In 1990, editors at the Harvard Law Review elected their first black president in the journal’s 102-year history. The newly elected 28-year-old president was a law student and community activist. By that time, the lawyer-to-be had gained the respect of his peers and professors, all of who praised the student’s modesty, integrity, and drive to succeed. The young student understood the significance of his appointment, “This is my 15 minutes…I think I have something to say.” As it would turn out, the young academic would have a little more than fifteen minutes. Eighteen years later, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review became first black president of the United States.
Barack Obama’s election to president of the Harvard Law Review was covered by Topic magazine. The United States Information Agency (USIA) printed Topic from 1965 to 1994. The USIA printed the magazine in English and French, specifically targeting intellectuals in Sub-Saharan Africa. In an attempt to appeal to their audience, the magazine often highlighted individuals with ties to Africa. Barack Obama was no exception. In addition to his academic credentials, Topic highlighted the fact that Obama’s grandfather was an herbalist in a Kenyan village some 60 years prior. The magazine also mentioned Obama’s relatives in Kenya, and his African father, an economist at Oxford and Harvard.
306-TM-Issue 190. Photo Credited to Joe Wrinn , Harvard News Office
When the USIA first published Topic in 1965, the United States was in the midst of the Cold War. The first two decades of the Cold War also witnessed the birth of thirty-five new African nations. Americans and Soviets vied for allegiance with the independent African countries. The new African countries represented potential trade partners and military allies. In addition, many African nations were rich in raw materials and minerals that were essential to American industry. Most importantly, however, Americans were concerned that if they did not convince the new African nations to embrace capitalism, the nascent countries would turn communist. If Africa fell into the communist sphere, Americans believed it would put the safety of the United States and their Western allies in jeopardy.
Yet just as Americans touted their industrial capacity and moral superiority, critics around the world pointed out the hypocrisy of American foreign policy. Americans preached freedom, but oppressed blacks in their own country. Americans encouraged individual rights, but denied them to 20 million African Americans. The later years of the 1960s proved to be some of the most turbulent times in American history. Race riots, coupled with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, left millions of Americans scared and uncertain about their country’s future.
As Cold War hostilities grew, the disparity between American ideology and their domestic relations became even more of a problem. Soviet propaganda relayed news of Bull Connor’s attacks on blacks in Alabama, and enthusiastically covered the race riots in urban cities. The USSR juxtaposed America’s claims of liberty with images of brutal lynchings and racist politicians. While America preached justice for all, the Soviets supplied stories of police brutality and arbitrary imprisonments of black men. America’s race problem became its Achilles’ heel of international relations, and made it difficult to appeal to emerging African countries.
It was amidst this political climate that the United States Information Agency began to publish Topic. Topic, as did many USIA publications, highlighted elements of the civil rights movement in a way that addressed the severity of the problem, but ultimately emphasized progress and hope for the future. An article titled, “The Passionate Year,” recounted the domestic problems of 1966. The author described how a sniper shot civil rights activist, James Meredith, and how riots flared in urban cities. By acknowledging the problem, Topic presented itself as an unbiased magazine to its African readers. The same article, however, ultimately emphasized improvement, “Behind the headlines there was steady, if slow, progress.” The magazine noted that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed 452,000 Southern blacks to vote, and average incomes among black families rose to new highs. Similarly, the magazine showed how Southern schools were integrated and black senators were elected to congress. Although the United States continued to face domestic problems, Topic argued that American race-relations were getting better.
Many articles highlighted the impact of black entertainers on American culture. Prominent African Americans such as Diana Ross, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were all reoccurring celebrities throughout the magazine’s publication. In many instances, Topic specifically highlighted the connection between American culture and Africa. Jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Duke Ellington credited their success to their African roots. Nigerian boxer, Dick Tiger, was said to be an idol amongst American children. Through these celebrities, Topic attempted to show that blacks could be successful in the United States, while simultaneously appealing to African audiences.
Topic also used politicians to place the civil rights movement within an international framework. On a tour of the African continent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey said, “We in America, and you in Africa, know that the conditions which stand in our way shall be overcome.” In an exclusive interview with Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader preached, “The struggle for independence in Africa brought to the Negro American a new sense of dignity and destiny…I would also like to think that our progress here has in turn inspired Africans.” By framing the American civil rights movement within the context of global affairs, Topic was able to acknowledge American problems and appeal to an African audience.
As Topic evolved through the years, the magazine remained true to its audience. While the content reflected the changing times, the subject matter remained steady. Editors at the USIA consistently focused on art, international politics, and emerging technologies. Articles continued to focus on prominent athletes and musicians, often with ties to Africa. Similarly, editors continued to emphasize education and African Americans in the United States. It was no surprise then, that a young Barack Obama, of African ancestry and exceptional intellect found himself nestled within the pages of Topic magazine.
Although publication of Topic ceased in 1994, the magazine remains a spectacular historical source. The magazines reflect an important, and often forgotten, subject of U.S. foreign policy in Africa during the Cold War years. A full collection of Topic magazines is now housed within the National Archives Still Photos division. The Still Photos division also has prints of many photos used in Topic magazine.