- The Americans Are Coming! Dreams of African American Liberation in Segregationist South Africa by Robert Trent Vinson
Robert Trent Vinson undertook a difficult task in The Americans Are Coming! by documenting the history of an idea that never came to fruition. His premise is that a significant portion of black South Africans looked to African Americans as models for advancement and for overcoming the discrimination endemic in South African society. He focuses primarily on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, before the hardening of the Apartheid system in post–World War II South Africa. Vinson argues that South Africans swerved between the “Up from Slavery” vision of Booker T. Washington and the more militant pan-Africanist liberation vision of Marcus Garvey. In the end, his subtitle—“Dreams of African American Liberation in Segregationist South Africa”—encapsulates effectively his conclusion: the hopes remained dreams, and unfulfilled dreams at that.
Vinson’s work is unique. Certainly historians, notably George M. Fredrickson, have written comparative histories of the racial systems in the American South and South Africa, but Vinson’s is not a comparative history in the classic sense. His is a South African intellectual history examining how South African blacks used—and changed— ideas from the United States for their own purposes. Vinson argues that, prior to the rise of Marcus Garvey, South Africans saw Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute as a tangible example of progress and a model that they could follow (p. 38). Once Garvey came into prominence, however, his ideas eclipsed Washington’s and became the basis for dreams of African American liberation and liberators in South Africa. As Vinson notes, South Africans held strongly to the basic ideas of Garveyism—and some continued to follow Garvey himself—even after his legal troubles and the collapse of his organization in the United States. As an analysis of international Garveyism, The American Are Coming! compliments such other works as Marcus Garvey [End Page 481] and the Vision of Africa by John Henrik Clarke and Race First by Tony Martin, as well as the 1960 classic Black Moses by E. David Cronon and John Hope Franklin.
To produce this work, Vinson plumbed a wide variety of sources, including an extensive list of newspapers, and he conducted several interviews. The newspapers are particularly important to Vinson’s argument since he is concerned with how Africans publicly promoted the ideas they borrowed from Americans to promote their own liberation. While organizational papers and personal correspondence all matter, it was in the newspapers that African leaders promoted their ideas and hoped to gain followers.
Vinson is also successful in the fairly difficult task of elucidating the ideas under examination and the contexts in which they developed in the United States and then were used in South Africa. Since many of his readers are likely to be familiar with one or the other of these contexts but not both, Vinson’s success here makes the work accessible to a particularly broad audience. Nevertheless, those readers mostly familiar with the situation in the United States are likely to find Vinson’s explanation as to why Africans look to African American achievements and success as role models to be a bit unconvincing. Vinson could have provided a more complex explanation, one that dealt better with how South Africans understood the problems—segregation, poverty, disenfranchisement, and lynching—that African Americans faced, particularly in the South.
The overall impact of the work could have been stronger. Only in chapter 4 does Vinson clearly lay out the chapter’s argument and where it fits with the overall argument of the book; this would have been helpful for the reader in following Vinson’s not-altogether-clear organization. Greater elucidation of the relationship between the secular and the sacred would also have helped here. Clearly, African dreams of liberation were tied to the idea of divine deliverance, for those who saw the “hand of God” in the Garveyite movement (p. 91) versus those who believed that “only...