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

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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. 

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

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.