Alden Young is an assistant professor of African American studies and a member of the International Institute at UCLA. He is a 2021-22 Berggruen Institute Fellow.
In the West African Kingdom of Dahomey, before the Kingdom’s captives departed for the New World to be enslaved, they were forced “to march around the ‘Tree of Forgetfulness’ six times” so that they would remember neither their home continent nor the people they were leaving behind.
By the middle of the 18th century, the British were annually shipping tens of thousands of Africans in chains from the west coast of Africa across the Atlantic Ocean, feeding their seemingly inexhaustible desire for enslaved labor to work their sugar plantations dotted across the Caribbean. These voyages have frequently been referred to as the Middle Passage, a one-way journey transforming Africans into Black slaves. Its irreversibility is a bedrock of the African American origin story.
The Dahomey aristocrats forced captives to sever ties with their homeland. In the same vein, contemporary Afro-pessimist intellectuals argue that the Middle Passage means today’s Africans and members of the African diaspora have forgotten one another. Afro-pessimism is a theory developed by Black American intellectuals like Frank Wilderson, Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten, which holds that the experience of racism and slavery in the Americas makes the Black American experience so unique that it cannot be compared with the suffering of other peoples.
Rendered strangers by the Middle Passage, Afro-pessimists see no shared identity that can serve as the basis for solidarity between Africans and African Americans. Historical records, however, show that occasionally, some captives, even after forcibly crossing the Atlantic, later returned to their homes in Africa as freemen.
In 1777, a British slaver, Captain Benjamin Hughes, sold African navigators — who enjoyed the status of freemen along the Gold Coast — into slavery. Years before, according to Christopher Leslie Brown’s “Moral Capital,” nine Englishmen had been taken hostage over a similar incident.
Fearing disruptions to trade, the British Company of Merchants Trading to Africa dispatched Cofee Aboan, a relative of the surviving captive Quamino Amissah, urgently to the West Indies to bring him home by way of England and sued Hughes for damages. This story demonstrates, Brown writes, that even at the height of Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, “the British were in no position to treat all black people alike.”
Despite the cruelty of slavery throughout the Atlantic world and herculean efforts on the part of European and African elites to force the enslaved to forget their past, connections between the African diaspora in the New World and those who remained in Africa persisted and grew. By the beginning of the 20th century, ties across the Atlantic gave rise to Pan-Africanism, which helped fuel the social movements that resulted in the wave of independent states in Africa and Civil Rights legislation in the United States during the 1960s.
Pan-Africanism was an ideology that saw the suffering of Black people throughout the world, whether from colonialism, slavery or segregation, as interrelated. No less a figure than Martin Luther King Jr. understood these struggles to be connected. In Ghana for the celebration of its independence from Britain, Dr. King said, “This event, the birth of this new nation, will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world. I think it will have worldwide implications and repercussions — not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America.” For decades, through the final overthrow of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s, movements for the rights of Black Africans on both sides of the Atlantic propelled and reinforced one another.
As an ideology, Pan-Africanism’s fiercest proponents — W. E. B. Du Bois, Henry Sylvester Williams, C. L. R. James and George Padmore — argued that the struggle for national self-determination was essential to the reassertion of Black Africans’ rightful place on the world stage and their self-respect.
Yet by the 1990s, the equation of self-determination with self-respect was being challenged from three directions. The first and perhaps oldest line of critique, launched during the Cold War, argued that when nationalist movements came to power, they frequently created authoritarian states. The second, building on postcolonial authoritarianism, highlighted the ways in which African elites were impoverishing their peoples.
Finally, a powerful strand of pessimism swept over Black American intellectuals in the 1990s, fueled by disappointment in the performance of postcolonial states and a growing sense that slavery and colonialism were not analogous to one another. Today, Afro-pessimism has become one of the principal ways that Black Americans engage with Africa, both intellectually and through pop culture.
The Afro-pessimists reject the equation of the struggles of a permanent minority with anti-colonial nationalism in Africa and Asia. Because they insist on the particularity of the Black American struggle and refuse to see it as connected to and reflected in the struggles of other anti-colonial movements, they are more isolated from Africa than even earlier generations. This is despite greater migration over the last few decades and vastly increased communication and transportation links between the United States and the continent.
The rise of Afro-pessimism in the 1990s has helped to freeze in place a view of the continent as “hopeless,” as the cover of The Economist announced in May 2000. In the process, Americans — particularly Black Americans, who for decades were at the vanguard of cultivating links between the U.S. and Africa — have lost a chance to build genuine solidarities with the continent.
The United States has less of an economic and cultural presence on the continent today than it did at the beginning of the 21st century, though Africa has flourished since then. Between 2000 and 2019, Sub-Saharan Africa enjoyed an average GDP growth rate of 4.35%, according to the World Bank — well above the global average over that time period.
These 20 years of respectable growth contrast sharply with what economists call the African Tragedy — the period between 1975 and 1999, when Sub-Saharan Africa’s percentage of global GNP shrank from 17.6% to 10.5%. Health, mortality and literacy rates there had all followed similar trends. The region also had the world’s highest rates of HIV positivity during the 1990s: fully 9% of adults there were living with HIV/AIDs at the turn of the century.
Writing in the immediate aftermath of the African Tragedy, Columbia University Professor Saidiya Hartman asserted that for Africans, “independence was a short century.” After a little less than a decade of independence, Ghana, in many ways the poster child for Pan-Africanism under the leadership of the charismatic Kwame Nkrumah, experienced the first of several military coups in 1966. Coups swept the continent in the 1970s and ‘80s, and southern Africa and the Horn of Africa were ravaged by some of the last large-scale conflicts, outside of Afghanistan, witnessed by the twilight years of the Cold War.
Intellectually, pessimism about the political capacity of Africans to govern themselves reigned supreme in the elite universities of the United States and Britain, as well as in foreign policy think tanks and large international financial institutions. In 1981, Harvard political scientist Robert Bates’ “Markets and States in Tropical Africa” captured the zeitgeist by pointing out that agriculture — the backbone of many African states’ economies — was declining in productivity due to the flagrant negligence of political elites, who favored their own political constituencies over the needs of the general population.
In this context, one would be forgiven for seeing a connection between self-interested and shortsighted contemporary African elites, who traded immediate personal gains for the long-term interest of their states and people, and the African rulers during the centuries of the slave trade who made similar calculations.
The Afro-pessimists of the 1990s came of age just as South Africa won its independence from white minority rule. This victory was a symbol of the political power of Pan-Africanism, as it grew out of decades of tireless activism by South African activists in the cities and townships, as well as the strength of a global anti-apartheid coalition. At the center of this coalition were newly independent African states like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola and Namibia, all of which faced violent incursions from the apartheid government as it resisted democracy.
Also crucially important was the mobilization of African American civil society, religious and political organizations to pressure the U.S. government to limit its support for apartheid. Despite the presence of staunch supporters for segregation inside Reagan’s administration, the State Department begin to distance itself from the apartheid government. This culminated in Nelson Mandela, the future president of South Africa and one-time political prisoner of the apartheid regime, visiting the White House to meet with President George H. W. Bush in 1990. After years of African American pressure, Bush finally declared that apartheid was a “repugnant” system.
Yet when the subject of discrimination against Americans of African descent later came up during a town hall hosted by Ted Koppel, Mandela said that, while “the entire mass democratic movement in South Africa condemns racialism wherever it may be found,” it “would not be proper for me to delve into the controversial issues which are tearing the society of this country apart. I am sure that the U.S.A. has produced competent leaders of all population groups who are able to handle their own affairs very effectively.”
This invocation of state sovereignty — a refuge unavailable to African Americans, destined to always be a minority — was offensive and disappointing to many Black leaders in the United States, who felt that they had put their own political capital on the line, only to receive so little in return.
Similarly, in the works of Black scholars like Hartman, Moten and Wilderson, there is a pessimism about the utility of politics, particularly politics expressed through the institutions of the state. Because while it is state power that ultimately redeems captives like Amissah from bondage or that protects its citizens from predation and capture, it is also that same power that polices the boundaries of political membership and decides who is worthy of protection. These are the same states that sent and still send people into bondage.
Amissah, despite being captured, smuggled across the Atlantic and forced to work as a slave, was never stripped of his social relations or rendered kinless. In the end, his people used their political power to call him back to their land.
The desire to return to Africa remains a powerful impulse throughout the African diaspora. Igbos, an ethnic group located in southeastern Nigeria who disappeared from enslavement in the New World, were often thought to have flown magically back to Africa. Being rescued by one’s African kin is a reoccurring theme in African American cultural consciousness. Just witness the plots of recent Hollywood blockbusters like “Black Panther” and “Coming to America 2.”
As “Black Panther” reveals, however, even cinematic reconciliation is fraught between a Black diaspora estranged from the continent and those who got to stay in the mythical kingdom of Wakanda, largely untouched by the slave trade and European colonialism. In the movie’s final moments, the King of Wakanda, T’Challa, offers Erik Killmonger, the son of a Wakandan abandoned to live in the New World, forgiveness for trying to kill him and overthrow his regime. T’Challa then tells Killmonger that he can return to Wakanda, that his exile can be ended. There is a place for him in Africa, and he does not need to wander any further in the diaspora.
In what is perhaps the film’s most poignant line, Killmonger snarls at T’Challa and says, “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” Staring out over Wakanda, Killmonger pulls a blade out of his chest and proceeds to die as T’Challa is left helpless to close the gap between them. Even if only allegorically, the filmmakers end the movie by reaffirming the intractable gap between the descendants of the dispossessed Black diaspora and the subjects of African sovereigns.
It is a skepticism about whether people of the African diaspora can find meaning in a shared narrative of the past or hope of the future that makes Hartman doubt the political potential of an identity like Africa. Instead, she writes poignantly in “Lose Your Mother:”
Unlike we come together or we who fled or we who were liberated, African people crossed the lines of raider and captive, broker and commodity, master and slave, kin and stranger. The capaciousness of these words — African people — was as dangerous as it was promising. No doubt, for the priest, the longing that resided within them concerned what we might become together or the possibility of solidarity, which would enable us to defeat the enemy again, except that they describe the enemy too.
…Africa was never one identity, but plural and contested ones.
…I came to realize that it mattered whether the “we” was called we who became together or African people or slaves, because these identities were tethered to conflicting narratives of our past, and well, these names conjured different futures.
The pessimism in Hartman’s reading of African history stems from the belief that the African elites and the states that they control have for centuries been at best complicit in, if not at the root of, their own people’s exploitations. African political projects, however well-intentioned, were doomed to impotence.
Even the children’s adaptation of The New York Times’ popular 1619 Project, “Born on the Water,” emphasizes that those of us of African descent in the United States are a new people. A recent review of the children’s book called the idea of being born on the water “beautifully reparative.” In this tale, the child making her family tree is encouraged to reflect on her people’s origins in the Kingdom of Ndongo — which by the 17th century was Catholic and in close alliance with the Portuguese, later fighting alongside them against the larger Kingdom of the Kongo and its Dutch allies.
The narrative arc centers the question of what sort of knowing state allowed its people to be captured and enslaved, before establishing — not without criticism — the idea that African Americans are the foundation upon which the United States is built. Nevertheless, the story is still one of an Africa that, even if not forgotten, willingly forsook some of its people and an imperfect republic in the United States that must be cajoled into accepting its original citizens.
It’s an irony that the United States’ relationship with Africa, outside of its ever-present security partnerships, grew weaker under its first Black president, Barack Obama. Obama, whose father came from Kenya, saw the United States lose its place as the major trading partner of most African countries, and in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Western banks also began to leave the continent in droves.
The Obama administration’s signature initiative was Power Africa, which aimed to address glaring needs in electricity generation and access across the continent, but a lack of financing and a complicated public-private scheme limited the program’s impact. As the former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy recently noted, “For too long when investors have knocked on the door, and Africans have opened the door, the only person standing there was the Chinese.”
One reason for U.S. officials’ increased disengagement with the African continent has been the near-absence of Pan-Africanist civil society activists in policymaking about Africa. The highpoint of Pan-Africanism was the anti-apartheid struggle. But in recent decades, African American civil society has been marked in part by a rising movement called American Descendants of Slavery, a popular nationalist movement that argues that the United States and Black Americans should show special treatment to the descendants of American slavery over others in the global Black diaspora. Similarly, for many moderate Black Americans, the global war on terror reframed much of Africa — a continent that is home to many Muslim-majority countries — as part of a hostile and culturally alien Muslim world.
The African American community has also lost many of its autonomous foreign policy institutions, which had historically spearheaded U.S. engagement with Africa — whether in the push for African independence, famine relief in the 1970s, the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, debt forgiveness and the fight against AIDS in the 1990s or the creation of free-trade agreements in the early 2000s. The most famous of these is TransAfrica (now the TransAfrica Forum), which grew out of the Black Forum on Foreign Affairs in 1976. It gave organizational and legislative capacity to the Congressional Black Caucus and the Free South Africa Movement, and it counted luminaries like Arthur Ashe, Mary Frances Berry, Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte among its members. Its legislative high point was its work in passing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.
Yet today, groups like TransAfrica have largely faded from the public sphere. The organization today does not even maintain its own website. It is common to hear U.S. foreign policy experts relegate African affairs to a position of secondary importance, only significant as it relates to the U.S.-China competition or the spectra of terrorism. Because the links between the Black diaspora remain partially severed, Africa’s flourishing today has more to do with the rise of China and the Indian Ocean rim economies than the West.
Afro-pessimist intellectuals might argue that the growing political separation between African and Black American social movements is a welcome sign of maturity, and distance allows for each side to articulate and look after its own interests. Yet this logic relies on an equally false belief that there is a Black American identity that can be easily demarcated from African and African diaspora identities and politics. In fact, the Middle Passage, European racism and the work of Black intellectuals throughout the world have created ties that cannot be severed.