- African Americans and Africa: A New History by Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden
Much has been written about the relationship between African Americans and Africa—both Africa's symbolic meaning to American blacks and its significance as a goal of travel and emigration. Blyden's aim is less to un-cover significant new material or propose a new thesis than to provide an overview of the ups and downs of this relationship from the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade to the twenty-first century. Her method fits the purpose, as she blends historical summaries with short biographies and extensive quotation. The result is a little like a textbook, but it is a highly readable and informative account.
Blyden's main goal is to show that African-American attitudes toward Africa have often mirrored the American racial situation. Mostly, the focus is on pride, engagement, and interest. One chapter emphasizes African cultural retentions during slavery. As the free black community asserted itself at the end of the eighteenth century, it created institutions that it proudly labeled "African." Emigration and colonization movements emerged in the course of the nineteenth century, as a response to a dire racial situation at home, emphasizing historical and emotional ties to the continent. In the early twentieth century, the Harlem Renaissance promoted a rediscovery and celebration of African roots. Throughout the centuries, the discourse on Africa has reflected African-American cultural, social, and political aspirations.
Such engagements were often ideologically problematic, however, since many African-American travelers and writers promoted preconceived ideas about Africa, romanticizing it or reviling it in order to portray themselves as providential redeemers. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, for example, one of the most outspoken proponents of emigration to Africa in the nineteenth century, presented the continent as in dire need of civilization, Christianity, and economic development. He was not the only black emigrationist to reproduce typical tropes of European imperialism. Blyden acknowledges these tendencies, though she often presents them as good-faith efforts at "uplift" and "elevation."
Blyden might have pushed the biographical and textual analysis further. She regularly follows long quotations with perfunctory statements. Many of the figures mentioned in the book find a deeper analysis in [End Page 607] James T. Campbell, Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005 (New York, 2006). The first quarter of the book is largely comprised of historical summaries (about African cultures and slavery) that are readily accessible elsewhere.
But the book shows its strength in the few figures about whom Blyden did archival research. Using personal documents and contemporary newspaper accounts, she tells the heartbreaking story of George Erskine, a former slave turned Presbyterian minister who managed to purchase the freedom of his wife and children but who died within a year of the family's emigration to Liberia in 1830. His son Hopkins (whose photograph is reproduced in the book) became a minister and a politician, and his daughter (also photographed) met Queen Victoria in her old age (the Queen's journal contains a detailed description of the encounter). Although Erskine thought of himself as a civilizer of savage Africans in great need of the gospel, the humanity of his story is evident in this mix of history, biography, and ideological analysis.
The last two chapters—about the Cold War, anti-colonialism, and African visitors to the United States—are also highly informative. Blyden tells the stories of numerous Africans who came to the United States, studied, and graduated, before either remaining to teach or serve as missionaries or returning to their countries. A number of American-educated Africans eventually launched nationalist and anticolonial movements. African-American organizations—such as the Council on African Affairs, founded by Paul Robeson—contributed to the rise of black internationalism and anti-colonialism. Blyden's overview highlights how relationships between African Americans and Africa have not just been about personal choice; they have also reflected global and geopolitical concerns. The infusion of political thought into these last two chapters considerably enriches the discussion.