Book Review: Middle Passages
Several months ago I happened to hear author James T. Campbell on a local NPR show talking about his book Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005. Impressed by the interview, I ran out and bought the book. (In hardcover, for $30!) It’s very well-written, very intriguing, and very thought-provoking. I’m reviewing it now because it goes along with the Our Black History thing we’re doing. Some of the stories and many of the people chronicled in this book I had never heard about, much less had celebrated. And there are many people in here worth celebrating and remembering.
As the title suggests, this book is about people going from America to Africa. One of the earliest accounts of such is that of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. In short, Ayuba went off to the coast to sell some slaves for paper and ended up a slave himself. Shipped off to America, he was destined for a plantation somewhere like every other captured African. He ended up in jail after an escape attempt. There a white man happened to notice him and judged (from what is not clear) that this was no ordinary slave. In fact, it was widely circulated that he was an African prince (which he was not). After many years and a press tour of sorts, Ayuba ended up back in Africa, reunited with his family, and restored to freedom.
The book chronicles many journeys, none poetic in quite the same way as Ayuba’s, but all intricately entwined with American history. For instance, most people know about Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, but most don’t know that his was just one in a long chain of such movements stretching from before slavery to the present day. There were times when B2A was championed by whites as a way to get rid of troublesome blacks and other times when it was repressed because it caused the “Negroes to get too uppity”.
In Middle Passages I also learned about the shady beginnings of African nations founded mostly by black folks brought back to Africa from America, Britain, and elsewhere. Knowing what I know now, I understand a great deal more about what’s up with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Congo today.
Since 1787 people of the Diaspora traveled to Africa for many reasons. To find their roots, to escape bigotry and oppression, to make their fortunes, to civilize the natives, to spread the Word of God, to report and educate, and to connect with a past they barely understand. The stories told here are so rich and so full of what it means to be a person born in one place whose roots stretch so far as to be paper thin…
These days, going back to Africa is more likely to happen while in the company of a tour group. And with the new DNA tests that can trace your ancestry back to your tribe or region or whatnot, going back is more personal than ever. But I feel more connected to the people in this book. Those who looked at Africa and projected so much of themselves onto it as they sailed back across that middle passage. Not all of them found what they were looking for. I often wonder if Langston Hughes later regretted throwing his books into the ocean the day he left for Africa. If what he cast aside was more solid to him than the illusion he was chasing – even if the solid bits were the most painful.
Middle Passages is well worth the read if you’re at all interested in American, European, and African history and the intersections thereof.