What is Pan-Africanism? A Brief Introduction

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Pan-Africanism seems to have a timeless appeal. It was one of the first political concepts to emerge from the unique set of political, economic and spiritual experiences now known as the Black experience. It is credited in many guises with slave resistance, colonial resistance, Black nationalism and Black pride. But what exactly is Pan-Africanism?

It has been almost 60 years since the inaugural ceremony of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU). At that ceremony in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, proclaimed that the future of a prosperous Africa was ‘a simple matter of grasping with certainty our heritage by using the political might of unity.’ Nkrumah called for the transcendence of ethnic and geographical boundaries to build not only a united front against colonialism and neo-colonialism, but for the operative economic and social development of Africa. While, with the benefit of hindsight, this call to action may feel intuitive, the idea of African unity or ‘Pan-Africanism’ was a revolutionary, complex program that expanded beyond the physical borders of Africa and into the ideological explorations of Black identity.

Related Event: Turning Points in Pan-Africanism: CLR James

In an upcoming lecture series, our Senior Fellow, Kai Mora, will explore the foundations of Pan-Africanism by examining how identity contributed to ideological unity across the Black world. By exploring Black identity as resistance to the fracture and alienation of Africans on the continent and the diaspora, we can come to a more holistic understanding of the political and economic purpose of Pan-Africanism.

To understand why Nkrumah’s call to transcend ‘tribalism’ and nationalism was so revolutionary, one must first understand that the formal division of Africa by European colonialism did not occur until the late 1800’s. With less than a century between the division of Africa and the wave of national calls for independence, nascent national consciousness competed with the many ancient cultural identities that had been  forced to co-exist within fixed geographies due to arbitrary divisions that cut across communities. Nkrumah’s call to now transcend both tribal rivalries and young national consciousness in favor of a Pan-African consciousness was a big ask. 

‘Pan-Africanism’ was a revolutionary, complex program that expanded beyond the physical borders of Africa and into the ideological explorations of Black identity

But before Nkrumah made this call to action, the African diaspora, some of whom were far removed from these ancient identities, were already exploring the benefits of a unified consciousness across the Black world. Pan-Africanism and the exploration of Black identity was born in the diaspora and fortified on the continent. At the turn of the 20th century, just when Europe had solidified its division of Africa, missionary and educator Edward W. Blyden, who was born in the Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands), wrote about the African Personality after migrating to Liberia. He believed that African identity was a distinct, unifying element found across the Black world that should be further developed on the continent in a gradual effort to build a socially, politically and economically independent Africa.

In this video, Senior Fellow, Kai Mora, outlines the importance of Pan-African thought

At the core of the political, more visible Pan-African movement that manifested in the 20th century, was the assertion of Black identity in response to the fracture undergone amidst forced migration, colonization and the psychological alienation that arose from these processes. And in the march toward political freedom on the continent and the diaspora, there were ancillary movements that contributed to the ideological unity of Pan-Africanism by drawing on the quest for Black identity. 

In the 1930’s, a Black francophone literary movement, Négritude,  began in Paris. Drawing inspiration from the Black Harlem Renaissance in the US, Négritude fostered the idea that Black people should assert their identity within the diasporic contexts they were born in. This was not a rejection of Africa or African heritage, but rather a call for Blacks to affirm their presence in colonial contexts that were constantly working toward their erasure.The Martinican ‘Nardal Sisters’ were recognized incubators of this movement, creating space for renowned Négritude writers like Aimé Cesairé to develop their practice and establishing Pan-African literary networks that contributed to the cultural development of Black identity.

Related Course: (Pan)African Education, Legacies of Colonisation and Globalisation

The mid-late 20th century saw the rise of Rastafarianism. This movement illustrateed the long history of spirituality as a unifier of Black identity, despite the erasure of traditional African religion. Before Marcus Garvey’s mysterious prediction to ‘look toward Africa, where a king shall be crowned,’ led a mass of Black people to believe in the divinity of the last Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I (formerly Ras Tafari), Ethiopianism found a voice in the diaspora beginning in the 18th century. During enslavement and displacement in the Atlantic world, Black people found solace and meaning in the 68 Psalm of the Bible which read, ‘…Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God’ (v. 31). It was interpreted as an impending global conflict in which Ethiopia would play a crucial role, and thus a call for repatriation ‘back to Africa’ as a spiritual, Pan-African imperative for Black people across the globe. 

“Nkrumah did not develop this ideology alone. As can be seen, it was born out of a long heritage of Black intellectualism, spirituality, and quests for psychological decolonization

The political philosophy of Pan-Africanism during the wave of African nationalist movements of the mid-20th century was underpinned by ideological explorations of Black identity itself. Nkrumah’s call to transcend both ancient ethnic and new colonial identities in pursuit of a Pan-African identity—that is a new identity that was crafted exclusively out of Black thought—was indeed revolutionary. However, Nkrumah did not develop this ideology alone. As can be seen, it was born out of a long heritage of Black intellectualism, spirituality, and quests for psychological decolonization all pursued in an effort to make the material reality of the Black world a reality of dignity, pride and consistent evolution. 

A lot is often made about the nebulous nature of the term “Pan-Africanism”, its defiance of definition and the elusiveness of its installation. Perhaps the aim is to find room in the definition for all of its disparate parts which individually have been successful at meeting the specific challenges of specific peoples in specific spaces. It is important in  conversations on Pan-Africanism, in addition to mapping the concept, to critically question how such an intellectual unification can take place.  

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