CENTENARY OF THE FIRST UNIVERSAL RACES CONGRESS
The month of July marks the Centenary of the First Universal Races Congress. The Congress participants included university academics and other researchers as well as distinguished public figures and persons with strong ethical concerns; all the major regions of the world and all human groups were represented.
The University of London was the venue for the Congress which took place from July 26 to July 29, 1911. The organizers of the Congress had a very high-minded purpose: 'to discuss, in the light of science and the modern conscience, the general relations subsisting between the peoples of the West and those of the East, between so-called white and so-called coloured peoples, with a view to encouraging between them a fuller understanding, the most friendly feelings, and a heartier co-operation.'
A Nigerian, Dr. Mojola Agbebi, who was then the Director of the Niger Delta Mission based in Lagos, was the only participant from West Africa. His paper was entitled 'The West African Problem.' I have just referred to Dr. Agbebi, a Yorubaman, as a Nigerian; but strictly speaking that is not correct. Nigeria did not exist in 1911; therefore, there were no Nigerians. Nigeria as a political state came into existence three years later in 1914.
The Paradox of Race
A truly dispassionate discussion of race was an absolute necessity, given the prevalent stereotypes, myths and misconceptions about human races at the turn of the twentieth Century. Even now, 100 years later, racial stereotyping and racism remain a major global problem. And the idea of race still does call for a great deal of research, honest conversation, and reflection. An aspect of the problem is that race is not always what it seems to be; it is a paradoxical concept in the sense that the more consistently we apply logic to its study, the more uncertain our knowledge of it is.
Take the expression 'white race'; we all know what the colour white looks like. Thus, even a three-year old can tell which shirt is white and which is not. Now let's think logically. Have you ever seen a white person? A really white person? Many readers know that Barack Obama is the current President of the United States; they have also heard that he is the first black American President. Let's be logical; is President Obama black?
We all know what black looks like - remember the school blackboard? If he should be called black because he has a Kenyan father, would he be called white if he had the same looks but had an English father and a Kenyan mother? There is simply no logic to our conception and use of the word race. To talk logically about race, we need a new set of vocabulary. Others argue that we should simply expunge the word race from our languages.
Highlights of the Congress
Over the four days of the First Universal Races Congress, there were eight sessions in which 60 papers were presented covering various aspects of human races: philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, geography, theology, history, politics, biology (genetics and taxonomy), economics and law. The Congress proceedings were published in London and in Boston.
The main conclusions were summarized by Gustav Spiller, the Congress Secretary; they give a flavour of the state of knowledge, progressive thinking, and beliefs about race and race relations 100 hundred years ago. Below are some of the highlights.