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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 1

Judith Misrahi-Barak
Claudine Raynaud

Questioning Diasporas

An Apology for the African Diaspora: Race, regret, and Reconciliation

Ashraf H.A. Rushdy


I propose to examine how the social relations of people of African descent have been affected by the development of two competing discourses-one of ’diaspora’ and the other of ’apology’. It is my hope to analyze the tense dialectic between these two ways of thinking about the fate and future of people of African descent. These two discourses-political apologies and diaspora-promote particular ways to understand the conditions and meaning of the African dispersal. Each of them has a distinct historical grounding and political trajectory. Diaspora offers us a historical account of disruption that focuses simultaneously on origins and dispersals, at the same time as it produces a political account of the value of the idea of a political community emphatically not set in a nation-state. Political apologies provide a penitent mapping out of historical acts that are now identified as atrocities, while promoting a political future in which that penitence is translated from political sorrow to political goodwill. These two discourses also have different implications for how ’race’ is understood. Race was a product of the diaspora in that it united a people by imagining a continental provenance that had hitherto been an unimagined community. In the discourse of apology, on the other hand, race has been invoked in problematic ways, from those who positively affirmed that the ubuntu ethic of forgiveness was an attribute of the ’African worldview’ (Tutu), to those who more skeptically saw a new form of race-thinking in the repeated apologies for the slave trade-that in this dynamic ’To err is human, to forgive, African’ (Soyinka). In this project, I wish to study more comprehensively the different strategies, premises, and outcomes of these discourses, and the ways they produce occasions of race-that is, moments when race is remade in ways that are more or less restrictive and more or less disabling.

Texte intégral

1In this paper, I would like to examine two discourses, two ways of thinking and talking about social relations in the wake of a rupture or breach. The first is diaspora, and the second is political apology. These two discourses are relatively recent. People, of course, have been dispersed and thinking about the relationship of their dispersal to an original or mythical homeland for millennia, and humans have been apologizing for the crimes of one people against another for just as long. What is recent is how both these phenomena have developed into discourses in the past half century, that is how each has emerged as a particular strategy for understanding the relationship of current social conditions (dispersed or offended) to a historical event that represents some kind of origin (either a homeland or an era before the offense, a nation state or a mental state, one might say).

2At first glance, the two discourses with which I am concerned here appear to share little in common. One, the discourse of diaspora, is concerned with identifying the processes by which a people are dispersed, settled, and negotiate their connection to a land or mythic space from which the original dispersal happened. The other, the discourse of political apology, is concerned with creating the conditions for reconciliation between peoples through the act of penitence and moral restitution.

3What they do share, though, is important. First, these are two ways, as I suggested at the outset, of thinking about an original breach or rupture-a dispersal from a homeland in one case, and an offense of one people against another in the other. Second, these are discourses that both promote a particular kind of historical identity or process of identification with that past event of breach or rupture. A diasporic subject is who she or he is because of the claims made on a historical process involving a particular kind of forced departure from one place and a resettlement in a different place. The people who offer or receive an apology are likewise identifying themselves as offenders or offended through the dynamic of a speech act that identifies a specific moment or event as both significant in the lives of the two peoples and also capable of restitution-that is, forgivable.

4What I would like to do in this paper, then, is examine some of the implications of these two discourses when they are specifically compared to each other. For the purposes of this paper, I will use the example of the African diaspora and the political apologies to African peoples for the slave trade.

5We begin with diaspora. Many scholars have seen in ’diaspora, ’ broadly understood, a concept that helps offset or undo the restrictions of nationalism and other forms of historical understanding or social organization structured in dominance. This mode of thinking about diaspora became especially prevalent after the founding of the journal Diaspora by Khachig Tölölyan in 1991. In the inaugural issue, Tölölyan remarked that ’ [a] bove all, this journal will focus on such processes [of diaspora] as they shape and are shaped by the infranational and transnational Others of the nation-state, ’ because, as he noted, ’diasporas are the exemplary communities of the transnational moment’ (Tölölyan 1991: 3, 5). This note was frequently repeated in the early- to mid-1990s. James Clifford referred to diasporas as ’antinationalist’ (for the most part), and concludes that they in fact constitute a ’positive transnationalism’ (307, 321). Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin maintained that diaspora not only stands ’as a theoretical and historical model to replace national self-determination, ’ but that it also represents a social structure that makes it possible to maintain ’cultural identity in a world grown thoroughly and inextricably interdependent’ (711, 723). And Robin Cohen concluded that diasporas may well ’transcend and succeed’ the nation-state as a ’form of social organization’ (520).

6Scholars of diaspora were, nonetheless, also wary of having diaspora become simply another concept representing a destabilized subjectivity, of becoming a token of what Clifford called ’disaggregated, positional, performed identities in general’ (324). For that reason, perhaps, many scholars of diaspora in the 1990s insisted on defining just what constituted an historical diaspora (as opposed to migration, or border-crossing, or other forms of human mobility across national boundaries). Diaspora was in danger of being co-opted by theorists claiming the death of the subject; what was an historical experience could become ’a site of multiple displacements and reconstitutions of identity’ (320). What was genuinely transnational could become trivially transgressional.

7In that moment of retrenchment, scholars of diaspora intent on defining the features, the characteristics, and the types of diaspora confronted what Tölölyan called ’the thorny definitional issue of ethnicity and diaspora’ (Tölölyan 1996: 16). That issue, for many, came down to the question of the African diaspora. Some maintained that the African diaspora was one of the classical, paradigmatic examples-along with the Jewish, the Armenian, and the Irish (Cohen 1996: 512). Others, though, were skeptical. William Safran, in that inaugural issue of the journal Diaspora, maintained that the ’African diaspora’ was a somewhat suspect category. While acknowledging that black Africans, like the classical examples of Jews and Armenians, were uprooted from their homelands, victimized by imperialism, dispersed, and ’have a homeland myth, ’ there were features of their experience that rendered it not quite diasporic in the sense Safran reserves for other historical experiences. Safran identifies two particular features that lead him to his conclusion. First, the myth of a homeland, in the case of Africans in the Americas, ’can no longer be precisely focused’. Second, ’American blacks no longer have a clearly defined African cultural heritage to preserve, ’ and have instead attempted to ’maintain-and rationalize-their ethnoracial distinctiveness (and their status as a diaspora)’ by creating a culture that he characterizes as either a hindrance to ’social mobility’ (in the case of Black English) or ’an artificial graft’ (in the case of Black Islam) (Safran 1991: 89-90).

8It might be worthwhile briefly to take up the two points Safran raises. In support of his first claim that the homeland myth is not focused in the African diaspora, he posits what he describes as the unsuccessful efforts at repatriation. Only several hundred people of African descent from the United States, the West Indies, and England have returned to Africa, some to Sierra Leone in the eighteenth century and some to Liberia in the nineteenth (90). Scholars of the African diaspora have countered this claim by challenging its basic premise-that successful return indicates an authentic homeland myth. As Kim Butler notes, ’it is the existence of the issue of return, and the related sense of connection to the homeland, that is intrinsic to the diasporan experience, rather than a specific orientation toward physical return’ (Butler 2001: 205). There are, after all, many reasons diasporic populations do not return-reasons related to the political conditions of the homeland or the social opportunities of the hostland. The second argument Safran makes is no more compelling than his first, especially in an intellectual moment when all cultures are seen as more or less creations. What might seem an artificial graft now will not seem so in a couple of generations. A language that limits social mobility now might seem a cherished heritage later.

9The point to take away from this moment and this exchange is emphatically not that the term ’diaspora’ is indefinable, or that it is an ’essentially contested concept, ’ or that all experiences are diasporic. We are not all diasporans now. The point I would emphasize is that diasporic consciousness is crucial, but it also waxes and wanes. As Butler notes, the ’African diaspora existed for nearly four centuries before that identity became operative’ (Butler 2001: 207). Or, as Tiffany Patterson and Robin Kelley put it, ’diasporic identities are socially and historically constituted, reconstituted, and reproduced’ (19).

10What, then, can we make of that emergent consciousness of diaspora and diasporic identities amongst intellectuals of African descent during this past half-century? I will not rehearse here the very impressive genealogy of the African diaspora concept that Brent Edwards has already performed. I want to touch on only a couple of key contestations within that genealogy. Edwards has shown how the term ’African diaspora’ was introduced to modern scholarship in 1965 when George Shepperson delivered a paper at the International Congress of African Historians at University College, Dar es Salaam, bearing the title ’The African Abroad or the African Diaspora’. The term, as Shepperson argued, began to be used increasingly by intellectuals and writers between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, during the period when many African states were achieving independence from their European colonizers (Shepperson 1965, 1982). Edwards insightfully reveals how Shepperson opened up new intellectual space with his commentary, and then incisively demonstrates how future uses of the African diaspora concept would foreclose that space by collapsing ’the term into versions of nationalism or racial essentialism’ (Edwards 2001: 549-554).

11The two points I wish to raise concern just what Edwards has diagnosed as the counterpoints to diasporic discourse: nationalism and racial essentialism. The African diaspora concept challenges these two modes of thinking by insisting that we focus not only on the shared, common origins of the African diaspora, but the differences entailed by the multiple routes and locations in that diaspora. Difference, in this discourse, becomes a means of undoing essentialism. Likewise, transnationalism, that is of necessity part of diasporic discourse (at its very heart), becomes a way of dissecting the problems associated with the black cultural nationalism that insists on racial essentialism in establishing itself as a form of nationalism.

12The usefulness of the term ’African diaspora, ’ as Edwards shows, after reviewing its misuse, is that it insists on difference. Indeed, it was introduced, he notes, ’in large part to account for difference among African-derived populations, in a way that a term like Pan-Africanism could not’ (64). The ’use of the term diaspora, ’ Edwards concludes, is that ’it forces us to consider discourses of cultural and political linkage only through and across difference’ instead of providing the kind of ’easy recourse to origins’ (Edwards 2001: 64).

13The best scholarship on the African diaspora has indeed focused and continues to focus on differences. Many scholars have identified a number of different African diasporas. Colin Palmer identified ’five major African diasporic streams’-three premodern and two modern (Palmer 1998). Butler argues that there are ’at least three major branches of the contemporary African diaspora’, the Afro-Atlantic (dispersed via the trans-Atlantic slave trade), the Afro-Asian (dispersed via the Indian Ocean slave trade), and the African national (émigrés from the continent to other parts of the world)’ (Butler 2000: 127). Paul Tiyambe Zeleza maps out what he identifies as the four historic African diasporas: ’the intra-Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and Atlantic diasporas’ (44).

14Different destinations, then, produce different diasporic experiences. Both Thomas Holt and Dwayne Williams make just this point explicitly in arguing that a rich understanding of diaspora necessitates what Holt described as the analytic study of ’experiences that unfolded for different black people in different places’ (Holt 36; cf. Williams 108-109). Difference, then, is geographical and therefore historical and social. The person who perhaps stated most emphatically and early the importance of this conception of difference in the study of the African diaspora is Stuart Hall, who maintained that diaspora must be understood ’by the recognition of necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of ’identity’ which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity’ (Hall 1990: 235; quoted in Williams 1999: 110).

15In a later, retrospective commentary, Hall adds that diaspora is a concept that also requires another kind of difference-that is, recognizing the difference in the mythical ancestral homeland since the diaspora. The ’Africa we left 400 years ago under the conditions of slavery, transportation and the Middle Passage has not been waiting for us-unchanged-to come back to, either in our heads or in our bodies, ’ he writes (Hall 2007: 285). Diaspora as a concept respects that historical change and difference. Indeed, for Hall what makes cultural nationalism a romantic and unfeasible strategy is precisely that it does not account for how diasporan subjects have to rediscover their connections with Africa. What he calls the ’pan-African imaginary’-an imaginary at the heart of which is the concept of ’diaspora, ’ he maintains-accounts for those changes, those challenges, those differences (Hall 2007: 286).

16If difference becomes an antidote to racial essentialism, transnationalism serves as the antidote to the very source of racial essentialism-cultural nationalism. Diaspora, because it focuses on dispersal and therefore on the locus of departure and of arrivals, of the homeland and the hostlands, is necessarily attuned to the ways identities are constituted in spaces not bound by the borders of the nation-state. Even when a diasporic people identify as belonging to a particular nation (historical or imagined), their identities are complexly constructed from layered types and levels of belonging to that and other nations. As the Boyarins astutely note, ’diasporic identity is a disaggregated identity’. In the case they draw on, the Jewish diaspora, they note that ’Jewishness disrupts the very categories of identity because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these in dialectical tension with one another’ (721). In the case we are exploring, the African diaspora, we can add, not racial. Earl Lewis has made the most compelling case for our understanding what he describes as the ’complexity of racial construction’ because of the ’degree to which people lived in interconnected worlds demarcated by race, class, color, and other factors’-what he calls a ’world of overlapping diasporas’ (779).

17Diaspora, as scholars from Michael Hanchard to Patterson and Kelley note, forces us to ’understand black people in the West as transnational/translocal subjects’ (Patterson and Kelley 22). Diaspora, in its insistence on recognizing and comprehending the role that transnationalism plays, promotes scholarly consideration of what Brent Edwards calls ’the complexity and influence of black universalist discourses, black articulations of the globe’ (Edwards 2000: 50).

18The African diasporic discourse that insists on difference and transnationalism, then, provides a useful site of contestation for a particular kind of cultural nationalism that emerged in the 1960s, one that romanticized an easy connectedness to Africa and things African, one that essentialized and biologized race in deleterious ways, and one that deployed all the problematic features of other kinds of nationalism (notably, controlling the sexual options and reproductive choices of women, manifesting a Manichean sensibility about identity and belonging). The African diasporic discourse, if not an outright repudiation of that sort of cultural nationalism, is certainly in disputed dialogue with its major tenets. And, in the end, what that African diasporic discourse promotes is the possibility of an expanded and more tolerant unity that respects differences instead of insisting on normative standards for what constitutes cultural blackness.

19The second discourse I am interested in taking up here is that of political apology. Some quick definitions are in order. Political apologies provide a penitent mapping out of historical acts that are now identified as atrocities, while promoting a political future in which that penitence is translated from political sorrow to political goodwill. There are literally thousands of examples of these kinds of political apologies for specific historical incidents. One type are those offered by the living agents who committed the crimes, as, for example, was the case when Kaing Guek Eav apologized for the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge under his watch as a torture house commandant (Mydans). The other type are those offered by later representatives of the bodies that committed historical crimes, as was the case, for instance, in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology for the Australian child migrant programs in 2009 (McDonald) or the Australian Prime Minister’s earlier apology for the ’Stolen Generations, ’ the government policy of separating Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders from their birth parents (Augostinos, Lecouteur, and Soyland). It is this second type in which I am interested here-the political apology for historical atrocities by later representatives.

20Before turning to the political apologies that interest us here, it is worthwhile to review briefly the primary terms of debate for those engaged in arguments about the virtues or failings of historical apologies.

21The most common objections to the spectacle of church and national leaders apologizing for grievances they did not commit, events that happened a hundred or five hundred years ago, and atrocities for which nothing more is offered than contrition, is that these historical apologies are nothing more than a spectacle. Some call it a form of ’cheap grace, ’ atonement without the rigor of remorse and restitution. Others see it as audacious in those leaders’ assumption that they can speak on behalf of either a dead past or a not entirely contrite congregation or constituency. Critics of historical apologies usually fall into two groups; those who believe that apologies are not enough, and those who believe apologies are unnecessary. Those in the first group argue that such acts should be accompanied with material reparations, or that it cheapens a tragic historical experience to believe that it can be forgiven. Those in the second group resist the idea that guilt can be collective or responsibility transmitted, and they believe that only those culpable of committing the crime can apologize, and that only those actually and directly victimized can forgive.

  • 1 These two paragraphs are taken from Rushdy 2009.

22Those who do see in historical apologies some promise emphasize that symbolic acts do have deep meanings. They believe that such gestures are less important in redressing the actual victimization of the past and more important in establishing a shared truth about the crime and expressing a future commitment to the shared humanity of the victims and the offenders. They believe that such historical apologies can prevent a cycle of retributive violence, lead to collective healing, and promote reconciliation. Many, if not most, approach the problem with the discourse either of therapy (to heal the wounds of the past) or religion (to hate the sin, forgive the sinner). These, then, are the major, but certainly not the only, arguments offered by the critics and the advocates of historical apologies.1

23We can turn now to the specific event for which so many political apologies have been offered in the last forty or so years-the African slave trade. These apologies have come at a variety of levels-from individuals speaking on behalf of their families, political leaders speaking on behalf of their countries, and religious leaders speaking on behalf of their churches.

24At least two families have apologized for their role in the North American slave trade. In the late-1990s, Edward Ball apologized to African Americans descended from slaves originally held on the plantations his family owned in South Carolina, and then travelled to the west coast of Africa to perform a ritual of penance and request the descendants of the African chieftains to join him in a collective apology for the slave trade. More recently, in a book revealingly entitled Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, Thomas Norman DeWolf explores the process his family took in offering an apology for their ancestors’ Rhode Island slave-trading enterprise.

25Representatives of national governments have also expressed sorrow, as President Bill Clinton did when he visited the Kisowera Primary School, just outside the capital of Uganda, in 1998. President Clinton commented: ’I think it is worth pointing out that the United States has not always done the right thing by Africa... going back to the time before we were even a nation. European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong’ (Bates). Likewise, some consider the law passed by the French government in 2001 as an apology. The first article of that law states: ’The French Republic recognizes... that the transatlantic slave trade as well as the slave trade in the Indian Ocean; and... [the] slavery perpetuated against the populations of Africa, America, Madagascar and India... constitute a crime against humanity’ (quoted in Jamfa 2008: 210). Some have also argued that the French law does not constitute an apology, since it acknowledges but does not offer any remorse for the events recognized, and, moreover, the use of the present tense (’reconnait’) ’suggests an unwillingness to take responsibility for the past’ (Howard-Hassmann and Lombardo 2008: 217).

26Finally, religious bodies have abundantly offered apologies for the slave trade. Most conspicuously, Pope John Paul II apologized repeatedly for the Vatican’s role in the slave trade. During his 1985 trip to Cameroon, he asked ’pardon from our African brothers who suffered so much because of the trade in blacks’ (Dionne; cf. Accattoli 240). In 1989, the Vatican issued a document entitled ’The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society, ’ in which the Church acknowledged how it had insufficiently tried to offset the practices of colonization and slavery (Franklin). Nineteen ninety-two was the year in which Pope John Paul II made his most powerful and repeated statements about the Vatican’s complicity in the African slave trade. He began by praying for forgiveness on Goree Island in Senegal-’From this African sanctuary of black pain, we implore forgiveness from heaven’-in February (’Pontiff Recalls Horror’; cf. Accottoli 1997: 240-244). A month later, he urged his listeners at St. Peter’s to approach Lent ’in a spirit of penance [for], all the crimes which in that long period were perpetrated against the people of Africa by that shameful trade’. In June, he addressed again during a visit to Sao Tomé what he there called ’this cruel offense against the dignity of the African people’. In October, he visited Santo Domingo-on the fifth centenary of the arrival of Columbus and Christianity-and he continued to apologize for what slavery did to the new world. A week later in a general audience at St. Peter’s he stated: ’We do not cease asking these people for “forgiveness”’ (Accotolli 1997: 244-245). Nor did he cease. He apologized again during his visit to Jamaica the following year (’Pontiff Apologizes’).

27What, then, can we make of this discourse of political apology? In the recently booming field of apology studies, scholars have looked at a variety of factors involved in these political apologies. The factor I want to focus on here concerns identity. Some scholars insist that ’in cases of historical mistreatment, the demand for an apology is a demand for recognition of group identity’. The apology in these cases changes the terms of previous identities because it ’establishes a new relationship between former victim and oppressor, of equal status’ (quoted in Gibbs 161). Others disagree, claiming an apology indeed affirms the inequalities between strong and weak people or nations (Kerstens 188). A scholar who looks at German apologies for past crimes, for instance, notes that while non-African nations received apologies, financial reparations, and structural support from Berlin, an African nation like Namibia, where German colonial forces massacred 70,000 Herero and Nama people between 1904 and 1907, receives only an apology-and that only after filing a lawsuit in an international court (Jamfa 2008).

28The point I want to emphasize and end on is the same one of racial essentialism faced by those who employ the African diaspora discourse. One danger is that political apologies can racialize in the sense of creating widespread beliefs that a certain kind of people are more contrite and another more accepting. On the whole, in these spectacles of public apologies little thought seems to be given to the possibility that the apologies might not be accepted. To what extent, one wonders, would this indicate a belief that there are a race of forgiving people and that forgiving people have a race?

  • 2 U Tam’si uses ’Negro’ here as a new political identity-post-colonial and pan-African. ’Negro’ here (...)

29In Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 novel, The Marrow of Tradition, Chesnutt has his moderate black hero counsel his militant black hero to ’forgive our enemies’. The militant Josh Green responds that all the forgiving is done only by black people. White folks forgive nothing. Sometimes, this belief is expressed as a positive attribute. Ubuntu, writes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is a central feature of the African worldview, and a central feature of ubuntu is the ethic of forgiveness (31). Sometimes, it is expressed with more ambivalence about the costs of forgiveness. In his poem on the lynching of Emmett Till, the Congolese poet Tchicaya U Tam’si claims: ’I forget to be Negro to forgive the world for this’ (Kennedy 1975).2 The danger, then, is that forgiveness will become a racial attribute, the special gift in a particular group of people, in the same way slavery and blackness became synonymous in a racist world. In the words of Wole Soyinka, who is paraphrasing another negritude poet, ’To err is human, to forgive, African’ (21).

30The African slave trade, then, represents a moment, a breach, a rupture, a dispersal, a crime, around which two distinct ways of thinking have coalesced. One way, the diasporic discourse, is largely the product of the victims of that rupture and crime, the subjects descended from that dispersal. What might have begun as a romantic claim of affiliation by cultural nationalists has become, under the vigilant stewards of African diaspora scholarship, a mode of understanding connections amongst globally far-flung populations who share a continental origin and a transnational one. The other way, the political apology discourse, is largely the product of the subjects of those descended from those who caused that dispersal. In some ways, it is a laudatory strategy in that it is based on the desire for contemporary subjects to take responsibility for the political, historical acts that gave them a particular kind of subjectivity and a certain level of cultural and concrete capital. In other ways, though, it is also a troubling strategy in that these apologies sometimes replicate rather than renounce the original inequalities that made the historical crime possible.

31We have seen that most notably in the ways that the two discourses deal with the concept of ’race’. The political apology discourse, as we have just seen, sometimes rearticulates race with no difference. The diaspora discourse insists on appreciating and understanding the historical origins of race in the process of diaspora. That is the main point of those who insist on our exploring ’difference’ in African diasporic studies. The people who were the subjects of the African diaspora-or the ’historically more accurate’ terms of the ’Yoruba, Akan, or Malinke diasporas, ’ as Colin Palmer notes-became, in Earl Lewis’ words, ’first, African and then African American’ (Palmer 1998; Lewis 1995: 774). Race was a product of the diaspora in that it united a people by imagining a continental provenance that had hitherto been an unimagined community.


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1 These two paragraphs are taken from Rushdy 2009.

2 U Tam’si uses ’Negro’ here as a new political identity-post-colonial and pan-African. ’Negro’ here refers to those who challenge the racist world order, which is why he has to forget that identity, and return to an earlier identity associated with old or false Negroes, in order to forgive.

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