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How to understand the complicated history of ‘go back to Africa’

- April 26, 2016
Africa, from space. (NASA)

The pejorative phrase “Go back to Africa” made news last month when hurled at protesters at Donald Trump rallies. At the canceled rally on the campus of the University of Illinois–Chicago on March 11, protestor Jedidiah Brown was irate after he was allegedly told to “go back to Africa” by a Trump supporter. A natural-born American citizen, Brown said he had never been to Africa and therefore no one had the right to tell him to go back to a place he is not from.

The phrase “Go back to Africa” seems like nothing but an insult. It doesn’t have to be that way, as demonstrated by the historical links between black Americans and the African continent.

Many Americans have been denied a meaningful appreciation of the geographic, economic, and sociopolitical complications in African countries. Few understand the complex history of slavery that forever intertwined the divergent fortunes of Africa and America.

For instance, a well-perpetuated and largely unaddressed myth maintains that all African Americans are descended from African slaves. In fact, before the first permanent English colonial settlement at Jamestown, Va., a number of Africans in the Americas were free people who traveled to the “new world” of their own volition as hired craftspeople or mariners with valuable skills.

Some of these helped the early settlers to survive the challenges of their new environment. Free Africans helped establish the colonies that eventually became America.

Moreover, the free flow of blacks between the United States and Africa goes in both directions. Over the past 150 years, tens of thousands of African Americans have resettled in Africa. The United States has seen numerous “back-to-Africa” movements from the 1800s to contemporary times. For instance, Paul Cuffe, a prosperous former slave and businessman in post-colonial Massachusetts spearheaded one of the first back-to-Africa movements and helped return settlers to Sierra Leone in 1815.

Beginning in 1822, the white-led American Colonization Society (ACS) resettled thousands of freeborn blacks and freed slaves in a region in West Africa, next to Sierra Leone, that became Liberia. Scholars heavily debate the ACS’s motives. Some believe many in the group genuinely wished to abolish slavery and resettle blacks for their own welfare; others believe the effort was a politically expedient way to deal with a growing number of freed blacks in the upper South.

Numerous freed blacks asked to go to Africa, which they had never seen but imagined as the home of their ancestors. They were disillusioned with the prospects of racial equality in America.

Fast forward to the early 20th century. Marcus Garvey championed a back-to-Africa movement that ultimately failed. Although many criticized Garvey, including W.E.B. DuBois, his cause was a reminder that “back to Africa” remained an authentic part of the black diaspora discourse, not a shunned reminder of the humiliation of a race and continent.

In the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights era, African Americans resettled in Guinea, Tanzania, and other African countries. Some, such as Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), joined the struggle for African liberation. A back-to-Africa movement continues today, with hundreds of African Americans voluntarily leaving for Ghana and other African countries. As yet, there is no official count or census of the number of African Americans who have voluntarily resettled in African countries, but various accounts document their experiences. In my native Sierra Leone one of my own teachers was an American émigré.

As a black man living in America, I think it goes without saying that one’s skin color should not determine inclusion here. But I’m also an African – a Sierra Leonean, to be precise — and a political scientist steeped in the complex political history connecting these two continents. It’s history worth keeping in mind when considering who belongs on which continent. After all, since the human species comes originally from Africa, the invitation to return could be offered to all.

Fodei Batty is an assistant professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.