The 21st Century Black: How Nationalism changed Pan-Africanism

“Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa”Kwame Nkrumah

T

hese words were part of that historic speech that Kwame Nkrumah gave 63 years ago – when Ghana gained its independence from Britain. But before we get into that, allow me to take us back to the 23rd of March, 1916 – the day that Marcus Garvey first set foot on American soil.

Inspired by Booker T. Washington, a prominent leader in the African-American community, Garvey moved to America with the hope of raising money to build a school similar to Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, but in his home country – Jamaica. Working as a printer by day, and giving talks at street corners at night, Garvey started to see the social similarities between the black people in Harlem, and those he had seen at home and all over Central America. A little over a year later, in 1917, he opened a chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) in Harlem – the first of its kind to be formed outside of Jamaica.

Over the next decade, Garvey grew in influence and popularity. Even though he had never set foot on the African continent, his philosophy was unmistakably Pan-African. His message was that of economic empowerment and pride in the African heritage. He promoted the propagation of Black unity across national borders and encouraged his followers to aspire for collective economic, social, and political freedom. It was Garvey’s belief that the only way forward for Black people was through economic and financial independence. As such, he put a lot of emphasis on the need to engage in group economics – both at a micro level within local communities, and at a macro level – between Africans and people of African descent all over the world.

The independence of the Gold Coast, and its rebirth as the Republic of Ghana, proved to be a beacon of hope for black people in Africa and beyond. The Black star of Ghana shone bright and the rest of the black world dared to follow.

At the time of Garvey’s death – in 1940, Jamaica was still a colony, as were most of the countries in the Caribbean and sub-saharan Africa. Across the atlantic, African-Americans still lived in segregated towns and cities. There was no hope in sight for the physical emancipation of Black people, and judging by the state of affairs – both in Africa and in the diaspora – one could be forgiven for assuming that Garvey’s legacy had died with him. But, as is always the case, seeds require time to germinate, and Garvey’s was no different. Less than two decades after Garvey’s demise, some buds of hope were beginning to sprout.

On the 6th of March, 1957 the Gold Coast became the first black nation in sub-saharan Africa to gain its independence. To celebrate this occasion, Africans and people of African descent from all over the world were in attendance, including a certain Martin Luther King Jr. In his independence speech, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the then Prime Minister, affirmed that “at long last, the battle has ended, and thus Ghana […] is free forever.” In the spirit of Pan-African unity, Nkrumah went further to state that “our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa” – a statement that would probably have sent the chills down Garvey’s spine, had he been alive.

They saw a Black issue in one country as an issue for all Blacks regardless of their nationality. In those days, they were truly Black without borders.

The independence of the Gold Coast, and its rebirth as the Republic of Ghana, proved to be a beacon of hope for Black people in Africa and beyond. The Black star of Ghana shone bright and the rest of the Black world dared to follow. As a result, the 1960s became the decade of the Black renaissance. Africans and people of African descent, interacted with each other in ways that were previously unheard of. African-Americans often travelled to Africa to discuss global black issues. Caribbeans of African descent were no different. It was almost as if they saw a Black issue in one country as an issue for all Blacks regardless of their nationality. In those days, they were truly Black without borders.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise then, that following Ghana’s lead, 17 African countries gained their independence in 1960 – a year now known to many as the year of independence. By 1969, the end of the same decade, 15 more countries in Africa, and 4 in the Caribbean, had gained their independence. Jamaica, the birth nation of Marcus Garvey, was one of them, and gained her independence on the 6th of August, 1962. Within the same decade, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, which had already begun by 1954, was rewarded in 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed into law. Furthermore, the Civil Rights Movement in the UK, recorded a similar triumph a year later, when the Race Relations Act of 1965 was passed into law.

Following Ghana’s lead, 17 African countries gained their independence in 1960 – a year now known to many as the year of independence. By 1969, the end of the same decade, 15 more countries in Africa, and 4 in the Caribbean, had gained their independence.

From all indications, it was apparent that the global black struggle had achieved victory at last. But even after a seed has germinated, without the right amount of light, water, temperature, and soil nutrients, it is but doomed to wither away. The shared vision of the 20th century Pan-African, was a United States of Africa – a cultural reference point for all Africans and people of African descent – much like the state of Israel is for people of Jewish heritage. Following the triumphs of independence, however, the newly liberated Blacks started to forge new and often separate identities for themselves. These differences in identity soon began to tell and break up the unity that was starting to become a characteristic of the global black community.

Between independence and the dawn of the 21st century, at least 98 coups d’état took place on African soil, most of which were successful and resulted in the overthrow of the incumbent governments. Civil wars were rife, and most of the people who led the fight for independence were either assassinated or deposed – often with the assistance of former colonists. Kwame Nkrumah was no exception. Meanwhile, in America, the fight for Black empowerment was getting hampered by the divisions that grew within the Black community. The inability of African-American leaders to see past their differences proved decisive and led to the assassination of a number of prominent civil rights activists – most notably, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

With the growing divisions amongst Black people, Nationalism began to take precedence over Pan-Africanism. African-Americans began to question the reasoning behind their portrayal as Africans. Many claimed that since they had been in America for so long, and now had little to nothing in common with indigenous Africans, the term, African-American, had become redundant, and should be replaced with American. Caribbeans of African descent were no different as they also began to focus solely on their national identity – often neglecting their African heritage. Even within Africa, the commonalities that bound nations in the past were now so weak that it became commonplace for African nations to form stronger economic and political alliances with occidental and oriental nations than with their fellow African nations.

Within the same decade, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, which had already begun by 1954, was rewarded in 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed into law. Furthermore, the Civil Rights Movement in the UK, recorded a similar triumph a year later, when the Race Relations Act of 1965 was passed into law.

The average 21st century Black is an example of what Marcus Garvey would have called “[…] a tree without roots.” In a world where Jewish people are forging a future based on their shared Jewish identity and the different identities that come with the different places in which they were born and/or now live, Africans living in Africa, and people of African descent living in the different parts of the world, are somewhat psychologically disconnected from each other. Though we are moving forward, we are doing so in separate directions.

Back in the days, it was not so. Most of the early Pan-Africanists were American, Caribbean, and British, but they all shared a connection to the mother continent. The first Pan-African conference was held in London, and was organised by Henry Williams – a Trinidadian. It was attended by delegates from Africa, the Caribbean, America and Britain. In the 1960s, black people from all around the world were united on the same Pan-African front. They didn’t love their countries of birth any less than we do, but they understood, as Malcolm said in 1965, that “no matter where the black man is, he will never be respected until Africa is a world power.” Now, one cannot help but observe that we are too divided to conquer.

Today, as we celebrate Ghana’s independence, let us remember that Marcus Garvey was Jamaican, but that didn’t stop him from fighting to improve the social and economic conditions of the blacks in America. Martin Luther King was American, but that didn’t stop him from speaking out against the racist system of oppression, that was affecting the blacks in South Africa. Malcolm X was American, but that didn’t stop him from building and maintaining strong partnerships with Africans of different nationalities. Kwame Ture was born in Trinidad and Tobago, but that didn’t stop him from fighting for the emancipation of blacks in America while promoting the unification of the African continent alongside the likes of Kwame Nkrumah. If these were possible back then, why has it become so difficult today, for Black people to unite within and beyond their national borders?

Have we lost the plot? Or are we simply changing with the times? What would Garvey say? What would Malcolm say? What would Nkrumah say?

“No matter where the Black man is, he will never be respected until Africa is a world power.”Malcolm X