What Was Africa to Them?

Fifty years ago, Britain’s Gold Coast colony became the independent nation of Ghana. For the first time, a European colony in sub-Saharan Africa achieved full democratic self-government.* The moment was of special significance for the people of Africa’s New World diaspora, as Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and a graduate of Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania, knew very well. Four years earlier, in July 1953, speaking as prime minister in the colonial legislature to propose the “Motion of Destiny” that set the terms for independence, Nkrumah had underlined the connection between African-Americans and his country’s fate. “Honourable Members,” he said.

The eyes and ears of the world are upon you; yea, our oppressed brothers throughout this vast continent of Africa and the New World are looking to you with desperate hope, as an inspiration to continue their grim fight against cruelties which we in this corner of Africa have never known—cruelties which are a disgrace to humanity, and to the civilisation which the white man has set himself to teach us.

Up in the gallery of the Gold Coast legislature on that hot July day was one of those many oppressed brothers. Richard Wright, the most successful African-American author of the age, was the prime minister’s guest, and Nkrumah’s speech gripped his attention. He was there to write about the nation that was coming into being; and the book that resulted, Black Power (1954), exemplifies many of the strange things that can happen when black people from the diaspora find themselves faced with the real Africa.

Black Power starts at an Easter luncheon in the Wrights’ apartment in Paris, with the Wrights and their guests sipping a postprandial coffee. One of the guests, a woman long active in Pan-Africanist circles, asked Wright why he didn’t go to Africa. Wright reports that he “gaped at her” before answering:

Africa?” I echoed…. I felt cornered, uneasy. I glanced at my wife.

“Why not?” she said.

A moment ago I had been collected, composed; now I was on the defensive, feeling poised on the verge of the unknown.

“Africa!” I repeated the word to myself, then paused as something strange and disturbing stirred slowly in the depths of me. I am an African! I’m of African descent.

Identifying with an Africa far away, cornered, uneasy, stirred to the depths, strangely disturbed: Richard Wright runs, in a few seconds, the gamut of the emotions that have brought so many of Africa’s New World descendants “home” to a continent they have never known.

Throughout Black Power, in fact, Wright alternates between engagement and alienation. “I felt an odd kind of at-homeness,” he tells Nkrumah in the letter to the future president that ends the book. Yet the laughter and smiles that greet him everywhere usually produce distrust. When my late great-uncle, the Ashanti king, met with Wright, he apparently made the mistake of being excessively polite: “He was poised, at ease; yet,…

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