Pan-african Performance and Possibility in North Africa: Lessons From Algiers 1969



What is the place of North Africa in Pan-Africanism? Sophia Azeb takes a step back from the common narrative surrounding Algiers’ Panaf and confronts the absences and the failures of the event to complicate our understanding of the multi-layered history of Pan-Africanism. 

On July 21, 1969, the First Pan-African Cultural Festival (Panaf) convened with a massive parade through the streets of its host country’s capital, Algiers. As much of the world was otherwise enraptured by two U.S. astronauts landing on the Moon, the African continent had all eyes on Algiers. Scores of Algerians joined their visiting African counterparts along the city’s major boulevards, below buildings covered with fluttering Algerian flags and scars from the Algerian war for independence, which had ended seven years prior. Contingents of writers, political figures, artists, musicians, and dancers from 24 nations and still active liberation movements — including Guinea, Angola, and Mozambique — from across the continent and diaspora danced, marched, and sang in organized formations under placards denoting their national or internationalist affiliations, snaking their way through the streets and greeted with joyous celebration at every turn. In her narrative history of the founding of the International Section of the Black Panther Party, former BPP Communications Secretary Kathleen Neal Cleaver recalls that on this occasion, Algerian president Houari Boumédiène’s welcoming remarks emphasized the bonds that the “anti-colonialist zeal” on the African continent and through-out its diaspora offered the prospect for African unity, and that in no uncertain terms, “culture is a weapon in our struggle for liberation.” 

The presence of the Black Panthers in Algeria was no coincidence. Drawn to Algeria by the legacy of Martiniquan-Algerian Frantz Fanon, whose analysis of “a world cut in two” by colonialism appealed to radical Black internationalists such as the Cleavers, the Panthers joined a plethora of other anti-colonial movement leaders, militants, intellectuals, and cultural figures for the festivities. Kathleen Neal Cleaver’s account of the Panthers’ experiences in Algeria, a history she documented in an amended version of her 1983 Yale graduate thesis, “Back to Africa: The Evolution of the International Section of the Black Panther Party (1969-1972),” illustrates the significance of the festival for the many participants who joined it, while also casting light onto the unevenness of Algeria’s claims and commitments to pan-Africanism. The pan-Africanist aims of the festival were keenly self-aware, but the festival’s very structure as a performance of African unity also reveals the often-superficial strategy behind Algeria’s desire to appeal to other African nations and non-state actors and organizations. Though it would seem that orienting this history through the perspective of the International Section of the Black Panther party centers African American perspectives on political and cultural pan-Africanism, in fact attending to the evolution of the Panthers’ internationalist vision demonstrates the expansiveness of pan-Africanism as a global project and one that is anchored across the African diaspora, inclusive — in this time and place — of North Africa. Cleaver’s measured account of the festival and the founding of the International Section of the Black Panthers therefore establishes an important archive of the otherwise thin historical accounting of pan-Africanism in North Africa. Furthermore, it illustrates how African and African diasporic peoples and organizations weighed North Africa’s role in the long history of both pan-African unity and divergence. Crucially, Cleaver demonstrates how pan-Africanism in this moment and this North African space was most coherent in the unlikely encounters and interactions that were made possible in 1969 Algiers. 

Like the 1966 Dakar World Festival of Negro Arts (FESMAN) three years prior, the Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers extended invitations to a number of national delegations on the continent and in the diaspora. Unlike FESMAN, however, organizers in Algiers also invited non-national organizations and liberation movement representatives, such as the African National Congress (ANC), The Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Before the festival convened, the Panaf organizing committee’s manifesto laid out the core rationale for a “First” Pan-African Cultural Festival, which elaborated on the decision to include non-national parties and slyly distinguished itself from FESMAN, hosted by Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor. FESMAN received sponsorship from both the French Cultural Ministry and UNESCO, an insensible arrangement for Africans still battling for liberation from the last semblance of European empires. The Panaf manifesto also provides fascinating insight into the Algerian investments in and interpretation of pan-Africanism. “Le manifeste culturel panafricain” shifted Panaf’s aims away from the under-politicized call to cultural commonality that had characterized the Dakar festival three years prior, and also resisted the urge to render “African culture” a generic or singular denotation. 

The manifesto opens with a definition of African culture that assigns its very existence to the broadest aspect of society: the people themselves. It begins, “The people are the starting point of culture insofar as they create themselves and they transform their surroundings. Culture is not received by the people, but made by them.” Addressed against the coercive and corrosive effects that colonialism wrought on culture in all contexts, the manifesto claims to make no claims of a pre-colonial cultural past that might be resurrected intact. Rather, “African artists and intellectuals must situate themselves within their society and assume the particularly decisive responsibilities that are theirs. Their actions should instill the radical transformation of minds […]. The people must be the first beneficiaries of their cultural and economic wealth.” 

Though the manifesto does not shy away from cultural difference on the continent and in the diaspora, it does attempt to massage the Senghorian concept of “Africanité,” or an African way of being, to address the local, regional, and international call to African culture that the Algiers festival represents: 

“Africanité obeys the law of a dialectic of the particular and the general, of specificity and universality; that is to say, [a dialectic of] truth at the base and unity at the top. African culture, art, and science, whatever the diversity of expression, do not rest on any essential difference. They are only singular expressions of the same universality.” 

This interstitial space the manifesto identifies — the “singular expression” of the “same universality” — is a captivating proposition. Indeed, as the rest of the manifesto proceeds to explicate the varying degrees by which culture may intercede in African liberation and on African social and economic development, it incredibly never once includes the identifier: “Arab.” The Pan-African Festival of 1969 was hosted by the Algerian government and the Front de Libération Nationale (by then a deeply fractured party displaced from the central government), put on in the capital city of Algiers, and overtly tied itself to the pro-Arab, pan-Africanist Casablanca bloc of the OAU. And yet “Arab” is never summoned. This notable absence can be read in a number of ways. In one light, the Algerian impulse to act as custodians of liberation in this era was directly linked to Boumédiène’s hope that an assertion of Algeria’s continued leadership of decolonization would maintain his influence in Algeria and on the continent. But perhaps the choice not to invoke “Arab” as a point of identification also speaks to the fundamental tension of North African political prerogatives versus its own and varied attempts to define itself in light of prevailing nationalist economic interests and internal racial and colonial processes that characterized nations including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco. 

By refusing to name an Algerian Arab — much less Amazigh — identity — or indeed, an Arab cultural character — the manifesto abstracts the concept of Africanité and the practice of pan-Africanism. This has parallels with how Senghor, in the years prior to Panaf, had qualified Africanité by articulating an immutable African/Arab difference. This attempt at abstraction may be traced through these festivals: whereas Dakar’s cultural exhibitions celebrated the “high arts,” Algiers embraced both the traditional and the avant-garde. Whereas Dakar’s colloquium asserted that the production of a new humanism is a revolutionary act, Algiers’ impetus was to articulate pan-African political innovations as a cultural venture. The Algiers festival’s re-reading of Africanité muddied Algeria’s attachment to Arabness and Arabism in order to perform pan-Africanism in an affective reframing of the African diaspora. This is the nation that Fanon himself claimed to be the vanguard of African revolutionary fervor — why then, the manifesto seems to conclude, name the signifiers that belie the Arab North’s mutual singularity? 

If true liberation from colonialism is predicated, as Fanon maintained in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), on abjuring European colonial determinations of race, then Algeria’s place in pan-Africanism and an expansive conception of global Blackness is upheld by the language of the manifesto. Indeed, the manifesto was received by a global Black audience, including the Black Panthers, as precisely the desired challenge to the lingering colonial structures that loomed over FESMAN. So, as an example, if the Black Panther Party represented what Stuart Hall once referred to as the “adoption and adaptation of Fanonism within the black movement in the United States,” then Algeria was for the Panthers the obvious place for an International Party to take form. Or, as Kathleen Neal Cleaver writes: “The Black Panther Party believed the liberation of Blacks from racist oppression and capitalist exploitation required a social revolution to transform the economic and political institutions of the United States, and its presence in Algiers signified its identification with African struggles to end colonialism.” 

Kathleen Neal Cleaver’s arrival in Algiers followed soon after Eldridge Cleaver had been smuggled into the nation by a sympathetic Cuban diplomat, an international itinerary owed to various disagreements and misunderstandings between Cuban authorities and Cleaver as well as Algeria’s temporary lack of diplomatic ties — and indeed the continuing refusal of many Western nations to recognize an autonomous Algeria at all — with the U.S., from which Eldridge Cleaver was a fugitive. Elaine Mokhtefi, former Press Secretary to the recently deposed Ahmed Ben Bella, used her governmental connections to secure official Panaf invitations for both Cleavers and a delegation of other Black Panther Party members. The delegation opened the Afro-American Information Center one day after the festival began and staffed it with French-speaking African Americans flown in from France by Julia Hervé (the daughter of celebrated African American writer and expatriate to France, Richard Wright). Kathleen Neal Cleaver noted “the Algerian visitors to the Center were intensely curious […] convinced […] that American imperialism was an enemy of their country, and […] warmly expressed their solidarity with its Black opponents visiting their home,” in spite of their overall ignorance of the Black freedom struggle in the U.S. 

An essential component of the Panthers’ presence at the festival was that it facilitated meetings between the Panthers present in Algiers — who would go onto establish the International Section of the Black Panther Party at a villa in the El Biar neighborhood, donated to Eldridge Cleaver by the Vietcong in 1970 — with diplomats, delegations and freedom fighters from all over the African continent and throughout the Third World. Eldridge Cleaver was far from the only fugitive in the nation, and the festival itself was overseen by Houari Boumédiène — the same leader who had led a coup against Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965 — in order to “place Algeria (and also its army) in the political leadership of Africa, the Arab world, and nonaligned nations” on the international stage. Kathleen Neal Cleaver slyly noted that “Algeria’s foreign policy supported all struggles against colonial domination, if not materially, rhetorically.” Indeed, the Algerian military government refused to offer formal meeting or housing facilities to the Panthers at the festival’s end (diplomatic status was eventually granted to the Panthers in early 1970, with the assistance of Elaine Mokhtefi and Mohammed Yazid). However, Boumédiène’s regime permitted the Panthers to organize with other liberation movements present in or passing through the North African state. Although a significant language barrier meant the Panthers’ ties with these movement representatives were often unbalanced in favor of their English-speaking comrades; “in political terms, the Panthers found their strongest support among those directly harmed by United States’ policies: the Palestinians, the Vietnamese, the North Koreans.” 

The 1969 Pan-African Festival thus marked a critical moment in the coalescence of North African approaches to liberation and ties to pan-Africanism on the African continent. Its accessibility and relative openness to debate further positioned Algeria as a hub for new evocations of pan-Africanism that embraced the Arab North as an active participant in global African diasporic politics and cultures. However, it is also apparent that just as the festival embraced performance as a central aspect of the festival’s activities, the pan-Africanism that the Algerian festival put on display was also performative. Momentary, but not consistent. The enactment of pan-Africanist politics and cultures were largely thanks to the festival’s participants, not the immediate output of the Algerian government. Instead, the festival presents a moment of opportunity alongside the broader historical trajectory of moments when (and where) Black and Arab and Black Arab peoples create the conditions in which to meet, talk, and experience joy alongside one another. Though the longer history of the Panthers in Algiers precipitated a great deal of internal strife in the Party and among the Americans themselves (Eldridge Cleaver’s rancorous misogyny a chief contributor to both issues), their time in Algiers led Party members to Peking, Hanoi, and Brazzaville, where conversations between liberationists were transcribed and brought back to Algiers to be translated into English for the Panthers to disseminate. 

Kathleen Neal Cleaver’s rich and frank exploration of the lack of mutual understanding between herself and fellow Panther members’ and the Algerians they interacted with, both in terms of politics and quotidian life in Algeria, also marks a set of moments when a pan-Africanist sensibility and practice is reshaped and takes on new life. It is true that the limited perspective of the Panthers revealed their lack of overall historical context regarding Algeria’s place in this pan-African moment, but by virtue of the fact that we are still reading and reflecting on Kathleen Neal Cleaver’s careful and continued documentation of this history some 50 years on also means that mediations such as hers are critical for unearthing both the frustrations and longevity of Algeria’s imaginary and active presence in the Black radical imagination. 

The lack of mutual understanding between the Panthers and the Algerians they encountered every day is not in itself unusual. Algeria, after all, was still dealing with the trauma of its long and bloody struggle for independence from France, and the marks the war left went far beyond the nation’s landscape, which Cleaver describes: 

“Bombed out buildings still stood as grim reminders of the war that had left no family in Algeria unscathed. The French colonial past was evident in the striking architecture of the city and the complex bureaucracy of the state, while the daily calls to prayer and veiled women attested to the resurgence of Algeria’s Islamic heritage. Arabic was the dominant language, but everyone in Algiers still spoke French, the language of government and commerce. The complicated tribal and ethnic divisions among Arabs, Berbers, and Africans bewildered Panthers accustomed to simple stratifications of color and class…Thus adapting to life in Algiers, where nothing was remotely similar to America, presented a shock for which none of the Panthers was prepared.” 

Algeria’s bloody war for liberation eventually hardened into the continued production of rigorous boundaries for Algerianness that hewed evermore toward the “Arab” rather than the “African” that was extolled in the Panaf manifesto of 1969. Pan-Africanism failed to settle into the infrastructure of the nation, even as it constituted the architecture of the festival itself. Kathleen Neal Cleaver articulates the difficulty of reconciling the Algeria of Frantz Fanon’s writings with the complex social, political, and cultural landscape she found herself in during these years. The revolutionary bond between “the African colonial world” and “the world in which American Blacks lived” was far from innate: it demanded cultivation, and a mutual attention to relation and difference that she freely acknowledged neither her community nor the Algerians they lived among could fully manage. The most coherent legacy of Algeria’s role in pan-Africanist movement building is therefore captured in a series of moments and feelings rather than a structure of societal upheaval. 

The International Section of the Black Panther Party in Algiers likewise operated in a series of moments and was ultimately short-lived. In 1971, it separated from the American Panthers and rebranded itself as the Revolutionary People’s Communication Network. In July 1972, two subsequent airline hijackings by American radicals who landed in Algiers, infuriating Boumédiène. They included Black American and Vietnam war veteran Willie Roger Holder, who then joined the International Section of the BPP, as well as fugitive envoys of the Black Liberation Army. The Algerian government was in the process of discretely negotiating natural gas sales to U.S. oil companies, and Boumédiène’s willingness to hand back over 1 million USD in ransoms collected by multiple hijackers infuriated Eldridge Cleaver right back. Cleaver penned an open letter to Boumédiène that referenced the Algerian leader’s own experiences in the war and gestured to other Arab states’ “conciliatory gestures towards the United States” towards capitalist ends. The Algerian leadership felt this letter would rightly be interpreted by the broader Arab public as an abandonment of the anti-Zionist commitments many pan-Arab leaders had been lately quick to shed. Kathleen Neal Cleaver observed that Eldridge Cleaver “came to see the emotional and political identification with Africa as a ‘skin game’ and realized that the kind of problems that America’s Blacks faced bore little relationship to the Africans’ problems.” Indeed, the eventual limits of North African commitments to pan-Africanism arose just as nations such as Algeria and Egypt, the latter under the leadership of Anwar Sadat, courted favor for primarily nationalist rather than African federationist or internationalist concerns while simultaneously foreclosing their nations’ prior anti-colonial ideals by seeking out economic and political alignment with Western states. The Cleavers ultimately left for Paris on New Year’s Day in 1973, and soon after Algeria’s slow turn to authoritarianism under Boumédiène displaced the nation’s previous anti-colonial pan-African and pan-Arab pursuits. 

Pan-Africanism’s legacy in North Africa is disappointing, but not unimportant. pan-Africanist politics and cultural ties were not solely the provenance of a government or a conference or a festival. The First Pan-African Festival in Algiers did contribute to the expansion of African diasporic ties that continue to inform pan-Africanist thought and practice today, a condition of possibility itself the result of the momentary surges of transnational encounters enabled by such festivals. These failures marked the futurity of pan-Africanism as we might recognize it today: brief moments of lucidity in a global landscape otherwise marred by miscommunication and mistranslation, but ripe for interpretive possibility when regarded from a different position in time and space. Pan-Africanism is not an event, but a condition of possibility for Black people to realize their political and cultural power and exchange ideas about the future of Black liberation and pan-African ideals. Although pan-Africanism may have slowly been abandoned in North Africa throughout the 1970s, the African and African diasporic peoples who left Algiers carried with them what they learned, what they wanted, and what they needed of the pan-Africanism they made in Algiers, 1969. ■