Jocelyn Buggy ‘22
On Monday Feb. 3, the Carter G. Woodson Lecture Series put on its annual event in which Benjamin Talton, Professor of African History at Temple University, spoke on the significance of the 1980s as a pivotal point in African Americans’ relation to African affairs. The talk began with a note from Nadine Knight, Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies, who discussed Carter G. Woodson’s legacy in the context of Black History Month. Prof. Knight stated that Woodson, one of the first historians to study African American history, emphasized the same transnational, global scope of African studies that Prof. Talton’s research is centered upon.
After an introduction from Lorelle Semley, Professor of History at the College, Prof. Talton began by describing his experience as a sophomore in high school watching television in 1989. He recounted a pivotal moment in which he saw a news segment about Congressman Mickey Leland who had gone missing while on a trip to Africa. The segment, a tribute to Leland’s life, included clips of the congressman wearing African print clothes while speaking to African activists and dignitaries. Talton described that his younger self was shocked to see someone who looked like a Black Power activist in Congress. Years later, this experience inspired Prof. Talton to explore the research question of the connection between black American leaders and activism in foreign affairs. This research ultimately culminated in his July 2019 book In This Land of Plenty: Mickey Leland and Africa in American Politics.
Prof. Talton’s book, on which his lecture was based, portrays the 1980s as the point in history that African Americans had the most power in both foreign and domestic affairs. Talton framed his talk around this notion, stating that the continent of Africa gained its greatest relevance in U.S. foreign politics due to the concerted efforts of a small group of African American politicians.
These politicians and the policies they supported, Talton said, were offsprings of the Black Power movement. In the mid-1970s and 1980s, they collectively established their influence by prioritizing the issue of South Africa, which was still gripped by abject white supremacy. Talton argued that these African American politicians used this consensus to focus on the racial issues of South Africa in order to leverage their power within Congress. He stated that this strategy was effective until the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, when the racially-based consensus became less applicable.
Before moving into a time of questions and answers, Talton closed with a picture of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. He suggested that the four congresswomen, often referred to as “The Squad,” are leading careers similar to those of Mickey Leland by serving as activists both inside and outside of the Capitol.
When asked what he hoped students would take away from the event, Prof. Talton said, “We all need to be able to step back and place things in their historical context. Nothing exists in a vacuum.” He also emphasized his investment in communicating Africa’s key role in the rise of African American political influence. He said: “It’s not just domestic events that African Americans were interested in. It was events in the Caribbean and events in Africa that caught leaders’ attention and helped them build a political platform.” Overall, Talton’s 45-minute talk conveyed the historical connection between Africa and African American politics.