Negro, African, Colored, Afro-American, African American, and Black are identifiers that reflect the variety of ways African Americans have identified themselves in the United States since forcibly landing on American shores in the 17th century. Historian Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden’s African Americans and Africa: A New History explores African Americans’ connection to the African continent and examines how this relationship influenced their historical self-identification. Blyden explores the various contexts in which African Americans identify with Africa–personally, ancestrally, and/or politically.
For centuries, African Americans debated their identifications with Africa in order to appropriately characterize their sociopolitical position in the United States. In spite of differential opinions about appropriate identifiers, Blyden’s central argument is that African Americans have always had a relationship with the African continent, though the relationship varies greatly among them. Considering that African Americans have never been a monolithic group, some identify strongly with their African heritage, while others, like Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman who claimed, “I’m not African, I’m American,” suggesting Africa is a part of a discarded past (9). However, even those who reject an overt connection with the continent still acknowledge their African ancestry in some way, shape, or form.
In seven well-articulated chapters, Blyden chronologically identifies historical moments throughout Black American history that bound them to Africa. African Americans’ relationship to Africa came in three distinct classifications—identification, engagement, and interest. Her development of these classifications reinforces the varied ways African Americans related to Africa both personally and politically. Identification is defined as ranging from recognizing one’s African ancestry to embracing Africa as one’s homeland. Engagement is defined as becoming politically involved in African affairs while interest simply means wanting to see Africa’s uplift but not necessarily wanting to be engaged with or entirely interested in its affairs.
African Americans and Africa: A New History uses strong archival research to uncover the various ways African Americans identified with their Africanity from the 17th to the 21st centuries. Blyden emphasizes how the first generation of enslaved Africans did not have a conceptualization of Africa. They identified with their respective ethnic tribes. The connection to Africa began with their descendants, thus resulting in an ethno-genesis of African American identity and culture.
In exploring this long chronology, the author addresses the various ways African Americans identified with Africa throughout generations. Proving that African Americans are not a monolithic group, Blyden emphasizes that the level of identification and interest towards Africa varied geographically in the 18th century. Enslaved African Americans in the South sought to maintain their traditions, while African Americans in the North hoped to integrate into the American polity. Blyden notes that this geographical difference was due to the growing number of free Black communities in Northern states. Additionally, the negative images of Africa, coupled with racist scholarship and the weaponized usage of Christianity, made some African Americans avoid an African identification. Though slavery exacerbated a disconnection with their ancestral homelands, African Americans developed unique traditions rooted in their African ancestry; though they were not regarded as ‘African.’
Blyden’s strongest chapters emerge through her astute analyses of African Americans’ varied relationships with the continent from the 19th to the 21st century (Chapters 4-7). The early 19th century marked the first significant era of African American migration to West Africa—specifically Liberia and Sierra Leone. Though established as a deportation project by white clergymen and politicians, prominent Black political figures such as Edward Wilmot Blyden and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner saw emigration to Africa as an opportunity to become involved in Africa’s development and encouraged other African Americans to do the same. Additionally, some Black politicians and ministers saw returning to Africa as the only way to achieve sovereignty and freedom from American racism. Blyden, however, levies a critique of the emigration movement. She contends it was saturated with the concept of ‘providential design.’ Many missionaries internalized negative ideas about Africa and believed they had an obligation to ‘civilize’ the continent. Blyden offers a counter narrative that considers how African Americans identified with the fact that they had African ancestry, but they were not interested in engaging with Africa via emigration, as they claimed America was now their home.
Moving forward chronologically, the author consistently identifies African Americans’ multifaceted connections with Africa in the 20th century. Blyden explores how prominent scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson emphasized that African American culture was influenced by African precedents. By the mid-twentieth century, many African Americans politically identified with Africa and expressed interest in the continent’s uplift during Africa’s decolonization and the Civil Rights Movement. This political identification reflected the recognition of the global subordinate positioning of people of African descent. Conversely, some African Americans took a more domestic approach. They specifically focused on issues that impacted them in the 20th-century United States. Based on Blyden’s evidence, one can safely conclude that the relationship African Americans have with Africa is nuanced and ever changing.
Given the rapid increase of African immigrants to the United States in the 21st century, Blyden poses the question of how African immigrants (who migrated voluntarily to the United States) characterize their relationship with Africa in relation to African Americans. One can only surmise that the relationship that recent generations of Africans have with the continent is primarily tied to their country of origin, as opposed to African Americans who are unable to identify a country of origin, causing them to view the whole continent as the source of their ancestry. Additionally, with increased contact between continental Africans and African Americans within the United States, African Americans and Africa: A New History presents an opportunity to continue the existing conversations surrounding how both groups relate to each other and how their historical experiences shape the way both groups identify.
While many Black studies scholars argue that the contemporary relationship between African Americans and continental Africans is nuanced, that assessment is not easily determined in Blyden’s discussion of several continental Africans who traveled to the United States in the early 20th century. While it is noted that some Africans partook in various African American organizations, such as Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah, it would be interesting to comparatively explore the opinions continental Africans generally had of African Americans during the early-20th and 21st century. Though not an exhaustive text, as admittedly stated by Blyden, it encourages readers to examine how Africa has impacted African Americans’ self-conceptions both historically and contemporarily. Furthermore, this text highlights the impact African Americans have had on Africa, thus reinforcing the fact that a relationship has always existed between African Americans and Africa.