Book Review: Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005

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Book Review: James T. Campbell, Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005 (New York: Penguin, 2006).

Another fine selection from the Ouagadougou American Embassy Library, this has been my reading material for my week in Ghana. It was an excellent choice, since a lot of the people the book portrays ended up here including, famously, W.E.B. DuBois.

Campbell is a historian, works at Brown University in Rhode Island, home of a fine collection of documents related to the Haitian Revolution and pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue that I have worked with. I never met the man himself but we have some parallel interests. The book casts light on an aspect of the African American experience that I have often thought about myself, while living in Africa and meeting Americans who come here, often with expectations of the place and of their relationship to it that set them up for disappointment. Many of Campbell’s subjects endured this same transition and Campbell writes about them with feeling and precision. This is a book I would recommend to any American who is planning to visit Africa, whether African-American or not.

The book begins with a preface by David Levering Lewis, a titan of African-American scholarship, placing the book and the project of African-American migration to Africa in historical and cultural context. The essay is worth reading by itself, and launches the reader smoothly into the 200-year plus sweep of Campbell’s narrative.

Each chapter focuses on an individual (or sometimes a couple of individuals) while discussing the larger context of the migration they are a part of. The prologue looks at Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a Fulani aristocrat and Muslim cleric from the upper Senegal River valley who was captured by Mandingo slave raiders while he himself was on a slave trading voyage to the English slave port of James Fort on the Gambia River. Diallo was shipped to Maryland on an English slave trading ship, where his literacy and Muslim piety attracted the attention of a local lawyer. With the help of the lawyer, he wrote a letter that ended up in Britain, where the British Royal Africa Company verified his identity and a philanthropist purchased him from his Maryland master. Diallo eventually returned to his homeland, after a stop in Britain where he wrote the first published narrative of enslaved life by a North American. Diallo’s story suggests the complexity of Africa during the era of the Atlantic Slave Trade and also shows the effect of changing mores about race at that time.

The next chapter is about African colonization by African-Americans as the slave trade was becoming illegal and increasingly restricted in the early 1800s. The chapter focuses on two African-Americans, Paul Cuffe and Daniel Coker. Cuffe was a Rhode Islander, the son of an enslaved African immigrant from modern Ghana or Togo, and a merchant ship captain and owner. He had traded around the Atlantic basin during a long career. Late in life, he became a convert to the cause of colonization, that is, of emigration by free blacks from America to Africa. Cuffe traveled twice to Sierra Leone with groups of American blacks who sought to immigrate; he had hoped to make a profit off the voyages though in both cases he ended up losing money. Coker was a mixed-race man from Maryland who became a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first of the black churches of the United States and still an important part of the black community today. He too came to believe in the idea of colonization and accompanied a group of immigrants to today’s Liberia. Ultimately, Coker fell out with his Americo-Liberian neighbors, in part over the issue of color: he was mixed-race and they were blacks and they felt that his political prominence implied racial subordination that they had come to Africa to escape. Coker ended up working as a pastor in Sierra Leone and today there are many of his descendants living in Freetown. Emigration, originally an African-American idea, however, became controversial in the mid-19th century precisely because of this issue of racial order. White defenders of slavery seized on the idea as a way to get rid of the free blacks – free people of color being intrinsically subversive of the racial order in slave societies. As white southerners, starting with Thomas Jefferson, took up the idea, free black leaders deserted it, arguing that they were Americans, as American as any Jefferson, and had built this country with their sweat and blood.

By the mid-19th century, the American Colonization Society, the colonial patrons of Liberia, were reduced to shipping newly-freed slaves to Liberia, given the rejection of their plans by most free blacks. However, the lure of Africa still attracted free blacks. One such was the proto-Black Nationalist Martin Delany. Delany was outspoken in his opposition to the Liberia project, but wanted to establish an independent colony for American blacks elsewhere in Africa. He finally settled on Abeokuta, a village in Nigeria near today’s Ibadan. The political context of Abeokuta was the dissolution of the powerful Oyo and Benin states; the people of the village were refugees. In that sense, refugees from America might have been able to fit in, but Delany and his sponsors back in the US (including some of those white folks who were supporting Liberia as well) were entirely uncomprehending of the African political reality, behaved themselves in many ways like stereotypical colonialists, and their project ended up going nowhere. Delany returned to the US, fought in the Civil War, and turned for a while to the project of gaining equal rights for African-Americans in the United States. After the collapse of Reconstruction and the savage repression of blacks in the south that followed, he turned back to the idea of racial separation and emigration to Africa, even forging a temporary alliance with one of the worst racists in American politics, the former Confederate general Wade Hampton.

In the era of “Redemption”, from the 1870s to the 1920s, many American blacks made the decision to leave the south. Most of them moved to the north and Midwest, in what we call the Great Migration of African-Americans. Some, though, went to Africa. The next chapter focuses on Henry Turner, another A.M.E. pastor like Coker born in 1832. He fought in the Civil War, and after the failure of Reconstruction used his position in the A.M.E. church (he eventually became a bishop and editor of the A.M.E.’s journal) to urge African-Americans to leave the US and move to Africa. In this, as in the case of the earlier exodus before the Civil War, he was opposed by the consensus of African-American leaders. Frederick Douglass called emigration “dangerous nonsense”, and the A.M.E. Board of Bishops eventually fired Turner from his editorship (though they couldn’t take away his title as bishop). He visited Liberia four times, managing to come away with a very positive view of what was essentially a settler colony, with all the brutality and social oppression that implies. The new newspaper he created after being kicked out of the A.M.E. editorship, The Voice of Missions, had on its masthead the words “emigration or extermination awaits the black man.” The conflict between Turner and Douglass paralleled a similar conflict between Delany and Douglass and foreshadowed future clashes between, for example, W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey and between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The question of integration or a separate identity for African-Americans, between race consciousness and a color-blind society, remains an important one for non-white Americans to this day.

The next chapter continues to look at the role of African-American Christian missionaries, in the person of William Henry Sheppard, a very different man from Turner and Delany. Sheppard was a missionary serving in today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo at the end of the 19th century. At the time, the Congo Free State, as it was called, a territory the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, was wholly owned by the King of Belgium, and produced enormous amounts of ivory and rubber for its lord and master. Sheppard worked under the auspices of the Southern Presbyterian Church, an institution that had split from its northern brethren over the issue of slavery and race relations. Because of the white supremacist orientation of the church, Sheppard was never the formal director of the missions he worked in, but he was clearly the essential man. He learned the local languages, visited all kinds of places, managed to convince the king of the region to admit him to what had been up to that time the closed capital city, and was able even to reach out to the cannibalistic tribe that was ravaging the territory at the behest of the Belgian colonizers. In the cannibal camp, he carefully counted the hands roasting over the fire – there were 88 of them – hands that the Belgian government would accept as accounting for expended ammunition by their soldiers. Belgian colonization was truly awful; they were probably about the worst of the colonizers and the Congo Free State government was responsible for a population decline of about 50% in the Congo during its brief reign. (A good book on the atrocities of Belgian colonial rule is Hochsteader’s King Leopold’s Ghost.) And Sheppard was there to see most of it. As a “proper” self-effacing southern black man, he was hesitant to criticize a white-dominated institution. However, using the appropriate racial categories of the time, he was able to concede agency to his white superiors and show them (with his loyal assistance) courageously standing up for the oppressed, childlike natives against the rapacious Belgians in his reports, published around the world. His evidence was a key part of the international campaign that ultimately led to the end of the Congo Free State and a decrease in atrocities under direct rule by Belgium (King Leopold got 50 million francs in gold for his interest in the Congo, in addition to the enormous profits in ivory and rubber that his hand-chopping Force Publique mercenaries wrung from the Congolese during his reign, so never say that crime doesn’t pay). Sheppard was ultimately revealed to have had a child out of wedlock in Africa, and he meekly surrendered to church discipline, leaving Africa and returning to a position as pastor of a black church in Staunton, Virginia, not far from my family home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The next chapter looks at the African-American cultural connection with Africa in the 20th century, focusing on the character of Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1920s, Hughes went to Africa, as a seaman on a tramp steamer, and found that he didn’t fit in there. Either. One feature of Hughes’ personality is that he didn’t really fit in anywhere, and much of the power of his poetry comes from that alienation and the sadness the poet feels as a result. But his alienation from Africa, movingly if humorously depicted in The Big Sea, frames the question of identity for African Americans very well. Tellingly, Hughes doesn’t offer us an answer. His African friend on the ship explains why he sees Hughes as a white man – not his skin color, but his culture – but also welcomes and helps him. As a foreigner in Africa myself, I don’t expect to be treated as one of the crowd, and I am thankful for the hospitality and kindness that almost everyone exhibits. But I can see how it can be perplexing for people who have been treated as outsiders in their native land, told that a faraway place is in fact their native land, and then when they finally arrive in that land of promise, they find that they are foreigners there too. My boss in my first Foreign Service post in Lomé, Togo, told a funny story – she was an African-American woman, very intelligent and well-read, and, of course, entirely aware of these issues by the 1980s. But still, she said, it was very odd to hear the little kids in the street chanting “Yovo, yovo” (white person) when she approached.

Hughes’ life, as well as that of the principal focus of the next chapter, W.E.B. DuBois, spanned the colonial era. Both saw Africa begin to throw off colonial rule, though the process, and its consequences, were not entirely visible at the time of While Hughes was a cultural figure, and a very important one, DuBois was both a cultural critic and a political activist. As a founding member of the NAACP and editor of its journal, Crisis, from 1909 until 1934, DuBois subscribed whole-heartedly to the idea that black Americans’ home was America. He famously engaged in a heated polemic with Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born leader of the United Negro Improvement Association, who called for blacks from the Americas to return to their true homeland in Africa. This didn’t stop DuBois from supporting Africa and African initiatives, though sometimes in an ill-considered way as when he backed Firestone Rubber Co.’s move to set up plantations in Liberia, helping to put the country into a near banana-republic relationship with the company. And during his visit to Liberia in the 1910s, he carefully overlooked evidence of the Liberian government’s systematic mistreatment of its African majority – Liberia in those days had laws reminiscent of the 1960s settler state of Rhodesia, except that the Americo-Liberian ruling class had dark skin in Liberia. Nevertheless, DuBois was a tireless supporter of Liberian independence and of moves by Africans towards independence from their colonial masters. He led a parallel delegation of Africans to the site of the Versailles Peace Conference after WW1, though, of course, America’s first southern president since the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson, didn’t want to see them. DuBois lived a long time, into the era of the post-WW2 Red Scare, and as he got older his politics got more left-wing. Finally, he found himself banned from international travel by the State Department, and after a lengthy court battle, he finally threw up his hands and left the country, moving to Ghana at the age of 91 in 1961, taking Ghanaian citizenship, and dying there in 1963.

The next chapter profiles two American writers, Richard Wright and Era Bell Thompson, who visited Africa in the years just before and after independence. Wright was a famous ex-communist, living in exile in Paris with other leftist intellectuals, and one of the nation’s most renowned novelists of his age. Thompson was not so famous as Wright, but probably at least as influential on the mentality of the average black American as the long-time editor of Ebony magazine. One great influence on Wright was George Padmore, a Trinidadian and long-time Comintern operative who also broke with the party in the 1930s but continued to work for labor rights and political independence in the African world. Through Padmore, Wright met a who’s who of African independence leaders, including most importantly Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. Thompson spent her entire career in the US, mostly at Ebony’s home in Chicago, before beginning her African odyssey in 1953, only a few months before Wright was to travel there. Thompson shared Ebony’s cautious politics, supporting the civil rights movement – as when they showed pictures of Emmet Till’s battered body – but concentrating relentlessly on signs of progress for black America. Her travelogue of Africa was intended to be such a positive and somewhat glib portrayal of the continent, but ended up having a good deal of foreboding darkness. Wright’s prejudices, on the other hand, were all in favor of independent African governments, but as he lived in Ghana and interacted with his hosts he became more and more dispirited. So Wright ended up writing a travelogue himself, but, naturally, because he was who he was, it was a pretty depressing travelogue. He wrote it, incidentally, in the Sea View Hotel in Jamestown, where I was not two hours ago. I got a picture, which gives some impression of the place:

Sea View Hotel 1

The next chapter looks at the expatriate American community in Accra. I was very interested in this chapter because I am here now, and traces of these folks are all around me. First, of course, the towering figure of W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois was one of what Campbell terms the “politicals”, people who fled to Ghana in part from America’s seemingly intractable racial discrimination but also, and perhaps even more, from the Red Scare of 1950s America. These were people who saw themselves as part of a global struggle for worker’s rights and the liberation of oppressed peoples from colonialism, and they saw building a prosperous, stable, and socialist Ghana as part of that struggle. Among the African-American visitors to Nkrumah’s Ghana that Campbell profiles are Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who carried on in their generation the dialogue that had pitted Delany against Douglass, Turner against Douglass and his own church, and Garvey against DuBois. The politicized American immigrants joined a non-political diaspora of people who were just tired of living in Jim Crow America, recognized that Africa was going to pose challenges, and decided to go there anyway. The typical figure that Campbell profiles is Robert E. Lee, a black dentist from Charleston, South Carolina. Lee was practicing dentistry in New York with his wife in 1953 when they decided to move to Africa. In so doing, they became the second and third dentists in Ghana. They raised their children there, and Lee still lived here in 2005 when Campbell wrote his book. They experienced tragedy – their oldest son was in the Ghanaian Air Force with military strongman Jerry Rawlings, became a big political leader, and was ultimately brought down by a violent outburst that led to the death of a civilian, which gave Rawlings the excuse to get rid of his old comrade. Nevertheless, Lee stuck with Ghana and made a life here, unlike many of the politicals who either left or were thrown out after Nkrumah was overthrown in 1965. Living in Burkina, we have our own ambiguous populist political martyr, Thomas Sankara, and I imagine that many people’s feelings about Nkrumah in the 60s and 70s were much like the way people think about Sankara today.

The next chapter portrays journalists, including The New York Times’s Howard French, who I had the pleasure of working across from when he was the Times’s guy in Haiti and I was the American Embassy’s spokesperson. French is a really humane guy as well as a good writer and dogged investigator. That comes across in this portrayal as well. He is paired with another journalist of the same stripe, Lynne Duke of the Washington Post, and contrasted with a horse of a very different color, Keith Richburg, also of the Post. All three are African-American journalists who served as bureau chiefs for their papers in Africa during its darkest decade, the 1990s. As I was leaving Africa to return to graduate school, the relative promise of the 80s fell apart in many different countries across the region. The worst, no doubt, was the former Belgian Congo, then renamed Zaire by one clownish strongman, Mobuto Sese Seko, then rebaptized Democratic Republic of Congo by another clownish strongman, Laurent Kabila, in the mid-90s. By any name, it is a country that has suffered a lot, starting with the devastating contact with Belgian colonizers in the mid-19th century that cost it half of its population. The crisis of the 1990s didn’t reach quite that level, but somewhere around 5.4 million people lost their lives in the Great Central African War, though, as the title of the chapter points out, nobody is counting the bodies. This makes it the costliest war since WW2, and basically almost nobody in the US has ever heard of it. The Congo War grew out of the Rwandan genocide, which cost at least a million lives counting those lost in the war waged by Tutsi rebels to conquer the country and stop the genocide of their people. And then, the war spilled over across the region, into Ethiopia and Eritrea, Angola, Congo (Brazzaville, across the river), Burundi, Central African Republic and so on. Another series of conflicts wracked West Africa, with horrendous civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea Bissau. French, Duke, and Richburg covered these wars, and Richburg’s conclusion was one that unfortunately too many journalists come to – the cause is lost, Africa is hopeless, all you can do is throw up your hands and stop counting. He adopted a history-free approach to explaining, blaming the troubles on the corruption and self-centeredness of African politicians without bothering to enquire how the political system had grown up that could produce these sorts of leaders. French dug carefully into the history and culture of Congo in order to come up with a more coherent story, and Duke followed South Africa’s difficult but still hopeful transition from her perch in Johannesburg.

Campbell ends with the story of a young woman who, thanks to the efforts of a couple of historians, is actually able to trace her ancestry back to a particular African who was embarked from a particular port. One of the historians is a white South Carolinian, Edward Ball, whose ancestors owned the young African girl, Priscilla, who came to Charleston from Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, in 1754. Ball’s book, Slaves in the Family, is a powerful meditation on the role of slavery in American life, and it is also a careful bit of research that has allowed a lot of people to trace their ancestry. One of those was Thomas Martin, a retired school principal. Another historian, Joseph Opala, a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Sierra Leone, got the idea to connect Martin to his Sierra Leone homeland, but before the idea could be made real, Martin died. His daughter, Thomalind Polite, made the voyage instead. Polite had never thought of going to Africa before the book came out, and her experience, as an apparently quintessential American, politely interested, happy for the warm welcome she received (though noting that people repeatedly called her “Priscilla”), aware that she was making an important statement by her presence. The context, of course, is everything – Sierra Leone was one of those places that had terrible civil wars in the 90s, and by 2005 things were coming back but had a long way to go. Back in the early 90s, before the civil war, when I was in Conakry, people used to go down to Freetown for R&R, hang out on the beaches and go to the clubs. And then the RUF, with some backing from dear old Uncle Sam (we urged the Sierra Leone government to make a power-sharing arrangement with the RUF rebels, twice) came along and devastated the country, burning villages, kidnapping children as soldiers and sex slaves, and pillaging the natural resources. The reaction was almost as bad, with tribal militias fighting back using the same tactics, and South African mercenaries “defending” the diamond mines and covering expenses.

In conclusion, this is a fine book and Campbell does a much better job than I have here of putting these people in their context. If you are coming to Africa from the United States, you ought to read it.

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