[Archive] African + African American Influences On Black Artistic and Cultural Production: Reading George Shepperson and Kathy Ogren

In his essay, “Notes on Negro American Influences on the Emergence of African Nationalism” (1960), George Shepperson notes the ways in which African- Americans and people of African descent have contributed to and influenced the shaping of African nationalism and Pan-African ideology. He cites figures such as Marcus Garvey (Jamaican) and WEB Du Bois (African-American) as individuals who have had a hand in influencing African consciousness on the continent. Shepperson speaks of Marcus Garvey’s influence on Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of independent Ghana, and notes that Garvey’s pride and admiration for his own skin, and blackness at large, inspired African nationalism and fueled a sense of African pride. Particularly during WWI was when Pan-Africanism among African-Americans became quite strong and vocal, and it was during this time that WEB Du Bois published a seminal piece titled “The African Roots of War.” Post WWI was also when Du Bois held the Fifth Pan-African Congress. Shepperson claims that writings from Du Bois and from figures such as James Weldon Johnson heavily inspired Africans because these texts dealt with ideas of self-determination, advancement and the claiming of one’s rights. Arguably Du Bois’ ideologies were guiding principles that then became fundamental, founding principles of African nationalist movements on the continent during independence. Though Shepperson makes clear the influence of African-Americans on African nationalism and thought, he fails to recognize the exchange of influence by not touching upon the ways in which Africans have contributed to African-American cultural/artistic production.

Kathy Ogren’s piece, “What Is Africa To Me?: African Strategies in the Harlem Renaissance” (1994), seems to provide what Shepperson could not/did not. She offers a re-consideration and re-evaluation of the ways in which Black artistic, literary and intellectual expression came to be in the United States. Ogren makes clear that there was a mutual exchange of ideas and contributions between Africans and people of African descent. She argues Africans and Africa were essential in African-American artistic and literary production during the early 20th century (when the Harlem Renaissance was birthed). She strongly highlights this point by opening her essay with a poem on Africa by Countee Cullen, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Ogren notes that African themes/motifs serve as influential devices for “Negro” expression in art, music, and literature, and this is a key point that Shepperson does not venture to mention. Alaine Locke’s anthology “The New Negro,” for Ogren, exemplified the heavy influence of African consciousness on the fashioning of the Black Arts movement. The anthology includes essays that hinge upon Pan-African ideologies and ruminations on or about Africa, and Ogren argues the book served as a way to establish a connection between prominent African-American thought leaders and Africa. For Ogren, the “New Negro" of the 20th century, equipped with cultural, social and artistic agency, is therefore fashioned and conditioned by influences from Africa and an African consciousness.  

*This was originally written in 2015