In This Land of Plenty: Mickey Leland and Africa in American Politics
By Benjamin Talton
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019, 288 pp.
To End a Plague: America’s Fight to Defeat AIDS in Africa
By Emily Bass
PublicAffairs, 2021, 470 pp.
These two fascinating histories of U.S. involvement in Africa illuminate the role of American civil society activists in U.S. foreign policy—and also the extent to which they have viewed their work in sub-Saharan Africa as an extension of their progressive commitments at home. Talton portrays Mickey Leland, who was a Democratic congressman from Texas, as emblematic of a generation of African American leaders who came of age during the civil rights struggle and understood international issues through the prism of Third World radicalism. In the 1970s and 1980s, they exerted a significant influence on U.S. policies on Africa, the book argues, notably on Leland’s two signature issues: apartheid in South Africa and the brutal Ethiopian famine of the early 1980s. On Leland’s sixth trip to Ethiopia, in 1989, he died when a small plane on which he was flying to visit a refugee camp on the border with Sudan crashed. Talton’s narrative operates both as a biography of the charismatic Leland and his political evolution from a radical activist in Houston to a well-established Washington insider and as an insightful history of the role that groups such as the Congressional Black Caucus played in U.S. policy toward Africa during the later years of the Cold War.
Bass is a veteran AIDS activist, and her book tells the story of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, the broadly successful initiative that U.S. President George W. Bush launched in 2003. Like many elements of U.S. foreign policy, PEPFAR is largely unknown to the broader public but is sustained by the support of a network of foundations, activists, and civil society actors. The book is not a formal history of PEPFAR and includes little detailed discussion of the program’s policies. Bass, however, appears to have dealt with or interviewed all the key players in PEPFAR, and her book nicely balances accounts of the debate over the program and the difficulties in running it with the reflections of the Africans she met on the frontlines of the battle against the disease. Leland viewed the fight against hunger in Africa as a natural extension of his early days fighting poverty in Houston; Bass describes the community of U.S. AIDS activists as similarly transferring their commitments from the domestic arena to the international.