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Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935-1961 / Edition 1

Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935-1961 / Edition 1

by James H. Meriwether
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Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935-1961

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807849972
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 04/29/2002
Series: The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture
Edition description: 1
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

James H. Meriwether, a former Fulbright senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Zimbabwe, is associate professor of history at California State University, Bakersfield.

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Proudly We Can Be Africans
Black Americans and Africa, 1935-1961

By James H. Meriwether

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826693


In the summer of 1935, as Italian dictator Benito Mussolini gathered his forces to invade Ethiopia, African Americans looked on in dismay, for Ethiopia and Liberia remained the last black-ruled nations in Africa. Yet the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American newspapers of the day, pondered the fate of Ethiopia and pronounced, "Much as we all sympathize with Ethiopia, it is evident that our burdens here are sufficiently heavy without assuming those of Negroes 7,000 miles away. It is noteworthy that, while our disabilities have been fairly well publicized throughout the world since Emancipation, no aid has ever come from our brethren across the seas. We have fought the battle alone and they will have to do likewise."[1]

Just over twenty years later, in early 1957, Ghana celebrated its independence, becoming the first African nation south of the Sahara to cast off colonial rule. This time the Courier offered a far different portrait of the meaning of African freedom struggles: "[As] Ghana enters the society of free nations today, the event has a particularly pertinent significance for American Negroes. . . . Are American Negroes an inferior people? Can they meet the full challenge of modern, Western civilization? We American Negroes look to Ghana to furnish the answers to these questions. . . . Ghana's contributions, as a free nation, to peace, to art, to industry, to government, will be regarded by American Negroes as symbols of their own worth and potential."[2]

The book that follows analyzes, over the course of a quarter century and a series of specific events, major shifts in the salience and significance of contemporary Africa in African American intellectual and political life. This complex and ever-changing relationship underwent critical changes during the pivotal years between 1935 and 1961—from the anger and bitterness over Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-36 to the heady years of the early 1960s, when dozens of colonized African nations gained their independence. Responding to the development of independence in Africa, during this time African Americans embraced contemporary, as opposed to historic, Africa.

Previously, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African American missionary advocates and emigrationists had spoken reverentially about Africa's glorious past, yet they typically had much less regard for Africans of their own day. For them, what held meaning was the influence of black Americans on Africa, not the reverse. Nineteenth-century African Americans in fact helped establish a tradition of arrogating a primacy in transatlantic economic, political, and intellectual exchanges with Africa. Indeed, much attention has been paid to how African Americans aided Africa in the twentieth century, from missionaries' work to save pagan "savages" to W. E. B. Du Bois's leadership of pan-African efforts to unify and strengthen the black world. Just a few years ago the inaugural issue of a magazine billing itself as "The Forum of People of African Descent" hit the presses emblazoned with the headline, "Can African Americans Save Africa?"[3]

The focus on black America aiding and influencing Africa has obscured the profound transformations that African freedom struggles fostered in black America and particularly in black Americans' relations with Africa. These freedom struggles drove and shaped discourse about Africa in mid-twentieth-century black America, so it was Africans themselves who compelled people in America to consider with fresh eyes their relationship to contemporary Africa. Black Americans did not just inspire and provide a model for Africans; they also watched and considered African political activities. The nonviolent, direct action tactics of the protesters in South Africa's 1952 Defiance Campaign, for instance, resonated in black America, as did the more militant approach of Mau Mau fighters in Kenya. Viewing these events, African Americans reflected on the possibilities for their own situation, with discussion about Africa refracting as well as reshaping debates within black America.

In the discourse about the relationship with Africa and Africans, black America contained a vast array of views. Some felt close affinity to Africa, viewing Africa as the motherland and considering Africans to be blood brothers, and some argued that experiences of oppression created binding links and group identity. Yet others felt no such ties and found instead that three centuries divided by the Atlantic had altered fundamentally, even severed, former relations. Between these points, the abundance of differing forms and degrees of interest in Africa ensured that there would be highly varied engagements with contemporary Africa, with African Americans regularly contesting their often conflicting attitudes.

These debates reflected any number of influences in black America, not least of which were ongoing tensions over how much to focus on and identify with an Africa that for so long had been stereotyped in disturbingly negative terms. Even as African Americans increasingly embraced contemporary Africa, there continued to be highly varied opinions as to how strongly ties should be pursued. Even deeply emotional and enthusiastic responses did not always result in practical action or investment. The liberal civil rights leadership in particular questioned how fully to pursue transatlantic links, regularly arguing that black America's energies and resources should concentrate on the daunting challenges of domestic issues. Yet others promoted a transatlantic frame of reference and stronger diasporic ties to Africa. Any number of times ordinary African Americans pushed their leaders to adopt stronger pro-African stances, and, as shall be seen, civil rights leaders often found themselves scrambling to catch up on African issues. Public letters to the black press and private missives to individual leaders reveal that many black Americans drew pride and inspiration from African struggles and pushed their leaders to act more aggressively in regard to African interests—as well as in the domestic struggle. We can gauge and learn from the character and levels of responses—the depth of verbal support, actual donations of money or time, the creation of support organizations—and should recognize that all of these complexities speak to the absolute need for disaggregating the relationship between African Americans and Africa.

As black Americans wrestled with the meaning and relevance of events in Africa, they also debated how best to translate their concerns into action in the international arena. These debates shed still more light on issues of significance within black America and on the constantly evolving relationship with Africa. At the same time, efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy toward Africa of course speak to the underexamined history of U.S. foreign relations with Africa. Recently there have been notable additions to the literature regarding this history; however, like Africa itself, this history remains remarkably marginalized. This is unfortunate, for the enormous significance of race and ethnicity in world politics during the twentieth century can be better understood by examining the African American transnational relationship with Africa and the complex interaction of the domestic race issue and international politics.

Black America's relationship with Africa existed not in a vacuum but in a world of rising fascism, world war, superpower rivalry, and an emerging Third World. International influences played a powerful role in shaping how African Americans responded to developments in Africa. Italy's invasion of Ethiopia stands as part of the long descent into World War II and the horrible slaughter of peoples based on doctrines of racial superiority, but it also marked the start of black America's transformed engagement with contemporary Africa. The war itself fundamentally altered the European powers' relations with colonial nations, helping lay the groundwork for a liberated Africa and a profoundly different African American relationship with Africa. In the postwar world, the rapid onset of the Cold War held tremendous consequences for the development of that relationship, with anticommunism stifling domestic dissent and transatlantic connections even as it opened the argument that equality at home would be the most powerful weapon in the fight against communism overseas. The rising Third World, with an emerging independent Africa as a large component, further influenced the terms of engagement. The United States could ill afford to alienate vast numbers of the world's population, and yet in the fight against communism Washington felt it imperative to support its European allies, who were the colonial powers in Africa. African Americans had to negotiate these complex global developments as part of their reshaping of the relationship with Africa. Two caveats should be noted at this point. Although the Caribbean, with its large black population and immigrant peoples creating numerous ties to the United States, also held deep meaning in the context of an emerging Third World and a rising black Atlantic, the focus of this book is on African Americans' interaction specifically with Africa. Moreover, although the vast cultural dimensions of this engagement, deserving of a book in their own right, enter into the story, they are not this book's central focus.

Ethiopia's defense of its national sovereignty in the mid-1930s energized African American internationalism and engagement with contemporary Africa, and in the following years African Americans became strongly anticolonial. Over time, debates raged about the extent and shape of the anticolonial engagement, but, broadly speaking, African Americans' anticolonialism shifted toward a focus more specifically on Africa. As a group, black Americans became more determined to influence international policies along particular, race-conscious lines. By the early 1960s, even as liberal civil rights leaders espoused an integrationist vision for America, they sought influence in racially defined terms. For example, these black American leaders did not seek to become the voice of expertise on affairs with Asia, an area that also experienced colonial rule and oppression; rather, they sought to position themselves as a guiding force in U.S. relations with Africa. African liberation struggles not only promoted greater international attention among black Americans, they guided African American interest in anticolonialism and foreign policy toward more African-centered lines.

Yet even as African Americans claimed this special role and relationship with Africa, they struggled to process the complexities of independent Africa, particularly the reality of internecine domestic conflicts within that continent's many new nations. Twentieth-century African Americans generally did not disaggregate areas of Africa in their transatlantic thinking. The "imagined" Africa was just that: Africa as a whole. This meant that African Americans responded to events ranging across the entire continent, and in interpreting these events they projected their meanings just as broadly. Yet, by the same measure, this approach to Africa generally resulted in minimal consideration of the vast ethnic and cultural differences at work on the continent.

A world of leftist revolutionaries, authoritarian strongmen, democratic hopefuls, military coups, and civil wars could not easily sustain imaginings of Africa as a more or less unified whole. One consequence, arrived at consciously or unconsciously, was African Americans' greater focus on countries embroiled in national liberation struggles, as opposed to countries that already had gained independence. Such a prioritization enabled African Americans to continue building transatlantic bridges while finessing direct engagement with the deep complications of independent Africa. Furthermore, focusing on an Africa still struggling for independence helped sustain a broader coalition of forces in black America as the U.S. civil rights movement fragmented in the 1960s. People who differed over the course of the struggle in the United States or over the source of woes in independent Africa could still rally together against the injustices in African nations that continued to face white minority rule. Yet of course this left unresolved the engagement with an entirely independent Africa, an issue that the dawn of black majority rule in South Africa brought into sharper relief.

In recent years historians have paid closer attention to the transnational dimensions of race and racial politics during the twentieth century. The field covers a vast amount of history, a crucial part of which includes African Americans and Africa. Research in this particular historical field sometimes has been explicitly comparative, while in other cases the work has reconstructed the transatlantic bridges across which people and ideas flowed.[4] Scholars also have been examining more closely the complex interactions between U.S. race relations, politics, and foreign affairs, and recently a number of notable works have appeared that specifically engage black American attitudes toward Africa, colonialism, the Cold War, and U.S. foreign policy during the mid-twentieth century.[5]

The following work complements and expands this growing body of literature by exploring the ways in which African Americans responded to pivotal developments in Africa during these years. Taking place during the confluence of the modern freedom struggles on both sides of the Atlantic, this interaction had a profound impact on black America, helping to recast the place of Africa in African American consciousness. By examining more fully black America's engagement with African freedom struggles and independence, we reshape and internationalize our understanding of the freedom struggle in America while gaining insight into the development of racial identity and political consciousness during these critical years of twentieth-century freedom movements. Historical accounts generally have understated the role that African liberation struggles played in promoting action by black Americans, perhaps in part due to the understandable desire to highlight African Americans' own efforts during the struggle. Unfortunately, the downplaying of the international forces that informed black America divorces our understanding of the black freedom struggle in America from the broader, worldwide context. The domestic civil rights movement in fact absorbed knowledge and lessons from African liberation struggles, which in turn helped shape ongoing interpretations of the domestic struggle. Hopefully, this book contributes to a greater balance in our understanding of the dialectic nature of the links.

Examining more fully the international character of black America's relationship with contemporary Africa also helps reshape our understanding of the forces informing that relationship. Historians have shown that throughout the course of American history there have been ties linking African Americans to Africa. Yet, just as plainly, the shape and meaning of these links have varied and been transformed over time. Indeed, periods of downturn and dissociation existed, as did surges in interest. Historically, the most common explanation of why African Americans' engagement with Africa waxes and wanes over time maintains that African Americans promote stronger ties with Africa when they feel more alienated in the United States; when their situation appears to be improving, it is argued, they feel less need to pursue links with Africa—that is, identifying with the ancestral homeland is viewed as a substitute for identifying with America. This explanation points to the fact that domestic social downswings and, to a lesser degree, economic downturns give rise to emigration sentiment. Thus, increased interest in emigration during the 1890s coincided with the rise of Jim Crow and "separate but equal" policies; emigration in the late 1910s and early 1920s coincided with the surge in racial violence highlighted by the "Red Summer" of 1919.[6] This "bad times" thesis, however, has trouble explaining why worsening economic times in the late 1920s and early 1930s did not result in more widespread interest in Africa at that time and, more significantly, why rising interest in Africa and emigrating waves of black Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s coincided with early advances in the modern civil rights movement. Notwithstanding the enormous frustrations raised by white southerners' "Massive Resistance," rising interest in Africa among black Americans occurred contemporaneously with relatively greater social and economic advances in America. The growing interest in Africa among middle- and upper-class African Americans clearly suggests that African American interest in Africa was not merely a refuge from the problems in America.

An alternative explanation for the shifts in African American interest in Africa, then, has been that as blacks in America increase their confidence in their status as Americans, they feel greater comfort in looking to Africa as the fountainhead of the dignity and pride denied them in America. In this view, black integration occurring with an attendant rising interest in and attachment to Africa means that integration and rising cultural nationalism are not mutually exclusive developments. Yet this thesis faces the reverse challenge of how to explain increasing interest in Africa during periods of adversity.[7]

These two relatively blunt interpretive approaches contain important elements of analysis, yet essentially they remain domestically self-referential, thereby eliding the role of Africa and other international influences. Of the myriad complexities shaping the terms of the engagement, the critical importance of contemporary Africa itself all too often has been neglected. The era of African liberation struggles held profound meaning for renewing and reshaping African American ties with Africa. Starting with Haile Selassie's defense of the Ethiopian homeland in the 1930s and rising most emphatically with the successful independence movements of the 1950s, Africa itself compelled black America to look anew at contemporary Africa. In the continual process of reinventing and reinterpreting racial identities, developments in contemporary Africa reshaped African American views of Africans and promoted the positive inclusion of modern Africa in black American lives. It should be noted that during these years there would be no necessary connection between a burgeoning U.S. civil rights movement—with equal treatment and integration as its goal—and the building of diasporic identities across national boundaries. Changes obviously took time, too, for negative images and cultural memory maintained powerful holds on shaping feelings toward Africa long after new data about Africa came to the fore. However, by the late 1950s and early 1960s any number of African Americans reached out to draw lessons from and promote a stronger diasporic unity with contemporary Africa.

Of course, even then just how to shape the relationship with Africa would remain a salient issue for African Americans, and the discourse over the ever evolving relationship would serve as a continuing marker of issues and attitudes and identities in black America. African Americans are an enormously diverse group, and we should be careful not to flatten the intellectual terrain. The transformations analyzed in the following pages are subtle and uneven, often cases of shifting weight and emphasis rather than sharp change, and certainly never monolithic in nature. This book takes as a premise that accepting and analyzing the enormous wealth and creativity of the historical actors' views and lives is a greater service to them than depicting them as having an essentialized response to and interaction with Africa. Examining the varied and changing African American views in this transnational context ultimately broadens the understanding we have of the complexities of black America.

To access the dizzying array of opinions in black America, I have drawn upon a wide range of sources, which include the papers of leading civil rights organizations, prominent African Americans, and official government documents and records. Yet perhaps the most important and vibrant source for understanding black America's range of views in the mid-twentieth century is the black press. African American newspapers are familiar sources and yet curiously underutilized, especially in regard to Africa, where they played a crucial role in providing forums for debates about Africa's meaning and relevance. The pages of editorials, opinion pieces, and letters to the editors provide a fecund range of opinion. Indeed, letters to the editors have the particular advantage of offering access to an array of voices not usually registered in the ongoing discourse.

While African American newspapers always have struggled for survival, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s represented the height of their power and influence. In 1945 the weekly circulation of the black press passed the 1.8 million mark, and in 1954 it topped 2 million.[8] Moreover, the black press reached and influenced a proportion of the African American population far greater than its circulation figures alone would indicate. As Gunnar Myrdal noted in 1944 in An American Dilemma, newspapers passed from family to family and could be found in barbershops, churches, lodges, and pool parlors. Their contents passed by word of mouth among those who could not read. "The importance of the Negro press for the formation of Negro opinion, for the functioning of all other Negro institutions, for Negro leadership and concerted action generally, is enormous," wrote Myrdal. He even felt that the press might have been "the greatest single power of the Negro community." It seems more likely that black churches retained that position of primacy in black America, but the black press, by providing a broad forum for opinion and argument from all quarters of black America, eclipsed the churches in offering an arena for debate about Africa.[9]

The press served as a well-worn medium for disseminating ideas between African American elites and the broader community, with the newspapers' dependency on circulation revenues helping ensure that their content did not reflect only the views of the relatively elite publishers. In continually trying to capture readership, papers offered a mix of tabloid-press sensationalism, large quantities of human interest material, and lots of local news. They typically balanced this with sober editorial pages and prominent columnists. The resultant mix was a powerful transmitter of the concerns and interests of black America. In 1943, W. E. B. Du Bois remarked, "Today it is probably true that there is scarcely a Negro in the United States who can read and write who does not read the Negro press. It has become a vital part of his life." "But," he added, "as I have said before, instead of guiding and ordering Negroes it is rather the expression and reflection of that life. . . . Probably by and large a wide reading of the Negro press would reflect a most accurate picture of present conditions among Negroes than any other source." Myrdal concurred with Du Bois, feeling that "by and large the Negro press provides the news and the opinions which its reading public wants" and noting that "this inference has the corollary conclusion that Negro opinion—at least among the more alert and articulate groups—can be ascertained and studied in the Negro press." When a 1943 nationwide survey asked the question, "Does the Negro press speak for most Negroes in your opinion?" 86 percent of black Americans responded "yes," while only 10 percent said "no."[10]

The leading African American newspapers, considering both circulation and influence, maintained remarkable stability in terms of ownership and editorship from 1935 to 1961. During this period each one remained under the control of a single person or family: the renowned Chicago Defender, initially led by founder Robert Abbott and then his son-in-law John Sengstacke; the increasingly popular Pittsburgh Courier, under the control of the Robert Vann family; the New York Amsterdam News, bought by C. B. Powell in 1935; and the Baltimore Afro-American, with its multiple editions sold throughout the Mid-Atlantic region all published under the direction of president Carl Murphy. Finally, the leading newspaper in the Deep South was the Atlanta Daily World, one of a handful of black newspapers ever to succeed as a daily, with C. A. Scott as general manager and editor.

While African American newspapers shared common ground on certain fundamental issues, such as making the promotion of equality and full citizenship for black Americans a top priority, the press nevertheless ranged across the spectrum on political and social issues. More socially and politically conservative newspapers, such as the Daily World, in many respects operated under the principles of Booker T. Washington, promoting a social philosophy of industriousness, thriftiness, strict morality, and adapting to existing conditions, and a political philosophy of voting Republican. "Gradualist" papers such as these believed in the primacy of economics and urged the value of hard work, practical education, and self-help. Advocating the view that one could rise within the system and break down barriers in the process, these papers tended to not take stands that could be perceived as inflammatory, for fear that such tactics harmed the cause. In international affairs, their coverage focused on displaying prominent patriotism and, particularly after World War II, staunch anticommunism. With their determinedly integrative stance, they typically displayed little interest in promoting racial nationalism, black history, or links with Africa. The more influential and widespread liberal activist newspapers—including the Defender, Courier, Afro-American, and Amsterdam News—more determinedly demanded specific political and social changes that would promote civil rights and equality. These papers often supported U.S. foreign policy but certainly did not mindlessly toe the official line, and they contended that one could be patriotic while maintaining active pressure for civil rights. They more commonly promoted racial pride, often through encouraging an awareness of black history, and accordingly generally displayed more interest in Africa. As might be expected, during the course of the quarter century covered in the following pages, the specific positions on domestic and international issues taken by these newspapers and others varied. The nuances speak to concerns within black America as well as to its evolving relationship with contemporary Africa.

Examining African Americans' discourse about Africa, then, ultimately not only deepens our understanding of this historic relationship but also opens a window onto black America as it transformed itself during the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, the African American engagement with Africa offers a powerful way to search into the issues and concerns of black America. In addressing the broad relationship, this book weaves together many ongoing issues: the role that Africa played in the black freedom struggle in America, the changing nature of African American identities and the influence Africa had on them, the reshaped and more widespread African American interest in Africa that emerged in these middle years of the twentieth century. The roots of each of these issues, as well as others addressed herein, can be traced to years well before the timeframe of this book; similarly, these issues continued to help shape the relationship long after. Still, this book concentrates on the roughly quarter century from 1935 to 1961 in which the relationship with contemporary Africa, as opposed to historical Africa, was redefined. The chapters are structured around African American responses to influential events in Africa. Undoubtedly one could include other African events that held import for African Americans during this quarter century, but the following chapters show how these specific events crystallized thought and debate over particular issues and caused fundamental shifts in the abiding relationship.

Excerpted from Proudly We Can Be Africans by James H. Meriwether. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

[This] book is well written, well documented, and informative, and it makes a major contribution to the growing body of works on the historical connection between African Americans and Africa.—Journal of Southern History

A work that endeavors—and largely succeeds—in doing full justice to the richness and diversity of African-American opinion during that crucial period encompassing the civil rights struggle at home and decolonization and 'national liberation' abroad.—American Historical Review

James Meriwether has given us the first comprehensive study of the diverse ways in which African Americans responded to the winning of African independence. Deeply researched and finely written, Proudly We Can Be Africans explores and illuminates the tensions between racial identity and national identity for black Americans in the era of World War II and the Cold War. Like the work of Penny Von Eschen and Brenda Gayle Plummer, Meriwether's book will be of great importance for students of American race relations, African American politics and intellectual life, and U.S. foreign relations.—Thomas Borstelmann, Cornell University

This remarkable study brilliantly explores the complex relationship between African Americans and Africa, how their ideas about Africa changed from redemption to the influence of Africa on their own consciousness and liberation, indeed on their very identity as African Americans.—Robert L. Harris Jr., Cornell University

Meriwether's excellent book explores the meaning of Africa to black Americans. . . . Recommended for all levels and collections.—Choice

This beautifully written book provides a deeply textured narrative of the relationship between African Americans and Africa. James Meriwether has written a model transnational history, and has greatly furthered our understanding of the international character of American racial politics.—Mary L. Dudziak, University of Southern California Law School

By examining the African American freedom struggle within the context of international developments, Meriwether is able to offer an alternative perspective on this history.—Journal of Contemporary History

A solid work that should foster a new understanding of the importance of Africa in the black American freedom struggle.—Journal of American History

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