VIEWPOINT: Defining The African Diaspora And Why it Matters
To paraphrase an old maxim, our understanding of the meaning of “African Diaspora” depends greatly upon what we perceive from where we stand. Because of my ancestry, I have a visceral attachment to the idea
To paraphrase an old maxim, our understanding of the meaning of “African Diaspora” depends greatly upon what we perceive from where we stand. Because of my ancestry, I have a visceral attachment to the idea of an African Diaspora. I grew up with an African-American mother and a West Indian father in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. But by the particular standards of the African Union, only my work to spur development in Africa qualifies me as a member of the African Diaspora.
I am convinced that we would be better served by a more expansive view of our capacity for mutual self-help. More than ever before, our collective interests call for an ethos of reciprocity– one that presupposes that Africans and members of “the African Diaspora” are just as invested in the well-being of African descended people throughout the world as they are in the development of Africa.
History teaches us that the concept of African Diaspora is complex and evolving, with practical implications for how resources are deployed to improve conditions of life, within and outside the African continent. For instance, reflecting a view from the academy, Colin Palmer, the Jamaican-born historian, cites evidence of mass movements of human beings within and outside Africa dating back some 100,000 years, and observes that, “[to] study early humankind is, in effect, to study [the African] diaspora.”
Palmer argues that this “early African exodus,” and the one that was spurred much later on by Arab slave traders and African slaves, soldiers, musicians, nurses, and adventurers bound for Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, comprise just two of at least four identifiable diasporic movements from the African continent to-date.
The antiquity era of voluntary and forced migrations of Africans from East, Central, and Southern Africa across the Indian Ocean to Asia and the Middle East is rarely considered or talked about in connection with “the African Diaspora.” And yet this massive movement out of Africa, conservatively estimated to exceed 4 million people, lasted some 20 centuries. Today, Africa’s cultural influence and African descendant peoples are evident across the Indian Ocean world–in countries such as India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Sri Lanka.
In more recent times, especially in the Americas and throughout the Caribbean, the term “African Diaspora” has most often been associated with the roughly estimated 11 million people from West, West-Central, and Southeastern Africa, and their descendants, dispersed during the trans-Atlantic slave trade that lasted some 400 years. This is the culturally diverse Atlantic Ocean diaspora whose members collectively struggled against racially codified slavery and race-based oppression, maintain a collective sense of solidarity, and share an emotional bond with Africa.
Taking on yet another dimension, the 21st century “African Diaspora,” encompasses the voluntary streams of migration, between countries within, and to countries outside, the African continent. By most estimates, roughly 31 million African emigres made their way to Europe and the Americas over the last two or so decades.
This Diaspora includes people desperately seeking escape from intractable poverty and political repression in their home countries–such as the victims aboard the overcrowded boats that capsized off the coast of Lampedusa–as well as more educated and prosperous Africans whose migration is facilitated by family, professional, and other connections.
Latching onto this most recent diasporic trend, the African Union defines “the African Diaspora” as “peoples of African Origin…irrespective of citizenship and nationality” who live outside of Africa and are committed to contributing to African development and building the AU. This is an exclusive definition. It does not include all people of African descent. Only those working explicitly on behalf of the AU and Africa.
One could argue that the AU’s functional definition is appropriately tailored to its mission and priorities. The reality though, is that many, if not most, of us fit within multiple overlapping African Diasporas. We have identities and commitments that transcend cultural, national, and even continental boundaries. And this is a trend that will continue along with the geographical dispersion of people who trace their heritage to the African continent.
It is also a fact that, around the world disproportionate numbers of Africans and people of African descent lack resources and opportunities necessary to improve their wellbeing, and are disproportionately impacted by the global phenomenon of escalating income inequality. How we acquire our birth heritage is beyond our control. But for the most fortunate amongst us, how our birth heritage influences our attitudes and actions is largely a matter of choice.
In this sense “the African Diaspora” can serve simply as a means of group identification–or to signal group commitment to a larger cause. We can adopt the Jay Z perspective that, whether or not we do anything concrete to alleviate the struggles of people less fortunate than ourselves, our own material success and “presence,” wherever that might happen to be, “is enough” to give hope to the downtrodden.
We can answer the AU’s call to devote all our energies to African development. Or, recognizing our shared humanity, and that our privileged status derives from the suffering and sacrifices of previous generations scattered across the globe, at different times for different reasons, we can pursue our mutual enlightened self-interest, and pay our debt forward, by somehow contributing to the well-being of Africa and “the African Diaspora,” in all its diversity within and beyond the Africa.