Africa: A Fuller Freedom - the Lost Promise of Pan-Africanism

book review

Of all the transnational movements first identified with the prefix "pan" in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Pan-African movement has been the one with the greatest impact and the greatest staying power. While the term dates to the Pan-African Conference of 1900 in London, the history it represents dates back to the slave trade and the global racial order established more than 500 years ago.

Within that still-existing order, people of African descent have ranked at or near the bottom in hierarchies of access to human rights, both within borders and across borders. That common fate has inspired common identities. But it has also fostered commitment to universal values of social justice, embodied in the saying "none of us is free until all of us are free."

This excerpt from a book review by Adom Getachew, on the recent history of Pan-Africanism by Hakim Adi , well illustrates the richness of the Pan-African movement. It accompanies an original essay by Meredith Terretta on the role of solidarity by lawyers from around the African world in anticolonial struggles in the 20th century.

The wide scope of Pan-Africanism is also illustrated by the global impact of music from the diaspora and the African continent, such as Bob Marley's Redemption Song and Manu Dibango's Soul Makossa. - Imani Countess and William Minter

A Fuller Freedom: The Lost Promise of Pan-Africanism

By Adom Getachew

October 29, 2019

Review of Pan-Africanism: A History, by Hakim Adi

Adam Getachew is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Her work focuses on the intellectual and political histories of Africa and the Caribbean. Her first book, Worldmaking after Empire, has won multiple awards.

Had Peter Abrahams, the South African-born novelist, journalist, and Pan-Africanist, not been killed tragically in his Jamaican home in January 2017, he would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. Born in 1919 on the outskirts of Johannesburg to an Ethiopian father and a "colored" (in the parlance of apartheid) mother, Abrahams lived his life along the winding paths of Pan-Africanism in the 20th century. In the same year that Abrahams was born, W.E.B. Du Bois helped organize the First Pan-African Congress to lay out a vision of what the end of the "war to end all wars" might mean for the colonized and Jim Crowed, who had long been subjugated by empire and white supremacy. When the end of another world war spurred the creation of the United Nations in 1945, Abrahams was old enough to join in the Pan-Africanists' Fifth Congress, serving as its secretary of publicity.

By that time, he had escaped South Africa after being accused of treason for criticizing his country's inequalities and had established himself as a writer with the publication of the short story collection Dark Testament and the novel Song of the City. At the Fifth Congress, he was joined by a cohort of black intellectuals--?Amy Ashwood Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore--?who would soon define the coming postcolonial era. "The struggle for political power by Colonial and subject peoples," the congress declared, "is the first step towards, and the necessary prerequisite to, complete social, economic and political emancipation."

Reflecting on the proceedings, Abrahams identified this call with a new "militant phase" of the struggle against colonialism. "Forward to the Socialist United States of Africa! Long live Pan-Africanism!" he exhorted after the congress's closing. To Du Bois's 1900 declaration that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," Abrahams and his generation answered with a vision of an independent and united Africa that could finally secure racial equality across the globe.

However, Abrahams's story also mirrored the swift disillusion that followed with the emergence of neocolonialism and the fractures within the Pan-Africanist movement. In his prescient 1956 novel A Wreath for Udomo, he depicted the unraveling of Pan-Africanism just as it was becoming a wide-ranging movement. The book's main character, Michael Udomo, is a composite figure (based on Nkrumah and Padmore) who moves from organizing for African independence in London to becoming the prime minister of a fictional "Panafrica." Narrated in two parts, "The Dream" and "The Reality," the novel tracks the exhilarating promise of national liberation, the hopes of a militant generation of Pan-Africanists, and the tragic choice that follows as Udomo weighs the costs of betraying the cause by accepting aid from a white settler nation or risking the ire of powerful states by supporting a fellow revolutionary. His dilemmas culminate in his destruction at the hands of his domestic opposition.

In the years to come, numerous anticolonial activists--?from Nkrumah in Ghana to Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria and Patrice Lumumba in Congo--would meet a similar fate, witnessing their hopes for independence dashed in the face of domestic dissension, Cold War interventions, and persistent economic dependence. In an age of decolonization, the Pan-Africanist wager was premised on the view that nationalism and internationalism must go hand in hand, that national independence could be secured only within regional and international institutions. As a result, the early postcolonial constitutions of Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, for instance, included clauses that authorized the delegation of sovereignty to a Union of African States when such an entity came into being. Yet over the three decades that followed World War II, internationalism and nationalism gradually came apart. While the sovereign state proved to be a limited vehicle for realizing independence and equality, its rights of nonintervention and territorial integrity emerged as powerful tools, especially against domestic critics and subnational challenges to state authority. In this context, committed Pan-Africanists and internationalists soon became wedded to the sovereign nation-state and its capacity to discipline newly independent and fragile societies.

"The one-man leadership thing I never condoned," Abrahams later recalled, but even in the face of such thwarted hopes, he remained loyal to the cause of Pan-African liberation for the rest of his life. A chance meeting in 1955 with Norman Manley, who was then leading Jamaica's anticolonial struggle, prompted Abrahams to move to the island, where he participated in its transition to independence and later supported the social transformation inaugurated by Norman Manley's son Michael Manley, the democratic socialist prime minister who swept into office in 1972. Abrahams worked as the chairman of Radio Jamaica and hoped that the Caribbean might realize the democratic, egalitarian, and internationalist vision of society that he had long fought for. From his home in the mountains of Jamaica, Abrahams set his sights across the Atlantic, critically assessing the failures of the postcolonial African states and especially the rise of authoritarian regimes. But as he declared near the end of his long life, "Jamaica is Africa to me."


Driven by a similar impulse toward historical recovery, Hakim Adi's recent book Pan-Africanism: A History situates the tragedies of mid-20th-century Pan-Africanism in a longer and more capacious history. Pan-Africanism, he shows, began in the 18th century with the struggle against slavery and has persisted well into the 21st century with, among other movements, contemporary reparations activism. Rather than a crashing wave, Adi argues, Pan-Africanism "might be more usefully viewed as one river with many streams and currents." It flowed and ebbed and then flowed (and ebbed) again, helping to shape much of the 20th century in the process and continuing to leave a deep imprint on the 21st. ...

Adi opens his book with the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the black struggles for emancipation that arose from it. The forced migration of 12 million people across the Atlantic as chattel, he argues, created the conditions in which "Africa" became a transnational marker--an idea as much as a place. In this context, Olaudah Equiano, born in what is now the Igbo region of Nigeria in 1745 and enslaved at a young age, styled himself the "African" in his 1789 Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. With fellow freedman Ottobah Cugoano he organized the Sons of Africa, a group that agitated for the end of the slave trade. From the communities of escaped slaves that dotted the Americas and the early repatriation movements to the emergence of a "black empire" in the Haitian Revolution, the image of Pan-Africa began to take shape.

Adi opens his book with the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the black struggles for emancipation that arose from it. The forced migration of 12 million people across the Atlantic as chattel, he argues, created the conditions in which "Africa" became a transnational marker--an idea as much as a place. In this context, Olaudah Equiano, born in what is now the Igbo region of Nigeria in 1745 and enslaved at a young age, styled himself the "African" in his 1789 Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. With fellow freedman Ottobah Cugoano he organized the Sons of Africa, a group that agitated for the end of the slave trade. From the communities of escaped slaves that dotted the Americas and the early repatriation movements to the emergence of a "black empire" in the Haitian Revolution, the image of Pan-Africa began to take shape.

But as Adi shows, if Pan-Africa was born out of the experience of diasporic bondage, it was not a unidirectional transmission from the enslaved and the colonized in the Americas to Africa. The transatlantic idea of Africa also took inspiration from the connections formed between these communities and the Africans still on the continent. ... For instance, the vision of "African regeneration" articulated by Edward Blyden, the Caribbean author of 1857's A Vindication of the Negro Race, who eventually settled in Liberia, inspired a whole cohort of West African intellectuals. ... Reversing this trajectory of influence, the writings of James Africanus Horton, a Sierra Leonean doctor who supported and extended Blyden's vision, proved an important source for the Jamaican Marcus Garvey, whose group the Universal Negro Improvement Association would become the largest black mass movement in the world. ...

Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, black people moved around the world in search of work and greater freedom, and through this they generated solidarities out of the collective experience of racialized slavery and colonialism, turning forced displacement and exile into political possibility. Meetings like the 1900 Pan-African Conference and its successors might suggest that these forms of mobility were limited to a small male elite. But as Adi highlights, the official spaces of Pan-Africanism relied on women's labor, even if women were marginalized. The 1900 conference, best remembered for Du Bois's evocative formulation of the global color line, was in fact co-?organized by Alice Victoria Kinloch of South Africa, who emerged as a critic of black oppression in her homeland before moving to Britain in 1896. ...

Outside the rarefied conferences and chance meetings in imperial metropoles like London and Paris, the vision of a global Africa was lived and enacted in everyday life and culture by millions who remain anonymous to history. The idea of African freedom and unity traveled with the Caribbean workers who dug the Panama Canal. It was carried with the African Americans who escaped north in the Great Migration, and it traversed the African continent with figures like Abrahams's father, who traveled from his native Ethiopia to South Africa in order to find work in the mines and plantations of a voracious new imperialism. Black sailors and migrant workers in the circum-Caribbean and in southern Africa clandestinely distributed UNIA's newspaper, Negro World. The Comintern-funded Negro Worker, the Paris-based Le Cri des Nègres, and countless other black newspapers and magazines carried news of a global Africa along similar networks. After formal decolonization was achieved, the message of Pan-Africanism lived on in the vernaculars of Rastafarianism and reggae music, the aesthetics of the Afro, and the global reverberations of "Black is beautiful."

Weaving together the institutional high politics of Pan-Africanism with its popular and cultural iterations, Adi presents his readers with a wide tapestry of black freedom dreams that challenges many of the neat divisions imposed on black intellectual and political life by historians and scholars. ...

The shift of Pan-African activity from imperial metropoles to the African continent and from international networks to postcolonial nation-states is perhaps Pan-Africanism's most contentious and uncertain moment--one that exposed the fragile suturing of difference and unity. The emergence of independent states like Ghana and Tanzania--led by two advocates of African socialism, Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere--created institutional and ideological openings to realize African unity. Yet the achievement of state sovereignty also worked to stymie more radical visions of Pan-Africanism. ...

The tensions inaugurated in the age of decolonization--between a black politics conscripted into a defense of the nation-state and one that aspired to succeed or transcend it--are with us today. Adi points to the OAU-sponsored First Pan-African Conference on Reparations for Slavery, Colonization and Neocolonization, which took place in 1993 in Abuja, Nigeria, as one of the starting points of a new Pan-African politics. The Abuja proclamation declared that "the damage sustained by the African peoples is not a 'thing of the past' but is painfully manifest in the damaged lives of contemporary Africans from Harlem to Harare, in the damaged economies of the Black World from Guinea to Guyana, from Somalia to Suriname." Yet at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia in Durban, South Africa, the geopolitical fractures of the black world frustrated a collective call for reparations. While Nigeria's then-President Olusegun Obasanjo told the conference that an apology from the European states that had imposed slavery and colonialism would suffice, Nigerian activists and civil society organizations joined the Caribbean states in demanding a more expansive program of repair.

Despite the differences that have undermined Pan-Africanism throughout its existence, Adi is right to reject accounts that reduce its staying power to "a matter of hazy vague emotions--a vision or a dream." The promise of Pan-?Africanism was always much more than that. Like most political ideals, it helped galvanize generations into taking action. But as much as Pan-?Africanism was an organized movement, it was also a sensibility, a culture, and a lived experience--guises in which it continues to shape contemporary life. Out of forced exile and dispersal, it built a Black World, and from the depths of slavery, it limned the outlines of a fuller freedom in its songs of redemption.

Selected Resources on Pan-Africanism

Among the thousands of books on Pan-Africanism, two recent books by Adom Getachew and Hakim Adi can be highly recommended as starting points. There are too many classic works to list, but two authors with wide influence across the Pan-African world who should be noted are C. L. R. James and Walter Rodney.

Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, 2020.

Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism: A History, 2018.

C. L. R James, A History of Pan African Revolt, with a new introduction by Robin D. G. Kelley, 1938, 2012.

Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa?, with an introduction by Angela Davis, 1972, 2018.

Recent videos on Pan-Africanism available online include a webinar on Pan-Africanism in the 21st Century hosted by Africans Rising on May 24, 2021 and a YouTube video by Brian Kagoro from March 1, 2019.

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