This is a guest post by Dr. Annette Joseph-Gabriel, a scholar of Francophone Caribbean literature and culture. Her areas of specialization include global feminisms, Afro-diasporic literary and cultural movements, and the Enlightenment in the French Atlantic. She holds a B.A. (cum laude) in Comparative Literature from Williams College and a Ph.D. in French with a Graduate Certificate in African American and Diaspora Studies from Vanderbilt University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of French at the University of Arizona.
Dr. Joseph-Gabriel is completing her book manuscript Subverting Empire: Women’s Narratives of Anti-colonial Resistance in Francophone Literature and Politics. This interdisciplinary study examines Caribbean and African women’s contributions to twentieth-century anti-colonial movements at the intersection of their political participation and literary production. Her scholarship has appeared in Slavery & Abolition: A Journal for Slave and Post-Slave Studies, The French Review and Ameriquests. Her work has been supported by the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Research on Women and Politics at Iowa State University and the Women’s Caucus for the Modern Languages. She is managing editor of Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. Follow her on Twitter @
In 1946, Eslanda Robeson flew from La Guardia airport in New York to Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo. She spent nearly five months traveling through central Africa interviewing colonial administrators, workers and activists. This was not her first trip to Africa. In 1936, Robeson and her son Pauli spent about three months in southern Africa. On her return to the United States, she published African Journey, a travelogue complete with field notes and photographs capturing her time on the African continent. Robeson’s travels certainly fit into the wave of black women’s internationalism in the twentieth century. As she crossed borders, she either indirectly challenged or directly clashed with several imperial powers including the United States, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom. She asked questions about African independence that made colonial administrators nervous. She was also vocal about the possibilities for solidarity among oppressed peoples in Africa, the Americas and Asia.
Yet there is something striking about Robeson’s particular brand of internationalism: her views on Africa’s place in this story of transnational activism. For many African Americans traveling through or writing about Africa in the twentieth century, the continent was one of two things. It was the root, the origins of the dispersal of African-descended peoples in the Americas through the slave trade. Or else it was a site of return, the location at which one could finally imagine a homecoming narrative. Africa was origin and return. Robeson proposes a different way to think about Africa and its relationship to the diaspora. In African Journey she writes: “I wanted to go to Africa. It began when I was quite small. Africa was the place we Negroes came from originally. Lots of Americans, when they could afford it, went back to see their ‘old country.’ I remember wanting very much to see my ‘old country’, and wondering what it would be like.”1 At first glance, Robeson too is invested in the narrative of origin and return. However, a closer look reveals that for Robeson, this journey to Africa is also about asserting an American identity. She describes her pilgrimage as both a black diasporic story of displacement through the slave trade and a uniquely American story of migration that cuts across racial identification. Defining Africa as “the old country” is also a project of defining the United States as a nation of immigrants and asserting black Americans’ belonging to this imagined nation because they too have their own “old country.” In short, Robeson performs the composite identity of “African American” avant la lettre.
How did this complex and multifaceted identity manifest itself during her time in central Africa in 1946? One example of Robeson’s experience of this dual belonging is her experience of segregation in the Belgian Congo. A few days into her stay in Leopoldville, Robeson went to the post office to send a cable to New York informing her family of her safe arrival. She noticed two lines, one for Africans and another for whites. She stood in the whites-only line. In her typical no-holds-barred fashion, Robeson describes her experience of watching the clerk, “a nasty cheap white trash type, [serve] all the white people first. Then I stood back so the African could get his in before mine (since he had been before me); but the clerk looked up and reached all the way out of the window for mine first.”2 Robeson shows here that in segregated colonial spaces, even mundane acts like sending a cable or mailing a letter become about negotiating power. At first glance, it may appear as though her decision to stand in the whites-only line was a way to exercise her privilege as an American in the Belgian Congo. But Robeson’s act of hanging back for the African man, signaling her recognition of his basic right to be served as a customer, suggests that she was also challenging the denial of that African’s right in the colonial space. As she recounts this incident to her Congolese host at the guest house later in the day, Robeson notes in dismay that “we have this kind of thing in the USA, especially in the South.”
Robeson’s straddling of two lines at once at the post office, one for whites and one for Africans, is an example of her constant negotiation of both insider and outsider status in the United States and in Africa. Throughout her travels, she articulated solidarity based on shared political beliefs and historical experiences of marginalization, rather than on racial or national identification. For Robeson, to be a black, American and politically aware was to recognize that as imperialism crossed borders, so too did transnational networks of resistance.3
- Eslanda Robeson, African Journey, 13. ↩
- Eslanda Robeson, “Congo Diary,” 9. Robeson’s travel diary and field notes are located in the Paul and Eslanda Robeson Collection at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. ↩
- For an interactive map of Robeson’s 1946 travels through central Africa see here in 2D or here in 3D (requires Google Tour builder plugin). ↩