced to the Café Voltaire in Geneva Switzerland. And the Bebop revolution, in which Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny “Klook” Clarke transformed modern western music, can be located in Minton’s Playhouse here in Harlem.
Thus the Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s, which changed the cultural consciousness of African Americans, began with the founding of the African Jazz Art Society in New York City. While others have emerged in popular lore as “The Father of the Black Arts Movement,” the real fathers of the movement are Elombe, Kwame and Max Roach. For the record, when these Brothers founded the African Jazz art Society, Leroi Jones, who would become Amiri Baraka over a decade later, was happily married to Hettie Cohen, living in Greenwich Village, and was a leading poet in the Beat literary movement.
By virtue of the fact that Elombe was an artist he saw the black struggle in visual terms, and he was well aware that black people everywhere were inundated with racist images designed to degrade us, to portray us as less attractive than the lighter races. If virtue itself was white, and God was a blue eyed white man with long flowing blond hair, then where does that leave those of us who are “of the deepest dye” – as the 18th century black scientist and designer of Washington DC Benjamin Banneker described himself in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, accompanied by a mathematical treatise, defending the intellect, indeed the humanity, of the African.
Elombe, like the great Afro-Brazilian scholar/activist Abdias do Naciemento, saw attacking the white standard of beauty as fundamental to the psychological liberation of black people who had suffered centuries of slavery and racial discrimination. Do Nascimento addressed the problem by organizing beauty contests for black women and mulatto women in Brazil, and The African Jazz Art Society, which combined jazz performances with exhibitions of visual art, added fashion shows by the Grandassa Models, stunning black women with Afro hair styles and Afrocentric clothing.
They would host shows with titles like “Naturally 63.” I remember when they came to Philadelphia to do a show and I thought I had stumbled into an African wonderland, where Black was unquestionably beautiful. It was a revelation to many people. Hence the slogan “black is beautiful,” natural hair styles and Afro-centric dress all started at the African Jazz Art Society, and spread across black America…and then the black world, like wildfire.
I know whereof I speak because I witnessed it! What is all the more remarkable is that Kwame and Elombe were teenagers when they first came up with some of these ideas. They began by promoting Jazz concerts in the Bronx and their first artist was the great Betty Carter – which is a demonstration of their exquisite artistic taste. And furthermore they did this without following the dictates of some well formulated theory, figuring it out as they went about. When they encountered obstacles they just improvised like the performances of the Jazz musicians they so admired.
Like Duke Ellington, who came to New York as an art student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn but found his greater calling in music, Elombe would find a greater calling in revolutionary struggle. And just as Duke’s training as a visual artist greatly influenced the character of his music, Elombe’s essential artist’s soul affected his approach to politics. Both Duke and Elombe were brilliant autodidacts, self-taught men who made highly original contributions in their chosen field of endeavor.
In this sense Elombe belongs to a larger tradition of the broadly learned activist autodidact. The tradition of Frederick Douglas, CLR James, J. A. Rogers, Hubert Harrison, John Hendrik Clarke, Queen Mother Moore, James Boggs, Harold Cruse, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, et al. Although Elombe never got a college degree, I don’t know any academic that had a greater command of the facts regarding the African liberation movement, and its relationship to the world revolutionary movements of the 20th century.
I say this having taught African history and politics in the WEB Dubois Department of Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts, alongside Chreif Guelal, who was a central committee member of the Algerian National Liberation Front, that fought and won one of the greatest revolutions in the twentieth century, and had served as an aid de camp to Dr. Franz Fanon, one of the most profound black revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century.
The liberation of African peoples is an amazingly complex subject that requires knowledge of European, Asian, and Latin American history and political affairs. The program Elombe hosted for many years on WBAI, “Afrikalidescope,” was a vital forum for serious informed discussion of African issues that has no counterpart in American media.
As an activist we can only marvel at the scope of his interests and the source of his energy. He was a soldier in the struggle 24/7. It is as if he felt that the weight of the entire black world was on his shoulders. I remember being at a party once and Elombe disappeared. When I asked where he was, somebody said “He’s probably in the bathroom holding a meeting!”
It is nothing short of amazing that, working without any kind of foundation or philanthropic support, Elombe managed to carry on the work of providing support for leaders of African liberation movements exiled in the US. For half a century! Beginning in 1975 this work was conducted under the auspices of the Lumumba Coalition, an organization Elombe founded and named in honor of Patrice Lumumba, the assassinated leader of the independence movement in the Belgium Congo who became its first Prime Minister. Some of the African revolutionaries Elombe supported became important government officials after winning independence.
Thus he could have left the US and spent his later years as an honored guest in Africa, but he never abandoned our struggle. He visited Africa, basked in the abundant accolades, yet he always returned to the protracted struggle on the home front, much of it as a member of the December 12th Coalition, and remained a fighter until the end – a noble warrior carried out on his shield. Remarkably, commitment to the struggle for the advancement of the black working class seems to be encoded in the genes of this family.
In Barbados, the ancestral home of the Braithwaite family, Elombe’s cousin, Clenell Wickham, waged a long fight in behalf of black workers from his position as an Editor of the Herald, a local newspaper, during the era of British colonialism. Yet throughout his many years in the fight, Elombe maintained a job as a graphic artist at WABC television, where he was a strong union man and shop steward, going in to work on the graveyard shift after a day of movement activity.
He was there when Gil Nobel came to ABC to host Like It Is; he reached out to Gil and his contributions to the character of that show is beyond measure….and was responsible for much of its popularity among serious movement people. Elombe was responsible for virtually all of the coverage of African issues, after all before coming to ABC Gil was a newsman on black radio. He, like most of the black newsmen in major white media at the time, was hired as a result of the black urban rebellions when white reporters were afraid to go into black communities to cover the story.
Gil Noble had not spent his life dealing with African issues and radical Afro-American American movements like Elombe; hence Gil was mightily instructed by their association. The fact that both of them were Jazz lovers – Gil was a pretty good pianist – no doubt helped to cement their relationship.
Any remembrance of the life of Elombe must point out that, unlike all the so-called “revolutionaries” who claim they were too busy making the revolution to marry their baby’s mama and raise their kids, Elombe was a steadfast husband and father who along with his wife of many years, Helene Normsa Brath, a former Grandassa Model, raised seven sons in Harlem. His wife homeschooled some of them and they went on to college, none of them went to jail!
If this were his lone achievement in these trouble times, it would be worthy of sustained applause. My standards for heroes are rigorous; hence I have few of them. Elombe was at the top of my list, a hero worthy of our youths; the highest expression of manhood. A mighty tree has fallen in Harlem….and we are all poorer because of it. So I say to my departed comrade: Hail and farewell!
Harlem New York
May 27, 2014
**Photos of Elombe by: Kwame Brathwaite
Photo of Kwame by: Playthell Benjamin