Pan-Africanism describes the idea of unity among people of African descent against oppression. This spirit of solidarity emerged during World War I when a group of black intellectuals and political leaders from the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa met in London to discuss the future of blacks worldwide. While the list of Pan-Africanists is long, it includes key figures such as the African American W. E. B. Du Bois, the Jamaican Marcus Garvey, the Beninese Kojo Houenou-Tovalou, the Trinidadian George Padmore, and the Ghanaian Kwame N’krumah. These figures, and many others, contributed greatly to the ideological and political development of the Pan-Africanist movement.
Du Bois was the most outspoken defender of the idea of unity between blacks of the Diaspora and Africa. According to Du Bois, these blacks were united by the social heritage of slavery and their close connections with Africa. Du Bois envisioned Pan-African kinship to be not just a slogan of brotherhood and sisterhood between blacks but the expression of a true political and economic unity between blacks. In order to put his ideas into practice, Du Bois helped organize the Pan-African Congresses of 1919 (held in Paris) and of 1921 (held in London, Paris, and Brussels). These congresses allowed black leaders from Africa, America, and the Caribbean to meet in the West to discuss the predicament that colonization had created in their nations and propose ways in which they could achieve equality, democracy, and economic and political development. The most salient aspect of Du Bois’s Pan-Africanism was its description of the physical suffering, the loss of life, and the devastation of land that European imperialism brought about in Africa. Du Bois lamented how European colonialism opened the way from the Sahara to the Cape of Good Hope for marauding masses of Bantu warriors and for committing relentless aggression and conquest. In this sense, Du Bois’s Pan-Africanism was a strong denunciation of the impact of European colonization of Africa.
Garvey’s Pan-Africanism took a different turn than Du Bois’s did, because it centered not just on the idea of unity between the black Diaspora and Africa but also on the belief that such unity would lead to a return of all people of African descent to Africa. Garvey’s motto—which later became a rallying slogan for black nationalists of the 1960s in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa—was one of the strongest expressions of cultural and political solidarity between blacks. The essence of Garvey’s Pan-Africanism was his theory of re-Africanization that urged blacks of the Diaspora to go back to Africa and use their skills to help develop it. Garvey interpreted this return as a reconnection with the continent that great kings and queens used to rule in ancient times.
In the 1920s, Garvey collaborated with an African political figure named Kojo Tovalou-Houenou, who was a firm backer of his Pan-Africanism. Tovalou-Houenou’s support of Garvey’s Pan-Africanism is visible when, in his address at Carnegie Hall, he endorsed not only Garvey’s immigration project in Liberia but also his plans to extend his influence across the African continent. Tovalou-Houenou was impressed by Garvey’s perception of Liberia as a black Zion that symbolized African liberty. In this sense, Tovalou-Houenou was one of the strongest validations Garvey received from a highly educated African intellectual of the 1920s.
Tovalou-Houenou’s views on Garvey contradict the unsubstantiated notion that Garvey was an imperialist or a colonialist. Like Garvey, Tovalou-Houenou recognized the importance of racial alliance in the development of nationhood and technological advancement in Africa. Although he was proud of the forms of cultural and industrial development that already existed in traditional Africa, Tovalou-Houenou admitted that Africans could take advantage of the intellectual, artistic, and scientific know-how of the black Diaspora. Referring to the delegations of UNIA members that Garvey had sent to Liberia in the 1920s, Tovalou-Houenou said: “You will bring to your brothers in Africa the arts and industries of the world...you will bring all the education and morality and all that you have learned... and there shall be a fusion and community of ideas and spirit in our great motherland, Africa.” Tovalou Houenou’s statement reflects a very practical concept of solidarity between blacks of the Diaspora and Africa. Instead of just mentioning such unity, he points out the need to concretize it in the Diaspora’s use of its manpower and intelligentsia to give actual support to Africa. Tovalou-Houenou envisions the union between blacks of the West and Africa as a blending between the people, ideas, and spirit that could uplift the conditions of blacks worldwide. Both Garvey and the UNIA admired this part of Tovalou-Houenou’s nationalism. In its edition of August 30, 1924, the Negro World praised Tovalou’s Pan-Africanism as a call for blacks from around the world to march back to their homeland and wrest it from its oppressors.
Pan-Africanism would not have had a strong meaning without the contributions that the Ghanaian Kwame N’krumah and his close friend George Padmore made in its development. After completing his studies at Lincoln University, between 1939 and 1942, and at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1942 and 1943, N’krumah returned to Ghana to become the secretary general of the West African Secretariat, an organization that was founded at the fifth Pan-African Congress to fight for the independence of European colonies in West Africa. In I Speak of Freedom: A Statement of African Ideology (1961), N’krumah developed his thesis that the freedom of Ghana would not mean anything unless it was linked with the total liberation of the entire continent of Africa. Earlier, he had said that the independence of West Africa required the speedy liberation of all dependent territories in Africa from colonialism, imperialism, and racialism.
N’krumah’s Pan-Africanism expands the concept of African independence and self-determination, which was at the core of Padmore’s philosophy. In Pan-Africanism and Communism (1956), Padmore described what he viewed as a growing political consciousness among Africans that what happens in one part of Africa has effects on Africans living in different parts of the world. Padmore firmly believed that this awareness would lead to the creation of a United States of Africa. Padmore’s concept of a “United States of Africa” rejuvenated a key ideology of Pan-African resistance that had parallels in Garvey’s “Africa for the Africans” slogan. Padmore had great influence on N’krumah, especially during the 1960s when N’krumah thought to convince the leaders of the independent African states to unite with Ghana to form a United States of Africa. N’krumah’s dream has not been realized yet, but it continues to inspire millions of people of African descent worldwide toward the liberation of their nations.
Pan-Africanism has a long history in which many black intellectuals from both Africa and the black Diaspora contributed to defend Africa and its descendants worldwide against oppression. The central ideology of the movement is the unbreakable bond between people of African descent. These ties should be given concrete meaning so that the noble development goals of Pan-Africanism can transform the lives of blacks worldwide. Many believe that the ideals of Pan-Africanism will remain alive as long as people of African descent continue to be denied the justice and equality they have been fighting for throughout the history of the modern world.
Baraka, Amiri; Diaspora; Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt; Garvey, Marcus; Liberia; N’Krumah, Kwame; Négritude
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