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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2011

University of Aberdeen and the Center for Historical Research at Ohio State University. Email:


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.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 Maya Angelou, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (New York: Random House, 1986), 6.

2 Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976); Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Freedom to Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 65; James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 246; John K. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800, 2nd edn (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Ted C. Lewellen, The Anthropology of Globalization: Cultural Anthropology Enters the 21st Century (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2002), 165; Charles Lemert, Social Things: An Introduction to the Sociological Life, 3rd edn (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 5; James Sidbury, Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 6–7; Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction, 2nd edn (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 1, 14; Harvie Ferguson, Self-Identity and Everyday Life (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 15–16.

3 Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Jana E. Braziel and Anita Mannur, eds., Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 235–6; Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 27–8; Sidbury, 8, 73.

4 Mary J. Lupton, Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998), 41–42; John C. Gruesser, Black on Black: Twentieth-Century African-American Writing about Africa (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000), 143–44; Edward M. Bruner, Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 105–7.

5 Lyman B. Hagen, Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997), Preface.

6 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (New York: Verso, 2002; first published 1993), 15.

7 Ibid., 15.

8 See, for example, Barbara J. Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds., Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 151; Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd edn (New York and London: Routledge, 1994); Peggy Pascoe, “Race, Gender, and Intercultural Relations: The Case of Interracial Marriage,” in Elizabeth Jameson and Susan Armitage, eds., Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women's West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 73.

9 Gilroy, 15–16, 97.

10 Ibid., 187; Tunde Adeleke, The Case against Afrocentrism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), 17, 134.

11 In 1988, following the publication of All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, Angelou spoke about the geographical and historical forces at work among African Americans and Afro-Caribbean peoples in their relationship with Africa. Reflecting on the historical significance of Marcus Garvey's early twentieth-century “back to Africa” movement and ambivalence among black Americans toward his focus on Africa as a home for blacks in the diaspora, Angelou stated that “the tales of the Black American who didn't want to be connected with Africa can be recounted as the West Indians who didn't want to be connected with Africa either, who would say, ‘I'm a British citizen’ … The self loathing which is always part of oppression had its way with all of us.” Jeffrey M. Elliot, ed., Conversations with Maya Angelou (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi Press, 1998), 225; Pagan Kennedy, Black Livingston: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo (New York: Viking, 2001); Joseph McLaren, “Alice Walker and the Legacy of African American Discourse on Africa,” in Isidore Okpewho, Carole Boyce Davies, and Ali A. Mazrui, eds., The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 525–37.

12 Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 9th edn. (London: printed by the author, 1794); Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, ed. Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin, 1999; first published 1787); Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Boston: published for the author, 1861); Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962; first published 1881). See also Farah J. Griffin and Cheryl J. Fish, eds., A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel Writing (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999); Srividhya Swainathan, Debating the Slave Trade: Rhetoric of British National Identity, 1759–1815 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 112–13.

13 Equiano, 4.

14 James T. Campbell, Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006).

15 Recent scholarship has begun to explore the global dimensions of the black diaspora. See for example, Duffield, Ian, “From Slave Colonies to Penal Colonies: The West Indian Convict Transportees to Australia,” Slavery and Abolition, 7 (1986), 2545CrossRefGoogle Scholar; W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); Duffield, Ian, “Billy Blue: Power, Popular Culture and Mimicry in Early Sydney,” Journal of Popular Culture, 33, 1 (Summer 1994), 721CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cassandra Pybus, Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia's First Black Settlers (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2006); idem, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 2006); Harvey Amani Whitfield, Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, 1815–1860 (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2006); Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Rediker, eds., Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Smithers, Gregory D., “‘Black Gentleman as Good as White’: Comparing the Origins and Development of African-American and Australian Aboriginal Political Protest,” Journal of African American History, 93, 3 (Summer 2008), 315–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 For critical analysis of Afrocentrism see Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London: Verso, 1998); Wilson J. Moses, Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Clarence E. Walker, We Can't Go Home Again: An Argument about Afrocentrism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Adeleke.

17 Molefi K. Asante, An Afrocentric Manifesto: Toward an African Renaissance (Oxford: Polity, 2007), 3.

18 Maulana Karenga, Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 25.

19 Angelou, All God's Children, 21.

20 Ibid., 21.

21 Ibid., 11. Angelou's autobiographical travel narratives are, historically, quite extraordinary. Typically, black women of the diaspora have not traveled to Africa in the way Angelou did in the early 1960s. In this sense, I place her work among a small but incredibly gifted group of African American women travel writers, starting with Eslanda Goode Robeson's African Journey (New York: The John Day Company, 1945). For analysis see Mason, Mary G., “Travel as Metaphor and Reality in Afro-American Women's Autobiography, 1850–1972,” Black American Literature Forum, 24, 2 (Summer 1990), 337–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Angelou, All God's Children, 20.

23 Ibid., 41.

24 For the “floating kennels” metaphor see Joanne Braxton and Maria I. Diedrich, “Monuments of the Black Atlantic: Introductory Remarks,” in Joanne Braxton and Maria I. Diedrich, eds., Monuments of the Black Atlantic: Slavery and Memory (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004), 1.

25 Angelou, All God's Children, 52, 108, 174.

26 Dayan, Joan, “Paul Gilroy's Slaves, Ships, and Routes: The Middle Passage as Metaphor,” Research in African Literatures, 27, 4 (Winter 1996), 714Google Scholar. For analysis of slave-ship memories during the antebellum era see Gesa Mackenthun, Fictions of the Black Atlantic in American Foundational Literature (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), Ch. 4.

27 Angelou, All God's Children, 84.

28 George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1987; first published 1971), 108–9. For a thoughtful review of Fredrickson's ideas see Degler, Carl N., “Racism in the United States: An Essay Review,” Journal of Southern History, 38, 1 (Feb. 1972), 104–5Google Scholar; Bay, Mia, “Remembering Racism: Rereading the Black Image in the White Mind,” Reviews in American History, 27, 4 (Dec. 1999), 646–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Angelou, All God's Children, 152–53.

30 Ibid., 191.

31 Ibid., 227.

32 Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004; first published 1995), 170.

33 Clarence E. Walker and Gregory D. Smithers, The Preacher and the Politician: Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and Race in America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), Ch. 2; David Remnick, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

34 Obama, Dreams from My Father, 12–24.

35 Ibid., 63.

36 Ibid., 86.

37 Ibid., 111.

38 Ibid., 194.

39 Ibid., 302.

40 Ibid., 309–11.

41 Ibid., 328–29.

42 Ibid., 309.

43 Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), 255. See also Remnick, 33.

44 John Fobanjong, Understanding the Backlash against Affirmative Action (Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2001), 1, 56–58; Jeremy D. Meyer, Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960–2000 (New York: Random House, 2002), 151–58; Roger Hewitt, White Backlash and the Politics of Multiculturalism (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

45 Caryl Phillips, The European Tribe (London: Faber, 1987), xv, 9. For analysis of Phillips's earlier works see Fernando Galvan, “Between Othello and Equiano: Caryl Phillips' Subversive Rewritings,” in Susana Onega Jaen and Christian Gutleben, eds., Refracting the Canon in Contemporary British Literature and Film (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004), 187–207. Timothy Bewes has observed that many reviewers find Phillips's work “irritating” and “infuriating.” Bewes, Timothy, “Shame, Ventriloquy, and the Problem of the Cliché in Caryl Phillips,” Cultural Critique, 63 (Spring 2006), 3360CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Ropero, Maria Lourdes Lopez, “Travel Writing and Postcoloniality: Caryl Phillips's The Atlantic Sound,” Atlantis, 25, 1 (June 2002), 59Google Scholar.

47 Caryl Phillips, The Atlantic Sound (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 94–96.

48 Ibid., 108–11.

49 Ibid., 122. I would add that Phillips's sense of self in an African context echoes the search for “roots” and “identity” that defines the work of other Afro-British and Afro-Caribbean writers. See, for example, Shiva Naipaul, North of South: An African Journey (New York: Penguin Classics, 1997; first published 1978), 41.

50 Phillips, The Atlantic Sound, 121.

51 Ibid., 133.

52 Ibid., 148.

53 Ibid., 150.

54 Ibid., 154.

55 Ibid., 143.

56 Ibid., 172.

57 Ibid., 173.

58 Ibid., 215.

59 Ibid., 22. Focussing on the issues associated with neocolonial power dynamics, Elena Machado Saez argues that Phillips's writing brings into question the idea of “solidarity” among blacks of the diaspora. See Saez, Elena Machado, “Postcoloniality, Atlantic Orders, and the Migrant Male in the Writings of Caryl Phillips,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 9 (2005), 18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Phillips, The Atlantic Sound, 216.

61 Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 6–7.

62 On these points see Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society (New York: New York University Press, 1996); Walker and Smithers, The Preacher and the Politician, 90–91.

63 Renee T. Schatteman, ed., Conversations with Caryl Phillips (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 2009), 94.

64 On this point see Paul B. Rich, Race and Empire in British Politics, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); John A. Arthur, Invisible Sojourners: African Immigrant Diaspora in the United States (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000).

65 See, for example, Alan Huffman, Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today (New York: Gotham Books, 2004), 184. Interestingly, increasing numbers of black Americans have turned to DNA evidence to bridge the oceanic divide between their lives in the United States and their ancestral “roots” in West Africa. See Melvin J. Collier, Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2009), Ch. 5.

66 Abiola Irele, The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 7.

67 Smith, Zadie, “Speaking in Tongues,” New York Review of Books, 56, 3 (26 Feb. 2009Google Scholar),, accessed 4 Feb. 2010. For more on the complexities of “black” or “African” identity in a diasporic context see Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Elizabeth Rauh Bethel, The Roots of African-American Identity: Memory and History in Antebellum Free Communities (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999); Peter H. Wood, Strange New Land: African in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Michelle M. Wright, Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 4, 9.