125. Prophets, poets and philosophers of the Pan-African pantheon

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 30 November 2020
Publication: Business Day

Pan-Africanism can be defined as the efforts to promote the political, socio-economic, and cultural unity of Africa and its Diaspora. I recently edited a 38-chapter volume on The Pan-African Pantheon: Prophets, Poets, and Philosophers (Jacana, 2020). With chapters by 37 African, Afro-Caribbean, and African-American scholars on 36 major Pan-African figures, the book seeks to contribute to curriculum transformation efforts across the globe. 

Pan-Africanism was historically a reaction by Africans in the Diaspora to the twin European plagues of slavery and colonialism. The 400-year Transatlantic slave trade saw 12-15 million Africans forcibly transported to the Caribbean and the Americas. This was followed by eight decades of colonial rule in Africa. Fifteen years after the notorious Berlin Conference of 1884/85 at which the rules were set by European imperialists for the partition of Africa, the Pan-African movement was born when Trinidadian lawyer, Henry Sylvester-Williams, convened the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900.  

Between 1919 and 1945, five Pan-African Congresses took place in Europe and America dominated by towering Diaspora intellectuals, W.E.B. Du Bois and George Padmore. By the time of the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945, the movement had shifted its centre of influence from the Diaspora to Africa, but lost its civil society dynamism and close links to the Diaspora. 

St. Thomas’s Edward Blyden has often been referred to as the “Father of Pan-Africanism.” He championed the concept of Ethiopianism, urging African Americans to return to Africa to help develop the continent. This inspired Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. Blyden’s  1887 classic, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, was adopted by Kenya’s Ali Mazrui in his profoundly influential 1986 nine-part documentary “The Africans: A Triple Heritage.” The “African Renaissance” was championed by South Africa’s Pixley Seme, before becoming centrally associated with compatriot, Thabo Mbeki. 

The role of female activists has often been overlooked in the Pan-African canon.  This book thus focuses on such female activists as Jamaica’s Amy Ashwood Garvey, South Africa’s Miriam Makeba and Ruth First, Kenya’s Wangari Maathai and Micere Mugo, Senegal’s Mariama Bâ, Nigeria’s Buchi Emecheta, and America’s Maya Angelou.  Angelou worked closely with Malcolm X in efforts to mobilise African leadership in support of the civil rights struggle in apartheid America. Two decades later, African-American civil rights lawyer, Randall Robinson, used the TransAfrica Forum to wage the anti-apartheid struggle in the US.

Trinidad’s C.L.R. James was a pioneering voice in post-colonial studies, while Jamaican-British sociologist, Stuart Hall, incorporated issues of race, gender, and hegemony into Cultural Studies. South Africa’s martyred Ruth First devoted her life to the study of military rule across Africa, as well as to Southern Africa’s liberation struggles.

Africa and its Diaspora also produced noteworthy philosophers. Steve Biko’s innovative “Black Consciousness” sought to build the cultural self-esteem of his black compatriots. Martinique’s Frantz Fanon preached democracy, development, and revolutionary change across Africa. Inspired by Fanon, Bissau Guinean revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral, formulated critical theories of revolutionary decolonization and revolutionary re-Africanization. Beninois scholar-politician, Paulin Hountondji, advocated a self-dependent African epistemology; Congolese intellectual, V.Y. Mudimbe, deconstructed the Western “invention” of Africa; while Ghanaian-British philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, critiqued what he saw as the essentialism of Pan-Africanism in favour of a more universalist cosmopolitanism. 

Finally, cultural Pan-Africanism represented the reaction by the African Diaspora to the indignities that blacks had suffered over centuries. Martinique’s Aimé Césaire and Senegal’s Léopold Senghor developed the idea of négritude which poetically glorified black culture, looking back nostalgically at a rich African past. The realm of music celebrated the radical reggae rhythms of Jamaica’s Bob Marley, the rebellious Afro-jazz of Nigeria’s Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and the anti-apartheid melodies of South Africa’s Miriam Makeba.  

From Addis Ababa to Abuja through Atlanta and Antigua, Africa and its Diaspora now need to build an effective civil society-led movement in order to avoid the wrath of Africa’s ancestors. 

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.