Back to Afrolantica: A Legacy of (Black) Perseverance


“Back to Africa” movements have appealed to large masses of Black Americans for nearly two centuries. Leaders of these movements have exhorted blacks to leave the United States and to move to Africa or the Caribbean in order to escape European imperialism and white supremacy. In Afrolantica Legacies, Professor Derrick Bell again considers the emigration of Black Americans to a place conducive to their survival and the effects of their absence on white America. It is Bell’s fourth book in a series of writings in which he and fictional lawyer-heroine, Geneva Crenshaw,7combine storytelling and essays to discuss America’s “greatest challenge”: the problem of race.

In Part I of Afrolantica Legacies, Bell recognizes the unique opportunity posed by President Clinton’s recent Initiative on Race and seizes the moment by creating a story line that incorporates the current initiative into a fictional setting. As a catalyst for President Clinton’s dialogue on race, he uses “The Afrolantica Awakening,” a story from Faces at the Bottom of the Well, that posed the possibility of a black emigration movement to Afrolantica, a utopian society for blacks. Through the use of Bell’s speech-writing abilities and Geneva’s special powers, the duo combines to influence President Clinton to issue a Racial Liberation Order–one that insures that whites will take an active role in the dialogue. In Part II, Bell uses a series of stories and essays to illustrate seven principles (“Legacies”) that were proposed and adopted by the black settlers who embarked on the initial journey to Afrolantica.

Professor Bell creates a context for the dialogue on race by recounting the first sighting of Afrolantica, a new continent resembling the mythical continent of Atlantis that mysteriously rose up from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Afrolantica possessed immeasurable beauty and great wealth and resources. Although the United States and other countries had commissioned delegations to explore and stake claim to the new land mass, its topography was hostile to all but Black Americans. Excited by the news of the discovery of Afrolantica and believing it to be their “promised land,” millions of blacks joined together in an unprecedented coopera- tive effort and organized an armada of ships to emigrate to Afrolantica. The first several hundred black settlers set sail for the new continent on July 4th.

As they approached Afrolantica, however, their dreams and hopes were shattered as they found it sinking back into the ocean. Devastated, the black settlers gathered together to pray for strength and understanding and for some revelation of the meaning of what they had just witnessed. During their return back to America, however, the settlers realized the real miracle resulting from their journey to Afrolantica: their accomplishment of a collective enterprise to reach Afrolantica despite government barriers and opposition by friends. More specifically, they realized that they possessed the liberty that they had hoped to gain in their new homeland.

Upon their return, the settlers agreed that the real Afrolantica Awakening was one of the mind and not of place and that maintaining this vision required a continual struggle in an atmosphere unconducive to their well-being and scornful of their needs. They realized that those persons deter-mined to keep blacks in positions of subordination were, themselves, de-pendent upon the presence of blacks in America to provide a gauge for the value of whiteness or the privilege of preference. Finally, the settlers recognized that a privilege in being white carries no value unless members of the unprivileged class honor it.18 To convey this information to those blacks who had not undergone the Afrolantica experience, the settlers pro-posed and adopted a series of rules of racial preservation designed to teach other blacks how to transcend physical and/or psychological subordination through a transformation of their thinking. 9 The settlers adopted and left the following Legacies for future generations:

I. No matter how justified by the racial injustices they are intended to remedy, civil rights policies, including affirmative action, are implemented for blacks only when they further interests of whites. Thus, when society’s rejection of a policy threatens progress toward our equality goals, that policy should be amended or replaced.

II. Service in the cause of truth and justice is no less worthy of praise because it is misunderstood, misused, or condemned.

III. Coalition building is an enterprise with valuable potential as long as its pursuit does not obscure the basic fact: nobody can free us but ourselves.

IV. An individual whose actions against racism threaten the powerful must be prepared to endure both the condemnation of enemies and the abandonment by friends.

V. Continued resistance by the powerless eventually triumphs overpower, and thus oppression must be resisted, even when opposition seems useless.

VI. The courage to confront racism, while worthy of praise, should not obscure the fact that the powerful can employ our confrontative statements to serve their ends as effectively as they can those deplorable self-blaming comments by blacks.

VII. Life seems to favor those in power, while it seldom rewards triumphs with good works. The righteous must rely on their faith and champion justice even in a seemingly lost cause.

As Bell’s story continues, government scientists discovered signs of a reappearance of Afrolantica. President Clinton, fearing that a resurfacing of the continent might trigger another emigration movement by blacks to Afrolantica, takes an unprecedented step by addressing the nation in a “Liberation Day Speech” in which he informs the nation of the tragic effects on the country should blacks decide to leave and challenges white America to consider what it really means to be “white” in the United States and the effects of racism on whites. In this speech, the President urges that whites be the major participants in this discussion and poses the following questions for consideration: “How much are [whites] willing to continue to pay” and “how much are [whites] willing to continue to risk to preserve a property right in whiteness?” The President thus refers to Professor Cheryl Harris’s assertion that American law has recognized a property interest in whiteness. Professor Harris contends that,

In ways so embedded that it is rarely apparent, the set of assumptions, privileges, and benefits that accompany the status of being white have become a valuable asset that whites sought to protect and that those [blacks] who passed sought to attain. . . . Whites have come to expect and rely on these benefits, and over time these expectations have been affirmed, legitimated, and protected by the law.

As the nation discusses the issues raised in the President’s speech, Bell and Geneva have left the country and are at Afrolantica where they collaborate on a series of stories and essays designed to illustrate the Legacies and to offer strength and inspiration for tackling the tough problems affecting blacks.

This Essay provides another occasion to reflect upon the burdens of racism on America and strategies for black survival. Part II considers the controlling theme behind President Clinton’s Liberation Day Speech: are cognition of a property value in whiteness that provides specific benefits and privileges to those who share this attribute. Bell contends that a critical aspect of racism, one that has been left out of debates on race, concerns the “value of whiteness, the privilege of preference, the presumption of normality.”‘ He argues that the property value attributed to whiteness depends upon its recognition and legitimation by blacks. I agree with Professor Bell that the race debate often ignores the privileges attached to being white or a member of the majority class, whether the class structure is based upon race or wealth. I argue against Bell’s views on the centralityof black recognition of the property value in whiteness. Simply refusing to acknowledge a value that society and the courts have attributed to being white will do no more than frustrate blacks who, because of their minority status, are too few in number to effect the legislative changes needed to eradicate a life-style and protocol that has been in existence for several centuries.

In addition, I disagree with Professor Bell that Black Americans wouldwelcome and support a call for emigration. Internal class divisions within the black community and the unattractiveness of relocating to many parts of Africa, given the current poverty, famines, health epidemics and threats of war that plague many of the African nations, would likely thwart any plan for emigration. However, despite the Clinton administration’s checkered history in the area of civil rights, if emigration were a viable option for blacks, the threat of such an emigration would likely be sufficient to prompt the President to respond by urging the majority population to consider both the social and economic realities of being born white in America.

In Part III, I critique the application of Legacy I in the aftermath of recent attacks on affirmative action in college admissions, and of Legacy III, in the context of black-Jewish coalition building. First, I discuss the incon-sistency between the compromise strategy advocated by Bell in Legacy Iand his previous position urging blacks to refuse to give value to the privi-leges embedded in whiteness. I then point out the inapplicability of Legacy I in an environment where the legislature, through constitutional amendment, has eliminated any opportunity to amend or to replace affirmative action policies.

In reviewing Legacy III, I agree with Professor Bell that blacks mustprotect their own self-interest when engaging in coalitions with Jews orother groups. However, I argue against his logic in faulting Jews for not considering the total effects of their actions on blacks when using economic clout to protest against anti-Semitic comments and behavior. I contend that because promotion of self-interest is a basic principle of human psychology, an extension of Professor Bell’s logic, if adopted, would require a reciprocal response by blacks to consider the effects of their actions on non-racist whites before using their resources to protest against discrimination. Finally, I disagree with the Professor regarding the emphasis placed on Jewish reaction to anti-Semitic behavior and contend that declining birth rates, assimilation, and intermarriage pose the more serious threat to the American Jewish community.

Suggested Reading

William M. Carter, Jr.¥ Thank you all for having me here to join in this celebration of Professor Bell’s life and legacy. I’d like to offer my sincere thanks to the University, President Sexton, Dean Morrison, Vice Dean Hertz, Mrs.