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West African Chronicles

The African Mahler

The African Mahler

On Saturday Night Live’s recent episode, Comedian Dave Chappelle, made his long anticipated debut after the election of Donald Trump in the U.S.  In the midst of emotions flaring high, protests overwhelmed television screens as News pundits and campaign surrogates debated over the influence of race in the 2016 US political environment.  There is no question that race was exploited by the inflamed rhetoric of the Republican Candidate Trump during his campaign.  His unexpected win over Democratic Candidate, Hillary Clinton shook the waves of the American electorate, sending students and citizens at-large into the streets and on social media platforms, expressing their disdain at the prospects of the future.  One of America’s greatest Comedians, Chappelle, took on the task of bringing things into context for those uncertain about how to accept the election results and move forward.

Chapelle walked unto the SNL stage after years of absence and delivered a profound monologue filled with political satire and historical contexts.  His monologue has been covered widely since, with many giving him praises for saying what needed to be said and in many ways, articulating the right words that many needed to hear to move forward.

During Chappelle’s monologue, he mentioned an interesting fact (to his knowledge he said), that renowned Abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, was the first to visit the White House.  He noted that President Abraham Lincoln had to personally escort Douglas through the gates of the White House, Douglas being a black man during the turn of slavery in America.  Chappelle then stated that the second time a black man visited the White House, was during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, which at that time, also received wide opposition, resulting in Roosevelt denouncing the visit in its aftermath.


President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and a young Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (right)

It may very well be Booker T. Washington’s visit to Roosevelt’s White House in 1901 that Chappelle was referring to.  It would also be interesting to note, that about 3 years after Booker T. Washington’s visit, another black man, the world renowned Composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, also graced the halls of this most important residence.

In 1904, Coleridge-Taylor visited the White House after an invitation from President Roosevelt, during a time when such occurrences, to Chappelle’s point, was indeed rare.  Coleridge-Taylor was not an African American like Douglas or Washington.  He was born in London, to an English Mother, and a Sierra Leonean Father.

By 1904, in an era when racial inequality had already experienced its depth of growth globally, Coleridge-Taylor had already achieved higher accolades in music, arguably, more than any other of African descent of his time.  His rise to glory may have well been more privileged than most, though by default of the color of his skin, he certainly was not immune to the social norms of the period.  Coleridge-Taylor attended the Royal College of Music, studying violin.  Becoming a Professor at the prestigious Crystal Palace School of Music, he evolved, through his work, as a world renowned Composer, usually labeled, the African Mahler.  Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ was noted to be one of his greatest works, compared by some, only to the German Composer, George Handel’s ‘Messiah’.  He went on to compose several works, which were greatly influenced not only by his Sierra Leonean ancestry, but also by the experiences of African Americans and their struggles for racial equality.   The admiration was reciprocated by other African Americans, such as renowned Poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African American Poet to receive national distinction.  Coleridge-Taylor and Dunbar both worked together in the 1890s, particularly in a collection of works called “African Romances”, to which Coleridge-Taylor composed the music, while Dunbar wrote the songs.  Coleridge-Taylor met Booker T. Washington and other prominent African Americans during his time.  W.E.B. Dubois visited Coleridge-Taylor and his family in Croydon, England, and, at other times, during his attendance at the Pan African Conferences.  The two strengthened their friendship over the years, with several correspondences between Dubois and Coleridge-Taylor’s son and daughter, frequently sending copies of his books, such as ‘The Souls of Black Folks’ to the family.  In 1901, the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society, a Choral Study club, was formed in Washington D.C. by about 200 African American composers.


Booker T. Washington (left), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (middle), W.E.B. Dubois (right)

During Coleridge-Taylor’s visit to the United States in 1904, an article was written in the New York Times in November, 1904 regarding the reception he received.  The article titled, “Visit of English Negro Composer Emphasizes American Prejudice”, centered on the raging prejudice of the Negro in America at the time, compared to that of England and around the world.   The writer emphasized the point that had Coleridge-Taylor been born in the US, he would have been termed a Negro and subjected to American prejudice, while in England he was known as the son of a Negro rather than an actual Negro, therefore seemingly receiving a pass for his color.  The writer seemed perplexed at the notion that a black man could be recognized for his merit rather than the basis of his race.   The writer, however, noted that many musical critics in D.C. at the time of the visit, who were mostly Southerners, could not ignore the excellence of the performances at the Coleridge-Taylor festival in Washington, noting that the songs produced from it, were some of the best ever heard in Washington D.C. in years.

Courtesy of The New York Times, Sunday November 27th, 1904, Page 4

Courtesy of The New York Times, Sunday November 27th, 1904, Page 4

Coleridge-Taylor visited the US several other times before his passing in 1912.  Honoring his legacy, several schools such as the Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky and the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland are named after him.

The different historical experiences of people of West African descent in Africa, Europe, and the Americas are certainly evident in the manner in which each group has been defined, evolved and progressed over the last decades.  Some during his time may have credited Coleridge-Taylor’s achievements to his being born and raised in Britain, a seemingly less racially prejudiced environment than the US.  However, Sierra Leone during the 19th and early 20th Centuries certainly disputes such perception, having produced black men and women from within West Africa, as acclaimed as Coleridge-Taylor, such as his own Father, Daniel Taylor.  Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Daniel Taylor became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1874 at the mere age of 25.  Daniel Taylor went on to serve as Temporary Colonial Surgeon in Sierra Leone and around the 1890s was supposedly the only Coroner in the then British Colony of Gambia.  Many others like Samuel and Daniel shared similar stories of achievement at a time when in other parts of the world, the odds would have been against them.

One cannot deny that the struggle against racial prejudice is certainly not exclusive to African Americans or those of African descent in the West.  W.E.B. Dubois went as far as Ghana and Booker T. Washington, Togo, to stretch beyond their individual pursuits for social and racial equality, just as their contemporary Coleridge-Taylor did for the U.S. as a Sierra Leonean-Briton.  The backbone network of individuals within each group influencing one or more of the others, emphasizes the notion that progress of one group, has almost always been beneficial to the others.

The last 8 years of the first African American President of the United States certainly redefined the racial climate in America, probably more than any other time before it.  Just over a hundred years ago, it was a startling reality that a black man could even be invited to the White House.  Coleridge-Taylor would have certainly been astonished had he been alive to see President Barack Obama inaugurated in 2008.  He probably would have been as surprised as everyone else, that just 8 years later, the new President-elect led a successful campaign on a rhetoric that, if acted upon, will turn back the hands of time in the worst ways imaginable.

The shared bonds of social justice and the fight for equality continue to be strengthened by the highlights of these experiences, when explored within the context of an interconnected historical journey of West Africans and its Diaspora.

More on this topic later.


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Akindele Decker is a Sierra Leonean poet and writer with ancestral links across West Africa and the other side of the Atlantic. He resides in Maryland, USA with his family.

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