Guest Comment: U.S. Blacks Abroad
by Mumia Abu-Jamal, M.A.
Col. Writ. 5/30/01
(c) All Rights Reserved
The historic naming of retired General Colin Powell to the post of U.S. Secretary of State has been as remarkable as it was unprecedented, chiefly because of his African ancestry. Most major media coverage has been positive of the Bush Administration's pick, and Secretary Powell's recent trip to sub-Saharan Africa has drawn the kind of crowds and attention usually reserved for heads of state (not secretaries).
But among the highly politicized student activists of South Africa, Powell was far from impressive. One youth stood at the mike at the question and answer session of the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, and asked, "What role are you in now, Secretary Powell: revolutionary, radical or Uncle Tom?" Outside, some protestors hoisted signs decrying Powell's former role as head of the Joint Chiefs of the U.S. Military, reading "Butcher of Baghdad," and the like.
Clearly, among some African youth, it mattered little the complexion of an American diplomat. What was important was the role that was being performed.
Powell's recent African trip raises questions about the history of U.S. Blacks overseas, and the ways in which they have helped or harmed other societies, by serving communal interests, or the interests of the U.S. Empire.
For many years, to go abroad meant to be safe from the terrors and hatreds of America. When the U.S. Congress passed the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Blacks fled by the thousands to Canada for a kind of civil and personal freedom that was illusive in the United States. A number of free Black communities were begun there, some that continue to this day.
The famed Frederick Douglass fled briefly, but to England, where supporters helped him purchase his freedom. At the time of Douglass' flight to freedom in England, the same time as the passage of the infamous Fugitive Slave Act (which threatened the liberty of even so-called 'free' Blacks), some Blacks went to West Africa to set up a free black nation - Liberia.
What U.S. Blacks brought to Africa was a new kind of colonialization that privileged Anglo-speaking people, while stigmatizing, exploiting and even oppressing the indigenous peoples of the region. In Elizabeth Isichei's *A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present* (Africa World Press, 1995), a tragic conflict unfolded between two Black peoples, one American, the other African:
[T]o the [Black American] settlers, the local African was the Other. Lott Carey was a black Baptist pastor from Virginia who played a leading role in the early days of Monrovia. With tragic irony, he blew himself up in 1828, while making ammunition to use against legal Africans. A black Episcopalian priest wrote of a conflict between Americo-Liberians and local Africans, "A few brave colonists were beset by hosts of infuriate SAVAGES." A black American Baptist in Liberia called Africans "servants and soldiers for hell." [p. 165]
As late as the first quarter of the 20th Century, the U.S.-based tire company, Firestone, was the economic fireplug in the national Liberian engine. Liberia was known as "the Firestone republic," because of the tire corporation's powerful influence. It was on behalf of this rich multinational that the tiny Americo-Liberian minority (roughly 5% of the population) exploited the overwhelmingly indigenous people, and at their behest that the locals were used to work the Firestone rubber tree groves.
For the Vai, the Bassa, and the Kru peoples of the Southwest African coast, did the coming of the English-speaking, Christian Blacks from America herald freedom, or exploitation? What did Liberia mean to them but the rise of a dark, strange-tongued foreigner?
The moral of this trek through history?
It matters more the purpose of the return of Blacks to Africa, more than the matter of return itself. When we bring the mindset of the imperialist, capitalist, exploitative West to Africa, we bring something that does a disservice to the African people.
As the saying goes, "beware of Greeks bearing gifts!". (c)MAJ 2001
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Text (c) copyright 2001 by Mumia Abu-Jamal. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.
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Mumia Abu-Jamal is the author of three books: 'Live from Death Row', 'Death Blossoms', and 'All Things Censored'. A new biography, 'On A Move: The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal', is available at www.MumiaBook.com
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