Back to Africa.
On Friday, a pregnant black Georgia state lawmaker said she was confronted by a white man at the grocery who shouted at her to “go back where I came from” because she had too many items to be in the express lane. The tweet by Erica Thomas, a Democrat from Austell, went viral.
The slogan, in one form or another, has been an undercurrent of American racial politics for almost as long as there have been blacks in the United States — from Colonial times to a 2016 Trump campaign rally when a white man yelled “Go back to Africa!” at black protesters.
“If you’re an African first,” he said in a moment captured on video that went viral, “then go back to Africa.”
The history of the phrase — and the idea — is as complex as race itself.
The Journal of Negro History traces the origins of the back-to-Africa movement to at least 1714, quoting an 1811 letter from Thomas Jefferson saying that sending free blacks to Africa was “the most desirable measure which could be adopted for gradually drawing off” the black population.
A century later, in 1817, the American Colonization Society was founded to encourage free blacks to move to Africa. Its supporters included some abolitionists and some slaveholders, and the ACS counted James Madison and Francis Scott Key as members. Their efforts led to the creation of Liberia, a colony in West Africa, in 1822. Thousands of formerly enslaved blacks settled there in the decades before and after the Civil War.
Even President Abraham Lincoln, the emancipator of slaves, wanted to send blacks away — not to Africa but to the Caribbean islands.
The assumption, according to Ibram Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, was that America was for whites.
Some prominent African Americans came to embrace the back-to-Africa idea, even forming coalitions with anti-black groups.
In the 20th century, back-to-Africa proponents included Marcus Garvey, an early advocate of pan-Africanism. He felt that the best way for blacks to escape economic and social oppression in the United States was to return to the lands of their forefathers. Garvey even started a shipping line that he hoped would ferry American blacks across the Atlantic.
His efforts led to a 1923 federal mail-fraud conviction that his son, Julius Garvey, and others believe was bogus. Julius Garvey has been pushing for a posthumous presidential pardon for his father, who died in 1940.
Throughout history, some African Americans saw “returning” to Africa as a worthwhile plan, Fodei Batty, an assistant professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, wrote in The Washington Post.
But in modern times, the phrase has shifted from a cultural what-if to a racist insult.
According to Atlantablackstar.com, a news magazine that focuses on African and African American issues, the insult is steeped in “the assumption among whites … that Black folks should be happy to be in America, which, through its kindness and generosity, has rendered African-Americans the most fortunate Black people around. There is a perverse, outlandish assertion that Black people … should leave if they cannot appreciate all that white people have done for them.”
Read more Retropolis: