Ghanaians put their arms around New York

Kwame Nkrumah

“New Yorkers Put Arms Around Dr. K. Nkrumah” read the June 1951 New York Amsterdam News report about the future president of Ghana’s stop in the city. Nkrumah’s itinerary took him to his Alma Mater, Lincoln University, where he gave the commencement speech and was conferred an honorary degree. Unlike on his maiden journey to America where his stop in the city was to find shelter on the way to college in Pennsylvania, Nkrumah held audience with Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri in his private quarters at City Hall.

On a recent Thursday evening, 66 years later and commemorating the 60th anniversary of Ghana’s independence, Nkrumah’s spirit was on display at the City Hall Chambers where the city’s council members meet. Interior decorations of the city’s insignia, a golden frieze as well as figures from the ceiling’s murals looked unto an audience of about 150 people lead by Bronx Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson, Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark, a contingence from the Ghanaian Permanent Mission to the United Nations as well as community leaders from all the boroughs.

At a podium in front of the New York City, New York State and American flags as well a towering statue of Thomas Jefferson, Mohammed Lamin Ali in a white Kufi and stripped black and white batakari channeled the revolutionary Ghanaian leader. He dramatized and recited his speech at the dawn of independence (“we must realize from now on we are no longer a colonial but free and independent people”) that incited the crowd to cheers.

While at Lincoln University, Nkrumah would often travel down to Harlem. Here, the theology student would most often preach in local churches as he did back in Philadelphia, but perhaps just as importantly, he met thinkers like CLR James and Arturo Schomburg, encountered a thought of Marcus Garvey and was inspired by a pride for Africa that stood in sharp contrast with the colonial situation back in the Gold Coast.

Today, according to the Bronx Council Member Vanessa L Gibson, 30,000 of the 235,000 Ghanaian immigrants to the US call New York City home. “We are all Africans through our culture and it is not about the birth certificate” said the councilwoman overseeing the 16th District, which has one of the highest concentration of Ghanaians in the city. She cited Nkrumah’s famous declaration that “I am not African because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me” to drive the point home.

The Councilwoman issued Proclamations from the City recognizing Professor Yaw Nyarko of NYU and H.E Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee for their “incredible contributions to the city.” Dr Nyarko a professor of Economics at NYU is Co-Director of the Development Research Institute as well as the founding director of NYU’s Africa House. H.E Martha Pobee, a 30 year veteran of Ghana’s foreign service and currently Ghana’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, dedicated her recognition to “Ghanaian women everywhere.”

“My presence here” she added, “is a testament to what women can do if they apply themselves and if they are given the support by their country and people.” Emphasizing her amazement to be “honored by a people with whom we were linked centuries ago” she mentioned the spiritual connection she feels to African Americans today and joked about confusing Black Americans on the street often for old friends from Kumasi.

Also citing Nkrumah’s 6th of March speech that “the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa” Mr. Victor Essien, a law professor from Fordham University who was also honored on the night instructed the audience in his keynote to keep in mind “as we Ghanaians accept this honor, to think that this recognition is meaningless unless it it is linked with the recognition of all immigrants, be they Muslim, Christian or Jew;  Africans, Europeans or Asians.” He cited the examples of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Victor Lawrence, Thomas Mensah and other Ghanaian immigrants to the US who had achieved global acclaim to convey that the “success of Ghanaian immigrant population is a part of long story of immigrants in America.” The 30,000 Ghanaians might not be of Nkrumah’s star power, but like other immigrants crucial to the economy of this city and the country as a whole, they are the ones putting their arms around New Yorkers.

Anakwa Dwamena

Anakwa Dwamena is a reporter-researcher at the New Republic.

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