The COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately hurting African Americans and racist killings of Black people continue. A massive uprising is occurring throughout the U.S. in response to the Minnesota police killing of George Floyd and systemic police violence against Black people; this uprising has inspired similar protests against anti-Black racism around the world. A new wave of Pan-Africanism is emerging and is actively challenging these ills.
Earlier this year, before the pandemic hit the U.S., celebrities like actor Samuel L. Jackson, rapper Ludacris and rapper/singer Cardi B had been taking steps to return to their African roots. Cardi B traveled to Nigeria and both Ludacris and Samuel L. Jackson gained citizenship in Gabon. Jackson traced his ancestral roots to the Benga people of Gabon, while Ludacris’s wife, Eudoxie Mbouguiengue, is Gabonese. Cardi B filed for Nigerian citizenship, partially citing the Trump administration’s policies as her reason to do so. NFL player Malcolm Jenkins, who, like Colin Kaepernick, protested the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice, “is buying land to build a vacation home in Ghana. After having visited three times, Jenkins continues to explore history,” according to NBC News.
Meanwhile, African governments and the African Union are increasingly engaging with the African diaspora in concrete ways, sometimes by offering citizenship and indefinite stays. These efforts are part of a new chapter in empowering Black people globally and making Pan-Africanism, the unity of all peoples of Black African descent around the world, a reality. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted global air travel, the Pan-African spirit is not defeated — it constitutes a growing force against global anti-Black racism.
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Year of Return; Beyond the Return
The year 2019 marked the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in British North America. This was commemorated in a major New York Times magazine series. The Ghanaian government commemorated the anniversary with the Year of Return, an effort to invite African Americans and other diasporic Africans to Ghana. Many slave dungeons that held enslaved Africans before they were trafficked to the Americas are located in Ghana. Ghanaian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo said the goal of the Year of Return was to “be a joyful and learning experience” for the African continent and diaspora and affirm “our determination that never again should African people permit themselves to be subjected to such dehumanizing conditions, sold into slavery, and have their freedoms curtailed.”
At the end of 2019, just in time to ring in 2020, President Akufo-Addo launched the “Beyond the Return” initiative. The goal of the initiative is to invite Africans in the diaspora to Africa in order to invest in and develop the African continent. President Akufo-Addo said, “The time has come to engage Africans in the diaspora and all persons of African descent more positively in areas such as trade and investment co-operation, and skills and knowledge development.” He added, “Let us all remember that the destiny of all black people no matter where they are in the world is bound up with Africa.”
The African Union (AU) considers the African diaspora the sixth region, next to the five regions (North, South, East, West, Central) that encompass the 55 continental member states. According to the AU, the African Diaspora “consists of peoples of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union” and includes “all historic migrations (forced and voluntary).” Laying out the characteristics, the AU says the African diaspora consists of “people living outside the continent whose ancestral roots or heritage are in Africa” and “people of African heritage, who migrated from or are living outside the continent. In this context, three trends of migration were identified — pre-slave trade, slave trade, and post-slave trade or modern migration,” which means the African Union recognizes the diaspora of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas as members of the African Union. The AU’s Diaspora Division “serves as the focal point and hub for implementing the African Union decision to invite and encourage the African Diaspora to participate in the building and development of the African continent. Its main task therefore, is to serve as a catalyst for rebuilding the global African family in the service of the development and integration agenda of the continent.” Therefore, the Ghanaian government’s efforts are a way to actualize the AU’s Pan-Africanism.
Some African governments provide easier citizenship to Africans in the diaspora. Sierra Leone has granted citizenship to African-Americans, such as actor Isaiah Washington, who have been able to trace their ancestry to the country’s ethnic groups through DNA testing. Ghana has a “right of abode” law for diasporic Africans that allows them to stay in the country indefinitely. However, “right of abode” is not full citizenship.
Given the level of systemic racism in the United States, from rampant police violence to a massive racial wealth gap, African citizenship can provide sanctuary for diasporic Africans from racist persecution. In fact, many African-Americans have decided to settle and live their lives overseas to flee racism in the United States. One refugee expert pointed out that the racist oppression African-Americans experience qualifies as persecution, which would qualify them to seek asylum in other countries. African-American academic Obadele Kambon was wrongfully arrested for having a loaded gun under his car seat in 2007 in Chicago. The charge was later dropped. As he sat in court, he vowed, “Never again will I allow myself to be in a jurisdiction where corrupt white police officers and a judge will take me away from my family, wife and kids just on a whim.” After the ordeal, he moved to Ghana, became a professor, and never looked back. In 2016, he was granted full citizenship. Then-President John Mahama told Kambon, “I am not giving you anything, this is your birth right, I am only restoring what is rightfully yours.”
Dynast Amir is an African American from Sacramento, California, who runs a channel on YouTube called Search For Uhuru where he documents his travels throughout Africa and has in-depth discussions on global Black politics. Amir is a Pan-Africanist, a Nigerian citizen, and was coronated as a prince in Nigeria after he traced part of his ancestral roots to Nigeria (like this author’s ancestry, his other part is Sierra Leonean). In an interview with Truthout, Amir said Ghana’s Year of Return “was a great move” on Ghana’s part because of the money it brings to Africa. “We have to understand Africa is the future. By investing in Africa, you are investing in the best interests of not only yourself but of future generations,” he said. “The reason why I love it is because Black people, people of African descent, instead of going to Europe and France and Thailand, they’re circulating their money into a Black economy. You’re looking at investment opportunities, as well,” he said. Amir encourages other Africans in the diaspora to travel or move to Africa. “A lot of us have this idea that there’s nowhere else to live outside of [the U.S.]. But there are definitely places that you can move to and thrive.” As for what African governments can do to reach out to the diaspora, Amir suggested “expedited citizenship is one; we didn’t choose to leave the continent” and land ownership for diasporic Africans.
Vanessa Kanbi, a YouTuber and video journalist based in Ghana, interviewed local Ghanaians on their views of the 2019 Year of Return. Many local Ghanaians said they thought the Year of Return was good. The largest benefit they cited was that the increased tourism during Year of Return benefitted the economy, especially local businesses.
The African Diaspora News Channel interviewed several local Ugandans, asking if they supported giving African-Americans in African countries. The majority of those interviewed supported giving citizenship to African-Americans. The majority of those interviewed supported giving citizenship to African Americans. They mostly argued that Africa is the true native land of African Americans. One man opposed giving citizenship to African Americans because of cultural differences between African Americans and continental Africans. However, most supported the idea. A few went further and said that citizenship should be given to everyone, regardless of race, and people should be allowed citizenship anywhere in the world.
Truthout also spoke to continental Africans to get their perspective on offering citizenship and land for Africans in the diaspora, particularly those who are descendants of enslaved Africans kidnapped and brought to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. Clever Chingwara, based in Harare, Zimbabwe, supports the idea of giving both African citizenship and land to Africans in the diaspora. When asked if he supports giving African citizenship to diasporic Africans, he said, “Not only citizenship but pieces of land and investment opportunities.” He added, “Some Africans in the diaspora have knowledge about where they come from. They can lobby the governments to be given pieces of land and citizenship. And for those who do not know, arrangements can be made for them to be apportioned land in Africa.” As for what kind of land and where, that is a tricky question. “Part of state land can be allocated to diasporans,” Chingwara said.
However, others had differing opinions. A law student (who did not give their name) from Zimbabwe did not agree with giving automatic citizenship to diasporic Africans; however, “if they choose to” apply for citizenship and go through the process then “yes.” As for land, he said, “Land is the pride of Africa and African economy, it should be given to people depending on the purpose; for instance, if it’s agricultural land, it should be given to those who are able to use it.”
African Relocation and Global Black Solidarity
In addition to African governments, there are also individual grassroots efforts to unite the African continent and African diaspora, along with diasporic Africans moving to Africa for economic purposes. Birthright AFRICA, a nonprofit organization in New York City, offers free trips to people of African descent to Africa. Another example is the African Diaspora Alliance (ADA), founded by two Baltimore activists, which promotes unity and solidarity across the African diaspora through healing, study abroad, excursion trips, and education. Thanks to the Internet, it is easier for all people of African descent around the world, in different countries speaking different languages, to communicate with each other and build organic ties.
These organic bridges, overcoming generations of separation caused by slavery and colonialism, are also creating the grounds for real global Black solidarity. This solidarity is in full force against anti-Black racism and joining forces with the protests against police violence in the United States. Wode Maya is a Ghanaian YouTuber whose channel, with over 318,000 subscribers and nearly 60 million views, changes Africa’s narrative by highlighting the continent’s positive aspects to combat negative images of Africa. Maya recorded a video decrying the police murder of George Floyd and expressed solidarity with diasporic Africans as “fellow brothers and sisters.” Philimena Royda Urey, a Liberian vlogger who moved from Detroit, Michigan, back to Liberia, recorded a video with several Liberians expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter. In addition, Africans throughout the continent have spoken out and protested in solidarity with African Americans against racism and the police murder of George Floyd. People in Nigeria protested against police brutality in the United States and even U.S. embassy staff joined the protesters. Similar protests against racism and police brutality occurred in South Africa, Kenya and Ghana. Protesters throughout Africa have been chanting “Black Lives Matter” and saying the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Not only are people at the grassroots in Africa protesting police brutality, African governments and leaders are taking a stronger stance than before. Thomas Kwesi Quartey, a Ghanaian diplomat and current vice chairperson of the African Union Commission, tweeted that the African Union “is distressed to witness the unwarranted execution of another African-American male – George Floyd for no other reason than BEING BLACK. This is one too many. Africa demands full investigation into this killing.” The Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Barbara Oteng-Gyasi invited African-Americans to resettle in Ghana if they feel unwelcome in the United States. Ghana paid tribute to George Floyd with a large ceremony and by permanently mounting his name “on the wall of the Diaspora African Forum at the W.E.B. Du Bois Center in Ghana’s capital,” according to the BBC.
Last month, all 54 African nations called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to debate racism and police brutality. In a letter on behalf of the 54 African nations, Burkina Faso’s ambassador to the UN wrote, “The death of George Floyd is unfortunately not an isolated incident, with many previous cases of unarmed persons of African descent suffering the same fate due to unchecked police brutality.… The main aim of the Urgent Dialogue is to address the structural and proximate causes of racial discrimination that prevails worldwide with tremendous impact on the enjoyment of human rights especially by People of African Descent.” According to Al Jazeera, “The call came after Floyd’s family, along with the families of other victims of police violence and more than 600 NGOs this week called on the council to urgently address systemic racism and police impunity in the US.” Heeding the call, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the police killing of George Floyd and systemic racist police violence against people of African descent. The resolution also called for a report on systemic racism against people of African descent. Some human rights officials are pushing for broader international probe into systemic racism against Afro-descendant people not just in the U.S. but around the world.
Slavery and the African Diaspora
Blackness, especially African-American and diasporic African identity, is typically discussed in vague, metaphysical terms; however, it is a specific African ethnic identity forged despite slavery. Anywhere between 10.5 million to 12.5 million Africans were trafficked from Africa to (and enslaved in) the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. The slave trade lasted for over 300 years from the early 16th to the late 19th centuries. The majority of enslaved Africans were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean.
Enslaved Africans brought to the United States largely came from the Senegambia region, West-Central Africa, which includes present-day Angola, Congo and Gabon; and the Slave Coast that includes today’s Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast. It is estimated by historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall that over 45 African ethnic groups were brought to the Americas, including the BaKongo people, Mande, Yoruba, Igbo, Akan and Wolof. That means African Americans are, ancestrally, a mixture of different Western and Central African ethnic groups.
The transatlantic slave trade separated families and removed immediate ties to Indigenous African cultures. As a result, many Africans throughout the diaspora do not know their original, pre-slavery African names, languages, cultural customs or religions. On the plantations, enslaved Africans had to find ways to preserve their African culture and peoplehood under the brutal conditions of slavery in the Americas. Different African ethnic groups, people with different languages and cultural customs, were forced to work together as slaves. As a result, they had to forge a common Black African ethnic and cultural identity to transcend those differences and communicate with each other, thereby forming a unique identity of their own. Therefore, African-American cultural and social identity is a fusion of various African ethnic groups enslaved in the United States and constitutes a unique ethnic/national identity that is tied to the larger African community. African-American identity has the ingredients of an ethnic identity — shared ancestry, shared history, common culture (music, literature, way of life). The same applies for other diasporic Africans, from Afro-Cubans to Afro-Brazilians.
This fusion of the disparate African ethnic cultures was a matter of survival for enslaved Africans. Their culture also influenced the culture of the Americas. African influences can be seen in music — reggae in the Caribbean, the deep incorporation of African rhythms like the tresillo and clave patterns in Latin music. African-American blues music, particularly Mississippi Delta blues, is a direct descendant of West African folk music. The banjo can also be traced back to African string instruments like the akonting. While African drums were banned in British North America, they were not in Louisiana, which was subject to French Catholic laws. New Orleans’s Congo Square preserved many African drumming traditions, which gave birth to ragtime and jazz. In fact, the rhythmic syncopation that is ubiquitous in American music comes from African musical traditions.
Despite the uniqueness and influence of diasporic African culture, there is still a void many Africans in the diaspora feel in not knowing where they truly come from. This stems from how slavery severed and suppressed, through systematic violence, ties to Indigenous African cultures.
Shaina Louis, a 23-year-old Haitian student from New York City who went on a Birthright AFRICA trip, told CNN, “For those of us in the diaspora, our history, according to the textbooks, starts with slavery. I was doubtful and kind of cynical about what the future held not only for me as an individual, but also for black people as a whole.” Going to Ghana in 2018 gave her closure. “We may not speak the same language, but the foods we eat, the way we carry ourselves, the way we relate to one another, and our deeply ingrained spirituality reflect a bond that is still there,” she said. “There is a sense of inner peace and ease I now have, that wasn’t there before. I can move forward with my life, with intention behind everything I do.”
The Pan-African Movement Is Rising
It is not just diasporic Africans who benefit from Pan-African efforts — the African continent does as well. African Americans receive solidarity from Africa for the Black struggle, along with a sense of belonging. On the flip side, because diasporic Africans — especially African Americans living in the United States — have access to financial capital in the West, bringing the investment and skills of Africans in the diaspora to Africa builds the continent. It’s a way to reverse the ills of slavery and colonialism.
The world is currently watching how the United States handles its generations-long systemic anti-Black racism, with police violence being the tip of the spear. Given that so many other reforms have not mitigated the depths of systemic anti-Black racism and neocolonialism, the revival of Pan-Africanism offers an alternative vision to combat global racism and uplift Black people globally.