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Necessary History: A Pan-African’s Journey Home | Deneja Atkins

The road from Pan-Africanism’s past to present begins on Main Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, in a building called Tower Square. The Pan African Historical Museum USA (PAHMUSA), was founded in 1995, as a place to “preserve the local history of African Americans continued today. PAHMUSA is a hidden gem recently discovered by a Pan-Africanist of thirty years.

The first gallery has beautiful split burgundy and porcelain white walls. Standing with a slight lean towards the right side of her body, gripping onto a shiny gold cane, is Makeda. The fifty-seven-year-old Hartford native peers at a poster of civil rights advocate W.E.B. Du Bois. “The Pan-African Museum is a hidden gem because of what it has to offer. Its rich history unbeknownst to many.” Makeda attended Springfield College. A mere ten-minute ride from the museum.“I’ve considered myself a Pan-Africanist for at least thirty years and I wasn’t aware that this museum existed.” Makeda’s given name is Judi, but she prefers Makeda because, “My elders named me Makeda when I was like 20 years old when I started to question things that I was reading. It’s my conscious name. Makeda means fire.” 

Makeda with W.E.B. Dubois. | Photo Credit: Deneja Atkins

Every few steps, Makeda takes a moment to stop to catch her breath. Makeda was diagnosed with MS back in 2017. Since then, the debilitating disease has taken a toll on her physical health. The gallery is full of pictures of Africans who have made significant contributions to Pan-African history. The black frames hanging on the white walls make the wall appear endless. There is a picture of King Mansa Musa. He was well known for his generosity and for being the wealthiest man in history from gold. He ruled the Mali empire during the 14th century. Mansa Musa is a Pan-African figure many people from Generation Z were exposed to in grade school.

Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams coined the term Pan-Africanism. In 1900, he and other activists organized the first conference in London. Pan-African ideology emerged out of the exploitation and struggle of African people under European colonialism. The largest Pan-African meeting was held in 1958 in Ghana, West Africa. Pan-Africanism is the coming together of all Africans throughout the world to create economic, political, and cultural solidarity throughout the diaspora and the continent. Today, there are over thirty African countries that are Pan-African.   

Makeda takes off her glasses and extends her neck toward the picture frames. She is joined by PAHMUSA board member Dr. Andrew Keaton. Dr. Keaton is a robust man wearing jeans, a gray vest, and a navy blue long-sleeve shirt on a Friday afternoon. Dr. Keaton has a smooth butternut complexion with no facial hair and a round face that gives him a youthful appearance. Dr. Keaton nods his head forward to say hello. The way they greet each other is a consequence of how the pandemic has changed how people meet. People rarely shake hands today. Masks may be absent, but they keep an appropriate distance.

Dr. Keaton & Makeda. | Photo Credit: Deneja Atkins

The discussion turns to how each person feels about February being called Black History Month. Dr. Keaton is not fond of calling African people black and negro: “I had uncles, and I’m serious, if they heard you called somebody black, you were fighting.” Instead of being called black, Dr. Keaton prefers being called a Moor. Dr. Keaton is a practicing Moor. Moors are African Muslims who were from North Africa. As Dr. Keaton talks, Makeda nods her head. Then, she explains a color has no culture or history. She takes a brief pause, and seems to lose her train of thought. Losing her train of thought is a common symptom of MS. When she catches the train, she says, “It has no history attached to it. It’s just black and even though our ancestors describe themselves as black. They didn’t call themselves black.”

From this specific point in the conversation, these two may be on to something. Africans are not the only ones that call themselves a color. Europeans call themselves white. I stood there thinking about how I could excite my generation to study history. Generation Z has been prisoner in an educational curriculum that fails to expose students to world history. Western Civilization is the focal point and is mandatory for all students regardless of race or ethnicity. This is problematic. Students don’t know who they are outside of American History. The current debate around critical race theory is nothing more than an excuse to use whiteness as the foundation of America. Not prioritizing the inclusion of all races regardless of color is to continue to celebrate whiteness at the expense of students of color. This has led to self-hatred and shame. 

Makeda continues, “Relegating one month for our history is better than nothing, but it can’t be done, it’s so much. It’s world history.” Makeda’s eyes widen, and her voice raises, “African history is world history.” 

Dr. Keaton walks over to the main entrance of the museum and sits in a black folding chair. Makeda puts her left hand on my shoulder and we walk toward the back end of the museum where there is a magazine exhibit featuring old copies of Jet and Ebony. The first magazine that catches Makeda’s attention is Betty Shabazz on the cover of the June 1969 issue of Ebony “The Legacy of my Husband.” Shabazz was married to the late civil rights leader Malcolm X who was assassinated in 1965. The magazines are tattered and discolored, yet vibrant.  Makeda rubs her hand on a Jet magazine with James Brown on the cover titled “James Brown The Godfather of Soul.” Makeda whispers as if she is talking to herself, “Oh wow, I remember these. How times have changed.” Makeda gently places her fingers on an Ebony cover from February 1974 with a photo of a little black boy in a yellow sweater with the headline, “Take Life a Little Easier” followed by  “five-year-old with a million-dollar future.” The five-year-old with the short afro is named Rodney Allen Rippy, and he resembles the young Michael Jackson. Makeda points at the magazines. “Deneja, these were the first black-owned magazines. They were filled with black culture. We had a culture within a culture. This was pretty much how we got our news back then.”

Today, Essence magazine would be equivalent to Jet and Ebony. Jet stopped publishing in June 2014 and Ebony more recently in May 2019. The Jan/Feb issue of Essence celebrates Black History Month by featuring actress and model Lori Harvey.

Huey Newton’s Jacket. | Photo Credit: Deneja Atkins

Next to the magazines, Makeda walks over to the black leather jacket that belonged to Huey Newton hanging on a mannequin. She squints her eyes; “Can you believe this?” She rubs her hand through her shaved head: “Newton was an eloquent speaker who was murdered by the police. He taught himself to read. In 196, he and Bobby Seale created the Black Panther Movement. They believed in equality and justice for black people. The Panthers weren’t like Martin who believed in non-violence. They believed in both non-violence and violence.” Makeda runs her hands over the supple black leather jacket as if imagining Newton in the 1960s. There is a wicker chair to the right of Huey Newton’s jacket. Above the wicker chair, she sees a picture of Newton sitting in that same wicker chair with the same supple black leather jacket. Newton looks like a warrior with a spear in his left hand and a shotgun in his right hand. Newton has his lips pressed tightly together with his jaw thrust forward and his upper eyelids are raised while he stares intensely at the camera. He’s fierce and slightly intimidating. A display case a few feet from the wicker chair holds guns owned by the members of the Black Panthers Party. Makeda raises her cane toward the case, and she whispers, “Black people will never be free as long as we allow fear to rule us.” Makeda lowers her cane. “Pan-Africanism allows you to connect with black/African people regardless of language and cultural differences throughout the world. I think people need to understand that Pan-Africanism is no different than the relationship that white people have with each other globally. Regardless of where they are; they see each other as one. That is the idea. It is the same no matter where you are in the world you are able to connect.” 

Makeda passes the wicker chair and stops at an area of the gallery with menacing artifacts from the civil rights era. Makeda becomes silent for a few moments looking at the KKK flag and the KKK garments.

Klan Garments. | Photo Credit: Deneja Atkins

Makeda’s silence prompts the question, was Pan-Africanism an answer to racism in America? 

Yes and no,” she begins. “But I would like to add that racism is a concept that does not operate by itself. Racism is a tool that those who classify themselves as white use to carry out white domination. Also, Pan-Africanism was a behavior that black/Africans carried out before the first Africans met what we know as Europeans. It wasn’t created to put ourselves back together from a time when we naturally did things.”

After twenty minutes of walking around the museum, Makeda decides to sit down. While she seems upbeat and enthusiastic, she is fatigued. She keeps repeating “I have to make it back” several times. There are two additional galleries she has yet to visit. Makeda gets up from the chair and puts money into a glass box marked in red lettering Donation Box and situated just a few feet from the main entrance. Although it costs nothing to enter the museum, donated funds pay for the museum’s free programming.

Makeda and Dr. Keaton sit face to face discussing the museum’s calendar of events. They have an upcoming event about redefining soul food. Soul food is a controversial and heated topic because it dates back to the time when enslaved Africans had to create meals that were unhealthy just to survive. The majority of soul food consists of the unhealthiest parts of animals. For example, the slave master only wanted the parts of the pig that could make bacon, and then, they would throw the pig away. However, enslaved Africans did not have access to the same food the slave master had. Enslaved Africans took the pig intestines and made them into chitlins. Chitlins is a well-known soul food dish that is commonly eaten in the South. The idea of soul food is problematic because it raises health risks for African Americans. African Americans do not have the genetic makeup to break down excessive amounts of fat, sugar, sodium, and dairy.

Makeda and Dr. Keaton bid farewell and she promises to visit the museum in the future. As we walk through the mall to the exit I think of Gen Z and the national assault on black communities and culture, and the need for black Americans to unite in the face of legislation such as limits on the teaching of African American history. Luckily a new generation of scholars and educators speak directly to the Black experience. Makeda was born at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Her generation broke many racial barriers. Generation Z is now carrying the torch. The road to freedom is a process, not an event. The Pan-African Museum is a stop on the road to freedom.

Deneja Atkins is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.

Header Image courtesy of Deneja Atkins.

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

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