Mapping Pan-Africanism Onto Blackness: the Continent, the Diaspora, and Beyond


In this opening interview, scholar Denise Ferreira Da Silva discusses the politics of Blackness in the context of Pan-Africanism. She touches upon its layers and breaks, ultimately pointing to how Pan-Africanism can be effective and extended to people beyond the Continent and its diaspora. 

Article published in The Funambulist 32 (November-December 2020) Pan-Africanism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Missa Afro Em São Paulo Comemora O Dia Da Consciência Negra
São Paulo – Missa afro em frente à Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Homens Pretos em comemoração ao Dia da Consciência Negra (Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil)

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: When we talk about Pan-Africanism, the questions of “where” and “who” are crucial, although the impossibility to give an exhaustive answer to these questions is probably what makes the Pan-African project so inspiring too. In our own case, we’re thinking of course of the Black Indigenous nations of the Continent, the African Diaspora in the World, but also the non-Black Africans, and we also wonder if there’s a place for Black non-Africans such as Aboriginal people of the Australian continent, Maoris, Papuans, Tamils, etc. Could you lead us in your own fluid cartography of where Pan-Africanism is, and through which bodies it exists? 

DENISE FERREIRA DA SILVA: Yes. There is something about, a reference to place in your question, which is conveyed by the names and references to both the “where” and the “who” as well as to bodies. I think it invites a shift from the historic to the geographic, and from the historical to the global, as a point of departure for approaching PanAfricanism. Of course, those two shifts are not unexpected, but I think approaching PanAfricanism in a move from the temporal to the spatial — so to speak — has implications that are important to how we think about it. But then, of course, when I say “historic” or “historical,” I am and I am not referring to the history of PanAfricanism and its historical conditions of emergence and the historical conditions as they unfolded up to now. As you know, PanAfricanism was initially at least an anti-colonial left-oriented communist or socialist project. I mean, if we approach it historically, we can go back to the early 20th century and how it articulates a notion of self-determination in political and national like cultural historical terms, even though it’s not framed as a nationalist project. But the idea of the national, the cultural, or the historical is very important to the assembling of the project. It is also very important to the possibilities suggested by your question. So, just bear with me as I go back to that, and then I come back to answering your question properly [laughs]. 

Thinking of PanAfricanism in the context of the processes of independence and of the anti-colonial struggles, the nation-states that came out of it had to deal with the former colonizer, but also with the global apparatus set up in post World War II, like the U.N. and all its branches, and the Bretton Woods Organizations, etc. And they did so while they were engulfed by the Cold War, that is, by both the “hot” moments (seemingly endless independence wars fueled by the U.S. and the Soviet Union), as well as its “cold” (diplomatic and aid related international policies). And I think much of the transformative element of the anti-colonial project that was there in PanAfricanism from early on — I’m thinking back to the 1910s-1920s, when W.E.B. Du Bois was writing about PanAfricanism, and many others were involved — eventually dissolved… But anyway, I’m not going to go into this historical reference, since others in the issue will deal with it much more intelligently than I. 

Thinking back and considering the 1910s and 1920s, the anti-colonial (also anti-imperial and anti-capitalist) mobilizations of which PanAfricanism was part, that is, also including the historic, I find it generative to make the shift from the historic to the geographic, but also from the historical to the global. Since early on, one can see PanAfricanism operating geographically, mapping onto the continent and the diaspora, with Africa as a place, and Africa as a place of origin. However, I find this limiting, of course, because Blackness in its political activation, including this anti-colonial activation has a reach, which is in a way always related to, but which exceeds the continent. For instance, if we move from the geographic to the global, and map PanAfricanism onto Blackness, it would include the Pacific. What I mean is that, as a racial category, Blackness is a global signifier, and, as such, it captures a particular kind of racial subjugation (which is now called anti-Blackness). In my view, this kind of racial subjugation is characterized by the authority to deploy total violence, which can be traced to slavery and colonial subjugation, and which remains operative in Blackness, as a category.