Ida B Wells, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer and others understood the connections between colonialism in Africa and US racial policies.
“African and African American political resistance to Leopold’s regime predates the Berlin Conference and is part of a continuous history of African American engagement with and resistance to colonialism.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Ira Dworkin. Dworkin is Assistant Professor of English at Texas A&M University. His book is Congo Love Song: African American Culture and the Crisis of the Colonial State.
Roberto Sirvent:How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Ira Dworkin:In February 2012, as I was writing Congo Love Song, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was protected by the Sanford police department and subsequently acquitted in a trial held in Sanford. In addition to the sustained and transformative outrage shared by so many, one thing that grabbed my particular attention was the town where it occurred: Sanford was settled by and named for Henry Shelton Sanford, who was one of three members of the U.S. delegation to the 1884 –1885 Berlin Conference, which entrenched King Leopold II’s control of the Congo. At these meetings, Sanford and the other representatives of the U.S. government -- John A. Kasson and the iconic archimperialist Henry Morton Stanley -- provided international sanction to European colonial exploitation in Africa. As I note in the conclusion to Congo Love Song, Sanford’s career is not only a marker of the long shadow of imperialism in the Congo, but also a pointed reminder of how a landscape financed by the brutal exploitation of African people in Africa sets the stage for ongoing forms of racial state violence in the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War. The murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, is a reminder that the connections that Ida B. Wells and Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer and others drew between the United States and the Congo were never generic abstractions, but part of a critical analysis that understood the global racial infrastructure that remains at the heart of U.S. empire.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope that some of the ideas in my book will resonate for activists and organizers who are thinking about the role of culture, as a community project, in social movements. Congo Love Song is, in many respects, a cultural history that looks at the political character of cultural movements, and explores overlapping Black diaspora networks of cultural and political exchange, much of it centered on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the Black press. Within these spaces, there is a longer history of international solidarity, including but not exclusively with Africa, within the Black Freedom Movement which has been documented by many writers and activists. The solidaritybetween Black Lives Matter activists and activists in Palestine who continue to resist the Israeli occupation is just one ongoing example that itself is part of a longer history that can be seen, for instance, in the work of SNCC in the late 1960s, the intellectual and political formation of George Jacksonwhile incarcerated, and the National Black Political Convention in Gary in 1972. In the case of the Congo, as many scholars (such as Christopher M. Tinson in Radical Intellect: Liberator Magazine and Black Activism in the 1960s) have noted, the historic February 1961 demonstration at the United Nations which followed news of Lumumba’s assassination was a signal moment in modern African American political culture. The demonstration, which was organized by Maya Angelou, Rosa Guy, and Abbey Lincoln, among others, attracted artists associated with existing movements and helped foment new ones which, I hope, provide some inspiration to activists and organizers today.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope that readers will come to un-learn some of the popular assumptions that have flattened out the rich history of African American engagement with Africa. On September 10, 2001, Ted Koppel began a weeklong Nightline television series on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose second episode was superseded by the attacks of September 11. The broadcast was postponed for several months. In his delayed introduction, Koppel acknowledged the seeming hypocrisy of American exceptionalism and the likely millions of victims of the war in the DRC, only to conclude that such American ignorance was effectively preordained. He claimed that his own disinterest was only a symptom of a larger disinterest that had been uninterrupted since the reign of King Leopold II, the subject of Adam Hochschild’s excellent book, King Leopold’s Ghost. Koppel’s presumption that American ignorance of modern African politics is inevitable is contradicted not only by Sylvia M. Jacobs’s groundbreaking historical scholarship, but also by the work of many figures whose careers he erases in order to comfort a collective U.S. conscience. While Koppel’s statements affirm popular assumptions that African American interest in Africa manifests exclusively in cultural retentions or a supposedly abstract desire for a homeland, Congo Love Song reminds us that African and African American political resistance to Leopold’s regime predates the Berlin Conference and is part of a continuous history of African American engagement with and resistance to colonialism.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
There are literally hundreds of names that populate the contents, bibliography, and acknowledgements of Congo Love Song, and to those folks I am deeply grateful. The figures I write about, beginning with the subject of the first chapter, pioneering African American historian George Washington Williams, are themselves profoundly inspirational. In the last year of his life, Williams traveled to the Congo, where he wrote unambiguously about the crimes of the colonial regime (an example of the history that Nightline’s report ignored). More than a century before Trayvon Martin was born, Williams challenged Henry Sanford directly in letters he wrote shortly before his death, asserting that Sanford tried to block his trip to the Congo. Williams was neither stopped nor stifled by Sanford’s threat; he published pamphlets which garnered international attention more than a decade before the establishment of the Congo Reform Association. Williams’s work in the Congo is known today thanks to the work of another pioneering historian John Hope Franklin, who spent decades researching George Washington Williams: A Biography (1985).
“Pioneering African American historian George Washington Williams wrote unambiguously about the crimes of the colonial regime.”
I am inspired by many of the other figures who appear in my book, perhaps most notably missionary and linguist Althea Brown Edmiston, whose career on the American Presbyterian Congo Mission has been overshadowed by her colleague William Henry Sheppard, a well–known public critic of Leopold II’s regime. Through her commitment to a Bushong (Kuba) dictionary and grammar, and to translating African American spirituals into Bantu languages, Edmiston used her linguistic expertise, gained as a student at Fisk University in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to undermine Belgium’s colonial language policies in ways that are less visible than Sheppard’s brilliant reports, editorials, and speeches, but which suggest a path whereby African American intellectual and cultural work challenges colonialism in fundamental ways.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
It is my hope that Congo Love Song effectively documents the communities of cultural workers who themselves imagined new worlds. We can return to the response to the brutal assassination of Lumumba, an action for which the United States, among other actors, bears direct responsibility. As a signal moment, the demonstration at the United Nations inspired journals and organizations, as well as poetry by many of the era’s greatest artists memorializing Lumumba, often in tandem with other leaders (most notably Malcolm X). Poets resisted the assassination of Lumumba with Ted Joans’s insistence that “Lumumba Lives!” and Jayne Cortez’s “Festivals & Funerals,” both exemplars of the Freedom Dreams that historian Robin D. G. Kelley has beautifully written about. Kelley describes Jayne Cortez’s “anti–imperialist dreams”: “It is not enough to imagine what kind of world we would like; we have to do the work to make it happen.” I think that is what the work of the poets did and I think that is the work that Malcolm X did, particularly during the final year of his life, pointing toward the ways that he organized around the Congo in the United States, Africa, and Europe. Malcolm’s influence on the poets of the Black Arts Movement is hardly surprising in that, like Lumumba, he imagined new worlds similar to those of the poets of the era, for whom he became even more iconic in the aftermath of his 1965 assassination. My hope is that Congo Love Song may help readers to explore, if not answer, the question that Kelley asks at the end of the “Third World Dreaming” chapter of Freedom Dreams, “What would the coming dawn bring and what would we build after the storm?”
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.