A Sort of Homecoming | The Nation


A Sort of Homecoming

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As Kevin Gaines points out in American Africans in Ghana, no one talks about "Pan-Africanism" anymore, though in the first half of the twentieth century black radicals eagerly embraced the concept. It was Du Bois who convened the first Pan-African Congress in 1919, with the aim of strengthening the unity and solidarity of African peoples worldwide. Paul Robeson would also espouse this anti-imperialist vision. Needless to say, the US government was highly suspicious of American blacks who showed solidarity with African people and their struggles for independence; it was viewed as disloyal, a betrayal of their essential Americanism.

About the Author

Hazel Rowley
Hazel Rowley is the author of Richard Wright: The Life and Times and, most recently, Tête-a-Tête: Simone de...

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When Kwame Nkrumah became prime minister of the independent nation of Ghana in March 1957, it was an exhilarating moment for Africans and African-Americans alike. (Contrary to popular belief, Ghana was not the first African nation to become independent; that honor belonged to Sudan, in 1956.) Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta King attended the independence celebrations in Accra, along with fellow African-American leaders Adam Clayton Powell, A. Philip Randolph and Ralph Bunche. King, like Nkrumah, wept with emotion as the Ghanaian flag went up and shouts of "freedom!" filled the air. Nkrumah hailed the emergence of a new "African personality," a black subject who would finally be free, and he encouraged black people from outside Africa to come to Ghana and help make the Pan-African dream come true. During the next nine years, some 300 African-American expatriates went to live in Ghana.

The oldest and most prestigious member of the African-American community in Accra was Du Bois. Throughout the Red Scare McCarthy years, he had been relentlessly hounded and his passport had been confiscated. The US State Department had prevented him from attending Ghana's independence ceremony. When his passport was finally restored to him, he was not going to wait around for it to be seized again. On the day he left the United States, as a final defiant gesture to his homeland, Du Bois joined the American Communist Party. Then he and his wife, Shirley Graham, went to live in Ghana. It was 1960. Du Bois was 93 years old.

African-Americans went to Ghana with a dream, but as Gaines explains, their situation was "fraught with ambiguities." They were of African descent, but they were not African. Their culture was different; even their race consciousness was different. (The Americans were generally more sensitive to white racism.) Ghana might have been trying to be a revolutionary society, but African-American women were often rebuffed by Ghanaian men, who found them too outspoken and independent. Most African-Americans were there because of their admiration for Nkrumah, yet it soon became obvious to them that Nkrumah's government was beset by bribery, corruption and the blatant abuse of power by those they called the "big men." When the Kings visited Ghana, they were dismayed by the submissiveness of the servants who worked for their hosts.

But it was in 1962, when Nkrumah narrowly escaped assassination, that things turned sour. Nkrumah was convinced the CIA was behind the plot against him. The Ghanaian press became obsessed with American espionage. As Nkrumah's government became more and more besieged, by Western forces and by enemies within, there were whispers, accusations and rumors about certain black Americans who worked for American intelligence. Africans no longer trusted the expatriate community.

And then, in February 1966, came the coup. Nkrumah was visiting Beijing, and his absence gave his enemies the chance they had been waiting for. The military men struck before dawn. There were around 200 deaths; anyone close to Nkrumah was arrested or detained. The African-American expatriate community broke up, with most returning, badly disillusioned, to the United States.

Kevin Gaines has written an excellent and important book; my only complaint is the frequent use of academic jargon, which lessens the pleasure of reading it. On one page I looped five "articulates" or "articulations." Why do editors not do their job?

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