I want you read the essay and answer the questions from the essay and i want the answers in simple vocabulary and short answers salh_history_essay_.docxsalh_question_11.pdfDefining and Studying the
Modern African Diaspora
Colin Palmer, September 1998
The AHA’s 1999 annual meeting will have as its theme “Diasporas and Migrations in
History.”1 This has been welcomed by those whose scholarly interest and research
focus on what has come to be called the African diaspora. As a field of study, the
African diaspora has gathered momentum in recent times. This is reflected in the
proliferating conferences, courses, PhD programs, faculty positions, book prizes,
and the number of scholars who define themselves as specialists. But, as far as I
know, no one has really attempted a systematic and comprehensive definition of
the term “African diaspora,” although the concept has been around since the 19th
century and the term has been used since the 1960s, if not earlier. Does it refer
simply to Africans abroad, that is to say the peoples of African descent who live
outside their ancestral continent? Is Africa a part of the diaspora? Is the term
synonymous with what is now being called the Black Atlantic?
The concept of a diaspora is not confined to the peoples of African descent. For
example, historians are familiar with the migration of Asians that resulted in the
peopling of the Americas. Sometime between 10 and 20 thousand years ago,
these Asian peoples crossed the Bering Strait and settled in North and South
America and the Caribbean islands. The Jewish diaspora, perhaps the most widely
studied, also has very ancient roots, beginning about two thousand years ago.
Starting in the eighth century, Muslim peoples brought their religion and culture
to various parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa, creating communities in the process.
European peoples began their penetration of the African continent in the 15th
century, a process that in time resulted in their dispersal in many other parts of
the world, including the Americas. Obviously, these diasporic streams, or
movements of specific peoples, were not the same in their timing, impetus,
direction, or nature.
The study of the African diaspora, as mentioned at the outset, represents a
growth industry today. But, there is no single diasporic movement or monolithic
diasporic community to be studied. For the limited purposes of this discussion, I
identify five major African diasporic streams that occurred at different times and
for different reasons. The first African diaspora was a consequence of the great
movement within and outside of Africa that began about 100,000 years ago. This
early movement, the contours of which are still quite controversial, constitutes a
necessary starting point for any study of the dispersal and settlement of African
peoples. To study early humankind is, in effect, to study this diaspora. Some
scholars may argue, with considerable merit, that this early African exodus is so
different in character from later movements and settlements that it should not
be seen as constituting a phase of the diasporic process. This issue ought to be a
subject for a healthy and vigorous debate among our colleagues and students.2
The second major diasporic stream began about 3000 B.C.E. with the movement
of the Bantu-speaking peoples from the region that is now the contemporary
nations of Nigeria and Cameroon to other parts of the African continent and to
the Indian Ocean. The third major stream, which I characterize loosely as a
trading diaspora, involved the movement of traders, merchants, slaves, soldiers,
and others to parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia beginning around the
fifth century B.C.E. Its pace was markedly uneven, and its texture and energy
varied. Thus the brisk slave trade conducted by the Muslims to the Mediterranean
and Middle Eastern countries starting after the seventh century was not a new
development but its scope and intensity were certainly unprecedented. This
prolonged third diasporic stream resulted in the creation of communities of
various sizes composed of peoples of African descent in India, Portugal, Spain,
the Italian city-states, and elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia long
before Christopher Columbus undertook his voyages across the Atlantic. In his
important study of blacks in classical antiquity, for example, Frank Snowden
notes that while the “exact number of Ethiopians who entered the Greco-Roman
world as a result of military, diplomatic, and commercial activity is difficult to
determine . . . all the evidence suggests a sizable Ethiopian element, especially
in the population of the Roman world.”3 In the parlance of the time, the term
“Ethiopian” was a synonym for black Africans. The aforementioned three diasporic
streams form what I shall call the premodern African diaspora.
The fourth major African diasporic stream, and the one that is most widely
studied today, is associated with the Atlantic trade in African slaves. This trade,
which began in earnest in the 15th century, may have delivered as many as
200,000 Africans to various European societies and 11 to 12 million to the
Americas over time. The fifth major stream began during the 19th century
particularly after slavery’s demise in the Americas and continues to our own
times. It is characterized by the movement of Africans and peoples of African
descent among, and their resettlement in, various societies. These latter two
diasporic streams, along with several substreams and the communities that
emerged, constitute the modern African diaspora. Unlike the premodern
diaspora, “racial” oppression and resistance to it are two of its most salient
The five major diasporic streams (or four if the first is excluded) that I have
identified do not constitute the only significant movements of peoples of African
descent within or outside of the African continent. Scholars, depending on their
perspectives, should identify other major streams or substreams, such as that
resulting from the desiccation of the Sahara between 2500 B.C.E. and 2300
B.C.E., or the movement of peoples from East Africa to the Middle East and Asia
during the era of the Atlantic slave trade and after. They should make sure,
however, that these streams are not conflated in terms of their timing, scope,
and nature. It should be stressed that it is these diasporic streams–or movements
of specific peoples to several societies–together with the communities that they
constructed, that form a diaspora. The construction of a diaspora, then, is an
organic process involving movement from an ancestral land, settlement in new
lands, and sometimes renewed movement and resettlement elsewhere. The
various stages of this process are interrelated, yet discrete.
Although diasporas involve the movement of a particular people to several places
at once or over time, a migration is usually of a more limited scope and duration,
and essentially is the movement of individuals from one point to another within a
polity or outside of it. The boundaries between the two processes are, to be sure,
very elastic because diasporas are the products of several migratory streams.
Thus, the contemporary movement of Jamaicans to England is a migration, but it
also constitutes a part of the fifth diasporic stream identified in this essay.
Diasporic communities, generally speaking, possess a number of characteristics.
Regardless of their location, members of a diaspora share an emotional
attachment to their ancestral land, are cognizant of their dispersal and, if
conditions warrant, of their oppression and alienation in the countries in which
they reside. Members of diasporic communities also tend to possess a sense of
“racial,” ethnic, or religious identity that transcends geographic boundaries, to
share broad cultural similarities, and sometimes to articulate a desire to return to
their original homeland. No diasporic community manifests all of these
characteristics or shares with the same intensity an identity with its scattered
ancestral kin. In many respects, diasporas are not actual but imaginary and
symbolic communities and political constructs; it is we who often call them into
It is also useful in this context to remind ourselves that the appellation “African”
was a misnomer until very recent times. Because, generally speaking, the peoples
of Africa traditionally embraced an ethnic identification in contradistinction to a
trans-ethnic, regional, or continentally based one, it is more historically accurate
to speak of Yoruba, Akan, or Malinke diasporas for much of the period up to the
late 19th century or even later. The issue becomes even more complicated when
one recognizes that individuals also moved from one society in Africa to another
for a variety of reasons including being captured in war. Because an African or
transethnic consciousness did not exist, the people who left their ethnic
homeland were, strictly speaking, residing “abroad.” Should such internal
movements of specific peoples in Africa be considered parts of a diasporic
stream? Can we speak of an African diaspora before the late 19th or 20th century
since the subjects of our study did not define themselves as African but as
Yoruba, Wolof, Igbo, or other? Equally important, what demographic, temporal,
or other boundaries should be imposed on the concept?
Clearly, a major problem that scholars of the modern African diaspora confront is
how to make a case for the contours and nature of their subject. This may not be
very easy, as the preceding observations suggest. The difficulty notwithstanding, I
hope to initiate a scholarly debate by attempting a definition of the modern
African diaspora because it is the one that is currently receiving the most
attention. This diaspora possesses some of the characteristics that I mentioned,
but as the following tentative definition implies, it has its unique features.
The modern African diaspora, at its core, consists of the millions of peoples of
African descent living in various societies who are united by a past based
significantly but not exclusively upon “racial” oppression and the struggles against
it; and who, despite the cultural variations and political and other divisions
among them, share an emotional bond with one another and with their ancestral
continent; and who also, regardless of their location, face broadly similar
problems in constructing and realizing themselves.4
This definition rejects any notion of a sustained desire to emigrate to Africa by
those of its peoples who currently live outside of that continent’s boundaries,
although groups such as the Rastafarians sometimes articulate such a desire. The
desire to return to Africa, to be sure, was articulated by many of the enslaved
who were removed from that continent, and thousands of free African Americans
left for Liberia during the 19th century. Men such as Henry Highland Garnet,
Henry McNeal Turner, Marcus Garvey, and others actively embraced emigration to
Africa at various times but the appeal of the continent as a place to reestablish
roots seems to have waned over time.
Methodologically speaking, the study of the modern African diaspora should, in
my opinion, begin with the study of Africa. The African continent–the ancestral
homeland–must be central to any informed analysis and understanding of the
dispersal of its peoples. Not only must the programs that are designed promote an
understanding of the history and nature of the variegated African cultures, but it
must be recognized that the peoples who left Africa and their ethnic group,
coerced or otherwise, brought their cultures, ideas, and worldviews with them as
well. Africa, in all of its cultural richness and diversity, remained very much alive
in the receiving societies as the various ethnic groups created new cultures and
recreated their old ways as circumstances allowed. Consequently, the study of
the modern African diaspora, particularly the aspect of it that is associated with
the Atlantic slave trade, cannot be justifiably separated from the study of the
home continent.
Scholars must be careful not to homogenize the experiences of the diverse
peoples of the modern diaspora. There are obviously certain commonalities, but
there are fundamental differences born of the societal context, the times, the
political, economic, and “racial” circumstances, and so on. North American
scholars in particular must avoid the temptation to impose paradigms that reflect
their own experiences upon other areas of the diaspora. I am, in effect,
suggesting that we ask different kinds of questions that will more accurately
inform our understanding of the peoples of a diaspora who are simultaneously
similar but yet different. Scholars of the modern diaspora must also make a
methodological distinction between studying the trajectory of a people and the
trajectory of the nation-state in which they reside. In many cases, including the
United States, England, and Canada, the history of marginalized blacks who
occupy a minority status is not coterminous with the history of the nation-state.
The history of black America is certainly not a carbon copy of that of the larger
polity. In the case of those societies in which peoples of African descent
constitute the majority or exercise political and other forms of power, the issues
are more complex. The scholar not only has to examine how a people realized
themselves over time in specific contexts but how they began the task of
constructing nation states as well. Obviously, the histories and experiences of
peoples of African descent in such societies as Jamaica, Haiti, and Barbados,
where they comprise the overwhelming majority, cannot be conflated with those
of their counterparts in England, Germany, Canada, or Mexico, where they form a
distinct minority. The differences are too vast. In societies such as Brazil and
Cuba where the peoples of African descent may be in the majority but do not
exercise political power commensurate with their number, the questions that are
asked must be appropriate to their circumstances. Finally, we must be careful not
to paint a static and ahistorical picture of what was and is a very dynamic set of
processes at work everywhere.
Historians and other scholars should also adopt with the utmost caution the term
“Black Atlantic” (recently popularized by Paul Gilroy) as a synonym for the modern
African diaspora. Not only does this appellation exclude such societies as those in
the Indian Ocean that are not a part of the Atlantic basin, but there are
fundamental differences in the historical experiences of the peoples of the North
Atlantic and the South Atlantic and within those zones as well. If the appellation
Black Atlantic is to be adopted, scholars must resist any tendency to homogenize
and conflate the histories of these variegated peoples whose memories are still
haunted by the ocean that is so associated with the travail of their ancestors. Not
too long ago, some scholars used the term “Plantation America” to characterize
the peoples of African descent in the Americas, in contrast to those who were
called Euro-Americans and Indo-Americans. Unlike the Caucasians and the
Indians, blacks as people were rendered invisible by this terminology and defined
according to a particular economic arrangement. Although the adjective “Black”
suggests that people are included in the “Black Atlantic” construct, I am still
concerned that the term lends itself to some of the same kinds of criticisms that
were leveled at the use of “Plantation America.” In addition, if a general
nomenclature is needed for the peoples of African descent living in the Atlantic
basin, it should emerge from their complex and unique internal experiences, their
sinews and deep structures. Seen in this light, the Atlantic Ocean is of
questionable value as the signifier of a people’s trajectory and the core of their
history. Similarly, if a “Black Atlantic” exists, is there an oppositional “White
Atlantic,” and if so, what are its animating features? The term “Africology” that is
now being embraced by some to mean the study of the peoples of African descent
also suggests a kind of “racial” or ethnic essentialism that should be questioned.
Obviously, the temptation to reify “race” or ethnicity as the impetus for a people’s
motions in a diaspora as opposed to deeper and more universal structural forces
should be avoided.5
The point that I should like to emphasize is that new fields require new
methodologies, and it is unacceptable for scholars to see the modern African
diaspora as a replica of other diasporas or as black American, black British, or
Caribbean history writ large. The field must embrace disciplinary and
interdisciplinary orientations and must, perforce, be comparative in its
methodological dimensions. Scholars, arguably, cannot and should not define
themselves as diaspora specialists if their area of expertise is confined to one
society, or worse, to one small corner of that society. More than anything else,
we need at this stage new and provocative questions that seek to illuminate the
processes at work among the peoples of African descent who are still continuing
to construct themselves and command their destinies. African diaspora studies, as
we shape this developing field, must be subjected to the same kind of
methodological rigor as any other area of knowledge, free from romantic
condescension, essentialism, and distracting fads. For a start, let us see if we can
arrive at a broad agreement on the meaning of the modern African diaspora, and
then we can embrace and promote our diverse interpretive stances.
—Colin A. Palmer is distinguished professor of history at the Graduate School and
University Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is
“Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America,” 2 vols. (Fort Worth:
Harcourt Brace, 1998).

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