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Even before 1863, when they staggered, bloodied and dizzy, into the semi-promised land of emancipation, black people faced the question of Africa’s salvation. The answers may have come as gift-wrapped paternalism or civilizing missions in blackface, but Africa had been hard-wired into the circuits of black thought since that first African hit Jamestown and made the tragic realization that he was a long, long way from Benin. And in the 38 decades since that brutal conclusion was drawn, the world has witnessed Africa’s use as a colonial buffet for a rapacious Europe and regarded the continent as an intellectual blank slate and labor camp to the globe.
But what has seldom been noted is the tradition of African-American defenders of their ancestral continent, a tradition that includes the blueprint for African independence that originated with W.E.B. Du Bois, the image of Depression-era Negroes scraping up pennies to save Ethiopia from the menace of Mussolini, and Paul Robeson’s tenure as a cultural champion of the so-called Dark Continent. It is that tradition that finds its most prominent contemporary representative in the person of Randall Robinson, president of the advocacy group TransAfrica.
Robinson is cursed and blessed with the weight of human concern in a city, country, and world that understand human beings as suckers for the false god of consumption or as cogs who can be made to cheaply manufacture their objects of worship. Defending the Spirit is partly a poignant unburdening of his soul and partly a jeremiad directed at those self-satisfied black residents of “the city of privilege.” This is a book about politicsforeign, domestic, and personalthat simply must be read.
It is no cheering precedent that Du Bois at the end of his life was an embittered expatriateor that a battered Robeson had slipped through the cracks of sanity and was shadowboxing with the ghosts in his head. To attempt to humanize foreign policythe most Machiavellian of political enterprisesrequires either a profound naiveté or a Christlike capacity for self-sacrifice. Robinson has been nailed to the cross of expedience more than onceand judging by the tone of this book, his palms are still bloody. His most brilliant victories have consistently been tainted by the stain of bottom-line politics.
Would that Robinson confined his commentary to matters of foreign politicsthe body count would be lower. Like a number of his contemporaries, Robinson has come to believe that the accomplishments of the civil rights movement were, on one level, a zero-sum game.
Early on, we learn of an aged Southerner, red of neck and simple of mind, who refers to the Harvard Law School-educated Robinson as a “boy.” This happened in 1995. Robinson was 54 years old. The incident, one of innumerable slights borne by the author, sparks a moment of reflection: “What have I done with my pain? I am not eager to know. I can find no answer of which I am proud. White-hot hatred would seem the proper reflex. But there is no survival there. In the autumn of my life, I am left regarding white people, before knowing them individually, with an irreducible mistrust and dull dislike.”
He speaks longingly of the era before the white people came, the period of his childhood in Jim Crow Virginia. His South is one of congregation, not just segregation. As he sees it, the forbidden zones of the white world fostered a unity among blacks that has not been seen since. In Robinson’s South, whites were themselves Jim Crowed, exiled to the periphery of black people’s concerns. He was raised in a loving though poor family that included his brother Max, the first black national news anchor.
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But what is curiously absent from Robinson’s depiction of the South of his boyhood is the ability of those whites to reach inside the confines of black communities and inflict damage. These communities, nurturing as they undoubtedly were, were also under siege by racist white politicians, school boards, and law enforcement. But in the book, Robinson’s problems begin the moment he passes out of the womb of black Richmond and into the white world.
Integration, in his view, is a placebo, a decoy that has left black America with its guard down. Last year, in the midst of the Jackie Robinson commemorations, Hank Aaron penned a sad requiem for the heroic black athlete, a lament that the players who recognized themselves as part of some larger metaphor are now a part of history, dead at the hands of narcissistic free-agent individualism. Like Aaron, Robinson is critical of blacks who suffer from “Vernon Jordan disease,” a disorder that causes black people to wrap themselves in the rhetoric of righteousness, climb to the highest perches of society, and instantly forget about the people whose struggles helped them get there. It is as if a generation of black leaders descended from the metaphorical mountaintop to find priests worshiping the golden calf of privilege.
For his part, Robinson seems to have been inoculated against the afflictionhe has been working on the behalf of the overlooked, the abused, and the oppressed for more than two decades. He helped found TransAfrica in 1977 as a means of furthering African and Caribbean causes and pressuring the U.S. to adopt humane policies toward the black world.
The organization frequently finds itself caught in the cross hairs of realpolitik as a result of insistently attempting to infuse American foreign policy with a moral vision. It was TransAfrica more than any other organization that made Nelson Mandela’s name ubiquitous and apartheid the highest-profile human rights cause of the 1980s.
The seeds of the Free South Africa movement germinated in TransAfrica’s offices, a political response to the blooming goodwill between Ronald Reagan and South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha. Reagan, the Cold Warrior, understood the world simply as allies, enemies, and people who were too inconsequential to be either. The blacks of South Africa fell into the last category.
When Robinson received classified State Department documents detailing the administration’s plans for South African amity, he made them public (to the dismay of TransAfrica’s board members) and set in motion a plan that culminated in a sit-down strike in the offices of the South African consulate. The arrests of Robinson, Mary Frances Berry, Walter Fauntroy, and Eleanor Holmes Norton immediately raised the profile of the South African cause. By 1985, despite being in the middle years of a political depression, Americans were quoting the virtues of corporate divestment from South Africa, a policy both the Reagan administration and business leaders shouted down in the name of Cold War strategy and profit.
The passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over Reagan’s veto a year later was largely the product of Robinson’s ceaseless politicking and his ability to deliver protesters to the South African embassy every day for over a year. Mandela’s eventual release and ascent to the presidency of South Africa was in no small measure a product of the work of TransAfrica.
But not even moral figures of Mandela’s stature can escape the back rooms where political deals get cut. Robinson tells of the South African president’s fund-raising deals with the same corporate executives who vigorously fought against sanctionsa move that created a rift between Mandela’s African National Congress and TransAfrica. As Robinson writes: “It all seems so gratuitously self-defeating. Why would a new government, inexperienced in both foreign relations and domestic management, spurn its friends at home and abroad? [Because] government is power and corporations are power and it was with the biggest of governments and largest of corporations with whom they wished to associate.” TransAfrica had simply become the minor leagues.
In the case of Haiti, the political lines became even more clear. After democratically elected Prime Minister Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed in a bloody coup in 1992, the new regime initiated the reign of terror that sent 50,000 Haitians desperately fleeing to American shores. Though Bill Clinton pledged, in the heat of the 1992 election, to end the policy of summarily sending them back to Haiti, the Slick One ignored Haiti after being elected. Robinson’s 24-day hunger strike pressured the administration into overhauling its Haiti policy. But what became clear is that the human equation had become no more important than before. Poor Haitians don’t matter. Randall Robinson, Ivy League lawyer and international activist, matters. And the administration simply did not want his emaciated corpse on its hands.
The many elements of Defending the Spirit don’t always balance out. We learn much about Robinson’s passionate commitment to justice for South Africa and the demons that pursued Max to an early grave but virtually nothing about Robinson’s first marriagewhich lasted for 17 years. But this remains a brilliant book. It is a testament to the fact that though those ancient concerns for Africa may have faded, they have never disappeared from the souls of black folk.CP