African Americans and Africa: A New History

CCAS and Elliott School professor Nemata Blyden’s new book explores the complex relationship between African Americans and the African continent from the era of slavery to the present.

October 24, 2019

Nemata Blyden

Nemata Blyden discussed her upcoming book “African Americans and Africa: A New History” at the Elliott School. (Colette Kent/Elliott School)

By Tatyana Hopkins

The way African Americans have chosen to engage, be influenced by and identify with Africa since the first Africans arrived in America four centuries ago has been a complex relationship often influenced by the nation’s laws aimed to oppress, marginalize and disenfranchise black people, said Nemata Blyden, an associate professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University.

She said the “long, tangled and problematic” relationship black Americans have had with the United States has bound them to the continent of Africa in various ways.

“Often prompted by changes occurring in the United States itself, that relationship has had ebbs and flows,” Dr. Blyden said.

Dr. Blyden shared her ideas at a discussion of her latest book, “African Americans and Africa: A New History,” at the Elliott School of International Affairs on Tuesday. The discussion was co-sponsored by the GW Institute for African Studies and the Elliott School Book Launch Series, which highlights publications of Elliott School faculty and staff.

She said the aim of her book was to explore how African Americans sought to connect to Africa in a variety of ways or reject the notion that Africa was their homeland over the years, noting that this year marked the country’s 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in this country.

“African American desires for ties with Africa may have waned with the end of segregation, the gains of the civil rights movement and greater integration of Black Americans in the United States, but the connection to the continent remains,” Dr Blyden said. “But does this make them less American? I don’t think so.”

One chapter in the book illustrates African Americans’ claims to both America and Africa and discusses the many “back-to-Africa” movements that have encouraged African descendants in America to return to Africa since the 1800s.

“The idea of ‘back-to-Africa’ resonated with some blacks as they came to believe they would never be accepted by white Americans or achieve full and equal citizenship in the United States,” Dr. Blyden said. “These men and women looked to Africa as an original homeland.”

She said, however, the movement was controversial and rejected by some black thought leaders.

“Many African Americans saw it as a deportation scheme, an attempt to rid the country of free and freed blacks, leaving those in bondage with no one to champion their cause,” she said. “Men like David Walker and Frederick Douglass opposed those initiatives, insisting that black Americans, like their white counterparts, were deserving of full-fledged rights and acceptance in this nation.”

For more than two decades, Dr. Blyden has taught a course, “African Americans and Africa: Links in History,” which explores African American engagement with Africa since people of African descent have lived in the United States.

“I wrote this book because I could not find an adequate text with which to teach, so I wrote one,” she said.

But she said it was also inspired by her own personal heritage of being American-born with an African father and African American mother and growing up in Sierra Leone.

Dr. Blyden recalled the misconceptions both white and black Americans held of Africans when she attended college in Massachusetts in 1982, remembering being asked why she spoke English or if she had lived in a hut. She noted that just a few years later African Americans were instrumental in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement along with the emergence of an Afrocentric rap movement that celebrated black culture and represented Africa positively.

 “Africa has always prefigured in the imagination of African Americans,” Dr. Blyden said. “However, I did not write this book to make any kind of grand statement, though I am discovering how relevant it is to the moment we are presently living in.”

She added, “Historically, African descended people have seen the value of reaching out to each other. That holds true today.”