A Sort of Homecoming
At least 12 million people from Africa were loaded into slave ships and transported to the Americas. How do people of African descent, scattered around the world, see their relationship to their ancestral home? Do they consider themselves "the African diaspora"? If their African heritage dates back several generations, is it "nebulous atavistic yearnings," as the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen once said, to search for their roots, to want some kind of bond with their ancestral homeland? Or is it important, in a neocolonial and still-racist world, that Africans and people of African descent see themselves as part of a transnational community? After all, the ancestors in question did not choose to leave their homeland; they arrived in the Americas in chains, and from the time they landed they were divided and dispersed, as a strategy of domination. And even though slavery has ended, people of African descent still wear its imprint on their skin, like a tattoo. Out of slavery came an ideology of racism that permeates the Western world to this day. Given the black collective memory of slavery, it is easy to understand the emotional tug of the ancestral land, the longing for Pan-African brotherhood and the desire for a community that is not racist. The trouble is, as these three books all show, Afro-diasporic solidarity is complex, and often fraught.
In Middle Passages James T. Campbell (not to be confused with James Campbell, the Baldwin biographer) looks at various African-American journeys to Africa over the past two centuries. What did Africa mean to them? asks Campbell. What did America mean to them? In the past, the number of African-Americans traveling to Africa remained small. Since the growth of the African tourist industry in the 1990s, tens of thousands of African-American tourists have made pilgrimages there each year, and it often proves a charged emotional experience.
The first story in the book, an astonishing tale of dramatic reversals of fortune worthy of a Grimm fairy tale, reminds us just how ruthless was this trade in "black gold." In 1730 Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a highborn Muslim man in West Africa, made a 200-mile trek to a place on the Gambia River where an English ship was anchored. He had slaves to sell, but the English captain was not prepared to pay enough, and Ayuba continued south into Mandinke territory. He exchanged his slaves for cattle and set off for home, unaware that he was being followed. He was waylaid. His captors shaved his head and beard. Back at the English ship on the Gambia, the English captain recognized him but apparently had no qualms about loading him on board as part of his human cargo. Ayuba would find himself working on a tobacco plantation in Maryland. And then came another dramatic reversal of fortune: His noble birth was discovered, and he was put on a ship to England, where he was adopted by the English gentry and met the royal family. After a year there, he boarded another slave ship, this time as a passenger, back to Africa. He spent the rest of his days working for the Royal Africa Company and facilitating the slave trade. "Viewed through the moral lenses of our own time, Ayuba seems guilty of the most appalling hypocrisy," writes Campbell, "but he would not have seemed so to contemporaries."
Langston Hughes was 21 in the summer of 1923, when he boarded a ship in the Brooklyn dockyards heading for West Africa. The 1920s was the Jazz Age, and the time of the black arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. As Hughes puts it, "The Negro was in vogue." Caught up in the neo-Romantic "primitivism" was a new fascination with Africa, its tom-tom exoticism, its black vitality. Hughes was as prone to employ these stereotypes as everyone else; the difference was that he was one of the few who actually made the voyage to Africa. Eager to escape the humiliation of racism in America, he hoped to find a truer, freer self in the home of his ancestors. His first sight of the coastline filled him with excitement: "My Africa, Motherland of the Negro peoples!" He would respond viscerally to the beauty of the landscape and the people, but he left Africa feeling rebuffed. Africans treated him like a white man. Years later, in his memoir The Big Sea, he would mock his naïve hopes and illusions.
It is sometimes surprising to see who clings most to the African mystique. W.E.B. Du Bois grew up in New England. At school he was never taught a thing about African history. It was not until he went to Fisk University that he developed an interest in Africa, and in 1907 he embarked on what would become a lifelong project, an Encyclopedia Africana. As Campbell writes, Du Bois was "a twentieth-century social scientist, determined to rescue Africa from the fog of mythology and misprision that had long enveloped it." In 1923 he set off for Liberia, an African-American colony established on the coast of West Africa a century earlier. (In the nineteenth century, Liberia was the most common destination for African-Americans traveling to Africa.) "The spell of Africa is upon me," Du Bois wrote in his journal. "The ancient witchery of her medicine is burning my drowsy, dreamy blood.... It is a great black bosom where the Spirit longs to die."
Campbell is hard on Du Bois's "romantic effusions." How could Du Bois remain silent about what was actually going on in Liberia? Wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of a small Americo-Liberian settler elite, who lived off a labor force made up of indigenous people who were treated like slaves. The frequent popular uprisings were brutally suppressed, with the support of the US government.
Richard Wright was another who had no time for Du Bois's romance with Africa; Wright vowed that he would tell the truth, however difficult and painful. When he traveled in 1953 to what was then "the Gold Coast," he felt "a vague sense of disquiet." It was an exciting time to be going there--the Gold Coast was about to throw off the chains of British colonialism--but Wright, like many African-Americans before and after him, was there partly on a personal quest. His ancestors had come from Africa; his grandparents, all four of them, had been slaves. He had been born "free," though it was not clear what that amounted to in Mississippi, the most impoverished and lynch-prone state in the segregated Deep South. The freedom to flee? At the age of 17 he had fled to the North, and twenty years later he had sailed out of New York Harbor ("I felt relieved when my ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty") to France. Now he was pinning his hopes on black brotherhood. On board the Accra, from Liverpool to Takoradi, he sat at his typewriter, preparing a statement for the African press. "I am one of the lost sons of Mother Africa. There is something in me that never left this land.... I pray that you will respond to me as one of your blood brothers."
They did not. Africans saw him as an American. The Western-educated elite did not give a damn that he was in their country. As for the Africans he met as he traveled around, Wright found himself at a complete loss. They stared at him and giggled. They evaded his questions. Even their laughter, he felt, was an evasive tactic. He was shocked that people urinated openly, in public. He was (unlike Du Bois) repelled by the women's naked breasts. The poverty distressed him, and he blamed the heinous crime of European colonialism. But he also decided that these people, with their superstitions and ancestor worship (he described these as "rot" and "mush"), did not know how to help themselves. Soon he was writing in his journal: "Africa! Where are you? Are you a myth?... I'm in despair. I find myself longing to take a ship and go home." The book that resulted from the trip, which, ironically enough, is titled Black Power, is honest, almost painfully so, about Wright's complete sense of estrangement.
Campbell's narrative is beautifully told and dense with detail. It is also singularly devoid of heroes, owing to the complex burdens of race. In this tangle of myths, contradictions and paradoxes, a visiting African-American is lucky to come away with his sanity intact. What place is there for heroes?