No Easy Victories documents voices from inside the struggles for African liberation | Reading | Indy Week
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No Easy Victories documents voices from inside the struggles for African liberation 

Freedom fights

click to enlarge A demonstration for divestment from South Africa, New York, 1977 - PHOTO COURTESY OF SONJA HAYNES STONE CENTER
  • Photo courtesy of Sonja Haynes Stone Center
  • A demonstration for divestment from South Africa, New York, 1977
No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists Over a Half Century, 1950-2000

Edited by William Minter, Gail Hovey and Charles Cobb Jr.
Africa World Press, 262 pp.

"Tell no lies; claim no easy victories." These words from West African political leader Amilcar Cabral return us to the essence of revolutionary politics, to struggle. In a brief introduction to No Easy Victories, no less august a figure than Nelson Mandela interprets Cabral's words as emblematic of the African story in the 20th century, of the many ways in which "the people of Africa, struggling to end colonialism and gain majority rule, paid, and continue to pay, a heavy price."

Edited by William Minter, Gail Hovey and Charles Cobb Jr., No Easy Victories is a veritable encyclopedia of the triumphs and tragedies of the international movements for African liberation that attracted Americans from the civil rights, feminist and antiwar movements throughout the 1960s and '70s and made its biggest impact in the ultimately successful anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and '80s. But most of all the book is a testament not to the influence of politicians or nation-states but to the power of individuals themselves, to the everyday activists and nongovernmental organizations who made and continue to make an impact in the struggle for liberation across the globe.

No easy victories: The history of freedom movements in both America and Africa is tightly wound with both victory and defeat. The first page of No Easy Victories contains only an abbreviated list of the movement leaders who faced assassination, including Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko, Ruth First, Samora Machel, Eduardo Mondlane and even Amilcar Cabral himself.

In addition to violence against activists and assassination of the movement's leaders, the freedom movement was constantly confronted with indifference, and with the short attention spans of people outside the movement: "When the Committee for a Free Mozambique distributed a button with the slogan 'Free Mozambique' in 1971, people asked, 'Who's Mozambique?'" Even the defeat of South African apartheid—a victory by any standard, if not an easy one—becomes tinged with regretful questions about whether the movement allowed South Africa to gain too much prominence in the public's understanding of African affairs, whether apartheid came to seem like the problem instead of a problem.

Durham itself plays an important role in this story. No Easy Victories contains a brief essay from Reed Kramer, who founded the Africa News Service with Tamela (Tami) Hultman in Durham in 1974, which became an instrumental source of news distribution and publicity in the movement. "We gathered news by phone, often getting a more accurate story than reporters on the scene," he writes in the book. "One dramatic example was the 1976 Soweto uprising, when journalists were barred from the township. We called friends and contacts and recorded eyewitness accounts." The work of the Africa News Service continues today in a successor organization, the Washington, D.C.-based AllAfrica Global Media.

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"There's been a lot of work done [on the movement] by people who weren't necessarily participants," explains Joseph F. Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at UNC and one of the book's contributors. "We wanted to give a little bit more of an insider perspective that tends to recognize the role of people in civil society much more than it does the role of states and governments and presidents."

Jordan's chapter in the book is a perfect example. Interweaving his own life with the lives of the others in the liberation movement, Jordan explains how disparate groups began to make connections with each other both domestically and internationally, coming to speak with one voice about the need for African self-determination. Over time, Jordan's group, the All-African Student and Faculty Union at Ohio State, became focused on the struggle against apartheid, putting pressure on the university to divest its financial holdings there.

Speaking to Jordan now, though, he seems to view the strong anti-apartheid focus of the African liberation movement with mixed feelings in retrospect, despite its eventual success. While the fight against apartheid served as an important source of collective action and moral clarity, it also led to a sense among those with loose connections to the movement that once apartheid was defeated, the problems were solved. "Part of the problem that we create with so much focus on this one aspect of African issues is that people tend to get a sense of triumphalism, that 'we have overcome,'" he explained.

"After the 1990s, some of the concerns you have in Africa are much more difficult to place in language that people understand—and even if they understand it, it's difficult to see how they can have an impact. The common person doesn't feel as though they have the power to overcome and manage these issues."

Like the book, an upcoming reading at Bull's Head (see below) will refuse to declare any easy victories in the struggle. "We agreed that we didn't want to convey any triumphalism," Jordan says. "We want to give a little bit more balance to that. Part of that is to say that everything was not always hunky-dory within the movement itself: There were rivalries, and sometimes those rivalries retarded progress within the movement. And another part is that a lot of the issues we focused on still exist in the world today, in other contexts."

The end of the No Easy Victories reinforces this long view. As the afterword notes, the same sorts of protests and divestment campaigns once levied against South Africa are now being levied against the genocide in Darfur or against the negligence of the international community in the face of the African AIDS crisis, with hopeful but mixed results. This month, the violence in Kenya following a troubled presidential election has been very much in the news in America—but usually as a tie-in to stories about presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose grandmother lives there. As the authors in No Easy Victories make clear, too often Africa remains invisible in discussions about the state of the world or the direction that globalization is taking us.

The editors of No Easy Victories will join contributor Joseph F. Jordan for a talk at the Bull's Head Bookshop on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 3:30 p.m. At 7 p.m., Oscar-nominated director Connie Field will be on hand to screen and discuss her film Have You Heard from Johannesburg?: Apartheid and the Club of the West at the Stone Center. For more information, visit www.noeasyvictories.org and www.ibiblio.org/shscbch.

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