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Students, Scholars Discuss The Relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st Century

Pan African Flag. Image courtesy of the Pan-African Alliance via Flickr.

Pan Africanism, or the belief that all African descendants share a common history, struggle and destiny, and efforts that support cultural, social, political, and economic self-reliance and development of Africa and its diaspora, was popularized by leading Black scholars and activists in the 20th century. 

Despite the commercial emergence of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century, unadulterated applications of the ideology seem to be relegated to a civil society with scarce remnants in academia, as the global political economy is fundamentally capitalist and in contention with Black liberation and the aims of Pan Africanism.

Some well-known Pan-Africanists are Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Walter Rodney, Bob Marley, Frantz Fanon, Eric Williams, and C.L.R. James. However, there are several more. “Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787” mentions invaluable figures such as Constance Cummings-John, Claudia Jones, Julius Nyerere, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Edward Blyden, Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, Aime Cesaire, and several other pivotal contributors.

Like the African diaspora itself, supporters of ideology and philosophy are vast, spanning several nations, religions, occupations, trades, class groups, and educational backgrounds.

“Pan Africanism represents our ongoing struggle to organize a global network to consolidate power and indulge in African indigenous culture, attitudes and traditions,” grassroots journalist, educator, author and Blacologist Dr. Sam P.K. Collins said. 

A native Washingtonian with Liberian parents who immigrated to the U.S., Dr. Collins identifies as an American-born West African of Bassa and Grebo lineage. Collins defines Pan-Africanism as seeking to meet the material needs of Black people and improve their conditions. 

“We can’t reduce the movement to lectures and pontification. Let’s establish institutions and build a presence in our communities so that as their needs are met, people gain a political, cultural and social awareness that encourages them to identify as Africans,” Collins said.  

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“Pan African Pantheon: Prophets, Poets, and Philosophers,” appropriately establishes groups to assess the contributions of historical and contemporary Pan-Africanists, including pioneers, politicians, activists, social scientists, philosophers, literary experts, and creative artists. Due to the industrial development of society, Pan-Africanists can also include teachers, lawyers, doctors, diplomats, engineers, philanthropists, and members of the public and private sectors. Dr. Collins said he applies Pan-Africanism to his work, voting habits and romantic partnership.

“I write for a Black-owned paper, teach in African-centered institutions, participate in U.S. elections as a non-party voter, and I’m in a long-term relationship with an African woman. That’s the spirit of Pan-Africanism. It’s not about the show. Pan-Africanism is about acquiring power and getting back in touch with our culture that predates colonization,” Collins said.  

Sumaya Elkashif is a Sudanese graduating senior, honors international affairs and French double major, and Arabic minor from Columbia, Maryland, who defines Pan-Africanism as a global movement “that unites continental Africans and the Afro-diaspora in our collective mission of decolonizing our states, lands, minds and souls.”

The ethos and intent of the work of many members of the African diaspora, especially women such as Ella Jo Baker and many others, can be considered Pan-African. Baker proudly mentioned her belief that “strong people don’t need strong leaders” and her behind the scene’s leadership style was indicative of the spirit of Pan Africanism.

Due to legacies of colonialism, slavery and racial public policies, Africans and Afro-descendants around the world have historically experienced, and continue to endure, social, political, economic, psychological and, at times, physical exploitation and marginalization. Pan-Africanism is also a comprehensive response to the negative and life-threatening conditions people of African descent experience.

Many U.S.-based scholars, historians, activists, and proponents of Pan-Africanism identify the prominent public intellectual W.E.B. Dubois, who wrote abundantly about the concept and was involved in the Pan African Congresses throughout the 1900s, as the “father of Pan-Africanism.”

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Others believe Jamaican, Marcus Garvey, deserves this title due to his cofounding of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with his wife Amy Ashwood Garvey, its influence and the 1920 establishment of the red, black and green Pan-African flag.

Some members of the African diaspora uphold that DuBois and Garvey were early 20th-century Pan-Africanists, and they highlight 19th-century origins and early Pan-Africanists such as Paul Cuffee, Martin Delany and others. 

“The first prophet [based in the U.S.] heralding the coming Pan Africanism was Martin Delany who in 1836 claimed ‘Africa for the African race,’” Siphiwe Baleka said.

Baleka is a Pan-African scholar-activist and the president of the Balanta B’urassa History and Genealogy Society in America, a nonprofit dedicated to informing African descendants about the importance of family genealogy and serving the Balanta people who were victims of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

From August 14-21, 1893, the Chicago Congress on Africa convened at the World Columbian Exposition. The Congress was attended by Africans and Afro-descendants in the New World, including Alexander Crummell, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and Bishop Alexander Walters.

“This began the organized Pan African Congress movement. Pan-Africanism would become a significant political and social force in the 20th century,” Baleka explained. 

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Whereas the African diaspora is global, context and geography are significant and influence one’s experience and engagement with Pan-Africanism.

“Growing up in Africa, I did not realize everyone didn’t support Pan Africanism until engaging with others who thought differently,” Dr. Msia Clark said. Originally from Tanzania, Clark is a Howard alumna, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the African Studies department.

In pre-apartheid South Africa, Pixley Seme and others advanced Pan-Africanism, founding the South African Native National Congress, which would later be renamed the African National Congress. Later in the 1950s during the apartheid regime, Robert Sobukwe and others founded the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania, to improve political, social and economic conditions for Black South Africans.

In 1999, Dr. Motsoko Pheko, a former member of the South African Parliament and a representative of the PAC declared that “Pan Africanism demands that the riches of Africa be used for the benefit, upliftment, development and enjoyment of the African people” and “it is a system of equitably sharing food, clothing, homes, education, healthcare, wealth, land, work, security of life and happiness”.

“It is the privilege of the African people to love themselves and to give themselves and their way of life respect and preference. There will continue to be an ideological and intellectual crisis in the African world until Africans understand Pan Africanism, its value and benefits, and apply it to their many problems” Pheko concluded.

With several international and local organizations dedicated to Black liberation, there is also fragmentation and division among Pan-Africanists, members of the African diaspora and non-African actors (allies and opposition) that influence how the public perceives the concept.

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“White hegemony continues to methodologically divide African people against themselves” Alexa Baker, senior international affairs major and African studies and Swahili double minor, said. “Africa is perpetually marginalized in international affairs although it is central to issues facing nations from either the West or the East,” Baker continued.

“In the movement today, we lack the patience to study the triumphs and mistakes of those who preceded us, which leads to lectures and arguments.  We rarely build with our elders, or work to preserve systems that have worked in the past,” Collins said.

Inevitably, members of the African diaspora have varying opinions about the potential of Pan-Africanism and ideas promoting African unity. Differences, however, do not denote inferiority or superiority.

Clark mentioned that she thinks colleges can do more to educate students and alumni about Pan Africanism, considering that global corporations are investing in ‘Pan African marketing schemes’ to sell products and each semester students have the ‘African Americans versus Africans’ debate.

“Pan Africanism is being commodified as a profitable idea rather than a social and political movement, which bothers me. Disney, Beyoncé and “Black is King” have brought African consciousness to people who would never consider themselves connected to Africa, which is good,” Clark said.

“Yet, there are many capitalist factors that reveal the goal is profit, rather than political education or development of communities. Pan-Africanism promoted by corporations is very Eurocentric and encourages ‘Western versions of success,’” she continued.

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Despite the commercial emergence of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century, unadulterated applications of the ideology seem to be relegated to a civil society with scarce remnants in academia, as the global political economy is fundamentally capitalist and in contention with Black liberation and the aims of Pan Africanism.

Regardless of where one falls within the spectrum, Pan-Africanists essentially seek to work with and serve Afro-descendants en masse, irrespective of class status. This holds true for adherents of Pan-African paradigms across nations, time, space and political and economic regimes. Influenced by Pan-Africanism and engaged in international affairs work centered on decolonization and human rights, Elkashif shared her thoughts on the future of the movement. 

“As [Frantz] Fanon wrote in “The Wretched of the Earth,” ‘Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot’ which we must ‘clinically detect and remove from our land and our minds’” Elkashif said.

“The future can be bright only if our generation takes the initiative to continue the work of our past revolutionaries, particularly in educating and globalizing our communities. HBCUs and African universities play a tremendous role in the Pan-Africanist mission,” she concluded. 

The following organizations were mentioned by participants when asked about organizations the public should pay attention to: The All African People’s Revolutionary Party; African Communities League; the African Union; Black Alliance for Just Immigration; the Black Immigration Network; Black Lives Matter; the Claudia Jones School for Political Education; the Pan-African Council; the Pan-African Federalist Movement; the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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