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. 

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. 

For this reason, Blackness is a descriptor that can be applied to other places, where one finds that kind of authority unleashed against bodies named Black, even if they are not part of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas. I am thinking about non-African Black persons and populations, such as Aboriginal folks in Australia, as the Maori, as Papuans, and Tamils. No wonder folks in the Pacific, for instance, having placed different kinds of Black expressions such as rastafarianism and hip hop. 

Just to summarize: what I’m proposing is that, if we shift and think of it from geographically to globally, while retaining Blackness as a reference to PanAfricanism, it makes sense that the political concept of PanAfricanism then expands as a political descriptor for a political project that responds (resists or counters) in social contexts where Blackness is deployed to describe populations under a mode of racial subjugation characterized by the authority to deploy total violence. 

CAROLINE HONORIEN: Up to the 1980s, the word “Black” referred to Commonwealth immigrants in the U.K. of African and South Asian descent, but also South Asians from the Indian subcontinent. From Black internationalism, to South Asian activism, without forgetting anti-Blackness, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is not the case anymore. But it does pose questions on the place of non-Black people in Pan-Africanism but also of the existence of blackness(es) outside of the canonic Black diaspora. Could you address that? 

DFS: Like you, Caroline, I don’t know exactly why the shift did take place. But I know about this shift, because that’s my generation’s. I was coming out of age, in the 1980s, exactly as the shift was taking place. Back then, I was involved in the Black Brazilian movement. Much of my work has to do with reflecting on that moment, trying to make sense of what my generation did, I mean, that particular political moment. To me, it is a shift in the political discourse, in the lexicon and the grammar, itself; in particular, in terms of how what we would now call a “racial subject” should be articulated. In the case the U.K., as we know, up to the 1980s, maybe more explicitly than other places, but in the U.K.,for instance, the term “Black” included folks from the overseas holdings of the British Empire. That framing of the Black political subject foregrounded the colonial, as part the trajectory of PanAfricanism was talking about before — that is, the Black subject as a political subject is defined as the colonized or anticolonial subject. So the term “Black,” as it foregrounded colonial subjugation under the British, obviously had the capacity to embrace folks from other visions of the Empire. Now this of course had a lot to do with the left orientation of that political discourse laying emphasis on economic subjugation and what happened in the 1980s. 

Anyways, I think the shift happened with my generation. In my case, for instance, in the early 1980s, I made the move from the Communist Party, to the Black movement. What happened then was precisely the ascension of culture as the basis for a political discourse, in particular, the emergence of what was then called identity-based social movements. To situate the shift, you can think in term of the framing of the political discourse in the field was — even if it included anti-colonial movements — basically divided between the liberal framing of the political in which you know, that privileged the juridical, in which you have political parties, the state, the unions, and the left framing in in which you have a division between the working class and the capitalists right, the one that privileged the economic. Of course, social movements — Black and feminist, for instance — did not emerge in the 1980s; they were there before. In any event, the shift that took place in the 1980s was marked by the emergence of social movements that took cultural difference and identity as the basis for the delineation and the definition of their base for representation. 

More importantly, if you think in terms of the racially based movements like the Black movement, that notion of culture is not the one that I mentioned before in regards to PanAfricanism, which could be called “cultural-historical” and was modelled after the notion of the nation. What emerges — or perhaps consolidates in the 1980s political discourse — is what can be called an anthropological or sociological notion of culture, the one that fixes, that highlights borders — borders that also take into account racial difference. They close and fix the borders of the political subject by rendering it racially contained. In the case of the U.K., the effects are more evident, as the term “Black” was broken along racial lines — even within the general term BAME (Black, Asian, and minority Ethnics) which no longer convey a colonial enveloping. 

However, I think the issue now is whether there will emerge a version of PanAfricanism that both reflects what’s covered in what we mentioned before, that has the capacity to embrace the non-Black (of African Descent) populations? A version of PanAfricanism, as we were talking before, that recalls the anti-colonial framing of Blackness. And I think that’s a possibility; precisely because of the current global conditions as we see being more dramatically in the U.S., with this resurfacing of white supremacy under Trump, but also in Europe. Perhaps its explicit fascist orientation, precisely because of its element of total violence, might recall the anti-colonial framing of the political subject that we left behind back in the 1980s. But who knows? 

LL: Just as a small follow up, do you think that, in the context of Brazil specifically, the ultimate victory against the military dictatorship, which is right in the middle of the 1980s, might have played any role in that? 

DFS: Well, it’s difficult to say no. Of course, the military dictatorship delineated the immediate struggle, the specificity of the local conditions, but I think it was more of a shift that was a global shift in the political discourse. I remember how, in the early 1980s, while we were all still very much organizing and protesting against the military dictatorship, many of us who are involved in the Black Brazilian and other social movements. Back then in college, we were reading what was coming out in the literature and social movements. In that critical literature in which the notion of the culture was very much brought forward as an important political concept. My inclination is to see the shift as a global one. But then, of course, in different contexts, social movements had to deal with different issues. So, while in the U.S., you could have someone like Ron Karenga on the Afrocentrics successfully proposing Black celebrations, such as Kwanza. In Brazil, we couldn’t do that, because of Black culture in Brazil was part of national culture. So, in reclaiming Black culture, we had to reclaim from within the nation instead of just celebrating or proposing something uniquely or exclusively Black. Our struggle was for the recognition that certain known cultural practices were exclusively Black. That was one difference. But in general, I think the general grammar, I mean, the political text was the same. 

CH: Since the mid-1970s, it seems that a shift occurred from Pan-Africanist discourses and its internationalism to discourses revolving around the “African diaspora,” a diaspora that actually accounts for continental Africans as well. We went from Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey’s foundational Pan-Africanist myth of return to Africa to Martiniquean poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant discourse in Politics of Relation (2009) talking about the relevance of the Africanization of the Caribbean. Could you tell us how and why such a shift happened in your opinion? 

DFS: I think this is part of the same shift of the basis of the political discourse that I was talking about before, in regard to the trajectory of PanAfricanism, but also the changes that we just talked about in the U.K.. But, one thing I did not mention in relationship to PanAfricanism — because I was focusing on the Marxist aspect of the project — is the fact that at least with Marcus Garvey (and others in the early 20th century), the basis for identification was very much racial. The United Negro Association was racially based, it wasn’t necessarily anti-colonial, and it actually had its own colonial desires (and plans for the improvement of the race) attached to it. But the idea of an African diaspora, which is, insofar as slavery did force people out of the continent, there is such a thing. Hence, that is a diaspora. There is a group of people to which the name diaspora can be applied. That has been there all along. 

The difference is how it is mobilized. We can approach the shift in terms of changes of the same entity when talking about the African diaspora, but that is too Hegelian, even for me! Though I like to spend time thinking against or unthinking Hegel, I prefer to see these shifts in terms of the political discourse; shifts that reflect the rearrangement of the global political economic context, both on the national level and the regional level. And then as I mentioned before, as onto-epistemological shifts, in terms of knowledge, of the formulations and concepts that become part of the political lexicon and enter in the articulation of political subjects. So I think that the African diaspora has been “redefined,” in definite moments in response to both global and onto-epistemological shifts. 

LL: The Pan-African project is, of course, not just a geographic project; far from it, and the question of the cultural imaginary linked to it is as much what makes it exist as the land on which it takes roots. Can you tell us what aspects of this imaginary are particularly important to you? 

DFS: I’ll separate the imaginary from the cultural. I leave the cultural behind because, if I keep it, things will become complicated, because of what I said earlier. Perhaps a bit indirectly but, in a couple of answers, I did a sort of a genealogy of the concept of the culture, of how it has changed over many hundred years, from the cultural-historical (nationalist) anticolonial projects to the social scientific cultural (anthropological, sociological) of the 1980s, etc. A PanAfrican imaginary, if considered in view of the global political architecture, that imaginary has a lot to offer. 

Again, it comes down to the anti-colonial aspect of it; in particular, as it foregrounds juridical domination and economic subjugation. So a PanAfrican imaginary would allow us to look at the global present in such a way that we can immediately grasp economic dispossession, extraction, and exploitation as it affects people of color, Indigenous populations across national, regional, and local borders. A PanAfrican imaginary allows us to speak of Black subjugation in the same breath as we speak of settler colonialism. Even considering all the differences between where I am right now — the situation of the First Nations throughout Canada — what’s happening to Indigenous populations across the Continent — in the Americas as a whole — and what’s happening to the Black populations in the U.S., Brazil, and elsewhere. Precisely because if with an anti-colonial frame, the PanAfrican immediately foregrounds the juridic and economic, as it animates demands that we ask the question of subjugation. It does so, not solely from the point of view of the Black subject, organizing, coming together, fighting for emancipation, as the concept of the cultural (historical and social scientific) does, and in doing so also closes off, sutures, and fixes. 

A PanAfrican project with an anticolonial imaginary will focus upon conditions that bring about subjugation. I’m just feeling like an old fashioned Marxist talking this way, but, well, that’s where the reflection takes me! Anyway, I do think we need more of that. Not that Marxism can deliver it; it can’t. But that is why a PanAfrican anticolonial imaginary becomes necessary, precisely because historical materialism cannot do it all by itself. 

CH: In many respects, Pan-Africanism as a political movement questions our sense of belonging as people of African descent. Belonging to a transnational community, but also to a territory. The idea that the diaspora’s destiny is tightly knitted to the continent and its inhabitants still remains. Even as a cultural movement, Pan-Africanism is tied to Négritude and other cultural nationalisms that have been concerned with this sense of belonging and home. Nowadays discourses around Blackness are prevalent. Blackness on the other hand, is a political identification endorsed by people of African descent, that goes beyond time and place. In the diaspora as well as on the continent, blackness is fluid and multiple. How can we think about how Blackness complicates our understanding of Pan-Africanism and, maybe, its past aporias? 

DFS: I have been responding to your questions by suggesting that PanAfricanism, if approached globally, has a correspondence to Blackness — but in a more conceptual sense. And then, of course, because Blackness is a racial category that captures this subjugation of people of African descent, including in the Continent — I’m thinking of South Africa in this case. It’s a matter of the claim. if it is a claim of belonging along the cultural anthropological lines, so Blackness and even PanAfricanism breaks apart. It’s not only that Blackness would complicate our understanding of PanAfricanism or the other way around, they just break apart because they are fixed and then and all the different divisions come to the fore. 

Now, as I was saying before, when I was going all Marxist about it, it is a claim of subjugation (economic, juridical, ethical, and symbolic): common history of extraction, subjection to total violence, being ethical indifference, and of being presented subjectable to humiliation. Then Blackness and Pan-Africanism become just different perspectives from which we make the claim and assemble political statements and programs on the basis of the same historical-global conditions and events. Maybe that’s the kind of conversation we may want to have now. Since I don’t think we should be tied to any particular formulation of the political subject or the racial subject. So what kind of claim actually makes sense given the current political conditions, particularly given the ways in which extraction, total violence and humiliation become so prevalent in descriptions and considerations of Black existence. 

LL: I am trying to think through something you just talked about: this relationship to settler colonialism. I wonder if we can say that Black people on the other side of the Ocean from the Continent could be politically defined as non-settler inhabitants on Indigenous land? And I wonder if Pan-Africanism is in any way present in the relationships that Black people in all the Americas have or don’t have with Indigenous nations of Turtle Island, South America, and the Carribean? 

DFS: We have quite a bit of work to do in regards to how to think Black subjugation in the settler colonial context, and also in the distinct settler colonial contexts on this side of the Atlantic. So to the first part of the question about whether Black people can be considered or should be considered non-settlers, evidently, we are not settlers, because the reasons why we are here, those of us who are a descendant of slaves — never forget that there are other Black people who are not — it was not our decision to come, and there was no decision to stay. So that’s obviously not on the one hand. 

But then on the other hand, Black populations in the Americas do not inhabit these national or regional or local contexts in the same way as white populations precisely because of the history of racial subjugation that followed slavery. And I’m thinking primarily in that definition of Black subjugation that I shared before; the authorized violence, but also humiliation and extraction. So we are not settlers and we have not conquered and colonized. 

On the…third hand (!), how do we describe, how can we make sense of both Black subjugation and of a Black political project, given that positionality to use the term? I think there, again, an anti-colonial PanAfrican imaginary becomes important. For one thing, and that’s the simplest thing possible, it connects the population that descends from slaves to the populations that were colonized in the Continent. This gives the intuition of a similarity that does not have to be actualized in the Americas because the trajectory of Black folks here are different, but of a similarity of a colonial trajectory shared by Indigenous populations here and Indigenous populations on the African Continent. The idea is that Blackness, because it’s a move from Blackness considered from within the national contexts, which allows us to make sense of the trajectories, but also prevents us from thinking about the larger context of possibility for existing as Black persons in the Americas, anywhere. 

Ferreira Da Silva Funambulist (2)
Afrobrazilian Black Lives Matter organizers in front of the Zumbi dos Palmares
monument, in Rio de Janeiro, on June 7, 2020. / Photo by Jorge Hely Veiga.

So moving from that to a global, but primarily colonial context, which, with slavery, colonialism, and settler colonialism make sense along the lines of the colonization of the Continent itself. Such an approach, for instance, would allow folks — Black folks in particular — to make sense of our investment in the settler colonial state: the making of demands for rights to the settler colonial state is an act, a statement that legitimizes the settler colonial state as such, and its constructions as acceptable, as correct. When we make those claims, then the violence that has made those states possible, is also erased. So if the Black political discourse takes into account this triangle, this connection, the American context and colonialism in the Continent, and the slave trade that connects the two (Americas and Africa), if we think with that triangle in mind, we will be more attentive to the kinds of claims made to the settler colonial state and perhaps understand why they are never met because they are never supposed to be attended. 

LL: In the political definition I indicated, I was less attached to the idea of Black folks in the Americas being “non-settlers” — because, as you said, it is evident — but I was more thinking about this idea of inhabiting Indigenous land. Do you think that there’s something in this relation between Black folks in the Americas and the many Indigenous nations of this double continent that goes beyond their common experience of European violence? And can Pan-Africanism perhaps, give us a hint about this? 

DFS: Yes, that’s interesting. In Brazil, what we have, for the most part, especially to talk about culture, in the anthropological sense, in many of these cultural elements, some cannot distinguish what would be Indigenous and what would be Black, but, for the most part, everything is very much mixed. For instance, we have Indigenous medicine men (Pages) who are also pais de santo (leaders in Umbanda, which is an Afro-Brazilian religion). There is no contradiction in that. But then when I think of here, but then of course, here I’m a migrant. I’m an immigrant. 

I live in the Musqueam reservation, which is very close to the university [University of British Columbia in Vancouver], which is located on unceded Musqueam land. I pay rent to the Musqueam because they own the place where I live. There are two forests nearby: the Musqueam forest (in front of my house) and the Pacific Spirit Regional Park (five minutes away). After living here for almost five years, earlier this year, I was walking in the Pacific Spirit Park, which is gorgeous; it’s like fairytale forests. I was looking at some parts of the forest and really wondering whether or not they were sacred. I’m sure many of them are, but I don’t know. So no matter how long I live here, I will never know. While my landlords, my Musqueam neighbors, will always know because the knowledge is passed from generation to generation. 

Why was I wondering about it? Because I grew up in an Afro-Brazilian religion, learning about things sacred, places and practices, about places that are sacred, like, you know, waterfalls, or sacred places. Maybe it’s that distinction I tried to make in your question before about imaginary and the cultural. So on the one hand, you could, I will never know if it is about the cultural, or it’s about the content. But if we think of the imaginary is just this image of existence, this frame, that is a frame for growing up in Brazil, in the middle of Afro-Brazilian religion that gives me that frame. And that allows for the question of, is it a sacred place? Even though I’ll never know the answer. Around that, along these lines, yes, I think there is something that is not immediately given by colonial violence. 

CH: The Atlantic slave trade, colonization, and Apartheid have all challenged the humanity of people of African descent around the world. Can you talk about the ways Pan-Africanism did, tried, or failed to reclaim this humanity, but also contrast this trial to what is happening around this concept in Black discourse today. I was thinking about how racism hast emerged with the slave trade, was based on denying of the humanity of Black people based on their reason, and I was thinking about Léopold Sédar Senghor who, at one point, talked about how emotion was Negro and the reason was Greek? And now we have thinkers, such as Sylvia Wynter, who would rather cancel the concepts of humanity and reason altogether. Could you address that? 

DFS: I feel that I can’t answer the question and if I were to answer the question, it would not make sense because in a way, my argument is rather similar to Wynter’s in relation to humanity. The other reason why it would not make sense is because I chose to answer the question about PanAfricanism by privileging the juridical and economic aspect and not so much the ethical basis for the demand. And I did that, because I knew if I had started from the ethical basis for the demand, which takes us to the concept of the cultural, then it would not have been possible to answer any of the questions. Because then I would have to qualify more than I did in terms of how the concept of the cultural has shifted, etc. So that’s why it’s very difficult. 

Yet, in saying that, I am answering your question. But the last part of the question about the concept of humanity in the Black discourse today, I am not sure if I can say much about that. But thinking of Black Lives Matter, because “Black lives matter” is an ethical claim. It’s a claim that Black lives have value. But if you take the phrase all by itself, it doesn’t go back to humanity. It doesn’t say Black lives matter because we are humans. It doesn’t go all the way there, which means that you can take that ethical statement and then attach it to two different ethical bases that do not return and recall the very discourse that within which Black lives don’t matter. That’s the problem that makes it so very difficult to talk about in ethical terms, because the prevailing discourse, even as it operates as the basis for political discourse, the ethical core of those discourses is precisely the one that devalues Blackness and where Blackness or anything identified as such, is subjectable to authorized violence and extraction and humiliation. So while I was going to refuse to answer the question, that refusal is really impossible. Because starting today, we have to shift all of that. So… Black Lives Matter. ■