Pan-Africanism was born from a bond of solidarity among Africans and their descendants who shared a common condition imposed by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and its aftermath. It grew as a result of colonialism and its racist ideology and was further developed with the advent of African countries’ independence in the mid-twentieth century. Pan-Africanism is a loosely knit and sometimes contradictory constellation of ideas, organizations, and movements that transcend national borders.
The ideals that distinguish Pan-Africanism include the need for Africa to unify for the greater economic, political, and social good of all Africans; the existence of an African personality; the vital connections between continental Africans and Africans in the diaspora; the necessity to protest racism and to assert the contributions of African civilizations; the need to remove all vestiges of colonialism; and the desire for human dignity. Each of these ideas was developed at different times for a variety of political ends, and no one Pan-Africanist will subscribe to all of its ideas. Pan-Africanism includes a cultural dimension in that artists have turned to the continent as a source of their inspiration.
Pan-Africanism's roots are to be found in the experiences of Africans enslaved in the New World. Olaudah Equiano was among the first to assert an identity that was continental in scope. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African (1789), described the horrors of slavery and was used by abolitionists. He became a spokesman for the enslaved and urged European powers to develop Africa without exploiting its human resources.
Other early Pan-Africanist leaders promoted emigration to West Africa as a solution to the racism they endured. Paul Cuffee of the United States, whose father was African and mother Native American, founded a settlement in Sierra Leone, a colony established by British authorities for the formerly enslaved. In 1868, Sierra Leonean James Horton proposed the development of modern independent African nations based on the traditional ethnic communities. Emigration to Liberia was supported by organizations such as the American Colonization Society. Edward Blyden became a citizen of the newly independent Liberia when he moved there from his birthplace in the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, and he is considered to be one of the greatest explicators of Pan-African concepts. His disciple, J. E. Casely Hayford of the Gold Coast, spoke of an international feeling among all black people and established a National Congress of British West Africa. Both Blyden and Hayford were cultural nationalists who supported the movement of independent churches in West Africa and believed in the glorious past and future of the continent, or “Ethiopia.”
Other advocates of back-to-Africa emigration included Henry McNeal Turner, a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Marcus Garvey. Garvey, originally from Jamaica, moved to the United States and founded the United Negro Improvement Association, a mass movement in the twentieth century that promoted racial pride and economic advancement. Garveyism was to influence a number of continental Africans, most notably Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana who used Garvey's Black Star symbol on Ghana's national flag. Other theorists included historian C. L. R. James of Trinidad, who focused on the exploitation of labor in Africa and the diaspora, and Walter Rodney of Guyana, who documented Europe's underdevelopment of Africa.
As founding father of Pan-Africanism, W. E. B. Du Bois organized many Pan-African congresses to bring together Africans, African Americans, and West Indians to discuss mutual problems and to pressure colonial governments to allow for greater self-determination for their colonies. The first Pan-African Congress took place in 1900 in London, and others followed in 1919, 1921, 1923, and 1927. The Sixth Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, England, in 1945 marked a turning point. Many of the attendees were students who were to become the leaders of their countries, including Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), and S. L. Akintola (Nigeria). After 1945, Pan-Africanism's leadership shifted to Africans and subsequent congresses were held on African soil.
While the West African Student Union in London kept the ideas of Pan-Africanism alive, African and West Indian students from France's colonies founded the Society for African Culture. They developed the concept of “Negritude,” a theory that espoused a distinctly African way of confronting the world. The scholarly journal Présence Africaine, with Alioune Diop as its editor, was established as part of this movement. Léopold Senghor, a poet and the future leader of independent Senegal, saw the Pan-African aspect of Negritude in terms of a bond of psychological identification among a people with the same origins who yet display a diversity of cultural attributes. For him, there was a basic core of values that are maintained, but modifications have occurred over time and distance as Africans traveled across the Atlantic and throughout Africa. This cultural component of Pan-Africanism was easier to organize and sustain than the more contentious political side.
Culturally, Pan-Africanism exerted a global influence. The Harlem Renaissance emphasized Africa's significance. Artists such as Josephine Baker, Claude McKay, and Paul Robeson affirmed a pride in Africa and a global connection between all Africans. The Harlem Renaissance influenced African and West Indian artists such as Fela Kuti of Nigeria and Bob Marley of Jamaica, who developed new musical genres that influenced artists globally and expressed Pan-African sentiments. Today we see the continuing influence of Pan-Africanism in North America in celebrations such as Kwanzaa, a celebration of African culture established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach.
In post-independent Africa, unity splintered and solidarity waned. The sentimental aspect of Pan-Africanism dissolved with the Cold War and the tenacity with which colonial powers maintained their colonies. South Africa and Rhodesia were reminders of the need to rid the continent of the worst manifestation of colonial ideology. The Pan-African visions for the continent of theorists and activists like Frantz Fanon (Algeria) and Amilcar Cabral (Guinea Bissau) could not be realized without bloodshed. Others called for a more cautious approach.
Pan-Africanism influenced states’ foreign policies, most notably Ghana's under Nkrumah and Egypt's under Nasser. Nkrumah's visions for unity included the entire continent. According to Nkrumah, African cultures had merged customs of many ethnic groups into what he called the African personality. Thus, Africa needed to unify under one government and have a military high command. Only then could it assert itself on the international stage. Nasser's foreign policy reconceptualized Egypt as an African country that had responsibilities to defend the continent from external aggression.
The divisions between leaders would only allow for the laying of the foundation for a Pan-African institution that would, at some distant future, lead to political union. The Organization of African Unity was established in 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and it represented a more moderate Pan-Africanism that sought to promote decolonization and development. Its member states, however, enjoyed full sovereign rights. In 2002 the OAU was disbanded and its successor, the African Union was established, which continues to promote the welfare of all Africans.
See also African Political Thought; Empire and Political Thought; Ethnicity and Political Thought; Nationalism; Nineteenth-Century Political Thought; Nyerere, Julius; Race and Racism; Twentieth-Century Political Thought
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