This article by Amzat Boukari-Yabara is a mandatory reminder of Pan-Africanism history since its inception, in particular in three of its geographic poles: Harlem, Accra, and Dar es Salaam. His text maps a story of transnational resistance, circulation, and exchanges across the Atlantic.
Article published in The Funambulist 32 (November-December 2020) Pan-Africanism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
Born in the resistance to deportation and enslavement of Africans in the Americas and the Caribbean, Pan-Africanism is the history of Black socio-political experiences that transcend geographical boundaries. Intersecting anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and anti-colonialism with a high regard on African roots, Pan-Africanism called early for emancipation and repatriation. Whether it be the hundreds of Jamaican Maroons or freed Africans sent by the British in Sierra Leone, or the colonization of Liberia by 15,000 Black Americans, the first Back-to-Africa migrations were controlled by Western colonial interests. As Nemata Blyden mentioned in West Indians in West Africa, 1808-1880 (2000), many Black people believed that their experience in the christianized and so-called “civilized” New World gave them a right upon Indigenous Africans.
This vision changed radically when, the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and Pan-African Congresses — then the 1930s Rastafari and Negritude movements — emerged and articulated new networks between London, New York, Kingston, Paris, and Addis-Ababa. After World War II, the U.S. Civil Rights and Black Power movements respectively led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the battle for African freedom launched by George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah, and the final disillusionments of the Sixth Pan-African Congress in 1974 that spanned Harlem, Accra, and Dar es Salaam in a geopolitics of the Black world. This text does not pretend to exhibit thousands of Afrodiasporics, in other words African Americans, Caribbeans, Afro-Brazilians, and so on, who lived within intersections and schisms in the genealogy of Pan-Africanism but, rather, to sketch the principles of Pan-Africanism on a map.
Harlem, African Fountain of Youth ///
During the Reconstruction following the abolition of slavery in the United States, Black people organized themselves and gained political power by ruling several local communities in the South. However, in 1896, the institutionalization of racial segregation reinforced the vision of the U.S. as a large prison for Black people. Moreover, due to the economic crisis, millions of Black people left the rural South and joined northern industrial metropolises. The progressive reputation of the northern states vanished as Black people were segregated in urban ghettos. After the “racial riots” of the Red Summer of 1919, a new generation of Black activists decided to fight oppression by any means necessary.
The New York neighborhood of Harlem became the center of this new kind of resistance. In the largest world metropolitan area, with residents coming from all over the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa, Harlem was a microcosm of the Black world at a time when Pan-Africanism found a new political impetus. From 1919 to 1927, in Paris, London, Brussels, Lisbon, and finally New York, Pan-African Congresses took place under the leadership of W.E.B. Du Bois. On August 1, 1920, a decade of Black political dystopia emerged in the streets of Harlem when 2,000 delegates from 22 countries opened the First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World organized by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL). With the world’s highest concentration of conscious Black people, artists, musicians, and writers, Harlem produced a new intelligentsia that Alain Locke studied in The New Negro anthology published in 1925.
Harlem Black bourgeoisie and middle class constituted the social base of Du Bois’ activism based on the “talented tenth” doctrine, while Garvey was the champion of proletarian, women, and youth groups. Through his powerful speeches on Negro pride and Black awakening, Garvey stimulated the feelings of many Black people who rejected European culture assimilated to slavery, racism and colonialism, and wanted to learn more about African culture and history that had been reduced to pure folklore by racist propaganda.