Preface: Saving Face
Somewhere late 2019, I had this particular article written and published—specifically here, on B&FT. It was three pages long—even my father thought it was too long. So, chances are that it was widely unread—at best, not fully read. I am not one to miss an opportunity to shoot another shot. So here I go…
Disclaimer: I began this week, writing a piece which had African Americans mentioned in passing. Then I remembered: oh! the African Diaspora—it’s been a while since I touched on that. And we, celebrating African Day this week, this piece couldn’t be more apt.
Yet Another Preface
In the latter part of 2018, Ghana declared the upcoming year, 2019, the ‘Year of Return.’ It was brilliant. Because the nation had tapped into a very key developmental imperative—one going above and beyond the archaic ‘borga’ mentality. Every nation ought to build itself with its human resource capital. The country of Ghana and the continent of Africa, knowing the peculiar situation presented them by a gruesome history, decided, correctly, that its human resource capital was not only that which existed in its national and continental borders—we, as a people, go beyond that.
Not everyone will agree with this—at least not on its very surface. “Kwame Nkrumah should have focused on Ghana alone!” this is one of the many ways some may express disagreement with any form of supposed ‘Black Solidarity’—one existing outside national and continental borders. But I feel like before such reservations can be fully made, we ought to take ourselves back through our history. It is only then, that we can fully and adequately judge for ourselves, and propagate our thoughts on the matter. For all we know, we might end up agreeing that we in fact need this solidarity for our economic, political, socioeconomic, sociopolitical, etc. growth as a people.
The Diaspora v. The Borga
Centuries ago, a people who had partaken in a mundane human activity: migration, had been made subject to a whole new kind, a gruesome kind; a forceful and involuntary migration—one that has earned its name aptly as slave trade. Years proceeding its overthrow, the slave trade has spawned a new phenomenon, the Diaspora.
The Diaspora (hereinafter made to refer, unapologetically, to the African Diaspora) translated to mean to scatter or to sow has an intrinsic feature of a yearning—of a gathering, a harvesting. But more about that in a minute.
The term has been used since the 19th century, retaining its relevance in this 21st century. Diaspora is so expansive in its implication that any inquiry into its meaning deserves an article on its own. It is so nuanced that a paragraph for it may prove insufficient; half-baked attempts at its explanation will lead to misleading conclusions.
To arrive at the real meaning of Diaspora we must resort to a sieving out of certain implications, and that is what we attempt to do in this article. To understand the word we must find ourselves trudging through the maze of its history. What we will find in this maze is a series of contradictions, but employing a purposive approach, we will arrive at a workable definition.
A workable definition of Diaspora closes its eyes to this fact—that the term, when taken literally, can be used to describe a broad array of people worldwide—in fact, all people. This is because this scattering, this notion of Diaspora has an inherent implication: a movement, a migration. And migration is never, and will never be, exclusive to a particular race or people. A study into migration trends worldwide can help us arrive at Diaspora’s distinguishing features which sets it apart from the various migration trends witnessed by diverse races in different parts of the world. It may also help us find similarities with other races. It will, too, help us distinguish between Africa’s own migration trends, and diagnose these movements as either resulting in the formation of the Diaspora or merely comprising migration.
We will discover in Diaspora, a specialised term; yet not so specialised as to be exclusive to Blacks only. Neither is it a term so broad so as to encompass all peoples who have had a history of migration.
Unchanging static is inhuman. Human beings have a basic instinct to move—always. Whether it be in search of food, livelihood, good climate, etc. human beings have a documented history of movement. In an article titled “From Green to Green”, the writer explored, into detail, this fact. In the 15th century, Europeans, already a mobile bunch, moved to the African continent causing unprecedented havoc. The Islamic people had around the 8th century moved extensively, spreading their religion and culture far and wide—to Africa, Asia, and Europe. Rome was not built in a day—it took a systematic expansion of territories; the spreading of its people from what was then the small confines of Italy. One cannot forget the present-day nation of immigrants—United States of America, a melting pot, a gathering of people of all races immigrating thereto in all sorts of ways—either voluntarily or involuntarily. Voluntarily leaving behind Germany, Britain, Scotland, Ireland, France, etc. in the 17th century to form what then to them was a ‘new world’.
All people migrate—no list of examples will ever be complete. And this point illustrates, all the more, how ineffectual a literal definition of Diaspora can be. If all people are migrants—scattered about, then are not all people Diaspora? An answer in the affirmative is a valid argument yet not true.
Any definition of Diaspora which treats the term as an end product of human movement would be disastrous. For the day all humankind becomes Diaspora, the word and its implication will be lost. If the whole world is a Diaspora, then no one really is. And what is the harm in that—really? Why has the writer drawn a halo around the term, bent on preserving its purity?
Charles and Mary Beard in ‘History of United States’ put it perfectly: “In one vital point, it must be noted, American colonization differed from that of the ancients. The Greeks usually carried with them affection for the government they left behind and sacred fire from the altar of the parent city; but thousands of the immigrants who came to America disliked the state and disowned the church of the mother country…” Just like the migration trends witnessed in the rest of the world—in Africa even—these ex-European citizens had moved with the original intention to sever, to discover other parts of the world. Driven by diverse needs, they sought to make home those “new” lands. Such historical movements had chiefly scarcely been so done with umbilical cord still attached.
However, this argument standing alone does little to explain the peculiarity and distinctness of the term for it creates the impression of Voluntary Migration never ending in the creation of a Diaspora. We ought to delve deeper into this.
Africans too moved
The acclaimed historian of the African Diaspora Colin Palmer, like many scholars, identified what he termed the ‘Five Major Diasporic Streams’. For the purpose of this article, the writer will view these streams in line of migration—not Diaspora. And use the term “Five Circulatory Phases of African Migration” as used by other scholars or “Five Major Migration Streams”, if you will. These migration trends underlisted, though expansive, are not exhaustive.
“The Early Migration”, happening 1000 centuries ago, constitutes what he described as the “great movement within and outside of Africa.” And evidence of this migration, in a highly oral tradition as Africa’s, is subject to be plagued with disagreements as to their nature and scope, leading many scholars to dismiss this as forming part of any categorisation of the African Diaspora altogether.
The second instance comprise “The Movement of the Bantu Speaking People” voluntarily, about 3000 to 5000 years ago from their homes bordering present-day Nigeria and Cameroon to the modern-day country of Congo, other regions of the continent, and abroad—across the Indian Ocean.
The third, he termed “The Trading Diaspora”—lumping together the records of the movement of trading African emigrants, soldiers, slaves etc. to Europe, Middle East, and Asia at the dawn of the 5th Century. This third circulatory movement saw the formation of African communities in India, the Middle East, and Europe: Portugal, Spain, Italy—preceding Columbus’ voyage towards the Atlantic. And under this, we find the ever-so ignored, Arab Slave Trade.
The fourth: the infamous Atlantic Slave Trade will be looked at subsequently in this article.
The Modern Voluntary Movement, true to its name, like the first three streams—voluntary, is Africa’s fifth migration trend. Proceeding the Atlantic Slave Trade, starting during the 19th century, this migration persists today.
It is important that this journey through Africa’s migration history was taken for it helps get rid of the misconception that the African people were a stagnant bunch whose first experience with migration was in chains, headed for the Atlantic. This study into African Migration is also vital for it points out this fact: bar the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Arab Slave Trade, almost all other movements by Africans have been voluntary. Thus, mere involuntariness is not the sole and principal feature of Diaspora. What more is? What happened in our history to distinguish us apart from the rest of the world so much so that like the Biblical shepherd the African continent rummages in search of her lost sheep—always requiring of one another, solidarity no matter how far and wide we are spread?
You are thinking it—the slave trade.
It is an event in history so pronounced that Africa, even though having had experiences of migration preceding it—having suffered such inhumane treatment under this demonic trade—had her longstanding history of migration reduced to ashes. And what was left was a bitter aftertaste, a fear of—or at least an expected fear of—the boat. This slave trade loomed broad and wide that it cast a shadow on Africa’s past migration trends, thus incorrectly rendering the slave trade the first thing that comes to mind when mention of historical African migration is made.
The birth of the Diaspora: those bound together, moved together
In the 15th century, the Caucasian set sail for the African continent, tasked by the devil in the guise of God’s work to steal, to kill, and destroy. In a trade in human blood and dignity, spanning a period of four centuries, the African continent lost over 12 million of its populace to the Americas, hundreds of thousands to Europe. The continent recorded the highest number of involuntary “tourists”—if tourists come bound in chains. Our people found themselves—never a moment’s rest, always losing human dignity, broken down physically and psychologically, interspersed throughout the Caribbean: Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, et al. In different languages and methods, the African was tortured. In North America—USA and Canada; in South and Central America; in any part of the world the Caucasian greed had infiltrated, the African was sent to—to toil.
The abolition of slavery and Black solidarity
After centuries of the Black race being subjected to the worst possible conditions worldwide, one would think such a people would get inured to oppression and remain bound to captivity. With the spirit of togetherness, African descendants interspersed worldwide, achieved in consecutive timelines the overthrow of slavery.
In Europe, an anti-slavery movement which had commenced during the late 17th century took full form and culminated in the abolition of slavery in 1807. The Abolitionist Movement was to inspire another Black fight for freedom in another part of the world and help set a chain of events—of winning resistance.
Decades later, this question ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother’—one defining motto of the European Abolitionist Movement was being asked by Blacks in the Caribbean; for the European’s new found morality of the inherent equality of all human race had not been extended to the slaves they held in the islands. Word of the victory of Blacks in Europe began to spread in the Caribbean; very soon the islanders were fueling their insistence upon freedom—slave revolts intensified. Many Black lives were lost—victory was attained. In 1838, the Caribbean Black was declared free.
In the United States, in the northern states, where slavery was not as vital to the economy as the south, slavery was abolished in the early 18th century. The south relied heavily on slaves working cotton and tobacco plantations. Here, Blacks had a harder time for the Southerners had responded to the impending abolishment with an increase in slave imports. It was not until 1865 that slavery was abolished in the entire country. Here again, Black solidarity had won.
[To be continued next week, where we will be showing how this victory was the first in the longline of battles the Black race had to fight to attain total liberation—or semblance of it. I have not forgotten the countless ‘to be continueds’ I have promised anyway. Those ‘continueds’ will come in due time.]
[Published in the Business & Financial Times, B&FT - 26th May 2021]