by Dr. Matthew QuestEducator and popular historian Sister Tchaiko R. Kwayana (1937-2017) taught in Africa, South America and the US. A forerunner of the Black Power and Black studies movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, she also challenged post-civil rights, post-colonial independence black-led regimes where they emerged as authoritarian and oppressive, betraying the goals of national liberation and Black autonomy.
Sister Tchaiko Kwayana: An Original Educator of the African World
by Matthew QuestKwayana was born Annie Florence Elizabeth Cook in 1937. She was raised in the small town of Buena Vista, Georgia. As a year old baby in her father’s arms, she was introduced to Jim Crow white supremacy at the point of a gun and was disturbed by degrading threats, as her father wished to get her water from a local restaurant.
She grew up experiencing segregation at restaurants, movie theaters, denial of access to public swimming pools, the ever-present danger of being swindled out of one’s land. She didn't learn to ride a bicycle or swim for fear by her parents of foul play. They protected her in a Southern culture where mutilated black bodies could be found lynched, at the bottom of wells, or in gutters. But she was also raised in an African American community that prided itself on self-reliance.
Her father, Rev. James John Cook, was a Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) minister, and her mother Mrs. Dorthula Theresa Coan Cook, cut wood in her South Carolina sharecropping home, and worked as a live-in maid in New York to send her brothers and sisters and herself to college.
Her father taught by example that the proper measure of respect with white people was not simply whether they called you by your first or last name, or treated you professionally in a customer service setting while in reality keeping you in your subordinate place. Key for Rev. Cook was whether white people respected you enough to listen to you, discuss philosophy, worldviews, and lend each other books. Those whites whom wished to keep black people in their place did not acknowledge that people of color had something to teach them about culture, or their own self-government, in an exchange of equals.
Tchaiko’s mother taught her about work ethic and believed, at first, that the children should join work gangs, most often led by white men, so they knew how to pick peaches and cotton. Her father agreed these skills should be learned and preserved in their children, but this educational experience of engaging the land should be found among black families in their own community.
Her mothers’s and father’s approach to education complemented each other. Her mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse and watched over young girls, even those who became pregnant and were cast out of church communities. She made sure they got their education. She taught Tchaiko to read at four.
Tchaiko recalled that while she changed her name in search of her own identity, (“Tchaiko” in Shona means “one who seeks truth,” and “Ruramai,” her maiden name, means “take a clear path to a given goal,”) she did not anticipate how this would make her mother feel. Her mother, Dorthula, always wanted to live near a historically black college and felt “founder’s day” and graduation ceremonies, marking the overcoming of obstacles to an education, were of communal significance.
Tchaiko studied at Paine College, an HBCU in Augusta, Georgia and later at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City. Around the age of 20, Tchaiko became a grade school teacher in Augusta, Georgia, having graduated high school early at the age of 16. Soon by railroad, she would migrate to teach Mexican American farm workers in Texas, work in a child care center for African American migrant farmers in Sherbourne, New York and more affluent students in an education workshop at Fresno State College. When she taught at a Boys High School in Lagos Nigeria, the only female on the staff, she beat all the students and faculty in the 100 yard dash.
From 1960 to 1968, Tchaiko helped form the Donald Warden led Afro-American Association (AAA) in the San Francisco Bay Area, which eventually gave birth in 1966, to Huey Newton’s and Bobby Seale’s Black Panther Party, Maulana Karenga’s US (“us versus them”) cultural nationalist movement known best for founding the Kwanzaa holiday, and the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) that manifested aspects of class struggle and cultural nationalist ideas. As James Smethhurst, a scholar of the Black Arts Movement, has put it: at the same time as Maulana Karenga, Tchaiko pioneered the study of precolonial and ancient African civilizations and projected new philosophies of culture, but without the subordination of women.
The AAA recognized that the vote, formal education, and civil rights didn’t necessarily translate to empowerment, and it was wrong to blindly worship constitutional forms. What was needed was education rooted in African history and culture for the development of autonomous community institutions – the desire to be only Americans and not Afro-Americans made this more difficult because it papered over the history of empire and slavery that made blacks fall outside classical notions of ethnic and immigrant social mobility. Civil rights paved the way for middle and professional classes to thrive but not the marginal working class, unemployed, or street force.
Despite the BPP and US’s later deadly conflict in 1969, their basic principles were not irreconcilable. Maulana Karenga was insightful that meditations on African languages and history could produce new philosophical and epistemic breakthroughs. If Huey Newton’s initial criticism of RAM was unnecessarily harsh, Newton was also correct that the AAA had an insufficient critique of capitalism, and confrontation with police brutality was needed. But Newton was part of those who originated these radical breakthroughs after a period of intellectual development. Many were mentored toward deeper conclusions through critical dialogues as young college students by the AAA as personified by Warden, Kwayana, and others who were a few years older. This was before or concurrent with historical moments such as Malcolm X breaking with the Nation of Islam (1963-1964), Malcolm’s death in February 1965, and the Black Power and Black Studies rebellions of 1966-1971. Tchaiko was innovating and organizing before these became mass movements.
In the period Tchaiko taught in Nigeria (1962-1964), she became inspired by those who participated in Wole Soyinka’s 1960 Black Masks group. They heightened her awareness of pidgin or creole English, as a phenomenon that like Gullah/Geechee heritage in South Carolina and Georgia, contained African cultural retentions and knowledge systems, but also was a gateway to better understanding the thought of Black toilers. She spent her holidays in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana where a large African American community had settled led by Maya Angelou before Nkrumah’s overthrow in 1966. Soon Tchaiko would develop lifelong friendships with the artists Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence, and until his death, a close friendship with Langston Hughes when she had her apartment in Harlem. Tchaiko also became close with Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Amiri Baraka.
In 1968 Tchaiko (still as Ann Cook) published her first major article, “Black Pride: Some Contradictions?,” that became serialized in the popular journals of the period through 1970 such as Hoyt Fuller’s Negro Digest (soon to be renamed Black World), and Jitu Weusi’s Black News. Her article was also in conversation with debate about the need for independent Black media and communications in Soulbook, a unique theoretical journal that brought together activists of the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Republic of New Africa but also activists of Guyana, South Africa, and Ghana to discuss the emerging conflicting tendencies in the black liberation movement.
Her essay also had a subtle chiding of Kenya’s Tom Mboya for referring to African Americans as “cousins.” Mboya in his Challenges of Nationhood, a collection of essays and speeches, approached African American cultural nationalism with some reasonable critiques but also a tone of smug contempt. Tchaiko reminded that African Americans were “brothers” not “cousins,” and anticipated the contemporary concern that some Africans, more recently from the continent, don’t like the descendants of the enslaved or find them inauthentic. She contested nobody could disinherit Black people from the African heritage if they searched for it, and worked hard to claim and affirm it. It was not a given, as Tchaiko showed, that Africans on the continent had overcome their own internalized racism and colonialism.
“Black Pride” was published in Toni Cade Bambara’s edited volume The Black Woman (1970) that included contributions from Patricia Robinson, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and Grace Lee Boggs. What did Tchaiko have to say that made this a classic of Black political thought?
“Black Pride” explored how in the period of 1968-1970, where “Black revolution” was widely discussed, the search for African identities became a fashion, co-opted by corporate media and consumer culture. “African” fashion shows were adapted to Western conceptions of gender and sexuality. It wasn’t simply “black” culture was being appropriated by white chauvinists. African Americans were carelessly engaging African symbolism and substance as well. Deeper color complexes within the community, as represented by blow out Afros and skin bleaching, Tchaiko explained, was covering up an inability to deal with the presence within the black community of anti-black racism.
Tchaiko critiqued what we now know as Afrocentric interpretations of history for its monumentalism and high modernism, its search for Egyptian pyramids to approximate Western skyscrapers in technology and architecture, and Mali’s Timbuctoo to prove that Africans could write. Affirming Blacks were “the first” or “equal to” Western civilization’s standards and achievements sometimes fell short of unveiling the autonomous thought of the African heritage. African American Islam, while encouraging a culture of modesty and discipline Tchaiko could support, was obscuring deeper questions about Islam’s role in facilitating racism and slavery on the African continent. While African American’s anti-racist initiative to switch from unquestioned loyalty to Christianity (as a result of its silences on slavery) to openness to Islam was a sign of critical thinking, not enough questions about “monotheism” as Westerners had assimilated it was happening.
Tchaiko argued that besides the study of an African language, blacks would better relate to Africa if they did not visit as tourists in air conditional hotels, and related not to the African urban but rural agrarian life found also in the American South. Farming, herding chickens and cattle, shucking peanuts; being aware of Yoruba cosmologies, keeping in mind that most Africans were peasants who lived by oral history (though precolonial writing systems were present and she would disseminate information about these) would bring Blacks closer to the African heritage.
She also explained that traveling in Latin America with the proper mindset could illuminate African cultural retentions just as well as visiting West Africa. Her discussions of her visit with the Djuka of Suriname, a Maroon community hostile to the ways of assimilated middle classes, revealed to Tchaiko their collective memory of African cosmologies and how this informed their sense of independence, defending their own family forms, but also their own sense they were part of an African world.
In her 1968 sojourn to South America she also met Abdas Do Nascimento in Brazil. His T.E.N., the black experimental theatre group, was teaching against anti-black racism within Brazil’s national culture, revealing how colonial legacies, in this case the Portuguese, could promote genocidal thoughts as internalized racism.
Tchaiko brought her independent initiative, in search of African survivals and rejecting white supremacist epistemic burdens to Guyana in 1968, where she met her future husband of 46 years, the Pan African and independent socialist Eusi Kwayana, now 92 years old.
Tchaiko Kwayana with her essay on black pride in many ways wrote her husband into African Diaspora History and African World History. Eusi, then Sidney King, had been a minister in the government and co-leader of the Cheddi Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was a political prisoner when Anglo-American imperialism overthrow their democratically elected government in 1953-1954. Had this not occurred the Cuban Revolution would not have been the first socialist government in the region.
In the late 1950s to the early 1960s, King transitioned from a critical supporter of Jagan, to a critical supporter of Forbes Burnham’s People’s National Congress (PNC). King advised Burnham’s PNC in various ways through official independence for Guyana in 1966. King gave Burnham the idea of a cooperative republic or cooperative socialism as the philosophical foundation for the post-independence government. From 1968-1971, when Ann Cook first met Sidney King, he had built an organization called ASCRIA (African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa). In between her travels, in this same period as Ann F. Cook, she was the director of SEEK at City College in Harlem, a program for those who were said to be disadvantaged or underprivileged. Out of these students came the rebellions for Black Studies and open admissions. It was a time when City College, though a campus in Harlem, was still overwhelmingly white.
ASCRIA was first a cultural front around the PNC government, teaching a cultural revolution, very similar to Tchaiko’s thoughts on “black pride.” The contradictions of Black Nationalism and pseudo-socialism of Burnham’s regime unfolded from 1971-1975. Wildcat strikes of landless sugar workers, bauxite workers, and independent cooperatives were coordinated by or supported by ASCRIA in a manner that presented African (and Indian) labor’s self-emancipation as the embodiment of national liberation against Burnham’s increasing populist authoritarian regime. ASCRIA struggled, and was successful, to discard the idea that black power was people of color holding the same elite posts and coveted positions as whites.
Great international controversy was fomented as to the split between Eusi Kwayana and Forbes Burnham in 1973-1974. This was a result of Tchaiko Kwayana being instrumental in linking up Guyana with the Black Power movement that was increasingly turning toward Pan Africanism in the early 1970s and critiques of post-civil rights, post-colonial independence regimes.
The movement for the Sixth Pan African Congress in Tanzania up to 1973 saw Burnham as a sponsor of a Pan African secretariat, led by Bro. Zolili, a science teacher from California. Burnham’s regime was a friend to African American political prisoners. RAM’s Herman Ferguson (underground as Paul Adams) and the African American children’s book author, Tom Feelings, were now employed by the Guyana government. But other RAM members, Mamadou Lumumba and Shango Umoja, became dissidents against Burnham, siding with ASCRIA, and were cast out of the country in 1973. Amiri Baraka and Jitu Weusi for a time did not know whose side to take. Nevertheless, this revealed the conflicting tendencies within the Black Power and Pan African movements. CLR James soon led a boycott of the Sixth Pan African Congress in Tanzania that shortly before James had traveled the world organizing.
During this time, Burnham singled out Tchaiko specifically for her dynamic community organizing with ASCRIA -- and smeared her as a meddling outsider. This was recorded in the publications ASCRIA Bulletin and ASCRIA Drums. Burnham’s Pan African façade of his increasingly dictatorial regime was starting to evaporate.
Tchaiko also remembers these times for how she learned more about popular educational methods from observing Eusi who was teacher and principal at County High School in Buxton, Guyana. He taught his young students to be confident reading Shakespeare, participate in theatrical productions, and to take down oral histories from community elders to be aware of the African heritage and survivals in their community. At the same time he linked a return to the land, the hinterland of Guyana, with respect for Amerindians as they affirmed African culture. The Kwayanas were part of the social revival of African drumming, and showed those that practiced Comfa, and the Jordanites of Guyana, on their own authority had been initiating the search for African survivals before ASCRIA. He embraced all in the Guyana, including Indians and Amerindians, who sincerely searched for their heritage but did not use their self-determination to undermine others.
In 1973 Tchaiko with Eusi Kwayana published Scars of Bondage: a first study of the slave colonial experience of Africans in Guyana. It stood out for its descriptions of the self-emancipating African personality under adversity and for its documentation of African cultural survivals underscoring the enslaved brought with them their own history and identity despite the barbarism of the Middle Passage and the destructive environment Africans found imposed on them by those who strived to master them.
In 1974-1975, Tchaiko Kwayana was part of the merger of ASCRIA with Indian Political Revolutionary Associations, the Ratoon group, and the Working People’s Vanguard Party that became the Walter Rodney led Working People’s Alliance (WPA). The Kwayanas worked with Rupert Roopnarine, CY Thomas, Josh Ramsammy, Bonita Harris, Tacuma Ogunseye, Karen de Souza, Jai Parsam, Omawale, Ohene Koama, and Andaiye (whose Red Thread collective later projected the need to count women’s caring work). In 1979-1980, in the confrontation with Forbes Burnham’s PNC government’s violent repression, the historian Walter Rodney was assassinated. Tchaiko with the Women Against Terror group received a beating in the Bourda Green area of Georgetown in a 1983 protest. She had struck police with her umbrella who were injuring youth. Tchaiko was present in the struggle for “people’s power and no dictator.”
Tchaiko went to live in Atlanta in the mid-1980s to raise the Kwayana children but also to organize Helping Uplift Guyanese (HUG), coordinating global aid and solidarity with the Guyanese working people.
With John Henrik Clarke, Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Ivan Van Sertima, Jan Carew, Joyce Gleason Carew, and Runoko Rashidi, Tchaiko Kwayana was part of the circle around the Journal of African Civilizations that established contributions of Africans to science and technology, and African women’s contributions, from antiquity to precolonial times. This was a bold endeavor that not only discussed Egypt, Nubia and the Nile Valley but Latin America, Amerindians, and China from an African world perspective. Tchaiko was also among the early scholars who wished to recognize the women’s initiatives of the Marcus Garvey movement before this became a trend in university life.
So how are we to assess Tchaiko Kwayana, “the English Teacher”? Whether instructing in creative writing, crafting autobiographies, teaching how to write open letters to government officials, or interpreting comparative literature, she received awards and recognition from government certification authorities but also met controversy among administrators above her.
Tchaiko with her “identity papers” and “writing our hope” projects tried to get grade school children and their parents to practice their writing as they recorded their own history. She taught also at the college level and in upward bound programs.
One of her Atlanta grade school students wrote an open letter to the Atlanta Daily World. Reagan and Gorbachev, it was argued, were mistaken as individuals to discuss nuclear weapons and the potential destruction of the world. They did not best represent the nations for which they spoke and that a selection of ordinary people could resolve matters best. Many years later, a San Diego student, an Asian American, wrote a historical treatment of white supremacy that found its way on to the internet as a polished pamphlet. Tchaiko Kwayana teaching methods equally captivated those of African, Asian, Latin American, Native America, and European descent.
Tchaiko marshaled Wordsworth’s reflections on Tinturn Abbey to remind “that [from] gleams of half extinguished thought… the pictures of the mind revives again” and Shakespeare’s As You Like It, to suggest that one could “find tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” These came together with a quotation from Runoko Rashidi: “among the greatest crimes is to teach a people that their history began with invasion, colonization, and enslavement.”
Tchaiko, like Wole Soyinka, could frame the Western canon, as reconcilable with an African cosmology where the dead, the living, and the unborn of the natural world were in conversation and where ideas and images inscribed in stone (whether in Ancient Egypt or Olmec Mexico) could revive a consciousness of history. She could find herself in trouble when she found, especially with American literature, as represented by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, that the treatment of the historical background of the novel in public schools often emphasized Europeans, and left out the intellectual and political experience of the African world and the colonized. She became heralded for teaching American literature by underscoring antiquity and precolonial origins not European settler-colonialism.
Tchaiko became a master-teacher of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, where both the historical background of precolonial and ancient African civilizations, and the colonial experience of Native Americans, could not be ignored. Was Tchaiko at the end of her radical life teaching “history” in her “English” classes with some controversy?
Tchaiko Kwayana was reminding students not to be a social statistic, not simply in a racially degraded way, but in a manner that “achieves” very little but uncritical assimilation. She was preparing scholar-citizens and self-directed learners, not those who merely pursue credits to graduate or who simply react to misinformation. Tchaiko was doing more than teaching students to identify with diversity, equality, and tolerance. For behind these words narrow conceptions exist. Tchaiko was not looking for greater inclusion or representation in this world. She was trying to establish, defend, and design her own world, and she gave so many the strength for this endeavor.
Matthew Quest has taught History and Africana Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A scholar of CLR James, see his essay on James and the Haitian Revolution in The Black Jacobins Reader .