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Africa, Idea of

Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present

Frank A. Salamone

Africa, Idea of. 

Africa has meant many different things to many different people. The word “Africa” may have come from a Greek word meaning “without cold” or from a Latin reference to the “land of the Afri,” probably a Berber tribe. There is also a similar Latin word meaning “warm.” Whatever the origin of the word itself, “Africa” has certain meanings for African Americans and other meanings for white Americans. Within each of these groups, of course, there are many subdivisions, ranging along the entire spectrum of political and cultural opinions.

For some time, it was common for Europeans and white Americans to refer to Africa as the Dark Continent, with a derogatory connotation. The word “Africa” carried with it the meaning of lack of civilization, intellect, and sophistication. As Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow observe in The Myth of Africa, the West defined Africa as that which the West was not. Thus if the West embodied civilization, then Africa was savage and primitive. The leap from this premise was that without the West's help, Africa could never attain civilization. In this view colonialism was good for Africa, and the West was involved not in exploitation but in a civilizing mission.

Hammond and Jablow scoured the Western writing on Africa from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries. Despite the great volume and variety of writing, they perceived one central theme: namely, the battle between civilized and savage. Moreover, the Western literary image of Africa was a myth, one of fantasy about a people who never existed.

To support this overriding myth, the West created other myths, such as the myth of primitivism. This myth states that Africa is and always has been backward and has contributed nothing to world civilization, the arts, or technology. Another myth is that Africa has no history and indeed has never had political freedom or democracy. In sum, in this view nothing good has ever come out of Africa.

Black Nationalism.

If the popular idea of Africa for whites has been that of the romantic Dark Continent filled with savages who are childlike and require care, for African Americans the idea of Africa has been more complicated. From at least the 1700s, black nationalism has put forward a different image of Africa. Generally, this image has been one of a place where creativity and freedom can flourish—a place to which members of the African diaspora can return to reclaim their rightful heritage.

In this image, Africa is the motherland, a sacred and mythical place. It also has a sacred, romantic, and mythologized history in which it is a place of peace and harmony. War was absent, as was slavery and conflict of any kind. Africa became the antithesis of the agony and struggle that blacks faced in the New World. It was a place where Africans, not whites, ruled, and therefore it was certain to be a place of justice for African peoples.

Africa was, then, a refuge from racism and slavery. Of course, this image was inaccurate, but it helped argue for the dignity and humanity of African peoples. Additionally, there were strong contradictions within the black-nationalist ideology. Indeed, the terms of the discussion were often responses to white racism, and thus they were determined by whites. Often black nationalists presented Africa as Europe with dark-skinned people. These nationalists sought to prove that all that Europeans thought good in Europe was also to be found in Africa. There were some exceptions, but generally the arguments were set to prove that if Europe had something, then so did Africa, and probably Africa had had it before Europe had.

However, there were people who did seek to discover alternative realities, to look for what African structures, ideologies, and history might have to offer as guidelines. Some of these people were scholars under the influence of the Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas. The dancer Katherine Dunham, for example, studied anthropology at Northwestern University but met Franz Boas and Zora Neale Hurston, his student. Certainly, Dunham was aware of Franziska Boas, his daughter, who was also a dancer and worked along the same lines that she did.

Dunham conducted studies in Haiti and became integrated into its culture, living there half her life and becoming a Vodun priestess. Under the influence of the Northwestern University anthropologist Melville Herskovits—himself a student of Franz Boas's—she noted the manner in which African culture became integrated with Western culture. She studied dance in the same way that Hurston studied folklore and the adaptation that African Americans made of African themes to American life. The creative, integrative process of people and their experiences was stressed over the static preconceived ideas of ideologues of any type.

Race and Africa: The Twentieth Century.

In a commencement address that W. E. B. Du Bois invited him to give at Atlanta University in 1906, Franz Boas laid down an argument that could be heard throughout the twentieth century, although many did not realize that the argument was Boas's. He began by rejecting the view that any weaknesses of the “American Negro” are “racially inherent.” He also rejected the view that the advances coming directly out of Africa, such as fire and stone tools, are inferior to other technological advances. Any alleged current inferiorities of African Americans cannot have come from ancestors who made such great advances. Indeed, if one adds the political advances made in Africa, including the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, then one must wonder at the charges that racists level at Africans and African Americans.

Boas then moved on to the circumstances under which people brought Africans to the Americas—that is, to the brutality of force and the curse of slavery. He warned the students not to expect those in power to extend help or sympathy. Oppressors do not generally aid those whom they oppress nor extend understanding or sympathy to them. He urged the students to chart their own course and not be discouraged by the distortions of those in power.

Pan-African Movements and the Harlem Renaissance.

The New Negro movement of the 1920s and 1930s, which became the Harlem Renaissance, was related to the Pan-African movements of Edward Blyden and Marcus Garvey. Africa became a symbol of what was and would again be the best in African American life and culture, and of all that was good in African American life. Instead of being ashamed of Africa, people began to praise things African—African art, music, poetry.

There was an emphasis on the oneness of Africans in Africa and the diaspora. In music, for example, Duke Ellington began to stress the significance and artistic quality of what came to be called jazz, which he connected to the spirit and rhythm descended from African music. Ellington stressed the positive in black American life and wrote tone poems and concert music in a jazz vein, although he never liked the term “jazz” because there were too many types of music under that heading and because he did not like categories or pigeonholes for music. As soon as he had the power to do so, Ellington shed the “jungle music” label and the cotton-field motif and donned a tuxedo, and had his band members dress in a similar fashion. As the years progressed he absorbed more rhythms and harmonies from African music into his own.

The Pan-African Congresses continued to inspire black artists through emphasizing the unity of the black experience and the need to unite to shake off the shackles of colonialism and segregation. There was, therefore, the consciousness of a need to tell a common story and through telling it to seek to improve the future. Blyden, Du Bois, and Garvey, among others, helped instill “race pride” among artists and others. Africa became a powerful symbol of that pride and of what one could achieve.

African Independence and Civil Rights.

The 1960s witnessed great change throughout the African continent as country after country gained its independence from colonial rule. The African independence movement coincided with the American civil rights movement and inspired it as well. As the frustration of the civil rights movement began to mount, the ideas championed by Marcus Garvey—race pride aggressively embraced and black separatism—began to take hold among many African Americans. Some African Americans went to Africa: W. E. B. Du Bois went to Ghana, others went to Ethiopia and elsewhere, seeking acceptance and an immersion in African culture. The motherland was seen as providing nourishment for their souls and as allowing them to become complete human beings.

Black-nationalist beliefs, though complex, can be stated rather simply: the need for total separation of black society from white society, of African Americans from Euroamericans, and pride for the race. This racial pride is based upon Pan-Africanism. Because slavery and slave practice merged peoples of different backgrounds, African Americans were forced to find a unity within ethnic and cultural diversity, to forge a new identity and culture from the mixture of the old ones, a syncretic identity.


“Africa” has served as a powerful idea among both black Americans and white Americans. Among whites and some blacks the meanings have been mostly derogatory and negative, symbolizing all that is the opposite of civilization and order. At times, however, these negative meanings have been—ironically—attractive. There has been a romanticization of the primitive and a glorification of it and its power to unleash ur-instincts. Getting down and “funky” while shedding the prohibitions and restrictions of civilized life has an appeal. No matter that most African life is ordered, civilized, and under great restriction, the view of the “sexy Negro” has proved powerful in Western literature.

On the other hand, Africa has had a positive meaning among many African Americans. It has been the focus of black liberation and Black Power ideologies, a place that stands for freedom and equality. Race pride and separatism, in one sense or another, have informed this meaning. The Pan-African movement, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights and African liberation movements have drawn on this vision of Africa for inspiration.

[See also Black Nationalism; Black Power Movement; Pan-Africanism; and biographical entries on figures mentioned in this article.]


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              —Frank A. Salamone