AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

When Maya Angelou lived in Egypt and Ghana
Sean Jacobs | May 28th, 2014

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In 1961, Maya Angelou, already a civil rights worker, and her then partner Vusumzi Make, an exiled activist from South Africa (he was a leading Pan Africanist Congress member), moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she found work at a small radical newspaper. One year later, Angelou and Make broke up and she moved to Ghana with her son. There they joined a small, tight-knit expatriate African American community that included the great scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, the writer William Gardner Smith, lawyer Pauli Murray, journalist Julian Mayfield, and sociologist St. Clair Drake.  Angelou continued her work as a journalist and also worked as an administrator at the University of Ghana. Angelou made such an impression on her hosts honored her with a postal stamp. It was also during this time that Malcolm X visited Ghana; a meeting which prompted her move back to the US in 1965 to help Malcolm X build his Organization of Afro-American Unity. Shortly after her return, Malcolm X was assassinated.  On her time in Ghana, I’m reminded of an interview I did in 2006 with Kevin Gaines, historian and then-director of the University of Michigan’s  Center for Afroamerican and African Studies (CAAS), about his book American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2006). I was a faculty member of CAAS at the time.  Part of the John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture, the book tells the story of Angelou’s cohort of African American expatriates in Ghana in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  The interview was first published at the time in the university’s Journal of International Institute. 

One of the main themes of the book is that of “transnational citizenship,” i.e. the attempts by this small group of expatriates to redefine their relationship to citizenship in the U.S. and globally. Can you say more about that?

The struggle for political citizenship was at the heart of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Transnational citizenship is based on the idea that the meaning and content of U.S. citizenship is subject to debate, and open to a range of possibilities for political behavior. It is fairly clear that the sociopolitical consciousness and activity of many Americans is based on affiliations that transcend U.S. geographical boundaries. While particular group affiliations may inform its manifestations, transnational citizenship is not necessarily circumscribed by “race,” religion, or national origin. In fact, civic engagement based on a global consciousness is possible for anyone, on such issues as global security, trade policy, international feminism, or environmental protection. One of the reasons I wrote the book was in response to criticism within the U.S. left of so-called black identity politics. I wanted to show that a politics rooted in black particularity and solidarity with Africa was not necessarily reductive or polarizing. In a way I was inspired by what the Negritude intellectuals accomplished.

Can you expand on this point about Negritude?

Negritude originated during the 1930s as a defiant affirmation of African cultural identity against an oppressive colonial culture by black and African Francophone writers and intellectuals. These writers believed that African and African-derived cultural and artistic innovation would make their mark on universal world culture. Later, Negritude was recast by pro-Western French African political leaders who wanted to privilege culture over politics. My argument is evocative of Negritude in the sense that black cultural and political expression can have a universal significance.

Transnational citizenship is at once celebratory and self-critical?

African American expatriates in Ghana were critical of the premises of the civil rights movement and U.S. foreign policy. They were trying to forge an independent black politics, resisting the Cold War. They, and their activist allies in the U.S., believed that the civil rights movement’s goals of civil and political equality wouldn’t address economic inequalities in urban ghettoes and the rest of American society. So this radical formation of black American activists was drawn to what they viewed as the revolutionary promise of Ghana. That country’s prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, declared his support for the struggles of other Africans still fighting to oust white minority rule and people of African descent fighting for full equality in the U.S.

Another important theme is the international dimension of the civil rights struggle itself. Is this a story that is becoming part of the broad historical understanding of the civil rights movement?

Seeing civil rights as an international issue rather than just an internal or domestic matter is an approach that has taken hold among U.S. historians over the last decade or so. There is a general acceptance that African Americans were implicated in U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. My book provides a new interpretation of the civil rights movement and U.S. liberalism by foregrounding Africa and the experiences of African Americans there. Many prominent African Americans and West Indians visited or lived in Ghana—Martin Luther King, C. L. R. James, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Maya Angelou, to name a few. The challenge for me as a U.S. historian is to help get the importance of the decolonization of Africa for events in the U.S. into our textbooks. The importance of that international dimension is ironically suggested by concerted attempts in U.S. mainstream media during the 1960s to suggest that African Americans and Africans have nothing in common politically. That view was belied by actual solidarities. For example, when Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was murdered in 1961, African Americans protested at the U.N. That and other protests by U.S. blacks caused anxiety in U.S. government circles. In 1963, the black expatriates in Ghana staged a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in sympathy with the massive March on Washington. There were other such demonstrations all over the world, in Paris, Oslo, Munich, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere. But the one that garnered the most scrutiny by U.S. officials was the demonstration by the expatriates in Ghana.

I found Julian Mayfield’s life particularly interesting. A writer, actor, journalist, and activist from Harlem with roots in the South, he represents the dilemma of the expatriates. He opposed U.S. Cold War politics and wanted to both defend Nkrumah and criticize the creeping authoritarianism of the Ghanaian regime. Why do you think he is not better remembered?

Mayfield’s life symbolizes the unfulfilled promise of liberation struggles throughout the black world, far from popular “feel-good” narratives. He dramatizes a paradoxical moment in which Cold War political repression co-existed with the coming of formal equality in the U.S. He ran afoul of U.S. authorities and the FBI and went into exile in Ghana, where he struggled to maintain hope against cynicism. After Ghana he tried to achieve success in the U.S. as an actor and writer, much as his fellow expatriate Maya Angelou had done. When that failed, he chose exile for several years in the Caribbean nation of Guyana, chasing an illusion of revolution.

Was it all worth it for these expatriates? Would you say that Ghana was a place of refuge for them? Of growth? Of disillusionment? Something else?

It is difficult to generalize. Many were deeply invested in Ghana’s revolution and so were devastated after the coup that overthrew Nkrumah in 1966. For Mayfield and others, the assassination of Malcolm X, who had visited the expatriates in Ghana, and who could have been a powerful exponent of their politics, was perhaps more traumatic. St. Clair Drake remained preoccupied with the question of what went wrong in Ghana. For others, like Sylvia Boone, her time in Ghana was formative for her career as an art historian. My aim with the book was not to prove that there is necessarily an automatic solidarity between Africans and African Americans. However, I did want to show how liberal U.S. officials and journalists intervened against actual solidarities between Africans and African Americans during the 1960s as they related to African American citizenship and activism.

Is there any kind of parallel “site” for people—black people, leftists, progressives, what have you—today? Or has that moment passed?

Leftists and progressives are attracted to President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela because he is challenging U.S. hegemony and neo-liberalism. But Ghana was unique. The U.S. was in the grip of Cold War repression, and still a Jim Crow nation that had yet to make the transition to full political equality. With freedom and opportunity still in short supply in the U.S. for African Americans, Africa and Ghana were more desirable sites of belonging. While you still have some emigration to Africa—the most significant in recent times to South Africa by entrepreneurs—today it seems more likely for people to identify with a particular cause, whether promoting AIDS awareness, or mobilizing against genocide in Sudan. On the whole, the link is now more spiritual and cultural, but that can be a foundation for political solidarities and an exercise of transnational citizenship.

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Sean Jacobs

Otherwise known as Hasan Wasan.

4 thoughts on “When Maya Angelou lived in Egypt and Ghana

  1. Maya Angelou spoke beyond race and gender rights issues, she spoke of the universal human spirit. I was touched to witness her speak locally at Austin Peay University back in 1998 when I was just a senior in high school. This week I was compelled to pay tribute to her with my artwork. You can see my portrait of the author along with some inspiring words of hers at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2014/05/in-memoriam-maya-angelou.html Drop by and tell me how her life’s work inspired you as well!

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