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What is Pan-Africanism?

How has Pan-Africanism developed into a modern socio-political movement?


Initially an anti-slavery and anti-colonial movement amongst black people of Africa and the Diaspora in the late nineteenth century, the aims of Pan-Africanism have evolved through the ensuing decades.

Pan-Africanism has covered calls for African unity (both as a continent and as a people), nationalism, independence, political and economic cooperation, and historical and cultural awareness (especially for Afrocentric versus Eurocentric interpretations).

History of Pan-Africanism
Some claim that Pan-Africanism goes back to the writings of ex-slaves such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano. Pan-Africanism here related to the ending of the slave trade, and the need to rebut the 'scientific' claims of African inferiority.

For Pan-Africanists, such as Edward Wilmot Blyden, part of the call for African unity was to return the Diaspora to Africa, whereas others, such as Frederick Douglass, called for rights in their adopted countries.

Blyden and James Africanus Beale Horton, working in Africa, are seen as the true fathers of Pan-Africanism -- writing about the potential for African nationalism and self-government amidst growing European colonialism. They, in turn, inspired a new generation of Pan-Africanists at the turn of the twentieth century -- JE Casely Hayford, and Martin Robinson Delany (who coined the phrase 'Africa for Africans' later picked up by Marcus Garvey).

African Association and Pan-African Congresses
Pan-Africanism gained legitimacy with the founding of the African Association in London in 1897, and the first Pan-African conference held, again in London, in 1900. Henry Sylvester Williams, the power behind the African Association, and his colleagues were interested in uniting the whole of the African Diaspora, and gaining political rights for those of African decent. Others were more concerned with the struggle against colonialism and Imperial rule in Africa and the Caribbean -- Dusé Mohamed Ali, for example, believed that change could only come through economic development. Marcus Garvey combined the two paths, calling for political and economic gains as well as a return to Africa (either physically or though a return to an Africanized ideology).

Between the world wars, Pan-Africanism was influenced by communism and trade unionism, especially through the writings of George Padmore, Isaac Wallace-Johnson, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Paul Robeson, CLR James, WEB Du Bois, and Walter Rodney. Significantly, Pan-Africanism had expanded out beyond the continent into Europe, the Caribbean and Americas. WEB Du Bois organized a series of Pan-African Congresses in London, Paris, and New York in the first half of the twentieth century. International awareness of Africa was also heightened by the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935.

Also between the two world wars, Africa's two main colonial powers, France and Britain, attracted a younger group of Pan-Africanists: Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Cheikh Anta Diop, and Ladipo Solanke. As student activists they gave rise to Africanist philosophies such as Négritude.

International Pan-Africanism had probably reached its zenith by the end of World War II when WEB Du Bois held the fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester (in 1945).

African Independence
After the second World War, Pan-Africanist interests once more returned to the African continent, with a particular focus on African unity and liberation. A number of leading Pan-Africanists, particularly George Padmore and WEB Du Bois, emphasized their commitment to Africa by emigrating (in both cases to Ghana) and becoming African citizens. Across the continent, a new group of Pan-Africanists arose amongst the nationalists -- Kwame Nkrumah, Sékou Ahmed Touré, Ahmed Ben Bella, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Amilcar Cabral, and Patrice Lumumba.

In 1963, the Organization African Unity was formed to advance cooperation and solidarity between newly independent African countries and fight against colonialism. In an attempt to revamp the organization, and move away from it being seen as an alliance of African dictators, it was re-imagined in July 2002 as the African Union.

Modern Pan-Africanism
Pan-Africanism today is seen much more as a cultural and social philosophy than the politically driven movement of the past. People, such as Molefi Kete Asante, hold to the importance of ancient Egyptian and Nubian cultures being part of a (black) African heritage, and seek a re-evaluation of Africa's place, and the Diaspora, in the world.

A History of Modern Africa by Richard J Reid, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Pan-African History: Political figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787 by Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, Routledge, 2003.
The Routledge Companion to Decolonization by Dietmar Rothermund, Routledge, 2006.
General History of Africa: VIII Africa Since 1935 edited by Ali A Mazrui, James Currey, 1999.

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