Pan-Africanism and Western Domination

Pan-Africanism and Western Domination

Written by Pablo Perez Ruiz.

“Toussaint’s failure was the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness.” – C.L.R James, Black Jacobins.

“This is where the African intellectual lives in paradoxical terms: powerful yet powerless.” – Toyin Falola, Nationalism and African Intellectuals.

Pan-Africanism, when taken as a broad ‘group of movements’ with ‘no single nucleus’ and stemming from the experiences of the African diaspora, cannot be seen as a simple, reactive response to Western domination and discrimination, but rather as a creative, transterritorial solidarity movement that predated some of the current debates around transnational migration. After defining the concepts of African diaspora and pan-Africanism, this essay will discuss the ‘Western’ origins of pan-Africanism, and the case for pan-Africanism as a response rooted in Western epistemology and according to Western expectations of the colonised. Two case studies will be analysed: that of Senghor’s Negritude and Diop’s Afrocentrism, together with their respective critiques by Fanon and Appiah. The Western-dependent nature of some pan-African thought can be understood through Foucault’s notion of bounded resistance, although with certain qualifications. Ultimately, although agreeing with El Saadawi that ‘migrants cannot replace those who continue to struggle and work at home in Africa’, the merits of pan-Africanism, with its legacy of trans-territoriality as a particular example, have to be recognised as open spaces of resistance through which the African intellectual diaspora asserted their agency and negotiated their conflicted identities. This article does however fall into two common biases that follow from the nature of the existing sources: it prioritises the literate African elites over the many others that left no written records, and it provides a male-centric perspective of pan-Africanism.

The notions of pan-Africanism and African diaspora are highly elusive terms in the literature. Starting from Adi and Sherwood’s assertion that ‘there has never been one universally accepted definition of what constitutes pan-Africanism’, this article advocates for Shepperson’s view of pan-Africanism as a ‘group of movements’ with no ‘single nucleus’. That allows for the inclusion of different perspectives such as Afrocentrism and Negritude, seeing pan-Africanism as both a series of movements and ideas celebrating ‘Africanness’ and resisting racism and exploitation. Lemelle and Kelley have eloquently framed pan-Africanism as an ‘oppositional ideology’; a crucial point when assessing its reliance on Western epistemology and expectations. Pan-Africanism’s status as a ‘transnational solidarity’ is also important to understand its relation to the African diaspora; pan-Africanism’s trans-geographical and long-lasting nature has made it take different forms at different times and locations, sometimes leading to conflicting agendas. In what refers to the term ‘African diaspora’, a broad definition is preferred to accommodate a range of perspectives. Shepperson is again helpful in his view of the African diaspora as more extended in time and space than has been commonly supposed. Although originally intended as a counter-narrative of American slavery and European colonial discourse and in an attempt to develop an affirmative version of African history, the idea of African diaspora has now become accepted in the mainstream literature. Two problematic issues arise from this notion of diaspora: first, the danger of emphasising common experience over differences, which Falola has dealt with by talking about different strategies but common struggles; second, the danger of using the term African diaspora as a pretext to talk about something else, what Achille Mbembe sees as the West’s tendency to use Africa as an intermediary to ‘accede to its own subconscious.’ A broad conception of diaspora and pan-Africanism are thus necessary to contextualise the experiences of the thinkers considered below.


To understand the wider nature of pan-Africanism we need to first look at its roots. Although Falola has pointed out the difficulties in dating the origins of the movement, which included experiences of slavery in America, colonization of Africa by Europeans, and worldwide racism, influential thinkers like W.E.B.D have asserted that pan-Africanism ‘had no deep roots in Africa itself’, but rather originated in the places of the African diaspora.  Before 1945, the core of the pan-African movement resided in the diaspora and it was the shared experience of racism across ethnic-lines that created the first opportunities to mobilize. Early pan-Africanism was thus considerably influenced by its place of origin, i.e. North America and Britain, and the frames of thought it provided. The case of North America is particularly interesting, as the difficulty of tracing back one’s origin led to the ‘adoption of Africa as one single “nation”.’ The adoption of Christian elements in early North-American pan-Africanism is evident in its ‘bias towards imperialist forms of progress and Christianisation’ and its ‘evangelistic approach to Africa.’ Early civil rights leader Thomas Fortune affirmed that ‘Christian religion [in Africa] is destined to supplant all other religious systems of belief, because it is the best code of moral philosophy ever given to man’. Others like Edward Blyden expressed similar thoughts, and the Bible was the key text for many pan-Africanists of the nineteenth century. At the other side of the Atlantic, the pan-Africanism originating in Britain with the founding of the African Association in 1897 and the First pan-African Conference held in London in 1900 also exhibited some features derived from its origin within the West. The publicity announcing the conference did not call for the complete destruction of Empire, but was framed in terms of the need to ‘influence public opinion on existing proceedings and conditions affecting the welfare of Natives in various parts of the Empire’. The aim was to persuade the metropole and to influence domestic public opinion by using the frameworks of thought of the coloniser.

Whether the use of the oppressor’s language and discourse by pan-Africanists in North America and Britain was a conscious strategic move or an unconscious, dependent reaction to Western domination requires a brief mention of the Western (mis)education received by many of those in the African intellectual diaspora. As Adi has highlighted, the British had a vested interest in ‘developing a class of Africans sympathetic to the interest of the British ruling class’ and in teaching these Africans the British traditions of governance. With this in mind, tracing the education of many of the leaders of the African diaspora shows the influence that Western education may have had on their thought and behaviour. Molony’s exhaustive biography of Nyerere’s formative years has shown the influence that being educated in Edinburgh had on Nyerere’s political thought, and also how the experience of exile heightened his awareness of racism and colonialism. The experience of exile reinforced an ‘African identity’ in many intellectuals; Horton, also educated in Edinburgh, adopted the name ‘Africanus’ during his time in Britain. C.L.R. James’ Letters from London is another good example of the disappointment faced by a ‘Black Englishman’ in Britain, and his writing simultaneously uses the colonisers’ most refined language while being critical of the realities in the metropole. Although being subjects of the French rather than the British Empire, both Diop and Senghor studied at the Sorbonne, and the first was granted French citizenship, joined the French army, and became the first African ‘immortal’ member of the Académie Française. There is a crucial element of class in the African diaspora’s elites adoption of Western epistemology and attitudes, and subsequently in their response to the West through pan-Africanism. Ultimately, ‘the way in which a group enters a society has a profound impact upon their social status and their social psychology’, and the position of the African diaspora intellectual as both powerful and powerless was key in their articulation of pan-Africanism.

The study of the particular cases of Senghor’s Negritude and Diop’s Afrocentrism can help elucidate some of the tensions mentioned above. In ‘Negritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century’, Senghor argues for a ‘black personality,’ the African’s certain way of ‘conceiving life and of living it,’ and defines negritude as ‘the sum of the cultural values of the black world’. Building on the ideas of ‘African uniqueness’ developed by German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, Senghor opposes African and European ontologies: the first ‘conceives the world as a fundamentally mobile reality’, the latter as ‘objective, static, and dichotomic.’ Senghor creates the philosophical category of the ‘African Man’ (note the gendered language), and elevates him to the highest form of being after God. Negritude thus becomes ‘morality in action’, deriving from the African’s natural trait of living according to the moral law. There is a feeling of essentialism and disconnection from reality all throughout the piece, which can be read as an attempt for self-confirmation and reassurance by an intellectual member of the African diaspora. Fanon was highly critical of Senghor, and saw his search for a ‘black culture’ as a product of the ‘anxiety shared by native intellectuals to shrink away from that Western culture in which they all risk being swamped.’ There is indeed a tension within the piece, and it is not clear who Senghor is writing for. Senghor seems to be, as exposed by Fanon, trying to ‘rehabilitate himself and to escape from the claws of colonialism’, but his thought is still too inscribed within the same epistemology as that of the coloniser. Moreover, Fanon criticised a particular kind of African intellectual for dedicating his/her efforts to comparing ‘coins and sarcophagi’ instead of joining the political struggle against colonialism. Culture would ultimately be created through national struggle rather than through intellectuals trying to ‘renew contact with the oldest and most pre-colonial springs of life of their people.’


Turning now to the pan-Africanism of Diop, his Afrocentric ideas need to be framed as an attempt to emancipate Africa from the Euro-centric vision of history. Against the Western imperial version of history, Diop formulated an alternative thesis which saw Egyptian civilization as a black civilization and as the ‘initiator’ of Western civilization, thus challenging the Western view of civilization originating in Ancient Greece. Ancient Egypt is seen as the basis of African cultural (and political) unity and as a reason for African pride.  In The African Origin of Civilization, Diop reversed European ideas of Africa as an ‘indispensable negative trope in the language of modernity.’ European conceptions of history relied on Africa being backwards for Europe to be modern, and it is this rhetorical artifice that Diop set out to challenge by calling to rehabilitate African people’s place in history through a ‘cultural revolution’ that allows Africans to explain their own historical past. This cultural revolution would allow Africans to ‘define the image of a modern Africa reconciled with its past and preparing for its future.’ The mention of Africa’s future means political engagement against European chauvinism, and not just intellectual lucubrations. However, writers like Appiah have been highly critical of Diop, calling his writings ‘Europe Upside Down’: criticizing the West through Western (specifically Victorian) modes of thinking. The preoccupation with the Ancient world, the prejudice against cultures without writing, and the prioritising of the ‘great male leader’ make Diop’s Afrocentrism an ‘essentially reactive structure’ according to Appiah. Trying to identify a common origin on African civilization only replicates European attempts to find an origin for Western culture.

With these two case studies in mind, Foucault’s notion of resistance can be a helpful framework to conceptualise the tensions in the pan-Africanism of the African intellectual diaspora. Foucault’s view of resistance as dependent on power and existing within power seems to fit the argument so far: African intellectuals in the diaspora, having received a Western education, could only contest their own upbringing with the tools that this education had provided them. Thus, Senghor disputes the idea of the European superior subject by creating an even more superior African subject, while Diop contests European history of civilization by creating an African-Egyptian alternative. They are both oppositional but dependent accounts existing within the wider framework of pan-Africanism as an ‘oppositional ideology’. But merely dismissing Diop and Senghor’s account as incomplete, co-opted modes of resistance, would be unfair, and would assume the existence of a ‘true’ form of resistance derived from ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ African culture which has been untouched by the West. Moreover, it would assume that the intellectual diaspora’s Western education and access to Western culture is more problematic in their relation to pan-Africanism and African modernity than that of the masses. Re-reading Foucault, true resistance is possible if seen as a ‘multiplicity of points of resistance’ with no single ‘soul of revolt’. This fits C.L.R. James’ idea that ‘those people who are in Western civilization, who have grown up in it, but made to feel and themselves feeling that they are outside, have a unique insight into their society’. To the idea of resistance as revisited above, it is fundamental to add an awareness of both discursive and political-economic forms of oppression, as highlighted by both Fanon and Sekou Toure among others. The intellectual decolonization must come hand in hand with an awareness of the social realities on the ground, and Diop had been quite successful in his call for a ‘politically engaged objectivity’, playing with Western ideals of objectivity while calling for action.


Looking more closely at both Senghor and Diop can therefore not only expand our ideas of resistance and of the agency of the African intellectual diaspora but also enrich our understanding of migration and transnationalism. Tageldin has eloquently argued that Senghor’s pan-Africanism predates contemporary debates of trans-territoriality and trans-nationalism. By manipulating ‘race and culture to defy the limits that politics might impose on more “worldly” histories and geographies’, Senghor (and other pan-Africanists) transcended geographical lines. Despite his sometimes ‘nativist’ conception of Africa, Senghor’s negritude can be also read as transborder and transcontinental, i.e. including those in the diaspora. Migration was the context for the writings of both Diop, Senghor and others, and their writings have to be read in light of their concerns for Africa and for themselves, especially in what refers to the tension between assimilation and individuality. As Falola has highlighted, ‘migration can create a profound need to understand the homeland’, and the impossibility for many in the diaspora to become full citizens of their host countries may have played in their transnationalism and connections with their homeland. Although the experiences of transnationalism in the first half of the twentieth century may have been limited to a small African elite, they were in many ways precursors of the later generations in their tendency to build and maintain multiple linkages with their countries of origin.

Despite the origins of pan-Africanism within the West and the role of a Western-educated elite of pan-African thinkers, the thought of intellectuals such as Senghor or Diop cannot merely be seen as futile, ‘impure’ resistance but as creative attempts to deal with multiple issues ranging from identity and the experience of migration to racism and oppression. Although elements of class are important, and some thinkers such as Senghor might have lacked an awareness about or involvement in the political and economic realities in Africa, the members of the African intellectual diaspora can be seen as precursors of later debates around transnationalism and trans-territoriality. Despite its focus on the more intellectual side of pan-Africanism, this essay does not suggest the separation between the ideological and the practical in pan-Africanism, as they have both been highly intertwined across pan-African history. Moreover, the individual treatment of writers and intellectuals does not intend to abstract them from the broader movements of which they were part, but was used as a more manageable approach to the topic. Ultimately, the stretch in time and space of pan-Africanism and the African diaspora makes this account one of the multiple possible explorations of pan-Africanism, one of multiple ‘points of resistance’, one trace of agency in the larger span of African history.

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