Challenging a Pan-African Identity: The Autobiographical Writings of Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, and Caryl Phillips

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Challenging a Pan-African Identity: The Autobiographical Writings of Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, and Caryl Phillips

Journal of American Studies
Volume 45, Issue 3 (August 2011)
pages 483-502
DOI: 10.1017/S0021875810002410

Gregory D. Smithers, Visiting Associate Professor of History
Virginia Commonwealth University

In her 1986 book All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Maya Angelou reflected on the meaning of identity among the people of the African diaspora. A rich and highly reflective memoir, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes recounted the author’s experiences, relationships, and quest for a sense of individual and collective belonging throughout the African diaspora. At the core of Angelou’s quest for individual and collective identity lay Africa, a continent whose geography and history loomed large in her very personal story, and in her efforts to create a sense of “kinship” among people of African descent throughout the world. Starting with Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, this essay considers the significance of “Africa” as a geographical site, political space, and constantly reimagined history in the formation of black identity in the travel writings of black diaspora authors since the 1980s. I compare Angelou’s work with that of the Hawaiian-born President of the United States Barack Obama, whose Dreams from My Father (1995) offered personal self-reflections and critiques of the African diaspora from a Pacific world perspective. In Obama’s rendering of African diasporic identity, Africa has become “an idea more than an actual place.” Half a decade later, and half a world away, the Caribbean-born Afro-Britain Caryl Phillips published The Atlantic Sound (2000), an account of African diasporic identity that moved between understanding, compassion, and a harsh belief that Africa cannot take on the role of a psychologist’s couch, that “Africa cannot cure.” These three memoirs offer insight into the complex and highly contested nature of identity throughout the African diaspora, and present very personalized reflections on the geography, politics, and history of Africa as a source of identity and diasporic belonging. Taken together, these three personal narratives represent a challenge to the utility of a transnational black identity that Paul Gilroy suggested in his landmark book The Black Atlantic.

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