black internationalism

A Man Walks Into A Bar; or the possibilities of the individual in international history.

by Editor Sarah Claire Dunstan.

One summer’s afternoon in 1923, a French barrister was enjoying a drink in a Parisian café.  A man of broad experience and education, the barrister was also a medical doctor who had served in the First World War. This service had allowed him to become a French citizen in 1915, a privilege denied previously because he was a native of the former Kingdom of Dahomey, now a French colonial territory. Kojo Tovalou Houénou

Cécile_Sorel,_par_Reutlinger

Comtesse de Ségur of the Comédie Francaise

was not just from Dahomey, he also claimed the title of Prince on the basis that his mother was the sister of the last King. Contemporaries and later scholars doubted the veracity of this claim but it made him of much interest to the Parisian dailies. In their pages, tales of his exploits amongst bohemian circles – notably his on-again, off-again affair with the Comtesse de Ségur of the Comédie Française – were reported with glee.

On this particular August afternoon, Houénou was simply a French man. Or at least he was until a group of drunk Americans sat down at a table nearby. He thought little of them until they began to object, loudly, to his presence. The waiters, virtuous Frenchmen one and all, refused to eject Houénou from the café but the Americans grew rowdier. Finally, the foreigners stood up, dragged him from the café, beating him up and throwing him in the gutter. This example of American racism shocked Houénou, awakening him to the reality of black experiences outside of la belle France. He resolved to do all that he could to extend and uphold the principles of French civilization and to protect the less fortunate amongst his race. To this end, Houénou founded the Ligue Universelle pour la défense de la race noire and its journal, Les Continents. This very tale was printed in one of the early issues and reiterated as the origins story for the Ligue by other press outlets such as the African American journal the Crisis and Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, the Negro World, as well as by Houénou himself in speeches delivered to mainly black audiences in Paris and New York.

Although primarily concerned with abuses being perpetrated towards the indigenous populations in the French colonies, Les Continents became one of the first francophone print forums for collaborations between African American activists and thinkers and their French counterparts, crafting a bridge between Harlem and the Parisian left bank. The Ligue itself had a mission statement that articulated its desire to ‘develop the bonds of solidarity and universal brotherhood between all members of the black race.’ Celebrated Harlem Renaissance figures from Alain Locke and Langston Hughes through to Countee Cullen published in the journal.  Under Houénou’s leadership, the group built relationships with the American National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. As a result, the Ligue has received some scholarly attention as an institution that fostered black international solidarity (most notably in Brent Hayes Edward’s wonderful The Practice of Diaspora, Christopher L. Miller’s Nationalists and Nomads and Michael Goebel’s Anti-Imperial Metropolis.) More than that, Houénou’s neat origin story has much in common with those employed contemporaneously by other black activists as they attempted to leverage the potential of French civilization against the specter of American racial discord and to agitate against racism in France. Insofar as the existing scholarship is concerned, Houénou tends to appear in histories of black internationalism that focus upon institutional organization or ideological mechanisms. Where his activism is given credence, it is as a corrective to the scholarship’s tendency to focus upon the African American presence in movements towards black internationalism. Always, Houénou’s experience is subsumed in the institutions he founded or participated in.

Princ_Tovalou-Houenou

From left to right: Marc Quenum, Kojo Tovalou Houénou and Marcus Garvey in Harlem, 1924.

This is due in part to the scarcity and nature of remaining sources. No archive holds Houénou’s personal papers. Fragments of his life have to be pieced together from newspaper articles from his heyday in the Parisian social landscape, or from letters appearing in other collections such as that of W.E.B. Du Bois. The Service de contrôle et d’assistance des indigènes, established by the French Minister for the Colonies Albert Sarrault in 1923, offers perhaps the most comprehensive chronology of Houénou’s life. Given that Sarrault utilized the Service for surveillance of those deemed threatening to the French imperial system, this tends to emphasize his involvement in black activist organizations rather than pay heed to his individual behavior. All the more so given the French authorities’ tendency to conflate all Pan-Africanist organization with Garveyism and all Garveyism with insurrectionist and usually Bolshevik politics. When Senegalese politician Blaise Diagne successfully sued Les Continents for libel in 1924, the paper and the organization folded, leaving Houénou bankrupt. He was forced to leave Paris and to renounce his diasporan affiliations (specifically any connection with Marcus Garvey) before he was allowed back into Dahomey. Black international solidarity at this moment, then, appeared to crumble in the face of the machinery of French Third Republic.

Inverting the study to map an international history through Houénou’s individual perspective, however, changes the narrative from one of failure at the hands of unstoppable empire. Instead it allows us to re-position the way we think about the spatial geography of black internationalism which is often characterized in terms of experiences in Northern hemisphere metropoles. Houénou himself participated in the construction of this narrative with his repeated telling and refashioning of the café incident. The Ligue and the other black activist organizations he participated in certainly were rooted in Paris and New York. Moreover, the freedom of speech permitted in Paris as opposed to the colonies created a space for black internationalism that would not have been possible elsewhere. However his own individual experiences belie the story he constructed.

In 1921, two years prior to his ‘racial awakening’, he had visited Dakar. Whilst there, he spoke to the Senegalese tirailleurs who had been abandoned by the French Government after fulfilling their conscripted duties. The reality of their exploitation was only too visible and Houénou spoke out to local authorities about it. He was ignored. Soon afterwards he published a little-read book entitled L’Involution des métamorphoses et des métempsychoses de l’univers. In it, he attacked European assumptions of cultural superiority by arguing that each people and culture comprised equal parts of a universal civilization. Early in 1923, in the aftermath of rioting in Porto-Novo in Dahomey, he criticized the colonial administrators’ handling of the issues, to little avail. True, neither incident was quite so personal and dramatic as being beaten up in a Parisian café but they do indicate a public engagement with the question of race on an imperial, if not an international, level much earlier than narratives focusing upon the Ligue or his UNIA support allow. It also locates the site of his racial awakening outside the colonial metropole.

This reframes our understanding of the valency of a racial awakening in Paris rather than Porto-Novo or Dakar, pointing to the way that gestures of black solidarity were sometimes easier to perform in the metropole than elsewhere.  In particular, it demonstrates the crucial symbolic role that examples of US racism played in francophone black activism at this time. This is especially clear when one looks beyond Houénou’s sanctioned version of the story to the one relayed in other sources such as the Parisian press: it was a French bartender who threw Houénou from the premises and beat him, not the crowd of racist Americans who bayed for his removal.  Moreover, Houénou’s activities after the collapse of the Ligue and his departure from Paris lead the historian away from the print formulations of universal black brotherhood found in Les Continents to their application on the ground in Africa.

Hardly a year after his relocation to Dahomey, Houénou and a group of unnamed allies attempted to overthrow French colonial rule there. His movement was small, ill-equipped and failed spectacularly. Forced to flee to Togo, Houénou was quickly caught and imprisoned. Some reports indicate that he was incarcerated for five years, others three. What we do know is that he was never allowed to enter Dahomey again. Instead, he went to Senegal by 1930, possibly as early as 1928, and became heavily involved in Senegalese politics. At first he supported Ngalandou Diouf against Blaise Diagne in the elections of 1932. He would switch candidates for the following election of 1934, supporting Lamine Gueye against Diouf. In both cases, Houénou applied a committed Pan-Africanism of the type that the French colonial authorities feared Garveyism represented: the call for the recognition of the equality of all races and the independence of African territories from colonial rule. Neither Diouf nor Gueye were quite so radical in their views. Indeed, Houénou’s platform was far removed from the Parisian story that played American racism off against la belle France. His early cries for universal black brotherhood had transformed at the hands of the treatment of colonial authorities to his support for the total independence for Africa.

Houénou’s involvement in Senegalese politics is usually not considered in the context of black internationalism. To be strictly honest, it has not exactly earned him a noteworthy place in the annals of Senegalese history either. He met an ignominious end in the electoral campaign of 1936 when the meeting he was running exploded into violence. Nevertheless, by focusing on Houénou’s own story, rather than solely upon his involvement in the international and diasporic institutions he helped to build, it is possible to shift the geography of black internationalism away from imperial metropoles back to the African continent.

Sarah Claire Dunstan is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow with the International History Laureate at the University of Sydney (@IntHist ). She is an intellectual historian of 20th century France and the United States with a particular interest in questions of race, rights and gender. She can be found on Twitter  @sarahcdunstan .

Saving Nigeria

by guest contributor James Farquharson

The year 2017 will mark fifty years since the start of the Nigerian Civil War. One of postcolonial Africa’s most devastating conflicts, the war left between one and three million people dead. This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of a forgotten peace mission organized by four prominent African-American civil rights leaders in an attempt to halt the Nigerian conflict.  In the midst of one of the most significant phases in the civil rights revolution in the United States, the four co-chairmen of the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa (ANLCA)—Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkens of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Whitney Young of the Urban League—attempted to craft a diplomatic settlement between the Nigerian federal government and the self-declared Republic of Biafra. It is an effort that has been mostly ignored in the scholarship or written off as the final act of a moribund organization, but it deserves a much closer examination.

Between March 1967 and April 1968, the ANLCA dedicated its financial, political and individual resources to stop the fighting. Theodore E. Brown, the executive director of the Conference, criss-crossed Africa from Accra to Lagos to Addis Ababa, building diplomatic support for the mission. In the United States, the four co-chairmen met with Nigerian and Biafran officials as well as senior figures in the U.S. State Department to coordinate their efforts. The ANLCA was backed by a call committee of over seventy-five organizations, including African-American business, educational, fraternal and sorority, labor, professional, religious, and social organizations and with significant support in the black press, particularly the New York Amsterdam News.

While the mission itself was unprecedented in the annals of African-American engagement with Africa, it also represented a shift in the ANLCA understanding of black internationalism. The civil war in Nigeria broke out at a time when three converging elements were pushing the ANLCA in a more “activist” direction: the political situation in the Third World, particularly in Southern Africa; the advent of “Black Power” in the United States; the growing appeal of radical regimes and groups in the Third World to some African American activists; and the need for mainline civil rights leaders to remain relevant domestically.

In a speech in December 1962 at the founding of the ANLCA, Dr. King evoked the black intellectual W.E B DuBois in the need for the African American community to overcome “racial provincialism” that did not look beyond “125th Street in New York or Beale Street in Memphis.” King noted that “the emergent African nations and the American Negro are intertwined. As long as segregation and discrimination exist in our nation the longer the chances of survival are for colonization and vice-versa.”  The ANLCA’s black internationalism focused on developing greater understanding of Africa among African Americans and broader American society and influence U.S. foreign policy towards the continent by arguing that the U.S. throw its full weight behind decolonization. Through its unparalleled access to diplomats in the State Department as well as officials in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, the Conference hoped to push its agenda forward.

However, by 1965 the Conference’s leadership became increasingly disillusioned with U.S. policy towards Africa. The Johnson’s Administration’s anemic handling of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965 and stalling of the decolonization process throughout Southern Africa pushed in the ANLCA to adopt a more activist approach to the continent. In a memorandum to the call committee of the Conference in June 1966, Executive Director Theodore Brown stated that:

Our efforts must be accelerated if we are to have a meanful [sic] impact on the problem of racism in Africa generally, apartheid in South Africa, the Rhodesia crisis, Angola and Mozambique and the ‘after thought’ approach of our own government in the formulation of United States-African policy.

The Nigerian peace mission, which occurred in the aftermath of this activist turn, reflected the sense that the gains of African self-determination and Pan-Africanism needed to be protected at all costs. The disintegration of Nigeria, a country that since its independence in 1960 had been lauded by the black press and by black community leaders in the United States as a model for African development sparked serious concern. The mission, according to the New York Amsterdam News, offered “a unique but extremely vital opportunity for Negro American leaders (ANLCA)” to assert themselves in contemporary African diplomacy. While provoked by the fear that the collapse of Nigeria into civil war would lead to untold human misery and a backward step for postcolonial Africa, the mission also reflected the domestic context of the battle for black liberation in the United States. By 1967, the civil rights leaders that made up the ANLCA, who had been the predominant voices in the movement since the mid-1950s, were being challenged by the Black Power activists.

Black Power emerged out of growing frustration with the lack of further progress on racial equality, particularly in terms of tackling persistent poverty and economic inequality in African-American communities. Black Power activists critiqued the viability of capitalism to provide economic justice for African-Americans. They were equally dubious about the effectiveness of Gandhian non-violent direct action employed by leaders such as Dr King in the face of continued violent resistance by U.S. segregationists. In search of inspiration, key Black Power activists looked abroad for inspiration. As historian Fanon Che Wilkins noted, Black Power was “internationalist from its inception.” Leaders of the Black Power movement such as Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton saw in the guerrilla organizations and radical nationalist and Marxist regimes of the Third World from Havana to Hanoi as models to be emulated in the United States. This re-engagement with anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism as part of the African-American freedom struggle marked a return to programmatic positions adopted by black activists such as W.E.B DuBois, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, and the Council of African Affairs prior to the onset of the Cold War.

As historian Brenda Plummer has noted: “[T]he ANLCA interests after 1966 reflected pressures by domestic nationalist organizations and civil rights activists committed to that immediatism [sic] of ‘Freedom Now’.” This meant that the ANLCA needed to maintain its credibility in the face of Black Power critiques by continuing to firmly advocate for Pan-Africanism, self-determination and decolonization. While the Conference offer to help mediate the conflict was provoked by shocking accounts of violence and political disintegration reported widely in the mainstream and African-American press, the mission was viewed as a way for integrationist civil rights leaders to reassert themselves both at home and abroad. By taking on the role as peacemakers in Nigeria, the ANLCA sought to burnish its credibility as an organization that stood for black internationalism and Pan-Africanism. In seeking to bring both the Nigerian government and the Biafran leadership together to peacefully resolve the conflict, the ANLCA hoped to show that political change could be achieved through compromise and diplomacy, a notion increasingly challenged at home.

By March 1968, after a year of planning and consultations, the ANLCA leadership were able to gain a major breakthrough. Both sides in the war agreed to have the four co-chairmen travel to Nigeria to act as intermediaries in resolving the conflict. Dr King, according to the New York Amsterdam News, was willing to postpone his Poor People’s march on Washington to enable him to make the trip. However, an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel not only ended King’s life but the mission to Nigeria. It is impossible to know whether the ANLCA peace effort would have succeeded. Growing domestic turmoil in the United States certainly acted to distract civil rights leaders from their internationalist platforms. Moreover, even after almost a year of bloodshed, neither Nigerian nor Biafran leaders seemed particularly likely to reach a compromise.

Nevertheless, the ANCLA mission itself represented an under-appreciated aspect of black internationalism during the 1960s. Rather than being an organization destined to wither away, the ANLCA adapted to the shifting domestic and international context of the mid-1960s, a period when the ideas associated with black internationalism were in flux. In wading into the maelstrom of the Nigerian Civil War, the ANLCA were attempting to show that the future of black internationalism was not destined to be armed struggle and revolution. Rather, diplomacy and mediations offer another pathway to achieving peace and justice for the black diaspora.

James Farquharson is a PhD candidate on an Australian Postgraduate Award at the Australian Catholic University. He holds a Master’s degree in American diplomatic history from the University of Sydney. He has a chapter forthcoming on the response of African-Americans to the Nigerian Civil War in Postcolonial Conflict and the Question of Genocide: The Nigeria-Biafra War, 1967-1970 (Routledge). He will be presenting on this topic at the Organization of American Historians meeting in New Orleans in April.