A few years ago, while visiting a school in Ghana, I walked by a framed portrait of a smiling woman who looked somewhat familiar. I stopped to examine it more closely, and then I recognized her: Maya Angelou.
A student saw what I was doing, and saddled up to me. “She lived here,” he said, proudly.
Indeed she did. Angelou, the acclaimed author, who died last week, spent three formative years in Ghana in the early 1960s. But most of the tributes and obituaries about Angelou sped quickly past that period, focusing instead on the traumas of her early life and her triumphs later on.
That’s too bad because Ghana—and Africa—were central to the way that Angelou and a whole generation of Americans thought about race, civil rights, and global affairs. Africa wasn’t a basket case of “problems” to be solved, as we so often see it today; instead, it was the vanguard of a worldwide march for freedom.
That’s why Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife Coretta traveled to Ghana in 1957, where they observed the ceremonies marking sub-Saharan Africa’s first independent nation. A range of other African-American luminaries also made the trip, including labor leader A. Philip Randolph and Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell.
So did U.S. Vice-President Richard Nixon, whom King met for the first time in Ghana. “I want you to come to visit us down in Alabama,” King told Nixon, “where we are seeking the same kind of freedom [Ghana] is celebrating.”
To Ghanaian independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, who had worked and studied in the United States for more than a decade, civil rights campaigns in the West were intimately linked to the African anti-colonial struggle. He chose to adorn Ghana’s flag with the “Black Star,” borrowing the name of the transatlantic shipping line envisioned by Jamaican freedom fighter Marcus Garvey.
Likewise, King and other American civil rights activists took inspiration from the newly liberated African nation. “Ghana tells us that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice,” King told his congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, upon his return.
Over the next few years, Ghana became a magnet for African-Americans who were impatient with the rate of progress back home. Moving there with her son, Maya Angelou wrote for local publications and performed for Ghana’s National Theater. The most prominent African-American in Ghana was W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who was hounded out of the United States for his Communist affiliations.
When thousands gathered for the March on Washington in August 28, 1963, Ghana’s African-American community staged its own demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy. Angelou held a sign in honor of Du Bois, who had died the day before.
The following year, Angelou met Malcolm X during his own tour of Ghana. She returned to the United States in 1965 to help him found the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which promoted cooperation between black peoples around the world.
Angelou didn’t romanticize Africa; she was especially critical of sexism in Ghana, breaking up with a married lover when he insisted that she become his second wife. But she also remembered the continent’s key role in the human past as well as its potential for growth in the future.
A half-century later, that’s easy to forget. From genocide in Sudan to the abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria, almost everything we see in the media about Africa is bad news. The only exceptions are stories about wildlife, which have proliferated in the satellite-television era.
So each year, when I announce that I’m returning for the summer to teach in Ghana, Americans ask me if I plan to see exotic animals there. We still imagine Africa as a kind of prehistoric theme park, where lions and elephants cavort across thick jungles and dusty savannahs. Or it’s simply a place of hunger, disease, and death. Take your pick: Wild Kingdom or Dark Continent.
Yes, Africa faces enormous problems in health, the environment, women’s rights, and more. But how many Americans know that six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are in Africa, or that it possesses over half of the world’s uncultivated arable land? Even though we’ve twice elected a president whose father came from the continent, it’s still a fictional container for our fantasies and fears.
To Maya Angelou, by contrast, it was altogether real. “Africa to me . . . is more than a glamorous fact,” she told an interviewer in 1972. “It is a historical truth.” Next month, I’ll try to teach that truth to the twelve Americans who are accompanying me to Ghana. And I’ll think of Angelou’s portrait, smiling back at all of us.