Pan Africanism is happening in front of our eyes, but not like what we thought

The question of African American (meaning here the historic core black American community from here on called “black Americans”) lack of understanding of Africans and inability to connect with African immigrants today is most often couched in language describing problems of ignorance and the failure of Pan Africanism. I would suggest that it is not just politics, or a failure of the Pan Africanist idea.  Social conditions and technology have changed and challenged what Pan Africanism was addressing, but the reasons the idea of Pan Africanism evolved are not gone.

One issue in the United States (and Europe) is the still ubiquitous contempt shown black people in everyday life, even as we have public discussions about colonialism, white privilege and white supremacy. We should expect that as things evolve, it will not be an even transformation.

Something else affecting black immigrant/black American communication in the U.S. is immigrants’ lack of understanding of class in the black American community. Otherwise, it is sometimes the convenient immigrant forgetfulness of how some poor urban youth in African or Caribbean cities are also problematic.  In other cases, some black immigrants lump all black Americans together, and are ignorant of all the sacrifices black Americans have made that make it possible for black immigrants to thrive here.  Sometimes there is a generational understanding gap between the children of African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and their parents’ generation. My experiences have shown me that children of these communities, while retaining their parents’ ethnic identification, also identify as African American and are thoroughly immersed in African American culture.  

Outside of their own communities, black Americans are not, it seems to me, terribly well understood. They are not well understood at home in their own country, and outside of the U.S. many people are ignorant of black history. Here in the U.S., there may be segments of the non-black population that understand African Americans, or segments of more newly arrived black communities that understand some things about being black in America, but much remains to be understood about the black experience outside of the community. With the increasing numbers of black immigrants coming into the United States every year, and the lack of communication and even empathy between ‘every day African Americans’ and black immigrants, the understanding and recognition of each group’s unique historical identity increasingly needs to be addressed. In many ways, this lack of empathy and understanding of immigrants towards black Americans, mirrors the earlier similar lack of emapthy from Irish, Asian, and Italian American immigrants. To be fair, the Jewish community stands out in exception to this rule. In the early and mid-twentieth century it was clear that Jews recognized the social quagmire that African Americans were fighting. Significantly, progressive Jewish people recognized that many African Americans were fighting for change and for their very survival, and some in that community actively supported this struggle long before many other white Americans publicly recognized or  took action towards improving the lot of black Americans. This may or may not be the case now, but historically this was so.

Few black Americans know much about African history, and few black immigrants, especially African immigrants, know much about black American history. This should not be surprising, since amongst both groups people are busy working and trying to make ends meet, and to rise up in American society. But things are changing as recent events demonstrate why communication among different groups in the black community is important.  Mariame Kaba, the social justice activist,  is an example of how things may evolve.  (see  Exchanges among youth here in the United States, and between black American tourists, students and scholars who travel to West Africa and the people they meet in Africa, are increasing.  The variety of narratives one can find on different websites may also be a very good thing; I think of the Grapevine series on YouTube as an example. In many ways another sort of Pan Africanism is happening in front of our eyes anyway, outside of books or speeches. The internet has facilitated a new kind of learning and communication that has never before existed between the African continent and its Atlantic diasporas. That’s exciting. This process is not in the end just a political one; it is a cultural and social exploration of distant common histories and potential common futures. It’s interesting, dynamic and creative.

Published by wendywilsonfall

Wendy Wilson Fall is Associate Professor and Program Chair of the Africana Studies Program at Lafayette College. Her research engages questions of socio-cultural change, ethnic identity, and multi-sited historical narratives. She has published numerous journal articles and book chapters addressing these themes in the context of nomads in West Africa and the African diaspora of the U.S. Wilson-Fall is from Washington, D.C. and has traveled extensively in Africa, particularly in West Africa where she lived for more than ten years. She's also traveled to Madagascar, Egypt and Morocco as well as in Europe.

One thought on “Pan Africanism is happening in front of our eyes, but not like what we thought

  1. Dr. Wilson-Fall, your discussions are cogent and on point. Each of the arguments that you make in your blog pages is pertinent and I wish more people could understand how they reflect the sophisticated nature of the experiences of black individuals and communities to which you allude. Your perspectives remind me of the blend of particularities and authenticities within black experiences and cultures that Paul Gilroy theorizes in his magnum opus _The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness_. I recently assigned this book in a graduate African American literature course and could see how students continue to like it because it helps them understand black people’s histories as being worthy of study even if they are both similar and different.

    Also, thanks for your focus on the relationships between African Americans and African immigrants. This topic is crucial and timely, especially due to the reasons that you have eloquently pointed out.

    I look forward to reading more from your blog.

    Thank you.


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