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(Re)presentation and (Re)positioning Pan-Africanism in the 21st Century
Pan-Africanism is an ideology that purports Africans and people of African descent share a common past and destiny. This mutual understanding of the past and future portrays how Africans and people of African descent mobilize against colonialism, racial discrimination, and social, economic, political, and cultural exploitation. Pan-Africanism can be defined as an ideology of black people’s lived experiences or “essence” of human dignity that rises “above individualistic self-interest for the sake of enhancing threatened collective survival and the recognition of the masses as a vital force for purposes of liberation” (Mugo, 2002:252). It harmonizes these experiences into a movement that challenges capitalist socio-political constructs and stimulates activism that is organized in black communities globally for equality, self-development and freedom from oppressive forces.
While the 1945 Pan-African Congress and the ones that preceded it are significant to understanding the history of Pan-Africanism, it is essential to move beyond these institutionalized male-centered events that erases the central agents of Pan Africanism – women, youths and the masses (Mugo, 2002). Against this backdrop, such heteropatriarchal theories of combating global black liberation struggles obscures the ideology of Pan-Africanism as a solidarity movement as it ignores contributions of the masses which includes black women and homosexuals. Hence, in order for Pan-Africanism to be of relevance in the 21st century, it needs to purge itself from this male-centeredness that was orchestrated by the West to bring division in the black community. This paper highlights how capitalism has virtually dismantled Pan-Africanism by segregating Africans through the social construct of race, class and gender inequality.
Western Enlightenment discourse of the 19th century led to the development and refinement of slavery and colonialism and systematized racial exploitation. During that time invention of the Black Other became essential for the creation of whiteness and white subjectivity (Wright, 2004:27-28). Enlightenment racists philosophers from Europe and North America, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Count Arthur de Gobineau and Thomas Jefferson, tied human phenotypic difference to varying possibilities of progress for mankind. This invention of whiteness, therefore complicated the hierarchical modes of social categorization as a result of racism and racialization (Martinot, 2003). Hence, human societies were ranked in relation to their possibility of attaining European civilization. Under these circumstances, Pan-Africanism as an ideology for solidarity emerged in the early 20th century by black male intellects to motivate black people to unite and fight against the common oppressive empire – the white imperialist.
Africans had been a target for disdain and exploitation for centuries. Steve Martinot (2006) Racialization and Class Structure demonstrates how slavery and colonization of indigenous Americans and African people essentially influenced the development of the contemporary concepts of whiteness, race, and white supremacy. This process of racialization according to Martinot (2006) led the creation of white U.S. class identities. This class structure is evident and has negatively impacted black communities during slavery, European imperialism, globalization and now neoliberalism. Since racial categories are socially constructed in the Caribbean as well, Puerto Ricans, for instance, has claimed a racial category different from negro, which is still widely stigmatized by being associated with slavery and seen as socially inferior. As an attempt to eliminate negative implications in expressing blackness, Puerto Ricans have practiced and adopted the ideology of blanqueamiento (Godreau, 2006). Since, lighter skin color and certain facial features and hair types are associated with social hierarchy based on racial class structure in Puerto Rico (Godreau, 2006). While recognizing that colonialization and the construction of pseudo-racist imagery of African’s, Fanon recognized that the process of decolonialization and retelling of new, positive identities and conceptions of “blackness” would take time to move beyond the colonized/colonizer binary.
These phases in capitalism have degraded African traditional institutions, which are deemed as worthless and incapable of contributing to knowledge, and overtime has been replaced by Eurocentric ones. This has led to Western values being well-established and enabled institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, to have monopoly control on explaining social phenomena and prescribing solutions to the problems plaguing most black societies. Presently, it is evident how the socio-economic environment of the black working class is one of total commodification, through a similar form labor control by the ruling class. The merger of white supremacy and ruling class control of socio-political processes signify an ongoing contemporary coloniality, in which they still own all means of production and modes of production. The necessity of Pan- Africanism has a driving force to unite the Black people against Westernized racism.
The Caribbean was the nucleus of the slave-trade system and as the Pan-African ideology developed they had the first successful slave revolts and revolution. Not only did the idea of Pan-Africanism travelled along the triangular slave trade – West Africa, the Caribbean, North America and Europe – but many important figures surfaced and journeyed with the movement (Geiss, 1967:721). Several founding intellectual leaders emerged from the Caribbean and North America – E.W. Blyden, Marcus Garvey, Sylvester Williams, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore and W.E.B Du Bois – that played a key role in the history of Pan-Africanism and the organization of a series of meetings aimed at addressing the colonization of Africa and the African diaspora (Geiss, 1967). Pan-Africanism thus became a distinct political movement among Africans in global Africa. The first Pan African Congress, which was held in London in 1900, insisted on civil and political rights for Africans, raised concerns on racism against Africans in global Africa and called for the right to sovereignty and self-definition to be granted to African colonies (Geiss, 1967). Subsequent to the inaugural Congress (1900), several other congresses were held in Paris (1919), London in 1921 and 1923, New York City in 1927 and Manchester in 1945, to call for the elimination of colonial and imperial control.
The seventh Pan-African Congress in Kampala (1994), despite making efforts to engender and democratize participation of the masses, failed to unite global Africa because of the differences in vision between the black leaders and masses. Among the objectives of the Pan-African movement is to unite and embrace all category of African people both on the continent and global Africa. However, the mobilization of the Pan-African nationalist vision that emerged during the era of colonial domination has been dormant for over six decades. Despite the central role black women, have played as major political thinkers and leaders in various contemporary black and liberation movements, their contributions continue to be overshadowed by the few African male leaders who occupied the position of power to influence change and make decisions. For this reason, Micere Mugo (2002), Michele Wallace, Angela Davis, Linda La Rue and other black feminist scholars (Guy-Sheftall, 1995) forged a brand of Pan-Africanism that utilize and calls for a structure of the mass movement as a vehicle that embraces the mobilization of all black people. More specifically they argue that silences associated with the difficulty of being black and female – sexism, classism and racism – requires urgent explosion, given their vulnerability under these institutionalized neo-colonialism systems of oppression.
Although fragmented, Pan-Africanism as a social movement has been active in small pockets across the globe. The historical experience of Africans has been an experience of racialization, economic exploitation, political oppression, and cultural domination under European and American slavery, colonialism, and imperialism gave rise to the Rastafari Pan-African movement which stemmed from Graveyism and Ethiopianism. This patriarchal Pan-African movement is still practiced in some nations of the Caribbean and parts of Africa today. On the other hand Pan-Africanist women employed a more radical politics to the movement that sought to challenge patriarchy, issues of sexuality and strove for egalitarianism by contesting racist, sexist, and classist discrimination – the “triple jeopardy”. Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s book Words of fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought captures how the erasure of black women’s lives, dilemmas, achievements and thought has been an essential realization of African-American feminist thought. Furthermore, it reveals that Pan-Africanist women have evolved from being nurturers of movements to being visionaries, leaders and knowledge producers in their own right. Guy-Sheftall’s (1995) book also portrayed several commonalities that is thematic throughout the book, such as, black women’s experience a unique kind of oppression – the triple jeopardy – because they are black and female and they have limited access to economic resources; therefore the concerns and desires of black women are different from both white women and black men; black women have two major fights to simultaneously contend with – black liberation andgender equality; and black women’s commitment to the liberation of blacks and women is profoundly rooted in their lived experiences.
Similarly, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was conceptualized by black women activists in reaction to anti-black racism and police brutality that distinctly persists in the United States and other parts of the global Africa. Nonetheless these women’s influences have largely been unnoticed by mainstream media outlets which have instead highlighted the political efforts of black men. Additionally, the #BlackLivesMatter movement have become mainly a platform black men’s oppression as opposed to its original intent to demand the rights and dignity of allmarginalized Africans and people of African descent, irrespective of their class, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status. This goes to show the complicity of the masses as non-actors in their own oppression. Taylor (2016) echoed the centrality of Pan-Africanism – to unite all black people and fight against the common oppressor – by highlighting that in order for black people to achieve black liberation, social transformation and human liberation is needed.
The need for the (re)presentation and the (re)positioning of the Pan-African movement in the 21st century is crucial not only to decolonize Western narratives of the dignity and humanity of Africans but also to counteract the institutionalized systems of oppression and materialism brought on by the West that is designed to divide black people. Capitalism promotes the eradication of the “lesser” race – the black race – and this is manifested in the high crime rate, poverty, HIV/AIDS incidences, racism, degradation of the environment, deformation in the lives of youth and reduction of the lives of women in black communities/countries. As demonstrated thus far, it is evident that capitalism became the predominant institutional form of capital accumulation for empire building on the backs of black people and people of African descent from as early as the 19th century.
To conclude, ‘each chain is as strong as its weakest link’. If the solidarity and unity of Pan-Africanism stimulated revolutions and revolts and ultimately the freedom of African slaves in the 19th century, then a renewal of Pan-Africanism, to include all black people in the 21st century can overthrow capitalism and end their oppression.
- Geiss, I. (1967). Notes on the Development of Pan-Africanism. Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 3(4), p. 719-740.
- Godreau, I. P. Folkloric “Others:” Blanqueamiento and the Celebration of Blackness as an Exception in Puerto Rico. Eds. Clarke, K.M and Thomas,D. (2006). Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness. Durham: Duke University Press, p. 171-87. Print.
- Guy-Sheftall, B. (1995). Words of fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. New York: New Press.
- Martinot, S. (2003). The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. p.28-128
- Mugo, M (2002) “Re-Envisioning Pan Africanism: What Is the Role of Gender, Youth and the Masses,” in Pan Africanism and Integration in Africa, ed. Ibbo Mandaza and Dan Nabudere Harare: Sapes Books, p 239-260.
- Rabaka, R., 1972. (2009). Africana critical theory: Reconstructing the black radical tradition, from W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James to Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books.
- Taylor, Keeanga-Yanahtta. (2016).From #BlackLivesMatter to Black LiberationChicago: Haymarket, 2016
- Wright, M. M., 1968. (2004). Becoming black: Creating identity in the African Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 27-65
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