Lost Theaters of African American Internationalism: Diplomacy and Henry Francis Downing in Luanda and London

By Roberts, Brian Russell | African American Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Lost Theaters of African American Internationalism: Diplomacy and Henry Francis Downing in Luanda and London


Roberts, Brian Russell, African American Review


Recent critical approaches to the global travels and connections made by African American writers and texts have revealed much regarding black internationalism's relation to artistic innovation, U. S. imperialism, and the formation of black transnational consciousnesses. At the forefront of such studies, of course, have been projects underscoring black travel and cultural work within the matrices of the Black Atlantic and the diasporan world more generally. (1) Meanwhile, complementing and entering into dialogue with diasporan studies has been the field of American Studies, which in recent years has sought to place American cultural forms into greater international and transnational perspectives. (2) Amy Kaplan's commentary on this point has been both useful and provocative, as she has called for an increased focus upon the reciprocities between the U. S.'s "domestic" cultures and "foreign" policies ("Left" 17), and, more specifically, has also called for "the subject of race and ethnicity" to be considered vis-a-vis the U. S.'s normally staid diplomatic history ("Domesticating" 104). Such suggestions, working in tandem with diasporan studies, have promoted a critical milieu whose conjoined anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and anti-elitism have led to a productive emphasis upon the popular, resistant, and oppositional that operate within critical territory which too frequently in the past has been occupied by what Kaplan calls the international world's "policy makers" ("Domesticating" 104) and "diplomatic elites" ("Left" 14).

Yet in focusing upon African American internationalism "from below," critics have tended to overlook a category of black internationalist engagement that has been more closely affiliated with the "diplomatic elites" referenced by Kaplan. In fact, though dozens of black U. S. citizens worked as U. S. diplomats during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, in her extensive overview of the "Transnational Turn in American Studies," was unable to cite any substantial work on the U. S.'s black international representatives. (3) Instead, in a footnote, she observes that "the experiences of black U.S. ... diplomats ... provide a promising avenue of research" (49). The promise of this avenue has been recently reemphasized by Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo, who has insightfully treated Frederick Douglass's diplomatic work in Haiti as underscoring an African American "twice-doubled consciousness" within the diasporan world (140). Similar critical promise is evinced by Jacqueline Goldsby's important explorations of the interchange between James Weldon Johnson's overlapping work as a U. S. consul and novelist in Venezuela and Nicaragua. (4) Yet an assessment of the cultural and critical legacy of African American participation in international diplomacy must involve more than a recovery of the diplomatic dossiers of famed African American writers and cultural figures. Such an assessment, if it is to offer access to black U. S. diplomats' complex range of engagements, also requires that we recover the dossiers of lesser known figures whose writings and diplomatic experiences have tended to go unremarked. (5)

Ranked among this second group, black diplomat and playwright Henry Francis Downing provides an illuminating window into the interplay among what Nwankwo and Goldsby have hinted at as the mutually reinflecting spheres of aesthetic, racial, and international representation. Though largely forgotten today, Downing worked as a U. S. consul in Luanda, Angola in 1887 and 1888, after which time he took the phrase "Late U. S. Consul" as part of his entitlements. During the 1910s, furthermore, Downing's literary work shared space with the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Carter G. Woodson in the Crisis's monthly "Selected List of Books." (6) By the 1920s, however, Downing's earlier work as a diplomat and writer was largely unknown. His consulship had faded within the U. …

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