Edward Wilmot Blyden was born on August 3, 1832 in Saint-Thomas, a Caribbean island under the authority of Denmark. Third son of a family of freed slaves exercising the trades of tailors and dressmakers, he received an English-speaking education. In the 1840s Blyden attended Sunday school with Reverend John P. Knox, who noticed him and encouraged him to continue his studies in the United States. In May 1850, the Reverend invited Blyden, then aged seventeen, to accompany his family to New Jersey. Despite a recommendation from Knox, Rutger’s Theological College refused Blyden’s candidacy. In New York, Edward Blyden frequented a circle of Presbyterians close to the American Colonization Society who convinced him to continue his studies in Liberia in order to “civilize Africa”.
Between 1852 and 1856, Blyden took courses in theology, Latin, Greek, mathematics, geography and spelling at the Presbyterian Church in Monrovia. In the 1860s, on the strength of his excellent results, Blyden was appointed Liberian government commissioner for the United States. The law passed in Liberia to institute this function of commissioner evokes the objective of a “return” of “descendants of Africa” to their “native land”. On numerous occasions, between 1861 and 1895, Blyden went to the United States to attract investment for the young African republic. He is developing a propaganda campaign for this by writing an open letter and a book presenting an idyllic vision of Liberia (“Liberia’s Offering”). In 1887, his book, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race was published.
By affirming the dignity of blacks and the need to preserve the autonomy of African institutions against colonization, Blyden is a founding figure of pan-Africanism despite the controversial nature of his heritage.
In two of his articles, “A Voice from Bleeding Africa” and “A Vindication of the Negro Race”, Blyden pays tribute to several famous black personalities, such as Toussaint Louverture and Paul Cuffe. He wants to revalorize the history of blacks and show everyone their importance in the world. Blyden also recalls the role of Africa as the “cradle of civilization”, the “conservatory of the world”. During his stay in Egypt (1866), Blyden marveled at its millennial past. In a speech in the United States in 1882, Blyden refers to his readings of Herodotus, who wrote that the Egyptians have “black skin and woolly hair” and are “the greatest men” of civilization in the world.
In 1872, Blyden launched a newspaper called The Negro, so named for the unification of all Africans, freed immigrants and natives, and aimed “to recognize and increase the brotherhood of the race, wherever it is found.” Blyden also seeks to build a Negro model, in opposition to the Western model: “the Negro is unconsciously persuaded that to be a great man, he must be like the white man”. He invites those he considers to be his fellows to “not to fade away” in front of the white man and hopes for them that they will end up “developing their capacities as Africans”.
Regarding the development of racism in nineteenth-century Western anthropology, Blyden writes that human races are “separate but equal.” He systematically criticizes in his lectures the existence of devaluing concepts such as those of “Despised Race” or “Dark Continent” and invites his fellows to correct these falsified representations.
If Blyden fought for the affirmation of the dignity of blacks and Africans, he supports racialist ideas and advocates ethnic separatism, praises racial purity and mocks miscegenation.
He does not condemn segregationist laws in the United States, for example school discrimination in Georgia, because he asserts that the place of blacks is in Africa and segregation encourages them to leave. In Liberia, “the black takes back his place”, in his “native land”.
Blyden adheres to a colonial discourse by asserting the need for partial emigration of African Americans to civilize Africa. In some articles, he mentions “superstition” and “African barbarism”.