MARCH 7, 2013 BY DAN MAGAZINER
Late last year I had the opportunity to review College of William and Mary History Professor Robert Vinson’s remarkable new book, The Americans Are Coming! Dreams of African American Liberation in Segregationist South Africa. Vinson details both physical and intellectual journeys between South Africa and the United States in the decades before apartheid. His characters are sailors and preachers, political leaders, teachers and conmen. His work reveals the intellectual history of the African diaspora during critical years that saw the tightening of white supremacy, massive dislocation and urbanization and remarkable political creativity in both the United States and South Africa. Over the course of February, Vinson and I exchanged emails about his book, beginning with a discussion about the man who was perhaps the era’s most important black political leader, Marcus Garvey.####
How was Marcus Garvey important in African history?
Vinson: Marcus Garvey was important to African history in several ways. He led the largest black-led political movement in world history, and his movement’s “Africa for the Africans” slogan exemplified its primary mission of African politico-economic independence, black control of religious, educational and cultural institutions and an audacious worldview that linked the destinies of Africa and its diasporas. Of course, Garvey was part of a centuries-long history of diasporic blacks that sought re-connection with, and return to, the African continent. For continental Africans, Garveyism became a vehicle to express popular discontent with white rule, to animate and, in some cases, reinvigorate their political organizations, their trade unions, etc., to create and control black-led churches and schools and to spark a prophetic liberationist Christianity that placed godly black people at the center of a divinely-ordained historical drama that would lead to African redemption. It is so ironic that Garvey’s extensive travels throughout the Atlantic World did not include Africa (though it should be noted several colonial states in Africa banned him), since Garveyism became such a vital ideology that linked continental Africans with diasporic blacks as they constructed transnational racial identities in their attempts to eliminate the global color line. Garveyism was also an important bridge between the post-1890 African resistance movements and nascent Pan-African movements associated with diasporic blacks like Henry Sylvester Williams and the post World War Two anti-colonial and Pan-Africanist movements exemplified by future African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Jomo Kenyatta, all of whom were influenced by Garvey and Garveyism in their respective youths. For historians of African history, Marcus Garvey and Garveyism illustrates how African history can be fruitfully studied beyond continental borders, how Africa and Africans should be more central in African Diaspora Studies and how African American and Caribbean history remained linked to African history long after the Atlantic Slave Trade.
It’s notable that Africanist scholarship has generally failed to note the vitality your book reveals, and that you’ve sketched here. Why do you think this is? And how do you explain the contrast with African American history, which, as Robin Kelley and others have long argued, has always been attuned to Atlantic crossings? Is this simply a matter of diaspora vs. homeland? Or does it speak to the political culture of African history and politics?
On one level there is a diaspora vs. homeland dynamic at work here, complemented by, and related to, how the fields of African American history and African history have developed in the academy. In many ways, African American history has been informed and animated by centuries-long African American engagement with Africa. These include cultural, linguistic retentions, spiritual and naming practices, etc., the gradual transition from ethnic to racial identities and the making of a people known now as African Americans, the perpetual search for ancestral rootedness in Africa (including continual African American journeys to West African slave dungeons/castles) while buffeted about in an often hostile American homeland, back-to-Africa movements, and a general sense among some African Americans that the general fate of African Americans is tied in some fashion to the perceived state of Africa (oftentimes hostile whites justified slavery and Jim Crow by claiming blacks came from ‘barbaric’ Africa, are thus inferior and should be grateful to slaveholding/dominant whites for ‘civilizing’ them). Of course, Robin Kelley, Earl Lewis and others rightly pointed out in the 1990s that the then increasing interest in African Diasporas were part of a much longer popular and academic African American engagement with Africa (that included the work and practice of people like W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, J.A. Rogers, Katherine Dunham, George Washington Williams, Lorenzo Turner, William Leo Hansberry, etc.) were attuned to African history, both on its own terms, and as an essential component to African American history, culture and politics. Garvey and others simultaneously exhorted diasporic blacks to lead the charge in ‘redeeming’ contemporary Africa, to restore the continent to its former glories. So, yes, Africa was central to the identity of diasporic blacks, particularly African Americans. Instead of being peripheral, inferior 2nd class citizens in hostile homelands, they were leaders of a divinely ordained mission to restore Africa to its former glories. Oftentimes, part of that mission involved actual return to Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans reveled in the newly independent African nations; African independence helped fuel black freedom fighters, including King (his Birth of a New Nation speech after his return from Ghanaian independence celebrations is my favorite speech of his), Malcolm X (his African tours and the formation of his OAAU, patterned after the OAU), or those, like Pauli Murray, who offered tangible skills to the African nation-building project. African American multi-level engagement with Nyerere’s Tanzania and with anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements in southern Africa also show that Africa has loomed large in African American consciousness than diasporic blacks in the consciousness of Africans in the era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. So all of this history has informed African American historical scholarship that has often been organically transnational (without using that trendy word) in outlook, particularly with Africa. It is why in the 1990s, I could go to Howard for graduate school to study Africa and the African Diaspora and African American history in an integrated, holistic way whereas at other schools that had a firmer sense of separation between Africa and other parts of the world, I would have been trained very well as an Africanist, and might have had African American history as a cursory secondary field, but l would have had to declare very clearly where my allegiances truly were-Africa or African American. Jim Campbell has talked about his graduate student days when senior scholars expressed incomprehension that he wanted to build a bridge between African and African American history. Fortunately for me, I studied with Joseph Harris, oft-cited as the godfather of modern African Diaspora studies, who himself had been a student of Hansberry’s. At Howard, an African American institution, there was a wide open space, resulting from all that I described above, that accepted as normal and natural that I would want to write integrated histories of Africa and Afro-America.
Conversely, I think African history/studies has been borne from experiences of continental Africans who had their own particular concerns in the Atlantic Slave Trade era that they often did not perceive as having direct connection with African Americans. Though continental Africans who lost loved ones in the Atlantic Slave Trade never forgot their kin, most of course could not know where those loved ones ended up, much less have a sense of the Americas and the people eventually known as African Americans.