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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

Corinne Duboin
Claudine Raynaud

Theorizing Diaspora, Blackness and Post-Raciality

The Diasporas of and to Nations?: The case of Africa

Ashraf H. A. Rushdy


I propose to return to the two inaugural intellectual events in African diaspora studies, a 1965 conference in Dar es Salaam and a 1979 conference in Washington, DC, in order to tease out how the original debates in those conferences helped form the contemporary study of the African diaspora. I pay especial attention to the question of the relationship between diaspora and nationalism, since the concept of African diaspora was proposed and promoted at a key moment in the development of black nationalism as an ideology in America and a practical concern in decolonizing Africa.

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  • 1 A modified version of this paper will appear in Diaspora.

1The question of nation is central to the concept of diaspora, and yet the concept of diaspora might well be most challenging to the idea of the nation-state.1 In most ‘traditional’ diasporas—the classic cases, say, of the Jewish, the Armenian, the Irish—we see peoples who are already organized as a nation dispersed to other lands where they take their national identity with them, modifying both it and the place they arrive, the hostland. In that dynamic process, which, of course, is itself inherently transnational, what happens to the nation, to nationalism? In different cases, it has been either reified or fundamentally subverted, either affirmed by or rendered profoundly suspect in the very process of a people’s dispersal. The case of the African diaspora adds one more layer of complexity to the question of the relationship between nation and diaspora since it is a dispersal of people who are generally not thought of as belonging to a nation, but whose diaspora seems to have produced one.

2There is also one other question about the relationship between nation and diaspora that the concept of the African diaspora raises—the question of political nationalism. That question has, I argue, been at the forefront of the discussions of the concept of the African diaspora from the very beginning, from the original formulation of the phrase ‘African diaspora’. By returning to the two key foundational moments in the formation of the African diaspora concept—the introduction of the term in a conference in Dar es Salaam in 1965, and then the development of the concept in a conference in Washington, DC in 1979—we can see how the question of nationalism informed, threatened, and pervaded the climate in which African diaspora studies was founded.

3The term ‘African diaspora’ was apparently introduced to modern scholarship in 1965 at the First International Conference on African History, held at University College, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The conference, convening in September and October, 1965, was sponsored by UNESCO and the Tanzanian government. It brought together 150 delegates, representing forty countries, who presented papers on three broad categories defined in the program as: historiography and methods, themes and topics, and the teaching of African history (Harris 1966: 80).

4The person usually credited with introducing the term, George Shepperson, a professor of History at the University of Edinburgh, in fact acknowledged that he did not know who ‘first used’ the phrase, but noted that the term had been 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. In any case, two of the presenters at the Dar es Salaam conference used the term—Shepperson, in a paper entitled ‘The African Abroad or the African Diaspora’, and a professor of History at SUNY-New Paltz, Joseph Harris, who used it in his introductory talk entitled ‘Introduction to the African Diaspora’ (Shepperson 1965; Harris 1968; Ranger 1968: 147–76; Shepperson 1982: 46; Alpers 2002, n. 9: 4).

5In his introductory remarks, Harris used the phrase with facility, with no special pleading, and no prolonged definition, which suggests that it might have had some currency already among his listeners. Indeed, he began by pointing out that the topic of African diaspora had been of interest to African Americans since the 19th century. He quoted Alexander Crummell’s phrase referring to Africa’s ‘now scattered children’ while referring to the author of that phrase as himself a ‘product of the diaspora’ (Harris 1968: 147–148). Harris’s, then, was a work of linking a new discourse to an old idea.

6Likewise, in his talk, Shepperson spent a great deal of time pointing out that the concept of dispersal had long been explored and developed by historians, especially historians of African descent, for decades before the term ‘African diaspora’ was applied to these historical events. A term like ‘Pan-African’ had a political resonance, but it represented a politics that implicitly accepted a dispersed population who shared or could share common goals. Likewise, Marcus Garvey used the term ‘scattered’ Africa in the 1920s (Garvey 1986: 119), and William Ferris had published his two-volume The African Abroad in 1913. The title of Shepperson’s talk in Dar es Salaam, we remember, was ‘The African Abroad or the African Diaspora’. Shepperson made it clear that he was not claiming a new field of study; he was expanding one whose genealogy and contours he appreciated.

  • 2 Shepperson published an abbreviated version of his talk in 1966. I will be citing the version that (...)

7There are two things in particular that stand out from the session on the African diaspora at the Dar es Salaam conference. First, once the term ‘diaspora’ was introduced, it raised a crucial question about how to define a key feature of diaspora, namely whether a diaspora could be voluntary (like a migration) or had to be the result of forced dispersal, as in the Jewish precedent. Shepperson came down pretty firmly on the side of the latter as he noted that ‘not all migration from Africa comes within the bounds of the concept of the African diaspora which is the study of a series of reactions to coercion, to the imposition of the economic and political rule of alien peoples in Africa, to slavery and imperialism’ (Shepperson 1968: 153).2 This was the first stand in what would become and remains an important debate in African diaspora studies and diaspora studies more broadly.

8The second point had to do with nationalism. In his introduction, Harris pointed out that ‘the appeal to black nationalism revitalized the Africanness in Negro Americans generally’ (Harris 1968: 151). He referred specifically to the Garvey movement and the Black Muslims, but certainly his listeners must also have been alert to the events that were taking place in the United States at the same time as the conference in 1965. Watts, after all, had erupted in rebellion about a month before the conference gathered, and that summer had seen the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a political party that used a black panther as its iconic symbol. Where Harris pointed out how black nationalism in America inspired people in the diaspora to think of their African connections, Shepperson argued that people of African descent in the New World had played an undeniable and undeniably important role in inspiring African nationalism (Shepperson 1968: 166–170). It is worth remembering that Rwanda, Burundi, Algeria, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia had achieved independence in the three years before the conference, and the Gambia just seven months before. Indeed, the host country Tanzania had been independent for less than two years at the time of the gathering.

9Here, in the first intellectual forum that introduced the term ‘African diaspora’, we see the dynamic interaction between those in the homeland and those dispersed from it, in a process described by Shepperson as ‘not peripheral but a complex sequence of causes and effects moving from circumference to centre and back again’ (Shepperson 1968: 167; italics in original). As well as introducing the term, then, the Dar es Salaam conference introduced the dynamic interplay between Africans and those scattered Africans abroad. At the same time, it was clear that the conference was being held in a crucial time in which black nationalism was resurgent as an idea in the diaspora, and nation-states themselves were emerging in Africa.

10As mentioned, one of the two speakers at the Dar es Salaam conference who introduced the term ‘African diaspora’ to the gathering was Joseph E. Harris, who soon left New Paltz to become Professor of History at Howard University. He was largely the force behind the convening of the next notable conference devoted to studying the phenomenon he helped name. In 1979, 130 scholars from around the world gathered at Howard University at the First African Diaspora Studies Institute (FADSI). This inaugural conference defined a set of emerging themes and debates that largely set the agenda for the next several decades. Let me outline four key debates, briefly, and then turn my attention to one large and pressing one.

11The first of these debates concerned the name itself, which some felt was appropriate, because it described a major historical phenomenon and placed Africa in universal history, and others inappropriate, because it had generally been applied to the historical experience of Jewish people and therefore invited invidious comparisons, or that it drew on a model of ‘white’ history to elucidate African history. Some at the conference preferred to use Garvey’s phrase ‘scattered Africa’ (see Harris 1982: 4–5; Lara 1982: 57–58; Martin 1982: 243–49). In the end, the conference seemed to endorse the term that was, after all, in its very title.

12A second debate that continues to have enduring significance for later scholars of African diaspora studies involved the question of the dynamics of diaspora, whether it was a process that originated in forced dispersal, or whether it should also include those Elliot Skinner described as being ‘expatriated by choice’ (Skinner 2007: 19). On the whole, it appears the conference endorsed the less restrictive understanding of diaspora.

13The third debate concerned the range of the African diaspora. Well before the term ‘Black Atlantic’ had assumed the ubiquity it now has, scholars were troubled at the way that other African diasporas were ignored. Joseph Harris, a distinguished historian of the African diaspora to Asia, made a point in 1979 that continues to be made over thirty years later by noting that ‘the Indian Ocean slave trade was many centuries older than that of the Atlantic’, and the dispersal of people of African descent to the Middle East and China could be dated to as early as the second century CE (Harris 1982: 116).

  • 3 The original phrasing, of course, is ‘What is Africa to me?’.

14The final debate, which I will highlight here, has to do with the relationship of the dispersal to the notion of return. What, in the phrase Countee Cullen used in the 1920s, was Africa to the diaspora?3 What relationship obtained or could obtain between those dispersed to other lands and the land from which their ancestors had been dispersed? Shepperson insisted that the study of back-to-Africa movements was an essential part of African diaspora studies, which, he argued, would lose ‘much of its force’ if ‘limited to dispersal in an outward direction only’ (Shepperson 1982: 49). Others were interested in what other forms return could take—mythic and political, as well as physical.

15These, then, were four important debates concerning the application of what some were calling the ‘African diaspora concept’ (Shepperson 1982: 47). They were all implicit in the working definition the FADSI conference adopted when they stated:

the African diaspora embodies the following: the voluntary and forced dispersions of Africans at different periods in history and in several directions; the emergence of a cultural identity abroad without losing the African base, either spiritually or physically; the psychological or physical return to the homeland, Africa.
(Harris 1982: 5)

16The final, larger debate was not specifically about what diaspora was or how it could be configured, nor about its range, or its dynamic features. Instead, it was more about the role diaspora could play in a larger political struggle that began with the original diasporic event of the slave trade itself. In his magisterial concluding comments to the conference, distinguished scholar St. Clair Drake first defined what he called the ‘traditional Pan-African activity’ of the past century, and then proposed that for ‘diaspora studies to be considered an aspect of this activity, an aspect operating in the cultural sector of it, they must contribute toward maintaining and reinforcing black consciousness and must be oriented toward the goal of fostering understanding, solidarity, and cooperation throughout the black world’. Some forms of diaspora studies, he noted, ‘make no such contribution’ (Drake 1982: 343).

17With that division, then, St. Clair Drake identified two distinct kinds of diaspora studies—a political one that engages with a larger Pan-African project, and an academic one that is concerned with explicating a historical dynamic. The academic pursuit can be useful to the political project, as Drake notes, since the knowledge that scholars of the diaspora produce can stimulate and support those engaged in Pan-African activity (346), and he sometimes referred to such intellectual work as ‘pan-Africanism with a “small p”’ (353). But it was clear that he was making a fairly strict distinction between work that was academic and activity that was political.

18He gives as an example of that distinction the anthropologist Melville Herskovits, who had engaged in a famous debate with E. Franklin Frazier over the existence of African cultural traits in African American life. Drake posits Herskovits as definitely an academic: ‘Herskovits always saw himself as a professional anthropologist using the New World as a laboratory for testing hypotheses about culture and for refining his concepts of acculturation, retention, reinterpretation and syncretism, not as a stimulus to political activity’. It is true, Drake notes, that Herskovits hoped ‘that one result of his scientific work would be to replace error with truth and thus to increase respect for Africans and people of African descent’, but that was clearly a secondary goal. And, moreover, Drake continues, ‘Herskovits considered a passionate commitment to Pan-African goals to be an impediment to honest scientific research’ (375).

19Drake takes a moment to consider this last point more carefully, for he did not want to posit another stark division between, say, science as a socially-sanctioned process for discovering truth on the one hand, and politics as a suspect strategy based on the opposite of science (myth, let’s say) on the other. Drake leveled a critique in 1979 that would become much more familiar in the 1980s and 1990s, in the wake of post-modernism and post-structuralism, by questioning the very Enlightenment subject and project that Herskovits took for granted. Both the politics associated with it—what he calls ‘liberal humanitarian reform’—and its ‘science’ with what he described as the ‘so-called objectivity associated with it’ had ‘built-in biases’, he insisted (375).

20But there was, of course, another politics that had emerged with particular salience in the diaspora in the years between the Congress in Dar es Salaam and the Institute at Howard, and that was a cultural black nationalism that had somewhat perversely accepted some tenets of 19th-century scientific racism. Let me be perfectly clear here. This is a charge not against all black nationalisms, or even most. The kind of racial essentialism I have in mind is found in cultural black nationalism only, and even then only in particular forms of it. In the United States, such cultural nationalists fought with those who called themselves revolutionary nationalists. In the case of the struggle between the Black Panther Party and US in California, that debate became deadly (largely, of course, because the FBI infiltrated both organizations and incited them to murderous acts). The form of cultural black nationalism at issue had re-emerged in the mid-1960s, and, when it did not focus on racial essentialism, had inspired a flourishing and successful Black Arts Movement that, in turn, produced more Pan-African cultural events.

21Yet, when that cultural nationalism did focus on racial essentialism, it became an impediment to Pan-African activity, as Drake defined it. Indeed, by the late 1970s, Drake was clearly alert to and warned of the dangers of ‘allowing black consciousness to degenerate into reverse racism, black chauvinism and xenophobia hiding behind race solidarity’ (344). And this was the case not only in the United States. The ‘debate between cultural nationalists and revolutionary nationalists’, he noted, was to be found not only on the street corners of ‘Harlem but also at conferences in Africa where Senghor’s words have been pitted against Sekou Toure’s’, for instance (345).

  • 4 This Pan-Africanist critique of racial essentialism is all the more worth noting in light of the co (...)

22Throughout his long concluding talk at the First African Diaspora Studies Institute, St. Clair Drake celebrated and applauded those who fought against that degenerate sense of racial essentialism. The most ‘sophisticated’ of what he was calling traditional Pan-Africanists, he noted, ‘see their struggles as not only involving black people everywhere but also as being organically related to Third World struggles generally and to the worldwide struggle of proletariat and peasantry regardless of race’ (344). He noted with approval Walter Rodney’s comment in Groundings with My Brothers that ‘black consciousness and black power in the Caribbean should not refer only to the people that colonial systems designated as black, but to all of the colored exploited—the East Indians, the mulattoes, and whatever other disinherited people would accept the ‘black’ identity’ (348). And, in one last example, he applauded George Padmore’s 1956 definition of ‘African’ as ‘anyone regardless of race, color, creed, tribe, or nationality who believed in one man, one vote and economic, political and social equality’ (358). Here were examples of a Pan-African activity (capital P) that were not tied to a black nationalism, not tethered to a racial essentialism. I will return to Drake later in this paper, but we can note now that he concluded his talk with a somewhat ominous recognition that there was change afoot, and that that change would deeply complicate Pan-African activity because of an implicit tension between those who held onto race, as one kind of property for an alienated and formerly enslaved people, and those who began to recognize that land and territory were a more valuable kind of property for a formerly colonized people. That tension came down to those in the diaspora and those in Africa. As he succinctly put it, ‘Racial Pan-Africanism and continental Pan-Africanism are not always compatible’ (358).4

23That, then, is where African diaspora studies stood at the end of two important inaugural events, one in Africa and one in the diaspora, one meeting at the moment when African countries were liberating themselves from colonial shackles in the mid-1960s and one that convened under a glowering sky of a post-civil rights, post-Black Power movement lassitude in the late-1970s.

24The understanding of the African diaspora concept was not especially contested between those two meetings. What Professor Shepperson had introduced as a historical event in Dar es Salaam, Professor Harris had expertly defined at Howard University, when he identified four key strategies or approaches to the study of the African diaspora. The first was to ‘trace the changes that occurred among Africans as they adjusted to varied conditions abroad’. The second was to ‘determine the extent to which African customs and memories survived abroad and in what form’. The third was to ‘analyze the ways in which the idea of Africa arose and manifested itself in the diaspora and related itself to Africa and Africans’. And, finally, the fourth was to ‘assess the nature, extent and significance of contacts between and within Africa and the areas of the diaspora’ (Harris 1982: 112).

25That definition, with mild differences in emphases, has largely remained the one that most contemporary scholars of African diasporas have drawn on for the past forty years. Let me turn now to some of the contemporary developments that have taken up some of these original debates.

26First, as to the question of the name (‘African diaspora’), the debate between those who were critical of applying a term from Jewish history to African has largely faded from sight. The new form of that debate seems to be between those who question whether the African dispersal should be considered a diaspora and those who affirm it. When William Safran, for instance, in the inaugural issue of the journal Diaspora was skeptical that Africans could be considered a diaspora in the same way as the classic examples of Jews and Armenians, scholars like Robin Cohen, Kim Butler, Tiffany Patterson and Robin Kelley challenged him on his restrictive definitions and questionable logic (Safran 1991: 89–90; Cohen 1996: 512; Patterson and Kelley, 2000: 19; Butler 2001: 2001).

27The debate over whether a diaspora must be the result of a forced dispersal or a voluntary one continues both in African diaspora studies and diaspora studies more generally. In both cases, it would appear, for many scholars, perhaps most, ‘diaspora’ has come to mean ‘migration’ or ‘transnational’. Even those who seem to support a more strictly historical definition usually relent. Paul Zeleza, for instance, begins by emphasizing that ‘dispersal does not automatically create a diaspora’ and ‘not every migrant turns into a diasporan’, only to affirm later in his paper, with suspect logic, that whoever settles permanently into a hostland and has children has effectively become diasporan (Zeleza 2008: 7, 12, 14; cf. Zeleza 2009). Nonetheless, Zeleza raises an important point about diaspora as a process, generational and complicated; the debate about whether it is a process that must begin out of violent dispersal or not continues.

28What was stated diffidently at the first conferences is now widely recognized: that there are many African diasporas, pre-modern and modern, extending to the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, as well as within the African landmass itself (Butler 2000: 127; Zeleza 2005: 44; Diptee and Trotman 2012: 5). And, likewise, regarding the final issue of return, we see many studies that examine the variety of ways diaspora subjects have returned to Africa, ‘reversing sail’, as it were, to use Michael Gomez’s felicitous phrase (Gomez 2005).

29Before turning back to the questions Drake raised in 1979, I would like to note one other remarkable development in African diaspora studies. There are now several intellectual centers like the African Diaspora Research Project (ADRP) at Michigan State University and the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC) at CUNY. There are also several important intellectual projects and databases that are changing the quantity and quality of information on which scholars of Africa’s diasporas are now able to draw. These include UNESCO’s Slave Route Project under the auspices of the United Nations, the Diaspora from the Nigerian Hinterland Project at the Harriet Tubman Institute at York University in Toronto, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, Version 2 at Emory University, which has so far collected information on more than 35,000 slave voyages.

30I want to note just two things about this development. First, these databases are now inspiring new debates about the particularities of the diaspora. Scholars like Paul Lovejoy and Philip D. Morgan, for instance, have used these databases to argue about the relationship of labor to culture, and the applicability of creolization theory, among other things (Lovejoy 1997; Mann 2001: 4–8). And in the pages of the American Historical Review and The Journal of African American History we find a vigorous debate over the African contribution to rice cultivation in the Americas (Eltis et al. 2007; Hall 2010; Bell 2010). Second, and fittingly, these databases seem to be precisely what the 1965 Congress on African History in Dar es Salaam had presciently called for in their resolution that it was ‘necessary to create a pan-African centre for the collection of documents and to establish an inventory [...] of basic documents and works that would promote the research into and teaching of African history’ (Harris 1996: 84; ‘Resolutions’ 1968: 221). It is probably safe to say that they did not imagine that the ‘pan-African centre’ for which they called (and they used Pan-African with a ‘small p’) and the documents it housed would both be virtual, but we can readily see, I hope, the advantages of its being so.

31Let me return, finally, to the debate about what we can broadly call the politics of African diaspora studies, the debate, that is, that St. Clair Drake most emphatically raised at the First African Diaspora Studies Institute gathering. The three key points he raised were: 1) the relationship of diaspora studies to traditional Pan-African political activity; 2) the dangers of racial essentialism; and 3) the relationship of the diaspora to Africa now.

32It would appear from our vantage, almost forty years after FADSI, that Pan-Africanism with a ‘small p’ has certainly outpaced what Drake called ‘traditional Pan-African activity’. Pan-Africanism has become an object of academic study, and is more likely to be encountered on a syllabus than on a street corner, at least in America. And the scholarship on the African diasporas has largely assumed just the role that Drake predicted it would—academic. It is also true, and noteworthy, that these academic studies, produced by scholars like Michael Gomez, Stephanie Smallwood, Patrick Manning, and Kim Butler, just to name a few, have played that supportive, inspirational role that Drake foresaw. But they have also done more.

33Let me put it this way: in African diaspora studies, what was academic was not merely academic. Drake made a telling and important point when he argued about the illusion of intellectual objectivity that drove scholars like Herskovits. The Enlightenment’s universal subject is not raceless, and the academy is not free of or removed from the political environment it occupies. Drake was ahead of the curve in that critique. But he seems to have avoided the conclusion that could also have been drawn from that insight. If the academy can never escape the politics outside the Ivory Tower, it follows that what is done within the academy is also political. I certainly don’t wish to suggest that Pan-Africanism with a small p is the same thing as traditional Pan-African activity, that intellectual work is the same thing as political agitation, that ideas are the same thing as action. They are not. But the relationship is not so merely supportive, not so clearly supplementary, as Drake implies. Those who have collected the data and interpreted them are rewriting the historical record, and in the process of doing so, they have given us a more invigorating and compelling portrait of the past that must necessarily alter our sense of the present and future. As one of the most eminent of those African diaspora scholars, Michael Gomez, puts it, engagement with the African diaspora is both ‘an academic project and [a] social agenda’ (qtd in Brock 2009: 8).

34We saw how Drake effectively addressed the second point about racial essentialism, as a danger in traditional Pan-African activity. As for the third point, Drake reminded us that the relationship between the diaspora and Africa was not always going to be smooth, because, as he put it, ‘Racial Pan-Africanism and continental Pan-Africanism are not always compatible’ (Drake 1982, 358). One kind of Pan-Africanism might be concerned with racial politics, and the other with territorial politics. To put it another way, the two kinds of nationalism recognized in Dar es Salaam—black nationalism in America, nation-building in Africa— turned out, in retrospect at Howard, to be clashing nationalisms.

35Drake recognized that ‘an epoch in traditional Pan-Africanism was ending’, and it was ending precisely because of the rise of nations in Africa. When African countries were colonized, the political dynamics were stark: the imperialist was colonizing a people struggling to emerge from that colonization. What Drake describes as that ‘period of uncomplicated united struggle to secure independence from the white oppressor ended for each colony as it became a nation’ (351). With that development, the dynamic between the colony and the diaspora shifted. First of all, those in the diaspora were now involved in a specifically national politics. ‘Diaspora blacks’, notes Drake, ‘had to decide which of various political factions, if any, within the new nations they would support’ (351). He notes that it was precisely such factionalism that led to the fracturing and then the demise of the American-based African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) in the mid-1970s (379).

  • 5 I must credit Mulubirhan Kidan Kassahun with this insight.

36Joseph Harris likewise noted that the decolonization of African nations profoundly altered the dynamics of the diaspora. Whereas the older ‘slave-derived diaspora was essentially “stateless” and relied primarily on an Africa remembered for its identity, the era of African independence from the late 1950s created a consciousness of new nations, symbols, names, and ideologies’ (Harris 2007: 88; cf. Hamilton 2007: 19). It is one thing, for instance, to claim an allegiance to Ethiopia when that name conjures up general images of African glory and belonging; it is quite another, when that same name conjures up a history in which an emperor subjugated ethnic communities like the Oromo and the Tigrai to establish the boundaries of his nation state.5

37Second, the formerly colonized nations now began to act as nation-states. As is almost unexceptionally the case in the emergence and maintenance of nation-states, they began by defining who belonged to the nation and who did not. Drake recalls a moment when he heard Thomas Mboya, founder of the Nairobi People’s Congress Party, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, and then Minister of Economic Planning and Development in Jomo Kenyatta’s government, speak in Harlem. Mboya antagonized the audience by telling them that ‘Afro-Americans should not fantasize about a return to Africa’ (Drake 1982, 359). The Kenyan legislature had just voted down a bill ‘to bestow automatic citizenship upon immigrants from the West Indies and upon Afro-Americans’ (359). Nationalism in Africa, it seemed, like nationalism everywhere, would assume the same prerogatives of defining belonging, of identifying residents, enemies, and strangers (Bauman 1990). What had been the elective affinities of people who shared beliefs were now something else between people who did not share a legal citizenship.

38As early as the Dar es Salaam conference, the question of nationalism had occupied a menacing place in the political background. In an introduction to the Proceedings of the conference, which he wrote in December, 1967, Terence Ranger echoed the sentiment Drake noted in Herskovits when he argued that the ‘African historian must resolutely turn his back, for the moment at least, upon the search for uniting Pan-African ideas’ (Ranger 1968: xvi), since that political commitment, he felt, would hinder the appreciation of the differences and particularities among disparate African cultures. He noted that since the conference met two years earlier in 1965, there had been a growing disillusionment in many African states that had made many Africans ‘firm adherents of the Fanonesque analysis of African nationalism’ (xxi). Fanon had also become profoundly important in America. Between 1965 and 1970, 750,000 copies of Wretched of the Earth were sold. As the editor of Liberator magazine, Dan Watts, pointed out, Fanon had become ubiquitous in the Black Power movement. As he put it, every ‘brother on a rooftop can quote Fanon’ (Rushdy 1999: 46). And the idea that rung from the rooftops in America and in the halls of state of Africa was that nationalism needed to be premised more and more on the idea of the necessity of violence against the colonizer. Sadly, as is almost inevitably the case in nationalist movements of all sorts, nationalists in Africa and black nationalists in the United States turned to internecine battles. Such battles between different political factions and different ethnic communities might well have been a result of the dire conditions that colonization and a racist society produced, but it is also clear, to me and to other commentators as well, that the turn to nationalism by those seeking freedom from colonization and racism provoked and exacerbated those battles.

39We have seen, then, that nationalism—in theory and in practice— was very much part of the climate in which African diaspora studies was introduced, and that it clearly threatened or emboldened those who felt it could play a role in the formation of an African diaspora discourse. Ranger saw an unmitigated danger to the academic study of the diaspora, while Drake saw the potential for political action, if the nationalism in question could shed its objectionable racial essentialism. From our perspective, almost a half-century removed from that inaugural event, we can see the two possibilities more clearly, and more starkly. One possibility was that the nationalism—in Africa and abroad—would influence the development of the African diaspora concept—that the concept would emerge attended by a form of nationalist sensibility, an exaggerated attention to belonging, say, or a focus on definition based on exclusion. Another possibility was that the concept of diaspora would emerge as an antidote to nationalism and the forms of racial essentialism that undergird and support it. Indeed, diaspora might well provide another way of conceptualizing and imagining the organization of a people, an alternative to the nation-state.

40The African diaspora concept, in that possibility, challenges racial essentialism and nationalism by insisting that we focus not only on the shared, common origins of the African diaspora, but also on the differences entailed by the multiple routes and locations in that diaspora. As Brent Edwards insightfully points out, diaspora ‘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). This was especially the insight of Stuart Hall in his commentary on difference and diaspora (Hall 1990: 235; qtd in Williams 1999: 110; cf. Hall 2007: 285–86). Different destinations, then, produce different diasporic experiences. 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 1999: 36; cf. Williams 1999: 108–09).

  • 6 This paragraph is taken from Rushdy 2013.

41If 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 departures and of arrivals, on 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’ (Boyarin 1993: 721). Diaspora, 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 2000: 22; cf. ‘Unfinished Migrations: Commentary and Response’ 2000: 50).6 That, of course, is how diaspora has been understood in our time, as constituting what Khachig Tölölyan astutely calls ‘exemplary communities of the transnational moment’ (Tölölyan 1991: 3, 5). Diasporas, as James Clifford puts it, are positively ‘antinationalist’ (Clifford 1994: 307; cf. Boyarin 1993: 711, 723; Cohen 1996: 520).

42Let me conclude by noting that the African diaspora is perhaps different from the classical diasporas in one way, and in one way only, and that is that it produced the unity on which diaspora is premised in the very process of the dispersal. Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Irish— these were nations whose populations were dispersed; the unity they enjoyed as diasporic communities in hostlands was established before the dispersal, although it was clearly conditioned, augmented, and transformed by the dispersal. The African diaspora, on the other hand, was not the dispersal of one nation, but many peoples. One of the valuable insights contributed by some of the most distinguished scholars of the African diasporas is that the people who were dispersed did not become African until after they were dispersed or in the course of their dispersal (Lewis 1995: 774). When they left those shores, they left as Coromantee, or Ewe, or Fon, or Mande, or Akan, or any of the other peoples who lived on that land mass. It was only later that they became African, and likely it was because they were called, thought of, and made into Africans by those who carried them away from their native lands.

43In the act of dispersal, then, a new people were created. Let me be clear. I am not downplaying the barbarous cruelty of the middle passage, the enormous injustice of the slave trade. I do not suggest we celebrate anything that came out of those crimes. I am suggesting, though, we see how a people creatively responded to them through acts of resistance, one of which was to unite as a people who were dispersed together, even though they might not have been dispersed from the same kingdoms or territories, or speak the same languages, or yet feel a kinship that their new perils would inspire in them. In her study of the Atlantic middle passage, Stephanie Smallwood refers to ‘the composite we can call diasporic Africa—an Africa that constituted not the continent on European maps, but rather the plurality of remembered places immigrant slaves carried with them’ (189). Those people with those memories, one is tempted to say, are the first Africans—the ones who assumed that identity when they were sundered from that land.

44Perhaps, then, the most powerful form of Pan-African activity— another politics that is resolutely transnational—is to embrace diaspora identity as an alternative to nationalism. If the imperative in nationalism is, as we have seen, to define by excluding (who is and who isn’t a national), the imperative of diaspora, in the case of the African diaspora, especially, is to unite in the process of dispersion. In the language that one nation to which people from Africa were dispersed used as its unofficial motto, here we can find an exemplary e pluribus unum.


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1 A modified version of this paper will appear in Diaspora.

2 Shepperson published an abbreviated version of his talk in 1966. I will be citing the version that appeared in the published Proceedings of the conference in 1968. It is interesting to note that the title was reversed from 1966 to 1968.

3 The original phrasing, of course, is ‘What is Africa to me?’.

4 This Pan-Africanist critique of racial essentialism is all the more worth noting in light of the controversies inspired by Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, and given that some of his critics have eschewed what one of them calls ‘postmodern analyses that tend to associate any attempt to forge “African Diaspora Commonality” as an espousal of essentialism’ (Christian 2009: 45; cf. Lipsitz 1995; Chivallon and Fields 2002).

5 I must credit Mulubirhan Kidan Kassahun with this insight.

6 This paragraph is taken from Rushdy 2013.


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