Pan-Africanism: The Silver Bullet in the Heart of Empire

Ian Scott

Anti-imperialism march on African Liberation Day, in Washington, DC, in a photo taken in May of 1974. (Photo: Risasi Zachariah Dais)

The world today is dominated by capitalism and imperialism. Western powers such as the United States, France, and Britain have amassed vast fortunes through mechanisms of violence and terror that have displaced peoples around the globe. Namely, African people have been scattered far and wide by slavery and colonialism. Nonetheless, the African Diaspora maintains cultural and political connections to the homeland and each other wherever their communities are found. The material conditions, political traditions, histories, and cultural productions shared between the communities of African Diaspora have come to form the Pan-African Movement. Through Pan-Africanism, “the gather[ing] of the masses of [Africans] together in the same organisation, irrespective of where they find themselves”, capitalist empire is made vulnerable to revolution on all fronts[1].

The genealogy of Pan-African revolt traces back to the very beginning of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The racialisation of Africans as subhuman “Blacks” sparked a key contradiction within the construction of modern capitalism. Though European slavers dehumanised Black people, they nonetheless carried “the past with [them], a past that had produced [them] and settled on [them] the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.”[2] Black people brought across the Atlantic the memory of African culture that directly challenged capitalist ideology. The cultural traditions of kinship, ownership, and communalism held by the enslaved confounded notions of private property and individualism that capitalism rests on. Despite the immense physical and psychic damage inflicted by slavery, the memory of the African homeland inspired rebellion. Maintaining cultural bonds to the homeland thus allowed slaves to conceptualise an alternative to viewing themselves as a captive people outnumbered by their oppressors.[3] In the ensuing centuries, slaves mounted an array of tactics to resist their bondage. Starting small with runaways, sabotage, self-mutilation, and suicide, revolts would advance into rebellion, marronage, and full-blown revolution. Especially potent rebellions formed in colonies that required consistent importation of slaves from the continent to replenish their labour power. Before the very coinage of the term “Pan-Africanism”, Black people were already engaging in resistance deeply rooted in African cultures.

The most striking examples of this were the maroon communities created across the Western Hemisphere. As early as the sixteenth century, slaves successfully escaped from bondage and established their own communities in the New World. These communities engaged in raids to free other slaves and defensive wars against colonial forces who sought to crush their rebellion. The maroons were resilient, however, and soon the New World saw the rise of many maroon communities, some even securing official recognition by the state. By the following century, “maroon settlements…dominated the reaction to slavery.”[4] Once freed, these communities quickly replicated life as they knew it before captivity. In Mexico, the Yanguico maroons were led by King Yanga, who claimed himself a king from the Nyonga River region in the Congo.[5] Though removed from the Congo, its people still honoured and rallied around the Congolese systems of governance. In Columbia, Domingo Bioho was the first slave to revolt against his masters, claiming himself a king back in Africa. Another such instance of this was the slave rebellion aboard the Amistad. Retold in Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage”, the slaves rallied to Joseph Cinquez, a Congolese Chief, who directed the mutiny[6]. In the Pernambuco region of Brazil, the Palmares stood as the greatest maroon state from 1605 to 1695. The state was home to 15,000 to 20,000 freed slaves from the Congo-Angola region. It was ordered in several settlements known as “palmars” and ruled by the Ganga-Zumba, Zanda for “consensus ruler.”[7] In his history of the Palmares, Cedric J. Robinson notes

What…others have described as “the Bantu origins” of the Palmares. The perception of authentic authority as identical with secured social integrity was characteristically Central African.[8]

In other parts of the diaspora, Obeah magic incited and sustained slaves in rebellion. Obeah was a religion and magic system practiced by slaves in the Afro-Caribbean. In the British West Indies, Obeah practitioners were key figures in organising revolts. Robinson’s archaeology of Pan-African revolt found that

[O]beah functioned largely in the numerous rebellions of the slaves. This was particularly the case with the obeah-men from the Gold Coast…In the plotting of these rebellions the obeah-man was essential in administering oaths of secrecy, and, in cases, distributing fetishes which were supposed to immunise the insurgents from the arms of whites.[9]

In Jamaica, Obeah men and women acted as spiritual leaders and healers within the Windward and Leeward Maroons. The British government identified Obeah as a threat to their power and outlawed it in their colonies. Despite their efforts at repression, Obeah would continue to survive and later transform into Myalism, the Pocomania movement, and Rastafarianism.[10] Vodun and Shango were also important spiritual practices among the enslaved in the Afro-Caribbean. In Cuba, Congolese drumming also facilitated the planning and direction of slave rebellions.[11]  Though not as common in Latin America and the Caribbean, marronage and rebellion in North America struck terror into the heart of settler society. Here again, memory of Africa played a key role with “12 percent of [runaways] being described as African-born or ‘outlandish’”.[12]  These acts of resistance culminate in flashpoints like the Haitian Revolution. All the while, resistance was brewing in the homeland.

The disruption of African culture by European Empire did not end at the slave trade. On the continent, European domination would rise in scope and scale until by the end of the 19th century, “less than one tenth of Africa remained in the hands of Africans.”[13] As in the New World, Europeans distorted African ways of being through racial capitalism. One example being the poll tax, where

[t]he Negro, though perhaps quite comfortably placed according to his own wishes and needs, must have money to pay this tax, which compels him therefore to seek employment with European masters, on whatever conditions these choose to lay down. Hence the wages of four pence a day in Kenya and 15 shillings a month in the copper mines of Rhodesia…Obviously this state of affairs can only be maintained by a social and political regime based on terror.[14]

Though the features of this regime varied in different spheres of colonial Africa, they all kept to an order where “Africa is…run for the benefit of the whites and the Negro must…know his place and keep it.”[15] Land ownership was largely kept in the hands of white settlers and colonial governments, Africans were denied social mobility, and resistance was met with punitive expeditions. And resistance was quite frequent, for how should any people suffer the imposition of foreign money and laws at their expense without a fight? Indeed, at every phase of Europe’s imperialist project, Africans “fought the disruption of their material and spiritual being.”[16] A crucial development in African revolts was growing solidarity built between Africans in areas under direct rule and those in the hinterlands. Revolts like the one in Sierra Leone in 1898 represented a time where organisation was fragmented between the two regions.

Those with generations of British education had an outlook similar to that of the majority of Negroes in the West Indies: they regarded the African tribes as barbarous and uncivilized.[17]

As such, the revolt sprang up from the tribes and attacked

not only white and black soldiers and every missionary they could put their hands on, but also certain of the Europeanized blacks as well. They looked upon all of these as members of one exploiting, arrogant group.[18]

In the early 20th century, the gap was bridged by their shared position of economic and racial inferiority. Africans in the protectorate and hinterlands organised cooperatively to create more potent attacks against the colonial government. Through the “common ground in that they are Negroes in a continent where to be black is to be inferior,” they advanced into a higher stage of resistance.[19] Both Cedric J. Robinson and C.L.R. James locate all these moments across 400 years of slavery and colonisation as part of a single tradition. From those first acts of defiance four centuries prior, the African Diaspora’s war against empire has organised itself around

the continuing development of a collective consciousness informed by the historical struggles for liberation and motivated by the shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being, the ontological totality.[20]

As the material conditions of the Diaspora shift, the tradition of Pan-African revolt grows into new stages.

While Africa was having its nationalist awakenings, so too were the communities of the African Diaspora. Marcus Garvey brought about a new wave of Pan-African consciousness in the Western Hemisphere, a process facilitated precisely by growing interactions between Black communities around the world. New paths opened for people to travel to and between the Afro-Caribbean, the Afro-American, and Afro-European communities, as well as Africa itself. The United States became a “Mecca of all West Indian Negroes”, and with them they brought their cultural and political life.[21] In Garvey’s case, he and Amy Ashwood brought the Universal Negro Improvement Association to Black America. There, they grew the U.N.I.A. and sparked a significant political movement, one informed by the dialogue between Black communities in diaspora and their shared conditions and history.

There was a boom and the Negroes shared it. Revolution was in the air, and the Negroes were ready for revolution.[22]

The U.N.I.A agitated on many fronts, exposing the features of anti-Blackness in America. At the heart of it all was the assertion that Black people must struggle for their liberation and return to the ancestral homes they were removed from through slavery. The movement was not be without its shortcomings, however. Particularly, its back to Africa aspirations failed to consider the people of Africa and their conditions. Garvey’s aesthetic, his naming “himself President, Emperor, King and what not of Africa, and create[ing] a string of nobility,”[23] threatened to reproduce the class society that dominated Black people in the first place. Further, the movement did not offer a solid program for improving the daily conditions of Black Americans. Instead, it focused itself on the return to an idealised version of the homeland. Still, the U.N.I.A. stands as one of the greatest mass mobilisations of Black people in the U.S.

Following World War II, the political and cultural exchange across the Diaspora would usher in revolutionary Pan-Africanism. The mid-20th century marked the emergence of communist mass movements on the continent and in the diaspora that communicated and shared solidarity with each other. Kwame Nkrumah, leading Ghana’s independence struggle, actively communicated with contemporaries in Afro-America like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., even inviting them to the country. King’s attendance at Ghana’s independence ceremony deeply influenced his politics, proclaiming that

Ghana tells us that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice…An old order of colonialism, of segregation, discrimination is passing away now. And a new order of justice, freedom and good will is being born.[24]

Maturing from Garvey’s Pan-Africanism, this new era linked the freedom struggles of Black people both in Africa and in the Diaspora. Students coming to America from the Caribbean during the era of Civil Rights and Black Power also came into political consciousness. Kwame Ture, a Trinidadian communist, coined the term “Black Power” and played critical roles in the SNCC, the Black Panther Part for Self Defence, and helped develop the All African People’s Revolutionary Party. As a symbol of his Pan-African roots, changed his name to Kwame Ture after revolutionaries Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Ture. The thinkers and revolutionaries of this period drew upon a material analysis of history, Marxism-Leninism, and a sense of shared destiny between all Black people to articulate their programs. Black Liberation was the goal, Western empire the enemy, and revolution the path forward. Improving again upon Garvey’s mistakes, the Black Panthers stressed the need for the revolutionary movements of the day to attend to the day-to-day struggles of the people to move them towards revolution.[25] Their survival programs and counter-terror against the police were critical in “demonstrat[ing] that [the Black Panthers] are here and resistance is possible.”[26] And through this building of revolutionary consciousness, the masses can be moved to recognise the only way to end their oppression and the oppression of those the world over was through open war with the capitalist establishment. That by practicing communism and building power in the Black colonies of the world

a new struggle will arise within which the liquidation and collapse of imperialism will be complete.[27]

As such, the Panthers would send delegations to the Pan-African conference in Algeria. This alignment was happening all over the Diaspora as well. Cuba, itself fighting against American imperialism, sent troops to Angola to aid in their war for Independence. They also received delegations of Black revolutionaries, even offering Assata Shakur asylum from the American state. In Jamaica’s democratic-socialist heyday, reggae music “acquired a role of promoting political and social consciousness”, proclaiming Black Liberation and solidarity with the Black struggle around the world.[28] Britain had its own Black Panther movement inspired by their American cousins. The internationalist solidarity of this era brought into full relief the power of the Black world.

Though much time has passed since, and the forces of repression have been successful in neutralising and isolating threats to Western empire, the tradition continues. The 2010s saw a reawakening of Black mass-movements. 2020 marked one of the largest uprisings against the police state in America and garnered international support. The End SARS Movement in Nigeria reaffirmed the shared struggles between Black people globally. Through the study of and improvement upon the last era of Black struggle, the path forward is made clear. While spontaneity is powerful, only the formation of a national communist vanguard, like the Black Panthers, can harness that power for a sustained assault on the state. We must move from protesting police to delivering consequences unto them with our own hands. We must build community-owned institutions for food sovereignty, political education, healthcare, and transformative justice. We must make connections with our Black siblings across the world and all others who share our enemy. Simultaneous revolt everywhere Black people are found will paralyse the empire. Through organising the masses across the Diaspora, through a unified revolutionary struggle, its death is certain. In its wake, we have the power to build a better world.

Footnotes

[1] AfroMarxist, “Kwame Ture on The History of Pan Africanism”, YouTube Video, 10:59, August 28, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmUb1Gr2_Ew&t=215s

[2] Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 122

[3] Kim D. Butler, “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse”, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, Volume 10, No. 2 (Fall 2001): 213, doi:10.1353/dsp.2011.0014.

[4] Robinson, 133

[5] Robinson, 132

[6] Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage”, Poetry Foundation): https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43076/middle-passage

[7] Robinson, 133

[8] Robinson, 134

[9] Robinson, 136-137

[10] Robinson, 137

[11] Manuel Barcia, The Great African Slave Revolt of 1825 (Louisiana State University Press, 2012), 57

[12] Robinson, 143

[13] C.L.R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt (PM Press, 2012), 66

[14] James, 66

[15] James, 67

[16] Robinson, 165

[17] James, 69

[18] James, 69

[19] James, 71

[20] Robinson, 171

[21] James, 91

[22] James, 92

[23] James, 93

[24] Mohammed Elnaim, “The African Roots of MLK’s Vision”, JSTOR Daily (February 14th, 2018): daily.jstor.org/the-african-roots-of-mlks-vision/

[25] George Jackson, Blood in My Eye (Stronghold Consolidated Productions, Inc., 1972), 41

[26] Jackson, 46

[27] Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-colonialism the Last Stage of Imperialism (Originally published April 1, 1965): http://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/nkrumah/neo-colonialism/index.htm

Pan-African

Ian is a student in African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College.

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