American Africans in Ghana

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Kevin K. Gaines. American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. xiv, 342 pp. $34.95, ISBN 0-8078-3008-9

Summary

In American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era, Kevin K. Gaines takes a look at the involvement and influence of black American expatriates living in or traveling through Ghana during its nascent independence from British colonial rule. Gaines intertwines the lives of intellectuals, leaders, musicians, and other notable African Americans with a history of Ghana's first ten years of independence under the rule of Kwame Nkrumah. During this time, these expatriates and other black radicals sought non-integrationist methods to achieve equal rights in the United States. As Gaines notes, the work of these American abroad drew a sharp response from the American establishment, reflecting the racist overtones of the "dominant American citizenship and liberal ideology" and that "This history belies the claims of some scholars who assert that the United States had an exemplary civic national culture into which African Americans ought to have sought integration."(26) In examining the ways in which these expatriates inserted themselves into Ghanaian life and helped outline alternative paths to freedom in the United States, Gaines sets the stage for a more complete understanding of the United States civil rights movement.

Gaines chapter regarding Martin Luther King's visit to Ghana's independence celebration in 1957 is exemplary of his ability to complicate the more straightforward investigations of the civil rights movement. He clearly shows how in the wake of this moving event, for a short time King spoke passionately regarding Ghanaian independence and it's importance for black Americans seeking freedom in their own country. However, as Gaines notes, King only mentioned Ghana for a brief period, and only ever in front of all black crowds. As Gaines notes throughout the book, Cold War politics made many civil rights leaders extremely wary of any behavior that could be remotely interpreted as communist. Gaines demonstrates how King walked a fine line in this regard, submitting more broadly that America must support Ghanaian independence lest they fall under the spell of the Soviets. He pulled short of propounding a transnational identity that black Americans might share with Africans as such claims were easily branded communist. As gains notes, "King's occasional declarations of support for African nationalism were subordinated to the need to defend the movement from charges of communist influence."(89)

Ultimately Gaines finds that Ghana provided more than an opportunity to exercise freedom for American expatriates. It allowed them to begin to rethink American citizenship more broadly, and challenge the dominant definition set by the white establishment, a process which Gaines argues is continues now. As such, the expatriates were visionary in this regard, and in better understanding their ideas, successes, and failures, American citizens might establish a better relationship with the rest of the world.

Commentary

KA Fall 2009

As the title implies by turning around the conventional African American, Gaines is hoping to rethink some common interpretations of the civil rights movement. He is largely successful in challenging the traditional civil rights narrative, instead seeking out a more complex explanation by incorporating fresh looks at radical black thought, the presence of the Cold War in civil right's politics, and the inclusion of transnational outlook of many black activists. By placing the civil rights movement into an international context, Gaines presents a fuller understanding of The case study of Accra serves well in this regard, given the relatively large number of African American expatriates living there during Ghana's early post-colonial period. In all American Africans in Ghana is a fine work, and should be commended for its contribution of placing the civil rights movement into the global spectrum. In doing so, Gaines has given African American radicalism during this time a more complete treatment.

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