Holm on Adi, 'Pan-Africanism: A History'

Hakim Adi
Charles Holm

Hakim Adi. Pan-Africanism: A History. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 1 online resource. ISBN 978-1-4742-5427-4.

Reviewed by Charles Holm (University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-Africa (January, 2019) Commissioned by Dawne Y. Curry (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53369

While teaching an undergraduate course on Pan-Africanism, Hakim Adi realized that there were few if any survey texts or overviews on the subject written in the twenty-first century suitable for use by his students. His newest work, Pan-Africanism: A History, addresses this nearly twenty-year gap with an astonishingly concise and extensively researched survey. Reviewing this remarkably comprehensive effort requires overlooking many themes, questions, and issues Adi raises. In these pages readers discover over one hundred organizations and perhaps ten times as many individuals important for understanding Pan-African thought and movements from the late eighteenth century up to the first decades of the twenty-first.

Pan-Africanism is much more than a suitable general survey text for teaching undergraduates. Adi clearly builds off recent historical scholarship, and his selected bibliography demonstrates extensive primary source use and archival research, including unpublished correspondence and rare Pan-African publications in several languages. An original contribution to Pan-African historiography and the study of Africa and the African diaspora, this book offers much for  undergraduates, emerging scholars, and established specialists to discover and explore.

What is meant by the term “Pan-Africanism?” Many writers have attempted clear definitions while others have hesitated due to the vast diversity of thought and activity found among self-identified Pan-Africanists across time and space. Adi’s own definition draws from significant commonalities he locates in previous efforts. Pan-Africanism is considered composed of ideas and movements “concerned with the social, economic, cultural and political emancipation of the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora.” Broadly speaking, these stem from “belief in the unity, common history and common purpose of the people of Africa and the African diaspora” and their interwoven futures. Finally, historically Pan-African “thought and action” emerges within efforts to connect and reconnect those in the African diaspora created through the trade in enslaved people from Africa “accompanied by the emergence of global capitalism, European colonial rule and anti-African racism” (p. 2). While containing a multitude of diverse ideological, political, cultural, and organizational ideas and movements, Pan-African thought and action share a commitment to resist “the exploitation and oppression of all those of African heritage,” rejecting anti-African racism and celebrating “African achievement, history, and the very notion of being African” (p. 3).

Adi divides Pan-Africanism into two periods that organize the book. The first period begins, as noted, among early Africans in the diaspora created through European enslavement of people from the African continent and their descendants, while the second begins in the wake of the 1945 Fifth Pan-African Congress. For Adi, what links Pan-Africanism in both periods are the central concerns of Pan-African unity and the liberation “of Africa and its diaspora.” Pan-Africanism in the first period considered questions facing the African continent answerable in some undetermined future, while issues facing newly independent African states after 1945 became more central. After Pan-Africanism’s “return home” Adi highlights how the diaspora’s importance became more contested (p. 129).

Adi stresses how Pan-Africanism’s early diasporic protagonists resisted enslavement and created new and specifically “African” identities, fostering new collective forms of consciousness rooted in shared experiences of enslavement. Notions regarding shared African pasts and destinies helped connect diasporic Africans with their continental African brethren. Critically, he locates the first Pan-African organizational forms already in the eighteenth century with Olaudah Equiano’s and Ottobah Cugoano’s Sons of Africa as one example. Adi also considers the Haitian Revolution a “form of Pan-Africanism” (p. 9). Drawing on significant scholarship on its revolutionary and internationalist significance from the Age of Revolution onward, Adi’s argument for seeing maroon communities in the Americas and in Africa as Pan-Africanist movements also speaks to efforts engaging maronage as a site for theorizing black freedom.

After discussing these Pan-African “forerunners,” chapter 1 culminates with the 1900 London Pan-African Conference initiated and organized largely by Henry Sylvester Williams. Chapters on Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and W. E. B. Du Bois and the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Pan-African Congresses follow. While Williams, Garvey, and Du Bois should be familiar figures for most readers, Adi introduces lesser-known authors, activists, and movement participants such as Anne Victoria Kinloch. Born in South Africa in 1863 where she later lectured widely on African oppression before moving to Britain in 1896, Kinloch co-founded the African Association with Williams despite its organizational membership excluding women. Through Kinloch and others, Adi demonstrates how women are central to Pan-Africanism’s history, ideas, and movements.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 largely follow and summarize material found in Adi’s 2013 book, Pan-Africanism and Communism, showcasing his vast archival knowledge and expertise on the subject. Black communists and Pan-Africanist efforts by Garvey, Dubois, and others from the 1920s to the 1940s shaped the Comintern’s “Pan-Africanist … approach to the liberation of Africans and the African” where “the agency of Africans, and those of African descent, played a vital role” (p. 62). They used Comintern resources and support to build and solidify Pan-African networks with significance beyond the organized communist movement while creating a new revolutionary Pan-African internationalism.

“From Ethiopia to Manchester” shows how Marxist-influenced Pan-Africanists like former Communist Party member George Padmore and C. L. R. James, along with Amy Ashwood Garvey and others were instrumental in organizing Pan-African unity in response to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, fomenting this “new mass-based” radical orientation among Pan-Africanists. These efforts created the conditions for founding the International African Service Bureau (IASB) in 1938, which helped launch the Pan-African Federation (PAF) in 1944. The PAF invited and met with trade unionists from Africa and the Caribbean in Manchester following the February 1945 World Trade Union Conference and discussed convening what eventually became the Fifth Pan-African Congress. Adi’s attention to working class activists and trade unionists in Pan-Africanism’s development shifts away from studies focused more narrowly on important intellectual figures and conference proceedings.

Pivoting to what Adi considers a new period for Pan-Africanism post-1945, chapter 7 describes Pan-Africanism’s “return home” and increasingly stresses how anticolonial movements and decolonization raised Africa’s profile and the issues facing independent African states within Pan-African movements and ideas. For example, shortly after the Manchester Congress, the West African National Secretariat’s (WANS) subscribed to a “Pan-African nationalism,” a term used by co-founder Kwame Nkrumah to describe the organization’s main ideological and political concerns. Adi points out how Nkrumah and WANS aimed to create an independent West African “polity” that “would include all of West Africa, not just the British colonies,” considering this “a practical first step on the road to African liberation and unity” (p. 130). Marked by Ghana’s independence in 1957, Pan-Africanism blossomed on the continent. Another significant marker occurred in 1962 when the African Women’s Union (AWU) was founded by women from fourteen African states. Adi views the Organization of African States (OAU), founded in 1963 by thirty-two independent African states, as a culmination of Pan-Africanism as it “returned home” after 1945.

Unlike the 1945 Pan-African Congress’s resolutions, however, the OAU’s founding aims were unclear regarding its relationship or commitment to the African diaspora, and its “Pan-African achievements” were few, according to Adi, beyond sustained opposition to apartheid settler-colonial regimes (p. 155). Even so, chapter 8 shows how anticolonial struggles in Africa and across the so-called Third World reverberated throughout the diaspora, helping spark Black Power movements, especially in the United States, Britain, and Caribbean. Here Malcolm X’s “pivotal role,” explains Adi, should not be overlooked (p. 165). The Organization of Afro-American Unity launched in 1964 took clear inspiration from the OAU and shortly before his death Malcolm X addressed the OAU in Egypt, calling on African leaders to support African American struggles and demand the United Nations condemn US racism and Jim Crow as international human rights violations. Adi effectively underscores how African struggles continued to shape Pan-African thought in the diaspora and vice versa, through figures like Guyanese intellectual Walter Rodney and South Africa’s Steve Biko, and numerous Black Power organizations from Canada to Britain. When the Sixth Pan-African Congress, the first held in Africa, took place in 1974, Adi relates how debates mirrored those taken up by Rodney regarding neocolonialism, revolution, and political leadership in African and Caribbean nation-states.

“African Culture is Revolutionary or It Will Not Be” focuses attention on Pan-Africanism as a cultural movement, an idea present in other chapters throughout the book. Here Adi argues different Black Power-influenced and Pan-Africanist cultural movements from the 1950s onwards centered “the affirmation of the legitimacy of African/Black culture,” a sometimes less pronounced yet  “constant feature of Pan-African struggles against racism and Eurocentrism” (p. 185). Adi compellingly suggests, for example, that texts like Molefi Asanti’s Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change (1980) used “a Pan-African historiography” similar in focus to David Walker’s 1829 abolitionist Appeal (p. 186). Adi also argues here how, as a Pan-African cultural movement, Rastafarianism took on “global significance as a culture of resistance” in the 1970s, beyond Pan-Africanism itself (p. 203).  

With less depth than previous chapters, before concluding Adi attempts to cover Pan-Africanism in the two final decades of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first. The Seventh Pan-African Congress assessment seems overly ambiguous, in part due to conflicting source material, as Adi points out. The final chapters also seem focused more exclusively on “official” Pan-Africanism and not its “popular” currents. Surprisingly, Adi gives the OAU credit for its role in finally ending the remaining remnants of formal colonial and settler-colonial rule in Africa, with scant attention to independent and radical mass movements from below, although some attention to grassroots movements reappears in a brief section on Pan-African demands for reparations. Finally, while Arab-African tensions and splits on who and who is not “African” begin to disrupt official Pan-African politics and aspirations for unity, Adi mentions Muammar Ghaddafi twice but remains silent on the massive revolutionary movement known as the Arab Spring of 2011 or the newly formed African Union’s response.

The difficulty posed in writing histories of the present and recent past marks the book’s conclusion as well. Adi misses an opportunity to meaningfully engage his own question on whether Black Lives Matter (BLM) represents “twenty-first-century Pan-Africanism” or “something else entirely” (p. 222). Although Adi references a statement from the Black Lives Matter Global Network declaring its commitment to global black freedom, more might be said on BLM as it has manifested itself throughout the diaspora, its connections with movements like Fees Must Fall in South Africa, its solidarity with Palestinian activists, or the significance of other, newer formations like the African-led Pan-African Network in Defense of Migrant Rights. There is much to suggest Africa’s continued place and influence among black activists and thinkers engaged in internationalist projects today, and new writings on black internationalism, which Adi suggests primarily reflect a US academic trend divorced from actual struggles themselves, take inspiration from and reflect actual and potential trajectories among new movements and thinkers centered on black liberation's pasts and futures globally.

Pan-Africanism originated and developed its earliest organization expressions around the time of the Haitian Revolution, the first successful anticolonial movement led by Africans and which sparked the beginning of the end of racialized chattel slavery. Today, challenges and questions remain for those who seek to challenge global systems of racial capitalism and antiblackness. Adi’s rich history of Pan-African ideas and movements shows their ongoing relevance in the twenty-first century, as the same problems raised by the African Association in 1897—“racism, Eurocentrism, the consequences of enslavement, colonialism and its legacies, a capital-centered world, and imperialism”—persist (p. 221). This book deserves to be widely read by students, scholars, and activists alike.

Citation: Charles Holm. Review of Adi, Hakim, Pan-Africanism: A History. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. January, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53369

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.