African Americans’ Move to Nicaragua

Given persistent economic inequality and disproportionate mass incarceration, in the twenty-first century African Americans require territory for a national homeland.  Malcolm X is the most prominent of recent embodiments of this desire conceived of by Black Americans.  He is a tireless spokesperson and advocate for a national territory, as is Martin Delany who promotes this idea developed by the Black generations of his era.  Living from 1812-1885, Delany was physician, abolitionist, writer, husband, father, and a Civil War soldier who like Malcolm X was preoccupied with Black liberation and what it would look like in his time period as one of 600,000 freedmen amongst 3.5 million enslaved African-Americans.  He expresses the popular point of view of that time that “we (Black Americans) are a nation within a nation.” [i]  His preoccupation led him to conclude that real liberation and access to progress, for the freedmen at least, would require leaving the United States where whites owned everything as a result of their dependence on black labor.  Although whites would historically make it appear that Blacks were sequestered and forced to engage in hard labor because of their inferiority, the opposite was actually true; they were seized due to their superior abilities in activities like mining and agriculture.

Another idea circulating during Delany’s lifetime was the notion of repatriation of the African-American enslaved to Africa.  Delany was critical of this project which he regarded as conceived of by white slaveholders.  Namely, the American Colonization Society proposed to send Blacks to Liberia, an African nation created by the United States.  Depending on the political climate in the U.S., Delany considered this notion to be plausible, and at other times not.  He set sail for Africa, became familiar with the terrain and environs of Liberia, and finally concluded that he had an “unqualified objection to Liberia.”[ii]  But that conclusion would not stop him from later contemplating East Africa as a potential homeland for Black Americans as well as Lagos in present-day Nigeria.

Ultimately, Delany reasoned that the optimum location for an African-American homeland would be Central America.  Given its location and terrain, Delany saw Nicaragua specifically as an excellent location for agriculture and commerce.  His perception was that there was no racism in Nicaraguan society and that colored people wielded power.  He stated, “Central and South America are evidently the ultimate destination and future home of the colored race of this continent.”[iii]  His focus on Nicaragua was in no way unusual during his time period given that there was an obsession with Nicaragua amongst the white American ruling class.  During the 1850’s, members of the U.S. government had considered annexation of Nicaragua in an attempt to distribute land and eventually enslaved Black persons to white non-slave holders.  In other words, then, as today, the notion of Jeffersonian, white-male equality depended on both the exploitation of non-whites and the acquisition of territory outside the United States.  But was this land free of racism as Delany had perceived it to be?  Not quite so.  Nicaragua was a site of “ethnic cleansing”[iv] as practiced by the Spanish on the indigenous populations.

A closer look at race in Nicaragua reveals it not to be the idyllic environment as envisioned by African-American freedom fighter and liberationist Delany.  As contemporary researcher Lancaster points out, “Nicaragua does indeed have a race problem, or perhaps more to the point, a color problem, that manifests itself in insidious ways.”[v]  The minority populations of African and Miskito (Amerindian) origin are both concentrated and isolated on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast which was colonized by the British and which shares no direct highway link to the rest of the country.  Historically, the majority mestizos (persons of mixed blood), who themselves comprise 90% of the population, have considered Afro-Nicaraguans and Miskitos as backward and inferior.  Perhaps Delany perceived of Nicaragua as being free from racism due to the more subtle manifestations of racism in Latin America where this social malady is a series of practices as distinct from racism in the U.S which is structural.[vi]  Despite racism’s subtleties in Nicaragua, the leadership positions of the country have historically been held by the white elite who are noted as being the only demographic in the country not engaged in the internal and psychological warfare resulting from performing Spanish culture in indigenous or African skin.  This colonial warfare is noted by researcher Lancaster as being reversed only once per year, during carnival, when indigenous and African cultures are celebrated.  At other times, through both language and practice, the majority of the population exhibits a pervasive desire to be white.

Nicaragua as a nation continues to be a point of contention as current President Ortega struggles to retain power.  Ortega, who participated during the 1980’s in the leftist Sandinista revolution to overthrow U.S.-friendly dictator Somoza, has shifted his beliefs from Marxist-Leninism to democratic socialism.  Ortega’s terms as President include 1985-1990 and subsequent terms following elections in 2006, 2011, and 2016.  While some U.S. democratic socialists support Ortega and many U.S. Marxists and anarchists criticize him, the disparate groups tend to agree that the U.S. government, through its financing of NGO’s and human rights organizations, is trying to destabilize the present government viewed by the U.S. as being too friendly with both China and Russia.

Which way freedom?  Like African-Americans, the peoples of Nicaragua have had to struggle, engage in warfare, and face death and the death of loved ones in the quest for freedom during the eras of exploration and exploitation of the American continent, an exploitation that continues today.  Regarding economic issues in the formation of a nation, Delany often emphasizes business; yet, history shows that as businesses grow, they conglomerate and monopolize which results in a constraining of freedoms as their leaders cease to operate in the interests of working people.  Decisions about how businesses operate must be democratically shared with working people.  Regarding the freedoms of women, Delany correctly states that “no people are ever elevated above the condition of their females.”[vii]  Nicaragua today ranks twelve (after Germany) in gender equality.  Homosexuality is legal, discrimination against the LGBTQ community is illegal, but same-sex marriage is not recognized.  Unlike many other countries in the Southern hemisphere which focus on the growing of a few crops for international distribution, the country produces 80-90% of its own food.[viii]

Martin Delany, who, like Malcolm X, expresses a deep love for Black people, consistently has our freedom on his mind.  The physician Delany was one of the first three Blacks admitted to Harvard Medical School in 1850, but they did not attend because protesting white students blocked their attendance.  Martin Delany states that if we Black Folk cannot leave the U.S. and found our own nation, we should at the least establish our own schools and colleges.  Delany proposes that African Americans leave a homeland for our children.  This same Martin Delany who was so preoccupied about a homeland died in 1885 with no tombstone marking the land holding his humble grave in Ohio until the year 2006.  Martin Delany resonates through time and beyond his grave.  His advocacy is persistent and pertinent.

[i] Howard Brotz, African-American Social and Political Thought, 1850-1920 (New York: Routledge Press, 2017), 97

[ii] Brotz, African-American Social and Political Thought, 77

[iii] Brotz, African-American Social and Political Thought, 82

[iv] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “Native Land and African Bodies, the Source of U.S. Capitalism,” Monthly Review 1 February 2015

[v] Roger N. Lancaster, “Skin Color, Race, and Racism in Nicaragua,” Ethnology Vol. 30, No. 4 (October 1991): 339-353

[vi] Lancaster, “Skin Color, Race, and Racism in Nicaragua”

[vii] Brotz, African-American Social and Political Thought, 92

[viii] Kevin Zeese and Nils McCune, “Correcting the Record: What is Really Happening in Nicaragua,” Monthly Review 23 July 2018

The Charleston Nine, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Art of Jacob Lawrence

The Charleston Nine, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Art of Jacob Lawrence

Excerpt from “Meditations on Migration”

 

 

One soul, hundreds, thousands may hear the whistle of the early-1900’s train in Jacob Lawrence Number #5.  These are W.E.B. Du Bois’ “black refugees” who decades prior were also escaping the injustices of the vestiges of Southern slavery.  Amongst these souls, the excitement may be there, the expectation, and idealization of life in the U.S. North, especially given that Northern industry, in many cases, is paying the fare, making it quite worth the while to pick up and leave the unequal, segregated living conditions of the South.  Will Northern industry’s promise to pay transportation lead to the same indentured servitude experienced by blacks in the Reconstruction South?  Will the North be the antidote for the circumstances in the South where “the black man has simply to choose between pauperism and crime” (Du Bois)?  The experience of my grandmother was that of leaving Tennessee in the 1930’s, barely 20, the youngest of eleven children all living except the one black male disappeared into the night to never return home again.  She was the only one to take the train north to Chicago.  Or perhaps there were others in her family who went north, but they didn’t stay.  They would eventually return south.  Not she.  Her mother and father had come from Mississippi to Tennessee and as family lore would have it, her mother had Indian blood.  This was more than likely a truth, but also a bit of a digression given our black folk propensity to reach into a nebulous past and pull out our Native American blood to explain why we are not quite so black African, where the yellow, honeyed brown, and, chestnut skin colors come from.  These skin tones being a phantasmal legacy of the white rape of black females by slave owners.  This acerbic inheritance was quite apparent in my maternal grandmother’s family line, even more so in my father’s whose family, unlike my grandmother’s, took a loathsome pride in their light skin color, so much so, that my own mother was not readily accepted into their clan.  All this, yet the most important factor being it was the African blackness which held everything together and made us who we were and who we are and which is the beginning and end of our universe until eternity always loyal linking me, us to Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas, and beyond. Thus, therefore, and so forth, into the North on Lawrence’s black train, belching black smoke as the headlamp leads the way.  Iron tracks shackle southern, agricultural land “once marvelously rich but already partially devitalized by (the) careless and exhaustive culture” (Du Bois) of the slave system. Iron wheels navigate plots deceitfully promised “for eventual lease and sale to ex-slaves in forty-acre parcels” (Du Bois).  Northern industrial lords, in their bidding, analogous to the contemporary “coyotes” of the U.S. Southwest and Mexico who round up desperate immigrants and move them north with the expectation that the human smuggler will eventually be paid for his effort.

 

 

Jacob Lawrence 42 exposes a South disgruntled with the undertaking and enterprise of migration.  A white man, gun and holster on his hips, stands as an “X” at the train station door ready to arrest the two departing black passengers.  Police officer?  Sherriff?  Perhaps.  Yet this is the land in which “every white man was ipso facto a member of (the) police” (Du Bois).  And blacks were a people whose first crime in this country, and particularly in the South, was their “blackness or other physical peculiarities” (Du Bois).  Surely, there must have been more than a few residents in white neighborhoods who murmured under their breath, “Let the niggers leave.”  Before their self-ordainment as African-American.  Ante-dating their self-proclamation as Afro-American.  Prior to salvos accompanied by raised fists of black power, these Colored people and Negroes (as branded by the Spanish and Portuguese) were leaving a land that for several centuries had deemed “life amid free Negroes (as) simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments” (Du Bois).  Still there was this despotic effort to impede blacks’ departure, blocking their train passage because, of course, the South was losing former free labor, current cheap labor, the people who made both the white landowners and the white poor feel racially superior to all other beings on earth, the women who had cleaned their houses, raised their kids.  The men and women who while working in their hot, insect-infested fields, some dropping dead to the ground and then being kicked aside, because the plough never stopped (Du Bois), still had the audaciousness to light a white, desolate world with spiritual song.  The people who should have been crushed by centuries of abuse after losing their African spiritual world but who bowed their heads down and embraced a god on a cross whose word they had to fight to read, often in secret, and to whom they had to worship in the wooden churches that would be kept separate Black Churches because they could not enter the white.  Wooden churches that could light up in burning flames of hatred at the flick of a match and still do, historically black churches, because we are a historically black people carrying history historically on our backs, historically black in Charleston when praying to that same God and subject to being shot by a white man who is not alone in thinking in his solitary mind that his whiteness is under threat and siege, shot for being historically black – Reverend Clementa Pinckney.  Say his name. Cynthia Hurd.  Say her name.  Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.  Say her name.  Tywanza Sanders.  Say his name.  Ethel Lance.  Say her name.  Susie Jackson.  Say her name.  Depayne Middleton Doctor.  Say her name.  Reverend Daniel Simmons. #Sayhisname.  Myra Thompson.  #Sayhername.  Amen.  Nine people killed.  Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  June 17, 2015.  Charleston, South Carolina.

 

 

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: First Vintage Books, 1990).