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In addition, throughout the 1930s and afterward, Ethiopia and Liberia remained important in that

they provided opportunities for black men in vital roles on the international stage. With its royalty,

Ethiopia, more than Liberia, appealed to our preferred romantic view of Africa.



Why Africa Is Not Israel in Today's African-American Thinking

Rudolph Lewis


Zionist sentiments by African Americans toward Africa declined radically in the 1990s, while they have risen, though in a secular form as part of geo-politics, for Israel among American Jews and even among right-wing evangelical Protestants. This shifting of sentiments is well-documented in African American history. Usually, the shift toward Africa rose out of despair and hopelessness and shifted away from Africa as matters improved for African American advancement within the United States. Pro-African sentiments were probably at its strongest during the decades of the 1950s and 1960s when anti-colonial movements in Africa coincided with the civil rights and Black Power struggles in America. Pan-African sentiments, which have their origins in the Americas, flourished during this period.  Post-colonial and post-civil rights realities altered this positive regard for Africa. But there are other problems with this analogy.

Analogies are imaginative and they seldom represent practical realities, especially when comparing people and their relationships. American and European Jews are largely the same people with the Israelis even though they differ in language. They are largely middle-class, cosmopolitan, and literate. The ability of American Jews to exert political pressure within the United States with regard to Israel is much more substantial than that of African Americans with regard to Africa. Moreover, Israel has been at the critical center of geo-politics for over a half century. First, Israel was important in stemming the rolling tide of Communism. But also it was important in the efforts of the West to control trade routes in the Middle East and its access to Mid-East oil reserves. In short, Israel is a pawn for some Western strategists for Western domination of the Middle East.

This scenario has no comparison with regard to Africans and African Americans though similar and broadly constituted biologically and to a superficial degree culturally. Unlike Jews in the Diaspora and Israelis, African peoples and African Americans do not share a vital religious and racial mythology and a sense of “we the people” with a common past and a common destiny. So much has happened to African Americans between the capture of their African ancestors, the Middle Passage, and their created world in the United States. Our histories are varied. Most of all, we suffer from lack of knowledge of each other; of our differences and our assets.

In the real world, we are more competitors than comrades for scarce resources. We are both rising from poverty and oppressive environments created by governments of the West. We are still suffering from inadequate education and bad communication systems. For our relationships to develop further, the lack of connecting and stimulating systems must be addressed. Only then will centuries of hurtful myths be undermined and make way for a more intimate cooperative spirit to develop. This process of reconciliation and education must be guided and led by writers, artists, and professionals in both hemispheres rather than heads of states.

Historical Background in the Americas

We, Africans of the Diaspora, are a people born in the hands of Western oppressors and violators of liberty. We have a dual negative heritage— the Atlantic slave trade as well as the violation of the West’s own marker of its humanity, namely, the Rights of Man. Ours was a poor bargain. Black people in the Americas have endured restrictions of racial oppression and terror for three centuries. Black Africans everywhere are still alleged to be materially backward because they are restrained, incapable of right thinking, and lack the right religion. African Americans were cut off for centuries from Africa. They underwent extreme de-culturalization, especially in what became the United States. Though there some survivals that deeply influence our New World culture, we are a people who know very little about tribes, clans, rituals and their formalities; all of which set us apart from much of African cultural life and yet provide reasons for a mutual understanding and broad cooperation. 

We African Americans came into conscious existence with the rise of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the nation of Haiti, around the turn of the 19th century. The Haitian Revolution provided a guide and a sense of mission for New World Africans. But there are always severe repercussions even with the most successful of revolutions. The entire West turned against this government of blacks and brought them to heel. Gunboat terrorism has been the response of both France and the United States to Haitian independence. Although Haitians supported freedom movements throughout the world, they are now among the most despised, impoverished, and brutalized people in the Americas. Haiti has become a whipping post for France and US foreign policies.

Probably the most African of all the peoples in the Americas, African states, many with great wealth, have done little to reach out and support Haitian independence, security, and development, though Haitian professionals have migrated to Africa to assist in its development. Of all the African Heads of State and Government; only President Thabo Mbeki of the Republic of South Africa gave special significance to the celebration of Haiti’s 200th anniversary, in his address entitled, “African Diaspora in the 21st Century.” After his ouster as President of Haiti by the United States and France, South Africa also provided Jean-Bertrand Aristide sanctuary. Obligations of assistance must be mutual if true friendships are to develop fruitfully.      

African Americans as a Distinct People

African Americans are a relatively new people, belonging to the modern era that is barely two centuries old. Although their cultural consciousness coalesced during the slavery period in the early 1800s; mainly through songs, tales, and speech especially among the Negroes of the South, their national consciousness developed primarily in the twentieth century. This process gained impetus by mass migrations away from the South to other states in order to escape racial oppression. The process was further popularized by such books as Alain Locke’s The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925). In contrast, the unbroken ancient heritages of most African peoples can be traced back thousands of years. These heritages of African peoples were carried over intact into their recently developed nation states and developing nationalisms. The different historical and cultural orientations make for a different sensibility and outlook.  Important, though, is the need to respect and understand these different historical moments for both Africans and African-Americans.

For over two centuries, we, African-Americans, have sustained a folk spirit, with an African underbelly, that developed primarily in the rural agrarian societies of the southern states, where slave labor generated capital in the production of tobacco, cotton, and sugar. This folk spirit manifests itself in animal tales (Bruh Rabbit and Bruh Fox) or updated ones about Monkey and Buzzard as in the story “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which can be found in Toni Cade Bambara’s Tales and Stories for Black Folks (132-133). But there are also the human tales, like High John the Conqueror, Shine, and Stagolee (or Stagger Lee). Such stories have found their way into our modern poetry, music, and scholarship. Note Harvard University Press publishing Cecil Brown’s dissertation as a book, Stagolee Shot Billy, in 2003.

This folk spirit manifested itself in song and instrumental music. Though primarily an oral people before the abolition of slavery, we were a people also of the Book. Our Anglo-Christianity then was overwhelmingly Protestant and evangelical in mood and tone. From these religious developed the spirituals, which retells biblical stories in songs as inspiration material for survival. This music gradually developed into what is now called gospel music, which had had an international impact. The great Mahalia Jackson, now deceased, is known internationally. The freed Negro of the South developed more secular forms, like blues and ragtime. Jazz music is constantly being reenergized by the blues, which can be found everywhere on all the continents. There is also dance, where we might find a heavy African influence. Most of the popular dances of the twentieth century had their origins among the Negro folk, including the Charleston and the Lindy Hop.

Africans and African-Americans, along with their Native American counterparts, were all ushered into the modern era by Christian missionaries. Their form of religion attempted to supplant the religion the former slaves learned of their own initiative. Our intellectual history nevertheless began in the missionary schools where we developed our first understanding of racial difference and “blackness.” Missionary education taught us quickly that education, did not trump the color of the skin. Almost all present-day American black colleges and universities began as denominational schools that were established especially for “freedmen” at the conclusion of the Civil War (1865).

In these seminary-like schools, we African-Americans in large numbers came in formal contact for the first time with Western culture. We read Latin and Greek and Shakespeare, absorbed all prejudices of the West and kept ourselves updated with their sciences and discoveries. We learnt too well that God organized the world according to a hierarchy of racial bloods with distinct traits and gifts. This learning was one of those paradoxical discoveries we embraced and embroidered and it is one under which we are still struggling to free our minds and spirit.

But African-American life has for centuries been a crossroads. Our ‘bloodlines’ are mixed with those of Native Americans and those of European peoples. Then there are the literary influences. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have particularly been great resources for the development of our distinctive racial myths and a sense of “we the people” with a peculiar destiny. There is a leitmotif throughout our thinking that likens us to the Biblical Hebrews in their Egyptian and Roman oppression. Among us, every child born was traditionally, a potential prophet like Moses. Nathaniel Turner was a “Moses.” Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Marcus M. Garvey and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all ‘Moses’.  Our imaginative lives have been filled by race and the ramifications of racial oppression; rather than by ancient tribal and clan traditions.

Among U.S. black intellectuals, the ancient “black empires” of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Ghana have been inspirational because of their past influences on the development of world cultures and civilizations. With these literary discoveries, we were encouraged. These provided us with tools for an intellectual battle against the most vicious attacks on our humanity as black people. Coming into prominence in the 1830s and 1840s, minstrelsy and black-face comedy—‘dehumanizing white entertainment’ in which black life is parodied and reduced to nonsense—are more or less permanent aspects of American culture and they, seemingly will continue for some time to have their sting. In a sense we are caught, if not trapped, as Houston Baker suggests in Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), between the minstrel mask and the African mask (58-69).

Emigration & Pan-African Sentiments

By the early 19th-century, African-Americans had joined missionary and civilizing movements to redeem pagan and Islam-influenced black Africa. One of our most prominent and intellectual missionaries was the Episcopalian priest Alexander Crummell (1819-1898), who wanted a black Christian republic in Liberia. ‘We’ [Blacks] carried with us to Africa, as missionaries, all our contradictions and all the Anglo-American prejudices of class, race, gender, and religion.

Through emigration movements and schemes from the 1840s onward, African identity became significant to us. Looking for an alternative to Liberia, Martin R. Delany (1812-1885), a Negro abolitionist writer and later an officer in the Union Army, explored the Niger Delta region and reported his findings to the British. The Niger Delta was ripe for cotton production. Africa rather than the Southern United States could be used as a British source for cotton. Slave labor was no longer necessary to satisfy the British textile industry. On the heels of Delany’s scheme to undermine slavery in the Southern States came the American Civil War. Delany became an officer in the Union officer. With the abolition of slavery, Delany abandoned his African emigration scheme. [What were these findings and how do they relate to your discussion?].

Except for a minor interest in Liberia by persons like Alexander Crummell, African American interest in Africa waned after the American Civil War. Reconstruction (1865-1875) fully occupied the interest of African American leaders, including Martin Delany. But the Reconstruction period was a failure and Southern racists reassembled their power and the Negro was disenfranchised. The Ku Klux Klan and mob power rose to dominate political and social life in the South on the withdrawal of troops and federal protection to the freed slaves. There arose again emigration schemes to escape terror and Jim Crow. Some recommended emigration to western states like Kansas. But there were others who again look to Africa as an escape from oppression.

Bishop Henry McNeil Turner (1834-1915), a prominent Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, participated in the Civil War as chaplain and in Reconstruction as a director of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia. When Reconstruction went sour, Bishop Turner advocated African emigration. He traveled extensively in Africa: Zambezi Country, Transvall, Pretoria, Rhodesia, Basuotoland, Matabele, Watal, Kaffraria, cape Colony, and West Africa (Life and Times, 147). According to M. M. Ponton, Turner “heard the voice of his people welcoming him back home, in that Macedonian cry, ‘Come over and help us!’” (Life and Times, 77).  For Turner, the road was clear for the building of an African civilization, led by the negroes of the United States. “Bishop Turner hungered and thirsted more for political power and civil authority than he did for ecclesiastical control,” Ponton concluded (Life and Times, 77)

Our imperial and religious view of Africa concretized itself most widely in the 1920 Convention in Harlem organized by Marcus M. Garvey  (1887-1940), a Jamaican, whom the conventioneers from Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean elected “President of Africa.” In some measure, Garvey’s vision of Africa, though well meaning, was heavily influenced by a fantasized vision of Africa. Garvey’s rhetoric and his distribution of The Negro World, nevertheless, developed broadly for the first time, a black internationalist perspective and a new opportunity for cooperation among Africans everywhere.

For African-Americans, W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), Harvard’s first black Ph.D. (1896), was the scholar and intellectual of the 20th century who displaced the dominance of the Christian missionary spirit in our African concerns. He provided us with ‘new eyes’. His Berlin training taught him that the German peoples’ folk spirit and culture provided a foundation for classical German art, music, and literature. He saw the impact of African sculpture and Negro “spirituals” on modern European artistic productions. In 1903, he published The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, in which he argued that the gifts of America’s black folk had intrinsic worth: our songs, music, art, dance, religion [a species of African mask], if rightfully developed, could alter the destiny of the world.

In 1905 Du Bois and others created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the first mass protest organization that propagandized an appreciation of African folk culture and the defense of African independence against European militarism. As editor of its organ, Crisis, Du Bois wove a masterful fabric of art, literature, and politics that influenced millions. In 1919, Du Bois was the chief organizer of the Pan-African Congress [also organizing and attending meetings of the Congress in 1921, 1923, and 1927].

In addition, throughout the 1930s and afterward, Ethiopia and Liberia remained important in that they provided opportunities for black men in vital roles on the international stage. With its royalty, Ethiopia, more than Liberia, appealed to our preferred romantic view of Africa. While Ethiopia was far away; Liberia was far too close. Capitalized by Southern slaveholders, primarily, the black planter colony of Liberia was never popular among the African-American masses or their leaders. Liberia was not fully supported by U.S. foreign policies. The thousands of African-Americans who immigrated in the 19th century to Liberia were isolated. They were unable to rejoin their brothers back in the States, their mother country, like other planter colonies that had a continuing stream of new blood. 

In a sense, Liberia was made for tragedy, for its African-American leaders looked ‘backward’ rather than sinking down and coalescing with the native populations in an egalitarian spirit. In a way, Liberia’s failure is also an African-American failure in our relationship with Africa and Africans. Liberia’s failure to be inclusive came to a head in the coup of the1980s that brought Sgt. Samuel Doe to power.  After massacring segments of the Americo-Liberian leadership, President Doe was invited to the Ronald Reagan White House. Thereafter Liberia’s peoples suffered over two decades of brutal and devastating civil war, which was led in part by Charles Taylor, who later seized the reigns of government. There is hope that, Liberia, with the first female president in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, will shape its future along a new national identity and promote investment that would develop its citizens.

In the 1930s, especially after the Italian insurgency led by Mussolini’s racist propaganda, modern Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie were lionized throughout Black America. There was massive effort in defense of Ethiopia. Organizations were formed, ‘monies’ were collected, and volunteers were enlisted to fight the fascists. Newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier sent reporters to cover the war, and one Courier writer, George S. Schuyler (1895-1977), serialized favorable fictional stories (Ethiopian Stories), like “Revolt in Ethiopia: A Tale of Black Insurrection Against Italian Imperialism” and “The Ethiopian Murder Mystery: A Story of Love and International Intrigue.” African-American masses enthusiastically gave their support in defense of Ethiopian integrity. However with the death of Emperor Selassie, our romantic interest in Ethiopia also waned and died. 

The Post-Colonial Period

Overall, African-Americans’ political romance with Africa and its people declined, radically, in particular after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and  the 1994’s 100 days of genocide in Rwanda. Although, white colonial oppression has ended in Africa, the predominant images of Africa, with its stark realities, undermine the hope and good feelings that African-Americans had toward Africa when its leaders, like Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972) and Sékou Touré (1922-1984), were engaged in liberation struggles. There is a tendency in the Western media to portray modern Africa negatively. This is despite the fact that Tarzan is dead and the National Geographic is more sensitive in its coverage of tribal life.

For many, the massive crises of Black Africa seem insoluble. Most Africans have yet to enjoy the benefits of modern living and modern technology. Free public education for all is still unavailable in Africa, even in oil rich countries. In the post-colonial, post-Mandela era, in addition to genocide in Rwanda, millions are terrorized and starved in Ethiopia, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo and Zimbabwe.  The major African images on American TV today, are emaciated black babies, piteous refugees, hacked bodies and white bones of mass slaughter.

The majority of the African-Americans have become rather tepid and timid about Africa and its peoples. They do not see Africans as great and magnanimous people that they imagined them to be. However, despite this downward spiral and the negative racialist programming, many middle-class African-Americans, through their own resources, have developed an expanding cultural sensibility about Africa and a taste for things ‘African’—art, music, clothes, food, religion, and dance. Such cultural exchanges continue to revitalize African-American culture, which in some ways dominates American popular culture.

Academically-oriented African-Americans continue to travel to Africa, to countries like Ghana and Senegal, primarily, but also Nigeria and South Africa. Ghana offers dual citizenship for African-Americans. Ghana is also through its “The Joseph Project” developing a tourism market among this class of African-Americans. Overall, however, vital historical, cultural and economic ties to African nations or corporations like those between American Jews and ‘Israelis’ remain a dream. Africa is not a second home for most African-Americans, although cults of African Zionists still exist among us in cities like Chicago and New York.

Present Economic Realities

Outside the academy, labor-workplace competition stimulates considerable friction. Most immigrants, including Africans, on arriving tend to adopt the white American view of black-Americans as lazy, ignorant, and violent. They live in different zip codes and go to separate churches. This lack of social contact and intimacy among heavily exploited ethnic groups, provide fertile ground for vicious kinds of ignorance. While summer ethnic festivals are helpful, we largely remain unfamiliar and unsympathetic towards each other’s struggles, hopes, and dreams.

Capital, manufacturing and communication technologies are concentrated outside African and African-American societies. The new international competition is fierce and the African masses—both at home and abroad—suffer. Whether it is oil or tin or copper or nickel—needed for the new technologies—those who dig or mine these resources do not profit from their work, while a few African middle-men and western capitalists rake in billions from African labor and natural resources.

We of the Americas are no longer isolated, however, by time and space, from Africa and the rest of the world. In this post-colonial, post-King era, our “economic subjectivity” remains bound in Euro-American chains of dependency. We are all now caught up in the global network in which a third of the world’s citizens lives on two dollars or less a day. We all live on a planet in which three top billionaires swamp the combined wealth of 600 million people. We both now suffer from great excesses and thus great tensions.

Despite these shortcomings, the machinations of global capital operating through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, restricting investments in needed services for the development of human resources, have shoved African and African-Americans into each other’s arms. Too often we are in conflict with the other’s interests. We are all now in the same un-sea-worthy economic boat of globalism, which provides opportunities for friendship and collaboration as well as perils. Wages in this new market of unskilled  and skilled work steadily decline. This new globalism has thus generated a universal uneasiness among African-Americans.

Unlike American Jews, African-Americans are not overwhelmingly middle-class in their standard of living.  A third of African-Americans live in poverty in the richest country in the world. Jobs in auto, steel, textiles and other industries that raised many African-Americans into the middle-class have moved away from American cities like Detroit and Baltimore to Japan and China and other Asian countries, resulting in high under-employment and unemployment rates. The service economy has expanded with low wages and benefits. In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins—its hospital, university and other auxiliaries—have replaced Bethlehem Steel as the city’s largest employer.

Too often, capital restricted and focused dislodges and disperses masses of populations. African-Americans now find themselves in competition with the poor of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.  In general, they feel besieged by immigrants and political refugees from across the globe—Mexico, the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, as well as Africa. They all undermine stable and increasing wages, not only in urban centers but also in rural areas where low wages are ubiquitous. We are all now suffering from low wages, inadequate health care and nutrition, poor education and technical training. All these events have occurred during a period that has cut funding on urban services.

In addition, African-Americans, in the last twenty years, have suffered an increasing criminalization of its population and loss of the electoral ballot. With the undermining of economic and political security and advancement within the United States, international racial consciousness and sympathy have been exacerbated among the masses. Among the newly rich African-Americans—athletes and other entertainers—more weight is placed on defending their privileges as Americans rather than developing a Pan-African identity. They are consumers of the present rather than investors in an African-American future. Certainly they have little interest in African development. As Du Bois pointed out oppressed peoples cannot liberate themselves, alone. The masses need a conscientious Talented Tenth or a Talented Fifth—writers, artists, publishers, and other educated professionals—willing to speak for and make severe sacrifices on behalf of their people. Africans need more vital cooperative relationships and coordinated activities to address the negative impact of international capital and media concerns.

Too often we, African peoples remain servants and sycophants of Western culture, capital, and political management. We see ourselves mostly through the critical lens of FOX News and the BBC. Words, images and deeds shape our vision and bring things to life or destroy progress and hope. We who stand apart from the masses must generate better journalists and better propagandists with fresh ideas and approaches on reaching greater numbers of our peoples. There is much work before us in need of urgent attention. Our cultural and political exchanges must be deepened as well as extended.

The new communication technologies offer possibilities for a new age of enlightenment in which understanding, cooperation, and collaboration can be fostered. We need a cyber technology immediately that is operative in Third World and other oppressed environments lacking electronic and communication services. There are ten million African-Americans online, a situation which provides a unique opportunity for Africans at home and abroad. African intellectuals must develop new mechanisms, fresh perspectives, and cooperative outreach platforms that will inform our people about what is going on and how the tide can be turned favorably for ‘black’ progress internationally.


Baker, Jr., Houston. 1987. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Delany, Martin R. 1861. "Official Report of the Niger River Valley Exploring Party" (New York and London, 1861). Reprinted in "Search for a Place," edited by Howard Bell (University of Michigan Press, 1969).

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.

Locke, Alain. 1925. The New Negro: An Interpretation . New York: Albert and Charles Boni.

Ponton, Mungo Melanchthon. 1917. The Life and Times of Bishop Henry M. Turner, (Atlanta: A. B. Caldwell

Schuyler, George S. 1995. Ethiopian Stories, compiled and edited by Robert A. Hill. Boston. Northeastern University Press.

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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The White Masters of the World

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