Defining the ‘African family’ in the Global African Diaspora

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"African Diaspora" by beautifulcataya (Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“African Diaspora” by beautifulcataya (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Pan-African Congress Movement (PACM) in the UK will observe Africa Liberation Day (ALD) in various cities, notably London and Birmingham, over the weekend 25- 27 May 2013, as it has done annually over many decades. 

This year, celebrations take on an added significance as it is 50 years since the predecessor of the African Union (AU), the Organisation of African Unity, constituted Africa Liberation Day in 1963. The AU has also designated 2013 the ‘Year of Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance’.

This year, as in previous years, PACM publicity for its programme to mark ALD, warns that it is STRICTLY AN AFRICAN FAMILY EVENT!’  This raises a number of issues which are seldom debated in communities that constitute the Global African Diaspora in the UK.

I well recall attending an ALD event in Manchester some years ago at which I was due to speak. As I arrived at the venue, I witnessed an altercation at the entrance which, as I soon discovered, had to do with the observance of that warning and differing interpretations of what constitutes ‘the African family’.

An elder who had lived in Manchester since the end of the Second World War and was one of the few people who had distinct recollections of the 5th Pan African Congress he attended in Manchester in 1945, turned up at ALD with his wife of some 40+ years.  The event organisers welcomed him warmly, but clearly had a problem with his wife joining him.  She was white English.   This led to an argument which I joined, making it very clear that I was not going to stick around, let alone deliver my talk, if both the elder and his wife were not allowed to attend the event. 

The argument ran as follows:

PACM organisers stressed the need and the right of the African community to debate its issues and speak to itself about serious matters affecting it without having white people present. That space was important and no one should feel inhibited because of the presence of non-Africans.

The elder argued that he knew more about those ‘issues’ than all the PACM organisers put together and that his wife had faced many of those issues herself, especially years of abuse from white racists for being with and standing by ‘that n…er’.  She therefore posed no threat to them whatsoever and she was definitely not an agent of the state or a plant for some neo-fascist organisation like the National Front.

I told the organisers they were being grossly disrespectful to the elder and should be ashamed of themselves for keeping those two elderly people standing at the entrance while they welcomed their African elder and expected his wife to ‘understand’, to ‘respect’ their space and go back home. If that is what they wanted to happen, then I, too, was turning back and heading for home. I argued that I could not for the life of me understand why they felt the PACM was so fragile, or the African community in Manchester so weak and vulnerable as to be destabilised by the presence, or even the contributions from the floor, of the white wife of an African elder.

In the end, the white elder decided she did not want to be among them anyway, because over the years she had had to fight too many battles when ‘the boot was on the other foot’ and she had to ‘cuss off’ white organisations for wanting to bar her husband from entering places with her, while insisting that she was ‘alright and most welcome’.  Needless to say, both of them left and so did I.

This anecdote is instructive for three main reasons.

1. The African community, the Global African Diaspora (GAD), in the UK has avoided any meaningful debate about ‘black nationalism’ and its relevance to the GAD in the UK, let alone to Pan-Africanism. Where there have been discussions about it, they have taken the form of name calling and intolerant ranting rather than respectful and sensible exchanges. What is more, those discussions by and large have by-passed young Africans and the majority of the African community who get on with the business of living and dealing with the challenges facing them day by day.

2. The AU Addis Ababa Protocol of 2003 invited the Global African Diaspora to participate as an important component in the building of the African Union. It called upon all its Member States to ratify its decision to constitute the Global African Diaspora the Sixth Region of Africa.  My experience is that knowledge among the Global African Diaspora in the UK is very sparse about the reunification process on which the AU is embarked.

The Global African Diaspora in the UK is spread across many towns and cities, is very diverse and that diversity encompasses:

  • An array of countries of origin;
  • Multilingual communities;
  • Length of time in the UK;
  • Profile (British born descendants of historic and new Diaspora; British and non-British citizens; holders of dual citizenship; students; refugees and asylum seekers; economic refugees; skilled workers recruited from the historic Diaspora and from the Motherland);
  • Political ideologies and tendencies;
  • Members of long established Diaspora organisations and institutions, including the Pan African Congress Movement and civil society organisations representing Caribbean nationals;
  • Those who own and identify with ‘Africa’ and those who do not;
  • Those with African (predominantly Caribbean) and white European parents;
  • African heritage people in all walks of life in the country, including Lords, Baronesses and Parliamentarians;

The draft declaration of the First African Diaspora Summit states, among other things:

Taking Cognizance of the dialogue carried out between Africa and the representatives of various regions of the world in which the African Diaspora are located

Cognizant of the fact that culture informs all facets of development and  acknowledging the need to celebrate and preserve the shared heritage between Africa and persons of African descent in the African Diaspora

Bearing in mind that the African Diaspora represents a historical and evolving experience which calls for an approach that is sensitive to the specificities of the different regions …

While in London and in other parts of the UK organizations with a focus on African affairs and with links to Pan-Africanism have a more organic link to the work of the African Union and to the Sixth Region agenda, all Africans in civil society are eligible to be part of the process of building the Global African Diaspora in the UK and Europe.

Community organisations, churches, societies, umbrella organisations, student societies in universities and colleges, black staff networks within various public sector or central government organizations are all entitled to knowledge, information and the right to participate in open, free and democratic decision-making with respect to building a GAD Chapter in the UK that could have a structural link to the AU and the Africa/African Diaspora reunification process.

3. The African Diaspora represents a historical and evolving experience which calls for an approach that is sensitive to the specificities of the different regions.

The African Diaspora in the UK between 1945 and 1975 is not the same as the Global African Diaspora in Britain today. A series of demographic factors has led to a totally different configuration. One of those factors is the growing mixed heritage population that identifies itself as African, or is subjected to the same systemic, cultural, institutional and personal manifestations of racism as people whose parents are both African.

In the GAD in Britain, some 57% of all Caribbean males and 35% of Caribbean females, for example, have white (English, Scottish, Irish, other white European) partners. Their offspring are exposed to rabid racism, to police Stops and Searches, to school exclusion, to involvement with the criminal justice system, to child and adolescent mental health issues just as much as, and in certain areas arguably more than, young people whose parents are both African.

In many cases, white mothers (especially) end up as single parents bringing up mixed heritage children on their own, often with tenuous ties to the extended family of the children’s father.

The African community is concerned, quite rightly, about African children being fostered and adopted by white couples or families, especially in mainly white areas. That concern is seldom extended to mixed heritage children who define themselves as ‘black’ or ‘black British’ and for whom the only parent active in their life and the only network of significant adults is white.

So, how is PACM defining the ‘African Family’ as in STRICTLY AN AFRICAN FAMILY EVENT!’ ???

An approach to building the GAD in Britain and Europe that is ‘sensitive to the specificity’ of this region surely has to take into the account the demographic configuration of the African Diaspora in the UK and Europe. There are many families calling themselves an ‘African family’ where one parent is white European. That parent is instinctively as concerned about the welfare and general wellbeing of their children as a black parent in their situation would be.

As we have discovered in the Communities Empowerment Network over the last 13 years, many white parents of mixed heritage children struggle to confront the racism those children face, or to get information, knowledge and support with respect to assisting the development of their children’s self-knowledge, self-identity, positive self esteem and their ability to be at ease in their own skin.

To suggest that white members of those self-ascribed black families should not be able to attend a PACM event with their children, whether or not accompanied by their African partner or spouse is bizarre, to say the least.

4. For far too long, the distinction between ‘black nationalism’ (if I understand the concept) and black separatism has become increasingly blurred, a blurring which those who would call themselves ‘black nationalists’ have done little to arrest.

Throughout the history of the struggle for African liberation, there have been radical, progressive and revolutionary white people who have risked imprisonment, life and limb in the name of justice and freedom and not out of some liberal urge to ‘support black people’.

In no particular order of importance, one could think of:  Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Donald Woods, Fenner Brockway, John Collins, Pauline Webb, Colin Morris, Ann Dummett, Ann Walmsley, Tony Gifford, Dave Feickert, Polly Gaster, Ian Macdonald, Chris Searle and others too many to mention.

Organisations such as the World Council of Churches and its Programme to Combat Racism; the Free University of Berlin and its significant support for the ANC in exile; Anti-Apartheid; etc. played major roles in the African Liberation movement, with white people standing side by side with African people in leading positions.

For all the above reasons, PACM will do justice to the current and future generations of Africans in the Global African Diaspora in the UK if it assists them in understanding that African people have no monopoly on the struggle for freedom and liberation any more than white people in Europe or elsewhere have a monopoly on oppression and barbarism.

African young people in the GAD in Britain have a need, I would say an urgent need to understand Pan-Africanism if they are to embrace their responsibility for engaging with and learning from the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist struggles of the past, the relevance of those struggles to Africa and the Global African Diaspora today and their own struggle against racism, marginalisation and social exclusion in Britain. They also need to understand Pan-Africanism if, as part of the reunification process, they are to determine the role they could play in African development  as the ‘Sixth Region’.

The First African Diaspora Summit recognized:

the need to build sustainable partnerships between the African Continent and the African Diaspora through sustainable dialogue and effective collaboration with governments and peoples of different regions of the World in which the Diaspora population are located

That goal will remain a pious aspiration if the partnership between the African Continent and the African Diaspora in the UK through sustainable dialogue is predicated upon what appear to be the current thinking and practice within PACM-UK.  A good starting point for ‘sustainable dialogue’ would be a definition by PACM of who or what constitutes the African family in the UK context.

There is a very real danger, otherwise, that PACM will be seen simply as indulging in the ancestralisation of politics and as having very little relevance to the predominantly young Global African Diaspora in the UK who need to be equipped with the tools for analysis, understanding and action that can help secure their future in Britain and their effective engagement with the Motherland and its development.

Picture (home): “U.S. Africa Command C4ISR Senior Leaders Conference, Vicenza, Italy, February 2011”, by US Army Africa (Flickr – CC by 2.0)

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