No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000
Edited by William Minter,
Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr.
Published by Africa World Press.
Apr 18, 2008 - David Hostetter in H-SAfrica
Solidarity with Africa would be a good theme for Obama
Wim BossemaDe Volkskrant
Saturday 29 March 2008
In the year in which a half Kenyan, Barack Obama, is leading in the primaries for the Democratic presidential candidate, a book about a half-century of warm relations between American activists and African liberation movements is well timed. Or so one would think. But Obama has not stressed interest in the subject, says one of the editors of the book, William Minter, during a brief visit to Amsterdam. While he is, as a white veteran Africa activist, among the fans of Obama and understands that domestic social issues and Iraq take priority in the campaign, he finds it unfortunate that solidarity with Africans plays so little a role.
This month Obama gave his already legendary "race speech", "rassenrede," that sounds somewhat awkward in Dutch. But he was compelled to do that to dissociate himself from vengeful, anti-white statements of his church pastor. Obama managed not to renounce Jeremiah Wright, while unequivocally rejecting some of his statements. He made a comparison with his white grandmother who used to make racist comments about blacks, but remained his beloved grandmother. Life is not as simple as "for" and "against," is Obama's message. And certainly in race relations everything is paradoxical; his own family tree is a good example of this. Even professionally cynical columnists were impressed and very few were disturbed by the righteous ring of Obama's rhetoric, which in part echoed that of Reverend Wright.
But where was Africa in this story? Obama is actually not a descendant of a plantation slave. He has little in common with Wright. The history of the black civil-rights movement is not in his family. Really, the deep understanding in which his experience of race is steeped, is the vision of an outsider. But also not really,because American Negroes (as they were called in the fifties) and Africans have a long relationship, even with conflicting emotions.
Nelson Mandela wrote a small foreword to No Easy Victories and noted that the fight against apartheid owes much to activist groups in the United States, but that the American black civil-rights movement also drew inspiration from actions in South Africa. Mandela has the right to speak, he is one of the few African leaders who still enjoy great prestige internationally.
In the fifties and sixties there were many more. This book cites some of them: Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Tom Mboya (Kenya), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), and a parade of other young leaders who led their colonies to independence and, for some, spent time before that studying at American universities. There they evoked enthusiasm and solidarity grew.
Minter was one of those American students who was influenced, and he traveled in the sixties to Tanzania to teach in a school of the Mozambican liberation movement Frelimo. He begins his overview article in the book with the assassination of a Frelimo's leader Eduardo Mondlane with a letter bomb, in 1969. Shortly before, Mondlane has seen Minter off at the airport. Political killings solidified Minter's commitment and that of many people in the same circles. In Africa, many were murdered: Steve Biko, Ruth First and Amilcar Cabral (the influential leader and thinker in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, from whom the title of the book is taken: 'Tell no lies, claim no easy victories', he instructed his guerrillas). In the United States, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers [were among those who met similar fates].
In the book there is a photograph of the coffin with Mondlane above the grave, a somber Tanzanian President Nyerere with folded arms, and a sorrowful widow with three young children. Janet Mondlane is a white American.
This is a forgotten history in the United States, Minter notes. South Africa took all the attention. The African National Congress of Nelson Mandela offered a shining example of a multiracial movement that initially [in the early 1950s], it seemed, could fight against racial laws and discrimination with non-violent means. At that time advance on the race question in the United States was in a stalemate, while once popular singer and advocate of racial equality Paul Robeson was branded as a communist.
When the white minority in South Africa cracked down with force, carried out a massacre at Sharpeville, and put Mandela and his colleagues in prison, the roles were reversed. Thus the the South African singer Miriam Makeba fled to the US, where she and her protest songs were extremely popular at a time when the black civil-rights movement was scoring successes.
Makeba married the American black student leader Stokeley Carmichael. The controversial couple fled the heated political climate in the United States and went to live in Africa, Guinea-Conakry, where Sekou Toure led a regime seen to be leftist. In fact it was a rather suffocating dictatorship and Makeba and Carmichael, who took the African name Kwame Ture, were politically out of the picture. Sad.
In the eighties South Africa came back in the picture for Americans. This was the time of the uprisings in the townships, the broad citizens' movement - led, among others, by Bishop Tutu, and, in the United States and Europe, the campaign for sanctions against the apartheid regime. There were pop concerts and the Free Mandela Campaign. With President Reagan in office, who supported the apartheid regime in everything, the American action groups decided to target the American business community with pressure. That was one of the most successful campaigns in history: the withdrawal of American investment from South Africa, and the threat of more withdrawals, stands now as the single most important reason why President De Klerk recognized that the days of apartheid were numbered.
Mandela, freed from prison, received a hero's welcome in America, in 1990 still with Winnie (very popular in the United States of Oprah). But then again Africa disappeared from sight, according to Minter. Only tragedies and failures came in the news: genocide in Rwanda, Somalia, Darfur. Solidarity with Africa now has national groups (AfricaAction.org and others), but also is fragmented into many local groups.
Maybe that's not bad, notes Minter. Probably more Americans than ever are doing something for Africa, including in church groups. Many African immigrants are active. "Did you know that there are ten thousand Nigerian doctors in the United States?" And his publisher comes from Eritrea. Solidarity between Africa and the US is not going away. That should well give Obama something to work with.
This page is part of the No Easy Victories website.