Jan 19 2007

A Present from West Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:41 AM

I wrote this letter to an old friend from Ghana, an African American professor who lost a teenage son while living in Ghana — to the scourge of malaria. She now lives in America and this morning I told her: “My wife’s daughter arrived from Ghana this week to live with us permanently. We are both thrilled. The girl, who is 14, has been attending school and she’s more mature and focused than when we last saw her 3 years ago. We hope she will be attending the same school as my son.
I thought of you this morning also because I’m reading a fascinating book about the entire history of African American visits to Africa. “Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005” is a vivid account of “back to Africa” movements from the 1700s through the 1990s. The author
is a professor at Brown named James T. Campbell. His research is exhaustive and his writing is majestic: always clear, balanced his judgements. He never shies from tough questions and is honest about the contradictions facing African Americans living and working in Africa over the centuries. He writes an especially good chapter on Ghana and the community of African Americans in the late 1950s and 60s (drawing in part on another new book of interest,
“African Americans in Ghana” by Kevin Gaines, a professor at the University of Michigan). Some of the mini-portraits in the Ghana chapter will of course fascinate you because you may well know these people. The whole subject of the relation of African Americans to black Africa is an enormously elucidating angle with which to view Africa, period, and to view the shifting perspectives that Americans, black and white, have on their own identities. As a white American who has become “engaged” with Africa in many ways, both personal and professional, I am struck by some of the parallels between the experience of black Americans in Africa with my own. Of course, on one level, I am not surprised by these parallels since we are all shaped by our American-ness and we bring this lens to our experience of Africa. Nevertheless, because my encounters with Africa are fundamentally singular and therefore lonely I take some emotional and psychological solace in reading about the experiences of my fellow Americans in Africa. Their blackness, to me, does not make their experiences seem alien but rather help illuminate my own rickety project of understanding Africans and their place in their own terms — but also in my terms, since my encounter with Africa is part of a long, usually sordid and immoral, encounter between whites of European descent and Africans of the soil. Judging by my own journey, whites have come a long way in facing Africa, and judging by Campbell’s extraordinary book — which I dare say may win the Pulitzer Prize, despite receiving little review coverage in the press — African Americans have come a long way too.
Please send news, and do read this book. You’ll love it.

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