“History will one day have its say”: Patrice Lumumba and the Black Freedom Movement

Jamie Elizabeth Hickner, Purdue University


This dissertation explores representations of the Congo and the Congolese leader, Patrice Lumumba, and argues that such representations radicalized the Black Freedom Movement. Careful readings of a diverse range of primary texts draw on a century of representations of the Congo leading up to independence, including works produced by naturalists, novelists, poets, missionaries, lyricists, journalists, artists, and political figures. The Congo was represented through dominant tropes such as vacant land, idyllic landscape, or treacherous jungle, and the Congolese were represented as cannibals, witch doctors, slaves, or the missing link. Mainstream narratives on the Congo imagined heroic whites seeking adventure through safaris, missions, sexual fantasies, or treasure hunts. Most discourse was sensationalist, representing Congolese men as inept, primitive, and barbaric and Congolese women as hyper-sexualized and exotic. These consistent misrepresentations of the Congo and the Congolese influenced popular opinion and foreign policy. Negative cultural attitudes created an expectation that Lumumba would be inferior and incompetent, a myth that justified U.S. intervention in support of Lumumba's coup and assassination. To explain the significance of Lumumba to the movement, this study draws upon mainstream press coverage of the Congo Crisis as a 1960 election issue, Black Press coverage of the Congo's independence and of Lumumba's rise and fall, and Black Freedom Movement discourse on Lumumba from 1960 to 1975. While mainstream representations of Lumumba mirrored previous discourse on the Congo, Black Freedom Movement discourse diverged significantly from this script, embracing Lumumba and representing him as an authentic African, a revolutionary, a martyr, and a committed third world nationalist. Elevated to iconic status, Lumumba was represented as embodying Black Freedom Movement ideals, but his own ideology was not represented in substance. From 1976 to 2011, U.S. discourse remembered Lumumba nostalgically. In recent decades, U.S. narratives have focused on the Congo's place in Africa's World War, telling a single story of grotesque violence. This study concludes by addressing the cultural amnesia practiced by American Studies scholar Perry Miller, President Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and contemporary theorists who claim that, "There is No Congo."




Mullen, Purdue University.

Subject Area

African American Studies|Biographies|American studies|Black history|African history|American literature

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