Pan-African Rising in Harlem, Accra, and Dar Es Salaam: Connecting Places, Expanding Struggles



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. 

Harlem Accra Dar Es Salaam
“From Harlem to Accra, to Dar es Salaam.” / Map by Léopold Lambert (2020).

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. 

With contributions of Duse Mohamed Ali, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Arthur Schomburg, and many other Black luminaries, UNIA’s newspaper The Negro World, circulated in Black communities throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, being banned in most of colonial Africa. Calling for “Back-to-Africa” and “Africa for Africans”, Garvey founded the Black Star Line, a Black-owned shipping company that would link North America, Caribbean, and Africa in commercial and touristic ties. However, the project ultimately failed and, with it, his attempts to repatriate thousands of Afrodiasporic families in Liberia. 

While the Black Renaissance faded after the 1929 crisis, Harlem kept alive the burning desire for identification with Africa, and so it won the title of “Black Mecca.” Since then, going to Harlem would be a pilgrimage for both millions of anonymous and rare anti-imperialist African presidents like the Ghanaian Jerry Rawlings or the Burkinabè Thomas Sankara, the latter explaining during his visit in 1984 that “any African Head of State who comes to New York must first pass through Harlem. This is why we consider that our White House is in Black Harlem.” 

Black Stars in the Night of Accra /// 

Before Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah championed Pan-Africanism when he brought it back to continental Africa while keeping connections with the Diaspora. It could not have been possible without his 10 year sojourn (1935-1945) in Philadelphia and New York. In Harlem, Nkrumah socialized with other African and Caribbean migrants. He focused on the specific experience of U.S. Black communities in the global Pan-African movement, which he would take over in 1945 after the Manchester Pan-African Congress. 

When he returned to the Gold Coast (the colonial name of Ghana) in 1948, Nkrumah was then close-toy assimilated to an African American identity. When he won the 1951 Gold Coast general election with his Convention People’s Party (CPP), African Americans really considered that Nkrumah was one of them. Since he controlled the immigration services, Accra became a shelter for many Afrodiasporic militants who were looking for a safe place, that is to say, a country ruled by Black people. They were not disappointed when Nkrumah printed Garvey’s Black Star symbol on the new Ghana flag and invited Du Bois at the end of his life to Accra. 

In African Americans in Ghana (2006), Kevin K. Gaines details the trajectories of hundreds of Black expatriates or visitors in Accra: Bill Sutherland, Maya Angelou, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Julian Mayfield, Pauli Murray, Muhammad Ali, St Clair Drake, and the list goes on — like a who’s who of the Black militant world. Gaines dedicates a chapter to Richard Wright who, in Black Power (1954), expressed his difficulty to embrace African lifestyle, concluding that his visit to Gold Coast proved to him that he was not African but American. 

Accra was yet a modern city then, and so living there as a Black expatriate — a social condition that was linked to whiteness — was a complex situation. Integration of Afrodiasporics in the African daily life may require a disengagement from this same mimicry Western lifestyle adopted by Ghanaian petite-bourgeoisie. Of the greatest significance were the effect of wearing a dashiki or natural afro hairstyle, getting an African name or learning African languages. It was about the sense of achieving a consciousness as “authentic” to Africans, in order to reach a new stage of Black Power. 

Since Western governments never felt the sense of having to account for the racist treatment of Black people living on their soil, Afrodiasporics who never had a power upon which they could rely, understood that Ghana could be this Black Power. Inspired by his attendance at Ghana’s independence ceremony on March 6, 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “The Birth of a Nation,” a powerful sermon where he explained that “the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed.” In Accra, King was raised to an international dimension, but he was reluctant to acknowledge that Nkrumah inspired his non-violent political activism. 

During his first official visit to the United States in 1958, Nkrumah was welcomed by crowds in Harlem. He attended a rally with Malcolm X who, influenced by the 1955 Bandung Conference, already thought of how to internationalize the U.S. Black struggle. Indeed, in 1964, after his break with Nation of Islam, Malcolm X toured in Africa. His narrative underlines the importance of his meetings with the revolutionary Marxist leader Abdulrahman Babu in Dar es Salaam, and with Afro-American activists living in Accra and supporting Nkrumah’s regime. 

For many of them, the situation was getting more and more difficult. Those who ran away from Western capitalism realized that neo-colonialism in Africa was not any better with local puppets, mercenaries and international firms. Debates around a political doctrine of Pan-Africanism freed from race consciousness was difficult because the racial-based consciousness exclusively developed in the U.S. was meaningless for Africans. The transition from race to class was a challenge for Afrodiasporics who did not master the local codes on class and ethnicity. 

In the meantime, with the enduring contradictions of promoting a transnational Pan-African ideology from a single nation-state, and the international pressure to evince him from power, Nkrumah’s rule turned authoritarian. His fall in February 1966 during a military coup questioned the role of Black expatriates that U.S. foreign policy had trained, in order to penetrate African countries without being accused of racism or imperialism. Any “brother” could work for the CIA. The fall of Nkrumah changed the atmosphere radically. Since the new regime operated a reactionary turn, Ghana ceased to be a welcome society for non-Ghanaians. 

African Revolution in Dar es Salaam /// 

Boukari Yabara Funambulist
Maya Angelou, Julian Mayfield, Malcolm X and friends in Accra in 1964. / Unknown photographer.

In a public rally in Zanzibar in 1959, Julius Nyerere said: “An African is anyone who has made Africa his or her home and fights for the rights of the country and equality.” Soon, Dar es Salaam succeeded Accra as the political heart of Pan-Africanism. Located in East Africa on the shore of the Indian Ocean, Tanzania did not belong to the traditional North American-West African transatlantic joint. The country was born in April 1964 from the political union of continental Tanganyika with Zanzibar revolutionaries who had just removed the Arab neo-colonial elite from power. 

The one-party state government of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) surprised some Afrodiasporics, but the headquarter of the Committee of Liberation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was based in Dar es Salaam. Tanzania hosted several African governments in exile, political refugees and armed liberation movements. As a “frontline state,” Tanzania strongly supported the fight against racist and colonial regimes in Southern Africa. In A Motorcycle on Hell Run: Tanzania, Black Power, and the uncertain future of Pan-Africanism, 1964-1974 (2017), Seth Markle provides detailed information about those who made Dar es Salaam “the intellectual revolutionary hub of East Africa, Africa and the Third World generally,” as the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o also outlined in Moving the Centre (1993). 

In 1967, Nyerere proclaimed the Arusha Declaration which defined Tanzania as a socialist state with a doctrine based on self-reliance. The quest for a true economic alternative disengaged from Western capitalism was relevant for many Afrodiasporic scholars and activists. Additionally, the endogenous philosophy of Ujamaa (familyhood) meant that Tanzania would foster solidarity with the Black world. In Nkrumah’s footsteps, Nyerere advocated pacifism but he also gave crucial and decisive support to African armed liberation movements. At the 1964 OAU Summit, he insisted on issuing a statement of condemnation of the U.S. government for their racist treatment of Black people. 

As a Mwalimu (teacher in Swahili), Nyerere’s political leadership allowed the development of collective ideas and debates in a community of scholars with a degree of freedom which, according to Walter Rodney, “was greater and remains greater than that which is accorded academics in most parts of the Third World. That allowed us to pursue scientific socialist ideas within a political framework that was not necessarily supportive of those ideas, but was not repressive in any overt sense.” 

Dar Writes History with Walter Rodney and Angela Davis /// 

All the African universities at independence, including those in Legon and Dar es Salaam, were strategic places to work on new concepts and to “decolonize” academia. In the 1970s, Dar es Salaam was deeply influenced by the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney. Graduated from the University of the West Indies (UWI), Rodney obtained his doctoral degree at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) before joining University College of Dar es Salaam as a lecturer in 1967. He explained that he hoped to get his first position in West Africa, but he could not find a country where the production of history was in symbiosis with participation in politics — until he had heard of the Tanzanian process. 

In early 1968, Rodney left Dar es Salaam for a new teaching position at UWI, Jamaica. On October 15, 1968, after he attended a Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal, Rodney was forbidden to return to Jamaica. Students, scholars, workers and youth took to the streets and the biggest riots of modern Caribbean burst forth. When he heard of Rodney’s ban, Nyerere spoke loudly in favor of his return: “This young man is a son of Africa. If you don’t want him, we have a place for him here!” 

Rodney’s last period in Tanzania was fruitful with the publication of his seminal book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in 1972. He felt that Dar gave him the tools to develop a really positive intellectual orientation because there was no obsessive need to react to white scholarship. He could question how the universality of Marxism may strengthen the ideological background of African revolutions and, in reverse, how Marxism’s original European scholarship may be decolonized through critical African contributions. In addition to his courses on African history, economic history of Tanzania, international political economy, and history of English, French and Russian Revolution, Rodney created in 1970 the first courses on “History of Black People in the Americas.” 

This made Dar es Salaam the ideal place for Afrodiasporic and Global South scholars dealing with an African perspective connected with Latin American dependency theories. Rodney also questioned African history without falling into a straightforward glorification of the African past, as it was common in the Afrocentric cultural nationalist approach. Rodney’s impact on the Dar es Salaam school of historiography exhibited the ideological division between Afro-Marxists, who were ready to join the international proletarian revolution, and cultural nationalists who believed in the international Black revolution. 

While the theoretical works of Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, or Amilcar Cabral were put into practice in the African wars of liberation, the socio-political environment in Dar es Salaam offered facilities to navigate between academia and the guerrilla camps. Rodney managed to establish a lasting relationship with freedom fighters and diplomats. Speaking on the historical commitment of Vietnamese diplomats based in Tanzania, he considered that their “truly revolutionary” vision was “a real achievement because the diplomatic set, irrespective of their social background, or the political background of their state, can often be extremely backward.” Needless to say that contrary to Vietnamese, Black U.S. diplomats in Africa were not revolutionaries. 

In August 1973, Angela Davis was invited by the ruling party to visit the campus. Her presence inspired women, mothers, and sisters since she was not seen merely as a Black Power icon, but as “a mirror through which the Tanzanian women could see themselves. There was before them, was a shining example of the type of woman socialism can create,” explained C.C. Liundi in the February 1974 edition of the student magazine Maji Maji. 

Like Garvey, Malcolm X, and Rodney, Davis explained that Afrodiasporics should fight wherever they are. The Back-to-Africa option should not be an excuse to escape the local confrontation with Western imperialism. Being a Black anti-imperialist could not mean an escape from struggling in the heart of the white Power system but, rather, an involvement to fight domination simultaneously at home and abroad. 

The Sixth Congress in Dar: the Beginning of the End /// 

Boukari Yabara Funambulist
President Julius Nyerere and East Africa. Official visit at Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum on April 21, 1965. / Photo by Eric Koch – Anefo (Nationaal Archief).

For Lessie B. Tate, “the well-traveled United States/Tanzania transatlantic bridge saw a dramatic increase in traffic” when the decision was made to organize the Sixth Pan-African Congress (6PAC) in Dar es Salaam. The project of 6PAC started in 1969, during a Black Power Conference organized in Bermuda by a local deputy, Roosevelt Browne, with C.L.R. James. From his exile in Conakry, Nkrumah sent a letter of support calling the participants to go ahead in the organization of the event that finally took place in June 1974. 

Because African and Caribbean governments feared that 6PAC served as a platform for their local opponents, state delegations were also invited, contrary to the non-governmental tradition of Pan-African congresses. 6PAC was a political tragedy with a series of divisions: non governmental organizations versus African states, cultural nationalists versus Afro-marxists, Afro-Americans versus other Africans from the Diaspora, Continentals versus Afrodiasporics, etc. 

In letters sent to Rodney, Wole Soyinka expressed his disappointment at 6PAC and Horace Campbell remarked that Rodney’s paper “would help to strengthen the understanding of Pan-Africanism in this decade.” Indeed, Rodney fell ill and he wasn’t there to deliver his speech entitled “Aspects of the International Class Struggle in Africa, the Caribbean and America.” His absence was a relief for C.L.R. James who, having read the draft of Rodney’s paper, had tried to convince him to remove the part of the text because it would produce explosive reactions: that Afrodiasporics could support, but they should not give lessons and instructions to Africans. 

It was already difficult to get the delegates to sit down and listen carefully to a presentation with positive and constructive advances that could be set in practice. With an analysis imported from the U.S., the Afro-American delegation could not impose her vision upon Cuban or Mozambican delegates who had a true stature of revolutionaries and freedom fighters. For African liberation movements, it was counterproductive to emphasize race or class divisions before imperialism was crushed. Dar es Salaam was the place where Afrodiasporics had to break with Black nationalism and Black Power, a time to bury political slogans that could not implement political practices. 

In an interview for Africa is a Country (2018), Seth Markle gives the keys to the open doors of Harlem-Accra-Dar es Salaam Pan-African tradition beyond the tensions and schisms raised during the 6PAC and still pertinent: “This moment was transformative for so many people. It was an important stage of political development in their lives. It shaped people’s racial, political, gender, and cultural identities in many positive ways. I hope readers don’t lose sight of those small victories. This is why I’m reluctant to look at this movement as a complete failure or Pan-Africanism as a problematic ideology and practice. The problems they encountered provide lessons for future generations of Pan-Africanists.” Between the ups and downs of Pan-Africanism, new ways of connecting peoples, places and issues allowed the rising of both grassroots and global Black progressist coalitions. This new spirit of activism must find sustainability in the legacy of those continuous interchanges between Harlem, Accra, and Dar es Salaam. ■