Some comments made in the BPAF discussion about "What Is Africa To Me: the Relevance of Pan-Africanism Today." July 25, 2007
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Willard Johnson, as moderator, opened with the story of just this week being asked by a teller at a Walgreen store why he was wearing a tee-shirt affirming an African American connection with Africa. "Why not simply be an American?" the young man said, and added that he was from Trinidad, and had African ancestry, but that he was purely and simply Trinidadian. Willard asked, "why not affirm both?" The real issue is why would anyone INSIST that we NOT affirm a connection with Africa.
And, for those who do NOT want to affirm the connection, would that be more an act of affirming America, or denying Africa? The greatest problem for us may be the internalization of the rejection of Africa that has been so constant and deeply rooted in the American experience because slavery came to be reconciled with the American credo on the basis of denying the humanity of Africans. Has it become part of our own culture and sense of self?
Du Bois said we have "two warring selves in one dark body." Are they incompatible?
If we believe that we are a people wholly and solely rooted in America, wouldn’t that mean believing that we came from Africa without any culture, history or anything worthwhile and enduring for us in the new land? It would mean believing that our culture and identity is totally a reflection of the enslavement imposed on us, even if it also includes our resistance to that circumstance.
Willard does NOT believe that is the reality. It may be the belief of most Whites, but what about Blacks? Is that what we believe? -- and, if so, at what cost?
The reality seems to be that Africans came with many cultural and psychological strengths that enhanced their survival and shaped not only their own society but that of the whites in their midst as well. Their sense of humanity, their vibrant spirituality, their profound sense of a connection with God, their sense of interaction and agency with nature, even their sense of color and music, in a form of interaction and vibrancy, as in jazz, was a dominant factor in shaping American culture. These traits are seen among Blacks nearly everywhere.
As an historical movement, Pan-Africanism traditionally was seen as a form of resistance and liberation, (which could be both offensive and defensive) and a tool (both psychological and political) for dealing with a hostile environment. It was the framework for the rise of the African independence movements. Once the goal of nominal international sovereignty was reached, Africans realized that economic independence was still elusive, and the movement began to focus on imperialism and exploitation, but without much success. Economic corruption and political abuse became ready handles by which local thugs and international forces could manipulate the new states, and continue their exploitation of African people and resources unabated. Some now fear that political union of the fifty four independent African states could lead to even more concentrated dictatorial power and abuse, while others see it as perhaps the only way Africa can compete more equitably in the global system.
In recent decades there have been several dimensions to the African American embrace of Africa. For some it has been the basis of their living. Willard cited the case of the academics like himself that have made research and teaching about Africa part of their specialty. For others it has been in search of investment opportunities, or even employment opportunities, whether in Government, business, church or civic and non-profit organizations. For some it has been a place of not only psychological refuge, but also even physical refuge, as when the civic rights movement activists had to flee the U.S. to save their lives. For some, they just like Africa -- they like the people, the physical beauty to be found in such a diverse continent, they like the culture, the vibrancy, the color, the sense of humanity.
But for some people, embracing Africa as the basis of our identity has been seen as an expression of Black Nationalism and amounted basically to withdrawal, in search of an alternative to an elusive and inaccessible America.
Now with all the "progress" (with our fairly large Black middle class, with Deval Patrick as Governor, and Obama as a plausible/credible candidate for President, despite or even because of his unique persona?) are we beyond the traditional U.S. racial barriers? An Obama win (even if only for the Democratic Party nomination) would break down many, maybe most psychological barriers, yet it could also becloud the faults of the more general American system - and give a false sense of resolving history.
Does the popularity of Obama mean that the country is now more ready to accept Africans and Africa itself than Africa-Americans. If so is this because white Americans do not have the same sense of guilt for colonialism or even imperialism as they do for slavery? Actually the U.S. bears a lot of responsibility for Africa’s woes today, which are derivative of the cold war ravishes, the continued corporate rape of African resources. Are they ignoring that legacy?
Our greatest need for Africa and reasonable expectation of Africa, is perhaps still psychological (to affirm an identity before and beyond the cauldron of slavery -- and to do so with agency, assertively, not defensively.) It is not clear what Africans can do for the bulk of African Americans politically or economically. No doubt an Africa that is perceived to be strong and rising, would make us physically safer, and possibly more emboldened and purposeful.
The fact is that some of the most impressive efforts underway now to really deal with the afflictions that Africans (and African Americans) confront are being waged by whites -- the likes of Jeffrey Sachs, Bill Gates, and Bono, and perhaps even John Edwards, who are fighting to address the issues of poverty, inequality, HIV/AIDS, access to the basic requisites of health and to health care. They have the resources and access, but more importantly the commitment to try to achieve these changes. Do African Americans and their closest allies at least have that commitment?
Can African state power and economic resources, and the solidarity of African peoples really help African Americans overcome their marginalization and destitution within the US system? Can we be effective enough by emphasizing our African connection if it is primarily sentimental?
It is akin to the discussions today about whether Barack Obama is black enough! On a superficial level he answered this sufficiently by saying "I was black enough when I tried to catch a cab in New York City?" The real question is whether being black enough is enough. Willard says NO. We will have to transform the American system to overcome the status our people occupy in America today. The fundamental system statistics are as dire as ever. The State of Black America 2007 report by the National Urban League shows the same 73% level of equality of several years ago - (57% economic, 78% health, 79 % education, 66% social justice). The overall average is brought up to 73% only by our higher level than whites of civic engagement (so that is even a further indictment of the system).
To change these statistics requires a transformation of the American system. We cannot do that as a beleaguered minority in this system. We need to ally ourselves with all those who are also artificially kept down by it. Willard has no doubt that Obama would work to transform the system, and may have just the crossover appeal to mobilize for this end. Would Pan-Africanism have a role to play in that kind of mobilization? That depends on how Pan-Africanists define themselves and this movement for the future.
To be EFFECTIVE in America, Pan-Africanism has to be framed within an embrace of humanity, not just of the Black race or narrowly defined African/Black nationalisms. It is not that everybody could/should be a Pan-Africanist in the sense of emphatically promoting Africa as a basis of their own identity, (although we now know that all of us have African ancestry) but rather of rejecting and working to overcome the negatives that are historically applied to Africa, and emphatically working to enlarge the circle of solidarity that could drive the politics of social and economic change to the benefit of peoples of African descent everywhere, as well as for the poor and abused everywhere.
Our racial unity, based on our African background, may be necessary as a basis for the beginning of our own mobilization, but we should not let it set the limit of our circle of allies, or we will fail ourselves and Africa as well.
Some other comments made by participants in the BPAF meeting
Joyce Hope Scott: I have been very closely involved with Africa for a long time both here and on the continent, and find that many people are also involved and interested. Africa does form part of the basis for my work and my job. But the concern for and connection with Africa is not just among the immigrant Africans here, but also elsewhere. But, I do wonder where the Diaspora is going to fit in. We are supposed to have a seat in the new African Union. Where are we with that? How will that be accomplished?
Elizabeth Sarkodie-Mensah (Ghana) said that she sometimes finds some confusion about just what the "Diaspora" is – Africans are not clear about that. Many think it is just their countrymen who have gone abroad. Many African Americans have told her of the warm welcome they received when visiting the continent – they were treated as returned brothers and sisters. The Africans who have come here in recent years do not tell comparable stories of their welcome here. Why is that?
Reginald Jackson: African Americans and Africans have not yet had the conversation together about the slavery era that would be required for our wounds to heal. Not much discussion and study of that era occurs on the African continent. He also mentioned an upcoming conference in Ghana where discussion of relevance to our topic will be discussed. The BPAF website should carry the link to the daily reports about the conference.
Quentin Chavous: what do we mean when we say “"our people”" Is racial identity clear and sufficient. We are burdened with the historic factor of enslavement, and more importantly, with the peculiar American imposition on that of the assumption of inferiority of the enslaved. In ancient times and other places, slavery was not justified with such an assumption.
Valerie Stevens: she had suggested this topic of the relevance of Pan-Africanism for the 21st century because she believes that we need that discussion, and the BPAF can be a proper forum for having it.
Mary Burks: we need a history that brings out the truth. The history that has been taught us leaves out too much, and tells lies. Her own family story is indicative – she has found from those in her family that have done the family history that she had ancestors that were on the first ship of Africans enslaved in the U.S., in 1619. We have been here for the whole time of white settlement in America. We need to be aware of that.
Josephine Erewa, from Nigeria : she has worked here for more than a dozen years and finds that the Africans themselves need to participate in not only their own country organizations, but those from the rest of the continent, and from the Diaspora. She has pointed out to them that some of the recent atrocities and murders committed in Roxbury and Dorchester were not done by African Americans, but by Africa immigrants, some against other African immigrants. We all need to work together on solving these problems. We need to participate more widely. She is encouraging her fellow African immigrants to participate in the coming Caribbean Festival, for example.
Severyn Bruyn: since we all have African ancestry, presented himself as "a white African American." He just wonder if we couldn’t bring some visibility and focus into our mobilization, as happened in the Anti-Apartheid campaigns, if we take on the corporations that are operating in Africa. We could find ways to force them to do better by the local population, to actually aid local development and build up local replacements.
Renee Harton, student at MIT, finds that there is division even among the African students, although we do get together from time to time. Some of her friends have said, “Oh he is Ibo? stay away from him!” or “he is Yoruba? stay away from him!” We need to have more communication together.
__________ from Ann Arbor, Michigan felt that we must find a way to involve more youth in these discussions. We have done that in Michigan very successfully. Let them be active in our forums, and speak for themselves. We can then expand their knowledge, and our own.
Some of the prevailing historical views and definitions of Pan-Africanism are:
Malcolm X to those who have said "I ain't left nothing in Africa" he replied: "why, you left your mind in Africa!"
Asa Hilliard: "free you mind! -- return to the source"
Tom Mboya: speaking in America of attitudes towards Africans and African Americans -- "we are twins -- you can’t love the one in Africa and hate the one here!"
Marcus Garvey: "Africa for the Africans" - as a way to get the resources, power and freedom to life the race.
Julius Nyerere "African Americans should return to Africa to help -- why? Out of sentiment!"
E. W. Blyden: we need "to bring dignity and respect to the Negro race -- by using education, ..technical culture to create ‘large and progressive states in Africa.’"
Walter Rodney, as quoted by Horace Campbell on Pan Africanism "To talk about Pan-Africanism...there is a series of responsibilities attached...to define our own situation - that is the first responsibility> A second responsibility is to present that definition to...the whole of the progressive world... Any pan-concept is an exercise in self-definition by the people, in the establishment of a broader re-definition of themselves than that which has so far been permitted by those in power..." (Campbell 205; p 19)
Manning Marable (1995 from www.afgen.com/pan-afri.html) "Behind ‘Pan-Africanism’ was the idea that people of African descent the world over shared a common destiny.. had created a parallel contours for struggle. Our kinship was also cultural, social and historical, and we found within ourselves the genius and grace of being which was denied us by the racist standards of the white world.. by renewing our connections, we forged a consciousness of resistance...." [Marable now calls for a ‘common vision of black empowerment at a global level... Pan-Africanism of the next century cannot define itself in biological, genetic or racial categories, but in terms of its politics and social vision..."
"Pan-Africanism remains vital as a political framework bringing together the collective perspectives of people of African descent in our eternal struggle to assert and to affirm all humanity...."
Holden: 1973:97)(@ Charles Jones in Georgia Persons, National Political Science Review Vol. 8 2 001, p. 32) "The United States contains ‘two nations,’ whose fate is inevitably common. They do not have the option of separable outcomes."
Matthew Holden: "the task is to find ways of coping with their own development in a hostile environment which will be effective rather than self-defeating, rational rather than sentimental" (So, he rejected Black Nationalism, which he saw as a chimerical and futile effort to withdraw from the American system, rather than an engagement with it for change.)
and more recently, as expressed by some BPAF members,
Pearl Robinson (in Dynamics of the African Afro-American Connection A. M. Cromwell Ed. p10) "...culture... can function as both an instrument for power and a refuge from weakness ..the celebration of black ethnicity can be a very effective means of mobilization and recruitment to the cause of pan-African renewal ..but we need to move away from mere catharsis and ...become practitioners of the mundane requisites of economic and political consolidation."
Patrick Seyon (in A. M. Cromwell; p. 125) " (black people] have been conditioned psychologically and intellectually to .. perceive of themselves as their oppressors and suppressors have taught them!"and, with Herschelle Challenor , p 128, noted: the "dis-Africanisation of blacks in the United States beginning around 1825...to resist being treated as expendable and as a way ... to insist on their rights as U.S. citizens."
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