You May Be Black or You May Be White But in Africa You're an American First
David Peterson del Mar explores a creation myth for a nation of black people still searching for personal and collective terra firma.
So let us speak about the motherland
-- Stetsasonic, “A.F.R.I.C.A” (1986)
There was a time when black American hip-hop was very much into Africa. At the dawn of what became the Golden Era (roughly 1987-92), rappers began referencing the very existence of Africa in a way black pop hadn’t done in a generation. Stetsasonic’s “A.F.R.I.C.A” wasn’t a particularly compelling musical track, but their name-checking specific African countries was a departure from the lyrical norm. Not long afterward, Chuck D and KRS-ONE started calling attention to African leaders and African innovations. Queen Latifah draped herself in full-on Afrocentric finery on the cover of All Hail the Queen (1989). X-Clan signed off their songs with a salutation to “the red, the black and the green… sissies!”
I soaked all this up like a sponge. I loved hip-hop’s beats and rhymes but craved music that spoke to my political and cultural life. Finally, rap was showing signs of cultivating a worldview broader than the immediate ‘hood, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Back then, consciously pro-black hip-hop fit right in with my broader cultural thinking. I was increasingly fascinated with discovering connections between musical styles, past and present, throughout and across the African diaspora. I had a show on a college radio station that tried to map those bridges in the hope that others would join me in crossing them. A set that started with Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s South African a cappella, for example, would wind its way through Sweet Honey in the Rock’s movement gospel and some classic New York doo-wop. Some of the flows worked better than others, but I was focused on refining my sense of a Grand Unified Theory linking all the black musics of the world.
In that respect, I suppose I shared an impulse in common with many who’ve turned their gaze towards Africa, hoping to see something specific, and self-affirming, gaze back. I thought, I truly believed that there was some one thing we people who are darker than blue shared, and although I had no idea beyond physiology what it might be, I believed that it had to come from the one place we all had in common: Africa. I just knew we were all connected to Africa and by Africa. Music just seemed to be the most obvious manifestation of that, if only I could locate the perfect beat.
Many have gone one giant step further, embarking upon a journey towards whatever concept of Africa, or themselves, or themselves in Africa, they thought they saw or hoped to find. Often, they came back disillusioned. They went there with preconceived notions, only to find the reality on the ground incompatible with them. Or they arrived with racist baggage and never unpacked it.
The comma in the title of David Peterson del Mar’s review of this phenomenon is critical. African, American refers to two distinct sets of people. Actually, three: the Americans who ventured to Africa in search of something and made art of their adventures; the Africans they’d thought they’d encounter; and the Africans they actually did, who may or may not have been depicted fairly in that art, if at all.
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It begins more than a century ago, when Theodore Roosevelt embarked upon an African safari in 1909, after leaving the White House. The trip was borne of his conviction that men had to experience danger to keep their wits and edges sharp, and apparently, there was no better place at the time to do that than sub-Saharan Africa.
Roosevelt saw plenty of action during his safari and wrote vividly of the thrill of the hunt. But he was all but dismissive of the Africans who assisted his traveling party, even when they displayed their own bravery against a wild animal. Those poor souls were subject to Roosevelt’s racism, being forced to sleep in separate quarters from the hunters. One of Roosevelt’s assistants made the men wear name tags so as to eliminate the bother of learning names and faces.
Imagine how it must have been to be treated like second-class citizens by visitors to your homeland, visitors you were, in fact, assisting as they played out their ridiculous notions about it. Another white hunter, Edgar Beecher Bronson, recommended the occasional beating to keep those natives in their place. Peterson del Mar explains how such behavior drew from the hunters’ idea of black life in America, which called for a master-servant hierarchy that apparently remained in effect across an ocean.
The cultivation of an enlightened view of Africa was not at all helped by the emergence of Tarzan. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character, raised by apes after his British parents died in the jungle, symbolized all that was good, gentle and patriarchal about white men, while the African people in his midst received less respect than the animals. Burroughs’ novels led to Tarzan’s debut as a film character in 1918 (Tarzan of the Apes), a run that extended for more than 40 years before fading. As with the hunting expeditions, the Africa of Tarzan lore was but a backdrop for white people and their racist worldviews.
But as Tarzan movies took off during the ‘20s, Africa took on an exotic, near-mythic quality for black Americans -- in the opposite direction. Writers and artists during the Harlem Renaissance invoked African images and references with pride and feeling, and Marcus Garvey’s ill-fated Universal Negro Improvement Association planted the notion of “back to Africa” in the minds of many people, a notion that still carries a measure of currency. But actually going to Africa proved problematic for many blacks, starting here with two intellectual titans musing about the condition of Liberia, the African nation founded by former American slaves.
W.E.B. DuBois viewed Liberia as an important example of black self-governance that was not to be undermined by any whiff of incompetence or corruption. Perhaps that is why he wrote very little about the Liberian people during his visit there in 1923. Journalist George Schuyler, on the other hand, spared little mercy in excoriating what he saw during his visit in 1926. He wrote newspaper articles and, in 1931, the novel Slaves Today that depicted the everyday Liberian with respect, and the corrupt people who ran the country with scorn.
Schuyler was no fan of the back-to-Africa thinking, continuing his anti-Africa diatribes well into the era of African independence movements in the ‘50s and ‘60s. DuBois, meanwhile, wholeheartedly embraced pan-Africanism throughout his life, relocating to Ghana in 1961 (he died there in 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech).
Those themes continue throughout the decades in African, American: white and black Americans searching for a vision of Africa that fits the ideas they already have. In this telling, it’s actually women who are often the most sympathetic to the lives of the African people they meet. It’s a theme that connects missionary Jean Kenyon Mackenzie, anthropologist Eslanda Goode Robeson, and author Karen Dinesen (Out of Africa) -- but doesn’t include Alice Walker, who became a persistent critic of African anti-womanist policies, or Oprah Winfrey, whose largesse to a South African girls’ school was broadly seen as about validating her own girlhood, as opposed to all the girlhoods a $40 million investment might.
As Peterson del Mar moves through the 20th Century and the beginning of this one, the theme of misguided cultural assumptions remains in place (as does his sardonic wit about the more egregious cases), but the assumptions themselves shift. Beginning with the Peace Corps volunteers of the ‘60s, many whites began to see Africa as a place that needed help -- their help -- to address its various crises. Be it famine, war or just sub-Western living conditions, Africa became an object of pity, not a place with its own agency. That led to a string of short-sighted mega-charity moments, from the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (1984), the mother of all overwrought star-studded one-offs, to the widely-derided KONY 2012 video campaign.
Meanwhile, many blacks doubled down on connecting themselves to Africa -- to be specific, “Africa”, an undifferentiated landmass despite its numerous nations, languages and cultures -- even if only taking on stylish trappings of a generalized African culture as a form of “symbolic ethnicity”. Peterson del Mar locates the crossover moment of this trend, which had its modern formation in ‘60s black cultural and political liberation movements, in 1976 with Alex Haley’s wildly popular fable Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Although it was a fable in numerous fact-checked respects, it became something of a creation myth for a nation of black people still searching for personal and collective terra firma, which helps explain why the TV mini-series it spawned became a national phenomenon (and also how genealogy became and remains a thing for many black folk).
So it is curious, and also a bit amusing, when at the end of African, American, Africa gazes back. Peterson del Mar notes the emergence of African cosmopolitanism in the American mainstream, a term coined by Kwame Anthony Appiah to represent a worldview more expansive than many of the African adventurers of yore would have thought possible. Cosmopolitanism describes this ongoing moment of Africans in the West returning the Western gaze, as represented by writers such as Teju Cole and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These and other Africans (many of whom now live full- or part-time in America) are neither begging for white charity nor taking for granted an idealized pan-blackness. They are speaking of and from their individual African experiences, not from the skewed, one-size-fits-all generalities about Africa that have reigned in both white and black America for years.
Even the feel-good movie The Queen of Kawte (2016) and the book which inspired it show Africans acting on their own behalf, with the help of sympathetic Americans who do not come with their own ideas of what ought to happen. African, American suggests that such depictions might be the best way for both black and white Americans to see Africa as a real place and Africans as real people (the author would know: he is also the founding president of Yo Ghana!, an organization that connects young people in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest).
As it is mostly a film and literature study, African, American barely mentions Western ideas about Africa as expressed in music and the visual arts, a swath which would take in movements including Cubism and free jazz (and which would also conclude with how contemporary African artists are putting their own spin on things). And it doesn’t discuss the global anti-apartheid movement that peaked in the ‘80s, driven in large part by activist Americans, which helped end the reign of terror in South Africa (and confirmed, in a way, both white notions of rescuing Africa from afar and black notions of commonality throughout a diaspora). But the glaring oversight of the 1988 Eddie Murphy hit movie Coming to America notwithstanding, African, American is quite thorough in what it does cover, in the hope that its readers will ask what exactly they’re seeing when they consider the work of those who gaze across the ocean towards Africa and wonder, what if?
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I did that radio show for just a year. I thought there would be a syndicated radio market for a thoughtfully packaged program that dropped a little music from across the diaspora; I thought wrong. Now that there’s a thing called the internet, such a thought isn’t at all far-fetched; with a little effort you can create your own such playlist, and I’m sure many already have.
But the idea that all our global manifestations of musical blackness, from Miriam Makeba to Linton Kwesi Johnson to Gilberto Gil to Regina Carter to Nicki Minaj to wherever you’d choose to go from there, are not just a random assortment of great music but part of a greater whole, and that the connection can be proved in a way that links genre, geography, and groove without sounding like a lecture, that I still believe. I may not be able to nail it down any closer than a tight DJ set, but it’s out there. Mind you, I'm not a formal musicologist, I have no academic findings to support this sense. I just feel it in my bones. (Some of that same feeling was in play years later when I launched and named this column.)
That feeling helps me understand the depth of Africa’s place in black American cultural identity. It's not a romantic wistfulness, a longing for some unchartered land or state of being. For 398 years, we blacks in America have known that this is not our ultimate ancestral homeland. But 398 years is a long time to be from somewhere, and after this long, America is clearly our home. But it has not been, and is not now, a place where we can always feel as though we are at home. Thus, the call from across the water, the drums in the distance, the draping of ourselves in something that we can claim, at whatever remove, as ours, connected to whatever birthright we can justifiably say we own. And from that point, perhaps the urge to trace our personal roots, and then go there, and see what it’s like for ourselves, and finally, if we’re lucky, feel a long-lost, or never-had, sense of ultimate ancestral kinfolk.
Peterson del Mar doesn’t spell it out that explicitly in African, American, but he doesn’t need to, not to anyone who’s paid any sort of respectful attention and thought to black life in America. He tells how many of those encounters have played out, and whether they ended with communion or bitterness, the thread is: you may be black or you may be white, but in Africa, you’re an American first. That doesn’t mean you can’t visit and learn, and maybe even consider making a life there, but Africa is not your birthplace. Recognize the difference between longing for an ideal and going where you blithely assume you can find it. Be respectful to the people you meet and their culture, he cautions between the lines, and stay mindful that this is their home, not yours.
But I’m afraid Africa will continue to be subject to dream-chasers of all shapes and sizes and motives and colors -- it’s too remote, too scenic, too historic, too mythic. It means too much to our conception of ourselves as black people, and to America’s conception of itself as a nation, for everyone to simply leave it be. If the West continues to receive the voices of actual Africans speaking about the actual natures of the actual Africa (something I advocated in this space nearly ten years ago), that might help disabuse a few people of the more misguided fantasies. But others are going to hold onto and pursue their visions no matter what because that’s what gives them clarity, that’s what gives them selfhood, that’s what gives them peace.
Because home, some people say, is where the heart is.