African Americans and Africa: A New History

By Parrott, R. Joseph | The Journal of Southern History, August 2020 | Go to article overview

African Americans and Africa: A New History


Parrott, R. Joseph, The Journal of Southern History


African Americans and Africa: A New History. By Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 266. $28.00, ISBN 978-0-300-19866-9.)

Africa looms large in the imagination of many black Americans. Yet from 1619 to the present, the ways African diasporic identities have coexisted with American ones have been fluid and contested. Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden's expansive and readable African Americans and Africa: A New History explores the varied ideas, perceptions, and attitudes about Africa that have influenced African Americans and how these concepts shaped "what they called themselves historically" (p. 11). The result is a concise volume that serves as an introduction to the complex history of black identity in the United States and as a survey of the broad scholarship that opens doors for future research.

Blyden is an ideal guide for this journey. As the child of an African immigrant and a black American, her family story frames her interrogation of the hyphenated African American identity. Blyden finds, rather than a narrative of rising or declining identification with Africa, that attraction to an oft-idealized ancestral homeland ebbed and flowed in response to domestic race relations. Survival and improvement were the primary goals, with African heritage providing a communal rallying cry. Dreams of returning to an Africa free of prejudice provided refuge during periods of fraught race relations, as evidenced in nineteenth-century colonizationism and Garveyism. Yet as these frequently debated examples demonstrate, rarely did black communities cohere around a single identity or mission. Blyden's strength lies in her ability to capture the diverse ways African Americans sought to "(re)connect with Africa" while negotiating their positions within United States society (p. 81).

This duality shaped African American perceptions of the African continent and its peoples. Enslaved persons adapted inherited traditions, and intellectuals from George Washington Williams to W. E. B. Du Bois drew on black heritage to inspire pride. Nonetheless, African American visions of Africa were filtered through the prism of the white-dominated media. Metropolitan, educated Africans who lived in the United States challenged negative stereotypes of a backward continent but could not overturn them. …

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