Global Black Culture: Celebrating Americanness at Festac 77

This month marks the anniversary of a watershed moment in global black culture and knowledge production. In January 1977, over four hundred black American artists traveled to Lagos, Nigeria to participate in Festac 77, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. From their meeting in the lobby of John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to the touchdown of their chartered plane fourteen hours later, a crowd including Paule Marshall, Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka, Houston Baker, Jayne Cortez, and Stevie Wonder debated the latest episode of the wildly popular ABC-miniseries based on Alex Haley’s Roots.

It is hard to imagine a more appropriate cultural referent than Haley’s diasporic epic. Hosted by the Nigerian government in a specially constructed festival town within the city limits of its capital Lagos, Festac was a month-long celebration of “Black art, culture, and spiritual regeneration.” Authors such as Marshall, Lorde, and Baraka, and performers like Wonder presented their work to a diverse and massive audience. As Marshall observed in her 2009 memoir Triangular Road, thousands united in a “praise song” of the Americans, the continent’s “lost children” who had emerged as the embodiment of the global struggle against white supremacy.

Indeed, silently underlying Festac and its astounding spectacles was an overarching political goal of which a celebration of culture only represented the tip of the iceberg. The festival provided an important space to discuss strategies, parallels, and differences across national contexts, all while celebrating the rich and diverse cultures of the African diaspora that were themselves a testament to resilience and community in the face of white supremacy. With delegations from fifty-five countries and an estimated 17,000 participants total, Festac was a momentous occasion.

However, the month-long celebration was just the culmination of a lengthy preparation process. For the American delegation, with participation marred by internal discord and the virtual absence of press coverage during the festival, it was the preparation process itself that brought visibility. The negotiations, especially as they pertained to the government, helped reconceptualize what it meant to be black in the United States, and what goals might be formulated collectively in the wake of formal civil rights.

On November 17, 1976, U.S. ambassador to Nigeria Donald B. Easum sent an urgent classified telegram from the U.S. embassy in Lagos, Nigeria, to the Bureau of African Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, fifty-five hundred miles to his west. The topic was FESTAC 77, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. Originally scheduled for November 1974, the month-long celebration had been postponed several times already due to both political instability in the region—a military coup in July of 1975 had ousted General Yakubu Gowon, the festival’s patron—and “technical problems” in the construction of infrastructure related to the “convenience, health, and transportation” of the anticipated 500,000 spectators and performers.

In the telegram, Easum reiterated the importance of Festac, providing a list of desired performers and participants to ensure that the “minimal expectations” of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria (FMG) and the International Festival Committee (IFC) were met. In the embassy’s appraisal, the U.S. would have to send at least “four stars/star groups (such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown),” as well as 4 dance groups, 4 dramatic groups, 6 music groups, 5-10 graphic artists, 10-12 crafts artists, 5-10 participants each in literature, cinema, and photography events, 15 academics, sixty performers, and a supporting crew of at least eighty technicians.1 Over the course of the next two months—and preceded by years of initial planning—an intense debate took form between politicians, artists, festival organizers, and the press over whom to invite, how to fund them, and what the value of their contributions might be.

This value was assessed both in financial and ideological terms, but was by no means strictly predicated upon the festival’s six principal aims as articulated by the organizers. Rather, the great lengths to which the U.S. embassy and the Department of State went to ensure strong African American attendance at Festac 77 cannot be seen separately from the Cold War context. Official state correspondence demonstrates that the government was acutely aware of the favorable publicity that American attendance might generate within Africa, and it consequently sought to choreograph the U.S. contingent’s every move. However, the complicating factor here was that the government was not officially in charge: U.S. and Canadian attendance was orchestrated by the North American zone committee (NAZ), a subgroup within the larger International Festival Committee, chaired by esteemed visual artist and educator Jeffrey R. Donaldson. While the NAZ worked alongside the US government, they did not work within it, nor did the artists themselves comply with all NAZ and government requests.

Andrew Young, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations at a meeting of the Subcommittee on African Affairs of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

The main efforts of the U.S. Department of State surrounding Festac centered on Andrew Young, the newly appointed US ambassador to the United Nations. Young had been a close friend of Martin Luther King, and had risen to international attention as the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Now, in office for a mere week, Young was to travel to Nigeria in what a confidential communique called a “master stroke for public relations.”2 He had campaigned for more government funding to send black Americans to Festac, and was acutely aware of the significance that the festival held for U.S. Cold War policy goals. At a press conference at Atlanta’s Martin Luther King center in December 1976, Young—then the ambassador-elect advocated for heavy funding of the U.S. delegation. He pointed to Nigeria’s political influence on the African continent and the economic importance of Nigerian oil to the United States (“it was the good relationship with Nigeria [that enabled] the U.S. to survive for eighteen months during the Arab oil embargo”).3

More poignantly, Young revealed himself a strong proponent of a type of Cold War cultural diplomacy that had first proved so fruitful to the U.S. in its ping pong diplomacy vis-a-vis China. Young remarked that “we put far too little into cultural exchange. We’ve sent them guns and bombs for the last eight years, but we can make more friends with food and culture.” He directly critiqued the government by demanding to know “When is it that the American government is going to bring top American talent to Africa?” Record companies also bore the brunt of his critique. Like food, to Young selling records was a way to gain friends.

The State Department supported Young’s views. According to the embassy, Nigeria’s new military general, Olusegun Obasanjo, who had taken over after Murtala Mohammed was assassinated, would “enthusiastically welcome [Young] as a member of his VIP party” to the country’s Durbar—an annual Muslim festival featuring elaborate parades and ceremony, and well-attended by other heads of state. Indeed, Young was the “star VIP” of the event, his body combining the “blackness of Africa with American superpower and spectatorship.”4 Through his very physicality, Young offered a rebuke to Soviet narratives of persistent American racism.

However, the NAZ had different goals; they did not mistake surface representation for structural change, and refused to have the government dictate the terms of engagement. Festac first and foremost served as a corrective, political and cultural, to the universalizing of Eurocentric perspectives.Symbolically, the terms of US participation moved black voices to the heart of the conversation. As the committee summarized in a reflection on the festival,

Unlike Dakar in ‘66 the U.S. participation was not dictated to from outside of the Black community…We were viewed as a Black Government in exile and unlike Cuba and Brazil which also have large African populations our participation was without U.S. Government sponsorship. For the first time in the international arena of Black Culture Black people from the U.S. truly were in total control.5

Even in this statement, the hierarchies that fractured the Afrodiasporic community surfaced—the comparative invocation of Cuba and Brazil as communities that were not (yet) fully in charge ignores the different economic and political realities that bracketed their participation.

Audre Lorde in 1980 (Photo Credit: K. Kendall)

The relative absence of governmental meddling was a remarkable feat. It also ensured that the contingent of artists making the trip to Nigeria was outspoken, critical, and diverse. Unsurprisingly, this led to almost instant tension.  Maulana Karenga’s forceful cultural nationalism and his masculinist language, while elating the audience, sat uneasy with Paule Marshall and Audre Lorde, who wrote that the subtext of Festac was decidedly heterosexual. As Alexis de Veaux recounts in Warrior Poet, Lorde, “unwilling to make herself the target of further isolation decided that it was “safer to appear straight.” Marshall wrote of various groups within the US contingent trying to “drown each other out” during the opening ceremonies.

The organizational difficulties surrounding Festac, and some of this discord, might help explain why it hardly received coverage in the US.  The most extensive (and most oft-cited article in studies of Festac ‘77) was a beautiful eleven-page photo editorial essay by Alex Poinsett, published in the May 1977 edition of Ebony, an article that rendered the festival in wholly positive terms.

However, other forces were also at play. As Adebayo Ogunby of Michigan State University suggested in a letter to Ebony, the glaring scarcity of coverage during the event was to blame on the press’ penchant for negative news: “What do you expect when the festival was not a coup d’etat, civil war, or some other catastrophic event?,” he wrote. Visual media was not much better, as it was only performances by American superstars like Stevie Wonder that were broadcast via satellite, and even then “marred by the absence of sound and constantly interrupted pictures.”

Of course, no explanation for the absence of coverage is possible without considering the whiteness of mainstream media and the truths it skews and fabricates. Festac did not affirm the stereotypical narratives that circulated about Africa. It modeled black excellence en masse. Unlike a sole figure like Young, the mainstream was not yet ready to embrace 17,000 examples, wide-ranging in scope and depth, of what global black culture meant and could do. But Festac wasn’t intended for the mainstream; its groundbreaking results lay in how it combined the cultural and the political, and inspired a new generation of Black American activism.

Suzanne Enzerink is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Brown University. Her dissertation focuses on racial triangulation and racial ambiguity in transnational visual and literary productions of the Cold War. Her writing has appeared in American Quarterly and The Rumpus. Follow her on Twitter @suzanneenzerink.

  1. “Participation in Festac.” Telegram ID: 1976LAGOS13025_b, November 17, 1976. From Lagos, Nigeria to the U.S. Department of State.
  2. “Ambassador Young’s Visit to Africa.” Canonical ID: 1977LAGOS00941_c. January 27, 1977. From Lagos, Nigeria to the Bureau of International Organization Affairs and the U.S. Department of State.
  3.  Mathias A. Odoemele, “Rep. Young Calls for More U.S. Support of Black Arts Festival in Lagos, Nigeria.” The Atlanta Daily World, December 28, 1976: 3.
  4. Andrew Apter, “Festac for Black People: Oil Capitalism and the Specter of Culture in Nigeria.” Passages 6.1 (1993): 1-13.
  5.  “FESTAC ‘77: The Official Statement of the USA/FESTAC Committee.” April 8, 1977. Quoted from Tobias Wofford (2011) Africa as Muse: The Visualization of Diaspora in African American Art, 1950-1980 (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation) University of California, Los Angeles. Emphasis in the original.
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