Feature

Is Africa’s Pain Black America’s Burden?

An essay

by
Artwork by Kerry James Marshall

• 4,944 words

Painting by Kerry James Marshall
Courtesy of the Studio Museum, Harlem, and Jack Shainman Gallery. © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago SOB, SOB (2003). Acrylic on fibreglass, 288 x 201 cm.

In 1895, W.E.B. Du Bois became the first black to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and argued that only the elite of the African-American middle class, the “talented tenth,” could pull the entire black population out of their collective oppression. Du Bois’s view contrasted sharply with the ideas of Booker T. Washington, a former slave who argued that social change for American blacks could only be achieved from the ground up, through entering the trades and working hard. Both men inspired African-Americans as well as African-Canadians, and the civil rights movement improved conditions for all. Conditions, in Africa, meanwhile, have become increasingly dire—and are increasingly ignored.


In the 1970s, as a teenager, I took a solo trip from my home in Toronto to visit family in Washington, D.C., and foolishly asked my grandmother, May Edwards Hill, what she thought of the black operatic characters Porgy and Bess. May, born in 1896 and raised in a prosperous family that fitted proudly into the ranks of what was then called “the talented tenth”—America’s elite, university-educated blacks—tore a strip off me for even mentioning the characters popularized in the 1935 folk opera by George Gershwin, a white composer. The disabled Porgy, who wheeled himself about on a cart, and Bess, an unfaithful lover, were lowbrow Southern blacks who, despite poverty and suffering, loved each other and lived with gusto and passion. Even as fictional characters, they nauseated my grandmother.

“We have enough stereotypes to combat as it is,” May muttered, “and they just bring shame down on all Negroes with their cavorting around and their immorality.” Her complaint reflected one of the most troubling paradoxes about black identity in North America. For four hundred years, we’ve been seen to be less than human. And so, to compensate, we must be more civilized than the civilized. We place unreasonable expectations on ourselves, such is our desire to succeed in the world and to be accepted as equal to those who dragged us across the Atlantic Ocean.

I should have known better than to put that question to May. I was familiar with the way black communities sometimes slap down writers—especially strong black feminists—whose characters “discredit the race.” Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a wild celebration of a free-spirited black woman who takes up with another man without bothering to divorce her husband, was lambasted by Richard Wright, the major U.S. black novelist of the time, for offering “no theme, no message, no thought.” Alice Walker infuriated some with her depiction of a black male character as a brutal, incestuous rapist in her best-selling novel The Color Purple. Black artists are to be morally upright standard-bearers for the young men and women who need to be shepherded toward responsible adulthood, and their fictional creations had better stay in line, too.

By the age of ten, I was well versed in black history and entranced by accounts of how my white, civil-rights-activist mother and black, graduate-student father formed a union against all odds, married in the American South in 1953, and decamped that very week to spend the rest of their active lives fighting for human rights in Canada. Dad’s own father and grandfather had combined their work as ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal church disseminating the social gospel in the black communities they served. Stories had filtered down through the generations about my great-great-grandfather purchasing freedom for his wife, his children, and himself in Maryland in 1860. “How did he get the money? ” We speculated about it at the kitchen table. “Probably stole it,” came one response, with a cackle. But when the laughter subsided, we were quietly warned: “If you don’t fight racism, you become part of the problem.”

Stories abounded in my family about W.E.B. Du Bois, whose essay collection The Souls of Black Folk stands out as one of the seminal works of African-American literature of the twentieth century. Du Bois, who was born in 1868 and lived to the age of 95, became the first black to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895 and went on to become one of the architects of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 1900, Du Bois coined a phrase that spread like a grass fıre and became a mantra among observers of race relations in America: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” And in September 1903, Du Bois published “The Talented Tenth,” one of his most famous essays. In it, he argued that only the elite of the African-American population could pull the rest of the black population up by its bootstraps, and that education would save the black people of America.

“Was there ever a nation on God’s fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? ” he wrote. “Never; it is, ever was and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground.”

For people like me, being black and having access to a good education carried certain obligations. It wasn’t good enough to get A’s in school—you also had to ball up your fists and charge into battle if anybody used the word “nigger.” In the workplace, it wasn’t good enough to merely succeed professionally. You had to change the world, too.

So what happened to this forward-looking, educated, socially engaged, black middle class? They were a powerful force for social change, leaders and supporters of civil rights movements, eloquent speakers and writers for the plight of North American blacks, and for Africa itself. Africa needs them now, but are they interested in Africa?

This question arose in my mind last year when news broke about genocide in Sudan. It had also troubled me a decade earlier, when we learned about genocide in Rwanda. In her 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power notes that no African-American political leaders staged demonstrations or held hunger strikes while 800,000 people were killed over a hundred days in the Rwandan genocide. “No significant Rwandan diaspora lived in the United States; few African-Americans identify specific ancestral homelands and lobby on their behalf the way Armenians, Jews, or Albanians might,” Power wrote. Ironically, while North American blacks were applauding the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa in 1994, Rwandans were being butchered in the worst genocide since the Holocaust. We, along with the rest of the world, stood by and let it happen.

Global indifference to the Rwandan massacre and to ongoing African atrocities have been much studied. But let’s not forget blacks in the diaspora, by which I mean peoples around the world who are of African heritage and who feel connected to each other and share a sense of kinship with the continent. From us, one might expect dedicated action. Instead, from the vast majority, there has been a haunting silence not unlike that of people who stand implicated, yet immobile, at the cemetery gate.

I am about to embrace, with some reluctance, the very paradox that deserves incineration—that obligation to outcivilize the civilized. In so doing, I place an unfair moral burden on the shoulders of African-Americans and African-Canadians. But what else is there to do? To whom else can we turn?

Over the centuries, there have been many examples of blacks on this continent reconnecting with Africa. In 1792, some 1,200 black United Empire Loyalists became so disgusted with their ill-treatment in Nova Scotia that they sailed from Halifax to create a colony in Sierra Leone. In 1824, emancipated American slaves sailed to Africa and founded Liberia. Shortly after creating the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914, Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, was leading a massive black organization with hundreds of chapters in the United States, Canada, and across the world. Garvey urged blacks in the Americas to embrace a “back to Africa” movement and argued in favour of founding a black nation in Africa. The son of a stonemason, Garvey left school at the age of fourteen and his populist movement celebrated black pride. He couldn’t have differed more from W.E.B. Du Bois, but both men exuded passion about Africa.

Du Bois, who helped found the NAACP and spent forty years organizing Pan-African Congresses, led the way in bridging Africa and America. “The mystic spell of Africa is and ever was over all America. It has guided her hardest work, inspired her finest literature, and sung her sweetest songs,” Du Bois wrote in his 1962 biography of the American abolitionist John Brown. For him, social progress for blacks in America went hand in hand with the liberation and development of African countries. After earlier trips to Africa, he finally moved to Ghana in 1961 at the age of ninety-three. Du Bois died there on August 27, 1963, the day before the famous civil rights march on Washington, D.C.

Blacks in America hit the peak of their civil rights activism in the 1960s, at the very time that African nations were winning their independence from British, French, and other European colonial powers. It was no accident of history. For many, independence in Africa rode the same wavelength as the civil rights movement in the United States. “The similarities in the political and psychological urgings of Black America and pre-independence Africa were real and profound,” Howard Jeter, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, has noted. “Africans and Black Americans, knowing that they were equal to any other human being, sought to be treated as human beings.”

In 1974, when Muhammad Ali took his heavyweight boxing championship fight with George Foreman to Zaire, he electrified blacks around the world. Two years later, the African-American author Alex Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a multi-generational novel reaching back to the birth in 1750 of an African named Kunta Kinte, and to his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement in America. The book was translated into twenty-six languages, sold millions of copies, and was made into a major television miniseries, and African-Americans responded enthusiastically to the fictionalized genealogy. Roots met with such commercial success because it offered a personal link between a black American family and their African ancestors—a connection now so theoretical and tenuous that it has become almost mythical for most blacks.

These days, the members of the diaspora resemble the detached and cooling embers of a dying fire. A few artists and academics celebrate Africa, but for the most part, the rest of us look away. Africans survived the Atlantic slave trade, the carving up and colonization of their continent, and the transition to political independence, but now face cataclysmic threats to which we, in North America, remain indifferent.

Collectively, blacks failed to exert the political pressure necessary to force the global powers to intervene and prevent the devastating civil wars in the West African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. We also looked away from the murderous civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We have remained largely mute about the current genocide in Sudan.

Blacks and others in North America did rally in defence of the black majority of South Africa under apartheid rule. Somehow, it was easier to generate widespread opposition to the South African regime because the targets of our ire were the minority white rulers of the country. In that clear-cut moral issue, we pinpointed the enemy efficiently. But why hasn’t the greatest ongoing crisis Africa has ever faced—the HIV/AIDS pandemic—drawn the same support? And why no action against the murderers in Rwanda, the DRC, or Sudan? Do these examples of black-on-black violence cut too close to the bone?

Few North American blacks now relate to the homeland. Presented with a map of Africa, most could not even point out Lagos, Ougadougou, Khartoum, or Cape Town. Geographic ignorance is like the tip of an iceberg, hinting at a much deeper void in our collective psyche about Africa and its peoples. For some of us, it hurts too much to think about Africa. The irony of this becomes almost unbearable when you travel in Africa and meet schoolchildren who recite all sorts of information about Canada and America. Once, while travelling in Cameroon, I met a young man who waxed enthusiastic about the various Canadian cities he had heard about: “How I long to visit the wonderful metropolitan centres of Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, and Joliette,” he said, clapping his hands together. Joliette?

This embrace of a far-off continent and all its promises is not reciprocated by North American blacks. Indeed, we identify less and less with Africa, and our battles here at home take our attention away from a threatened people whom we don’t even know. Africa is too distant, too big, too confusing, too much. Second only to Asia in size, Africa has fifty-three countries, nearly one billion people, over a thousand languages, and a diversity of cultures and religions. How to connect with that when there is no firm point of connection, save the knowledge that one or more of your ancestors was stolen from some unknown village in an unknown and unfamiliar land?

The world’s worst humanitarian crisis is unfolding before our eyes, and its crucible lies in Africa. The United Nations estimates that 25 million Africans are living with HIV/AIDS; 1.9 million of them are under the age of fifteen—ninety percent of the infected children in the world. The outlook for them is grim. In 2003, 2.2 million people died of AIDS-related illness in sub-Saharan Africa, representing over three-quarters of the world total and sixteen percent more than the year before. North American blacks are reacting to this catastrophe like tense drivers in rush hour, refusing to make eye contact with the desperate person five metres away who wants to slip into their lane. I’m not letting you in. I’m not even going to recognize your existence.

Painting by Kerry James Marshall
Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery and The Progressive Corporation, Cleveland Bang (1994). Acrylic and collage on canvas, 258 × 285 cm.

Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, has often sounded the alarm bell. “The pandemic is overshadowing anything we know in human history,” he told members of the Canadian parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and international trade. “People now talk about a hundred million deaths down the road. I don’t doubt that for a moment.”

I asked Lewis to comment on African-American leadership in addressing the AIDS pandemic in Africa. He tiptoed, noting that through their churches and their wallets, many African-Americans have funnelled assistance to Africa in its time of crisis. And he acknowledged that groups such as the Congressional Black Caucus—an advocacy group comprising African-Americans in both parties in the U.S. House of Representatives—have consistently lobbied for greater government funding to address AIDS internationally. Nonetheless, he noted, “In terms of the pandemic, it is somewhat curious that the African-American leadership in the United States has been so slow to rally.”

Curious, indeed. Some might call it shameful. Where are the marches? The demonstrations? Where is the unstoppable will that desegregated America, demanded that U.S. troops withdraw from Vietnam, and defied the apartheid regime of South Africa?

AIDS, even more than genocide and famine, involves a devastating destruction of humanity, and features an elusive enemy—a virus emboldened by poverty. It’s the ultimate litmus test for a diaspora, and blacks are failing. Badly. I wanted to know why, so I started an inquiry within my family, interviewing black American relatives who had been reared on the same values of social obligation that my parents espoused. My cousin, Marie Metoyer, a retired psychiatrist living in Manchester, New Hampshire, seemed like a good pick because she and her mother, Dr. Lena Edwards Madison, spent their best years providing medical services in their own communities. “You were to achieve, excel, integrate into the white community, and that, with education, was to be your salvation,” she said. And Africa? “Ideally,” Metoyer said, “there is an onus on African-Americans to take an active role for humanitarian reasons in Africa. Unfortunately, some of us are so involved in our own spheres and interests that we don’t see Africa as a priority.”

Another relative—Adele Flateau, fifty-three, of Brooklyn, who has spent twenty-five years in community service and now works at a clinic for HIV/AIDS patients in Brooklyn—had a similar message when I asked her what had happened to the activism of the sixties.

“I think we didn’t pass on the torch to our next generation, and those of us that were in the forefront back twenty or thirty years have kind of fizzled out. We have a lot more black elected officials now, but they just don’t seem to be very outspoken. In fact, they’ve been very silent. There is an eerie kind of silence among most of the black leadership now.”

Outside the clinic where Adele works, a taxi driver—a thin, middle-aged, black man who gave his name as Jacob—wanted to know all about the article I was writing. He showed a lively knowledge of Africa and was quick to offer an opinion: “Sure, you will meet some black community leaders who care about the AIDS crisis in Africa. But most of us? Forget it. It’s like, I’ve got my rent to pay and The Man is leaning on me left, right, and centre, and I’m trying to get my kids through school without being shot at, so don’t talk to me about Africa. I’m American. Talk to me about America, and about the damn leak in my roof.”

His attitude is familiar to Charles Barron. Barron, a former member of the Black Panthers, emerged as one of America’s most radical black politicians after the people of Brooklyn elected him to the New York City Council in 2001. Barron argues that diminished identification with Africa prevents blacks from stepping up to the plate.

“If you do something to a Jewish person in Israel, Jewish people who were never born in Israel, born in America, will scream. If you do something to a Chinese person in China, the Chinese in Chinatown will holler. Or if something happens to Korea, the Korean people in America will holler,” he says. “But we don’t have that kind of identification with Africa.”

Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, a pro-Africa lobby group based in Washington, D.C., notes that young African-Americans show an interest in the continent, but know very little about it. “All Americans are by and large ignorant of Africa, and that’s true whether you’re African-American or white American,” Booker told me. “Most Americans and most African-Americans just don’t have opportunities to study or travel or learn much about Africa, and therefore they’re inundated mainly with negative imagery—Africa starving, Africa at war, genocide, those sorts of things— which creates a mental barrier. Often some folks don’t want to identify with Africa because these are the only images they have.”

When I asked Bill Fletcher, Jr., president of TransAfrica Forum—another Washington-based activist organization interested in American policies affecting Africa and other countries in the diaspora—how effectively African-Americans were pressuring their government to respond more meaningfully to African crises, he was blunt.

“I think that people dropped the ball, but I think part of it, frankly, within black America is what could only be called embarrassment,” he said. “When we look at Africans, we also look at Africa as a continent of black people, so why are they fighting each other, why are they killing each other? ” Fletcher tied Africa’s current troubles to historical factors such as the way in which the continent was arbitrarily carved up into countries to suit the interests of European colonial powers. Knowledge of the legacy of French colonialism would lead to a fuller understanding of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Fletcher said, “but many people just look at it and say, ‘My God, I don’t even want to think about it.’ ”

It must be acknowledged that some African-Americans are still fighting for Africa. For example, the Congressional Black Caucus, particularly Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee from California, and Africa Action, the advocacy group led by Booker, have consistently lobbied the Bush administration to increase funding for AIDS intervention in Africa. Booker, who assembled a coalition of thirty black American religious leaders to advance Africa Action’s lobbying efforts, told me: “One out of eight Americans is directly of African descent. This is a country of African descent as much as it is a country of European and other descent.”

“Then there is the modern self-interest,” Booker said. “The world is a very small place and we have a vested interest in things like defeating the global AIDS pandemic because it is a threat to international security, stability, and economic progress, and it happens to be concentrated in Africa right now.”

Strong advocates like Booker also support a full cancellation of debts owed by African countries to the International Monetary Fund and to the World Bank, in part so that African nations can attain the financial breathing room necessary to address the AIDS pandemic themselves. They accuse the Bush administration of blocking access in Africa to cheaper, generic drugs for anti-retroviral treatment for AIDS patients, and demand that the road be cleared.

On top of lobbying efforts, there are small groups and individuals carrying out heroic work in Africa. Of all the people I interviewed, I was most moved by the courage and conviction of two African-American women who have dedicated their lives to the fight against AIDS in Africa. Neither is famous. Neither is a national figure in the U.S.

Pernessa Seele is the indefatigable leader of The Balm in Gilead, a black American, not-for-profit, non-governmental organization that aims to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS throughout the African diaspora. The Balm in Gilead works with some 15,000 churches to provide education and support to people affected by the disease in the U.S. and Africa. With 18 employees, the organization devotes about half of its $3-million annual budget to addressing the AIDS pandemic in five African countries—Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

Seele, who grew up in a segregated town in South Carolina, says that although some African-American organizations have pressured the American government to direct more resources toward the fight, there is a huge void on the political front. “Presently, I think we’re failing terribly. I don’t think that the African-American community is really mobilizing and pushing for anything politically at this time. We are politically dead. Where is the fire of the sixties? The fire of the sixties is out. Folks have moved on.”

For a time, Seele suggests, black Americans lost themselves in materialistic obsessions, remained in denial about AIDS, and simply couldn’t feel the “intense infusion of pain” that AIDS victims and their families know all too well.

More recently, Seele notes, black churches have been addressing the crisis. “Clearly, after [twenty-four] years with this epidemic raging, nobody is coming to save us but us.” In fact, she says, the AIDS pandemic now offers a way for black Americans to reconnect to Africa.

One of Seele’s sisters-in-arms in the war on AIDS is Melva Black, a social worker born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. Black had never travelled to Africa until her church, the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, decided to carry its extensive AIDS service programs across the ocean. In 2000, Black’s pastor, Reverend Edwin C. Sanders II, attended the United Nations AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa. There, he met a woman who ran an underfunded orphanage in which seventy children who had HIV/AIDS or were orphans of AIDS victims, lived in a building with two bedrooms and one bathroom. The orphanage was facing increasing financial difficulties, and had to come up with $20,000 (U.S.) to buy the land on which it was situated. Reverend Sanders promised to ask his approximately 700-member congregation to look into resolving that difficulty. Less than a year later, the Nashville church had raised the $20,000. They then sent a delegation—including Melva Black—back to the community of Waterfall, on the outskirts of Durban, with the money to purchase the land for the Agape Child Care Center.

For Black, much has happened since then. In the last few years, she has travelled numerous times to Africa. She doesn’t travel alone. She brings Americans from various churches on twice-yearly trips and helps connect them to other orphanages and schools in need of assistance.

Pernessa Seele and Melva Black are angels on earth. But their work, and the efforts of Africa Action and other lobby groups, are like drops of water in a tidal wave of North American indifference and, within the black community, they are exceptions that prove the rule.

So far, no one has proven capable of exciting public sentiment or pushing governments into substantial action. Africa barely registered in last year’s elections in Canada and the United States. Societies are collapsing while we in North America watch (or don’t watch) with hands folded, sitting quietly like church mice.

With racism and inequality cluttering our own back yards, it isn’t fair to ask blacks to tackle the problems of Africa. But the AIDS pandemic isn’t fair, either. So, as my grandmother might have argued, we have to demand heroism from blacks anyway.

We insist that our children enjoy the benefits of the civil rights advances made by our parents and grandparents. Yet our vision is too continental. We dare not glance across the ocean, preferring not to think about the daily fate of children, women, and men in Africa. Our ancestors stumbled off the boats and survived against all odds, and we’re sure as hell not looking back now.

Even with various trips to Africa and friendships with Africans, I have not taken up the challenge of responding fully in Africa’s time of greatest need. My own children know less of Africa than I did of the civil rights movement when I was their age. This cannot continue. When I was ten years old, I asked my father at what point I would become responsible for solving problems in the world. He looked at me tenderly and said, “As soon as you become aware of the problems, they become yours, too.” We are aware of the problem, and we must do something or no one will follow us.

Stephen Lewis argues that Canadians could choose one African nation ravaged by AIDS and devote massive resources, expertise, and medications to help turn the tide of the disease there, to show the world what can be done. He’s right. To date, however, we have done next to nothing. Like others on this continent, African-Americans and African-Canadians have chosen to ignore Africa.

We must fill the deep void in our collective psyche regarding Africa. This wound, this emptiness, prevents us from being whole. May Edwards Hill shrank decades ago from the stereotype of the promiscuous Porgy and Bess, but today we must stop cringing at the sight of African famines, civil wars, genocide, and corruption. Historical wrongs, accidents, misfortunes, and misdeeds present only one aspect of Africa. Remember the undeniable humanity of nearly one billion individuals on the continent, each with a beating heart, aspirations, and an inherent right to live with dignity. And remember that African peoples have permeated, influenced, and enriched virtually every aspect of North American society. Part of our response to Africa must emanate from a renewed sense of pride in ourselves, connection to Africa and its peoples, and a rebirth within the diaspora.

It would be absurd to claim that a reinvigorated response to Africa must come solely from outside the continent, or just from blacks in the diaspora. But movements have to start somewhere, and Africa needs a credible, powerful, influential group to assume the sort of leadership that could galvanize millions of North Americans. Blacks in Canada and the United States are more than capable. They could supply the leg that kicks North America into action.

In 1917, the U.S. Central Committee of Negro College Men issued an urgent wartime call-to-arms. “The race is on trial,” they wrote. “It needs every one of its red-blooded, sober minded men…Up, brother, our race is calling.” I never dreamed I’d be invoking this same mantra, more than eighty years after the end of the Great War. I never thought I’d be asking myself—or appealing to others—to ball up their fists and fight. The Great War was said to be the war to end all wars, but it didn’t turn out that way. The civil rights movement was supposed to guarantee dignity and freedom for all, but we never truly took the movement across the ocean to include the people of Africa. It appears that the greatest war to fight, as we wade, leaderless, into the opening chapter of the twenty-first century, will be settled by medicine, not bombs, by community service, not the maniacal pursuit of self-interest. Up, brothers and sisters, our race is calling.

Lawrence Hill is a Canadian novelist, essayist, and memoirist who writes about identity and belonging. He is the author of nine books, including the award-winning novel The Book of Negroes and the non-fiction works Blood: The Stuff of Life (which formed the basis of his 2013 Massey Lectures) and Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning. He has co-written a six-part television miniseries based on The Book of Negroes, which appeared in 2015 on CBC TV and BET. He is currently completing a new novel.