The Promise of Pan-Africanism

A Fuller Freedom

The lost promise of Pan-Africanism.


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.”

The story of Pan-Africanism as a cresting wave of 20th century aspirations for African freedom and unity that crashed on the limits of postcolonial statehood is compelling because it attends to the defeats and disappointments that followed decolonization. Yet it is only one story of Pan-Africanism, and it renders invisible and illegible those projects of African unity that circumvented the aspiration to statehood and persisted in alternative institutional and ideological trajectories. Throughout his life, Abrahams used his novels to restage and recast Pan-Africanism’s promise of black freedom. In his last novel, The View From Coyaba, published in 1985, he offered a transnational and transhistorical story that begins in Jamaica before the abolition of slavery there and follows the life of Jacob Brown, a Maroon descendant who studies with Du Bois in the United States before traveling to Africa as a missionary. Forced to flee Uganda, Brown returns to the hills of Jamaica, where his ancestors once took flight from slavery. Rather than see his return as marking a full circle, Brown awaits another opportunity to fly back to Africa.

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. Few scholars are better positioned than Adi to chart Pan-Africanism’s history: Over the course of two decades, he has chronicled it and the modern black experience more broadly as the writer or editor of 11 books, not to mention many journal articles and chapters written for other books. In Pan-​Africanism, he brings to bear his encyclopedic knowledge of black freedom movements in Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

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—J.E. Casely Hayford, John Mensah Sarbah, and Mojola Agbebi among them—who demanded reforms to the British Empire on the basis of West African solidarity. 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. At its height in the 1920s, UNIA had almost 1,000 chapters and divisions in Africa, the Caribbean, South and Central America, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Garvey’s Black Star Line, a shipping company that sought to cultivate commercial links among black people, was likely modeled on the efforts of Chief Alfred Sam, a trader from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) who registered a company in New York to develop trade routes and encourage black emigration to Africa.

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. Garvey’s wives Amy Ashwood and Amy Jacques, as well as Garveyite women like Mamie De Mena and Henrietta Vinton Davis, also contributed to the successful expansion of UNIA as they advanced women’s causes within the organization. The Martinican sisters Paulette and Jane Nardal, as students in Paris during the 1920s, convened gatherings of black students and exiles and helped black print culture to proliferate. In an article for the inaugural issue of La Dépêche Africaine (The African Dispatch), Jane Nardal articulated the emergence of a new “Internationalisme Noir” (Black Internationalism). “Blacks of all origins and nationalities, with different customs and religions,” she argued, “vaguely sense that they belong in spite of everything to a single and same race…. From now on there will be a certain interest, a certain originality, a certain pride in being black, in turning back towards Africa, cradle of the blacks, in recalling a common origin.”

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. For instance, much has been written about the differences between Du Bois’s moderate calls for imperial reform at the early Pan-​African congresses and Garvey’s radical demand of “Africa for the Africans.” But as Adi shows, the two were united in their shared aspirations for black representation within the League of Nations, and figures like Kojo Tovalou Houénou of Dahomey (now Benin), who founded the Ligue Universelle Pour la Défense de la Race Noire (Universal League for the Defense of the Black Race), deftly navigated these two visions of Pan-Africanism. He attended UNIA meetings in New York and corresponded with Du Bois in the hope of positioning his own league as an umbrella Pan-African organization. For Houénou, Africa—not a particular territory or region—was his country, and the league sought to “develop the bonds of solidarity and of universal brotherhood between all members of the black race; to bring them together for the restoration of their country of origin—Africa.”

Houénou’s project, Adi tells us, was “an aspiration that remained unrealized.” Not only the efforts of imperial states to quash resistance and censor black publications but also internal differences of language, ideology, and orientation worked to fragment this and other efforts to consolidate and centralize Pan-Africanism. It is here that we begin to see the difficulties of viewing Pan-Africanism as one unvaried whole. Although Adi acknowledges different currents and streams, his river metaphor is too naturalistic to capture the disjuncture and disruption, the reformulation and rearticulation that characterized projects of African unity. Especially when he surveys the 1920s and ’30s—arguably the high point of Pan-African cultural and political organizing—one finds the historical record replete with ephemeral organizations and publications and fleeting collaborations.

Even following a single historical figure moves you through a half-dozen iterations of Pan-African politics. Take George Padmore. Born Malcolm Nurse in Arouca, Trinidad, in 1903, he began his political career by joining the Communist Party of the United States, where he lived as a student, and quickly emerged as a leading figure of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers and the editor of The Negro Worker from his base in Hamburg, Germany. Deported in 1933 by the Nazi police, then ousted from the party the following year for his criticism of Soviet alliances with colonial powers, Padmore briefly joined his fellow black communist Tiémoko Garan Kouyaté in Paris, where they planned a Negro World Unity congress. When growing repression and a lack of funding thwarted the group’s founding, Padmore moved to London and, with fellow Trinidadian C.L.R. James, organized the International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA) in 1935 “to assist by all means in their power in the maintenance of the territorial integrity and political independence of Abyssinia” (now Ethiopia) as Italy threatened it with invasion. IAFA soon folded, however, and James and Padmore turned their efforts to a new organization, the International African Service Bureau, which would then serve as the basis for the Pan-African Federation, which organized the Fifth Pan-African Congress in 1945.

Writing of this interwar period, Brent Hayes Edwards has argued that the “unforeseen alliances” that diasporic blacks fostered “also are characterized by unavoidable misapprehensions and misreadings, persistent blindnesses and solipsisms, self-defeating and abortive collaborations, a failure to translate even a basic grammar of blackness.” This is not to say that visions of Pan-Africanism were futile from the outset but instead only to note the experimental and improvisational character of the projects taken up in its name and to acknowledge the linguistic, geographic, and ideological tensions against which Pan-Africanists labored.

Attending to the fragmentary quality of Pan-Africanism helps us make better sense of the discontinuities and reversals so presciently outlined in A Wreath for Udomo. The postwar phase of Pan-Africanism was unassimilable into a single movement or project, in part because the very premise of decolonization appeared to confine anticolonial activists to the territorially bound nation-state, undermining the transnational and nonterritorial scope of Pan-Africa. Following earlier histories of Pan-Africanism, Adi describes the shift of Pan-African activity from imperial metropoles to postcolonial Ghana and other newly independent states as the Pan-​Africanists’ “return home.” Yet such a reading narrows the scope of Pan-Africanism’s internationalist ambitions; it becomes a black Zionism in search of a national homeland. To be sure, repatriation has always featured prominently in the African diasporic imagination, and so has the thirst for national independence. Reflecting in 1971 on The Black Jacobins, his classic 1938 history of the Haitian Revolution, James noted, “It was written about Africa. It wasn’t written about the Caribbean.” Yet what mattered for him was not that Pan-Africanism might return home but that the Caribbean was the terrain on which African independence could be worked out. But even the achievement of African independence was not the end point, in his view. It was just the beginning of a global political and economic transformation—a world revolution that would simultaneously defeat white supremacy and capitalism. Nurturing a commitment to a Pan-Africa that exceeded a continental cartography, James was ambivalent about a politics that directed its energy primarily toward nation-state building and worried that despite the best intentions of the new generation of postcolonial statesmen, the trappings of state sovereignty would soon thwart their larger ambitions of securing African unity and building a racially egalitarian international order.

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. When the Sixth Pan-African Congress was convened in Dar es Salaam in 1974, the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney warned that a majority of congress attendants would be spokespersons of “African and Caribbean states which in so many ways represent the negation of Pan-Africanism.” Having been denied reentry into Jamaica in 1968 for his support of Black Power activism, Rodney was intimately familiar with the conservative bent of the new postcolonial states. By 1974, Abrahams’s call for a Socialist United States of Africa had given away to the tepid Organization of African Unity (OAU), which supported liberation movements across the continent but remained committed to the political form of the nation-state.

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. Whereas black skin had been an epithet—​famously captured by Frantz Fanon in the moment when a white French child pointed at him and said, “Look, a Negro!”—Pan-​Africanism made it into a resource for imagining a radically egalitarian future. 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.

Editor’s note: The photo caption has been updated to correct which congress is featured in the image. It was not the first, but the fifth.

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