On July 21st, 1969, 4,000 artists converged on Algiers for the first Pan-African Cultural Festival. Representing 31 nations from across the continent, painters, poets, photographers, musicians and intellectuals transformed the streets into a meeting place of creative culture. Energy, idealism and optimism abounded as for the next ten days the Algerian capital pulsated to the sound of music and debate long into the hot, balmy nights. It was without doubt a high point in post-independence Africa. Coming together in this way, the Algiers Festival embodied the belief that, free from imperialism at last, Africans had the capacity to shape their own history.
The idea for a Pan-African Cultural Festival originated with the Organisation of African Unity two years earlier. Algeria was chosen to host and coordinate the event because of its unique place within the decolonisation process. This was the country that had fought the longest and bloodiest war of liberation, winning independence from France in 1962 after eight years of conflict and 132 years of colonial rule. This was the country, too, whose struggle had produced the prophet of the African revolution: Frantz Fanon (1925-61).
Born in Martinique, Fanon volunteered to fight for the Free French in the Second World War. After the war he trained in psychology in Lyon, where he wrote his radical personal analysis of racism and colonialism, Black Skin, White Masks (1951). In 1953 Fanon moved to Algeria to work as a psychiatric doctor just south of Algiers. Three years later, appalled by the French use of torture in the Algerian War, he resigned his government post and aligned himself to the Algerian cause. Thereafter, in his writings Fanon analysed with uncompromising rigour the connection between economic domination, racism and the European 'civilising mission'. Most controversially in his last work, The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Fanon asserted it was the peasants in Africa and not the industrial working class in Europe who were the standard bearers of world revolution. Through the violent overthrow of colonialism they represented a new beginning for humanity.
Although Fanon died in 1961, his ideas infused the Algiers festival. The connection between political, cultural and psychological liberation was everywhere. The festival was a celebration of African cultures, so long ignored or misunderstood by the colonisers: a cathartic event that aimed to 'decolonise the mind' by breaking away from European modes of thought.
An extension of this was the theme of the unfinished anti-colonial revolution. The festival brought into focus the struggles against Portuguese colonialism in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, as well as the fight against apartheid in South Africa and white minority rule in Rhodesia. It also stressed the link with the Afro-American diaspora: the lost sons and daughters of the continent. Pride in African roots had been one of the cornerstones of the rising tide of black radicalism in the US, manifested across the spectrum in politics, literature and music. …