The life of William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963), the distinguished African American intellectual, partly mirrors the story of Pan-Africanism. Du Bois was born in Massachusetts in 1868 and died a citizen of the independent West African state of Ghana in 1963. By 1900, Du Bois had studied in the United States and Germany and written books on the history of the U. S. slave trade and a sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro (1899). He taught in various black colleges, but increasingly became disenchanted with scholarship. In his book of influential essays, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), DuBois described the “double consciousness” experienced by African Americans living in a white-dominated society. He also challenged Booker T. Washington’s conservative ideas on race and black education through artisanal skills. As a member of the Niagara Movement (1905), DuBois argued that racial discrimination should be confronted and that African American interests could best be promoted by the activities of an educated elite, what he called the “talented tenth.” Du Bois became actively involved in the struggle for African American civil rights. In 1910 he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), becoming editor of its critical journal, The Crisis, which became an outlet for his radicalism and literary ideas, and earned him the title of “spokesman of the race.”
DuBois was also deeply interested in the African diaspora and Pan-Africanism, an interest reflected in his study The Negro (1915). In 1900 he had taken part in the Pan-African Conference that met in London. After World War I, DuBois helped to organize four Pan-African Congresses: in Paris (1919); London, Brussels, and Paris (1921); London and Lisbon (1922-1923); and New York (1927). These small gatherings, composed mainly of African Americans from the United States and the Caribbean along with white sympathizers, passed resolutions demanding an end to racial discrimination and the extension of democracy to the colonial empires. In late 1923 DuBois visited Africa for the first time.
Pan-Africanism had its origins in the late eighteenth century and arose out of the experience of enslavement and the black diaspora. It resulted in demands for repatriation to Africa and the cultural idea of a black world, and of one unified African people. Africa was often symbolically identified as Ethiopia, and “Ethiopianism” has a long legacy running through African American Christian organizations, Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, and Rastafarianism, which claimed the emperor of Ethiopia as a divine figure. For most of its history Pan-Africanism has been an idea espoused by black people outside Africa. As such, it contains strong elements of racial romanticism. In the late 1890s DuBois had spoken of “Pan-Negroism,” while Henry Sylvester Williams, from Trinidad, planned the Pan-African Conference of 1900 to represent members of the “African race from all parts of the world.”
Small “Back to Africa” movements existed in the Americas in the nineteenth century but the idea was given new life by Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican populist, who emigrated to the United States. In 1914 Garvey had founded the black nationalist United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA expanded rapidly in North America from 1918 to 1921, with its appeal as an international organization which encouraged racial pride and self-improvement, and a radical program denouncing colonialism in Africa and advocating black repatriation to the continent. Garvey bitterly denounced DuBois and the NAACP. The UNIA had a small following in Africa but its newspaper, The Negro World, was banned in most colonies as subversive.
In the interwar years Pan-Africanism was shaped principally from three directions; first, by Garveyism, which was also influential in the Harlem Renaissance, an African American literary and artistic movement focused on New York during the 1920s; second, by cultural ideas emanating from the Caribbean in the 1920s-1930s and generally known as Negritude, which argued that black people must regain their African culture; and third, by international failure to act against the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, which served as a political catalyst for black people both within Africa and throughout the diaspora.
World War I helped stimulate political consciousness in both Africa and the black diaspora. World War II had a much more profound impact, especially on Africa. A fifth Pan-African Congress met in Manchester, England, in 1945 and, as before, DuBois played a major part in organizing and presiding over its proceedings. However, unlike previous congresses which had been run by African Americans, the meeting was dominated by Africans, including nationalists such as Jomo Kenyatta, Obafemi Awolowo, Hastings Banda, and Kwame Nkrumah, all of whom were all later to become political leaders in their own countries. The Manchester congress passed resolutions calling for the end of racial discrimination and for independence for the colonies. Some of the declarations denounced capitalist imperialism, one concluding with a rallying cry mirroring the Communist Manifesto: “Colonial and Subject Peoples of the World—Unite.” The fifth congress indicated a revived interest in Pan-Africanism, but perhaps more important, it marked a new and vital phase in the struggle against colonial rule that resulted in the large-scale transfer of power in Africa during the next two decades.
DuBois’s contribution to Pan-Africanist ideas was considerable. At Manchester he was honored as a founding father by the younger African and Caribbean nationalists. But after 1945 his influence began to wane as he was superseded by younger, more radical voices. DuBois was not always an easy man to work with. His career within the NAACP had been punctuated by often vigorous political controversy with fellow African Americans, a tension increased by DuBois’s growing interest in communism and his denunciation of colleagues’ conservatism over matters of race. In 1934 he resigned from the NAACP only to rejoin ten years later. Tensions continued as DuBois moved further to the left and in 1948 he was dismissed from the NAACP. DuBois then formed, with Paul Robeson and others, the Council of African Affairs, a socialist anticolonial organization. The growing hostility to communism in the United States in the early 1950s led to the now avowedly communist DuBois clashing with the courts and having his passport seized. In 1959 he emigrated to Ghana, where at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah, he became a citizen and also started work on editing an abortive Encyclopedia Africana.
Pan-African ideas had a strong appeal to some of the nationalist leaders in colonial Africa. The most outspoken advocate was Nkrumah, who led Ghana to independence in 1957. His thinking was partly influenced by George Padmore, originally from Trinidad and a former Stalinist, who argued in Pan-Africanism or Communism (1956) that the coming struggle for Africa depended on nationalist leaders resolving their communal and ethnic differences and embracing Pan-Africanism. Socialism was central to the PanAfricanism of both Padmore and Nkrumah. Nkrumah’s book, Africa Must Unite (1963) was dedicated to Padmore and “to the African Nation that must be.”
This kind of idealism was based more on rhetoric than realistic politics. Good reasons could be advanced for African unity: only political unity would lead to economic strength and enable the continent to be truly free of colonial influence; the artificial frontiers imposed on Africa by colonial rule would be ended;
And a united Africa would wield influence along with other noncommitted powers in a world divided between East and West. But attempts to create even binational federations failed, as African leaders were divided by political and economic ideologies. At independence, the fragile unity of many new African states was threatened by internal ethnic, political, and religious rivalries, and there were also tensions with neighboring states. In 1963 the Organization of African Unity was created in Addis Ababa. Its founding members agreed to promote unity “by establishing and strengthening common institutions”; at the same time they pledged to uphold each state’s sovereignty and maintain the integrity of the inherited colonial frontiers. Lip service continued to be given to the ideal of African unity, though increasingly this was interpreted in terms of history and cultural heritage and not as a realistic short-term political ambition. A sixth Pan-African Congress, meeting in Dar es Salaam in 1974, revealed many of these divisions. A number of Pan-African organizations were created, but these mainly represent sectional (e. g. trade union) or regional interests within the continent. Closer economic cooperation is a sought-after goal, the Abuja conference in 1991 declared that it aimed to create a PanAfrican Economic Community by 2025.
By the end of the twentieth century Pan-Africanism had little significance within Africa other than as rhetoric. The main proponents of Pan-Africanism were within the black diaspora communities, mainly in the United States. Such ideas were strengthened by the Black Power movement of the 1960s-1970s, with its strong political agenda and stress on cultural and artistic identification with Africa.
See also: Negritude; Nkrumah, Kwame.
DuBois, W. E. B. The Negro. New York (1915). Reprint, London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
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Esedebe, P. Olisanwuche. Pan-Africanism: The Idea and the Movement 1776-1963. Washington, D. C.: Howard University Press, 1982.
Geiss, I. The Pan-African Movement (1968). London: Methuen, 1974.
Lewis, D. Levering. W. E. B. DuBois: Biography of a Race 1868-1919. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.
Moses, W. J. The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (1978). Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Nkrumah, K. Africa Must Unite. London: Heinemann, 1963.
Padmore, G. Pan-Africanism or Communism? London: Dennis Dobson, 1956.
Rudwick, E. M. W. E. B. DuBois: Propagandist of the Negro Protest. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960.