Congo Diary: Eslanda Robeson's Second African Journey

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The Book I Should Have Written: Congo Journey

"I wanted to go to Africa. It began when I was quite small. Africa was the place we Negroes came from originally. Lots of Americans, when they could afford it, went back to see their ‘old country.’ I remember wanting very much to see my ‘old country’, and wondering what it would be like” (Robeson, African Journey, 13).

Eslanda Robeson wrote these words in 1945 in the introduction to her travel narrative African Journey. In 1945, Robeson was reflecting on her first trip through southern Africa in 1936 with an eye toward her future travels through central Africa in the coming year. 

In her reflection, Robeson locates her desire to see Africa first in the intimately personal sphere of her earliest childhood longing, then in the larger sphere of African diasporic homecoming and finally in the context of American immigration. In a few deft rhetorical moves, she suggests that her pilgrimage is both the story of African American displacement through the slave trade and a quintessentially American story of migration to which readers of all races can relate. Imagining the African diaspora in this desire to see the “old country” then is also a project of defining the United States and imagining how African Americans fit into the story of an imagined nation of immigrants, by also having their own “old country.”

In addition to the personal, spiritual element of her journey, travelling to Africa was also very much about producing a counter-narrative to the dominant discourse on black inferiority that Robeson encountered in the United States and during her graduate work in London. Robeson kept copious notes during her time in central Africa on everything from labor exploitation to prostitution. She spent a significant portion of her travels as an anthropologist investigating colonial injustices--paying particular attention to African women's experiences--and retracting the steps of the Guyanese colonial administrator Félix Éboué. She hoped to make a biopic on Éboué and cast her husband and renowned actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson in the lead role. That hope was not realized.

This Neatline project takes as its point of departure the assertion made by Barbara Ransby, Robeson's biographer, that "It is possible to chart Essie's movements as she traveled around the world. It is more difficult to map her thinking as it evolved" (Ransby 175). Mapping Robeson's travels through central Africa reveals the evolution in her reflections on race and anticolonial resistance in the African diaspora. She was profoundly influenced by the African women, workers and politicians she met and interviewed, and likewise left a lasting impression on the French and British colonial administrators who, alarmed at her probing questions on inequality and African independence, set off a flurry of international surveillance.

Three central questions underlie this project:

  • What does Robeson's journey say about the relationship between Africa and the diaspora in terms that go beyond defining Africa as point of origin or return? 
  •  What can we learn from her travels about women's use of mobility as a way to contest colonial power?
  •  In what ways were her views and experiences influenced by the reality of race relations in the United States at the time?

In mining Robeson's unpublished works--the nearly 400 pages of text from her travel diary, letters and interview transcripts which nonetheless form a small fraction of her copious writings over the decades--I hope to trace the arc of her anticolonial resistance and to show her important contributions to black transnationalism and the articulation of diaspora. This Neatline project is a first step to reading what Robeson in 1955 called "Congo Journey: the book I should have written."

A note to the visitor: There are two ways to follow Eslanda's journey. You may click on the points on the timeline at the bottom of the map to retrace her steps chronologically. Or else you may take the curated journey offered through the waypoints in the panel located on the right-hand side of the map. Bon voyage!