Friday, October 13, 2006

Review: Pan Africanism in the African Diaspora

[Ronald W. Walters. Pan Africanism in the African Diaspora: An Analysis of Modern Afrocentric Political Movements. Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1993.]

A central question in all politics, albeit one that is seldom even recognized let alone effectively addressed in more privileged progressive (broadly defined) spaces, is who exactly are "we"? Who composes the collective subject pushing for change in a given instance, and how in practical terms is that collectivity constituted? What are the political implications of our answers to those questions? What might we wish to try and do differently?

Often in our semi-conscious dealings with the questions of "we", we forcibly include those who would not wish to be, and end up appropriating their credibility or erasing our own complicity. Or we disappear those who are different from "I" in some important respect but are genuinely and functionally part of "we", and thereby enforce homogeneity where it is not. Or we somehow slide from "we" as functional unity of those with like aspirations to an arbitrary border that is viciously policed. Or we privilege what is in our heads but ignore what is in (and socially focused on) our bodies. Or a million other things.

This book is one attempt to talk about one particular "we". It is not, I hasten to add, a "we" which encompasses me -- beyond the political advisability of developing understandings of "wes" that are actually "theys" to us, that we might better form broader politically functional "wes" with them, one of the interview participants in my main project identifies strongly as part of the "we" that is the subject of this book. Given that I know little of this "we" theorized in this way, I need to learn more to have a shot at adequately contextualizing his words.

Pan Africanism is a cultural orientation and a politics that is based on the overarching unity of African people. In various times and places its emphasis has sometimes been on what Walters calls "continental Pan Africanism" -- unity of the nations and states in Africa itself, particularly sub-Saharan Africa -- but at others it has been "racial Pan Africanism", a unity that encompasses the vast global diaspora of African-origin peoples.

The construction of a "we" so vast is a tricky business. Walters, who played a leadership role in the Pan Africanist movement in the U.S. at its crest and at the time of writing was a senior academic, rejects a romantic approach to this "we" and focuses, quite sensibly, on the material -- on how it has been, is, and can be actually constructed. His focus is on the diaspora, and for a variety of reasons, according to Walters, African America has a fairly central political space within the diaspora. He looks at the post-WWII history of Pan Africanism in the U.S., and then looks at a number of other contexts, usually using the U.S. situation as a referrant. In most cases he uses both a comparative method, to compare the political realities of African-origin people in the U.S. and the other setting of interest, and then what he describes as a Pan African method, which focuses on evidence of linkage between African communities and movements in the sites in question and on the political impact of those linkages.

The case studies are many and diverse. Unfortunately for my purposes, none explicitly focus on Canada, though there are mentions here and there. After a chapter looking only at the Pan Africanist movement in the U.S., Walters moves on to an examination of a modern "back to Africa" experiment by U.S. Pan Africanists who moved to Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana. Then there is a three chapter case study of the U.S. and the U.K., and another three chapter case study of the U.S. and South Africa. He finishes up with one chapter examinations of Brazil and the Caribbean, and a conclusion.

The lack of a Canadian case study did not make the book any less useful to me. For one thing, one of the bases of Pan African unity in the diaspora is that the experiences of African-origin people have broad similarities in all of the places they have migrated and/or been forcibly removed to. Liberal white Canadian fantasies notwithstanding, this racialized pattern of power relations with people constructed as white on top is no less true here than anywhere else. In any case, I was looking for general background, and this was a great source for it. As well, the person whose words I need to contextualize moved to Canada from Trinidad, initially to go to university, so I appreciated the chapter on the Caribbean in particular (even if I wish it had been in greater depth).

A question underlying this work is that of culture. In the main text, Walters proposes that along with similarity of experience in diverse settings in the diaspora, a further basis for Pan African unity is a common African cultural foundation, but he does little there to elaborate on this proposal. He does not downplay diversity in culture and the challenges it can create -- there is plenty of history of disunity between continental Africans and African Americans, for example -- but still perceives aspects of underlying unity or potential unity. At the request of a reviewer of a pre-publication draft of the book, he includes a postscript discussing culture and its connections to politics more fully. For me, at least, it was not full enough -- too many names I knew little about passing by too quickly, and too little space for such a crucial question. I think there were things with which I would differ in his analysis of culture and politics, but I don't think I entirely got it, so I'm not sure.

One thing that stood out for me in reading this was its placement firmly within disciplinary norms. Its content is radical, but its approach is quite traditional. This isn't really a problem, given what I hoped to get out of it, but I still noticed -- most of what I have been reading recently, other than some fairly conventional history, has either disregarded disciplinary conventions entirely or set out deliberately to challenge them. Some of the reification of abstract concepts in this book felt particularly odd to me, as well as certain turns of phrase that I suppose come from the scientistic pretensions of "political science", which just aren't necessary to convince me that its ideas deserve attention.

A final and probably more important lack in the book's analysis was that it examined complexity within the "we" of focus in certain respects but not in others. Perhaps the most obvious missing piece was a gender analysis -- I know that processes of colonialism and diaspora, as well as resistance in those contexts, are very much gendered, and that was not part of what the book talked about. I suspect sexual diversity would also warrant consideration, and perhaps other things as well.

There is one further component of this analysis that fits into larger areas of interest to me, and that I did not expect to find here: the seemingly inevitable conflict between state and non-state actors even when they are ostensibly on the same side. From the labour movement and the NDP in Bob Rae's Ontario to the social movements and the Worker's Party in Lula's Brazil to the seeds of tension between Chavez and the grassroots in Venezuela even as their alliance remains strong to the nature of the relationships between the state and non-state members of the Third International, I am becoming more and more convinced that this tension is not a matter of "betrayal" as some Trotskyists and others might have it, but an inevitable feature of entering the heart of state relations and subjecting one's self to the forces at work there, as many others have long argued. In this case, Walters talkw about the relations between the newly independent and often avowedly Pan Africanist states in Africa and community/movement representatives from the diaspora at conferences and the like. There were divisions among each on ideological grounds too, certainly, but the divisions bewteen these two groups were not trivial, and seem to lend credence to the thesis that the pernicious impact of state relations on radical politics is inevitable.

This book did not particularly excite me, but it did keep me interested and I learned a great deal from it. Beyond its utility for my work, it is one very useful contribution to an area about which white progressive and radicals and lefties in North America often know little but really should educate ourselves, in order to help mature our understanding of our own complicity in white supremacy, to help us work in solidarity with the "we" that is the heart of the book, and to broaden our understanding of the political question of "we" in general so that our own political practice might be made more effective.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


BlueBerry Pick'n said...

What I find interesting will be the IMPACT of the Great Dixie Diaspora from the Gulf Coast after Katrina.

What WILL be the IMPACT of diffusing THOUSANDS of disaffected VOTERS throughout the US?

I guess that's a LOT of votes for the Republicans to mess with...

you'd think someone would have realized that corporations are run by nasty white guys who don't care about anyone but themselves...

BlueBerry Pick'n
can be found @
ThisCanadian DOT com
"Silent Freedom is Freedom Silenced"

Scott said...

Actually, I think lots of people realize that "corporations are run by nasty white guys who don't care about anyone but themselves," and from survey data I've seen, that fact is much more realized in African America than it is in Euro-America.

The question of the impact of Katarina on the elections is an important one, though it's tough to predict what impact the dispersal of angry people will be -- certainly it will give many more people around the U.S. access to the un-media-mediated experiences of people who have suffered directly and horrendously because of the dominant politics in the U.S. right now, and seeds of anger will be sown in neighbourhoods across the country. On the other hand, I would not be surprised to learn, given the highly spatial expression of racial segregation in much of the United States (compared to a more social segregation in Canada), that most of those dispersed from New Orleans won't be headed to neighbourhoods where too many folks were planning on voting Republican anyway.

What interests me more is the potential for post-Katrina anger in the affected communities to be turned into a renewed wave of social movement mobilization. And that, unfortunately, becomes harder and harder to make happen as the survivors become more and more dispersed. Nonetheless, I know there are organizers working tirelessly in the south, and sooner or later that anger will burst through into mainstream consciousness.

Kuri said...

Thanks for reviewing this. I had been thinking of reading it after seeing an article on African Americans starting business in Ghana and their confusions/difficulties there. (Perhaps by the same author, I can't recall.)

Here in Edmonton, I've actually witnessed something that seems like the opposite, African immigrants joining and taking part in (largely USian) hip hop, language and clothing, men more so than women. I haven't yet decided whether it's a type of assimilation or not. Even though it's a subculture, the American black culture still seems dominant over African traditions. I just find it interesting that African immigrants to Canada would find identity in American black cultural products when it seems like there's such a longer for identity, for something genuinely African amongst American blacks.

Lots to ponder.

Scott said...

Hi Kuri...glad you enjoyed the review!

I'm not sure I really know enough to comment on what you've observed about different ways of navigating identity for African newcomers in Edmonton. I guess the one thing that comes to mind is that much of hip-hop, whether it is explicitly about this or not, comes from a place of having to deal with the harsh realities of white supremacy in North America, and I would imagine many continental African youth who emigrate here are faced with having to navigate that very issue in ways that are new to them. Makes sense, in that case, that one of the places they would look for support and affirmation would be hip-hop culture.