This is the first English translation of this speech—titled “Blacks must take responsibility for their own history and contribute to universal civilization”—and the second installment in a Liberation School series of previously untranslated work by Thomas Sankara (read the first installment here). This translation series is the result of a collaboration with ThomasSankara.net, an online platform dedicated to archiving work on and by the great African revolutionary. We would like to express our gratitude to Bruno Jaffré for allowing us to establish this collaboration and providing us with the right to translate this material into English for the first time (the original French version is available here).
Thomas Sankara (1949-1987), who is sometimes referred to as the “African Che Guevara,” was the Marxist-Leninist leader of the Burkinabé Revolution from 1983 until his assassination in 1987, which is finally being investigated . Sankara made major contributions to the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle, the defense of national self-determination, the construction of socialist internationalism, women’s liberation, the fight against capitalist-driven environmental destruction, and many other significant fronts of global class struggle .
The following text is from a speech Sankara delivered in the capital of Burkina Faso to “militant comrades” of the Democratic and Popular Revolution (1983-1987). In the speech, Sankara articulates the reasons for founding the Black Institute, while paying homage to Cheikh Anta Diop and Aimé Césaire. He discusses, more specifically, the importance of promoting Black culture in a spirit of resolute internationalism and with the clear goal of universal emancipation.
Introduction to speech by Bruno Jaffré
This speech is extracted from a document entitled, “International Symposium for the Creation of the Institut des peuples noirs [Black Institute or, literally, the Institute of Black People], Ouagadougou, April 21-26, 1986.”
Thomas Sankara pays a vibrant tribute to Cheikh Anta Diop. Senagalese historian, anthropologist, Egyptologist, and politician, he participated in the development of an African consciousness liberated from any complexes in the face of the European vision of the world. It is in this way that he showed that the beginnings of civilization were born in Africa, and that the first pharaohs of Egypt were black. He is thus at the origin of the so-called “Afro-centric current,” as a historical trend.
This is the only speech, to our knowledge, in which he pays homage to a prominent Black intellectual (notice that he also cites Aimé Césaire in this text). In general, he refers more to Marxism than to Pan-Africanism. It is true that at the time, the young African Intellectuals of the FEANF (Fédération des étudiants d’Afrique noire en France or Federation of Black African Students in France), indulged in quarrels opposing the various currents which claimed to be Marxist, pro-Soviet, pro-Chinese, pro-Albanian, rather than being absorbed with Pan-Africanism.
Does this mean that Thomas Sankara was not Pan-African? In order to assert the contrary, today’s Pan-Africanists refer, above all, to the OAU [Organization of African Unity] speech on July 29, 1987 . If he hardly uses the word, Thomas Sankara lays claim to it in an interview .
Thomas Sankara regularly calls for the unity of Africa, but without many illusions, due to the reluctance of his peers. He had initiated a process of merger with Ghana, which he mentions in several speeches. And on two occasions, the armies of these two countries organized joint maneuvers, in November 1983 and in March 1985. Rawlings [President of Ghana] and Sankara found themselves in the same positions, whether it was facing Houphouêt-Boigny [President of Ivory Coast] during regional meetings or when facing Gaddafi [leader of Libya] when it came to asking him to honor his promises.
For Thomas Sankara, the mission of the IPN [Institut des peuples noirs or Black Institute] is to answer the question: “What have Black people done, what can or must they do, to take responsibility for their own history, and in that way contribute to Universal civilization [la civilisation de l’Universel]?” The Institute must reflect the symbol of Black people, of their “common will to preserve their cultural identities, their creative geniuses and their dignity.” But there is also an insistence throughout the speech that they should not be satisfied with living closed in on themselves, but instead that they should open up to meet other people.
The IPN had a lot of difficulty raising the necessary funds for its operation. The momentum that followed the launch did not last long. The IPN began to live relatively modestly. It wasn’t suppressed after Sankara’s death, but continued to survive without means for a few years, thanks to the passion of a few people, only to ultimately be closed in indifference.
– Bruno Jaffré
“Blacks must take responsibility for their own history and contribute to universal civilization”
Militant comrades of the RDP !
First and foremost, I would like to pay a much deserved tribute to Cheikh Anta Diop.
At the time when we were working to organize this symposium, when he was on our list in the place that he deserves, among the personalities of the Black world, the great defender of African people, of Black people, the eminent man of culture, the professor Cheikh Anta Diop passed away in Dakar. All of fighting Africa mourned him and still mourns him. All of intellectual and cultural Africa laments his death, and the scientific world observes with a deep bitterness the void he leaves. If it is normal and fair to pay all the venerable tributes that this great African, Cheikh Anta Diop, deserves, it would hardly be enough to mourn him. One does not cry for great men. Cheikh Anta Diop was a giant. The best tribute that we could give him is to commit ourselves to continuing with the same courage, the same sincerity, with the same skills the work he undertook with so much love and respect for Black people and Black civilizations. And, we sincerely think, in this solemn moment of the symposium that we will begin soon, that the Black Institute, through its ideals, is the perfect place to pay homage to him, to preserve him from being lost, from transfiguration, and from forgetting—the image that the modern world must keep of him.
An additional pledge and bet for the total success of the undertaking for which you, we, have come together here. For this new commitment, for this determination, for this challenge that we are setting for ourselves, to protect the work of Cheikh Anta Diop for the benefit not only of Black people, but of humanity, I invite you to observe a minute of silence in meditation and to contemplate the form of combat which must be ours.
Parties of our continents, of our countries, of our respective islands, we agreed to gather together today in Ouagadougou, capital of the free land of Burkina Faso for a reason, a goal which will perhaps finally bring to blow on our heads, on their heads, on those, like Aimé Cesaire said, “who never invented either gun powder or the compass…but who know the depths of suffering well, the wind of hope.”
In effect, today we gather to try together, as a whole, to reflect on the idea, on the project of creation of the Black Institute. A daring project, a formidable bet, as you might expect!
Ladies, Gentleman, dear guests, honorable seminarians, male and female supporters of the democratic and popular Revolution of Burkina Faso!
When the idea came to us of creating a meeting place for all Black people on the planet, we did not underestimate for a minute the audacity of the task. But we also had in our hearts and in our minds, like a leitmotif, the slogan of our youngest militants, the pioneers: “Dare to fight, to know, to overcome.” So we had seen that we can move mountains in order that, finally, all the Black people of the world can get to know one another in a place, a site where they can rejuvenate themselves.
In our opinion, it had become imperative that in the face of history, Black people, Africa, and what is called the Black diaspora, respond all together to this question—and in my opinion this is the question which grounds the BI [Black Institute] and its mission: What have Black people done, what can or must they still do, to take responsibility for their own history and in that way contribute to Universal civilization [la civilisation de l’Universel]?
Indeed, Ladies, Gentlemen, honorable guests of this symposium, male and female militants, what are we for ourselves, Blacks and for others? The cliche is all drawn out: suffering people, harassed and humiliated people, people who are still experiencing the inner explosion of their personality as a result of the outrage that cracks their conscience as a human being, as a result of the curse, of the pigmentation—forever black—of their skin.
This is how we hear that the Black people in question, who are in Africa or who have left, have a common origin, a common background, which constitutes for them the original cultural patrimony towards which their struggle against slavery, against colonization, against apartheid, for civil rights, for political and economic independence, leads them… But today, and I address myself especially to you gentlemen, the guests, honorable seminarians, Black people are watching you. The whole world is turned toward you, toward the symposium for which you have come, often traveling a great distance. Because history has finally proved that Black people are right to organize and develop their active solidarity around already existing shared initiatives, both in Mother Africa and in the countries of the Diaspora. It is within this framework that the BI should be in the conscience of Black people geographically dispersed in a fragmented space, a reunifying symbol, the symbol of their shared will to preserve their cultural identities, their creative genius, and their dignity.
This is why the Black Institute will not be confined, neither to itself, nor to its object, that is Black people. It will be open to other people. This is the essential condition for Black people to reassess their historical patrimony, to redefine their whole identity in the contemporary world. In our opinion, the Black Institute—its objectives—will always be to affirm itself and participate in cultural dialogue, which for us is the understanding between peoples regardless of their color.
Confident in the rich and fruitful reflections that will emerge from your work during your symposium, which I hope will be frank and fair, honored guests, honorable seminarians, it is important to never forget that the egg that will hatch must be the crucible of meetings, of exchanges, and of loyal cooperation between people around the world.
To do this, you must, during your present meetings, divest yourself of the enthusiasm and passion that would discover all the good causes and intentions of the project. You should rather be inspired by prudence, by precautions, to take into account only the interests of Black people and of other people for the Black Institute, for its prefigurations which must necessarily be backed by principles and orientations formulated, agreed to and accepted by as many as possible.
Honored guests, honorable seminarians, Burkina Faso is only the humble initiator of a project, of a collective idea which is above all democratic, even universal, and therefore denationalized, depersonalized, in order to become the battle horse of all those who have always maintained, by whatever means, the hope of seeing the cultural unity of Black people through a framework of shared reflection. To this end, we should pay homage to the martyrs, to the political, artistic, scientific, literary struggles of all those who believed and believe in the dawn of “Universal Civilization,” that is, in love and solidarity.
Honored guests, honorable seminarians, it is to this reflection that you are invited, you who have accepted, despite the distance, despite often very busy schedules, to bring your priceless assistance—I am already convinced of this—to the building of a shared ideal.
While wishing you every success in your work, I declare the international symposium for the creation of the Black Institute open.
Homeland or death, we will win!
References See Miernecki. Katie. (2021). “34 years after Sankara’s assassination, killers finally stand trial.” Liberation News, October 15. Available here. – Trans.
 For a general overview of Sankara’s work, see Malott, Curry. (2020). “Thomas Sankara: Leadership and action that inspires 71 years later.” Liberation School, December 21. Available here. – Trans.
 See page 128. He declares on the occasion of the 3rd anniversary of the Revolution: “The people of Ghana, who, with us, seek every day, every instant, every moment, the best ways for communion, fusion, integration of our possibilities, of our resources.”
 See Mongo Beti’s interview (available here). He says, in particular, regarding Pan-Africanism: “it is up to us, it is up to the African patriots, to fight everywhere and always for its realization [concrétisation].”
 RDP stands for the Democratic and Popular Revolution or the Democratic and Popular Republic [Révolution démocratique et populaire / République démocratique et populaire], which lasted from 1983 to 1987 in Burkina Faso. – Trans.