In my father’s office back home in Limuru, Kenya, there was a large framed, autographed poster of Sonia Sanchez—wearing an Afro and a long African print dress—with her poem, “A Walk in the Night,” inscribed. At about 9 years old, it was the first poem I ever memorized. My siblings and I grew up following the exploits of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and, of course, Michael Jackson through EBONY and Jet magazines, listening to the Last Poets over and over again. It was in my father’s office where I first came across the works of Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Eldridge, along with Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (that opened with the horrifyingly desperate command, “Run!”).
I read those books and magazines with a very young understanding, so nothing beyond a very thin storyline came across. Wright’s Native Son was more of a crime thriller to me than an indictment of race and class politics in the United States. I remember being very surprised when, years later in college, I learned that the Sonia Sanchez poem I’d found so beautiful was actually about a girl being sexually abused by her father.
Even so, because of that early exposure, you could say that by the time I was coming to the U.S. for college, I was very much aware that Black America was not as seen on TV. I knew Black America wasn’t the Cosby or Sanford and Son shows, or the reality of the news reports that echoed Reagan’s infamous (and now proven false) story of welfare queens. The Rodney King police beating in 1994, the consequent L.A. rebellion, and the Amadou Diallo 41-bullet police killing much later underlined this complex America.
What I didn’t know until I started following the threads woven by my earlier readings was just how deeply African-Americans had been involved in African anti-colonial and later anti-apartheid struggles. In short, I didn’t know Africa’s debt to Black America.
Take Martin Luther King, Jr. Not the abstracted icon that graces billboards advertising corporate products, but the MLK of the Poor People’s Coalition, the internationalist MLK who opposed U.S. wars of aggression in Vietnam and elsewhere. MLK staunchly opposed apartheid in South Africa and linked the African-American struggle to African struggles for independence. In a 1964 London speech, he could shine light on the fact that “in South Africa, even the mildest form of non-violent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned.”
Even long before the calling for sanctions became accepted as a tool to fight apartheid in the U.S., King was already complaining “that Great Britain, France and other democratic powers also prop up the economy of South Africa,” and revealing that the apartheid system was banking that Western powers would “not sacrifice trade and profit to effectively oppose” its practice of the discredited separate-but-equal doctrine. Malcolm X, in his Africa solidarity tour, was also already warning Africans to beware of the U.S. economic interests behind their Western diplomatic smiles.
African-American struggle has also contributed to Africa’s theories of liberation. Black Power become Black Consciousness in South Africa. One cannot think of Pan-Africanism without thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois, inasmuch as one cannot think about African-American struggle without thinking of him. Pan-Africanism became a way of locating Black people in the world, a way for them to reclaim their place in the world.
Today, there are a number of African-American organizations that carry on the kind of political activist work that aims to change policies and societal structures. For example, Africa Action opposes unequal trade and U.S. foreign policies that hurt Africa and the diaspora; and TransAfrica was deeply involved in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Danny Glover—like Harry Belafonte, part of an older Black activist wing in Hollywood that younger Black actors and singers have yet to emulate—is the board chair of TransAfrica. Where celebrities like Alicia Keys are satisfied with dollar philanthropy, Glover and Belafonte see their art as being part and parcel of their activism. Glover’s kind of activism understands historical connections of struggle and is part of the African-American activist tradition.
But I am losing my point, because what I’ve been trying to say all along is that because the struggles for justice are still with us, we tend to look at what’s wrong and what still needs to be done. It’s equally important, however, to look back and talk about what’s worked and that which makes us beautiful. Beautiful in the strongest sense of the word, the beauty that allows people to work and struggle for each other expecting nothing in return. The kind of beauty that is also solidarity, that says (in the words of Sonia Sanchez), “here is my hand/I am not afraid of the night.”
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, the author of Nairobi Heat and the forthcoming Black Star Nairobi. You can follow him on Twitter @mukomawangugi, and visit MukomaWaNgugi.com.