A new way of viewing New York’s capacious space and metropolitan character, and especially through the community of Harlem, Boukary Sawadogo’s, new book: Africans in Harlem: An Untold New York Story offers a uniquely important aspect of Harlem, and her development as part of a very significant larger site and location in New York. The scholar chronicles its social history from the point of view of a migrant African, and from the eyes of an African about the African community’s creative, and social contribution to the development of Harlem, and indeed New York as a Diasporic metropolitan city.
Boukary Sawadogo also sketched Harlem’s historical popularity and as a larger hub which encapsulated and forged the intellectual platforms of great African creative writers, politicians, philosophers, thinkers, and activists including; Philip Payton,Madam C.J. Walker, Madam St. Clair, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Langston, Claude McKay, Alain Locke, Malcom X, James Baldwin and Ossie Davis (the film Director of Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest, 1970), and the first Nigerian president Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.
Building on the explications and analysis of theatre enactments, film productions, literatures, archival sources as well as interactive expanded arts forms, and historical materials – Sawadogo takes a long peep into the emergence, history, episteme, challenges, lifestyles and struggles of the Africans in Harlem. He attempts a diachronic study and offer a huge account on how the marginalized people struggled for emancipation under the very excruciating white systemic oppression in New York.
One of the high-points of the book, which I find generally interesting, is the fact that the author does not necessarily pitch himself within the initial history of Harlem, but writes as someone who learned about the various historical developments of Harlem, in relation to the influx of Africans who migrated to New York, and as someone who is now part, of this bubbling community, and invariably, of that history “today”.
Sawadogo says: “I have made a decision not to write myself out of the text, given that I am a member of the African community in Harlem, writing from this place. I would not have written this book if I did not happen to reside in Harlem at this specific time in history”. (See prefatory note of Africans in Harlem)
This is indeed a humble opinion and one which I believe, (as a mindset) contributed to the success of this beautiful book worth reading. The book bridges the gap between historical figures and new/existing dweller and entrants of the African world, in New York. It solidifies the place of Migrants and Migrant Africans in the land /city of New York and how important they are to the entire country, United States of America. The publication of this interesting book also reminds us of the recent struggles and challenges of Black people under the weight and pains of discrimination and outright prejudices in Diasporic communities, all over the world. Black Lives Matters really comes to mind here and the inconsequential murder of George Floyd which is still fresh in memory.
It is so exciting how Sawadogo universally contextualize the struggles. Not only that, the way he has elevated many Africans scholars, thinkers and intellectual(alive or dead) is assuredly deep and excellent. The task in itself demonstrates the tenacity and alacrity with which Black people have continued to advocate for a world without wars, a world without antipathy and a world that thrives on that much desired strength of coexistence, and the need to inhabit the same world without suspicion or segregation.
From my point of view, Boukary Sawadogo is further worlding Africa with this book. It is a surreptitiously crafted attempt at reminding the world of how Africans have entrenched their eclectic worldviews in every Diasporic society, and it is necessary that all (including the Centre) view such worldviews with an open mind.
Sawadogo’s book is a mine of scholarship which everyone interested in the field of history, popular arts, cultural studies, cinema, literature and other allied disciplines should encounter. A book upon the anchor of intellectual activism, Boukary Sawadogo’s Africans in Harlem: An Untold New York Story resonates profoundly with Cajetan Iheka’s closing statement to his brief editorial piece in African Studies Review of June 2021 “Editors’ Introduction: African and the Diversity Turn”, where he concludes “African Studies must not be left out of the ongoing moves to demarginalize Blackness and improve societal knowledge of people of African descent in the United States and other parts of the world”.
My guess is that Boukary Sawadogo has superbly attested to Cajetan’s suggestion, in the most profound of ways.