‘Mother Africa’ and Black Internationalism

For many individuals and groups throughout the black diaspora, Africa has often been characterised as the ‘motherland’, a gendered and racialised geographical space from which all scattered peoples of African descent inevitably originated. Ideas of ‘Mother Africa’ have historically informed the development of Pan-African and black transnational connections between African Americans and Africa.[1] Below are two examples, taken from my research into the role of gender in the development of black international connections between the U.S. and South Africa, from the African American activists A. Philip Randolph and Eslanda Goode Robeson, who used the figure of ‘Mother Africa’ to tie together the struggles of African Americans and Africans for black self-determination.


A. Philip Randolph, respected African American union leader and founder of the March on Washington Movement, stated at an African Freedom Day event held at Carnegie Hall in 1959 that:

“The hearts and lives of Negro Americans have been deeply enriched, chastened and strengthened by a sense of reference, respect, affection and love for our great and ancient mother Africa – a symbol of suffering’ surpassing suffering born of millions of her children being torn from her bosom and transported by the slave trade over the high sea to become slaves in an ancient land. The great intuitional wisdom and prophecy of our black mother, Africa, with her majesty, nobility, beauty and grace, her sense of history and destiny, enabled her to read in the heavens the unfailing signs that no night however dark is ever endless and that a star of promise is never far.” [2]

A prominent member of the CAA, Eslanda Robeson had travelled extensively in Africa and consistently promoted a Pan-African position in her many political writings.[3] Reflecting on her trip to Ghana in 1958 to attend the All-African People’s Conference with her husband Paul after the return of his passport, Eslanda chose to compare the Pan-African meeting to a family gathering.[4] The event, held to formulate plans to achieve full-scale African independence, was analysed by Robeson through the lens of the family, an extended African family whose members stretched far beyond the confines of the continent itself. She commented:

“The African family, in the large sense, has assembled in Accra for a week (Dec. 5-12) to discuss a family matter, an internal domestic matter of deep concern to all its members: the question of Independence for the family as a whole, not just a few of its members…As with all family gatherings, there are differences of opinion as to how to proceed, there are aspects of the problem which are very important to some members and unimportant to others; there are minor irritations; but, as with all good families worth the name, when it comes down to a question of survival and well-being of its members, this family is closing ranks in order to present a strong united front (a 200 million strong united front) to the world on the number one question: Independence and Self-Government for ALL the members of the African Family.”[5]

For Randolph and Robeson representations of mother Africa enabled the (re)imagining of an intimate connection to Africa, a familial connection that had been stripped away by imperial systems of commerce and thought.[6] For many black leaders in the United States ideas of race and gender have been historically combined in order argue that the fate of African Americans was inherently tied up with black freedom in Africa. With the sight this week of black children holding up signs in Soweto that read “We Love You Mrs. Obama”, and with Graça Machel welcoming Michelle Obama as a “daughter of African heritage” on her South African tour, it seems like a good time to ask again how ideas of “Mother Africa” and the transnational black family work today in the development of black international connections between Africans, African Americans and the wider black diaspora?

 Nick Grant, University of Leeds

[1] Michelle Stephen’s work on the way in which representations of black masculinity influenced black transnational and pan-African connections between the United States and the Caribbean highlights the central role played by gender identities in black internationalist thought: Michelle Ann Stephens, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary Of Caribbean Intellectuals In the United States, 1914-1962, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

[2] A. Philip Randolph, ‘Statement by A. Philip Randolph Upon the Occasion of Africa Freedom Day, Carnegie Hall, New York City, April 15, 1959’, A. Philip Randolph Papers. Box. 40. Speeches & Writings File. Feb 7 to Sept 6 1959.

[3] Essie Robeson visited South Africa in 1936 as part of an African tour with her son, Paul Robeson Jr. Her travel notes were subsequently turned into the book: Eslanda Goode Robeson, African Journey (London: V. Gollancz ltd, 1946).

[4] For a detailed exploration of African American connections with Ghana see: Kevin K. Gaines, American Africans In Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era (The University of North Carolina Press, 2008). For information on the U.S. presence atthe All-African People’s Conference see Chapter. 3.

[5] Eslanda Goode Robeson, ‘African Family Affair’. (11/12/1958), Moorland-Spingarn, Eslanda Robeson Papers. Box. 14. p. 1

[6] The ordering of intimate relationships were central to the development of imperialist and white supremacist systems of rule. These themes are discussed in detail in Ann Laura Stoler’s edited collection: Stoler Ed., Haunted By Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History (Durham, Duke University Press, 2006). Stoler’s own essay helps to clarify this emphasis on the intimacies of colonial and imperial rule: ‘Intimidations of Empire: Predicaments of the Tactile and Unseen’ p. 4


About perspectivesonafrica

Research and news about Africa
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One Response to ‘Mother Africa’ and Black Internationalism

  1. I ended up this place a few weeks back and I seriously cannot
    get enough! Please keep writing!

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