“What is Africa to me?”, African-American writer Countee Cullen asked in Color,
his 1925 collection of poems. African Americans and Africa: A New History
(Yale University Press, 2019) lays out the long history of African American engagement with the continent. Nemata Blyden
’s sweeping narrative weaves together iterations of Cullen’s question that have kept re-emerging from the 1600s through the 2010s, and various answers that Black people in the United States have come up with. Early on, enslaved Africans preserved and transmitted aspects of their culture.
In the 19th century, some Black Americans chose to settle on the continent as missionaries, often readily adopting a civilizational discourse that mirrored Western portrayals of Africa as backwards. Others, including members of the Negro Convention movements, fiercely rejected the idea of emigration. Arguments on either ends of this spectrum, as Blyden shows, were both steeped in quests to achieve freedom and justice. In the 1920s and beyond, Pan-Africanism blossomed, followed decades later by the Civil Rights and decolonization movements. Black Americans and Africans alike, people such as Eslanda Goode Robeson or Asadata Dafora, circulated across the Atlantic, crafting and spreading their own ideas about the continent’s place in Black liberation. In this episode, Blyden also gives us a fascinating glimpse of her own family’s history, connecting the West Indies, West Africa, and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Madina Thiam is a PhD candidate in African History at UCLA.