In the summer of 1961, the African American novelist Julian Mayfield escaped the US under cover of darkness. A veteran civil rights activist and communist sympathizer, he and his family had long been targets of FBI surveillance. In August, however, police harassment increased after Mayfield was named as a material witness to the kidnapping of a Ku Klux Klan member near his North Carolina home. Aware of the risks of appearing before a Southern jury, he fled to Canada before settling in Ghana, where his wife Ana Livia Cordero was working as a physician.
Mayfield found himself in the right place at the right time. Under the rule of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana had emerged as a hub of radical publishing and pan-African activism. On the terraces of Accra’s hotels, ministers and trade unionists mingled with revolutionaries from Angola, South Africa, and Rhodesia. After W.E.B. Du Bois emigrated to Ghana in October 1961, African American radicals began flocking to the country to pay their respects to the eminent pan-Africanist scholar. Ingratiating himself with Accra’s influential literary scene, Mayfield quickly took up work as a journalist, broadcaster, and speechwriter on behalf of the ruling Convention People’s Party.
In June 1963, Mayfield became the editor of The African Review, a new magazine combining socialist politics, cultural affairs, and book reviews for a wide audience. While the magazine claimed to be an independent publication, it was in fact covertly funded by the Ghanaian Publicity Secretariat in return for positive coverage of the Nkrumah regime. The magazine’s sponsors were particularly interested in the magazine’s coverage of foreign affairs. In keeping with much of Ghana’s state publicity, The African Review was instructed to combine vocal support for African nationalism with a sharp critique of racism in the US. Mayfield, with his experience as a novelist and connections to radical politics on both sides of the Atlantic, was an ideal candidate to lead a cultural front of the struggle for African sovereignty.
The content of The African Review certainly gives a strong impression of its commitment to new forms of transatlantic solidarity. In its first edition, Mayfield published a long essay on Malcolm X which emphasized his attempts to connect civil rights to the wider struggle against imperialism. S.G. Ikoku provided glowing reviews of Nkrumah’s pan-African philosophy, while a young Bessie Head wrote damning essays about life under apartheid. For a time, The African Review even employed Maya Angelou, who had become close to Mayfield while living in Ghana in the early 1960s. In her role as Features Editor, Angelou supplied the magazine with radical political commentaries—including a head-to-head comparison of Martin Luther King and Frantz Fanon on the subject of political violence.
Covert funding from the Ghanaian government sometimes compromised the magazine’s editorial integrity. In a letter to Mayfield, Conor Cruise O’Brien suggested that inviting a committed socialist like Ikoku to review Nkrumah’s books was “like getting a Curia cardinal to review a recent work by the Pope.” At other times, however, The African Review was remarkably tolerant of views that challenged the orthodoxies of African socialism. Embracing a form of “positive controversy,” its articles often promoted nuanced visions of decolonization and pushed for the inclusion of African American issues within the wider struggle against white supremacy.
Ironically, however, The African Review was not the only African Review. From 1963, Mayfield and his employees also had to contend with competition from another publication bearing the same name. Like its Ghanaian namesake, this African Review was devoted to African nationalist politics. Praising the work of anticolonial activists in Angola and Mozambique, it voiced consistent support for self-determination and development across Africa. However, where Mayfield’s magazine proposed transnational socialism as a source of anti-colonial solidarity, the second African Review was consistently hostile to radical politics and suspicions of “foreign interference” in independent states.
This was no coincidence. Recently declassified files reveal that this African Review was in fact produced by the Information Research Department (IRD), a secret anti-communist agency within the British Foreign Office. Like other IRD publications, including the Loyal African Brothers series, the magazine was designed to undermine the claims of socialist and communist propagandists across the continent. By adopting the appearance of an African nationalist publication and the popular vocabulary of self-determination and sovereignty, it attempted to encourage its readers to reject radical politicians and support moderate nationalists more in line with British interests.
Subtlety was not one of the magazine’s strengths. In the editions of the IRD’s African Review held at the University of Cambridge, more than 60% of articles relate directly to the failures of socialist policy in Africa. Unattributed editorials refer to China’s attempts to export a “violent brand of revolution” across the continent and cite racist attacks against Africans in the USSR as evidence that Moscow was becoming a “second Alabama.” At times, this extended to attacks on African socialist states such as Nkrumah’s Ghana, which the magazine singled out in 1964 for its “disastrous assault on the image which emerging Africa is striving to achieve.”
At other times, however, the IRD’s African Review revealed remarkable flexibility in the British government’s information policy. The idea of appealing to moderate nationalists would undoubtedly have been unthinkable in the 1950s when British propaganda was largely based on the idea of “tutoring” Africans for a gradual transition to self-rule. By 1969, in contrast, African Review was comfortable with the Organization of African Unity’s attempt to smuggle weapons to apartheid South Africa as an alternative to Soviet and Chinese arms sales. The magazine also began exploiting political tensions between communists and African socialists. After the expulsion of a group of Soviet diplomats from Kenya in 1968, for example, it produced quotes from Kenyan newspapers and government officials to prove that Africans believed that Soviet technical assistance was a “selfish policy” and a “form of expansionism” across the continent.
In this sense, both The African Review and African Review reflect the clandestine structures and complex loyalties which characterized political writing in Cold War Africa. Mayfield’s magazine was the less partisan of the two publications, and by far the more tolerant of diverse opinion. However, it was evidently reliant on the Ghanaian state for funding and political guidance. After the coup against Nkrumah in 1966, the magazine ceased production and Mayfield was forced to return to the United States.
The influence of the Cold War was more pronounced in the IRD’s African Review, whose appeals to African nationalism served as a convenient disguise for its anti-communist aims. However, it is revealing that this propaganda was presented in the idioms of an existing African nationalism. Magazines like African Review suggest that, by the early 1960s, many British propagandists had become convinced that the ideological battle for Africa was already lost. If IRD officials wanted to continue to appeal to their former subjects, they would have to do so in a language like Mayfield’s.