Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey: An African Intellectual in the United States

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey: An African Intellectual in the United States

Article excerpt

"When men are intellectually greater than others, we learn from their utterances; when they are morally better than others, we learn from their lives." - J.E.K. Aggrey

After Booker T. Washington's death in 1915, James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey, sometimes called the "Father of African Education" or the "Booker T. Washington of Africa," was seen by some of his contemporaries of the 1920s as the leading proponent of Washington's accommodationist philosophy. Critics demonstrated Aggrey's advocacy of black-white cooperation by pointing to his "white and black piano keys" parable, which he repeated often: "You can play a tune of sorts on the white keys, and you can play a tune of sorts on the black keys, but for real harmony you must use both the black and the white."(1)

W. E. B. Du Bois castigated the industrial arts focus of both Washington and Aggrey for putting too much stress on teaching blacks manual skills rather than educating them to think. Actually, Aggrey was critical of both the "bread and butter" and the "knowledge for knowledge sake" approaches to education. In lectures on education that he gave in the United States and around the world, he emphasized that the ultimate aim of education was "the development of the socially efficient individual." Aggrey insisted that he believed in all types of education. Sounding very much like Joseph Charles Price, the first president of his alma mater, Livingstone College, Aggrey answered his critics with "By education, I do not mean simply learning. I mean the training in mind, in morals, and in hand that helps to make one socially efficient. Not simply the three R's, but the three H's: the head, the hand, and the heart." Aggrey stressed that he wanted "all my people to be educated in the larger sense." This included girls as well as boys. He believed that "No race or people can rise half-slave, half-free. The surest way to keep a people down is to educate the men and neglect the women. If you educate a man you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a family."(2) For Aggrey, education was training for the development of the skills and character which would be required for success in life. He believed strongly that "race vindication" for both Africans and African-Americans would come from an educated people who could demand equal treatment from whites.

It is important to note that Aggrey had a great deal of respect for Du Bois, whom he referred to as the "Moses" of his people. After the founding in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Aggrey corresponded with Du Bois, the NAACP publications director: "I want also especially to be connected if only temporarily with your office in New York this summer to study the ins and outs of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People." The idea of forming an organization for Africans similar to the African-American-focused NAACP, that would protest the exploited conditions and racist treatment of Africans, was something that appealed to Aggrey.(3) However, there appears to have been no further communication between these two men.(4)

It was in the 1920s that James Aggrey gained fame as one of the best known recipients of the progressive and Christian legacy of late nineteenth century West African intellectual life. For this group of Western-educated elite, their training and education had prepared them to assume leadership roles in their countries after control was wrested from the European colonizers. At independence this West African intelligentsia would be the natural successors to the Europeans because they were better educated than their African rivals, the traditional chiefs. After all, they had received a Western education and had been indoctrinated to Western "civilization" and culture, and now accepted some of its aspects.(5)

James Emman Kodwo Mensa Otsiwadu Humamfunsam Aggrey (he later shortened his name) was born, the eldest son of eight children, on Monday, October 18, 1875 at Anamabu in the British Gold Coast (present-day Ghana). …

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