A lot of us have spent hours laughing at Dave Chappelle’s jokes, but few know about the extraordinary life of his mother, Dr. Yvonne Seon. In a recent interview that aired on the internet radio show Congo Live, Seon was asked about her decision to go and work for Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. The broadcast is worth listening too. But Seon’s life also represents a more profound connectivity harbored in the Black Atlantic in the twentieth century especially, which has connected the Congo to North America, and the Caribbean.
Back to Seon. How she got to Congo is a remarkable story. After earning a BA at Allegheny College in northeastern Pennsylvania, she studied for a MA in political science at American University in 1960. She also studied French, which would later prove tremendously useful.
As a student in Washington DC, she was shaped by what she calls “the time of the big change”, marked by the culmination of black liberation in the United States, and on the African continent starting with the independence of Ghana in 1957. By speaking with African diplomats that had began to visit DC, as well as being involved in movements of solidarity such as “Friends of Ghana”, Seon, gained insight into the aspiration and euphoria represented by the prospect of an independent and united Africa.
Following independence on June 30th 1960, Lumumba, then the newly elected Prime Minister of the Congo, made his first official visit to the United States from July 27-29th. Given an army mutiny, and suspicions over his connections to Moscow, Lumumba was already under tremendous pressure. However, Lumumba’s visit also entailed attempting to recruit young professionals that would be willing to fill the gap left by the departure of the Belgian colonial administration. Given her mother’s connection to various African diaspora groups in DC, Seon received an invite to Lumumba’s official reception, “serendipity” as she calls it.
At the reception, one of Lumumba’s aides noticed Seon’s passion for post-colonial Africa, and informed her of Lumumba’s interest of recruiting students like her to the Congo. Seon, at the time aged 21, replied: “I will have to think about that,” but looked forward to meeting Lumumba personally. That very next morning, Lumumba encouraged Seon to accompany him back to the Congo in order to serve as the secretary to the High Commission on the Grand Inga Dam Project, an ambitious initiative which sought to establish Africa’s energy independence immediately.
Seon’s memory of Lumumba was one of a “decisive leader” that “cared deeply about his people.” On Congo Live she also spoke to the danger Lumumba represented to imperialism worldwide, thereby echoing Fanon and others, in viewing Lumumba’s assassination as the personification of the post-colonial dilemma.
Seon arrived in Congo following Lumumba’s assassination in 1961. In an interview with IMixWhatILike, Seon says that she had been disappointed that the Grand Inga Dam project ran into similar difficulties faced by Nkrumah’s Volta River project. The three stages of the dam were never fully completed due to lacking investor confidence, and technical assistance. (As Congo is currently expected to complete the Grand Inga Dam Project by 2016, the largest energy generating body ever built, one wonders if the Congo River can eventually become sub-Saharan Africa’s engine of electrification.)
Seon went on to be appointed as chief administrative officer for the Fourteenth General Assembly of UNESCO, the first African American selected for that role.
Dave Chappelle has publicly acknowledged the extent to which his own work is deeply influenced by his mother: “We were like the broke Huxtables… We used to have a picture of Malcolm X in Ghana… We were poor but we were cultured.” (BTW, Chappelle’s father, William, who was divorced from his mother, was a statistician at Antioch College in Ohio.)
Though Seon’s biography seems unique, she is but one of a rich biography of cross-Atlantic exchange to the Congo. For instance, Kambale Musavuli, a Congolese activist who presents Congo Live, points to the Presbyterian missionaries, Maria Fearing, and William Sheppard, the latter known in Congo as “Mundele N’dom” (Lingala: ”Black White Man), and whose published work of King Leopold’s crimes in the Congo contributed greatly to international and African American discourses about colonialism.
Belgium’s “criminal stupidity” and the restriction to higher education to a tiny minority of evolué, created interesting pathways of “return”, not only for African Americans, but also for the Haitian intelligentsia. Camille Kuyu, a Congolese historian, and philosopher describes this fascinating connection in his book Les Haïtiens au Congo. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s repressive regime from 1957-1971 resulted in a mass exodus from Haiti. Many sought to move to Congo as agricultural engineers, teachers, and doctors. Raoul Peck, the director of the films such as Lumumba and Fatal Assistance, along with his his family exemplify this dynamic as they found asylum in Congo in 1961.
Lumumba’s ideology of Pan-Africanism sought to anchor the Congo in the forefront of anti-imperialism, and welcome all of its supporters, but it was challenged by Mobutu’s politics of authenticity. Systems of thought such as authenticité, or direct attacks on foreign ownership such as the Zairization campaign, meant that many arrivals were faced with a new “home” conditioned by the politics of indigeneity, which prompted some to leave, while others continue to live in Congo today.
Peck’s, Seon’s and other biographies remind us that home isn’t necessarily a spatial, or rigid concept. Rather than being in a romantic relation to one’s roots, these stories continue to underline the globality, and interconnectivity of blackness, represented in frameworks such as the Black Atlantic. Movement is the revolt against an assigned peripheral reality, a revolt against a space in which thoughts, doctrines, and individuals are demoted and promoted according to their “willingness to integrate”. Seon said it takes a “specific mindset” to engage oneself in this connectivity. Her, and other legacies, as well as the common obstacles to black liberation world-wide, remind us of the importance of this space of exchange, and solidarity, as an avenue for self-actualization.