Soul-searching journeys back ‘home’ to Africa

Raymond Arsenault – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
Published: June 9, 2006
Middle Passages. African-American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005. By James T. Campbell 513 pages. $29.95. The Penguin Press.
James Campbell’s “Middle Passages” is the inaugural volume in the Penguin History of American Life series, an ambitious project under the editorial direction of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that will eventually include as many as 50 books written by some of the United States’ most distinguished historians. If Campbell’s approach is indicative of things to come, this series represents a wholehearted embrace of the tradition of narrative history.
“Middle Passages” is an episodic book of interlocking stories that outlines two centuries of African-American journeys to the “Dark Continent.” Campbell is a master storyteller who engages the reader in the human drama of American blacks confronting cultural realities that do not always square with the myths of an imagined native land. From the repatriation of former slaves in the early years of the United States to the recent heritage tourism featuring GorÈe Island and other slave-trading sites, Campbell provides an artful reconstruction of the often bittersweet experience of return and reunion.
No brief summary can do justice to the book’s carefully assembled cast of characters. Some, like the poet Maya Angelou, are familiar. But Campbell has rescued others from obscurity, telling often ignored and sometimes fantastical stories that deepen one’s understanding of American identity and the burdens of race.
Take, for example, William Sheppard, a Virginia-born black Presbyterian missionary who journeyed to King Leopold’s Belgian Congo in the 1890s. Sheppard helped to establish a successful mission, but only after surviving several encounters with the Zappo Zaps, a cannibalistic tribe that colluded with Leopold’s colonial regime and traded in the slaves they chose not to eat.
Sheppard spent 20 years in Africa, and for a time his sensational revelations of Belgian-sponsored brutality in the Congo made him an international figure. But a personal indiscretion – he fathered a child with a Congolese mistress – eventually forced his return to the United States, to live out his life as a Presbyterian pastor. (He also wrote children’s books collectively labeled “True African Stories,” one of which bore the title “The Girl Who Ate Her Mother.”) Campbell’s fascination with eye-popping discovery is apparent throughout the book, beginning with an opening anecdote about Langston Hughes.
Overcome with emotion as he sails for Africa in 1923, a young and impulsive Hughes tosses his personal library, volume by volume, into the ocean, “symbolically jettisoning his book- bound Western identity.” Only later, after reaching the continent’s west coast, does the light-skinned mulatto poet discover that the Africans he encounters, the Kru tribesmen of Liberia, regard him as a “white man.”
Hughes was neither the first nor the last African-American visitor to be treated as a colonial agent dispatched, as he put it, “to help carry out the white man’s laws.” As Campbell later shows in an informative chapter on Africa and the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes managed to recover from his initial disappointment, adopting a more realistic appreciation of the limitations of both his “African” identity and African virtue. For the remainder of his life, he drew artistic inspiration from Africa’s past, which he and other African- American intellectuals associated with cultural vitality and authenticity. Yet he could not turn a blind eye to “the problems of poverty, corruption and creeping authoritarianism” that he observed in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and other African nations.
Hughes earns Campbell’s admiration. Indeed, following Hughes’s lead, Campbell offers a balanced and unromanticized survey. He treats the host cultures in Africa, no less than the inquisitive visitors, as distinctive and complex entities, subject to change and contingency, and capable of the full range of individual and collective human behavior. Idealizations are a large part of the story, but only as recurring mythical counterpoints to the often harsh realities of colonial and postcolonial African history.
Campbell’s unblinking approach can be seen in his prologue, titled “Ayuba’s Journey.” Ayuba, a Fula man born into a prominent Senegambian family in 1703, falls prey to British slavers in 1730 while trying to trade two of his own slaves for a load of paper. After a brief and unproductive stay on a Maryland tobacco plantation, he gains the attention of the philanthropist James Oglethorpe, who arranges for Ayuba’s emancipation, believing him to be an African prince.
Repatriated to Africa, Ayuba resumes his life of privilege, including the acquisition of slaves. Campbell recounts this improbable but true story as evidence that, before the maturation of white supremacist ideology in the 19th century, class sometimes took precedence over race. In Ayuba’s Africa, as in Maryland, Campbell writes, “the peculiar institution was not peculiar at all.”
But as he makes clear, most of the Africans and African-Americans who populate his text were all too familiar with racist orthodoxy and its violent, dehumanizing consequences. Each generation of visitors and migrants – from the black colonists who established Liberia in the antebellum era to W.E.B. Du Bois and the radical political refugees who gathered in Ghana in the 1950s and 1960s – sought freedom and identity in a trans-Atlantic world that was a complex mix of hope and despair.
Each African-American traveler dealt with this confusion in his or her own way, ranging from the novelist Richard Wright’s contemptuous rejection of Africa’s relevance for the modern world to the journalist Lynne Duke’s refusal to let the unspeakable transgressions that she witnessed in Zaire and Rwanda extinguish her belief in the dawning of a new and better Africa.
Between these two extremes other travelers created their own personal Africas in varying shades of gray. But each in his own way contributed to a broad and continuing story that shows no signs of let-up in the present age of globalization.
Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, is the author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.”
Middle Passages. African-American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005. By James T. Campbell 513 pages. $29.95. The Penguin Press.
James Campbell’s “Middle Passages” is the inaugural volume in the Penguin History of American Life series, an ambitious project under the editorial direction of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that will eventually include as many as 50 books written by some of the United States’ most distinguished historians. If Campbell’s approach is indicative of things to come, this series represents a wholehearted embrace of the tradition of narrative history.
“Middle Passages” is an episodic book of interlocking stories that outlines two centuries of African-American journeys to the “Dark Continent.” Campbell is a master storyteller who engages the reader in the human drama of American blacks confronting cultural realities that do not always square with the myths of an imagined native land. From the repatriation of former slaves in the early years of the United States to the recent heritage tourism featuring GorÈe Island and other slave-trading sites, Campbell provides an artful reconstruction of the often bittersweet experience of return and reunion.
No brief summary can do justice to the book’s carefully assembled cast of characters. Some, like the poet Maya Angelou, are familiar. But Campbell has rescued others from obscurity, telling often ignored and sometimes fantastical stories that deepen one’s understanding of American identity and the burdens of race.
Take, for example, William Sheppard, a Virginia-born black Presbyterian missionary who journeyed to King Leopold’s Belgian Congo in the 1890s. Sheppard helped to establish a successful mission, but only after surviving several encounters with the Zappo Zaps, a cannibalistic tribe that colluded with Leopold’s colonial regime and traded in the slaves they chose not to eat.
Sheppard spent 20 years in Africa, and for a time his sensational revelations of Belgian-sponsored brutality in the Congo made him an international figure. But a personal indiscretion – he fathered a child with a Congolese mistress – eventually forced his return to the United States, to live out his life as a Presbyterian pastor. (He also wrote children’s books collectively labeled “True African Stories,” one of which bore the title “The Girl Who Ate Her Mother.”) Campbell’s fascination with eye-popping discovery is apparent throughout the book, beginning with an opening anecdote about Langston Hughes.
Overcome with emotion as he sails for Africa in 1923, a young and impulsive Hughes tosses his personal library, volume by volume, into the ocean, “symbolically jettisoning his book- bound Western identity.” Only later, after reaching the continent’s west coast, does the light-skinned mulatto poet discover that the Africans he encounters, the Kru tribesmen of Liberia, regard him as a “white man.”
Hughes was neither the first nor the last African-American visitor to be treated as a colonial agent dispatched, as he put it, “to help carry out the white man’s laws.” As Campbell later shows in an informative chapter on Africa and the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes managed to recover from his initial disappointment, adopting a more realistic appreciation of the limitations of both his “African” identity and African virtue. For the remainder of his life, he drew artistic inspiration from Africa’s past, which he and other African- American intellectuals associated with cultural vitality and authenticity. Yet he could not turn a blind eye to “the problems of poverty, corruption and creeping authoritarianism” that he observed in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and other African nations.
Hughes earns Campbell’s admiration. Indeed, following Hughes’s lead, Campbell offers a balanced and unromanticized survey. He treats the host cultures in Africa, no less than the inquisitive visitors, as distinctive and complex entities, subject to change and contingency, and capable of the full range of individual and collective human behavior. Idealizations are a large part of the story, but only as recurring mythical counterpoints to the often harsh realities of colonial and postcolonial African history.
Campbell’s unblinking approach can be seen in his prologue, titled “Ayuba’s Journey.” Ayuba, a Fula man born into a prominent Senegambian family in 1703, falls prey to British slavers in 1730 while trying to trade two of his own slaves for a load of paper. After a brief and unproductive stay on a Maryland tobacco plantation, he gains the attention of the philanthropist James Oglethorpe, who arranges for Ayuba’s emancipation, believing him to be an African prince.
Repatriated to Africa, Ayuba resumes his life of privilege, including the acquisition of slaves. Campbell recounts this improbable but true story as evidence that, before the maturation of white supremacist ideology in the 19th century, class sometimes took precedence over race. In Ayuba’s Africa, as in Maryland, Campbell writes, “the peculiar institution was not peculiar at all.”
But as he makes clear, most of the Africans and African-Americans who populate his text were all too familiar with racist orthodoxy and its violent, dehumanizing consequences. Each generation of visitors and migrants – from the black colonists who established Liberia in the antebellum era to W.E.B. Du Bois and the radical political refugees who gathered in Ghana in the 1950s and 1960s – sought freedom and identity in a trans-Atlantic world that was a complex mix of hope and despair.
Each African-American traveler dealt with this confusion in his or her own way, ranging from the novelist Richard Wright’s contemptuous rejection of Africa’s relevance for the modern world to the journalist Lynne Duke’s refusal to let the unspeakable transgressions that she witnessed in Zaire and Rwanda extinguish her belief in the dawning of a new and better Africa.
Between these two extremes other travelers created their own personal Africas in varying shades of gray. But each in his own way contributed to a broad and continuing story that shows no signs of let-up in the present age of globalization.
Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, is the author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.”


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