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?
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.
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?
It has become a genre of its own: the narrative in which a person of African descent brought up in America, Europe or the Caribbean meditates on travel, migration and exile, and grapples with his or her mixed feelings about Africa. Ekow Eshun’s Black Gold of the Sun was written half a century after Wright traveled to the Gold Coast. Born in London to Ghanaian parents in 1968 (two years after the army coup that overthrew Nkrumah and the Pan-African dream), Eshun flew to Ghana in 2002. He had no illusions about Pan-African unity. Indeed, after four more coups in Ghana and a number of unsuccessful attempts, he had no illusions at all about Ghanaian politics. His pilgrimage had to do with his fragile sense of identity. He was tired of being a black man in Britain. “I’d felt like an outsider there all my life.” He did not expect Ghana to feel like “home,” but he hoped he could “feel at home there,” he writes. “All I knew was that if Ghana didn’t live up to my hopes I’d have nothing left to hold on to.”
Surely, we might think, Eshun’s experience of the ancestral homeland was going to be very different from the African-American experience. In his childhood, his parents brought Africa into the family home: They spoke Fante (one of the seventy-five languages in Ghana); they ate African food; when they had parties, their guests arrived in Kente cloth robes. In the early 1970s, the family had moved back to Ghana for three years. In England, Eshun tried to make British friends by never talking about anything that made him different:
“Where you from, man?”
“You heard the new Public Enemy album?”
In the 1980s, when he was in his teens, Eshun was bemused by the fashionable new black consciousness in Britain. A black culture, largely imported from the United States–black TV sitcoms, Spike Lee films and rap music–gave blacks in Britain a level of popular respect they had never had before. The left-wing bookshops of Hackney were suddenly selling African pendants and statues of Nefertiti. For his part, Eshun was determined not to mystify an ancestral homeland that he knew was beset by political upheavals and the contradictions of neocolonialism.
He went to Ghana with a mental image frozen in the early 1970s, and found Accra full of SUVs, mobile phones and blaring hip-hop music. When he and his cousin went to a discothèque one night, Eshun was taken aback by the sleek young couples who emerged from Mercedes sports coupes carrying brand-name sunglasses and handbags. In restaurants, he winced at the way the “big men” barked orders and snapped their fingers for service, and the subservience of the waiters made him cringe. On his walks around the city, he noticed that people fell silent as he passed. In an inland village, a friend pointed out that everyone was talking about him; they took him for a black American with too much money. Leaving Kumasi on a bus, Eshun was disconcerted by the slogan on the seat in front of him: We’ll Get You There Alive. Tied to the roof of the bus were a flock of goats that screamed throughout the journey, while the bus driver turned up his radio. At sunset every day, Eshun was attacked by clouds of savage mosquitoes.
In a secondhand bookstall in Kumasi, he came across Black Power. “Given the confusions of my own trip I had nothing but sympathy for Wright,” he observes. After a month traveling around, Eshun had the same reaction as Wright: “I couldn’t wait to leave.”
What is this torment all about? Why does Eshun feel much the same alienation as an African-American man whose roots are far more distant from his ancestral land? It is clearly not about the country they are traveling through; it is about lost identity, feelings of exile, dashed expectations of solidarity. They were not white; the world had made that clear to them every day of their lives. In which case, they wanted to know, what does it mean to be black? In Ghana, Eshun learned for the first time that he had a Dutch ancestor who was a slave trader. The man married a chief’s daughter, and their son, Joseph, a light-skinned mulatto, would also become a Cape Coast slave trader.
You imagine that the events of history take place in some nebulous “other time” unrelated to your own life. Yet I feel the consequences of Joseph’s actions every day in Britain. It was partly because of the pervasiveness of racism there that I’d come to Ghana–only to find my ancestor had collaborated in establishing its tenets…. The shock is physical. You feel winded. The sun is too bright. Your head aches. You find yourself walking along a sand-blown highway no longer sure who you are any more.
Black Gold of the Sun is a beautifully written book, rich with colorful vignettes and astute observations. Its probing, courageous honesty reminded me of Richard Wright. Fifty years apart, both men engage in some very anguished soul-searching. Eshun is a modern, more sophisticated man, and readers will no doubt be less unsettled by his conclusions. When Wright found himself disgusted by African behavior, he resorted to somewhat racist generalizations about the “African personality.” Eshun asks himself an important question that Wright does not ask: “Europe looked down on Africa. Maybe I’d been doing the same thing?… Does living in a white country make you, in some way, white?”
What does it mean to be white? It’s time that white people asked themselves the sorts of questions with which people of African descent have wrestled for centuries. Eshun seems to be referring to that righteous complacency and sense of superiority one witnesses every day in the modern world–from the conduct of foreign policy to daily interactions between nonwhites and whites. I can’t help thinking that if we all tormented ourselves with these sorts of questions, the world might be less ignorant, less polarized, less hateful, less bellicose.