Author Benjamin Talton discusses American and African relations
Talton expressed a longing to return to the “radical politics” of the 1980s.
The African Diaspora Cluster hosted the second annual M. Jacqui Alexander Lecture in African Diaspora Studies on Tuesday, April 6. Benjamin Talton, an associate professor of History at Temple University, gave a talk titled “Black Power, Human Rights and Humanitarianism in Africa and the US.” His lecture was drawn from his recently published book, “In This Land of Plenty: Mickey Leland and Africa in American Politics.”
The M. Jacqui Alexander Lecture was first organized last year to honor Prof. Alexander, who taught Sociology at the University in the 1980s and 1990s. Alexander, who is now a professor emeritus of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto, is “an incisive and influential theorist of transnational feminism,” Prof. Carina Ray (AAAS) said. Alexander’s work has “transformed how we think about the relationship between sexuality, the nation and nation building, the state, citizenship, the law and coloniality and post-coloniality in the Caribbean,” Ray continued.
Ray introduced Tolton and spoke highly of his accomplishments in the study of the African diaspora with a particular emphasis on his research about Ghana. Talton’s book was the winner of the 2020 Wesley-Logan Prize in African Diaspora History, Ray said.
Talton framed his lecture on some of the themes that Alexander wrote about in her 1994 article, “Not Just (Any) Body Can Be a Citizen: The Politics of Law, Sexuality and Postcoloniality in Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas.” Talton said that Alexander “forces us to think about the limits and constraints of national independence and autonomy and how it defines citizenship and belonging.” He explained that her article discusses imposed limitations based on gender and sexual orientation in the workforce and the importance of “state supported globalization of capital” in challenging and restructuring these ideas.
Through this lens, Talton transitioned into his lecture about his book. He discussed the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s and how, in contrast to this ideology, there was also the rise of a revolution of radical politics in the Global South. “The expansion and normalization of neoliberalism is a defining feature for sure of the 1980s, but so are the bursts of radical political projects throughout the Global South, in the Caribbean, in Africa and among African Americans,” he said.
Out of this “aggressive expansion” of “people-centered policies and growth responding to the challenges of neoliberalism,” there was also a shift in American foreign policy to become more connected to nations in the Global South, Talton explained. He said that this change in the U.S. was due in part to the increase of representation of Black individuals in the government. The Congressional Black Caucus, a political organization made up of Black members of the U.S. Congress, was formed in 1971. According to Talton, the caucus reached the height of its power during this political movement in the 1980s.
“My argument,” Talton said, “is that the 1980s is a historic period that deserves careful and close scrutiny in its own right.” He argued that there was more to the politics of the 1980s than postcolonialism in the Global South and post-civil rights movement in the U.S. The political and cultural revolution that arose from this time period was “unprecedented.” He said, “This period imbued Black Power, human rights and humanitarianism with significant meaning.”
Talton then discussed the push among Black leaders throughout the 1960s civil rights movement and into the 1980s for more African American involvement in the U.S. government, as well as an invested foreign interest in African and Carribean affairs. “This is a radical shift that took place over the course of two decades and reached its greatest achievement in the 1980s,” he said.
Talton gave examples of these newly established foreign relations. For instance, some congresspeople opposed the Reagan administration by supporting the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua as opposed to the U.S.-backed Contras. The Congressional Black Caucus also called for Reagan’s impeachment following the 1983 invasion of Grenada. Moreover, there was an increase in the U.S.’s humanitarian response in the Global South, with leaders helping send food and economic aid to West Africa and the Horn of Africa following serious droughts.
Talton’s book is centered around U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978, serving for six terms until 1988. Leland strove to promote international affairs within the Carribean and in Africa, particularly in the south of the continent. Talton said Leland “harness[ed] American power” in order to counter South African apartheid, issue humanitarian aid and, in general, establish a strong U.S. position –– at least among Black individuals in Congress –– within the Global South. This same level of engagement with this region of the world is not seen in U.S. politics today, Talton added, emphasizing the unique characteristics of radical politics in the 1980s.
“I'm suggesting that that has been detrimental to the strength of African American politics. And I'm suggesting that there should be a re-engagement, and that there's an opportunity for re-engagement,” Talton said. He concluded his lecture by suggesting that a resurgence in U.S. involvement with foreign affairs within the Global South would strengthen African and American political relations and benefit nations within both Africa and the Carribean. “It is indeed as I suggest,” he said, “part of the African American political tradition that I believe has fallen to the wayside to the detriment of African American politics.”