Ira Dworkin: Remembering Etienne Tshisekedi, One Year After

Dworkin: Congo Love SongToday we welcome a guest post from Ira Dworkin, author of Congo Love Song:  African American Culture and the Crisis of the Colonial State.

In Congo Love Song, Ira Dworkin examines black Americans’ long cultural and political engagement with the Congo and its people. Through studies of George Washington Williams, Booker T. Washington, Pauline Hopkins, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, and other figures, he brings to light a long-standing relationship that challenges familiar presumptions about African American commitments to Africa. Dworkin offers compelling new ways to understand how African American involvement in the Congo has helped shape anticolonialism, black aesthetics, and modern black nationalism.

Congo Love Song is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Remembering Etienne Tshisekedi: One Year After

Last year, on February 1, 2017, Etienne Tshisekedi, the longstanding Democratic Republic of the Congo opposition leader died at the age of 84 in Belgium after a storied political career spanning more than a half-century. His decades of renowned defiance of President Mobutu Seso Seke led to his election as Prime Minister in 1992 by the Conférence Nationale Souveraine (Sovereign National Conference). Mobutu removed him from office after less than three months, but Tshisekedi continued to lead the country’s most sustained opposition party–Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS)—until his death. Today, a year later, Tshisekedi’s body remains in Brussels against the wishes of the family. The current government of the Congo refuses to allow him to return due to fear that his body will carry with it the possibility of renewed resistance.

Lewis Michaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem, 1961
Lewis Michaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem, 1961, announcing “Lumumba Lying in State.” A photograph of Lumumba is also visible in the center of the display window. Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

The regime blocking the repatriation of Tshisekedi’s body is led by President Joseph Kabila, who has been president since the 2001 assassination of his father Laurent Kabila. The younger Kabila faces massive popular protest calling for him to hold constitutionally mandated elections that he has delayed for several years. (The election commission most recently scheduled the ballot for December 23, 2018, but there are questions whether or not Kabila intends to honor that timetable.) Kabila’s fear of Tshisekedi’s return recalls the fear of the Belgian former colonials and their U.S. and Congolese allies responsible for killing the Congo’s first elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba on January 17, 1961. After Lumumba’s extralegal execution, his assassins dug up his secretly buried remains and burned them in acid, except for some of his teeth (and perhaps a finger or toe) which they saved as souvenirs. The savagery of his killers sought to eliminate the martyr’s body, which they feared would inspire the people. However, despite the desecration of his physical remains, Lumumba continues to inspire activists and artists throughout the world to resist colonialism and white supremacy. News of his death was kept secret until February 13, 1961, when it was met with worldwide protests including a major action by African American activists in the gallery of the United Nations, whose influence Christopher Tinson writes about in his wonderful new book Radical Intellect: Liberator Magazine and Black Activism in the 1960s. Among many brilliant forms of memorialization, Lewis Michaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem announced “Lumumba Lying in State” in its iconic storefront and held a wake with a paper mache effigy displayed in a coffin in the bookstore. Such efforts, like the uniquely embodied poetry of Jayne Cortez that later memorialized Lumumba, point toward a significance for African American intellectuals and activists that evades abstraction.

Indeed, Lumumba had been in Harlem, and met with a number of African American activists less than six months before his assassination while in the United States to appeal to the United Nations and the international community for the withdrawal of Belgian troops from his country. During this trip, Lumumba, in his efforts to recruit African Americans to the Congo, spoke on a street corner in Harlem and at Howard University, and met with members of the Harlem Writers Guild and representatives of the Phelps-Stokes Fund. Although U.S. expatriates never rivaled the numbers attracted to Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, or even the number of Haitians who came to the Congo, Lumumba did attract a diverse group of African American students, missionaries, educators, engineers, and activists to the Congo. Among those African Americans who did travel to the Congo was Yvonne Seon, who met Lumumba in Washington. While in the Congo, she was joined by an impressive cohort of African Americans including several who worked as teachers and administrators at l’Ecole Nationale de Droit et d’Administration (ENDA), a Ford Foundation-sponsored school whose rector was the first Congolese graduate to earn a Doctor of Law degree from Louvanium, Etienne Tshisekedi.

ENDA, which was training a Congolese bureaucratic class to replace the departed colonial administration, open its doors to 180 students on February 13, 1961, by seeming coincidence on the same day that news of Lumumba’s assassination was revealed internationally. At ENDA, a young Tshisekedi worked with African American teachers and administrators until 1965. The first of these was Ted Harris, who in the late 1940s was president of the U.S. National Student Association, a CIA front, and later worked with the American Society for African Culture. After returning to the United States in 1963, he continued to work for the Ford Foundation and later became director of National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice in Chicago. David McAdams came on board at ENDA in 1963 and worked in the Congo until 1965 when he returned to the United States to work with President Johnson’s War on Poverty. In 1966, he was appointed to head the Peace Corps in Cote d’Ivoire. James Hope was hired by Harris to work at ENDA in 1963 and stayed until 1969. Shirley Elizabeth Barnes was an administrative assistant at ENDA in Congo from 1961–1965. Several decades later, she joined the foreign service, and served as ambassador to Seychelles from 1998–2001.

These early years of Tshisekedi are infrequently discussed relative to his more prominent later achievements which include the crucial alliances UDPS has made with other Kabila opponents under the banner of Rassemblement in recent years. Indeed his early career included collaboration with Mobutu, a compromised position similar to that of his African American colleagues who maintained overly close ties to the U.S. government. Still, Tshisekedi’s proximity to these African American expatriates and the kinds of educational collaborations that were happening in the country in the early 1960s remain part of his history worth considering along with the Congo years of that generation of African Americans, many of whom– including Seon, Albert Berrian, and Douglas Moore–returned to do important work in the United States. Tshisekedi’s ENDA tenure is an intriguing point of entry for considering the African American community in Congo as a site for the intertwined past and future of both countries. Etienne Tshisekedi’s son Félix has assumed his father’s mantle and serves as a reminder of the many legacies which his father has left to the future of the resistance in his country even if his body remains in exile in Belgium.

Ira Dworkin is assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University.