Egypt has long been a source of inspiration for activists and poets of the African diaspora, providing many of them with an arena to turn their dreams into reality at several points throughout its history. At the same time, however, the country has had a strained relationship with Black people from the African continent, especially given its active role in the trans-Saharan slave trade during the Mamluk and Ottoman period.
These historical contradictions and tensions have been marked by national origin, labor and social status, culminating in disparate positions for Black people in Egypt. Working-class Black Sudanese women in Cairo recently described harrowing accounts of harassment and sexual assault since their arrival in the country. The extent to which anti-Black discrimination and colorism have been enacted in Egypt (and the Middle East more broadly) fluctuates with the given political moment, gender, and class of Black migrants.
The anticolonial period (1950s and 60s) stands as somewhat of an exception to this pattern, however, particularly because Egypt provided a political space for Black Americans and Africans to envisage opportunities for mutual exchange and solidarity. Egypt’s influence is not lost on many Black Americans, and can be seen in the works of the late poet, Maya Angelou. In her poem, “For Us, Who Dare Not Dare,” she articulated her desire to dream by writing:
Be me a Pharaoh
Build me high pyramids of stone and question
See me the Nile
and jaguars moving to
the slow cool draught.
For Angelou, Egypt embodied the hopes and dreams of grandeur, not just because of its physical landscape, but also the ability of its people to govern — especially given its 1952 independence from British military rule. Egypt would occasionally feature as the backdrop to Angelou’s poems, as a reverie coming to fruition. It was a living realm, one in which the African American poet was able to collaborate with anti-colonial leaders from Ghana and South Africa.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in Saint Louis, Missouri, Angelou was subject to Jim Crow laws of enforced segregation, which bred intergenerational poverty. She was among a number of other Black women, such as Zora Neale Hurston, who tried to understand the African diaspora in its various configurations. Angelou also participated in a literary cohort that hoped to expose the lives of Black women amid racial segregation and gender oppression, with all their intimacy, pain and politics. However, Angelou’s development within this host of Black women writers was possible in part due to a particular historical moment when possibilities of national and international insurrection were germinating. Not only did Angelou bear witness to this strife in the United States, she was also able to do so on the African continent. Her development as a writer and poet was part and parcel of her time overseas, in which Egypt played a central role.
Three years after the inaugural Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Conference took place in Egypt in December 1957, Angelou moved to Cairo. She arrived with her then partner, Vusumzi Make, the South African civil rights leader. As political exiles, Angelou and Make bonded over their relegated status as second-class citizens. In A Song Flung Up to Heaven, Angelou recalls:
I danced for the African I had loved and lost in Africa, I danced for bad judgments and good fortune. For moonlight lying like rich white silk on the sand before the great pyramids in Egypt. (Chapter 7)
Angelou’s residence in Egypt was testament to an anti-colonial moment that demanded more; one in which the oppressed tasted freedom and began to reconfigure their surrounding power structures. In 1961, Cairo hosted its second Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Conference, as well as the inaugural Afro-Asian Conference for Women. Arab women, such as Aisha Abdul-Rahman, were at the forefront of laying bear the horrors of colonialism and the power of anti-imperialist and internationalist resistance. At the same time, industrialization projects, such as the Aswan Dam, displaced 100,000 of the mostly Nubian (Black) Egyptians in Upper Egypt. This destruction to the homes of Black Egyptians came at the expense of the national building project and belied the political rhetoric of solidarity. In turn, Angelou’s connection to Egypt went beyond cursory descriptions of the environment to more detailed accounts of her labor.
On her arrival in 1960, Angelou’s descriptions of Cairo were visual and sonic. In one of her recollections, she exclaimed:
Street vendors held up their wares, beckoning to passersby. Young boys offered fresh-fruit drinks, and on street corners, men stooped over food cooking on open grills. Scents of spices, manure, gasoline exhaust, flowers and body sweat made the air in the car nearly visible. (The Heart of a Woman, Chapter 15)
Angelou’s sentience was inundated by a city that was constantly making itself anew. Missing from her description is a sight where people glorified the legendary Om Kalthoum in a nation that was less than a decade away from British colonial rule. Egypt was where the dissidents gathered. As Vijay Prashad remarked in The Darker Nations: A People’s History, “Cairo in the 1950s had the feeling of a defiant city on a war footing, ready to take on the First World with rhetoric or guns, if necessary” (The Darker Nations: A People’s History, page 51).
Liberation and revolution were on the tips of everyone’s tongues, thus allowing Angelou to meet Black nationalists and revolutionaries from Kenya, Rhodesia, and Swaziland. They were not just individuals gliding through this space, they were members of the Pan-African Congress and the African National Congress. Some were oriented towards Marxist ideology and others just wanted to rule. Cairo was not just a matter of learning about revolutionaries through osmosis, it was an opportunity for Angelou to fine tune her writing in journalism, something that had been out of the reach for Black American women. At this point, it is worth noting that Black women in the United States constituted 2.5 percent of workers in journalism in 2016.
Arab and Black journalists of this period challenged the exclusionary practices that were embedded in journalism. David DuBois, the son of W.E.B. DuBois was integral to exposing Angelou to the field. With fruitful introductions to Dr. Zein Nagati, she was able to acquire a job as an editor for the Arab Observer, where she worked for a year under the guidance of Abdul Hassan. Eric Nemes helped her learn about layout, David DuBois taught her how to identify a story, and Egypt fueled her work ethic and desire to read more.
During Angelou’s time in Egypt she was reading George Padmore’s Africa and World Peace, W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk, and James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name. Baldwin would have an intellectual, political and personal influence on Angelou. She wrote:
The Baldwin book gave me heart. Nobody seemed to know my name either. I had been called everything from Marguerite, Ritie, Rita, Maya, Sugar, Bitch, Whore, Madam, girl and wife. Now in Egypt I was going to be called “associate editor.” And I would earn the title, if I had to work like a slave. Well not quite, but nearly. (The Heart of a Woman, Chapter 16)
This realization not only speaks to the debasement of Black women in apartheid America, it reveals the capacity for African Americans to discover their fellow Black comrades while abroad. What set Egypt apart from the United States is that it provided a space for Angelou to reach her potential as an editor, and subsequently as a confident writer.
Although Angelou’s time in Cairo was ephemeral, it was certainly politically influential. She left Egypt in 1962 for Ghana, spending several years there as editor of the African Review. Like her position at the Arab Observer, this post advanced her political acumen and command of language.
Angelou was not herself a radical; she was a progressive who responded to a call to action by other radicals. She was friends with Malcolm X, who prompted her to get involved with the Organization of African-American Unity. She was in Los Angeles during the Watts Rebellion of 1965. By the end of the 1960s, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, she became a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Angelou was active in the movement to free Angela Davis, which included a multiracial, intergenerational group of prominent Communist and non-Communist activists. Her proximity to these people and her participation in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was in many ways a product of having met valiant revolutionaries in Egypt and Ghana.
Unfortunately, the death and overthrow of anti-colonial and Civil Rights leaders spiralled into looser and more strained relationships between Egypt and members of the African diaspora. Kwame Nkrumah was disposed from leadership in 1966, Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968, and Gamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970. These leaders were not the only arbiters of social change or mass movements, but their departure represented a broader division between Black and Arab solidarity movements. Without formal alliances and linkages, anti-Black racism could become more pronounced and dominant.
The legacy of the African diaspora in Egypt is layered and multifarious; a history in which internationalism was not merely descriptive but prescriptive. During the anti-colonial period, Black women were part of a collection of voices that sought to understand the contours of liberation and the power of revolution. What Angelou and others gained from Egypt was the space and the vision to be free.
Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, reports from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have shown that sub-Saharan refugees face discrimination in education, housing, and labor. This anti-Black discrimination is not merely a product of their position as migrants, but part of a gap between the movements against authoritarian regimes and the movements against racism. That is to say, much could be gained if revolutionaries from the Arab Spring linked with those involved in Black Lives Matter, or if those fighting against US imperialism in the Middle East also challenged anti-Black racism. The Occupy movement recognized some links between the US and Tahrir, but that did little to dismantle the injustices experienced by Black migrants and refugees in the Middle East.
The concerns of Egyptians and the African diaspora over the global financial crisis, housing, and state-sanctioned brutality reveal that they have more commonalities than differences. The atavism in the Arab Spring has been counterrevolution, while the retrogression in anti-racist work has been countered with the rise of the far right in the United States.
Lionizing aside, the anti-colonial period was a brief moment where Arab and Black leftists could gather in Egypt, on their own terms, to strategize for a better future. It shows that with greater coordination and collaboration, it is possible for people to dare, dream and flourish. But without the political space, these struggles cannot win.