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What Was Africa to Them?

James Campbell’s Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005 rightly treats Ayuba’s extraordinary adventures as prologue. For the story he wants to tell really begins with those freed blacks whose goal was to “return” not to the specific place where they came from—to their families, to people who knew them—but simply to their continent of origin. That story begins in 1787 when three ships set out from England for West Africa carrying several hundred indigent blacks (some of them press-ganged, some volunteers), accompanied—this tells you something about the views of their sponsors—by nearly a hundred white prostitutes. Their destination was the mouth of the Sierra Leone River, where they established the settlement of Granville Town, named for the great British antislavery campaigner Gran-ville Sharpe. He was one of the leaders of the Committee for the Black Poor, which had sponsored this little convoy on its journey to what he called “The Province of Freedom.” The Sierra Leone colony was the first attempt by white philanthropists to resettle people of African descent in Africa.

As Campbell’s graceful and engaging account makes clear, the debates about Sierra Leone and, later on, about Liberia—both of them colonies created by self-styled philanthropists for the return of freed black slaves and their descendants—have to be seen in the context of arguments in Europe and the Americas about the place of black people in the world outside Africa. These arguments produced strange alliances. Among blacks, there was a division between, on the one hand, those who thought their fate lay in the New World, the only world they knew, a place whose economy and society they had helped to create; and, on the other, those who believed that the hostility of white people was intolerable and could never be reduced, and who concluded that their only hope was in territories (in Africa or elsewhere) where they could form a majority. As the nineteenth century wore on, both sides increasingly framed their claims in nationalist terms: with few exceptions—notably the persistently integrationist Frederick Douglass—they were divided not over whether African-Americans belonged together, but about where they belonged.

White supporters of black emigration had a variety of motives. Some believed that free blacks should be expelled from the Americas because their presence threatened the system of slavery. But many white opponents of slavery also felt that blacks should be returned to Africa, because, as Abraham Lincoln (a “manager” of the Illinois Colonization Society) once put it, “there is a physical difference between the white and black races which …will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

At the helm of the emigration movement was the Society for the Colo-nization of the Free People of Color in the United States, which was founded in 1816 and had soon committed itself to the project of creating a colony south of Sierra Leone, in a place it named Liberia. The society, eventually renamed the American Colonization Society (ACS), was a creation of the capital’s white elite. Its president was Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s nephew, and its vice-presidents included Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. The free people of color of the United States were not, however, much heartened by Henry Clay’s speech at the inaugural meeting, which was printed in newspapers all over the country. “Can there be a nobler cause,” he asked,

than that which, whilst it proposed to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not a dangerous portion of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the globe?

Life in Liberia, for all that the ACS tried to spin the news, did not begin well. Daniel Coker, a freedman who had started both the first black school and the first black Methodist church in Baltimore, led the initial group of colonists that the ACS dispatched to Liberia in 1820. “Oh! My dears, what darkness has covered the minds of this people,” he wrote after seeing life in a local village. The colonists chose to settle on Sherbro Island, about seventy miles southeast of Freetown (as Granville Town was by then known), in “a low muddy place, pocked by mangrove trees and a hand-full of ramshackle huts.” The settlers became ill; in three months, a quarter of the company was dead. When, years earlier in America, Coker’s church had joined with others to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church, his light skin had led the elders to decide that he could not be their first bishop. Here in Liberia, his color was once more held against him. One rival of Coker’s insisted (against the evidence) that the local people thought “mulattoes are bastards, and will have no dealings with them.” When a new group of settlers arrived from Virginia, the community divided along sectarian lines: the Baptists would have nothing to do with the Anglicans and the Methodists. Coker left for Freetown, never to return.

This inauspicious beginning—with conflicts over color and religion among natives and returnees—set the tone for the future of Liberia. Still, though many of the nineteenth-century returnees suffered terrible disappointments, it is worth remembering that for some of them things went pretty well. The great pan-Africanist Edward Wilmot Blyden, who was born in 1832 in the Virgin Islands, emigrated to Liberia in 1851, where he completed his education. There he became a newspaper editor, a Presbyterian minister, and then a high school principal. In 1861 he began a two-year period visiting Britain and the United States to urge blacks in the diaspora to emigrate, before returning to be professor of classics at the new University of Liberia. He also served as Liberia’s secretary of state and interior minister. After a long career in Liberian public service, though, Blyden chose to retire to Sierra Leone, where he died at the age of seventy-nine.

Prominent among the antebellum black emigrationists who spurned the ACS was Martin Robinson Delany, a scholar, author, explorer, military officer, and politician. He dismissed Liberia as “a poor miserable mockery—a burlesque on government—a pitiful dependency on the American Colonizationists.” In 1852 he argued for moving black Americans to Central America instead. By 1858, he was planning a black shipping line, to reverse the Middle Passage, with colonists flowing back to Africa and the goods they produced traveling to America. In the next year he visited Liberia and Nigeria.

The Civil War changed things. Perhaps there was a place for the black man in America. Lincoln offered Delany a commission in the Union Army in 1865 and he became the first black major in the US armed services. During Reconstruction, he had a significant part in the politics of South Carolina. In his final years, disappointed by the reversals of the era, his thoughts turned once more to Africa. In his last book, he argued that each of the races would return in the end to its original home. Though he never got back to Africa himself, Delany’s back-and-forth on emigration exemplifies the truth that black interest in Africa was inversely correlated with black faith in America. Ralph Ellison—who kept far from everything African except art—put the point pithily, in the early days of Ghana’s independence: “As long as Negroes are confused as to how they relate to American culture,…they will be confused about their relationship to places like Africa.”

Middle Passages ends where a number of recent books begin: with the experience of return from the diaspora to a newly independent Africa. In American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era, Kevin Gaines offers a richly detailed portrait of the community that gathered in Ghana around Nkrumah. He skillfully connects the lives of these “returnees” with the wider history of the civil rights era in the United States and the politics of the cold war. (Gaines, like Campbell, retells the probably apocryphal story in which Vice President Nixon, who represented the United States at Ghana’s independence, says to a group of joyful revelers, “How does it feel to be free?” “We wouldn’t know,” the answer comes. “We’re from Alabama.”)

There is a fascinating chapter on Malcolm X’s visit to Ghana in 1962 (reported in the Ghanaian Times by a young Maya Angelou). For those who had been closest to the first president of Ghana, the coup that removed Nkrumah in 1966 came as a terrible blow. Many of them were deported. Maya Angelou had already returned to the States; but Alphaeus Hunton, who had taken over Du Bois’s Encyclopedia Africana project, moved to Zambia. W.E.B. Du Bois’s widow, Shirley, and her son moved on to Egypt. Most came back to the United States.

In recent years, there has been a trickle of new immigrants from the United States, as the government of Ghana has made it easier for black Americans to settle permanently. (Last year Ghana’s Ministry of Tourism was renamed the “Ministry of Tourism and Diasporan Relations.”) There has also been a growing stream of tourists, for whom the castle at Cape Coast and the Door of No Return are essential points of pilgrimage. Not all those who return come from the United States, of course. Ekow Eshun, the child of Ghanaian diplomats exiled in Britain by the vicissitudes of the country’s politics, writes, in his lyrical memoir Black Gold of the Sun, of a return to Ghana in 2001 at the age of thirty-three, driven, in part, by his alienation from the routine racism of English life—what Kele Okereke, the lead singer of the London-based band Bloc Party, calls “second generation blues.” Eshun went to Ghana, he writes, “because I have no home.” He discovers that the hip-hop that had provided him, as a black British teenager, with a vocabulary of identity is also a source of meaning for the young people he meets in the clubs of Accra, Ghana’s capital. America’s black music binds the three centers—Europe, Africa, the New World—of Africa’s Atlantic diaspora; and the style that has grown up around hip-hop music in particular has become the idiom of urban youth culture.

Eshun’s family comes from Cape Coast; traveling there in search of roots that he can explore with a precision that African-American returnees must envy, he discovers—almost inevitably, given the city’s history—that the family fortune that made possible his parents’ modern education had its origins in slave trading. He finds himself consumed with shame. He has left England “partly because of the pervasiveness of racism there…only to find my ancestor had collaborated in establishing its tenets.”

Eshun is artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. He is a British success story. The visit to Ghana may have shown him that it was not his home, but it doesn’t seem to have reconciled him fully to Britain. The alienation of many in Britain’s black middle class has echoes in the alienation of many successful African-Americans.

But because he isn’t an American, Ekow Eshun hears Ghanaian complaints about the African-American returnees. A tourist guide in Accra tells him:

They said to me, “We are Africans who live in America.”… We took them to the slave fort at Elmina. They all cried when they saw the dungeons. They poured libation for the souls of their ancestors. But after a while I saw it was all words to them…. They acted so high and proud as if we were their servants and they were the real Africans.

Such issues are taken up in Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, an excellent account of the many mis-understandings between the children of the slaves who went to the New World and the descendants of those they left behind. Baptized Valarie Hartman (and raised in New York), she took the Swahili name Saidiya in college in a gesture of identification with Africa. (“I had found it in an African names book; it means ‘helper.’”) Hartman, who has taught at Berkeley and Columbia, traveled to Ghana first in 1996 for a few weeks before returning for a year as a Fulbright scholar in 1997.

Hartman draws on a wide range of published and archival sources to examine slavery’s legacy. She writes of her family in Montgomery, Alabama, and in Curacao, home to her great-grandfather Hartman, “a prosperous Jewish merchant.” She passes on the fruits of her reading: the history of the slave trade within the Gold Coast, with the great market at Salaga in northern Ghana, its seven roads leading north into the Sahara, east and west into the Sahel, and south to Asante and on to the castles of the coast. And she recounts rich oral histories: of the people of Gwolu in northern Ghana, where the broken-down ramparts of the old town reflect the need to protect its people from slave raiders on horseback; of the American returnees she meets in Accra and in Cape Coast. Above all, she reports movingly on her struggle with her own connection to Africa.

The book begins in alienation: with the realization that obruni, the name with which the laughing children of Elmina greet her, is the Akan word for “stranger.” Hartman responds with a combination of cool analysis and burning resentment. She understands but will not forgive. “In my estimation, I was the aggrieved; to others I was a privileged American,” she writes. She knows that her annual salary as a Fulbright scholar is more than the average Ghanaian would earn in several lifetimes. She knows that the young people she talks to never enslaved anyone. She knows that the racism of her American homeland is not the responsibility of any Ghanaian. Despite all this, she can’t help feeling that every Ghanaian owes her something. Visiting Salaga, she sees “a raiding empire fattened by the slave trade”; the teacher she speaks to sees only “his own people suffering.”

Hartman’s solution to the question of her African identity is the opposite of the standard Afrocentrist solution. The Afrocentrists build on memories of kings and emperors; she starts with the solidarity of the oppressed:

If after a year in Ghana I could still call myself African American, it was because my Africa had its source in the commons created by fugitives and rebels, in the courage of suicidal girls aboard slave ships, and in the efforts, thwarted and realized, of revolutionaries intent upon stopping the clock and instituting a new order, even if it cost them their lives.

Nkrumah, in his “Motion of Destiny,” had spoken of cruelties in the diaspora that those in his “corner of Africa” had never known. But there’s no reason to think that the outrages of Jim Crow were really worse than the worst penalties of slavery on the Gold Coast. Hartman reminds us that more than half of Ghana’s population (she says perhaps three quarters) is descended from people who were slaves. There is not, I think, a great deal to be gained from the game of comparative victimhood; but amnesia about the slaves who never left Africa, which Nkrumah’s rhetoric encouraged, has been one of the elements of the creation of modern nationhood in Africa. As Ernest Renan wrote mordantly in 1882, “the essence of a nation is that all the individuals have many things in common, and also that they have all forgotten many things.”

At the heart of the sad misunderstandings that Hartman experiences and Campbell and Gaines describe, there is, it seems to me, a conceptual error. Once “African” became an identity, one could speak of what Africans had done. And if Africans had captured and sold slaves, why should they not be held responsible? So, too, once there was a European or “white” identity, we could say that people from Europe, white people, ran the slave castles of the Gold Coast; we could say that cramming slaves into coastal dungeons and then into cargo boats was something white people had done. And if they did it, why shouldn’t they be held responsible? First we construct identities; then we imagine the groups we have willed into being as historical actors, and we hold them each responsible for the crimes we believe they have committed. And so we forget that no living African-American ever endured the Middle Passage in a slave hold; no living African ever sold a slave into the dungeons at Cape Coast; no living white person ever bought one.

Yet there is perhaps a kind of justice in this mistake. Hartman is right that many Ghanaians are ashamed of their ancestors’ involvement in slavery, and do not want to speak about slavery. I think she is right, too, that if they want to take pride in the achievements of the empire of Asante, the Fante confederacy, or the kingdom of Gonja, historical truth demands that they acknowledge the sins of their ancestors as well. Identity can have its costs as well as its rewards.

While the numbers of the returnees were never very great—especially when we recall that some 12 million Africans survived the Middle Passage—they had a crucial part in the shaping of Africa’s future. The idea of Africa as a single place and of the African—the person of color, the Negro—as a single kind of person was conceived in the diaspora, in the struggles over the status of black people, in and out of slavery, in the Atlantic world. And these conceptions, which were to become the Pan-Africanism of Nkrumah and his generation of African leaders, came back to Africa with the returnees. Nkrumah learned them in Pennsylvania and in London; but in Liberia and Sierra Leone, men like Blyden were already teaching them in the nineteenth century. And in the years since African independence, this sense of a common fate has brought black men and women out of the diaspora to live in Africa or, at least, to visit for a while, and to reflect, sometimes with tears, at the Door of No Return.

My first job was at the University of Ghana at Legon, just outside Accra. It was 1975, under a military government; inflation and corruption were rampant and ordinary people were having a very tough time. One evening a couple of young men in military uniforms showed up at my apartment. They wanted to talk about the fate of the nation. They spoke Ghanaian English with a hint of an American accent. One of them was passionate about the need for political change, for a government that would really serve the people, while the other nodded his head in admiration and respect. Their names were Jerry—the talker—and Kojo. They were both intensely serious. Part of their bond and part of what brought them to me, it seemed, was that we were all, as Ghanaian English has it, “half-caste,” brown-skinned because we had some European ancestry. The next time I saw Jerry it was in the newspapers in 1979: he was Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings and he had led the coup that swept away the regime he had railed against that evening.

Kojo, it turned out, was Kojo Lee, his bosom friend, a prominent figure in the “revolution” that followed. Kojo’s American accent wasn’t exactly an affectation. He was the son of two of the most prominent figures in Accra’s returnee community, Robert Lee, who had come to know Nkrumah at Lincoln University, and his wife. They had arrived after independence, in part, they said, to save their children from the fate of growing up black in racist America. With his friend Jerry in Christiansborg Castle, Kojo grew increasingly wild, carousing with his military comrades, flying above the city in his military plane, beating people up in defense of “the revolution.” I never met him again; but I saw his picture in 1984, when he was tried and sentenced to death for murder. “Robert Lee had moved to Africa to spare his children the feelings of impotence that consumed so many black people in America,” Campbell writes. “He ended up facing the opposite problem: a child who felt virtually omnipotent.” The head of state might have been his buddy, but no pardon came. Kojo Lee was executed by firing squad. Add the Lees to the list of African-Americans betrayed by an African dream.

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