Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Forgotten American Blogging: Julian Mayfield

Among the many important African-American civil rights figures that are largely forgotten today is Julian Mayfield. This pioneer of pan-Africanism provided a radical critique of race in the United States at an early stage of the civil rights movement and migrated to Ghana in 1961. While he never saw most of his dreams fulfilled, Mayfield stands an important reminder of the strong history of radical opposition to racism and that there were many ways of fighting against racism during the post-war era. Each contributed to the civil rights victories.

Born in Greer, South Carolina in 1928, Julian Mayfield grew up in Washington, D.C. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and soon became involved in acting and writing plays. Mayfield became a member of the radical Harlem African-American arts scene with such figures as Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, Sidney Portier, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee. He continued his literary career after he moved to Puerto Rico to escape McCarthy-era repression in 1954. There he published his first novel, 1957's The Hit, to strong reviews. He followed that up with The Long Night in 1958 and The Grand Parade in 1961. All of these books dealt with African-American issues in the ghetto and provided Mayfield's strong critique of American racism.

Mayfield was also a big supporter of the NAACP radical Robert Williams, who advocated that blacks arm themselves for protection from whites. Mayfield was visiting Williams' North Carolina house in 1961 when a mob attacked. When a group of whites tried to ram his car off a bridge, he grabbed his gun and started threatening them, much to the horror of the non-violent SNCC members there. Williams, Mayfield, and the rest of the civil rights workers escaped that night. Many went into exile. Williams headed to Cuba. Mayfield and his wife went to Ghana.

Mayfield moved to Africa to serve Ghana's new president, Kwame Nkrumah, however he could. Nkrumah was one of Africa's decolonization heroes and was the obvious choice to become president when that nation became independent in 1960. Nkrumah faced many of the problems that many decolonization leaders dealt with when he took over--a nation patched together among different tribal peoples, a long history of exploitation, deeply entrenched poverty, a weak central government, and endemic corruption. But Nkrumah also served as a hero for many African-Americans who saw him and the decolonization struggles as deeply connected to the problems of the African diaspora. Seeing a black hero and a black leader made Ghana the leading destination for radicalized African-Americans who had given up on any hope that the United States would ever provide their people with equal opportunities. The most famous expatriate was W.E.B. DuBois, who died in Ghana in 1963. But none was probably more influential in Ghana than Julian Mayfield.

Mayfield strongly believed that the American Dream would permanently be denied to African-Americans. He did not believe that African-Americans would ever see meaningful change, and in fact, said in 1959 that he saw "a tragic future for the American Negro people." During the late McCarthyist 1950s, Mayfield and other radicals saw Ghana, and exile more generally, as an attractive option from the atmosphere of repression they faced every day. As historian Kevin Gaines writes, "Ghana afforded them what was impossible in America: the freedom not just to speak but to advocate democratic socialism and economic justice; not just a sanctuary from exile but an external vantage point that enabled critical insight into U.S. overseas propaganda and the nation's relationship to the world....Their skepticism toward reformist racial change in the United States was informed by their location in Ghana, at the front lines of not only the African revolution but also the formation of a new American empire as the United States sought to expand its hegemony to Africa and to replace European hegemony there."

Mayfield was central to this expatriate effort. He placed great hope in the Nkrumah experiment and hoped to spread it throughout Africa. He openly criticized the United States' increasing role in Africa, particularly its complicity in the overthrow and assassination of Congo's president and anticolonization leader Patrice Lumumba. He began a journal entitled African Review, which served to promote revolutionary African and African-American ideas in an international context. He was hired by the Ghanaian government to promote its ideological agenda and did so with aplomb.

Mayfield certainly didn't find all his time in Ghana fulfilling. The American expatriates were suspected by many Ghana residents of being CIA stools, and in fact some African-Americans were working for the CIA. He didn't find himself being used by the Ghanaian government very much and certainly not to his satisfaction. He frequently considered moving to one of the newly freed east African nations. Finally by 1965, he looked to leave Ghana and did so, spending a couple of years in Europe. Still though, he supported Nkrumah even after a US-supported coup overthrew him in 1966 and blamed the United States for his fall.

Mayfield returned to the U.S. in 1968, teaching at various universities, as well as serving for 2 years as an advisor to Guyana's prime minister, Forbes Burnham. He wrote important critical essays throughout his later years critiquing African-American life during and immediately after the civil rights movement. He died in 1985.

Mayfield's life was hardly perfect. He was an alcoholic, which helped him toward an early death at the age of 56. His fictional writing mostly disappeared after his move to Ghana. He defended Nkrumah to the end, even though the latter made a lot of mistakes that helped galvanize opposition to him. He found his return to the US rough; he was unable to find steady university appointments and those he did receive often included onerous teaching loads. But Mayfield was a very important representative of a particular kind of African-American liberation thought. He dedicated his life to improving the lot of his people and Africans more generally. He tried to accomplish good and he did to a great extent. I don't know how much more we can ask of a person.

Most of this information comes from Kevin Gaines' interesting book, American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2006.