- In This Land of Plenty: Mickey Leland and Africa in American Politics by Benjamin Talton
During the 1980s, Mickey Leland's stature as the US Congress's leading proponent of global hunger relief was largely unrivaled. The Texas representative was widely lauded immediately after his death in a 1989 plane crash en route to a refugee camp in southwestern Ethiopia. In the decades since, however, the dearth of scholarly interest in his legislative tenure and political legacy has been striking. Benjamin Talton's In This Land of Plenty: Mickey Leland and Africa in American Politics is thus a welcome addition to the scholarship on Black internationalism, US-Africa relations, and the nexus of social movements and legislative politics.
Talton underscores Leland's historical significance amid the evolving African American foreign policy priorities, emerging African civil conflicts, and shifting US anticommunism policies that marked the late Cold War. At the center of his account is Leland's moral crusade against hunger and malnutrition, at home and abroad, yet the range of Leland's foreign policy commitments is deftly rendered, from his role in passing US sanctions against apartheid South Africa to his condemnations of US-backed authoritarian regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Despite Leland's foreign policy victories, Talton depicts him as the standard-bearer of a Black internationalism that reached the peak of its influence in Congress in the mid-1980s and quickly waned with the collapse of the last white-minority-ruled regimes in Africa. In this context, Leland sought an often untenable middle ground: on the one hand, he maintained a strident critique of American realpolitik, born of his days as a Black Power activist, doggedly pressuring the US government to look beyond Cold War competition in its diplomatic relations with African states; on the other hand, he often played into faulty notions of American exceptionalism, meant to inspire the American public to deepen its investment in humanitarian aid to the Horn of Africa. But as Talton illustrates, Leland bore these contradictions with grace, good humor, and an extraordinary dedication to the welfare of those whose deprivation usually garnered little attention in Washington.
The book's firsts two chapters chronicle Leland's embrace of radical politics as a student at Texas Southern University in the 1960s, his organizing efforts as a Black Power activist in Houston, and his transition to elected office, first in the Texas State House, and then in the US Congress. [End Page 188] Young Leland's solidarity with progressive, newly independent regimes throughout the Global South was cemented by a 1971 trip to Tanzania, where he was deeply inspired by Julius Nyerere's pan-Africanism and Ujamaa socialism. Talton does an exceptional job of letting Leland speak for himself, and the lasting impact of this early encounter is unmistakable: "I got totally absorbed by Africa" (24).
Talton notes that the growing radicalism of young Black activists like Leland throughout the US, the Caribbean, and Africa shared intellectual influences such as the anti-imperialist and Marxist analyses of Amilcar Cabral and C. L. R. James, yet with characteristic nuance, he makes clear that these young activists often parted ways regarding the practical implications of these ideas. Thus, while many proponents of Black Power throughout the transatlantic world lauded Emperor Haile Selassie as a defender of African autonomy, many student activists in Ethiopia channeled their radicalism into efforts to dismantle Selassie's monarchy.
Talton adeptly situates Leland among a wave of Black activists who transitioned into electoral politics during the early 1970s and struggled to work within a political system they had been determined to reshape fundamentally. Upon reaching Washington in 1978, Leland joined a cadre of recently elected Black representatives working on African and Caribbean affairs, including Ronald Dellums, William H. Gray, and Juan Dixon. Talton demonstrates that this cadre was deeply influenced by the ideological commitments and legislative strategies of an earlier generation of officials, such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Charles Diggs, and Andrew Young, who sought to integrate...