What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronze men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved.
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
‘‘What is Africa to me?’’ This too oft quoted line by a New World black
man still interrogates. To many, the continent signifies the home of the
black race, the iconic antipode of Europe, the home of the white. In-
deed, Africa in the American popular perception continues to be either
an edenic mother/fatherland or the barbarous home of famine, disease,
and civil war. With an acknowledgment of this dual vision we begin our
investigation of how two constructs—the image of Africa and the image
of slavery—have mediated, and continue to mediate, relations between
the Black Diaspora and the peoples of the African continent.
In the years immediately preceding Countee Cullen’s rhapsodic ques-
tion, the immigrant Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey created a
mass movement bent on transforming inchoate longings into a modern
nation state. In the year World War I began, he founded the Universal
Negro Improvement Association. Liberia was eventually chosen as the
black Zion, and between 1920 and 1924, millions of African Americans
were briefly caught up in the thrill of having a nation of their own, a
nation on the ancestral continent. Haiti existed, but it was not African.