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.