Commentary: U.S. African Americans, Africans, and Globalization

Article excerpt

    In 1974 I met with hundreds in South Africa and I realized that
    apartheid was sinful. When I was getting on the plane to go home,
    the police took me to a room, and told me to remove my clothes. A
    man with the biggest .45 I've ever seen said, "I do to you what I
    have to." I stood there in my underwear thinking, "I'm the head of
    the largest Black Church in Philadelphia and I'm on the board of
    directors of General Motors. When I get home, I'll do to you what I
    have to."
    --Rev. Leon H. Sullivan (2000)

The connections between Africans in the United States and their brothers and sisters on the continent have been strong and enduring. They can be traced from the public demand for African repatriation made by Prince Hall and seventy-five other free African Americans in Boston following the founding of the nation in the 1780s, to the international campaigns led by Rev. Leon H. Sullivan through the "Sullivan Principles," TransAfrica, and the "Free South Africa" Movement in the 1980s that brought economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The hundreds of cases of "Africa fever" that swept African American communities throughout the 19th century were only cured by gathering bags and baggage and making the "Great Trek" from the rice fields of South Carolina or cotton plantations in Alabama to the Motherland. Historian Sylvia M. Jacobs in The African Nexus: Black American Perspectives on the European Partitioning of Africa, 1880-1920 (Westport, CT, 1981) documented the multifaceted responses of U.S. African Americans to the rape and dismembering of Africa by Europeans and Americans, and John Hope Franklin's George Washington Williams: A Biography (Chicago, 1985) provided detailed information on one of the earliest personal crusades launched by U.S. African Americans to expose to the world the death and destruction that came to African peoples at the hands of European and American colonizers. More recently, the numerous books and other publications by Tony Martin, Robert A. Hill, Emory Tolbert, and others documenting the overwhelming response of U.S. African Americans to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and his plans to preserve "Africa for the Africans" have demonstrated how deeply rooted the attachment to Africa has been in African American history and culture. Historically, many U.S. African Americans understood that the position of Africa in the world greatly affected the circumstances for African peoples throughout the diaspora.

The essays in this Special Issue of The Journal of African American History describe the overwhelmingly negative impact that "globalization" is having on the social, political, and economic conditions for the peoples of Africa as we enter the 21st century. When I have visited Sub-Saharan African nations, I have witnessed the ravages of international corporate capitalism inscribed on the bodies of Africa's children. The stick-like arms and legs, swollen bellies, and bulging eyes bear the imprint of decisions made by local elites, in league with multinational corporations, to produce food and other products for export at externally controlled (and depressed) prices, and to import at inflated costs many of the staples needed for sustaining life. When I looked at these children, I understood that the poor nutrition in childhood and youth will undoubtedly lead to decreased life expectancy and greater susceptibility to diseases that no longer threaten the lives of those in the developed nations.

When I return to the United States and visit schools in any city, I also witness the effects of unrestrained corporate capitalism on the bodies of African American and other children. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. and it is the children who are the most vulnerable victims of the decisions made by right-wing government officials to allow greedy corporate capitalists to determine what will be offered to Americans to consume. …