- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Unprecedented in scope and detail, Brothers and Strangers is a vivid history of how the mythic Africa of the black American imagination ran into the realities of Africa the place. In the 1920s, Marcus Garvey—convinced that freedom from oppression was not possible for blacks in the Americas—led the last great African American emigrationist movement. His U.S.-based Universal Negro Improvement Association worked with the Liberian government to create a homeland for African Americans. Ibrahim Sundiata explores the paradox at the core of this project: Liberia, the chosen destination, was itself racked by class and ethnic divisions and—like other nations in colonial Africa—marred by labor abuse.
In an account based on extensive archival research, including work in the Liberian National Archives, Sundiata explains how Garvey’s plan collapsed when faced with opposition from the Liberian elite, opposition that belied his vision of a unified Black World. In 1930 the League of Nations investigated labor conditions and, damningly, the United States, land of lynching and Jim Crow, accused Liberia of promoting “conditions analogous to slavery.” Subsequently various plans were put forward for a League Mandate or an American administration to put down slavery and “modernize” the country. Threatened with a loss of its independence, the Liberian government turned to its “brothers beyond the sea” for support. A varied group of white and black anti-imperialists, among them W. E. B. Du Bois, took up the country’s cause. In revealing the struggle of conscience that bedeviled many in the black world in the past, Sundiata casts light on a human rights predicament which, he points out, continues in twenty-first-century African nations as disparate as Sudan, Mauritania, and the Ivory Coast.
* * *
The Negro is an American. We know nothing of Africa. -Martin Luther King Jr.
For many generations, slaves and the descendants of slaves in America invented a homeland called "Africa"-a land before slave ships, a prelapsarian savanna whereupon the provocatively dressed gazelle could stroll safely after dark. Perhaps someday Africa will exist, in which case it will have been patented by African Americans in the U.S.A. from the example of the American Civil Rights movement. -Richard Rodriguez
People from the African Diaspora have often been at the forefront of the movement for African liberation. Their contribution to anticolonial Pan-Africanism has been immense. In 1947, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) observed, "The idea of one Africa to unite the thought and ideals of all native peoples of the dark continent belongs to the twentieth century and stems naturally from the West Indies and the United States." In these two places, "various groups of Africans, quite separate in origin, became so united in experience and so exposed to the impact of new cultures that they began to think of Africa as one idea and one land." Thinkers and activists such as Alexander Crummell, Edward Blyden, Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, and Malcolm X have all formed part of a longtradition. Vis-a-vis European colonialism and racism, they have been the proverbial miner's canary. Diasporic blacks have borne witness to and warned of the full meaning of white supremacy. They have known (and continue to know) that whatever differences of ethnicity or language may exist among blacks, white supremacy posits the subordination of all blacks. As Malcolm X told the Organization of African States in 1964, "Your problems will never be fully solved until and unless ours are solved. You will never be fully respected until and unless we are also respected." He reminded his listeners, "Our problem is your problem. It is not a Negro problem, nor an American problem.... It is not a problem of civil rights, but a problem of human rights."
Identity in the Diaspora has assumed tremendous importance. Du Bois struggled with the issue for the more than seventy years of his adult life. The intellectual, educated at Fisk, Harvard, and The University of Berlin, was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement pf Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and, until 1934, the editor of its journal, the Crisis. He has emerged as a central figure in twentieth-century Pan-Africanism; Du Bois was at the forefront of organizing a series of Pan-African conferences held in Europe in the years following World War I. In his ninety-five years, the African American polymath moved from a rather genteel late-Victorian emphasis on the transformative power of the liberal bourgeoisie to Marxist-Leninism and membership in the Communist Party.
On the question of identity, the Massachusetts-born Du Bois was an early multiculturalist. In the address "The Conservation of Races," delivered in 1897, he spoke of what Africa meant to him and his folk. Races, not individuals, were the motive force in history. His people had a racial message they had not yet been able to give to the world. Because of the uniqueness of their gift, "the advance guard of the Negro people-the 8,000,000 people of Negro blood in the United States of America-must soon come to realize that if they are to take their just place in the van of Pan-Negroism, then their destiny is not absorption by the white Americans."
African Americans were just that, one branch of the great and ramifying Negro race whose seat was Africa. Du Bois makes a virtue of necessity in the face of white American psychosexual hysteria surrounding "mongrelization." A year after Plessy v. Ferguson, and in a country in which many states had miscegenation laws, Du Bois's minatory tone on absorption was unneeded. His defensive conceptualization of what black folk had to over American society was a spirituality that harkened back to Africa. His ideas resemble those of an earlier Pan-African thinker, Edward Blyden (1832-1912). The older man had elaborated the idea of the "African Personality," which stressed warmth, communality, and spirituality in opposition to European coolness, individualism, and materialism. Such dichotomizations formed part of a more general late-nineteenth-century pattern. As in Slavophilism and Hindutsva, "spirituality" constituted a counterweight to the values of the successfully imperialist West.
In 1897, Du Bois called African Americans a nation, but he avoided nationalist appeals. Blacks were distinct and should perpetually remain so, but without a political state of their own. Instead, they should seek entrance into the civic sphere in a secular and race-neutral state. At the turn of the twentieth century, Du Bois advocated a politically engaged version of "separate but equal." Whereas Booker T. Washington, the dominant spokesman in contemporary black political life, publicly eschewed political participation, Du Bois demanded access to full civil rights within a pluralistic sociopolitical order. He felt that, "if ... there is substantial agreement in laws, language and religion; if there is a satisfactory adjustment of economic life, then there is no reason why, in the same country and on the same street, two or three great nation ideals might not thrive and develop, that men of different races might not strive together for their race ideals as well, perhaps even better, than in isolation." Over his long lifespan, Du Bois remained insistent on a core of African American rights. Much else changed and shifted. The man who could see danger in amalgamation in 1897 could write in 1920 that he saw no reason to exclude blacks from social, including sexual, equality. Fourteen years later, in one of the greatest shifts of his life, Du Bois embraced black self-segregation and self-development as the answer to the problems of Depression-weary black America. Perhaps unintentionally, Du Bois's most lasting contribution to the ongoing debate on race was his early enunciation of the liberal modus vivendi, which had become part of the American consensus on race relations by the 1960s. What is most significant is that his lifelong commitment to the advancement of his folk at all times remained consistent with a general concern for social justice. His quest for the latter was never ending, although he seldom took a straight path.
Throughout Du Bois's adult life, Africa remained important. He first visited the continent in 1923; he died there some thirty years later. David Levering Lewis notes:
In Du Bois, the Pan-African idea found an intellectual temperament and organizational audacity enabling it to advance beyond the evangelical and literary to become an embryonic movement whose cultural, political, and economic potential would assume, in the long term, worldwide significance. No other person of color then living, with the significant and calamitous exception of Marcus Garvey, was more capable of articulating the idea and mobilizing others in its service.
Africa, however enveloped in mythopoeic projections, was necessary. While whites posited exclusion because of the inferiority of Negro blood, Du Bois retorted with the claim of a specific gift contained within that blood. Hence the two races might remain separate together, to their mutual benefit. In his 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, he assures his audience that the black man "would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world." The Negro derived his gift from Africa. Of his people, Du Bois said, "We are Americans, not only by birth and by citizenship, but by our political ideals, our language, our religion. Farther than that, our Americanism does not go." To the obvious question of why, he responds, "We are Negroes, members of a vast historic race that from the very dawn of creation has slept but half awakening in the dark forests of its African fatherland." Du Bois's Africa is totemic, a lieu de memoire; it gives the eternal social separation of North American blacks a rationale. It is a lyrical conception, a construct that transmutes exclusion into conservation. It is not a geographical expression, but a spiritual pedigree. As such it proves essential to Du Bois's American project, but it is an Africa projected from without, from the Diaspora. It is the Black Man's Land, a peaceful Volksgemeinschaft (national/folk community). Totemic Africa long preceded Du Bois's encounter with Africa as a geographical place. He later remarked, "I did not myself become actively interested in Africa until 1908 or 1910. Franz Boas really influenced me to begin studying this subject and I began really to get into it only after 1915." By this time, Africa the totem was firmly in place, filtering all information from Africa the place.
Admittedly, Du Bois did eventually move away from assertions of grand spiritual affinities and conceived of the link between Africa and the Diaspora as one of shared oppression. In 1940, he proclaimed, "But one thing is sure and that is the fact that since the fifteenth century these ancestors of mine and their descendants have had a common history; have suffered a common disaster and have one long memory." Phenotype was no cardinal point. What provided a connection was the "social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult, and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas. It is this unity that draws me to Africa." The slave trade, slavery, and its heritage of discrimination thus prove central to the linkage between Africa and its Diaspora. However, what happens if we look backward and inward? Are class, ethnicity, and gender so easily trumped? Do all African social classes become linked to the forced migrants? Did the Middle Passage really bind together a cane cutter in Jamaica and King Gezo of Dahomey? If we succumb to the Manichaean binary of an exploiting West and a passive and undifferentiated "rest," we are left with no critique of multiple forms of social oppression found among this rest.
Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) stands out as the most programmatic of diasporic Pan-Africanists. Malcolm X credited Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with starting "the entire freedom movement, which brought about the independence of African nations." The Trinidadian historian Tony Martin says Garvey "demonstrated the underlying unity of the African world, despite its regional diversities. He showed that Africans from Canada to South Africa and from Australia to Panama could be appealed to and mobilized around a common program of race first, self-reliance and nationhood." Garvey linked the disparate parts of the Diaspora-the Caribbean, the United States, and Africa-in a great arc of black suffering, which was, in turn, linked by a future of racial greatness. Combined with this notion of common cultural affinity, but not always coterminous with it, was the idea of a unified political destiny.
Garvey continues to be endlessly analyzed and critiqued, his person and thought often caught between the opposing perceptions of hagiographers and detractors. Recently, looking at the evolution of Caribbean radicalism, Winston James has argued that Garvey's non-American background proves particularly important:
It is almost unthinkable ... that an African American leader at the time would have adopted the high profile, noisy, confrontational posture adopted by the Garvey movement in the early part of the century-the Universal African Legions, a proto-military wing of the UNIA, even had a cavalry unit which paraded on the streets of New York on horseback, in full military regalia; it is almost unthinkable, because the historical experience of Afro-America would certainly have ruled out such an option. It was too much of an obvious high-risk gamble.
Given the later career of the Black Panthers, one might question this assertion. Some critics dismiss Garvey as simply the leader of an ephemeral and doomed back-to-Africa scheme. More than forty years ago, George Padmore, a doyen of Pan-Africanism, compared Garvey and his rival Du Bois: "Garvey's bombastic broadsides against the white man, coupled with his garish showmanship, had an hypnotic effect upon the unlettered, unsophisticated West Indian immigrants and Southern Negroes." The reason for the UNIA's success was that "Du Bois could not compete with Garvey's appeal to these under-privileged people. He was too intelligent, too honest to play on their ignorance of the real situation in Africa." In the mid-1980s, Judith Stein came to just the opposite conclusion. Seeking to place the UNIA within a non-Marxist class critique, she maintained that Garveyism represented the yearnings of a would-be black bourgeoisie whose aims diverged in significant ways from those of the black masses. For her, it constituted a movement of urbanized strivers enamored of black capitalism. "Because the class structure of the black community was different from that of the Anglo- Saxon, Jewish, Italian, and Chinese communities did not mean that it was nonexistent." Furthermore, "the class structure of the black community in Gary, Indiana, was different from the ones in Macon County, Alabama, in Kingston, Jamaica, and in Monrovia, Liberia. The lives of black farmers, factory workers, and teachers were not identical. It would be surprising if their politics were."
The abortion of Garveyism has been attributed to many causes: the narrowness of its class aims; the opposition of the established African American elite; the interference of the European colonial powers; the opposition of the Liberian oligarchy; the harassment by the FBI. All of these played a part in the subversion of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. None of them, in and of itself, suffices as an explanation. The defeat (rather than the failure) of Garveyism does not rest on the inherent illogic of its program. It rests on a failure to disentangle the claims of a national minority from those of pan-ethnicity. In Liberia, the site of the proposed experiment, the UNIA ran into issues of class and ethnicity, which belied the very unity it proclaimed as its raison d'etre.
The lineaments of Marcus Mosiah Garvey's biography are well known and oft repeated. A considerable literature has already accumulated, much of it focused on the rise and fall of Garvey's movement within the United States. Other writings have assessed the impact of his anticolonial rhetoric in the broad African and Caribbean contexts. I intend neither of these approaches here. My purpose is to examine Garveyism and its aftermath in Liberia, the "national centre" which Garvey promised his followers and the world.
Briefly summarized, Garvey's life was truly international, moving as it did between the Caribbean, North America, and Europe. The future leader was born at St. Ann's Bay, in northern Jamaica, on August 17, 1887, the son of a mason and a seamstress. The youth left school at the age of fourteen and became a printer's apprentice in Kingston. Garvey subsequently achieved the status of master printer and foreman at the large P. A. Benjamin Company. In 1907, the young foreman supported a strike and lost his position as a result. He went to work in the Government Printing Office and founded a short-lived newspaper, Garvey's Watchman. Subsequently, he joined the political and literary National Club and published a bimonthly newspaper called Our Own. Garvey also made the acquaintance of Dr. J. Robert Love, a British-trained Bahamian political critic, who published the Advocate. The future black nationalist left Jamaica in 1910 for Costa Rica, where he worked for the United Fruit Company. Outraged by the treatment of his fellow West Indians on the plantations, Garvey went to Port Limon, where he demanded that the British consul protect black workers. In Costa Rica, the young ex-printer established yet another ephemeral publication, La Nacional, before moving on to Panama, where he started La Prensa.
Excerpted from Brothers and strangers by I.K. Sundiata Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|List of Illustrations|
|1||Confronting the Motherland||11|
|2||The Black Zion||48|
|4||Investigation of an Investigation||97|
|6||A New Deal for Liberia||170|
|7||Enterprise in Black and White||211|
|8||The Literary Mirror||229|
|9||The "Native Problem"||252|
|10||Fascism and New Zions||286|
|11||Postscript: Africa and Human Rights||325|
Posted February 5, 2010
No text was provided for this review.