African Diaspora

Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Volume 3. Editor: John Hartwell Moore. Macmillan Reference USA. 2008.

The concept of “diaspora” suggests the spread or scattering of a specific population or race of people to different and far-flung places throughout the world. Without alluding to the earliest development of humans in Africa as the foundation of all human diasporas, the African continent, beginning in the fifteenth century at least, was the original source of a significant black diaspora, which in the early twenty-first century embraces the entire globe. The European slave trade to the New World started a massive wave of forced migration of the cream of African populations, particularly from West and Central Africa, to the Caribbean and thence to South and North America, the objective being to provide cheap labor on white-owned plantations. This was the known post-Columbian beginning of the African diaspora. A second wave of out-migration from the Caribbean to North America and Europe—virtually completing a circle in the spread of black populations around the world—took place during the latter part of the twentieth century.

The Slave Trade

The question is whether the European-initiated slave trade from Africa to the New World starting in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was motivated by economic factors or by racial considerations. Eric Williams, who became the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago in 1956, believed that the main motivation of the plantation owners was cheap labor, which also fueled the financial greed of the slave traders and helped to catapult a backward feudal-dominated Europe to the age of industrial capitalism beginning in the eighteenth century.

The race question would thus seem to be a secondary phenomenon with regard to the motivation behind the African slave trade. Much has already been written about the racist preoccupations of Europeans during the slavery period, particularly their belief in the myth about “the white man’s burden,” which held that they had to control the world in order to civilize or Christianize it. Europeans also adhered to so-called scientific theories of race, which relegated the darker-skinned peoples of the world to the bottom of a supposed hierarchical human order, and to false biblical (Old Testament) notions about blacks being fallen angels condemned to eternal servitude by God. But while these ideas helped justify the African slave trade, Williams thought that the bottom line had always been an economic one. The search for gold and the profitability in trade in slaves, raw material, and commodities that the Indies made possible were necessary inputs in the development of the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

However, the race question in this New World quest for gold and riches cannot be dismissed out of hand. The level of brutality, repressiveness, and what could be called a cultural genocide suffered by African slaves at the hands of the white planter classes and colonial authorities alike far surpassed the conditions under which the native Indians and indentured European laborers operated on New World plantations before the arrival of the Africans. But if racism was not the principal determining factor responsible for the genesis of the African slave trade to the Caribbean, it certainly developed as a consequence of this inhuman trade, for racism characterized and influenced the very unequal hierarchical structure and fabric of plantation and social life in the region as a whole.

The African slaves resisted their lot frequently. Such resistance ranged from runaway slaves to open rebellion and, ultimately, revolution. Colonies of runaway slaves (Maroons) were established in locations such as Jamaica, Surinam, and Brazil, and the historical legacy of resistance and rebellion persisted up to the twentieth century in the forms of the defiant creation of black villages following emancipation and the political struggles for democracy and independence between the 1940s and 1960s. The success of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 influenced a generation of similar rebellious and revolutionary struggles throughout the hemisphere, including the slave rebellions between 1800 and 1831 in the Americas and the Latin American revolution for independence from Spain in the 1920s.

Emancipation came first in the British West Indies in 1934, when, in addition to the slaves being freed, the white plantation owners were financially compensated by the British authorities for their loss of slave labor. The former slaves proceeded to build independent farming villages for themselves, while the planters imported fresh labor from as far away as China and India. The African villages then became the centers of Africanist cultures, which by the time of emancipation were significantly influenced by European values, thereby creating a hybrid, or “creole,” cultural frame of existence. This hybrid creolization of Africanist culture in the New World is seen in Caribbean musical expressions such as reggae and calypso, as well as in Caribbean religious lifestyles such as Vodou and Rastafarianism. Both Vodou and Rastafarianism marry African traditions and beliefs with Western Christian influences. Some of the richness of this Caribbean hybrid experience, particularly reggae and Rastafarianism, has become internationalized, and their influences can be seen on all continents of the globe.

Reverse Migration

From the Caribbean, many African slaves (after having been “seasoned” for some time) were transshipped to both North and South America to serve on similar plantations in these other parts of the world. Thus the migration of Africans in the New World continued both during slavery when slaves from the Caribbean were further relocated and sold to South American and North American plantations, and after slavery when voluntary migration to metropolitan centers in Europe and North America became widespread. However, the essential aspect of this latter reverse flow of Caribbean migration to Europe and North America took place essentially in the twentieth century, several decades after African slavery had been abolished from these shores in the nineteenth century.

There are several push factors responsible for the increasing waves of out-migration away from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, which in the early 2000s constitute the bulk of the African diaspora. Most significant among these push factors are political instability, repressive or oppressive state policies, economic hardships, and lack of personal advancement. Migrants also desire to settle in the more advanced metropoles of Europe and North America because of better economic opportunities and higher educational attainments. But what is mostly fueling out-migration from the New World region is the phenomenon of economic and technological globalization, which tends to concentrate wealth and more lucrative economic and job opportunities in the metropolitan centers of the world, particularly in North America and Europe. Metropolitan cities such as New York, London, Toronto, Paris, and Amsterdam take up the bulk of immigrant populations from Africa and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the major concentrations of people of African descent, outside the African continent, are in the United States and Brazil.

Contributions of the African Diaspora

African diaspora communities in North America and Europe have made important economic, political, cultural and intellectual contributions to the development of their homeland territories and the world. In particular, it is their economic contributions to their homeland territories that distinguish members of the African diaspora from other international aid donors. In many instances these economic contributions from the diaspora, principally in the form of what are called “remittances,” account for the greatest proportion of financial contributions to the domestic economies of African and Caribbean nations. According to a 2003 World Bank working paper, remittances from the African diaspora in the United States to African countries amount to $12 billion annually, with about $4 billion of that going to subSaharan Africa alone. Similarly, the contributions of Caribbean diaspora represent a significant proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP) of their respective homelands. For example, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), remittances to the Dominican Republic represented 9.3 percent of GDP in 2002, while for Jamaica and Haiti the figures were 13.6 percent and 24.2 percent, respectively.

Political contributions of members of the African diaspora abroad range from organizing historical mass movements for black and minority civil and political rights to direct involvement in the decision-making processes in metropolitan states. The decolonization struggles in Africa, the Caribbean, and around the world, and the black civil rights movement in the United States are the most prominent examples of African diaspora political contributions, while the prominent roles played by black representatives in the U.S. Congress (such as Shirley Chisholm) and government (such as Colin Powell as secretary of state), are examples of African diaspora political capabilities at the very highest levels of government. Similar contributions of African diaspora individuals apply to the British government, in which the Guyanese nationals Baroness Valerie Amos (in the House of Lords) and David Lammy (in the British Cabinet) are prominent examples.

Cultural contributions of members of the African diaspora are numerous. These include, most prominently, artistic and musical creations, intellectual outputs, and specific religious practices. Major musical contributions include the creation of jazz in the United States, reggae and calypso music in the Caribbean, and samba in Brazil, each of which has made a significant international impact. Similarly, the colorful and dazzling creativity of Carnival parades in Trinidad and Tobago rivals that of Mardi Gras in both Brazil and New Orleans, with all three vying for coveted international acclaim as “the greatest show on earth.”

Intellectual contributions are seen in the tremendous literary attainment of African, African American, Caribbean, and Afro Latin-American writers such as Richard Wright, Wole Soyinka, and Derek Walcott, while the academic contributions of Arthur Lewis, Walter Rodney, and Ali Mazrui are also noteworthy. African diaspora contributions to political thought and practices are found in the consciousness raising works of Marcus Garvey, members of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) of Harlem during the 1920s, and C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, and Walter Rodney, among others, during more recent times.

African Diaspora Communities Beyond the West

The fact that the African diaspora has been made almost synonymous with what has been termed “the Black Atlantic” can hardly be disputed (Gilroy 1993). However, there are also significant African diaspora communities beyond the Atlantic region. Within the Pacific region in Asia, for example, there are long-established communities that trace their historical and racial roots to Africa. The Sidis of the Western Indian state of Gugarat constitute “tens of thousands” of African-derived peoples who were brought to India beginning in the twelfth century as slave-soldiers for the Indian princely states. The Sidis distinguished themselves as powerful military fighters who sometimes usurped power from the princely rulers they served. In the early twenty-first century, the Sidis have lost much contact with and knowledge of Africa, but they have retained many remnants of their African past, particularly in music and dance, such as in the use of certain African-derived musical instruments.

Africans in Russia and China have a significant presence mainly as students. This presence has grown significantly since the 1960s, after African and Caribbean states obtained political independence from European colonial control. Many African and Caribbean students were sent to Russia (the then Soviet Union) and China to study at universities there, mainly in keeping with non-alignment and Afro-Asian solidarity principles (as expressed at the Bandung Conference in 1955) of the cold war age. However, serious controversies emerged about the reception of African students in these far-flung countries. In Russia, for instance, African students complained about racial discrimination and neglect by state authorities. In China, African students rioted in the 1980s in Nanjing and Hangzhou over what they regarded as officially sanctioned discrimination against them.

Then there are the Afroid Melanesian peoples of the Indian Ocean-South Pacific region, who are said to have predated even the Chinese and Indians in the pre-history of the region. They possess distinctively African physical characteristics, and they have also suffered the fate of colonial exploitation, dispossession, and economic disadvantage. Countries such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Vanuatu are the most prominent examples of the South Pacific homelands of these peoples of the older African diaspora.

Future of the African Diaspora

The African diaspora is a very dynamic universe of creativity, but it faces a series of challenges to ensure its continued development. First, there is the issue of clearly defining African identity, particularly in the context of the controversy surrounding the self-definition of mixed offspring of African descendants within this universe. Thus, the famous golfer Tiger Woods would prefer to be identified as “mixed” rather than as African American, and the mixed Garifuna people of the Caribbean are very much concerned with recapturing the traditions of their Carib ancestry alongside their interest in their African roots. Many Mulattoes in the Caribbean area prefer to distance themselves from their African ancestry and culture.

A second issue affecting the future of African diaspora development is the consistent disadvantaged position of African-descended people in the hierarchy of political and economic relationships throughout the globe. The persistent subordination of the black race is witnessed at the global level in terms of the history of colonial and capitalist exploitation of Africa, while within the diaspora blacks have often been at the disadvantaged end of the increasing economic and political inequalities that attend the processes of economic and technological globalization.

A third issue is the persistent need for continuous struggle to redress the difficulties posed by economic and political disadvantages, and again to overcome the further difficulties posed by the struggles themselves. While, for example, affirmative action policies are identified as necessary to overcome economic disadvantages, there is still the need to struggle against a growing number of opponents to these policies, particularly among conservative whites in the United States. The issue of “reparations” for the wrongs of slavery represents another frontier in this struggle, with the same implications of countering significant opposition, mainly from white conservatives. In the British Caribbean, the emancipation of slaves in 1834 brought monetary reparations, but it was paid to the white plantation owners to compensate for their “lost” slaves, not to the ex-slaves who lost so much more in the centuries of their forced labor on Caribbean plantations.

A fourth issue has to do with the persistence of deadly violent political and military conflicts (including genocide) among the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora. Political (including militarized) conflicts involving ethnic or communal divisiveness and narcotics trafficking are endemic in the Caribbean, and in such countries as Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Surinam. In Africa, political and military violence have affected the lives of millions of continental Africans, particularly in such countries as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Congo, and the Sudan. Genocide of major proportions, involving hundreds of thousands of peoples, has occurred in Rwanda and Burundi, and is still ongoing in Darfur in Northern Sudan.

The African diaspora, which has produced so many gifted, inspired, and inspiring internationally recognized leaders—such as of Marcus Garvey of Jamaica, Aimé Césaire of Martinique, W. E. B. Du Bois of the United States, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States, and Kofi Annan of Ghana—has indeed come to an impasse on many issues. A new generation of capable leadership is needed to deal with the significant problems facing this diverse worldwide community.