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African-American Historical Linkages with South Africa

About the Project

After 27 years in prison, it took Nelson Mandela only four months after his release in February 1990 to pay a visit to the United States, He came to acknowledge those Americans, particularly members of the African American community, who had supported his battle for freedom in South Africa. For decades many tireless and patient North Americans had kept an anti-apartheid movements alive -- in the churches, on campuses, in corporate boardrooms and trade union halls. When three African Americans stated a sit-in at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Thanksgiving eve 1984, their arrest provoked one of the longest-running and most effective political demonstrations in recent U.S. history. Daily marches at the Embassy took place without interruption for several years, drawing national and international attention. Pressure built up to change American foreign policy towards South Africa; and Congress responded by passing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986. The Act was one reason why South Africa's main opposition groups were legalized in February 1990 and Mandela released a week later.

In Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom he recounts some of his impressions of African Americans during his first stay in New York City. "I went up to Harlem, an area that had assumed legendary proportions in my mind since the 1950s when I watched young men in Soweto emulate the fashions of Harlem dandies. Harlem, as my wife said, was the Soweto of America. I spoke to a great crowd at Yankee Stadium, telling them that an unbreakable umbilical cord connected black South Africans and black Americans, for we were together children of Africa. There was a kinship between the two, I said, that had been inspired by such great Americans as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King, Jr....In prison, I followed the struggle of black Americans against racism, discrimination, and economic inequality."

Emotional as it was, Mandela's trip was by no means the first exchange between blacks of these two large, urbanized, industrialized, multiracial nations. As we enter the twenty-first century, connections between the two countries are bound to become more dynamic and productive. Therefore now is an appropriate moment to retrieve and evaluate the rich but little known history of African American involvement with South Africa. This relationship stretches back several centuries, and the diverse and surprising linkages that have developed between African Americans and Africans go beyond political and economic matters to include a wide range of social and cultural issues, such as education, religion and ethics, sports, music, literature, theater and art.

The project's co-directors, Dr. David Anthony, a historian at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Dr. Robert Edgar, a historian at Howard University, propose to chronicle this relationship through an edition of primary documents that illustrates the exchanges that have taken place between African Americans and black South Africans from the late eighteenth century when African American sailors began venturing to South Africa to 1965. We have made 1965 a cut-off date because of shifts in the American civil rights movement and the progression of freedom movements in South Africa from legal, above-ground protest to underground, armed resistance.

The project commenced in September 1999 and will continue for a three-year period. The project is centered on a collection of several thousand documents that the project's co-directors have collected over the past several decades from a variety of sources -- diaries, private papers, travelers' accounts, autobiographies, speeches, songs and hymns, government documents, missionary journals, magazines, newspapers, books and interviews -- in the United States, Europe, and South Africa. When taken as a whole, these documents provide eloquent testimony to a relationship that has largely been relegated to the margins in historical studies.

This project will illuminate questions raised by recent scholarship on the African diaspora and the ties that have existed for many centuries between Africans on the African continent and people of African descent around the globe. African diaspora studies have challenged scholars to move outside traditional disciplinary and geographical boundaries to examine how black communities in different parts of the world engage, interact and influence each other. For instance, Paul Gilroy has coined the term "Black Atlantic" to describe the complex of ideas and culture flowing between blacks in North America and Europe.

We believe that a "Black Atlantic" also developed between black communities in the United States and South Africa because of their shared experiences with white domination and segregation in industrializing societies and their efforts to overcome discrimination and devise strategies of mobilizing and advancing themselves. Despite their common ground, individuals and groups within these communities had different views and perspectives on a range of issues and these made the exchanges all the more fascinating. The collection's documents include discussions between both communities over appropriate political and economic strategies for responding to and challenging segregation and white domination; their attempts to pressure the American government and the international community to oppose the apartheid system; how they assessed the similarities and differences in racism, race relations and racial identities in each other's societies; how they created perceptions and images of each other and how these shaped their own identities; and how and for what purposes popular culture and ideas were transmitted from one society to another.

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