Mickey Leland and Africa in American Politics: An Interview with Benjamin TaltonHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, interview, Black Intellectual History
Keisha N. Blain is a historian of the 20th century United States with interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies.
Keisha N. Blain: You’ve written what I believe to be the first book on Congressman Thomas “Mickey” Leland. In your introduction, you mentioned being captivated by his life — and stunned by his untimely death in 1989 — when you were only 15 years old. Tell us more about your interest in Leland and the circumstances that led to your decision to write a book on his political career.
Benjamin Talton: From the moment I learned about Mickey Leland in August 1989, his life story captivated me. He had already died when I heard his name for the first time in a breaking news story, but I did not know that yet. As I watched the television news coverage of the joint US-Ethiopian search for the missing plane that was carrying Leland and his delegation to a refugee camp in southeastern Ethiopia, I was rapt. The coverage showed Leland during his frequent trips to Africa, in villages, meeting with heads-of-state, and at feeding centers during Ethiopia’s historic famine. At the age of 15, I was awestruck by the sight of a congressman who looked, spoke, and acted in ways similar to the African-centered activists I had grown to admire. And while I was familiar with the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) activism against apartheid in South Africa, I soon learned that Leland pursued a much broader Africa agenda, and that impressed me.
Twenty-five years later, as a professor of African history, I began to reflect upon the palpable absence of Africa, literally and figuratively, in African American politics, and the significant price we pay as a result, because foreign affairs was an entry point for an African American agenda, international engagement, and moral leadership. I see Leland’s political story as a way for us to understand the forces that imbued Africa with cultural and political significance for African Americans during the 1970s and 1980s and why it ceased to have comparable meaning in subsequent decades.
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